Stuart Forster provides an overview of things to do and see in Goerlitz, Germany’s most easterly city.
If you’ve seen films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Reader, Inglourious Basterds, or Around The World in 80 Days then you’ve already caught glimpses of Goerlitz, Germany’s most easterly city.
You know a city has a certain something when Hollywood directors start using it as a location. That and the fact Goerlitz shamelessly promotes itself using the strapline “for many simply the most beautiful city in Germany.”
Cobbled streets and historic buildings
The charming streets, cobbled lanes and numerous historic buildings here provide backdrops aplenty for movies demanding old world scenery. In 1945 the city mayor surrendered Goerlitz to the advancing Red Army, saving the Silesian capital from the destruction meted out in most urban areas. Post-war, Goerlitz stood as Germany’s most intact city.
Yet it’s taken almost a generation since the fall of the Berlin Wall for tourists to discover the city’s charms. For two generations it lay hidden so far behind the Iron Curtain that part of Goerlitz ceased to be German at all. When Europe’s borders were redrawn, in 1945, the city was split.
Everything east of the Neisse river became Zgorzelec in Poland. That name went down in history when Otto Grotewohl, the leader of the East German state, and Jozef Cyrankiewicz, his Polish counterpart, came here in 1950 to sign the Treaty of Zgorzelec, recognising the post-war Polish-German border.
Walk across the Germany-Poland border
These days you can wander over that border to enjoy a view of the Altstadt (old town) dominated by the church of St Peter and St Paul reflecting in the Neisse. These days Germans nip over the border to buy petrol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Poland, and to eat at the city’s best pizza restaurant. Initiatives are underway to built trust and understanding between the residents of Goerlitz/Zgorzelec. The city’s recently renovated theatre, which today looks just as it did 150 years ago, holds performances in German and Polish. Change is afoot here.
Gunnar Buchwald, grew up during the Cold War and today runs the Hotel zum Hotherhor at Grosse Wallstrasse 1 (tel. +49 (0) 3581 661100). “It’s positive that many buildings within the city have been renovated and that new work has come to the city. But on the down side many people lost their jobs and then left their homes. We had 72,000 inhabitants before the fall of the Berlin Wall and that has sunk to 56,000. There have been many changes in the past twenty years, there can be no doubt about that,” says Buchwald.
“More people lived in the city then, so of course it was livelier – at least in some senses – than it is these days. But it was a very gray and dilapidated city, and by no means was the quality of life high. These days it has been renovated and the atmosphere has changed; the quality of life is much higher. And in those days we couldn’t visit West Germany, nor could head over the river to Poland. That border was also closed,” he adds pointing out over the Neisse.
Touring Goerlitz with the Nightwatchman
Few people know Goerlitz’s attractions better than Buchwald. He dresses as a medieval nightwatchman to host tours through the city every second Friday, at 8.00pm. The tours start bang on time as the fifteenth line of meridian runs directly through the Stadtpark. Locals joke that watches on Central European Time are at their most accurate here in Goerlitz.
“The old town has more than 4000 historic buildings and memorials. One of them is the Holy Sepulchre, a reconstruction of the one in Jerusalem. They say it looks more original than the thing now standing in Jerusalem,” laughs the hotelier.
In fact it’s just one of many buildings dating from the late middle ages, when Goerlitz’s merchants made their fortunes by trading cloth on the Untermarkt (lower market). The city stood on the crossroads of the Amber Road, between the Baltic Sea and Bohemia, and the Via Regia, which ran between Spain and Russia. The merchants invested in the impressive houses, some of which still exist. Their homes were protected defensive towers and walls.
Today those towers offer vantage points and photo opportunities for the growing number of tourists. Many combine a visit to Goerlitz with trips to Dresden, 109km distant, Berlin, 221km away, and Prague, in the nearby Czech Republic.
Jakob Boehme’s resting place
The house and grave of philosopher and theologian, Jakob Boehme, who lived from 1575 to 1624, draws many visitors. Boehme was a mystic who influenced the Idealism and Romanticism movements. He’s buried in the Nikolai Cemetery, which owes part of its size to an extension, in 1633, to cope with plague victims.
If you enjoy cultured musings one of the best times to visit Germany’s most easterly city will be during its Altstadtfest (Old Town Festival), held in August.
For more information on travel and tourism within Germany see the Germany Travel website.
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