River Cruising on CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princess: Konigstein Fortress, Dresden, Meissen

Konigstein Fortress: Dramatic and Impregnable 

We get our first glimpse of Konigstein Fortress, perched on a 24-acre rock plateau high on a hilltop, 240 meters above the river, as our ship, CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princess, sails past. It is formidable. Known as the “Saxon Bastille,” it is Germany’s largest fortifications and one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe. It was never conquered and never invaded (though our guide tells the story of a local  teenager who managed to “invade” the fortress by scaling the walls; he was initially taken into custody but released after they could not find a law to charge him with breaking, and he became a local hero).

The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison). The fortress has been an open-air, military history museum since May 29, 1955, and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).

 Originally, there was a monastery here, which was closed after Luther’s Reformation. It took 40 years to build the fortress, beginning 1580 until 1620, just after the start of the Thirty Years War (half of all Saxony people died in that war). The fortress was built to be invincible, though in fact, it was not built for defense, but as a refuge for the townspeople, scientists, and government. 

It was designed as a refuge (Dresden is 28 km away) to accommodate as many as 4000 people (the fewest number of full time residents is 40, the present number of permanent occupants). Peak occupation was during the Seven Years War, in 1756.

What I find most fascinating is how they solved all the problems – water, food and sanitation – to make this place totally self-sufficient (not just impenetrable). The secret to its steady supply of water is a 152.5 meter deep well, which is the deepest in Saxony and second deepest well in Europe – and the key to how this fortress was made to withstand any kind of siege. We get to see how it was built by local miners over a four-year period. The well is fed by rain that filters through the soil over a period of 6 to 7 months (they calculated) and naturally refills and could not be poisoned by an enemy. They devised a system to a 130-liter barrel into the well to collect the water.

Also, every household had a patch of land and was expected to cultivate their own food. The fort has a self-sufficient town with its own butcher, bakery, brewery, hospital and treasury. Even today, young children attend school at the fortress and older ones are picked up by bus.

The fortress was used to protect the Saxon state reserves and secret archives during times of war. In 1756 and 1813 and during World War II, Dresden’s art treasures were also stored at the Königstein. 

Königstein was never bombed during World War II, even though nearby Dresden was famously destroyed,  That is because it was known not to be a military base but rather, American, French and Polish POWs (mainly officers) were kept here.  “They were kept in very humane conditions – one day a week they could leave to hike,” our guide, Gerold Jahn, tells us.

The fortress was considered impregnable – “The only way prisoners left was when their dead bodies were thrown over the wall” – but there is a famous legend of the daring escape of a French general Henri Giraud, who was kept here 1940-1942. “We never knew how it happened,” Gerold says.

 In May 1945, the 20 soldiers (more like police) here waved a white flag to welcome the Russians. “They came with art experts. The Soviets confiscated the art, but when Stalin died in 1953 and Khruschev wanted to have détente, they and gave back the art.”

“It is a masterpiece of engineering, of architecture,” Gerold, who has a background in civil engineering, tells us. 

I am grateful that we have about 40 minutes to explore on our own, and I go into a marvelous exhibit about the history of this place and this area housed within the castle (a treat to see inside).

We walk down from castle the through the four gates (coming up, we used the modern elevator). Really wonderful.

Dresden Rises Like a Phoenix

We sail on to Meissen and in the morning, we are bussed to Dresden. Our excursion is first by bus for an overview and then walking, and between the two, we get to appreciate – from the outside at least – Dresden’s highlights and a sense of its history, but this is certainly a city that deserves more time.

Most of Dresden’s city center was destroyed in World War II, but the “suburbs” survived the so-called “moral bombing” in which 25,000 out of a population of 650,000 died. But you would hardly realize it – except that our guide pulls out black-and-white photos of the destruction so we can compare.

It’s fairly amazing, then, that the bombing could not stamp out Dresden’s extraordinarily rich history, heritage and culture, which in so many instances, have risen literally from ashes.They have restored and reconstructed the architecture, saving the facades where possible and in many cases reusing the stones;.

It was here, August 26-27,1813 at the Battle of Dresden that Napoleon had his last big victory in Germany. Alas, victory was short lived – a week later, Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig.

Dresden is a “green city’ boasting more trees (600,000) than humans (550,0000), and we drive through an enormous park – like Central Park – where among the sites is the intriguingly named German Hygiene Museum, Europe’s only science museum to focus on the human being and body within the context of the environment and society, culture and science. 

We drive by the New Synagogue, built in 2002 to replace the 1840 synagogue designed by Gottfried Semper, destroyed on Kristalnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. At its peak, Dresden had 5000 Jews; today there are 700. The New Synagogue has a Star of David finial from the old synagogue. “A fireman who put out the fire in 1938 saved it, then gave it to survivors after the war.”

Dresden also shows its history under Soviet occupation. There is probably no sight that better encapsulates the Soviet era than “The Red Flag” mural and wall fresco, “Our Socialist Life” on the exterior of the Dresden Kulturpalast. It was the pride of GDR architecture when it opened in 1969 as a “House of Socialist Culture”. Today it is the home of the Dresden Philharmonic. 

“The revolution against Soviet rule started in Dresden and Leipzig churches in 1989. It was the only successful revolution in German history. Then the Berlin Wall came down a year later.”

We get off the bus and start a delightful walking tour through this beautiful city.

We start at Frauenkirche. Completed in 1743, the Baroque church was considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. After it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, the ruins were catalogued and stored for its reconstruction. 4,000 of the original stones were used in the rebuilding, which began after Germany’s reunification, in 1990, and reopened in 2005. Great Britain, which was responsible for the bomb that had caused so much of the devastation, sent a gold cross to place at the top. 

Our guide, Alexandr Klein, points out Taschenberg Palace, built in the 18th century by the Saxon King, Augustus the Strong for his mistress. There is a bridge, reminiscent of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, connecting it to the Royal Palace. The original building burned down and was faithfully restored in 1995 and transformed into the luxurious Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden, owned by the Thai royal family, a member of Historic Hotels Worldwide.

Along a Tuscan-style arcade with 22 rounded arches leading to the Court Stables, is the famous Fürstenzug – the Procession of Princes – a 102-meter-long portrait of the Dukes, Electors, and Kings of the house of Wettin, together with leading German figures from the arts and sciences. Commissioned in 1870, it consists of 25,000 Meissen Porcelain tiles. 

One of my favorite parts of this delightful walking tour is strolling along a half-mile long promenade built on the old city ramparts, Brühl’s Terrace, also known as the “Balcony of Europe.”  It gives the best view of the city and from here you feel transported in time.

Klein leads us to the Zwinger, a magnificent early 18th-century palace and a stunning example of Baroque architecture, which houses The Old Masters Picture Gallery.

Also worth visiting (we don’t have time) is the Royal Palace, which houses some of Dresden’s most important museums.  You can also visit the State Apartment, a suite of rooms that have been faithfully restored to their original condition.

The tour gives us an overview, but I wish we had the afternoon to explore on our own. 

Meissen: World Famous  for Porcelain

We are returned to the ship for lunch, and in the afternoon have a walking tour of Meissen.

We ride an elevator to the hilltop, and have a brief walking tour with our guide, Brigetta, to see its major sights: the Cathedral, a three-nave Gothic hall church built between 1260 and 1410 and preserved in its near-original medieval state (we buy a ticket to see inside where there are paintings by the renowned Lucas Cranach., and stained glass windows from the 13th century; and Albrechsburg, a palace built between 1471 and 1500 by Duke Albrecht of Saxony that dominates the city; and the beautiful historic square.

Then we are taken by bus to the Meissen “manufactory,” where you go room by room to see demonstrations of the remarkable artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making these porcelain treasures. It is remarkable to realize that they have been doing this very same thing for over 300 years, the oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe, founded in 1710 by King Augustus the Strong, who put together a team of physicists, alchemists and metallurgists to come up with the new technology. There’s also a museum with some 2,000 Meissen items.

Back on the ship, we sail from Meissen through the late afternoon and overnight to Wittenburg.

Dinner this evening is spectacular, beginning with an olive paste on toast, salmon with cheese, filet mignon, goat cheese with salad, raspberry/cream pie.

Next: Wittenburg and Magdeburg


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