Medieval beauty

A german legacy
Last Updated 30 May 2015, 16:04 IST

There are several reasons why I will never forget the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen and losing my way there is only one of them! Meissen is located on a bluff over River Elbe and the castle offers a breathtaking view of the river.

The history of the Albrechtsburg Castle dates back to 929 when King Henry I overpowered the local Slavic tribe and constructed a fortress in place of their settlements. He identified a rock towering over the River for the purpose of putting up the fortress, which later became the stronghold of the Saxon-Wettin rulers and an important part of its history. As the fortress evolved into the imperial castle of Meissen, the town became the well-spring of the emerging kingdom of Saxony, resulting in it also being known as “the Cradle of Saxony”.

History mystery

The castle came under siege many times from neighbouring rulers and took heavy damages also at one point. The current Gothic version in stone, which I had the good fortune to step foot into, was built by the Wettin brothers, Elector Ernst of Saxony and Albrecht the Bold, somewhere between the 15th and 16th centuries. The court builder, Arnold of Westphalia, took charge of its construction and it came to be used only for residential and administrative purposes, giving it historic recognition as Germany’s first residential castle. Surprisingly, the castle got its present name only in 1676, in honour of one of its original builders.

Over the years, the castle became less important when the Wettin line became divided into the Ernestine and Albertine lines. It again shot into prominence during the reign of Augustus II the Strong.

Now the castle operates as a museum, with all its floors thrown open to the public, from May 2011. Stepping inside, one cannot but be impressed by the sprawling building. There are three main levels and the permanent exhibits are also split into three sections. One portion is dedicated to the genius of the master-builder, Arnold von Westfalen, who adopted a holistic approach in the conceptualisation of Albrechtsburg Castle, with shapes and designs that were totally unheard of in the 15th century.

Another section deals with power, politics and life in the kingdom of Saxony, whilst the third has a majestic display of porcelain. It is a thrill for me to learn that I am standing in the first porcelain manufactory in Europe that Augustus set up at Albrechtsburg Castle, where it continued for 150 years. After it was shifted out, there was restoration work undertaken and the walls were done up with important historical paintings, all of which are on view.

The recipe for manufacturing hard-paste porcelain was discovered first at the court of Augustus II, better known as Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. The interesting story behind this is that Augustus’ desire for wealth had him hold as prisoner, the wannabe alchemist, Johann Gottfried Bottcher. The desperate Bottcher wound up inventing porcelain which ironically came to be known as “white gold”. This invention helped restore the depleting treasury of Augustus. Also, Augustus’ prestige and that of his court was enhanced by the ruler becoming the owner of the first porcelain manufactory in Europe, and Meissen porcelain gained renown across the continent. It also became the preferred choice for diplomatic gifts in the various courts of Europe resulting in many of them becoming a part of the historical royal collections of Sweden, Russia, Denmark and Germany.

Wonders in waiting

In one area of the castle, I notice a huge pile of soft, oversized chappals. I am told to place my feet inside a pair, which has me shuffling across the room. I cannot help but marvel at the thoughtfulness of the people who have devised this means of protecting the wooden floors of the castle without depriving visitors of access.

The murals are impressive and the paintings of the different rulers imposing as they look down upon you, as you gaze in awe. The Banquet Hall and Throne Room have some wonderful restored Germanic style frescoes on the walls and vaulted ceilings.

The historic section of the Castle details its many landmark moments. In 1881, it was dedicated as a memorial to the history of the region. Again, after the reunification of Germany, the Free State of Saxony was newly founded in Albrechtsburg Castle in October 1990.

Stepping out of the castle, I find myself in a large garden, which overlooks River Elbe. I tarry a while to take in the scenic beauty. When I step back inside, I figure that I have lost my bearings. By the time I manage to get to the entrance, I realise that I have crossed the time fixed for me to meet my charming and knowledgeable tour guide, Seema, and the rest of the group. They have left with a message for me with the German receptionist. All I can make out is some “kirche,” which is German for church that she points out to me on a map.
Holding the map in hand, I step outside and blunder along downhill in the direction of the church, asking people if they can speak English, even borrowing a phone to make a call. Once I realise that I am headed in the right direction, I try to enjoy the feel of the winding, cobbled path, as a German gent catches up with me for a little chat. He hails a passing vehicle whose occupants confirm that I am on the right path. It is a relief to be reunited with my guide and group.

A tour of Albrechtsburg Castle leaves me with a greater understanding of its importance in the history of Saxony.

Though its treasures may not match up to those in the Green Vault Museum in Dresden, I wonder if Augustus the Strong would have had the means to fill the Green Vault, had the invention of “white gold” not augmented his empty coffers.

(Published 30 May 2015, 16:04 IST)

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