German travel destinations

The Germany is Wunderbar guide

Germany holidays: Görlitz, the sleeping beauty in the east

Hollywood is waking up to the appeal of this Prague without the crowds

The Saxon town of Görlitz sits in the far corner of eastern Germany, where it bumps up against Poland and the Czech Republic. It has always been a pretty place, but its beauty has been little recognised in the wider world – until now.

For Görlitz has recently been discovered by Hollywood. It played the part of war-time Italy in Inglourious Basterds, of 1950s Heidelberg in The Reader and of 19th century Paris in Around the World in 80 Days. And it is about to feature in two big new releases: The Book Thief and Grand Budapest Hotel.

It is high time its luck changed. Unemployment has been a problem, as has the resulting depopulation. In the years since reunification, a flourishing town of 90,000 inhabitants has been reduced to around 56,000, and wages here are 25 percent less than the German average. But then costs are low, too.

The reason for its filmic success becomes apparent as soon as you enter the old town. Tarmac turns to cobbles, the roofline is broken by towers and spires, and people are wandering around, open mouthed, at the array of immaculate Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. There are some 4,000 listed buildings densely packed into the squares and streets of old Görlitz, creating what is almost an integrated work of art, a sort of Prague without the crowds.

Why here?

It’s all down to the Romans and their trade routes. The Via Regia, a key east-west route, crossed the River Neisse at Görlitz, and that trade route intersected with another north-south route from the Baltic Sea to Bohemia. So market squares were busy at this crossroads back in the 13th century, peaking in a 16th century Golden Age.

New transport links and changing politics eventually pulled the plug on all that prosperity. The ensuing decline may not have been good for trade, but a few centuries of economic standstill have had a fossilising effect, helped by a complete lack of war damage; Görlitz was never on anyone’s front line.

In fact its biggest threat came in the 1980s, when the GDR government built a new town complete with proper bathrooms and central heating. The old quarter became a ghost town, and one that had a huge maintenance bill, so the government wanted to pull it down. Reunification, then, came just in time.

There are still glimpses of the bad old days, with occasional skeletal buildings standing hollow-eyed and waiting for benefactors with cash. And then there’s still the historic frisson of crossing the bridge into Poland on the other side of the river (once also German, when all of this was Silesia) which is actually as easy as pie.

Not that Zgorzelec – as the Polish part of the self-styled ‘Europastat Görlitz’  is called – has much of the grace of its German bedfellow. The best thing you can do, having crossed the bridge, is to turn to admire the skyline, and then walk back again.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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