The approach to Colditz, just south of the Dresden-Leipzig motorway, was a pleasant drive through rolling countryside, until the castle appeared in the distance. We saw it almost from above, as the road dropped down into the river valley, but by the time we reached the town the famous castle was looming above the rooftops, as it had in my imagination. As for the rest of the group that was meeting there it was something of a mystery… and in planning this Sunday trip south of Berlin I had discovered something quite interesting:
Most of my German friends have never heard of Colditz.
The name of the town is, however, immediately recognisable to many of us from the UK, France and elsewhere, thanks to the exploits of the Allied Officers who were held there during the Second World War. Their escape attempts – ingenious and sometimes even successful – became the stuff of legend, of television shows and movies, of board games and, on a campsite in North Wales, a version of hide and seek that must have annoyed the hell out of our fellow campers as the lookout shouted out the countdown across the field as the rest of us tried to make our way to the top of a small hill undetected.
We called that game “Colditz”, and although I have never actually read a book about the Castle or seen the television show, the name had established itself into my consciousness as I imagine it did for many British kids, even if we were growing up decades after the events. But this was most definitely not the case for my German friends who are a similar age and who grew up in the country of Colditz and who now live less than an hour’s drive away in Dresden and Leipzig. They did not have a clue about how famous this Saxon town and its castle had been for over half a century across the English Channel.
There were clues to this popularity in the town and, of course, in the Castle itself. Normally when you travel in the eastern regions of Germany, away from the main cities, the amount of foreign language information material for tourists is minimal. But in Colditz the hotels close to the windswept and depressed-looking market square advertised their pride in “English spoken”, flew Union Jacks proudly in their forecourts, and at the Castle the tours were offered in English as frequently as they were in German. All the information materials and the museum itself was in both languages, and a quick glance at the visitors book showed a healthy majority of entries from people who had come to this corner of Saxony from the likes of Hereford, Bradford, High Wycombe and Berwick…
When the guide, who showed us some of the “sights” of the Castle – from the old solitary confinement cells and some of the tunnels the French and British prisoners used to escape – told us the stories it was easy to see how kids would get fascinated by the tales of Colditz. And if the fact that some of them made it out of this heavily fortified compound was impressive enough, their cross-country journeys through “enemy territory” to get to Switzerland or even, in some cases, back home, was absolutely remarkable…
Sadly, there does not seem to be enough Colditz-obsessives out there to support a fully functioning tourist infrastructure in the town, and beyond the Castle itself – neatly restored and with a new Youth Hostel occupying much of the structure – the town seemed a little bit sad and gloomy. We walked down to the river and picked our way through deserted streets, and remarked on the fact that it was definitely a place with potential, but then again – cobbled old towns filled with ramshackle half-timbered houses – are ten-a-penny in this part of the world. If only more of their fellow-countrymen and women had heard of this town with a Castle, and the events that took place there… it should be enough to put Colditz firmly on the tourist map.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig