The town of Meissen keeps a cautious distance from the river Elbe, as if it has taken one look at the water before shuffling a couple of steps back from the edge. As we walk through the streets of the lower town we come across a couple of plaques screwed high into the walls, beside shops and above from doors. A white line and a date. High water marks above our heads. No wonder most of the town clings to side of the hill, atop which perches the Albrechtsburg.
I think about the Albrechtsburg more than any other castle in the world, which is to say it is the only castle I think about with any regularity. This is because the courthouse close to where we live in Berlin, a preposterous neo-Gothic monstrosity looming above the former tenement houses and big-box superstores of the Pankstraße was based on Meissen’s castle in the early years of the 20th century. An example of architecture as social engineering, the message of the courthouse with its towers and spires, gargoyles and slit-windows is, you don’t want to end up here, so behave yourself. The Albrechtsburg looks positively friendly by comparison.
Not that Johann Friedrich Böttger would have agreed. An alchemist who spent much of his early career attempting to discover the philosopher’s stone, which in turn could turn base metals into gold, he found himself imprisoned in the Albrechtsburg “for his own protection”, just in case he discovered the secret. He didn’t, and he escaped from the castle, only to return to help the “discovery” of something that would become so valuable it became known as “white gold”: porcelain.
The Chinese had been producing porcelain for a thousand years before Böttger and his co-horts managed the same, making Meissen very rich and, to this day, famous for its places and vases, cups and saucers. On summer weekends the town is filled with visitors, bused in for the castle and the porcelain factory, but as we climbed the narrow staircases and walkways through the old town to the castle, looking down onto the higgledy-piggledy rooftops and the terraced gardens cut out of the slopes beneath the castle walls, we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
When we reached the top we passed through the castle courtyard and down onto the walkway that passes beneath the walls. We could see beyond the town, to the gently rolling countryside and the vineyards of one of Europe’s most northerly wine-producing regions. We could also see the Elbe, now from above, and how the town appeared to be retreating up the hillside. What we couldn’t see, although we knew they were there, were the two other rivers that make Meissen the answer to an old German riddle:
Where is the hill on which three castles grow, along its side three waters flow?
As for the second and third castles, we did not discover them. Perhaps they had been swallowed whole by the Albrechtsburg as it expanded thanks to the white gold produced within its walls.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig