Bautzen is a small town of some 40.000 inhabitants in the south east of Germany near the borders to the Czech Republic and Poland. It‘s located on a plateau of the River Spree (which then flows on to Berlin), 50 km east of Dresden and 50 km west of Görlitz, the easternmost German town. It’s easy to reach by train or Autobahn.
It’s the centre of Oberlausitz (Upper Lusatia), a hilly region good for hiking tours, and the lowlands in the north. A Bautzen can also be found in the sky, Asteroid 11580 is named in honour of the town.
Thanks to its geographical position at the ’fringe’ of the country and the political situation until 1989 (when the GDR = German Democratic Republic ended) Bautzen is not well known among international tourists which is a pity because it’s as pretty as many famous tourist destinations in the West and even prettier than some lying on the obligatory tourist trail. Sadly, it’s widely known in Germany for its infamous past during the time of the GDR. There were two penitentiaries, Bautzen I which was and is still used as an official prison, nicknamed Gelbes Elend (Yellow Misery) due to the yellow bricks, and Bautzen II which was used for prisoners of conscience. It’s been a memorial since 1993. ‘Bautzen’ has become a synonym for the outrageous prison sentences in the GDR, you can hear, for example, that someone got ‘20 years Bautzen’. Not a nice heritage the town has to live with.
Now to the topic why you should consider the town a tourist destination. It has a compact and well preserved medieval centre with a castle, one leaning tower and several straight ones, many churches, a bastion and an impressive city wall high on the steep embankment of the River Spree which is still largely intact as well as the oldest preserved waterworks in central Europe (built in 1558).
Besides, there’s also the Hexenhaus, the Witch’s House, near the river. It was built by a fisherman in 1604 and has survived the great fire from 1634. This is a miracle considering that it’s got a steep roof covered with wooden tiles and has an overall wooden structure. Legend has it that the people living in the house once were generous to a gypsy woman who blessed them and the house. Her blessing included that it would forever be saved from fire.
The first written proof of Bautzen is from the year 1002, in 2002 the town commemorated its 1000th birthday with a big festival. How many towns can look back on such an event?
A tour through the old part should start on the market square (Hauptmarkt) in front of the town hall. There’s a tourist information office (open from 9 am to 6 pm, on weekends to 3 pm) which also offers guided tours. The tours last 1 ½ hours and are in German; audio guides with an English text can be got together with a map of the town if you want to explore it on your own. If you’re lucky, you’ll come to Bautzen on a market day, the square looks nice with all the stalls.
If you’re facing the town hall, the pedestrian precinct goes off to the right from the market square, at its end you can see the Reichenturm, not as impressive as the Leaning Tower in Pisa, but quite leaning as well.
Behind the town hall is the Dom St. Petri (Saint Peter Cathedral), one of the two, and the older one, interdenominational churches in Germany. Catholics and Protestants have shared it peacefully since the time of the Reformation, with a low fence dividing the nave into two sections. There’s a timetable for the services so that they don’t disturb each other. The cathedral tower can be climbed right up to the tower keeper's lodgings.
Between the Cathedral and the Orthenburg (the castle), a mainly baroque building, you can find a lot of restaurants, wine bars and pubs.
Walking along the town walls you pass the youth hostel which is in one of the big medieval towers, its walls are so thick that the beds stand in niches *in* them.
The graveyard situated in the ruins of the Nicolai Church is worth a visit. Even if you don’t know German, you’ll notice that many tombstones have foreign - Polish? Czech? - looking names. Here Sorbs are buried. Bautzen is the ‘capital’ of the smallest Slav people, the Sorbs. They’re like cousins to the Pole and Czechs, their languages are so close to each other that they can understand each other, each speaking their own language.
Bautzen is bilingual, all street signs, every public information is in German and Sorbian. The theatre is bilingual, too (the only one in Germany), German and Sorb plays are performed there. There’s also a secondary grammar school in which the subjects are taught in Sorbian. The official definition of a Sorb is that someone who claims to be one is one. No legitimation is necessary. It’s estimated that nowadays there are about 60.000 Sorbs, 20.000 to 30.000 still speak the language actively. The number is declining. One important reason is that many Sorb villages were in the area where soft coal is mined. In order to be better able to do so they were evacuated, the inhabitants now live wherever they want, and without a Sorbian neighbourhood the ‘Sorb-ness’ can’t be preserved.
From the Nicolai Church one has a good view of the hill opposite, the Protschenberg, which plays an important role in the Easter festivities. Should you ever consider visiting Bautzen, Easter is the time to go. You can then experience the rich and colourful Easter traditions of the Sorbs. On Easter Sunday in Bautzen and some surrounding towns and villages more than 1000 colourfully embroidered riders and horses go on processions carrying the tidings of the resurrection of Christ to the neighbouring parishes singing songs in the Sorbian language (most Sorbs are Catholics). Bautzen usually contributes about 50 riders. The fields the processions pass are blessed for the coming season.
Like all Slav peoples also the Sorbs have wonderfully decorated Easter Eggs, tourists can see them in the town museum, learn how to make them and buy them as souvenirs. Something very special to take home!
In the afternoon on Easter Sunday Eierschieben (the sliding of eggs down the hill) takes place on the Protschenberg. Nowadays tokens are rolled down which the children try to catch which then can be exchanged for toys and sweets.