We were staying at a hotel just outside Dresden, 30 minutes or so along the autobahn from Bautzen. We had arrived there late afternoon, and after a quick shower decided to nip along the road to see what all the fuss was about.
As with most towns and cities, the approaches were instantly forgettable, although some of the towers and spires of the old town were visible on the horizon promising something more appealing than factories and suburban monotony. All this changes as you near the impressive bridge over the young River Spree.
The old medieval walls (the town is at least 1000 years old) rise steeply up from the banks of the meandering water and are studded with various watch-towers and look-out points. The town, which sits on a rocky plateau, takes on an almost fairytale appearance with countless Rapunzelesque minarets and turrets thrusting skywards like trees breaking through the forest canopy in search of light.
As soon as we had crossed the bridge however, we were soon dumped back in the 21st century with, not so much a thud, as a sigh. Although Bautzen didn't suffer the same level of devastation that most German cites did in 1945, there has still been some insensitive redevelopment. The first thing we encountered was a glitzy and shiny, ultra-modern, shopping mall - not a problem in itself, but when it's plopped in the middle of a medieval old town, with some magnificent baroque architecture for neighbours, it just seems so thoughtless and ill-planned, y'know?
Anyhoo, it had a multi-storey car park above it, so it wasn't all downhill...actually, it was very slightly uphill from here to the main square. So that's where we headed.
As we were there late afternoon on a Saturday, it wasn't the best time to see any of the museums or attractions that the town has to offer. Probably the main attractions are the Sorbian museum and Folk-theatre. The Sorbians are a Slavonic people with their own language and culture who still inhabit this part of Germany. I would've liked to learn more about them, but them's the breaks.
There are also a couple of prisons which date from the communist era of the GDR. These are classified as monuments to the follies of totalitarian regimes, and many people suffered here under the auspices of the Stasi - the GDR's infamous secret police (not exactly secret, as the whole world knew of their existence!).
The town also has a city museum, art gallery, and various other attractions.
As I said, we didn't really have time, or good timing, to visit anything like that. So what did we do?
Well, we had a little look-see in the Dom St. Petri, the cathedral which dominates the old town. There has been a church on this site for a millennium or more, but the present granite building dates from 1497, although much of it was rebuilt after a fire in 1634. It's both a catholic and protestant cathedral. It wasn't the most ornate, or elaborate religious building I've ever been in, but it was still impressive. There was a service going on, so not wishing to disturb or interfere with anyone's beliefs, we didn't hang around long.
The cathedral is at the highest point of the town and everything radiates downwards from there. Don't get the idea you need the calf muscles of a mountain goat though, it doesn't get steep until you're at the old walls.
We also had a wander through the main shopping streets, although most of those were beginning to shut as well. Still, with the wife in tow (a woman who knows how to flex a credit card till it squeals), that was a blessing in disguise.
All the old town is picturesque and atmospheric, but the main streets and squares are particularly stunning. Baroque is the order of the day here, with elaborate rococo facades in a wide variety of pastel shades demanding attention at every turn. The restoration of the town was pretty complete and quite magnificent.
Heading down towards the ancient walls, the streets narrow somewhat and take on a more medieval tone. The views from the walls over the Spree valley are impressive, and one can really get a feel for the impregnability of the old fortifications - not that they were impregnable, Bautzen has suffered from many attacks over the centuries, particularly during the Thirty Years War, attacks by Napoleon, and in 1945. having said that, fires have probably played a more significant part in reshaping the town over the years.
Just a few steps from the cathedral, at the heart of the old town, is Hauptmarkt which is dominated by the Rathaus or Town Hall, another quite splendid baroque edifice. Originally built in 1213, it was destroyed by fire in 1634 and again in 1704 before taking its present form in the 1730s. Managing to keep smoke-free since then, it's a daffodil-yellow colour with the ubiquitous tower and delicate stonework. Perhaps its crowning glory is the massive sundial on the front of the tower, just below the two clocks - no excuses for tardiness around here.
Incidentally, there are a number of sundials on various building around the town, some of them pretty spectacular.
Here was where the highlight of our visit was. It being a balmy Saturday evening, the town was gearing up for some al fresco fun in the main square. Stages had been erected, beer tents piped in, and hot food stands abounded.
There can be few more pleasurable ways to spend an hour or so than soaking up the last dying rays of sunshine in such aesthetically pleasing surroundings - a little atmospheric 'Oompah' music, a foaming glass* of Radeberger Pilsner in one hand, a foot-long bratwurst in another, all the while holding your best girl's hand...wait, I've only got two hands - something had to go. Tough call, but ya gotta eat-n-drink, y'know?
* It can still be called a glass even though it's plastic, can't it?
In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed my brief, all too brief, visit to Bautzen. If we had arrived a little earlier we might have been able to see a bit more, but what we saw, we liked. Also, if we had been staying in the town, I might have been able to sample a few more beers, but we weren't so I didn't.
Bautzen is a stunningly attractive little town with no end of architectural gems and a good deal of history thrown into the mix.