I’ve hired Elke through the city tourist office to help me find my footing in this medieval town, first mentioned in a royal decree from 1071, and she’s a formidable source. She grew up in East Berlin, which, like Gorlitz, was part of the German Democratic Republic for 41 years. The cash-starved nature of that communist state was mostly a misfortune for its people, but there was a silver lining for Gorlitz — it saved the city’s fantastically rich historic core.
Details: Gorlitz, Germany
In the 1980s, explains Elke, the East German government planned to tear down Gorlitz’s old buildings, which, after decades of neglect, were uniformly “gray and shabby.” But the money wasn’t there, and then communism fell in 1989. Since then, thanks in part to massive wealth transfers from western Germany after reunification — and in part to an anonymous donor who has provided more than $600,000 a year for restoration since 1993 — this town of just over 50,000 literally shimmers in the midday sun.
The city’s central core, with roughly 4,000 officially registered historic buildings, suffered no bomb damage during World War II and provides an architectural timeline that stretches from early Gothic to art nouveau. It has been almost entirely renovated under “absolutely strict” guidelines, says Elke, that allow no changes to the original doors or windows or colors, which range from orange to yellow to gray and white.
“A McDonald’s in the old town?” I wonder out loud.
“Unthinkable,” Elke replies.
A blip of a town
Hollywood discovered Gorlitz many years ago — scenes from “The Reader” and “Inglourious Basterds” were filmed here, and a new Wes Anderson movie began shooting in January. But the blip of a town tucked into the Saxon forest a few dozen miles north of the Czech Republic and literally a stone’s throw fromPoland remains virtually unknown to Americans and most Europeans except the Germans themselves.
As Germany’s easternmost town, it’s admittedly a bit out of the way. But it’s only a short distance from the home of my Czech in-laws, so after a week of intense Christmas feasting, I climbed into a tiny borrowed Peugeot and headed up and over the Jizera Mountains and past a few Czech and Polish villages for a 48-hour getaway. Two hours after leaving, guided by the spires of Gorlitz’s St. Peter’s Church, I pulled into a parking spot right by the Nikolai Tower, one of the four still-standing towers that once marked the corners of the city’s 13th-century walls.