‘In Gorlitz, you’re walking through history all the time,” my guide, Elke Preis, says matter-of-factly, her British-influenced, German-accented English providing just the right note of authority to what I now realize is a very obvious statement.
It’s a late afternoon in late December, and Elke and I are taking a break from absorbing this compact eastern German city’s nearly 1,000 years of history, a chilly exercise that very quickly requires warming up over a large cup of coffee with an even larger head of hot, frothing milk. And, at Elke’s suggestion, a thick slice of Weihnachtsstollen — Germany’s version of Christmas fruitcake — for some extra insulation once we step outside again.
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.
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.
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.
Gorlitz has at least two advantages for a tourist: It’s small enough to discover on foot, and there’s a range of sleeping and eating possibilities to suit almost any budget. I stayed at the Restaurant Pension Destille, which cost me about $78 a night but included a classic German breakfast laid out in the morning like a Flemish still life: coffee, juice, granola, three shiny rolls, Swedish crackers, a poached egg sitting contentedly in its special cup, cheese slices, several types of unidentified meats and enough butter pats for an entire family.
During our two-hour tour, Elke explains that for its first 600 years or so, the city was ruled by the king of Bohemia — far away in Prague, which gave Gorlitz a real degree of independence — with brief stints under the Habsburgs and the Hungarian crown. In 1635, it became part of the Duchy of Saxony, immediately developing a rivalry with nearby Dresden and beginning a slow decline in power. In 1815, after the Napoleonic Wars, the area was ceded to Prussia, and Gorlitz became part of Lower Silesia. After the railway opened in 1847, and especially after the 1871 unification of Germany, the town expanded westward, behind the railroad station, adding street upon neatly trimmed street of adjoining townhouses.
The Gorlitz synagogue, built between 1909 and 1911 and now under renovation, is in this area; it’s one of the few in Germany to have escaped serious damage during the 1938 Kristallnacht fire bombings. The suspicion, though unproved, says Elke, is that a high-ranking Nazi officer lived nearby and demanded that the town fire department douse the blaze to protect his house.
Just outside town, a few metal sculptures mark the spot of the theater barrack in Stalag VIII A, the German prisoner-of-war camp where French composer Olivier Messiaen’s haunting “Quartet for the End of Time,” most of which was written while Messiaen was imprisoned there, was first performed. The eight-movement quartet remains one of the most enduring pieces of art to emerge from the horror of World War II.
You can see Gorlitz’s incredibly rich collection of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and art nouveau buildings in a few hours. But to absorb its atmosphere, and feel the parade of merchants and traders who once regularly walked along Bruderstrasse on their way east and west — the city was a major commercial center along the medieval Via Regia trade route — give yourself a couple of days. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience the traveling equivalent of a “runner’s high” — when the geographic relationship between two parts of town that had previously been separate and distinct suddenly appears obvious.
It happened to me on my second day. Leaving the impressive city museum, housed in the massive Kaisertrutz, part of the town’s former fortifications, I realized that the Obermarkt, or upper market, was directly in front of me. And suddenly the Kaisertrutz no longer seemed a free-standing object but an organic piece of the city’s layout, the southern entrance to the city fortified by Swedish troops during the devastating Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648.
In fact, Gorlitz’s layout takes only a few minutes to discern on a map. The Untermarkt, or lower market, a small square fronted by the 14th-century Town Hall, lies in the dead geographic center of the old walls. The Town Hall has two large clocks. The bottom one was built in 1584, just two years after the Gregorian calendar was introduced, and is a very early example of a clock divided into 12 hours. As it ticks off each minute, a helmeted man in the middle of the face drops his jaw. The upper clock is still divided into 24 hours and indicates the phases of the moon as well as the time of day.
There’s a popular cafe on the corner, where the old city scales used to weigh merchandise moving along the Via Regia, and at No. 22 is the Flusterbogen, or “Whispering Arch.” Whisper into one end of the channeled arch, and your words will be clearly heard at the other end, still in that whisper, but much, much louder.
The Bruderstrasse connects the Untermarkt with the Obermarkt, which is more of a long rectangle, whose center is now given over to that most precious of modern commodities: a parking lot. If you’re here during lunch or supper, don’t miss a Silesian-style meal at Zum Nachtschmied, where, if you ask, Dirk Heilmann, the amiable owner, will take you upstairs to the perfectly preserved 1720 dining room, still in use. It’s young by Gorlitz standards.
The old city comprises just two blocks on either side of the Untermarkt and the Obermarkt. Wander down the sinewy Neissstrasse, noticing the carved characters in the Biblical House. If you want to step into the life of a wealthy Baroque cloth merchant, visit the onetime home of Johann Christian Ameiss, who rebuilt his house in the late 1720s after a devastating fire, being careful to follow the town council’s edict that new construction use brick floors in the kitchen, not wood. The building also houses a great array of scientific equipment from the 18th and 19th centuries — from early glass thermometers and barometers to large contraptions used to produce static electricity.
After breathing the heady air of the early scientific revolution, try one of Thomas Bednarek’s 50 coffees at Caffe Kranzel, his shop halfway down Neissstrasse. “I make all the Austrian coffees, all the Italian coffees, all the Irish coffees,” says the affable young owner, who spent several years in Italy learning the coffee arts.
Prewar Gorlitz used to exist on both sides of the Neisse River, but at Potsdam in 1945, the victorious Russian and American allies sliced up the borders of Poland and Germany as if they were cutting up so many sausages. With one pen stroke, the Neisse became the new frontier between the German Democratic Republic and Poland.
Today, you cross a footbridge from Gorlitz to Zgorzelec in Poland as easily as moving from one neighborhood to another. Looming up just 100 feet from the bridge, next to Gorlitz’s old city walls, is the monumental St. Peter’s Church, sections of which date from the 13th century.
My first night in town, I walked to Poland, turned right at the Neisse River’s eastern bank, and at Przy Jakubie had an immensely satisfying meal of Silesian dumplings, red cabbage and Zywiec beer, which is nearly as good as Gorlitz’s local Landskron Pilsener. The dumplings — spongy spheres that are ubiquitous in this part of Europe — resembled peeled, blanched and boiled crab apples; garnished with a bit of chive, they are perhaps the ultimate comfort food. A Gerry Mulligan CD was playing, and Billie Holiday was singing, and the disconnect with my surroundings — a restaurant where the early 17th-century mystic Jacob Boehme had lived — was almost unnerving.
Back at the Untermarkt in Gorlitz, a 10-minute walk away, the Flubo Bar set things right. Many of the 20- and 30-somethings who had left Gorlitz in search of better-paying jobs elsewhere were home for the holidays, and the place was crowded and warm. The barman had a three-day beard, and his mouth tilted to one side as he talked.
The conversation was about the upcoming film by Anderson, who was converting Gorlitz’s now-shuttered but still lustrous 1913 art nouveau department store into the set for “The Grand Hotel Budapest,” starring Ralph Fiennes as the hotel’s unflappable concierge. It was by far the largest film project ever to hit the city, and the Flubo was buzzing with rumors of its impact — nearly $26 million would be pumped into the town’s economy, said the bartender, who did not identify his source.
I left the Flubo sometime after midnight. Watched over by the Town Hall’s clock tower, I walked home along the Via Regia, past the woad house, the city’s oldest non-church building — a mere 900 years old — and down the Nikolaistrasse toward my hotel.
It had been raining and there was a full moon, and the cobblestones were glistening. In the stillness of the street, time suddenly disappeared. And the present melted into the past. The 1520s, when the Protestant Reformation was hitting Goerlitz; 1813, when Napoleon addressed his troops from a balcony overlooking the Obermarkt; 1989, when crowds marched silently to the Frauenkirche, the church just a few hundred yards away, to protest the communist regime — it was all there in front of me.
I was no longer “walking through history,” as Elke had put it. I was part of it.
Goldman is a freelance writer in Washington.