27-29 February 2004

Dave had no idea where we were going, other than to Germany. Even when we got to the airport and I told him our flight destination, he was at a loss. I toyed with the idea of not telling him until he had to navigate as I drove the rental car, but I opted to show him a map and tell him our holiday would be in a small town somewhere between Leipzig and Dresden. Finally he spotted the name of a town that he recognised. Colditz. Yup, that's where we were headed.

You have to understand, Dave is a bit of a WWII buff. He knows all the aircraft by sight, and can generally rattle off the names of everyone in any given battle, why the outcomes were as they were, and all sorts of other sleep-inducing (just kidding!) trivia. We've seen Escape From Colditz on television a few times, and any time it's mentioned on a promo he chimes in with "They said it was escape-proof!" It's rare he can be bothered to talk back to the television, so I figured he might like going there.

We flew on Ryanair because it's cheap this time of year. I checked with a travel agent, and Ryanair cost about half of their best price on a regular airline. We landed on an ex-military base in the middle of no where near Altenburg. I also booked a Hertz car through Ryanair, which was cheaper than through the Hertz site.

Dave is good with maps, but had no interest in driving in a new country this particular weekend, so division of labor was clearly defined. We drove through the countryside, very aware from the buildings that we were not in England anymore. I was really interested in the derelict buildings we saw. Large, beautiful houses, farm buildings, and industrial buildings, stunningly crafted from brick, stone, and wood, covered in stucco, and left to have the weather chip it all away in some of the most interesting patterns I've seen. Dave picked a likely route for us on the map, and we headed effortlessly to our destination. I told Dave what I'd learned in my preparation for the trip. I pointed out that we were in the former East Germany, and that until recently tourists had not been welcomed. Most people grew up with Russian as a second language, while in the west they learned English. I got the original idea for the trip from a story on the BBC news web site, which said they would very much like to encourage tourism now. When it was communist, it wasn't really practical to make it into a tourist attraction, but now it's being renovated, and they're ready for us.

We watched the valleys alternate between sunny, green places and cold places with driving snow and white ground. We marveled at how places so close to each other could be so different.

But then I had to pee. Suddenly, excruciatingly, emphatically. How one cup of morning coffee turned itself into the gallon of liquid that suddenly shifted to my bladder is beyond me (okay, so it was a giant Starbuck's from the airport), but the scenery faded and only our final destination with its promised toilet in the room mattered. I asked Dave to find me a place to stop where I might find some relief, but he assured me we were almost there.

But we weren't. The road we were headed to turned out to be closed to all but some bulldozers, which were in the process of making it into not a road (then presumably into a road again later). Ack! We continued on north, assuming another road must exist, but after half an hour of being no where useful, we ended up back on the road we started on. Bad bad bad. I was aware of the German reputation for loving law and rules, and unsure what the consequences for such a thing might be, or if it was even all just stereotype, but biology won and I took my chances and peed by the side of the road. Good move. If anyone saw, they didn't tell. The scenery returned to stunning focus, and we found the right road. Colditz pulled us in.

But then at Colditz we got lost again. Our instructions said to pass the post office going toward Market Square and turn left, but we must have passed it on the wrong road because there was no left, and it was a one way street. On our second pass, Dave saw a sign down another road pointing to a hotel, and hopped out to check on foot. As luck would have it, my idling in front of the post office and English-looking Dave wandering around caught the eye of our hotel's owner, Ralf. He recognized the first two letters of our car's number plate (WI) as being usual ones for a rental car, and stopped to ask Dave if we were looking for him. He led us back to the pension (guest house) and checked us in. Whew!

He gave us a quick tour of the place. We saw our table for breakfast and discussed a time. He showed us a reading room with books on Colditz that we could take advantage of, if he wasn't teaching English in there. He's got a little language school thing going on. He showed us our room, and told us if we wanted, he could arrange a tour of some guy's house where all the artifacts from Colditz were kept. The room itself was tasteful with pine furniture. The beds were single, but pushed together because he knew we would want them that way. I found a piece of cloth and rolled it up to fill the gap so the little guy would have a more uniform sleeping surface. At home he sleeps alone, but out in the big big world, he becomes aware of how small he is and wants to be nestled up to a big person or two. The room didn't have a lot of extras, but I never use the blow dryers anyway, and there would have been no one to call on a room phone.

It was too late in the day to take a tour of the castle. Actually, we probably could have made it, but we were worn out and wanted to rest, decompress, and wander around a little. Ralf advised us that Colditz is a small town, and if we wanted to go out for a meal, we should do it earlier rather than later. If you're not there and ordering by about 8pm (sometimes earlier), they close the kitchens. So we rested, we wandered, we found the castle, we rested some more.

We stopped by the place he'd mentioned for food, and found that the menu posted outside was in both German and English. We stepped inside to find everyone had stopped what they were doing to stare at us. A large group, maybe a dozen people, were gathering at a long table, and a few people were sitting near a bar. Everyone stared at us, but no one said anything to us, and I thought maybe it was a private party, so we stepped outside again. I thought about going back to try to talk to someone to be sure, but Dave said it was too smokey in there for his asthma, so we wandered on.

We found a place that had Thai food, and had a small section with vegetarian food, so we ordered. When the food came up some time later, I brought out money, which immediately made the man frown. My tenner was not enough to cover the food he'd cooked, although it was enough to cover the food I'd ordered. We argued unsuccessfully in a little English, a little German, and a lot of pointing and gesturing. He said I could buy the food he'd made for the amount of the food I'd ordered. I refused because he'd cooked meat and I won't eat that. He kept trying to haggle on price, never understanding that the food was no good to me regardless of price. Like I'd change a 30+ year conviction because he knocked 5 euros off the price. It never occurred to him to make NEW food. He just kept swearing I'd ordered the meat. As if! I don't know if he was on drugs, stupid, or trying to cheat me. Anyway, in the end I stormed off and Dave bought the food for a discount. He's not a veggie, after all. He said the food was actually very good, so if we go back I might try it again, but he a lot clearer. I had a little of the rice and some snacks in the room, and wasn't actually left at all hungry. And you know, I didn't go to Germany for the food, and I knew if advance that they are not very veggie-friendly. So I was prepared with some snacks.

Still, the episode illustrated for us that we both have a certain amount of discomfort with going places where we do not speaking the local language, and that this has kept us from traveling to most places. Stepping outside of our comfort zone, we got a sharp reminder that it's not just our imaginations causing the stress.

I'd had a mini-rant about the Thai place with Ralf on the pension stairs right after it happened, so the next morning at breakfast, he brought out some plastic bags and cling film and said we could take extra food to eat later, and some beverages for the baby if we wanted to. I was impressed because most places we've ever stayed have a strict no food removal policy. On honeymoon the B&B people even stopped putting out fruit for breakfast because people took it for their hikes. They only put a banana on my table because they saw me eat it at breakfast every day. Other places have had signs with dire warnings about taking food out. Ralf is the only person who ever condoned it. So we did. And breakfast was very nice, with warm soft boiled eggs at each place, a selection of breads, meats, and cheeses, along with lots of beverages and sweet spreads. Yum yum.

Ralf came to chat with us for a while, and confessed to having looked up my surname online, so we discussed family history for a while. He thought I must be important because of the part of the Netherlands the name comes from. I reminded him that people who have it good don't leave. He said he likes to surf the net to learn more English, and is even up on British humour.

We turned up at the castle at 10:30 on Saturday morning, the time shown on the sign for the first tour of the day. Into the ticket office, and the woman looked at her watch and said "You want a tour? NOW? At 10:30?" There was no one around to give a tour, so she got on the phone, and a short while later a young man came up the bridge. He introduced himself as Rick, and he said he volunteers to give tours to practice his English. We were the only three people on his tour, although another tour seemed to be going through with another guide.

Unfortunately, Kit decided to put the terrible in his twos. He decided that kicking his parents in the shins was funny. He tried to slap Dave's face. He was generally loud, unpleasant, uncooperative, and lots of other words too rude to record here. Not at all the boy we were used to handling on holidays or anywhere else.

We started with a bit of history, which goes back to 1083 AD. The castle has been through a lot, starting out as a perk for a government favorite, being captured, being burned and rebuilt twice, the addition of a wild animal park, being used as a hunting lodge, and then falling into disfavor because it was so far from Dresden. By 1783, the furniture and treasures were all removed or sold off. Later, it was used as a poorhouse, then a psychiatric asylum. Early in the war it was used to detain Germans who were not Hitler fans, then it was used for prisoners of war from 1939 until 1945. The prisoners were all officers, and were moved there because of their escapes from other camps. Colditz castle was said to be escape proof.

After liberation, it was used as an internment camp for families of landowners whose possessions had been liberated by the communists, then it was a hospital until 1996. It's been undergoing renovation since then, which continues. There are plans to add a hostel in 2007, which is only called a hostel because there are rules concerning the used of the word "hotel" that they would rather not conform to. We're assured it will be nice.

Rick went on to point out features, mostly from the POW point of view. He said that people in Germany have not heard of Colditz. To them, it's just another one of the thousands of castles scattered around. It's the Brits who mostly care about it. I'd identified myself as being from the US, and he asked where. He also asked me if he could ask me if I thought Bush would be President of the US again. From my answer he tailored his jokes. He did a few Texas slurs, which we failed to laugh at, asked me if I'd read Michael Moore at all, and made comments on his perceptions of recent events in the US. I suspect if my answers to his initial questions had been different, the tour would have been different.

He showed us the first courtyard, which had been in the middle of the German quarters, but the prisoners passed through it to get to the exercise area outside. He pointed out where various escapes had failed or succeeded, and explained the obstacles the escapees had to negotiate. He pointed to the hospital wing and told us about a prisoner, Douglas Bader, who had lost his legs, but played his oboe, pausing only when the guards were coming and might catch the POWs. Dave informs me that Rick was wrong, Bader was conducting others while looking out the window. Rick also told us about a tourist they'd had in 2003 who'd been held there as a prisoner. He brought with him his old hand made key for one of the doors. He was allowed to test it, and it still worked.

On to the next courtyard, we stopped at the entrance to hear how the arch reflected whispers from side to side. He pointed out the theatre and told us about one man who dressed up as a woman using the costumes from a play and tried to walk out. He almost got away with it because the guards' wives were known to visit, but he dropped his watch and when the guard called HALT to give it back to her, he only understood the halt part and was caught. He pointed out the path from the floor under the theatre, through another building, and out through the guard house. He said he'd been up there himself and couldn't spot the secret doors without help, so it was all very well done.

He said there had been a misunderstanding about how English prisoners were to be treated, and they'd understood that they were to be treated as Germans, so they had a lot more freedom and privilege than one might otherwise expect. They didn't want to single out the Brits for civil treatment, so they did it for everyone.

Into the next courtyard, he pointed out where each country's officers were kept. The visible walls had been freshly patched and painted to remember a time before the war. Rick told us that some visitors were disappointed, and wanted to see it as the prisoners saw it. It's fine with me as it is. He said the tree in the courtyard is new, so wouldn't have been in the way of exercising prisoners. We went into a building on the far side and viewed a typical cell, but with a metal bed where the wooden bed would have been. He showed us original package scales and a replica box, slightly smaller than the prisoners might have used for escape. Around through the dentist office and through some other rooms recently used for a wedding fair (you can book rooms for your meetings, conventions, or trade shows in the castle), and into another cell. The prisoner in that room was under close watch through a peep hole in the door, but had a dummy for his bed, and did manage some clandestine activities.

Back across the yard, we entered another building and descended into the wine cellars. There we saw the location of the French tunnel, under the British quarters. He pointed out the shaft they had to descend. The tunnel passed under the church, so the other prisoners spent a lot of time having really loud religious services and playing the organ. Near the organ was a switch which turned off the lights in the tunnel so the diggers would know to stop making noise. They were trying to find a crypt, under the floor, but there was none. Guards knew that someone was tunnelling, but it seems sound through rock is not directional, and they couldn't be found by sound until they got to dirt. Petrol was available in large supply, so the would set a fire on the rocks then throw cold water on them to make them split.

The church was still filled with scaffolding and had big trenches in the floor, but there were still things to see. The ceiling paintings were quite old, for example. A few examples of the old floor beams remained, as did a bit of the lighting used in the tunnels. It would not have passed any sort of inspection!

Out to the terrace behind the guard house, we looked over the valley and the river where the glider was to have landed. Up in the museum, Rick and Dave disagreed for a while about whether it would have flown. Someone did a test flight with a replica and said it would have made it, but Rick said they hadn't taken the trees into account, and the escape was to have been for two men, not the single man the test used.

I asked about the swastikas on some of the displays, having understood that they were not allowed. Rick said Hitler was bad, but was certainly not the only bad man in history. He started to go on about what the white settlers had done to the Native Americans, but I interrupted and said that it was longer ago, and there were not people around who remembered it all first hand. Anyway, that topic was going no where, so we dropped it. He said something fond about the communists, and I asked if he missed them. He said he was only five when they left, but that he thought any sort of government had good and bad in it.

I overheard him talking with Dave about his impending National Service. He said he wouldn't have to do military duty because he's a pacifist. It's nice to know different sorts of people are taken into account in these things.

We looked around the museum for a while, then Rick walked us to the gate. Good tour. We'll have to go back when Kit is old enough to appreciate it.

We thought we might go stimulate the local economy a bit by getting some clothes or toys for the boy, but it turns out that everything closes at 11am on Saturday and doesn't re-open until Monday. There was no one around to relieve us of our cash. Live and learn.

When we got back to the room, we did some intensive Time-Out therapy with Kit, who did not like that even one little bit, but after that all we had to do was ask him if he wanted time out and he would say no and stop whatever he was doing that might get it for him. Not to say he didn't do the things, but he at least started to think about consequences.

After a bit of a rest, we met up with Ralf to go to Podelwitz Castle for the tour of the stuff, 30 euros for the whole family. Kit was mercifully sleepy by this time, and although it involved taking turns carrying the dead weight, it was significantly quieter than the morning tour.

In the first room there were all sorts of cool keys and tools, kitchen and apothecary implements. There was another room with dishes from the local porcelain factory (now defunct) and some old fancy clothing. There was a room full of toys, a room of photos of the prisoners of Colditz, mostly unidentified. They hope that over time people will stop in and tell them the names of the ones they recognize.

There was a case with some postcards sent by the prisoners, which bore the Colditz postmark and a swastika. Dave questioned this, saying he understood that the swastika was not to be on display in Germany. The answer was to tell other stories about postcards, so we never got a clear answer on that. He did say that there are a lot of people who want to collect items with the swastika on, and any item with one has a much higher value than an identical item without.

The next room had remnants of the communist era, with lots of little medals. He said that communists never rewarded people with money, but did hand out a lot of little medals. There was a selection of big flags in the corner, and Ralf told us there had once been a Nazi flag in the group, but the neonazis liked to be near it and would have meetings in that room. So now it's disappeared, and they don't come around any more.

The owner of the collection gave Kit a small wooden toy person, which he loved. Quite nice of him.

Ralf took us on a drive to the railroad station (now closed) to show us where people trying to escape in boxes got caught. I noticed a lot of tall smoke stacks, and was told they were attached to closed factories. Colditz was once a thriving center of industry (brick works, porcelain, etc.), but now it's all gone and the people who worked in the factories no longer take the train, so the trains no longer run.

Then he took us to the place where the Russian prisoners were kept, along with some other nationality I've forgotten. By that time I'd noticed a cool German graveyard to check out, and had lost the plot on WWII.

During drive time, I asked Ralf about tipping in Germany. I'd read a bunch of web sites that say it's not done, and I've worked in a number of restaurants where the wait staff complain that lots of Europeans don't tip, but I figured it was best to ask an actual native. He said you don't tip if you got bad service, if you got exceptional service you might go as high as 20 percent, with ten to fifteen percent being more normal. So there you have it. Tip in Germany.

Back to the hotel for a rest, followed by sleep. We watched German television for a while, and went to bed early.

The next morning we had another big breakfast after packing up, and went to the graveyard so I could take photos. We didn't have much time, so I'll have to spend the time with photographs rather than the stones themselves. Ralf tracked us down there to return a pacifier Kit had dropped somewhere in the hotel. Very nice of him. He confirmed Dave's theory that the very old looking family plots with very new names and dates on the stones are a result of families taking off the old stones and putting new ones of for new occupants when they can afford to. The graves were decorated with lots of plants, flowers, and evergreen boughs. Not quite like any other graveyard I've seen.

On the way to the airport, Dave mused that the world had gotten a lot smaller. The castle fell out of use at one time because it was so far from Dresden. On our trip with the car, it would have been reasonable to go to Dresden for dinner and back to Colditz to sleep.

I was a bit nervous, not knowing if Dave would like the trip or not, but in the end he pronounced it a success, and has even talked about going back some time to explore further.

Want more? Here are some photos from the trip. CLICK!

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© 2004 Susan Van Valkenburg
since 2 March 2004