Goerlitz is as far east as you can go in Germany. Amble across the city’s pedestrian bridge over the river Neisse and you’re in Poland (there’s no border check). Seemingly perfectly preserved, it’s one of the major towns of the crossborder area of Lausitz (a name that roughly translates as “marshy”), also known as Lusatia. The town’s historic buildings the colour of French Fancies were fortuitously undamaged by Allied bombs in the Second World War.
The area also has a new September arts festival, curated by the director of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Kuehnel, featuring events such as mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca accompanied by Malcom Martineau and Hamlet performed in a former lightbulb factory. At the edge of Goerlitz is the vast Art Deco Stadthalle, built on the profits of textiles in 1910 but now closed for over 20 years.
Kuehnel says: “The initial idea was to renovate the hall and to create a festival to give it a purpose.” This year, the Stadthalle restoration received a £30m boost from the state government. Inside it resonates with the ghosts of grand galas, flitting around elegant balustrades, chandeliers, dusty wrought iron and the stadium-like main hall. Marcel Dupre will play its magnificent 111-year-old Sauer organ as part of the festival, amid the dust sheets.
When the Germans retreated in 1945, they blew up Goerlitz’s bridge (it was only rebuilt in 2004). The river was used as a natural border when leaders from the Soviet Union, Britain, US and France carved up the area, creating two cities, Goerlitz on the German side and Zgorzelec, the Polish part. It’s less well-preserved than the German side but at riverside restaurants such as Przy Jakubie you can dine on pierogi (stuffed dumplings).
The German Democratic Republic earmarked crumbling Goerlitz for demolition and an eastern-bloc restyle in the 1980s. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 put paid to that and since the end of the last century, the city has been meticulously restored, thanks to a mysterious benefactor who gives the city £426,000 every year. This has been poured into preservation of the town’s charms, from the Art Deco department store Karstadt-Warenhaus (used as a location for Wes Andersen’s Grand Budapest Hotel) to the 15th-century Church of St Peter and St Paul, a stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. There are no chain stores and no hipster bars here. The closest you’ll get is the lovely vegan- and veggie-friendly Cafe Herzstuck, a sewing-themed cafe with a terrace which closes at a modest 6pm.
The city’s Art Nouveau synagogue also reopened this year after 30 years of restoration. This was the only synagogue in Saxony to survive the pogrom of 1938 and to visit is a profoundly moving experience. A broken marble plinth is a stark reminder of the past amid the richness of its intricately repainted gold and brown walls and ceiling. It is now a cultural centre as well as a multi-faith place of worship, and, as part of the arts festival, pianist Piotr Anderszewski played a recital here before crossing the border to Boniface church to play the second part of the programme.
Beyond Goerlitz, the landscapes of the wider Lausitz region unfurl in waves of fuzzy-felt green, with giant fields and huge Hansel-and-Gretel style beech forests. The area’s former lignite mineshafts have been filled with water to create a local Lake District, attempting to draw in tourists to replace an industry that dominated the area since the 16th century. By night, foxes flit across the dark roads and there are wolves, wild boar and even the odd elk.
Boringly sensible modern houses make up villages where it looks like everyone has learned the benefits of an early night. It’s an area of curiosities: Cunewalde, Germany’s longest village, has a rare cluster of half-timbered buildings along a winding stream, overlooked by the mysteriously humongous Dorfkirche (with space for 2,632 worshippers).
Berzdorfer Lake is closest of the ex-mineshaft lakes to Goerlitz, four miles away. It resembles a tidy reservoir rather than a natural lake, a blue expanse in a curiously flat landscape. Visit for the day and you’ll find sandy beaches, a cafe, paved cycle routes and Insel der Sinne, a pavilion-like hotel with blonde-wood lakeside terraces. Local resident Tony Naehrig often cycles to the lake from Goerlitz on sunny days. “Nature has taken over,” he says. “It’s not exactly natural but it’s a good way to use these places.”
But Lausitz’s best-known rural sight is perhaps Rakotsbrucke, Devil’s Bridge, which can be found in 19th century Kromlau Park, laid out for a local prince. The bridge’s reflection in the water completes a perfect circle, backed by reflected foliage. Absurdly picturesque, it attracts a steady stream of Insta-pilgrims hoping to snap the view.
Only three miles to the west and even more extraordinary is Bad Muskau and the gardens of Prince Puckler. This 19th-century prince, described as pale-faced, with his watch attached to a stick, was a bird-of-paradise aesthete, famous for his passion for landscaping. After travelling in England, he was inspired by Romanticism, and sought to recreate this in the park that now straddles the border. The Lausitz Festival uses its coach house and brewery for video-art installations, oddly fitting in the largely derelict outhouses that surround Muskau’s grandiose red-walled mansion.
Lausitz feels simultaneously overlooked and at the heart of Europe, remote and central, unbound by borders. There’s a feeling of optimism swirling around its reimagined mine lakes, the festival’s philosophical discussions in churches, cross-border performances and the belief in art to change places and lives. And there’s an eccentric thrill about exploring somewhere that’s barely on the tourist map, where you can wander half-restored buildings and where, if you attempt to dine between 8.30pm and 9.30pm, you might be offered a “night owl” menu.
Trying to fly less?
You can get from the UK to Goerlitz in around 13 hours by train. Take the Eurostar from London to Brussels, before taking one ICE train to Frankfurt and another to Dresden. Change there for a train on to Goerlitz.
Fine with flying?
Fly to Berlin, from where you can take the train to Goerlitz (3-4 hours). To explore outside the city, you’ll need to hire a car or bike.
The lovely Hotel Borse, which has an old-fashioned elegance, powder-pink facade, four-poster beds, chandeliers, polished-wood floors, honesty bar and a hearty cheese-and-ham breakfast.
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