East Meets West: Exploring Görlitz, Germany

My day trip to Görlitz started at 8:30am in Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s main train station. I was there over an hour too early for my first train to Cottbus, where I’d change to a small, regional German train to Görlitz, in the very east of Germany on the Polish border. Hauptbahnhof is a maze of levels and platforms, and it took me almost the whole hour to orientate myself within the station, find somewhere cheap for coffee (Pret a Manger to the rescue, as always), and find my way to my platform.

I was really heading to Görlitz as a film pilgrimage—it’s where Wes Anderson shot his 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel. As an Anderson fan, I was excited to see scenes from the movie come to life in front of me in the cobbled streets of Görlitz’s old town, an area that dates back to 1071. Aside from the film connection, though, I was also just interested in seeing another part of Germany—the only places I’d visited being Berlin and a small village on the Dutch border that I’d managed to walk to from a holiday park in The Netherlands.

On the train through the states of Berlin, Brandenburg, and, eventually, Saxony, we passed through densely packed woodland and small towns and villages, some nicer looking than others. All these towns, however, had one thing in common—they had both a German and a Polish name, displayed at their train stations, one on top of the other. The German name, more familiar to my mind, pronounceable; the Polish, an assortment of consonants that suddenly made the area seem more foreign, though I was barely two hours out of cosmopolitan Berlin.

After a short change at Cottbus—a town which didn’t seem overly attractive from my view from the train window—I boarded a regional train a third of the size of the first which would take me all the way to Görlitz. It was painfully obvious that this was an area of Germany not often frequented on the train by tourists, or even lifelong inhabitants, as the train offered stop buttons, and the train sped through hamlets and small towns when nobody felt inclined to get off. Amazingly, people did often get off in towns that seemed to have no more to them than a train station.

Cottbus train station

I arrived in Görlitz after lunch, with the skies bright with sun, and the day warming up a good deal more than is normal for Eastern Europe in late February. Wandering into the main town from the Görlitz Bahnhof, I couldn’t help but notice the frequency of derelict buildings, their previous shop names faded and ‘for rent’ signs plastered prolifically over their broken windows. From tourist pictures of Görlitz, I’d been led to believe that the city, with its elaborate and rich history as an important trading town, would have retained its wealth today, and while the derelict buildings neighbored ones as ornate as they would have been in 1800, my overall impression was of a standard town centre filled with modern shoppers.

Thankfully, as I wandered further into Görlitz, and into the Altstadt, it did feel more and more like I’d stepped back in time. The standard town centre, filled with your run-of-the-mill British high-street stores, gave way to a large, more ornate square, and, further on, closed, shadowy streets of the sort that I’d expected to find. As the din of the town grew quieter, it did feel as if time had stopped all of a sudden. Someone played the piano from an upstairs window, perhaps a student at a lesson. Birds, invisible to me, squealed and sang above my head. Indeed, I got temporarily lost in these quiet streets, trying not to check my map but randomly choosing the way. Unexpectedly, I ended up by the river Neisse, and came face to face with Poland on the other bank.

It’s a curious feeling knowing you’re looking into a different country. Of course, there was no strict border, only the river separating the towns of Görlitz and Zgorzelec, which had been one until 1945. The whole town, though, at one point had belonged to the region of Lusatia, the historic home of a group of West Slavic people called the Sorbs, which explained why this part of Germany felt so different from other areas of the country. Later on in the day, I wandered over to the Polish side and sat in a park on the opposite side of the bank I’d been standing at earlier. Ultimately, I realized that the air of foreign-ness I’d imbibed to the Polish side of the town mostly originated in my head—aside from the quiet sound of people chatting in Polish in the restaurant behind me, and the Polish street signs, it was really the same town as the other side of the river.

Zgorzelec
The view of the Peterskirche (Peter’s Church) on the Görlitz side, from the bridge connecting Görlitz to Zgorzelec

Looping back into town through the wider streets near the station, I started to get that familiar feeling of walking fatigue that meant I should probably stop for a coffee and a snack. There was really no better place I could have chosen for this mid-afternoon rest than the old Ratsapotheke on the Untermarkt, the older of the two squares in Görlitz. Though all of the Renaissance buildings on this square are beautiful, the Ratsapotheke is particularly noteworthy, with its rose-coloured window frames and otherworldly astronomical drawings decorating its front. Inside, it’s more subdued, with white walls, simple tables and chairs, and quiet buzz of a mainstream radio station at odds with the baroque glamour of the outside.

Naturally, I opted for a cup of coffee, but also ordered the chef’s special of a Nusstörtchen which I gathered from the German explanation in the menu is a delicacy created by the court chef of Queen Luise. The törtchen turned out to be a small tower of fluffy cake, delicately flavoured with hazelnut and with a hazelnut cream in the centre, covered in icing. It paired perfectly with the coffee, and I spent a while in the cafe, admiring the view of the square from my spot by the window, watching the sun slowly descending and casting long shadows on the cobblestones.

Conscious of the three-hour train ride back to Berlin, and the fact that only one train left every hour in this reclusive part of the country, I cut my day trip short before it got entirely dark, making my way slowly back through town to the Bahnhof, with a few other lonely daytrippers and shoppers from the neighbouring towns. It certainly felt like I needed longer in the city, but it was also entirely possible that a longer stay might have broken the magic of this sleepy, quaint, German-Polish town.

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