Bruce Woelfel reports on Meissen and its Staatliche Porzellanmanufactur, producer of lavish, intricate porcelain, including the famed Dresden China.

When the Iron Curtain descended after World War II, it deprived Westerners of visitation rights to some of Germany's most splendid treasures. A few, like the Pergamon Museum in East Berlin, were accessible from West Berlin on foot, by tour bus or private car, provided one was willing to put up with the tedious and often unsettling border crossing process. But driving unattended in East Germany's countryside except on a very few West Germany-to-West Berlin corridors where western drivers were not allowed to leave the autobahn was verboten. Though visitors to West Germany could see the fabulously detailed porcelain of the Saxon town of Meissen in museums, castles and shops, the place where it was made was hidden from our view. But that, of course, has all changed. This 1000-year-old city is now wide open to tourists.

Though for hundreds of years it remained relatively unscathed—surviving fires, floods and wars—Meissen was left to molder under communist rule. At the time of unification, many buildings were nearly in ruins. The town is now being rebuilt—a huge task. Many houses lean precariously, seemingly held up by scaffolding; most have no indoor plumbing, only toilets in a rear yard.

Still, Meissen is a lively place with a colorful central market, dating back to 1150, and other smaller plazas. When we visited, a plaza on a back street was host to a "European Festival" with a boisterous audience watching performers from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and other Eastern European countries, singing, playing and dancing. Above Meissen a fortified monastery and castle overlooks the narrow streets and low buildings.

Near the town are large kaolin deposits, one of the purest of the clays. Because it is easily molded, has a fine texture and is white when fired, it is used in the making of fine porcelain. (Kaolin is also found in Cornwall, England and in France.)

An alchemist, Johann Friedrich Bottger, discovered the secret of producing porcelain while unsuccessfully attempting to make gold in the Bruhlsche Terrasse in Dresden. In 1710, August the Strong established the first large-scale European porcelain manufacturing operation in the castle. It was later shifted to its present location.

Meissen's principal attraction, naturally, is the ceramic museum and manufacturing plant. The museum pieces are amazingly detailed, with finely painted faces. Some are large and intricate: a vase three-feet high has a movable "necklace" of ceramic flowers. On the third floor are some semi-abstract modern pieces. A 30-minute factory tour included in the admission price demonstrates how the pieces are formed (using a secret formula) and glazed.

Porcelain from Meissen is expensive, although prices in the museum store and an outlet store in the Dresden Hilton Hotel, are less than what one would pay in the U.S. A tea pot sells for $200, place settings are $300 and up. Many patterns are available including the famous "Dresden Blue."

Getting to Meissen by car is a slow process, especially during the tourist season. One must cross and recross the Elbe in heavy traffic on a crowded two-lane road. The quickest way is to take the train. Nine trains a day take less than half an hour from the main Dresden station, running from 5:35 a.m. to 9:35 p.m., and returning from 6:00 a.m. to 9:33 p.m. It is also a pleasant trip on an old paddle boat from the piers along the Elbe near the Old Town.

Meissen

Population: 48,000

Altitude: 110 meters

Approximate distances from:

* Dresden 23 km 15 miles
* Berlin 175 km 109 miles
* Munich 486 km 301 miles

Tourist Information

* Meissen-Information
* An der Frauenkirche 3
* Meissen D-01662
* Phone: 03521/4470
* Fax: 03521/454479

Location: 15 miles northwest of Dresden at the intersection of the valleys formed by the rivers Elbe, Triebisch and Meisa. In addition to its porcelain fame, Meissen is the center of the world's most northerly wine-growing area.

Walking Tour, available through the town center and the castle hill, adults 6 DM ($4), children (10-16) 3 DM ($2), phone 03521/4544 70, fax 03521/4582 40.

National Porcelain Factory, Talstrasse 9, open Tuesday-Sunday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., entrance 5 DM ($3.25), phone 03521/4585 41, fax 03521/4521 17. Demonstration workshop, Tuesday-Sunday 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., entrance plus guided tour 4 DM.

Porcelain Painting Workshop, Kunsthandwerkiche Porzellanmalerei GmbH Sitz Meissen, Meisastrasse 42, open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday by appointment, entrance and guided tour 2 DM ($1.30), phone 03521/4578 73.

Albrechtsburg, a large Gothic castle, towers over Meissen providing a magnificent view over the town. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed in January, entrance is 4 DM ($2.60). Guided tour 3 DM ($2).

Saxon Wine-Growers Cooperative, Meissen, Bennoweg 6, guided tours with wine-tasting: three samples 9 DM ($6), six samples 18 DM ($12), Winzerplatte meal 7 DM ($4.50) per person, phone (0351)7332 93.

November 1994