Exploring historic, off-beaten-track Germany

Senior editor Kenneth Kiesnoski explored the hinterlands of the German state of Saxony from the industrial hub of Chemnitz, once known as the "Saxon Manchester." His report follows:

K, I'll take my cue from a controversial German promotional campaign and admit it: I, too, am a Saxist.

No, I'm not professing gender snobbery or musical proclivities but merely deep appreciation of Saxony, a German land, or state, once virtually unfamiliar in all but name to Americans of the Cold War era.

Though increasing numbers of U.S. visitors head to Saxony from Berlin for tours of area showpiece cities Dresden and Leipzig, far fewer take time to explore less well-known towns such as Chemnitz in the nearby Erzebirge, or Ore Mountains, a traditional ore-mining and folk-art region.

Seiffen, hometown of Christmas nutcrackers, is packed with shops peddling wooden handicrafts and toys. Historic silver mining towns in the area -- such as Annaberg-Buchholz, Freiberg and Marienberg -- are connected by the Silver Trail route, marked by numerous, easy-to-read road signs all the way from Dresden to Zwickau.

Although the Ore Mountains are but a small part of Saxony, there's a wealth of things to do and see in one of Germany's most beautiful low-mountain ranges, including:

• Chemnitz: By Germany's fairy-tale standards, this large city ain't pretty -- but it does offer a glimpse of life under the old East German regime and boasts several intriguing museums and sights.

With some 80% of the city leveled in World War II, drab socialist housing and office blocks typify its skyline, and the most prominent landmark remains an enormous bust of Karl Marx, a reminder that Chemnitz was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt from 1953 to 1990.

But the newest and best draws in Chemnitz explore the illustrious industrial heritage of a city whose skyline was once a forest of factory smokestacks.

Must-see sights connected to manufacturing include the new Museum of Industry, with its interactive displays of Saxon ingenuity and invention; the Saxon Railway Museum, where historic locomotives loom in an old railway garage; and the century-old textile collections at the City Art Gallery.

Just outside town lie the Villa Esche, an art nouveau residence -- and now museum and restaurant -- built by a local dynasty of hosiery kingpins, and the Saxon Museum of Vehicles, in the Renaissance-era Klaffenbach Water Castle.

The castle grounds are also home to a four-star hotel, the Schlosshotel Klaffenbach, and a nine-hole golf course at the Golf Club Chemnitz.

Despite these treasures, Chemnitz remains off the beaten tourism path -- but that can spell accommodations savings for visitors willing to use the city as a bargain-basement hub for day trips into Dresden and Leipzig, both an hour away by car or rail.

Local hotel options include the quiet and affordable Renaissance Chemnitz, on the Schlossberg hill overlooking town (see Room Key); the city-center, five-star Chemnitzer Hof, on Theater Square near the renowned Opera; and the Hotel Mercure, in a renovated Communist-era skyscraper that towers over the Stadthalle, or municipal theater.

• Seiffen: We all know Pinocchio hails from Italy, but ever wonder about all those wooden-soldier nutcrackers that surface each Christmas?

Well, if they could speak, they'd call Seiffen -- set on the Czech border -- home.

Locals are famed for their skill at woodworking, with toys and Christmas ornaments their stock in trade.

Since German reunification, a host of shops have opened in once-sleepy Seiffen to peddle a wide array of its wooden souvenirs, from chandeliers and dollhouses to candelabras and napkin rings.

One popular item is an incense burner carved in the shape of a nightwatchman.

Besides shopping, other activities include a visit to the 17th century Round Church, an octagonal jewel adorned with work by local woodcarvers, glassblowers and tin- and silversmiths. The sexton gives tours and brief organ concerts.

•Annaberg-Buchholz: Named for St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, this picturesque medieval town is home to the Ore Mountain Museum, with an abandoned silver pit in its courtyard.

Four other disused mining shafts in the area are also open for touring, including the Markus-Rohling-Stolln in nearby Wiesa. Here, visitors don hard hats and rubber capes to ride about 2,000 feet into the mountain via train.

Once inside the former silver mine, first dug around 1500, they can peruse displays of ore-mining equipment, the highlight of which is a 30-foot underground watermill wheel.

Mine staff can arrange private tours for groups of between four and 32 people, and underground snacks of mulled wine, schnapps, and bread and schmaltz, a fatty spread, for groups of at least 19.

Back in Annaberg, the preserved medieval streets are packed with shopping opportunities for local handicrafts.

Looming over all is 16th century St. Anne's, the largest Gothic church in Saxony. An austere monolith from the outside, St. Anne's boasts an interior unusually lavish for a Protestant church, with five intricately carved altars that survived the Reformation thanks to a local lull in iconoclasm.

For more on Chemnitz and the Ore Mountains region, contact the German National Tourist Office at (212) 661-7200 or at www.visits-to-germany.com.

Room Key: Renaissance Chemnitz
Salzstrasse 56, Chemnitz 09113, Germany
Phone: (011) 49-371 334-10
Fax: (011) 49-371 334-1777
Reservations: (800) 468-3571
Manager: Jeffrey Scott
Rates: From about $90 (king or twin) to $112 (suite with private terrace), per night.
Commission: 10%
Rooms/Suites: 226/19
Facilities: 21 meetings rooms; executive floor; fitness center with gym, sauna, solarium, pool and whirlpool; business center; restaurant; bar
Services: Concierge, laundry, 24-hour room service, shoe shine, secretarial services
Review: A standard- issue businessperson's hotel, the Renaissance Chemnitz sits atop historic Castle Hill, in a very quiet residential area astride a beautiful park. City center, with museums and shopping, is a 15-minute walk or short cab ride away. On a recent visit, arrivals carried their own bags to guestrooms; there was no doorman or porter.

Top Operators to Saxony
Brendan Worldwide Vacations
(800) 491-9633
Image Tours
(616) 957-1010
(800) 992-2003
Source:German National Tourist Office

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