Winter Break 2013: The finale

The final part of our travels involved a pilgrimage of sorts for Pete and me.

A long, long time ago, when Pete was a teen, he read a book about Colditz Castle, which is in eastern Germany in Saxony.

Colditz Castle has a long history that goes back 1,000 years, although the current building only goes back to the 1500s. For a very brief blip in its millennium-old history, Colditz was a prisoner of war camp during World War II. Specifically, Colditz was where the Allied officers who had repeatedly attempted to escape from other POW camps were sent. If you’ve seen the movie The Great Escape, I’m talking about those kinds of guys.

The castle was specifically chosen for its wartime role due to the German belief that no one could escape from a castle set up on a hill, surrounded by a moat, encircled with barbed wire, and guarded by hundreds of German soldiers. The British, French, and other men who were imprisoned there thought otherwise. And they were to go on to prove the Germans wrong a number of times.

Pete told me about the story of Colditz early in our marriage, and we both ended up reading some books written by P.R. Reid, who was a British occupant of the POW camp, but then went on to successfully escape from the supposedly escape-proof castle and reach safe haven in Switzerland.

The men who were sent to Colditz made it their mission to escape and those who attempted (whether or not they succeeded) showed an amazing amount of patience, persistence, and ingenuity in doing so. They tunneled through solid rock, using tiny little tools they had to first make. They climbed up and down high walls using flimsy ropes made from knotted sheets. They picked locks. They faked German military uniforms and forged documents. They saw opportunities where others saw none. Their stories captivated us.

When we started planning this trip, we wanted to find a way to make a visit to Colditz fit into our itinerary. It was a long detour, but we decided it was worth it. We left Munich on Sunday at lunchtime and arrived at Colditz late in the afternoon.

Here’s the extremely cool part: One wing of the castle is now a really nice youth hostel, so we were able to stay in Colditz overnight. Here’s a photo of our room:

It was clean and very comfortable, plus the bathroom was marvelous.

Before I tell you about our tour of Colditz, let me tell you about how we tried to break into the castle on Sunday night.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Germany essentially shuts down in the evening and on Sundays. Not totally and not in all parts of the country, but it’s definitely true in southern Germany and in small towns. The same appears to be true for the town of Colditz.

On Sunday we checked in at the youth hostel, then settled into our room for a bit. Around 6:30, we decided to walk down from the castle into town — the main square was just outside the castle gates — and get dinner. We walked around and around and around for more than an hour, trying to find an open restaurant. Finally, just as we were about to drive to another town, we found a place to eat, and we ended up having a truly satisfying meal.

Afterward, we walked back to the castle. We had been given two keys: One to let ourselves back into the castle and one for our room. To reach the first courtyard, you have to go in through the gate at the guard house, up a bridge, then through another gate at the castle wall. We had been told that the gates would be closed and locked at 7 p.m. At this point, it was close to 9:00.

We went up to the gate and inserted the key we had been given. The key fit, but the lock wouldn’t turn. We tried and tried and tried. Clearly, we were not wise in the ways of German locks.

Finally, in desperation, we looked for ways to break in. There was a sizable gap under one side of the gate, so Ellie crawled under. Here’s a photo demonstrating her break-in:

Once inside, Ellie was unable to get the gate opened. She couldn’t go into the castle itself to get help, because there was another locked gate to contend with.

We kept trying, trying, trying to get in. Finally, Pete and Grace went around to the side, to see if it would be possible to climb over the wall to the bridge from the dry moat below. (You can see the low wall in the photo above.) I stayed at the gate with Ellie.

A few minutes later, a man stuck his head out of his bedroom window, about 75 feet behind me, and asked if we were okay. In very broken German, I explained that we were trying to get in. And in very slow and patient German, he explained that we were at the wrong gate. Using many gestures, he told us to go around the castle, where we’d find another gate.

Five minutes later, we were inside the castle for the night.

The view of the outer courtyard from the "new" part of the castle. (1700s) This is where we stayed overnight.

In the morning, we went on our tour of Colditz. We were the only people there. Our guide — the amazing Steffi, who has been at Colditz for 15 years and who has a great deal of knowledge on the subject — spent two hours taking us all over the place. She told us numerous stories about the people, the escapes, and the building itself. She showed us things as they are now and photos of how they looked back then. We went up and down stairs, down into cellars, out of the castle and around its perimeter.

I mentioned earlier that the men who were imprisoned at Colditz were creative, patient, and persistent. Seeing some of their work firsthand was thrilling.

For example: Pat Reid’s escape was long-planned. It involved tunnels, climbing out of a window, dashing across the outer courtyard (pictured earlier), picking the locks on various doors, revising his plan on the fly, and crawling out of this air vent:

This opening is about seven feet off the ground.

On the outside, with Ellie once again demonstrating for us. Even for her, it would have been a very tight fit.

Reid and the three other men who were escaping together, had to strip naked, push their clothes out through the opening, laboriously hoist themselves up and wriggle through the opening. Just getting to this part of the plan took them all night.

Once they were all though, they still had to descend the hill the castle was on, sneak out of the castle grounds, and then travel hundreds of miles across Germany while being hunted by soldiers.

A thrilling tale, no?

The tour was amazing. Two solid hours, with not a boring moment in there. Even our teens were captivated.

After that, we were sad to leave, but we had another drive ahead of us, as we still needed to get to Frankfurt, four hours away.

And now our trip is over. As I type this, we are in a hotel near the airport, preparing to fly home in a few hours.

I’ll leave you with one final photo. We spent a lot of hours on the Autobahn, which is famous for (mostly) not having speed limits. The drivers are safe, with no tailgating or road rage. So a few times, Pete let loose to see what our rental car could do.

That’s the car doing just under 180 kph, which was around 112 mph. This wasn’t the fastest he went, and typically he cruised at about 130-140 kph (81-87 mph).

I need to sign off now and finish packing, which will involve trying to figure out how to cram at least 10 pounds of German chocolate into our already-stuffed bags.

Auf Wiedersehen.

~ ~ ~

Here’s a map with our drive from Munich to Colditz, then Colditz to Frankfurt marked in red. I’m including it so that you can see the different states within the country:


Here’s a map with all of our German driving noted in yellow: 

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17 Responses to Winter Break 2013: The finale

  1. Patience says:

    What a wonderful trip!

  2. Lori H says:

    So glad you got to visit Colditz – a fascinating story that I want to read more about. Thanks for sharing it with photos. Will check into Reid’s books. Was there one book that was a favorite of yours?

    • Jen says:

      Lori, he wrote two in the 1950s — sort of a part 1 and a part 2. Then he revisted the material in the early 1980s and included more information, including the German perspective, as well as details that he left out in the earlier books. The additional information fleshed out the stories, as well as shared some of their info-gathering tactics that he could not talk about earlier. Personally, I think it’s good to read the original, but the later installment is excellent too.

  3. Erin says:

    SO awesome!!! That story about trying to break into the castle and Ellie going under the gate? That’s your story if you’re ever on Letterman. Love it!!!

    I second Lori’s request for a book rec. I’d never even heard if Colditz before this blog post and now I’m really intrigued.

    Safe travels home!

  4. I just have to say first that Colditz Castle would be an excellent nickname for the northern 2/3 of the US right now.

    I have never heard of this castle or the escape tales. How fascinating! I loved your ‘escaping in’ tale.

    What a great trip! Safe travels home.

  5. bdaiss says:

    What an absolutely amazing trip. And now I see I have some new books to add to my reading list… Fascinating!

  6. Loth says:

    Very, very, very VERY jealous! Have always wanted to visit Colditz. Husband and I have read all the books and there was a very famous and very well done TV dramatisation done by the BBC in the early 1970s which we love deeply. I recommend it if you can find it. Think it may be on DVD and bits of it on YouTube.

    Did you see where they built a complete glider in the attic and planned to fly out of the castle? There was also a TV programme here recently where experts went back to Colditz, built a glider exactly like the one the POWs built and tested it to see if they could get it to fly. It flew!

    • Jen says:

      Loth, we haven’t seen the TV series, but would like to.

      As for the glider, they had a 1/3 scale replica, as well as photos of the test flight. The wonderful Steffi actually took us to a terrace and showed us the gable they flew from and the field they landed in.

  7. Lisa says:

    WOW! Just wow. Thank you for sharing…

  8. I will admit I have little interest in Germany but I have enjoyed all your posts!

  9. That’s so cool–have your girls read those books yet? I’m sure it will really mean something to them when they do (if they haven’t).

  10. BEST ADVENTURE EVER! Wow–to attempt to break in AND get to stay over in this place–I’m gobsmacked.

  11. ~zandra~ says:

    Loved all the stories! Germany is on my must-do list so it was wonderful to get a glimpse :)

  12. blackbird says:

    You are my favorite adventurers.

    (My taxi ride to the airport in Frankfurt was 190 kph. I was a little scared!)

  13. I’m woefully behind on blog reading so how nice to come hear and read about this fantastic trip! My family heritage is (mostly) German so I’m hoping to go someday. Our new orchestra conductor is from Dusseldorf so I’ve been not so subtly trying to convince him that we need to go over there for a chamber music concert. Can’t wait to read about the rest of your trip! Oh, and only 10 pounds of chocolate???

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