By Alison Tibaldi, Taking the Kids correspondent
My family and I recently visited Dresden, Germany. I was quite taken with the city’s restored baroque architecture, lovely Meissen porcelain collection and gracious air. My teens tolerate old-world charm, but they certainly don’t delight in it the way their middle-aged mother does. So, we broke from our schedule and planned a day in the Erzgebirge Mountains.
In a rented car, we drove towards the Czech border. In two hours, we were immersed in an alpine landscape that looked straight out of “The Sound of Music”. There are lots of outdoor recreational opportunities here, including skiing and hiking. Our visit took place on a rainy November day, so we made other plans.
The Erzgebirge region is the cradle of traditional German handicrafts and we wanted to watch them make the nutcrackers and other decorative wood pieces that are especially popular at Christmas.
Our first stop was Herr Kohler’s studio in tiny Eppendorf. His showroom is open to the public and he invites visitors to tour his woodcraft factory. Kohler designs each imaginative piece. His work is distinguished by rounded edges and attention to detail. He comes from a long line of wood craftspeople and proudly carries on this centuries-old tradition. He uses wood from trees chopped with his own hands, originally planted by his grandfather. Once the wood is cut, it takes 3-5 years to properly dry and treat before it may be chiseled. We watched steady hands guide the chisel along a simple block of wood, delicately shaving the block to create magical shapes. The paint is meticulously applied with a tiny brush, adding color and more detail to the form.
Our time at the studio was surprisingly educational. Herr Kohler employs several dozen full-time craftspeople. The job requires a demanding degree of precision that can be hard on the body. Kohler wants to ensure that none of his employees sustain injuries or discomfort while keeping productivity and employee satisfaction high. He hires a physical therapist twice weekly to lead exercise classes for the staff during lunch break. When we arrived, everyone was stretching at the onsite gym. We enjoyed seeing his forward-thinking management style in action.
Our visit was also a regional history lesson. We learned that the Erzgebirge was once rich in silver mines and that the miners originated the tradition of carving wood. As they descended below ground for lengthy periods of time, they entertained themselves using their tools to whittle figures. Injured workers came to wood carving when they needed a new livelihood. When the earth’s underground treasures were finally exhausted, many former miners transformed their mining tools into wood carving tools and began a new profession.
We stopped for lunch a few miles down the road in a converted vintage railroad car that is now a restaurant and hotel, the Wolkensteiner Zughotel. We consumed hearty, plainspoken German specialties like Sauerbraten with Spätzle, as toy trains circled overhead. We wished we had time to stay overnight in the simple rooms that were once actual sleeper cars and still have all of their original details.
Next was the Factory of Dreams, a museum in the picture-perfect town of Annaberg-Buchholz. The museum houses a large private collection of local folk arts and crafts. Toy making was and is a respected craft in this part of Saxony. 1,500 doll houses, music boxes, wind-up toys, miniature angels, nutcrackers and more, represent the skill and inventive spirit of their makers. The museum celebrates not only the finished products, but also the act of creation itself. The exhibitions reflect the dreams of those who made them, and the poetic curators ask that you immerse yourself with all of your senses and allow them to spark dreams of your own.
We indulged at the Annaberger Bakery, a café next door. If you are a chocoholic, this mouth-watering sweet shop may be your factory of dreams. It left us well fortified for our journey back.
Our day in the beautiful Erzgebirge Mountains was a success, and we left craving more. For more information, go to http://www.germany.travel.