The town felt much like any other German suburb, and I had seen more imposing castles in the past than the one that we were approaching. It was dark. It was cold. I was hungry, but I didn’t mind. This was Colditz and we were heading to the famous Prisoner of War camp, the site of so many daring escape attempts. A friend had suggested that I join him on a trip that would pass through the area, and I had quickly decided that I would badger him into a time-consuming and inconvenient diversion in order to spend a night at Colditz castle, now a youth hostel, the focal point of so many childhood musings.
We had arrived in the town later than I had planned, and it was only thanks to a kind local driver that we were spared a long walk up the snowy roads. She dropped us off at the entrance and we checked in. The museum was closed by the time we arrived, the last tour long finished, and we were to leave early the following morning, but it didn’t matter – the atmosphere was the important thing, not for the education. We stepped back out on to the courtyard, gazed up at tall white walls and imagined ourselves trying to escape them. Happily, our experience of the castle was quite unlike that of the POWs, and the next moment we were heading out of the gates to find some food.
Returning much later, we found that the gates had been closed and locked. This was not expected. We started walking around the castle, realising, bizarrely, that we were now trying to work out how to break into Colditz. We were not put to the test – we found another entrance and soon turned in for our night in the POW camp – albeit with the relative comfort of a 21st-century tourist. It did not matter that the hostel was in the old guardhouse, not the prisoners’ quarters – we were close enough. Someone walked down the corridor outside. In my mind’s ear, I heard the footsteps of a guard on patrol. I nodded off
We awoke suddenly and in a panic; we had slept through our alarms and were late for a train – we had a connection to catch out of Leipzig, and this was the only train into the city that would get us there on time. We settled and set off into the town at great speed, watching the time, and hoping desperately that we were going the right way. We were beginning to give up when suddenly we stumbled across the station and saw the train standing on the platform. We jumped into the train, breathless and relieved. The train began to move. We had made it.
We realised, as we made the journey into Leipzig, that we had been running down some of the same roads, and through the same fields, as those, who, all those years ago, fled Colditz. Truly this was a place were History, with a bit of imagination, comes to life.