Last month we sung the praises of small towns on the River Elbe, and it was our enthusiasm for that river which last weekend drew us to Torgau. Bypassed by freeways and main rail routes, Torgau catches the flavors of small-town Germany. It is laid-back, unpretentious and inexpensive.
Torgau is a place that has, for several hundred years, punched considerably above its weight. It is a mere fleck on the map, a riverside community of less than 20,000 souls. But it is one of those spots which have helped shape European history. Worms and Wittenberg may both claim to have kindled the spark of Lutheranism, but Torgau was the affirming flame that gave early strength to the Reformation.
Those familiar with more recent European history will recall that Torgau witnessed a defining moment towards the very end of World War II. It was here that Soviet Union forces advancing over the Elbe first encountered the Americans who were pushing east across Europe. That was on 25 April 1945.
The encounter was symbolic in many ways. It signaled that Hitler’s days were numbered, but it also anticipated the future Cold War division of Europe. Just as in the days of Martin Luther, Torgau found itself at the heart of a new world order — and played a key role in helping define and map that order.
A place to relax
These various facets of history are beautifully recalled in modern Torgau, with signposted walks and informative leaflets. It’s rare to stumble on a town in eastern Germany that has such high-quality tourist information in English.
History may beckon, but for many it will not be the main reason for traveling to Torgau. The town is, quite simply, a fine place to be. The town’s unhurried demeanor is its prime asset. The historic town center boasts a feast of Renaissance buildings. There are super riverside walks and a galaxy of appealing cafés to pass the time of day.
If you are tempted to stay overnight, the Hotel Goldener Anker on the main market square offers rooms from €45.
By road, Torgau is 60 km from Leipzig, 90 km from Dresden and 130 km from Berlin — all three journeys follow secondary highways. These offer a different driving experience from Germany’s modern autobahns — they are quieter, offer a more intimate connection with the landscape and are a delight to drive.
Torgau is easily reached by train, being served by hourly regional services that trundle east from Leipzig. The journey from Leipzig to Torgau takes about 40 minutes. Through fares from Berlin (using the fast train Berlin to Leipzig then on by local service) start at €19.
It is do-able as a day trip from Berlin. If you don’t mind slow trains, there is a good budget route from the German capital using cheaper regional services, with just one change of train at Falkenberg (Elster). Travel time from Berlin to Torgau via Falkenberg is two hours. The Berlin-Brandenburg Ticket (just €29, valid for up to five people) is the best deal here, though you will have a small supplementary fare (€6.80 per person return) from Rehfeld, which is the last station in Brandenburg, to Torgau.