Meissen, Germany: A cracking story of royal-inspired porcelain

Deciphering the secret recipe for porcelain would be a difficult enough task without the added pressure of an impatient king breathing down your neck. But that was the predicament physicist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and chemist Johann Friedrich Bottger found themselves in at the start of the 18th century.

Augustus the Strong, the comically-named ruler of Saxony, was tired of importing expensive porcelain artworks from China so he summoned the pair to Dresden and ordered them to figure out how to make the elusive "white gold". The magic ingredient turned out to be a clay called kaolin and once they finally cottoned on, production was moved to Meissen on the banks of the Elbe river in 1710 and the city became the first European producer of hard-paste porcelain.

Fast-forward 300-odd years and Meissen is still one of the world's leading porcelain manufacturers with a swanky three-level museum in the heart of the city from which it takes its name.

I've arrived by bike as part of a group tour with upmarket cycle operator Butterfield & Robinson so we're enjoying an exclusive private tour of the facility. However, you can also just pitch up and take one of the public tours included with the €10 entrance fee.

After a short video explaining the company's history, we enter the first of four theatres where craftspeople demonstrate how a piece is thrown (shaped), assembled, painted and decorated. All of Meissen's products are handmade and hand-painted – a painstaking process that goes some way to explaining their eye-watering prices.

Upstairs is a two-level museum that shows how tastes and techniques have changed over the last three centuries. The company started by copying Chinese designs but gradually developed its own more contemporary European style. Now it has more than 700,000 moulds and upwards of 10,000 different colour recipes.

Some of the pieces on display are staggering. There's a striking menagerie of exotic animals created by master sculptor Johann Joachim Kandler in the mid-1700s (some of which are amusingly inaccurate, although this is understandable given he'd probably never seen them). His greatest triumph, though, was the Swan Service, an intricately decorated porcelain dinner service containing more than 2000 pieces that took five years to make.

Downstairs in the lobby is the world's largest freestanding porcelain statue, a 1.8-metre-high female figure called Saxonia that was created in 2014 by Meissen's current head sculptor, Jorg Danielczyk. The piece commemorates the 25th anniversary of German reunification and features a skirt adorned with 8000 handmade porcelain blossoms.

It's tempting to think of porcelain as a vestige from a bygone age but given the healthy activity in the gift shop, that's clearly not the case. Tastes have obviously changed (there's less demand for bowing, frilly-cuffed courtiers) but the company has kept in step, creating simpler, more contemporary designs. Prices still smart, though (think €100 for a plate), so it's worth checking the seconds section for discounts.

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Personally, I'd be terrified of washing up a dinner set that cost more than my lounge suite so the closest I come to handling anything is when we have lunch in the museum's restaurant. Naturally, all the plates are by Meissen.

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VISIT

Talstrasse 9, 01662 Meissen. Open daily, 9am to 5pm. Adults €10, children €6. Entrance fee includes an audio tour of the demonstration rooms and access to the museum. See erlebniswelt-meissen.com

TOUR

Butterfield & Robinson's six-day cycling tour from Berlin to Prague starts at $7735 and includes bike hire, accommodation, entrance fees and most meals. See butterfield.com

Rob McFarland was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson.

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