Almost completely destroyed after World War II, Dresden’s stunning landscape was transformed into a rubbled, charred city accented by a heavy hue of grey. This grim picture remained this way for many years after.
However, this was not the vision that I encountered on my recent visit to Germany’s treasured city. As I stood on the expansive Carola Bridge and peered across the picturesque Elbe River, Dresden’s dramatic skyline appeared as an untouched painting. A poetic mélange of architectural shapes and designs decorated the river landscape with golden domes, rolling greenery, and flourishing facades.
Sometimes coined the Jewel or Florence of the Elbe River, Dresden has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. For more than 20 years, Germany’s most spectacular city and state capital of Saxony has gone through a major renovation since its devastation during WWII, with many new changes and celebrations coming in 2013.
Surprisingly, this innovative city was known for many firsts: manufacturing the first porcelain in Europe, Germany’s first steam engine, the invention of the single lens reflex (SLR) camera, the development of memory chips, coffee filters, and most uplifting—the bra.
Considered one of Europe’s most beautiful baroque cities, Dresden appears like a peacock proudly showcasing its glorious palaces, parks, cathedrals, 44 museums, 56 galleries, all easily accessible by foot or bus. With comfortable walking shoes being a must, I visited some of the key historic sites via foot in the city center and beyond.
The baroque-style Zwinger Palace is just one the city’s many architectural treasures. The Crown Gate (Kronentor) with its glistening dome has become a famous Dresden landmark. This venue was once used for court festivities. Its buildings house the Old Masters Gallery, an armory, a fine porcelain collection, and a zoology museum. The Zwinger’s Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments, showcasing the world’s finest collection of historic globes, will re-open in April after lengthy construction.
I was overwhelmed by the breadth of offerings and chose to rest my feet and enjoy the immense courtyard with its flowing fountains. I just needed to soak up the architectural grandeur of my surroundings.
Dresden is an outdoor museum. I was in awe of its reconstruction, which so brilliantly captures its past. The newly renovated Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) with its magnificent dome, the centerpiece of Dresden, is surely an eye-stopper. I felt miniscule against its immensity. This 250-year-old church, created by the city’s master carpenter and architect George Bähr, represents the pinnacle of Protestant ecclesiastic architecture and is a prime example of the European baroque style. Built between 1726 and 1743, the badly damaged church became a war memorial after 1945 and now stands as a symbol of reconciliation.
While meandering amid the cobblestoned streets, I observed some of the 60 time capsules embedded into the ground that keep documents to maintain the memory of the Holocaust. This was a reminder how bold beauty and horrific hatred can exist side by side.
Close by is the Royal Palace, built at the end of 15th century, which will re-open its Great Hall (Riesensaal) in February.
During my exploration by foot, I came across Neustadt Market Hall, which took me back to the hurried market life of the 1900s with its wrought-iron railings and fancy cast-iron stairways.
In 1999, the market was restored to its former glory. It is considered the most attractive market hall in Germany, replete with its magnificent vaults and original function and charm.
One of the highlights of my visit was taking a relaxing stroll over the Carola Bridge to Alaunstrasse and Luisenstrasse, the NY Soho or young, hip neighborhood of the city. As a young person of the 70s, I felt a bit nostalgic walking down the narrow streets of trendy stores showcasing tie-die fabrics and painted tee shirts. I happened to stop into Kosman, a whole foods store, where I bought fruit and a German pretzel for less than one euro.
I was surrounded by young people eating lots of sausage and pizza, and drinking kegs of beer in a freer, more artistic lifestyle. This part of town was definitely more relaxed and had more reasonable places to eat compared to the historic center.
Nearby is the new 21,000-square-foot Museum of Military History, the largest military museum in Germany designed by noted architect Daniel Libeskind, who also built Berlin’s eye-catching Jewish Museum. A giant wedge cuts through this historic edifice, another reminder of the effect of modern times. It was convenient to hop on and off the Stadtrundfahrt for an hour and 45-minute double-decker bus ride passing 19th-century mansions, castles, and a forested park in and around the suburbs of Dresden.
As my bus toured around the burbs in the Radeberg District, I was able to eye Dresden’s three palaces built between1850 and 1861 (known as the palaces along the Elbe)— the Schloss Albrechtsberg, Lingner Schloss, and Schloss Eckberg. They are set on a former vineyard in an extensive area of picturesque parkland situated around three kilometers east of Dresden’s city center.
The city was also an inspiration to the noted and controversial composer Richard Wagner, who created some of his greatest works here. His operas are a bit heavy for my taste. However, for those who are enthralled with Wagner’s work, the New Year marks the beginning of events honoring Wagner’s 200th birthday with concerts beginning in the Semper Opera House in January. The Saxon State Opera and Orchestra will focus on Wagner’s works from Dresden times, with such famed operas as Lohengrin and Tannhauser.
The new Richard Wagner Museum in Graupa, a place outside Dresden where Wagner eventually withdrew to in his later years, will open this January. While in April, major exhibitions on Wagner’s life will also appear in the Dresden City Museum (Dresdner Stadtmuseum)—a place to further explore and go deeper into the vast history and styles of this magnificent city.
Beverly Mann has been a feature, arts, and travel writer in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past 28 years. She has received numerous accolades in the fields of travel writing, education, and international public relations, including a Bay Area Travel Writers Award of Excellence in Newspaper Travel Writing;
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General info on Dresden: www.dresden.de
For a schedule and list of Wagner performances, go to: www.dresden-theater.de, www.semperoper.de, and www.dresdnerphilharmonie.de.
Dresden City Museum (Dresdner Stadtmuseum) www.stmd.de