Dresden For a Day. It’s a Great Time to Visit a Beautiful City.

Catching up with Martin Luther

 

Dresden after the bombing in 1945

Dresden after the bombing in 1945

I’ve always hesitated to go to Dresden.  It was among the most heavily bombed cities in World War II, the successful outcome of a joint British and American campaign that began on February 13, 1945 and obliterated one of the most beautiful cities in Germany, the capital of the German state of Saxony, which sits on the banks of the Elbe. At least 20,000 people were killed during those bombings, and while those are the harsh realities of war, I’d never particularly wanted to see the damage first hand, even decades later, when it was still starkly visible. And while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic in the Cold War era, I really had no reason to go there.

But when the Wall came down 25 years ago, cities like Dresden again began to receive the attention and funding they had been denied when they were in the Russian sphere of influence.  And when friends in Berlin urged me to go, saying that it was well worth a trip, I downloaded a Deutsche Bahn app onto my IPhone and off I went (best thing ever – no ticket needed – you just show your phone to the conductor).

It was a suitably gray, atmospheric and foggy morning when the train arrived in Dresden a little behind schedule at  9:00 a.m.  I had an hour to walk to the Altstadt, or old town, before the museums opened at 10:00 a.m. and scope out what I wanted to see.  But before I left the train station, I bought a two day Dresden-Card, which I highly recommend and is a bargain at 30 Euros, even if you only plan to stay for one day, as I did, because any museum that you visit is at least 10 Euros, and I packed six of them into one single day. And this is as good a time as any to tell you that visiting Dresden in mid-November spares you all of the lines that visitors during the spring and summer experience.  Granted, the city is greener then, but there was something mournfully perfect about visiting Dresden in the late gray of autumn, especially when you had entire rooms in museums to yourself, as I did. Even the soot and grit that cover many of the city’s monuments that are in desperate need of sand blasting, somehow seemed just perfect, a balance of the authentic old Dresden and the cleverly reconstructed new.

Before I visited a single museum, I went and saw for myself the magnificently reconstructed Frauenkirche, which had been reduced by the bombings to a 45 foot high rubble pile, and which stayed that way for decades.  It was only in 1994 that reconstruction began on the church, and it brought tears to my eyes to see it.  Though its baroque interior is generally too fussy for my taste, it is a triumph, and the very fact that this church has risen again inspired me.  It was paid for by donations from around the world, including from many people in both the U.K. and the U.S., and it has restored Dresden’s pride in a way that few other acts could have.  Because it was such a foggy day, I didn’t bother to climb to the dome, but others I talked with had on sunnier days and said it was worth it for the magnificent view of the surrounding countryside.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, a triumph of hope, money and perseverence.

The Dresden Frauenkirche, a triumph of hope, money and perseverance.

The dome of the Frauenkirche.  The restoration started in 1994 and was finished in 2005.

The dome of the Frauenkirche. The restoration started in 1994 and was finished in 2005.

 

First on my list of museums was the Albertinum, home to the New Masters, where I headed straight for the German Romantic painters, Casper David Friedrich foremost among them.  I grew to love them from my years in Berlin, and like old friends, I stick with them unapologetically. There are also some nice Rodin sculptures, a Degas Little Dancer and plenty of other mostly 19th and 20th century treasures in there, along with a vast trove of much earlier sculptures going back many hundreds and even thousands of years.

One of Caspar David Friedrich's gorgeous paintings in the Albertinum Museum in Dresden

One of Caspar David Friedrich’s gorgeous paintings in the Albertinum Museum in Dresden

From there, I walked the Fürstenzug, or the Prince’s Way, which is the longest porcelain mural in the world and quite beautiful in its fashion, depicting a millennium of kings and queens. Then it was off  to the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, the Old Masters Gallery, which is part of the trio of museums that belong to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden and that you purchase on one ticket.  It’s no exaggeration to say that I could have happily spent an entire day going from gallery to gallery visiting paintings that I’d studied in college, among them Jan van Eyck’s Winged Altar, a gorgeous Botticelli, some lovely Rembrandts, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and on and on.

But, the other two museums called, and even if you’re not a fan of porcelain, which I am, you can’t not visit the exquisite collection that is the Porzellansammlung. I spent less time in the third museum, the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, which had all kinds of clocks, globes and quirky scientific instruments, not because I wasn’t interested, but because it was time to stroll the Brülsche Terrassen, a huge terrace that runs parallel to the Elbe River and that many consider one of Europe’s most lovely terraces.

The Fürstenzug, or the Prince's Way, the longest porcelain mural in the world.

The Fürstenzug, or the Prince’s Way, the longest porcelain mural in the world.

You have an expansive view of the river from there, as well as of many of Dresden’s finest buildings and palaces, some of which are undergoing major restoration. Curious as ever, I poked my head into a number of building sites.

A view back to the city from the Brülsche Terrassen

A view back to the city from the Brülsche Terrassen

The view over the Elbe River from the New City side.

The view over the Elbe River from the New City side.

By then, I was ready for an art break, so I walked over the Augustusbrücke, one of several bridges that span the Elbe around Dresden.  I headed toward Albertplatz in the Neustadt or New Town, where I met up with Daniel Tarnowski, the son of my friends Peter and Barbara in Berlin, and a young doctor just finishing up his studies.  He gave me a brisk walking tour of that part of town, which is jammed full of students, bars and small boutiques and has a totally different, more funky vibe than the old part of town.  I really recommend getting out and about there for a change of pace, if nothing else. For one thing, it’s filled with small, family owned shops and businesses that depend upon and appreciate your business more than the big chain stores in the Altstadt do. And as an added bonus, it’s less expensive in the Neustadt.

A whimsical facade in the Neustadt part of town

A whimsical facade in the Neustadt part of town

More architectural magic in the Neustadt

More architectural magic in the Neustadt

 

My tour guide and fellow  Asisi enthusiast, Daniel Tarnowski

My tour guide and fellow Asisi enthusiast, Daniel Tarnowski

We had a quick bowl of carrot-ginger soup with some crusty bread, all for a nominal fee, strolled around a bit more and then got into Daniel’s car for a different perspective on the city.  We headed to one of the most unusual of Dresden’s attractions and one that I can’t say enough good things about.  It’s called the Dresden Panometer, and it’s a frankly jaw dropping, birds eye view of what it might have felt like to be in the midst of Baroque Dresden, circa 1756.  Built in one of the early 20th century gasometer structures just outside the city, Yadegar Asisi’s 360 degree view was based on painstaking research, starting with drawings and paintings from the period, followed by road trips across Europe to photograph similar Baroque period buildings, and then an intricate, highly technical process of essentially creating a modern photograph of a far ago land.  Magical is the word that came to my mind several times while I was there.

Asisi, an Austrian born artist, created a 89 foot high by 344 feet wide circular curtain, essentially,  which you experience from a high platform stand placed in the middle of the room.   You’d swear you were there in that period, in that panorama, looking down on a church roof, over the Elbe and towards the royal places, still at their peak. Baroque music, changing lighting and people dressed in period costumes in the tableau all contributed to the immersion experience.  A short film at the end describing how the Panometer was made is not to be missed. Last week in Berlin I visited another Asisi Panometer with Daniel’s father, this one based on a neighborhood close to the Wall, and it, too, was so authentic that we felt like we were young teenagers in the midst of the Cold War again.

With an hour left before the museums closed, I hugged Daniel good-bye, thanked him, and headed into my final stop of the afternoon, the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault, probably the most magnificent treasure trove of gold and jewelry and silver that I’ve ever seen in one place, including the world’s only green diamond, which was set among some pretty spectacular white diamonds.  Once again, I could have stayed for hours, but the museums were getting ready to close and I had a train to catch.

One of the many royal portraits in the Green Vault, all of them dripping with jewels

One of the many royal portraits in the Green Vault, all of them of nobles dripping with jewels

Or so I thought I did.

Night falls early in Dresden at this time of year, but the city glows.

Night falls early in Dresden at this time of year, but the city glows.

Two hours after my train back to Berlin was due, I was still in the Dresden train station.  Eventually, a different train – this way on the way to Amsterdam – picked the weary Berlin-bound passengers.  Intermittent stops for no apparent reasons increased the two-hour ride to over three, but by midnight we pulled into Berlin’s Ostbahnhof (not the Main Station)  and all was well.

If you haven’t been, go to Dresden and go now if you can, when the handmade Saxon Christmas crafts are starting to be for sale, but the crowds for the holiday markets haven’t begun yet.  It’s really a perfect time to see what may again be Germany’s prettiest city.

 

The Balloons are Gone, the Party is Over. What a Night it Was.

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Like ghostly UFOs, the 8,000 balloons made their way over the Berlin night sky

Some of the balloons just before their releast.

Some of the balloons just before their release at the end of the Lichtgrenze, or light border, next to the Oberbaumbrücke, a crossing over the Spree River that was closed when the Wall went up.

It was like no other celebration I’ve been to, and just as the rest of the million plus people who turned out won’t forget Mauerfall 25, the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, I never will, either.

It was the rare, perfect mix of somber and celebratory. The Chancellor tucked a single yellow rose into a remnant of the Wall, paying tribute to the people who had died trying to cross it. The political speeches were short. One of the key activists from the former East Berlin had a leading role in the ceremonies. Along the Lichtgrenze, one could read 100 different stories of ordinary people’s lives who were changed forever by the Wall.  And the illuminated balloons, stretched along a 15 kilometer stretch, evoked UFOs, which was really the perfect way to represent the Wall – as an alien body.

But the balloons each had a “godparent” or Pate, as they are called in German, and each (biodegradable) balloon had an individualized, hand written message attached to it.   As my friends Peter and Barbara and their son Daniel and his girlfriend Tania and I walked about a three-mile stretch of the Lichtgrenze last night, we stopped to read some of the messages along the way.  Like virtually everything about these past few days, they offered a welter of emotions, some as airy as the helium gas that filled the balloons, others in memory of some of the 136 people who were killed trying to cross the Wall, others still demanding that all of the remaining political walls in the world be torn down.

The crowds along the route never forgot why we were there, and so while there was an undeniably festive air to the foggy night, it was also laced with serious discussions between parents and children and friends and foreigners about what the Wall had represented. Everyone was talking about it, in dozens of different languages, and, for the Germans, in an uncharacteristically open way.  I probably heard a hundred of those conversations myself as I walked the entire stretch over two days.

Waiting for the balloons to rise

Waiting for the balloons to rise

We opted to stay away from the Brandenburg Gate and the hundreds of thousands of people who congregated there to hear the politicians speak and listen to Daniel Barenboim conduct Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Instead, we watched on giant screens erected at the very end of the Lichtgrenze, across from what is the longest remaining stretch of the Wall, now called the East Side Gallery, an outdoor art gallery, and near the Oberbaumbrücke, a bridge crossing over the Spree that was closed when the Wall went up. Our crowd consisted of a lot of locals, people who lived in the apartments looking right over the Wall at the water’s edge, and some of them recalled the horrors they had witnessed from their own living rooms, safe in the West.   As they talked and we waited for our balloons to go up – they were released sequentially –  a few people on standup paddle boards plied the waters of the Spree, where they could not have when the Wall was up.  As the temporary balloon Wall lifted skyward, a pair of mallards flew overhead, backlit by the glow.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze near the Brandenburg Gate.

As the balloons lit up, crowds strolled the Lichtgrenze, swapping stories and sharing memories.

Somehow, it all fit together, magically and poetically.

This morning early, heading to an appointment at the American Embassy, right next to the Brandenburg Gate, I marveled at how clean the city looked. Crews had worked all night, and the barriers were down, the streets were swept and the trash had been emptied.  Even the bases of the balloon holders had disappeared. The Wall truly was gone, and by 9:00 a.m., Berlin was nearly back to normal.  I can’t say the same thing about myself.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin's streets.

A plaque marking where the Wall ran along one of Berlin’s streets.

 

 

 

 

25 Years After the Wall Came Down

 

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

Some of the 8,000 balloons that the city of Berlin has erected along a 15 kilometer of what had once been the Wall.

I came back to Berlin this week though I had just been here in August.  I couldn’t be here when the Wall  first opened on November 9, 1989, and so I wanted to come for the 25th anniversary to honor all of the people who made it come down – mostly the East Germans themselves, through a powerful and peaceful revolution – and all of those who lost their lives trying to escape to the West. For 5 years during the Cold War, I lived here, and as anyone who was here then will tell you, it was an unforgettable place.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

This being Germany, there is a van patrol organized to replace missing or defective balloons.

 

 

If you were a West Berliner, as I was, you lived surrounded by thousands of American, French and British troops who were here to keep the Russians in check, not to mention an impressive number of “civilians” who did secret government work, like my best friend Nancy’s father who was, it can now be told, the Berlin station chief for the NSA. In many ways, West Berlin was the safest place on Earth at that time, or if it wasn’t, it felt that way to me, a teenager who grew blasé about tanks rolling down the street in front of my school.  But for the millions of people who lived in East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic (the DDR, as it was known in German) on the other side of the Wall, life wasn’t safe, free or particularly plentiful, unless you were well-connected politically.

When what eventually became the Wall – barbed wire to start with – went up at an astonishing pace in 1961 in a desperate effort to stem the tide of more than a million East Germans who fled the Communist regime, it cleaved a nation still coming to grips with its horrific role in World War II. On top of that shameful legacy, suddenly there were no longer just Germans, there were East and West Germans, essentially at war with each other, sometimes with their own families who, through a twist of geography, were dealt a very different fate.

Tomorrow will be a joyous celebration, but in the days leading up to it, I’ve quietly walked the entire 15 kilometer stretch of the Lichtgrenze, or Light border, which was illuminated for two nights and will be one last time tomorrow night before the balloons are released.  It has been a deeply moving experience, akin to a spiritual pilgrimage, made much more pleasant by unusually warm and beautiful fall weather here.

The Licht Grenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

The Lichtgrenze as seen through a beautiful display of fall crab apples.

 

Many thousands of us have been stopping at temporary commemorative displays, as well as in front of giant screens that the city of Berlin has erected along the route, transfixed by the old, often grainy video images that show everything from tragically bungled escapes to the surges of people heading towards the finally opened borders in 1989.

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, "Germans, don't shoot your own countrymen."

One of many giant screens along the route that are playing video images from the Cold War. This one says, “Germans, don’t shoot your own countrymen.”

 

My ear catches snippets of heart wrenching and heart warming stories every few feet, it seems. Many who have come to walk have a story or a connection of some sort, and German families seem to be using the anniversary as an opportunity to teach their young children about this piece of their history, one that seems almost inconceivable to those who did not live it, regardless of which side of the Wall they lived.

 

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.

Young spray paint artists continue to make new art on an old section of the Wall.