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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Or so I thought I did.
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.