Germany: Divine Dresden

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Germany: Divine Dresden

The capital of Saxony may have been flattened during World War II, but its spectacular revival — not a bunch of ruins — is what nine million tourists go to see every year

By Neeta Lal

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Published: Fri 18 Oct 2013, 3:48 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 8:35 PM

Atrip to Dresden? Isn’t that the place that was bombed to bits in 1945? Surely there’s nothing left; why would you want to go there?”

This was the standard refrain from friends and family as I packed my bags for this historic German city. Pitched in the far east of the country, 30 miles from the Czech border, Dresden is the capital of the German state of Saxony.

Who can blame the sceptics? Dresden’s past is indeed sombre. Flattened by Allied bombers in the Second World War, its reduced-to-rubble buildings were left in shambles for decades in a city that wore a ruinous look. Well, no more. Through the well-synergised efforts of the government and the local civic bodies, Dresden has risen Phoenix-like to be a stunning metropolis that attracts nine million tourists a year today.

As I look around, the abundance of Baroque architecture still looks incredibly substantial, despite what was lost during the war. The city’s rebuilding isn’t over yet, I’m told, and it’s heartening to see that its architects have followed the old street plan to a T.

The most spectacular reconstruction is of course the Frauenkirche, Dresden’s Protestant cathedral. For 200 years, it was the pivot around which Dresden flowed, Germany’s riposte to St Paul’s. But during the war, the church was whittled down to debris. It was reconstructed for the city’s 800th anniversary in 2006 like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle along with a phalanx of other structures like the Zwinger Palace and the Semperoper. Such is the cathedral’s aura that I get goose bumps as the sound of its bells ricochet across the cobbled square.

Dresden is chockfull of other historic sights: a unique, world-famous baroque quarter; the notorious Church of Our Lady and museums that rival the most splendid in Paris and Rome. How interesting to see one of the world’s finest 
art collections in a city that is itself a 
baroque masterpiece.

Dresden’s historic core, mostly 
dating back to the 18th century, is spliced into two by the glutinous River Elbe. The grand churches and museums of the Altstadt nestle on the south 
bank, the elegant streets and shops of the Neustadt on the north side.

I begin my explorations smack dab in the heart of town — at the Zwinger, the sprawling palace complex at Theaterplatz. Even if you’re the non-artsy kind, you’ll find the Zwinger enchanting. In its innards are some wonderful paintings including Raphael’s serene Sistine Madonna, whose sullen angels have become Dresden’s unofficial mascots. However, the main attraction is Canaletto’s cityscapes, depicting this city as it used to be and has become again.

Basically, the Zwinger is an assemblage of galleries and pavilions, one of the many city landmarks commissioned by Augustus the Strong, elector of 
Saxony and Dresden’s most controversial monarch who also became king of Poland. Augustus’ ostentatious tastes gave Dresden its ornate beauty as also its moniker — ‘Florence of the North’.

I saunter into the Grunes Gewolbe museum and am gobsmacked by Augustus’ eye-popping collection of precious objects, from amber cabinets and ivory carvings to the effervescent jewelled creations of his goldsmiths. Most are housed within this museum inside 
mirrored rooms designed as a walk-in treasure chest inside the royal palace.

ON THE DOT: German efficiency means trams are extremely punctual and let you get around without hassle

To take a break from baroque, I head to Neustadt, the artsy-meets-punk district where a pulsating arts and cultural scene and a zinging pub and nightlife exist. You can party all night long in this neighbourhood, my guide informs me, as the place has the highest bar and club density in Germany. The area was largely spared by bombing and is a trove of 19th-century patrician houses and trendy cafés and shops. I stumble across the Bohemian enclave of Louisenstrasse with its charming boutiques and bars and record shops.

Basically, Neustadt is a series of intertwining courtyards designed by a collective of local artists. It is dotted with shrubby alcoves and trickling water features encircled by vast apartment-front installations. Its tiny courtyards house studios and ateliers. In the heart of Neustadt also exists the delightful Kunsthofpassage complex, home to a turq-uoise building that has rigged its drains (which are shaped like instruments), to play “water music” during the rains!

Since the fall of the Wall, Dresden has mimicked Berlin’s frenetic artistic 
emancipation, but while the German capital struck me (on an earlier visit) as over-the-top, Neustadt suffers from no such affliction. It is irreverent and scruffy and offers a refreshing antidote to Dresden’s medieval Old Town.

Dresden’s tranquil setting on the leafy banks of the river Elbe, surrounded by rolling hills and lush green meadows, is also a world away from the cosmopolitan bustle of, say, Frankfurt or Munich.

As my affable guide, Seema Prakash, who has been a Dresden resident for four years, put it, “I love the city because it’s not just a prefect holiday destination but also a prefect living destination. The spaces of leisure, of natural beauty, architectural magnificence and history are integrated into daily life. One doesn’t have to ‘escape’ somewhere else to feel transported. Amidst joyful possibilities, one is already there.”

So, while retaining its cosmopolitan streak, Dresden allows you to be close to nature as well. Amble along the Elbe, past farms and vineyards, out into its open fields. There’s a lovely riverside palace, Schloss Pillnitz, which you can reach by paddle-steamer from the city centre, and the knights-in-armour castle, Moritzburg, just a short ride away on an old steam train.

Although the key sights can be negotiated on foot, public transport is excellent. Red double-decker buses emblazoned with ‘STADTRUNDFAHRT’ are ubiquitous. As are trams. These quirky wooden carriages radiate the charm of a museum piece as they rattle and shake their way along metallic tramlines cutting through the cobbles. German efficiency helps, too — trains, trams and buses arrive on the dot — so you can get around without hassles.

One cloudless day, I take a steamboat upriver past some of Europe’s steepest and most verdant vineyards. Paddle steamers once dominated the European river systems, but no more. In Dresden, however, a whole fleet of these old beauties operates from the Elbe. They chug valiantly — funnels billowing, paddles thumping the water — upriver to the castle at Pillnitz, Augustus’ summer palace, and then onwards into mountainous Saxon Switzerland.

As the ship hoots, and my fun-filled hour-long ride comes to an end, I disembark close to the city. Almost immediately, I get sucked into the urban whirligig, a world away from the misty pastures I was eyeing not so long ago. Surely, this feat is possible only in a metropolis like Dresden, which straddles the modern and the medieval with equal élan!


It was Augustus’ great physical strength that earned him the nickname of Augustus the Strong. He often liked to prove his title by breaking horseshoes with his bare hands

Heavenly music

The Kunsthofpassage series of courtyards is an art experiment by the tenants of the buildings on which the works are installed. The colourful drainage system is so designed — by sculptor Annette Paul and designers Christoph Rossner and Andre Tempel — that the pitter-patter of rainfall is converted into a wonderful orchestral symphony

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