Visiting Dresden proved to the biggest surprise of our week-long trip to the cities that had been a part of the former East Germany.
I knew that Dresden had been considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe before World War II – which is allegedly one of the reasons why the Allies targeted it in a devastating 1945 bombing raid (while Dresden did house important military targets, these were mostly on the outskirts of town and remained largely untouched). More than 25,000 people, many of them refugees as well as women and children, died in the resulting firestorm.
With that kind of history, you’d expect modern-day Dresden to be a depressing place. But the Germans have rebuilt many of their destroyed landmarks in the same Baroque style that made the city famous, in a decision made while still part of East Germany. The historic Frauenkirche – an elaborate domed Lutheran church that sat in ruins for decades after the war – is again the center of the old city, thanks to a rebuilding effort that culminated in 2005, just in time for Dresden’s 800-year anniversary a year later.
If you look at the photo above, you can see how the darker bricks from the original structure have been incorporated into the building.
The Kreuzkirche, Dresden’s largest church, is another example of how the city preserved its look. While the interior is modern, the exterior maintains the Gothic style that it had when it was built in the 1400s. In its more modern history, the Kreuzkirche was the site of “peace prayers” in 1989, which led to East Germany’s “Peaceful Revolution” out of communism.
We didn’t get a chance to hear the famed Dresdner Kreuzchor, a boys’ choir that has been around for 700 years (the best time to see them is at Vespers, held at 5 p.m. in the winter and 6 pm. in the summer, or at a Sunday worship service). Ranging in age from 9 to 19, many of the boys live at a nearby boarding school and give concerts around the world. But the church’s musical reputation draws guest choirs, so we did hear this group from Asia sing.
Most of the buildings in Old Dresden’s center are actually new, but built in a way that conjures up the atmosphere of a historic town. In some cities, this could seem fake and Disney-esque. But in Dresden, once known as “Florence on the Elbe,” it’s poignant, given the tragic history. You can’t help thinking how beautiful the city would be if it hadn’t been bombed.
As we walked around the city, we wondered how Dresden became so prominent. Turns out that the city was the seat of power for Saxony, a fairly wealthy electorate in the Holy Roman Empire. Most historians know that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman; in fact, the Saxon electors were among the first to give protection to Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (Wittenburg, where Luther studied, lies within Saxony; I wish I would have had time on this trip to go there).
Dresden became even more important in the late 1600s, when Augustus the Strong became Elector of Saxony. Never heard of Augustus the Strong? Neither had I, and I have a minor in European history. An ambitious ruler, Augustus became King of Poland during his tenure. He also turned Dresden into a cultural and architectural beacon within Europe, and also sponsored (by force, through imprisoning a noted alchemist) the founding of Meissen porcelain. His jewels, as well as a 41 carat green diamond owned by his son Augustus III, are on display at the Green Vault, which you can visit (tickets are given for specifc time slots, so factor that into your planning).
If you’re taking a trip between Prague and Berlin, Dresden would be a great place to stop overnight. We really only had a few hours to walk around, and I felt cheated a bit, as there’s a lot of interesting history to take in and some beautiful plazas to hang out in. If I ever go back, I’d love to see a performance at the Semperoper, another historic building that was rebuilt in the original style and reopened in 1985.
In some ways, though, it seems Dresden has gotten in its own way as far as tourism goes. UNESCO declared the Elbe Valley a World Heritage Site in 2004, only to revoke the status five years later when the city built a highway less than 2 km from the historic center. It’s the only UNESCO site in Europe to lose its status this way. Given that UNESCO status puts many places on tourists’ radar, one wonders what the city residents were thinking (the bridge issue passed through a referendum).
Another aspect of Dresden that we loved: the plazas and open spaces. One of the largest is on the grounds of the Zwinger, a Baroque palace complex with a large inner courtyard. Augustus the Strong commissioned the Zwinger back in 1710, and a new wing was added in 1847.
As with much of the city, the Zwinger was destroyed in the 1945 firebombing, but rebuilt in the years following. The complex houses several museums, including one dedicated to porcelain. Again, I wish that we would have had more time to look around. Dresden is worth more than a few hours.
On the day we were there, a crowd gathered outside one of the palace entrances to watch costumed dancers.
Aren’t we all glad that dancing has evolved over the centuries? As well as men’s pants.
I suppose it’s a good thing to leave a city wanting more. I came away from Dresden both pleasantly surprised at what the city had to offer tourists, and stricken by what history had done to it. It’s a worthwhile stop in central Europe, even for those who wouldn’t normally put it on a itinerary.
Have you ever been totally surprised by a place that you thought you weren’t going to like? Tell me where in the comments!