Dresden: Baroque Downed Palaces

by Chris on October 22, 2010

Things to do in Dresden, including baroque palaces and the famous Green Vault.

Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Dresden, 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.     

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany     

If you look at the photo above, you can see how the darker bricks from the original structure have been incorporated into the building.     

Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Dresden, Germany     

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).     

Green Diamond, Green Vault, Dresden     

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).       

Opera House, Dresden, Germany     

  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.    

Elbe River, Dresden, Germany     

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).     

Zwinger, Dresden, Germany     

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.   

Zwinger, Dresden, Germany     

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.     

Dancers at Zwinger, Dresden, Germany     

On the day we were there, a crowd gathered outside one of the palace entrances to watch costumed dancers.    

Dancers at Zwinger, Dresden, Germany     

Aren’t we all glad that dancing has evolved over the centuries? As well as men’s pants.     

Dancers at the Zwinger, Dresden, Germany    

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!      

 

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Camels & Chocolate October 22, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I was just saying how I’m experiencing major Europe lust lately–probably because it’s been 13 months since I stepped foot on the continent, a long time for me!–and these pictures don’t help the situation! I really think Germany is the one country I could live in long term and be happy…once I learned the language 😉

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Chris October 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm

I know how you feel about “Europe lust,” I definitely had it before this trip. Germany doesn’t quite do it for me in the same way that Spain and Italy do…not sure why. Berlin’s history is fascinating, of course, and I’ll have some more posts coming up on them. As always, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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Laura October 25, 2010 at 1:46 am

Thanks for this article. Beautiful photos. I will be on my fourth trip to Germany this December and sadly I’ll be giving Dresden a miss.

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Chris October 25, 2010 at 9:45 am

Laura – Thanks for the compliment! Where in Germany will you be going this December?

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Noah October 25, 2010 at 2:06 pm

While studying abroad in Paris in 2008, a friend of mine asked me to go to Krakow, Poland with her. I really had no expectations heading into the trip, but I was pleasantly surpirsed by the city. It had such an old eastern bloc feel, compared to elegant Paris. We went in December so it was quite cold, but the Christmas markets were spectacular. This is before Poland converted to the Euro, so everything was very cheap. The food and drink were great. All around I would definitely recommend a visit.

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Chris October 25, 2010 at 6:39 pm

Noah – I have yet to go to Krakow, although one of my travel journalist friends just went there for a story. The pictures that he posted on Facebook looked great. And what an interesting place to go for the Christmas markets! I’ll have to put it on my ever-growing, always-changing list. 🙂

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