“The world needs an oestrogen bomb” claimed the logo of the temporal exhibition about women and war at the Military Museum in Dresden when we visited a few years back. Very fitting, as it is men who declare wars and women who suffer them, ugly wars where there is no place for beauty. This elegant baroque lady that is Dresden knows it all too well. On February 13, 1945, the allied air forces dropped thousands of incendiary bombs over the city, which burnt for four days. It was almost completely obliterated. It would be the women, after the war, the ones to pile up the debris to reuse it or to throw it away – stacked in hills today covered in grass. A first step in the long hard road to resurrect the Florence of the Elba.
Already inhabited during the Neolithic, the name Dresden became known after becoming the capital of the Meissen Margrave in the 13thC and seat of the Saxony electorate in the 15thC, but its zenith would come with Augustus II, the Strong, crowned king of Poland in 1697, under whose guide it became a leading city for arts and technology in Europe.
This king – whose legacy is ubiquitous around the Saxon capital – and his son built the iconic Baroque buildings that now grace the city again thanks to a painstaking and slow rebuilding process, still ongoing today.
Innere Altstadt (The historic centre)
One of the main spots at the historic ensemble of Dresden is the Theatreplatz, a wide space presided by the equestrian statue of king Johann, the cultivated and self-taught monarch who translated the Divine Comedy and other books to German. Around his figure, we find some of the most iconic buildings in the city.
Of all of them probably the one who impressed us the most was the Dresdner Zwinger, a huge garden surrounded by pavilions, fountains and arcades that Augustus commissioned originally as a greenhouse for his orange groves at the start of the 18thC. It is embellished with 700 figures of fauns, angels and goddesses representing the forces of nature – Hercules holding the world crowns one of the pavilions as an allegory for Augustus itself, considered the Hercules of Saxony (they called him the strong for some reason). Above the main balcony, the Kronentor owns its name to the big golden crown representing the Polish crown. Augustus, knowing he would never be Emperor of Germany, bought the Polish throne – for which he had to convert to Catholicism abandoning Lutheranism (I guess Warsaw is also worth a mass… and loosing your wife, a Lutheran Hohenzollern princess who left him for this). The Zwinger was the venue of choice in 1719 for the grand celebrations of the marriage of his son Augustus III to the Emperor’s daughter – which would be the greatest party of the century in the whole of Europe.
It is worth to spend at least one hour to admire the statues, the secluded spots – like the Nymphs Bath – and the wonderful architecture of the pavilions. Twice it has been destroyed – during an insurrection in 1849 and by the bombs in 1945 – and it wasn’t completely restored until 1963.
At one corner, Gottfried Semper built, on the 19thC, the museum that hosts the Gëmaldegalerie Alter Maister (the Old Masters gallery). Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Eyck, Rafael, Dürer, Canaletto, Vermeer… The Semper Gallery gathers the crème de la crème of European art between the Renaissance and the Rococo periods, around 750 paintings and a collection of sculptures that are sure to delight any art lover. www.skd.museum
Also in the Theatreplatz we find the Semperoper, a building also by Gottfried Semper which opened its doors in 1841 with the Cantata Jubel by Carl Maria von Weber. Dresden has always loved arts and music and at the end of the 19thC it was, also, a rich city. The original building had previously burnt in 1869 and the second one was destroyed by the Allied bombings. But the music can be heard again since 1985 – maybe third time’s the charm? – thanks to one of the oldest orchestras in the world, the Saxon Staatskapelle Dresden. This theatre has hosted premieres of illustrious composers like Wagner, Schumann, or the already mentioned von Weber. All three lived in Dresden at some point in their life.
The Hofkirche is the seat for the Catholic dioceses of Dresden-Meissen, a big baroque church of almost 5000m2 and 32 metres high where several members of the royal Saxon house are buried. The inner corridor for processions caught our attention – we were told it was forbidden to take them outdoors. At the door, at Schlossplatz, by the river, an N marks the spot from where Napoleon marched with his troops to the battle of Dresden – the last he’d ever win – in August 1813. The rebuilding of this church was completed in 1965.
One of the few elements which survived the bombings in 45 was the Fürstenzug, a huge 102 metres long mosaic, made with 24.000 Meissen porcelain tiles that fills a whole wall of the Royal Palace and represents a parade of 35 nobles, margraves, electors and princes of house Wettin, Saxony, and their entourage. One of them, as it couldn’t be otherwise, is Augustus II the Strong, mounted on his horse and stepping on the rose which represents Lutheranism. If we pay attention, his sight will follow us while we walk. The original mural was painted but it couldn’t stand the dampness of the river so it was replaced by the current porcelain piece at the start of the 20thC. That it withstood the heat of the bombings is a testament to the resilience of the Meissen porcelain (yes, you’ll pay like 200€ for a teacup but you can be sure it will survive the apocalypse).
The Residenzschloss, the Royal Palace, is one of the oldest buildings in Dresden. Originally built in 1200 it mixes several architectonic styles. For 400 years it was home of the electors, first, and of the kings of Saxony later. Today it is the seat of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, a museum ensemble including the famous Grünes Gewölde (Green Vault), that guards the treasures of the monarchs, the largest collection of jewels in Europe. It made the international news on November 2019 because of the robbery of three diamond jewellery sets. We also find the Turkish Room, with one of the most important collections of Ottoman art in existence, with a real embroidered tent among its star pieces; the Armory, showing one of the best collections of weapons and armour in the world– 10.000 pieces, including swords, shields, daggers, sabres, pistols, rifles and other ancient war widgets. In other rooms we can admire a collection of costumes, paintings, figures… It is accessed by the central courtyard, covered by a glass dome since 2009, and it will have you entertained for hours. Luckily, all the valuable objects had already been moved from Dresden when the Allies hit, as only the Green Vault and the basement survived. The rebuilding started in the 60s.
At the shores of the Elba we find the Brühlsche Terrasse, which gathers an ensemble of architectonical elements, like the Albertinum (home to the Modern Masters Gallery),the Fine Arts Academy of Dresden or the monument to Johann Friedrich Böttger – the alchemist who found the formula for the white European porcelain. The terrace is known as the “balcony of Europe” and to appreciate it in all its glory you need to cross the river (or get in a boat). On the opposite shore we can find the Chancery of the Free State of Saxony.
Neumarkt was one of the first inhabited areas in Dresden, shaped around the old Frauenkirche, although it was left outside the walls. Augustus the Strong had a new church build, Baroque style, and parts of the neighbourhood were rebuilt in late Baroque and Rococo styles after the Seven Years War. As you can guess, it didn’t survive the 45 air raids. After the war, Dresden became part of the GDR and some areas in the old town were rebuilt in socialist style. After the reunification it was decided to rebuilt the place after its original look, a task which is still undergoing in some parts and is no free of controversy among defenders and detractors of the recreation.
The starting point of the project was the Frauenkirche, which, even though is considered a masterpiece of European architecture, it had remained in ruins as a homage to the bombing victims. It wasn’t until the 90s that, thanks to a citizens initiative, funds were collected for the rebuilding, which finished in 2005. In the afternoons, Neumarkt is a very lively square, with terraces, street musicians and people sitting around the monument to Martin Luther – the man who challenged the almighty church and started the protestant Reformation in the 16thC. He is holding a Bible, who he himself translated to German. It’s kind of ironic to see him honoured in the city built by the man who reneged on him.
The Colourful Republic of Neustadt
The counterpart to the serene majesty of the old town, Altstad, is the new town, Neustadt, with a vibrant scene of bars, restaurants, cafés and other leisure spots– around 250. This district, next to Albertsplatz, was built outside the walls mid 18thC and thrived during the 19thC, when most of its buildings were erected. Luck had it that it was mostly undamaged by the bombs and today is one of the most important urban centres in the country that still keeps the architecture from Kaiser William’s time. Combined, indeed, with graffiti and alternative places. It is the open and cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Dresden, the youngest district, were artists, students and young couples live – the average age of its residents is 35.
On June 1990, they proclaimed, with a great party, the Bunte Republik Neustadt, a micro nation that lasted for three years. The transgressor spirit of that short lived republic lingers on and every year, on the second half of June, it is celebrated with one of the most massive street festivals in Germany.
One of the most interesting spots in the neighbourhood is the Kunsthofpassage, an ensemble of patios connected by backstreets with artistically decorated facades. It is worth noting the funnel façade, where a bunch of pipes turn into a musical instrument when it rains. We will find many art galleries, bookshops and cafes in the passage.
The Museum of Military History
A big glass and metal arrow protrudes from the 20thC façade of the Militär Historisches Museum, pointing towards the old town of Dresden. It marks the direction the RAF planes took on February 13, 1945, a day engraved with blood and fire, literally, in the city’s history. In Dresden war is an omnipresent shadow, impossible to ignore. This museum recalls the German military history from the Middle Ages to our days. It is divided into floors and themed spaces focused on different eras and aspects of war (music, costumes, politics, animals, vehicles), but the room that impressed us the most was the simulation of a phosphorous bomb which leaves our shadow printed on the wall.
There is a wing devoted to temporary exhibits and during our visit the theme was the role of women in war. Outdoors there are some tanks, like a Soviet T-72 from the Afghanistan war. The Military Museum is the only place in Germany that can display Nazi items (totally forbidden in the whole country).
As a curiosity, if you happen to pass by the Trinitatisfriedhof cemetery, you can look for the grave of Lili Elbe, the first transgender woman who undertook the sex change surgery, here in Dresden. A character that is known thanks to the film The Danish Girl, where she was played by Eddie Redmayne. We were told the producers of the film paid for the restoration of the gravestone.
Pillnitz and the river cruise
15km away from the centre, at the shores of the Elba, we come across the Pillnitz palace, the former summer residence of the Saxon royal family, where they held parties and celebrations. They call these three Baroque palaces surrounded by gardens the Versailles of Saxony, due to the splendour, the fountains, the statues and the impressive centenary trees. During the 19th century they added a Chinese pavilion and the big greenhouse on the English garden. Maybe the most iconic image is the grand staircase descending into the water from one of the palaces.
We came back to the city with a historic steam boat (Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt), a quite hour trip back to Dresden that gave us a view of the palaces and vineyards by the river, and granted us the experience of passing under the Loschwitz iron bridge, from 1893, a monument that narrowly escaped being destroyed with explosives by an SS unit because someone cut the detonator cables.
THE REGION OF DRESDEN ELBLAND: PORCELAIN, VINEYARDS AND PALACES
The region of Elbland, at the heart of Saxony, follows the river from Torgau, birthplace of Martin Luther, to Pirna, the door to Saxon Switzerland. It is a land of palaces, narrow-gauge railways and steamboats, with a rich history, and a soft climate that has favoured viticulture for more than 850 years.
Meissen, Albrechtsburg and Moritzburg
We can complete a trip to Dresden with a discovery of its surrounding region, starting by the town of Meissen, cradle of European Porcelain. We cannot talk about Meissen without naming again Johann Friedrich Böttger, a German alchemist and chemist who promised Augustus he would make him gold – basically because he had him imprisoned. Obviously he didn’t succeed; what he found, though, was something almost as valuable: the formula for white porcelain, which then could only be imported from China. The first European hard-paste porcelain– a mix of quartz, feldspar and kaolin – was created in 1708 and two years later the first factory was established at Albrechtsburg castle, in Meissen. In 1720, with the first thermostable painting, they managed to paint the pieces, until then plain white. Three years later, they came up with the first business logo in history: the two crossed swords, symbol for the Meissen brand.
As you can imagine, the current factory is not set in the castle any more but in a large building which for 101 years has held workshops, a museum and a café, where we can taste the Meissen cake along with tea, coffee or chocolate in a beautiful porcelain cup (one you cannot afford to buy and will be inherited by cockroaches when the world ends engulfed by fire).
The manufacture process is still artisanal, requiring three weeks of baking for the largest pieces, modelled and painted by hand – 200 specialized painters with 10.000 exclusive colours produced in the factory labs. A meticulous process which requires infinite patience, skill and finesse (all of which I lack), which we can admire during the visit, that ends at the museum, holding an incredible collection of animal figures and other pieces. One of the distinguishing marks of Meissen is they guarantee that they are able to reproduce any piece made at any time for 300 years at the clients request. How? They keep 200.000 original moulds.
Albrechtsburg castle, which stands magnificent over a hill on top of the pretty medieval centre of Meissen, is the oldest castle in Germany. When it was built by the end of the 15thC, meant as a home and not as a fortress, by orders of Ernest of Saxony, its architecture was totally innovative, an architecture that maintains the pure Gothic style without later additions. The inner décor, on the contrary, is from the 19thC – most of the furniture are gifts to king Albert and queen Carola on their silver anniversary in 1878. The visit allows us to see the rooms with richly decorated Gothic ceilings and columns, with figures, paintings, tapestries and murals depicting historical events.
Next to the castle we find the Cathedral, built between 1260 and 1410, although the two really high bell towers were not completed until 1909. Inside we’ll find Gothic sculptures and paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. It was the seat of the Meissen dioceses until its dissolution in 1581 after the protestant Reformation.
16km away from Dresden we find the village of Moritzburg, known for its Baroque palace, erected on an artificial island in the middle of a lake. Mauricius of Saxony had it built initially as a hunting pavilion in the 16thC and Augustus the Strong had it renewed in the 18thC, adding the gardens and the ponds that eventually would make the current lake, and a game reserve, among other things. The last resident of house Wettin was Ernest of Saxony until 1945, when the Soviet administration ejected him.
125 years ago the Goldriesling grape was born, a variety that nowadays is only grown in Saxony, at the smallest wine region in Germany.
Of the many vineyard and wineries found in Dresden Elbland we visited two. First, the lordly state of Schloss Wackerbarth, at the town of Radebeul (11km away from Dresden), which in the 18thC belonged to the count of Wackerbarth. It was one of the palaces Augustus used to celebrate his parties – the king decreed that all lords in the area had to build residences and put them at his disposal. After changing hands several times throughout history – including the Soviet troops after the fall of Dresden- today the state belongs to the Saxon government and it is the first wine park in Europe, with the castle, the gardens, 104HA of vineyards, a restaurant, a wine collection and the cellars that produce Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Grauburgunder, Kerner, Bacchus, Weissburgunder and Goldriesling wine varieties. And champagne– producing one of the oldest sparkling wines in Europe. Apart from guided tours and tastings, the Wackerbarth castle is still a venue for parties and celebrations – just as Augustus would have wanted.
Much smaller and family owned is the cellar of Karl Friedrich Aust, also in Radebeul, a state that has not changed in 200 years. Karl learnt the trade from his father and remembers vividly the feeling of getting to taste the grapes as a child. Today he grows 6HA of vineyards. Here they too suffered the phylloxera in 1886 and had to root up the vines, the ones planted now are from the 30s. By the entrance of the house there is a small restaurant, a room for celebrations and a quiet garden with trees and tool sheds bordering the vineyard, that slopes up hill and offers us a view of Dresden, really close.
Actually, you can get to Radebeul with the tram from Albertzplatz.
And this has been my account of our trip to Dresden and the surrounding area. Seeing a city that was almost completely obliterated rebuilt again gives me hope for Aleppo and other places devastated in Syria and elsewhere. First, though, wars should stop. Those wars declared by men and suffered by women, children, men and all living things. Really the world needs an oestrogen bomb.
WE SLEPT at Vienna House QF, an elegant hotel boutique in Neumarkt, opened in 2006, with the restoration of the area. It keeps the Baroque façade combined with a practical, elegant and modern interior by Lorenzo Bellini. It has 95 spacious rooms. If you indicate that you do not need your room done they leave you a gift, that in my case was a drink at the Dachbar, on the sixth floor.
Neumarkt 1. Tel.: +49 3515633090 www.viennahouse.com/en.html
IN DRESDEN WE ATE AT
Schloss Eckberg. This beautiful castle from the 19thC converted into a hotel is located in the ‘Weißer Hirsch’, a green neighbourhood high over the Elba. You need to take the tram 11 at Albertsplatz. If the weather permits, eat in the gardens, overlooking the river. Bautzner Straße 134, Tel: +49 3518099 - 0 www.schloss-eckberg.de/en
Sophienkeller. This restaurant is themed to the time of Augustus the Strong, with the waiters dressed up and actors playing characters interacting with the customers -in German, though, so if you don’t speak German they will ignore you totally, as was the case with us. For this and some other details I wouldn’t go back, but the décor is great. Taschenberg 3. Tel: +49 351497260 https://sophienkeller-dresden.de/
Das Felix. A modern spot for brunch or coffee on the top of the Lebendige Haus building, in front of the Zwinger, offering great views. Kleine Brüdergasse 1-5, Tel. 0351 32033960. https://dein-felix.de
Max Neustadt. At the most lively neighbourhood of the city. Louisenstraße 65. Tel.: +49 3515635996. www.max-dresden.de/max-neustadt
Elements. For a quick lunch you can choose the Deli, which offers an assortment of boxes including a salad, a main dish and dessert. The outdoors terrace is really nice. Königsbrücker Strasse 96 – Haus 25 – 26, Tel.: +49 3512721696. www.restaurant-elements.de/en/
IN MEISSEN WE ATE AT
Cafè MEISSEN©. The coffee shop on the porcelain factory allows you a taste of the Meissen cake and a hot drink in a gorgeous and delicate porcelain cup. Talstrasse 9. Tel.: +49 3521 468-730. www.meissen.com
Domkeller. Located at the Albrechtsburg castle square, the best views are from the inner terrace overlooking the Meissen roofs. It is your chance to taste the Meissener Schwerter, the oldest beer in Saxony, along with some traditional dishes.
Don’t forget to try the Eierscheke, a delicious cake traditional of Saxony.
Gëmaldegalerie Alter Maister. Theatreplatz 1. https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/visit/
Residentzschloss. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.Taschenberg 2. www.skd.museum/en
Semperoper. You can take guided tours or buy tickets to the opera. https://www.semperoper-erleben.de/book-tour.html
Militär Historisches Museum. Olbrichtplatz 2. https://www.mhmbw.de/starteng
Schloss Pillnitz. The former summer residence of the Saxon royal house, only a few kilometres from Dresden’s city centre and directly on the banks of the Elbe. https://www.skd.museum/en/visit/schloss-pillnitz/
Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt. The historic Steamboat sails from the Pillnitz dock to the Brühlsche Terrasse. You can get lunch on board. We got a very German creamy soup with a sausage which I am still digesting three years later. www.saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de
Albrechtsburg Castle. Domplatz 1, Meissen. www.albrechtsburg-meissen.de/en/home/
Schloss Wackerbarth. Wackerbarthstraße 1, Radebeul. www.schloss-wackerbarth.de/en/
Friedrich Aust. Weingstraße 10, Radebeul. Tel.: +49 0351/8338750. www.weingut-aust.de/
More info: https://www.dresden.de/index_en.php