Dresden – Florence On The Elbe

In the summer of 2002, four adventurous senior citizens set off to see Europe in a camper. We were particularly interested in visiting the erstwhile East German cities of Dresden and Leipzig . At night, we camped at caravan sites on the outskirts of the cities, where the tariff was cheaper than any hotel, and amenities like bathrooms with hot water, and cooking facilities were available. Almost the first thing we did when we stopped for the night was to hitch our tent alongside the camper. This served as our sitting cum dining room, and a bedroom for the men. We ladies slept inside the camper on the seats which converted into a bed. In our little attached kitchenette, we even cooked the evening meal, and no one complained about the smell of curries that wafted through the camp. As there were many other caravans on the site, we made new acquaintances with travellers from other parts of Europe .

The first surprise that awaited us was when we went to the bathrooms. At every washbasin in the room, were women in “full monty”, busy with their ablutions. It was the same on the men’s side too. No one had warned us that this was some kind of a nudist camp. It was too late to look for other accommodation. We thought it was hilarious, and took it in our stride as something to write home about.

Dresden is like the proverbial Phoenix that rises from the ashes. During World War II, almost 150 square kilometers were totally razed to the ground by Allied raids, destroying its beautiful baroque churches and buildings, and killing 35,000 people. Today, it is the fourth largest city in Germany , and has retrieved its position as a cultural and intellectual centre which it was since the Augustan Age. It occupies the middle Elbe Valley , and was once known as the “ Florence of the Elbe .” It was the Capital of Saxony until 1918 when it was merged with Germany , and the rule of Saxony came to an end.

We started our tour from the August bridge, which divides the city into old and new. There are four other bridges, of which “Blue Wonder” is the best known to tourists. This 19 th century suspension bridge was the only one not destroyed by the SS, and therefore made the Soviet invasion of the city easy.

Our first stop was at the Dresden Royal Palace in the old city. It was once the residence of the Electors and Emperors of Saxony . Part of the bombed area is still there for all to see, but one section has been rebuilt in a new style. This palace was once the home of August the Strong, Elector of Saxony, so nicknamed because of his incredible virility. He is supposed to have fathered 300 children through his wife and many mistresses, though only 15 could be accounted for. He was a man of prodigious strength, limitless ambition, and notorious for his drinking bouts.

The palace has many Renaissance and Baroque features. August converted to Catholicism because his baroque tastes did not go down well with evangelical Lutheranism. Across the street from this palace is the Taschenberg Palace built for his countless mistresses.

There is a private arched passage from the castle to the Royal Chapel. Today, buskers and hawkers occupy the vaulted archway during the day. What struck us as very strange was a particular brand of beggars all over the city – young, handsome men on their knees, begging with outstretched arms, yet with no sound escaping their lips.

“Why?” we wondered, “Why should such healthy young men torture themselves like this?”

We learnt that they were from a Gypsy Syndicate, and were forced to beg, to draw attention to their Statelessness. Failure to comply, invited strict censure from the Syndicate.

The Royal Chapel is done in the baroque style and is extremely ornate, and the pulpit is a fine work of art. One small section near the entrance however, has been converted into a memorial for victims of bombing in Dresden , and also victims of unjust violence. It is so stark when compared to the opulence of the main church. Here the sculptor Friedrich Press has created in white Meissen porcelain, the Pieta. Mary is depicted as a white vertical column, with eyes gouged out. On her knees lies Jesus with his head falling backwards, and a big hole in place of his heart. The altar is a block of marble with numerous skulls chiselled at the bottom. It serves as a warning to future generations, against war and violence, and an inscription reads, “Only Love can break the Devil’s power.”

From the Elector’s Castle is an alley called the Furstenzug or the Electors’ Procession. It has a mosaic wall of yellow Meissner porcelain 105 meters long, on which is depicted the Saxon history of the Middle Ages.

Just a few yards away is the Frauenkircke (Church of Women) It was famous for its dome called the “Stone Bell,” which was built like a canopy over the altar, pulpit, organ and baptismal fount. Though it was razed to the ground during the war, it is being reconstructed again, as the Dresdeners want it ready for the 800 th anniversary of the church in 2006. Richard Wagner was the choir master of this church from 1842 – 1849.

Outside the Municipal office is a sculpture called the Trummer Frauen in honour of the women who cleaned up the streets after the bombing.

The Volkswagen building is a transparent glass assembly plant, where hundreds of cars are on display. It is the only such one in the whole world.

The Artists’ Colony (Gottfried’s Corner Estate) was where the German Romantics lived. Weber, Wagner, Mozart, Liszt and Schumann had lived here at some time or other. Today only the Schiller House remains. Ferdinand Schiller stayed here between1885-87, where he composed his famous “Ode to Joy.”

The Slaughter House Circle is now just a neglected dump. During the war, it was used as a POW camp. Here Kurt Vonnegut was imprisoned during the bombing, and wrote his masterpiece “Slaughter House Five.”

The Dresden Molkerai is the prettiest Diary in the whole world, and is situated in the heart of the New Town. It was built in 1892. The walls are lined with painted tiles in Italian Neo-Renaissance style. Angelic cherubs holding milk bottles or harps, or swinging on boughs, decorate the tiles. Gilded mementos, beautiful paintings and candelabra columns are other items to be seen. At the large ceramic counter, pretty dairy maids in their colourful costumes, sell milk to thirsty tourists. Upstairs, is a cafeteria decorated in similar Italian Neo-Renaissance style, where one can feast on a platter of cheeses, baskets of crisp bread and wine. There are 110 varieties of cheese to pick from.

The Zwinger Palace adjacent to the Electors’ Castle was built by August I in the 18 th century, to house his art collections. It is in Roccoco style. On top of its outer gate is a golden Polish crown. The paintings on display are very pleasing on the eye, and need to be enjoyed at leisure. It houses the famous ‘Sistine Madonna’ of Raphael, Cranock’s ‘Adam and Eve,’ Ruben’s ‘Leda and Sun,’ and Canelletto’s ‘18 th Century Dresden.’ Zwinger once rivaled the Louvre.

Today, various exhibitions are held here throughout the year.

In the courtyard of the museum are various sculptures that have changed colour with age.

On the cobbled pedestrian area near the August Bridge and just in front of the Semper Opera, is a large statue of August the Strong astride his horse. It was once plated with burnished gold, but now it has grown green with age, and is covered with bird droppings. No one looks askance at it.

Our last stop was at the Semper Opera House. Like the city of Dresden , this Opera House too has a history of reinventing itself. It was burnt down twice and lay neglected for 10 long years, but was rebuilt between 1976-85 in the Italian Renaissance style, and since 1985, has become one of the best Opera houses in Europe , with five viewing galleries. The special feature is the orchestra pit which can be moved forward or backward depending on the number of musicians to be accommodated. It can also be lowered when the music is loud as for Wagner’s music, or raised when the music is soft as when Rossini is played. It is also interesting that when the Opera House was originally constructed, the architect Gottfried Semper lived in Vienna , and his son Manfred a painter in Dresden , had to correspond with his father for instructions. Over 1000 letters passed between father and son, before the work was completed.

After the war, new architects had to get the original designs of the paintings from the grand daughter of Gottfried Semper, which were then reproduced in the new opera house. The interior is very lavish, with marble columns encrusted with semi- precious stones mined in that area.

On Pulitzer lane, is an interesting Jewish cemetery, which is the oldest in all of Saxony . It is kept locked, and a group called Hatikva (Hope) is the custodian of the place. We were given a tour of the cemetery that is overgrown with weed and bramble. The men could enter only if they wore skull caps which were provided. The first burial took place here in 1751, and the last one in1990. During the 7-year war, the Jews were asked to pay a tax for every headstone erected. But many were so poor that they couldn’t afford it. Then they were prevented from burying their dead for 72 hours, though the Jewish custom required them to bury the body soon after death. We examined some of the gravestones of the wealthy. They were in Baroque, Roccoco or Classical styles with different symbols depending on whether they belonged to priestly families, or Levites or highly religious people. This cemetery is a memorial to the brave Jewish people who lived in difficult times.

The adjacent building is owned by the Hatikva, which preserves Jewish traditions, arts, artifacts and books. They stage plays, and work on translations, and always dream of going back to their homeland. On display were many paintings by young Jews.

The next day, a three-hour ride on the Elbe in a Saxon steam boat, took us to Pillnitz castle. As we passed under the Blue Wonder Bridge , we saw a cable car that lifted off to 90 meters, taking tourists to see four old castles which have now been converted to commercial buildings.

The Pillnitz Castle is also called the Water Palace , as it overlooks the Elbe . A majestic staircase decorated with two sphinxes, rises from the water, leading the way into the Water Palace . Constansia von Cosel, the youngest mistress of August the Strong, lived here from 1713-1715 before she fell foul of him. It is something of a fairyland, set amidst 28 hectares of gardens, baroque orangery, lilac courtyards and artistically designed pavilions. Behind this palace and across a courtyard is the replica of the Water Palace , where the décor is exclusively Oriental.

The following day we visited Stolpen a village where there is a 13 th Century castle. It is a heavy stone fortification with no adornments of any sort. Here Lady Constansia von Cosel was imprisoned in her late teens for 49 years (1716-1765), because she opposed the taxes August imposed on the common man. She also criticized his conversion to Catholicism and his stubborn anti-Protestant stance. The subjects loved her, but the brutal and arrogant king could not stand opposition. From her window in the castle tower all she could see was Bohemia and the Swiss Saxony.

Dresden is famous for its porcelain, and one cannot leave without buying a souvenir. The Royal Porcelain factory is at Meissen . In 1710, August developed a craze for porcelain. He imprisoned the alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottinger at the Brulische Terrace in Dresden until he worked out a formula for a special brand of porcelain, which was then produced at this factory. Paintings of birds, flowers, landscapes on tableware came much later. One can still see how porcelain is made at the schawerstatt. August called it “white gold.” Meissen was untouched during the war.

Meissner Fummel is a biscuit that must be sampled. It is an extremely fragile biscuit with a peculiar history. One of the courtiers in the palace was a wine-bibber who spent most of his time drinking. August thought up a unique way to cure the man of his disease. He ordered the bakers to make a very fragile biscuit called Fummel, which the courtier had to carry unbroken, when he went to deliver messages. Even if a bit of the biscuit was broken, the man was severely punished. Whether the courtier got over his alcoholism no one could tell, but I can certainly vouch for the taste of the biscuit.

Two months later, on the 15 th of August 2002 , this beautiful city was inundated by floods due to a dam burst in S.E. Germany. The swollen waters of the Elbe flooded the vaults of the Zwinger Museum , damaged the stage and equipment of the Semper Opera House, and destroyed parts of the city. It was one of the worst floods in recent times. But as the city has proved before, it has an incredible capacity to rejuvenate itself and start all over again.

The best time to visit Dresden is between April and October, and the cheapest way to see the city is to buy a Dresden Card from the Tourist information Bureau for 18 Euros. It provides free transport for 48 hours and free entry to 12 museums.

The Castle tour ticket is worth buying for Euro 20. It takes you on a steamboat ride to Pillnitz castle. En route by cable car to the castles on the hill, which have now been converted to restaurants, and the Stock Exchange.

Other tours to Meissen Porcelain factory and Stolpen are also available for Euro 39 per trip.

ALIVE July 2005


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