A city risen from the ashes

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Resurrection and resplendence in Dresden…

Crossing the bridge across the Elbe River, you will be stunned by this Jewel of Baroque. Tall elegant spires and lavish domes dominating a gorgeous skyline of extravagant architecture all along the tranquil leafy banks of the river, and the unassuming arches of the Augustus Bridge, as if frozen in time while leapfrogging across! If the picture postcard perfection of this first view hasn’t quite moved you, try this. This ornamental town, called the Florence on the Elbe, was almost razed to the ground during WW II. But it survived. And rose to its former glory. Resurrected. Reborn. Rebuilt. And how!

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The tragic story of Dresden will chill you to the bone. When American and British allies firebombed the city, 85 percent of the gorgeous historical centre was destroyed. Thousand of people hidden in underground bunkers died of suffocation because of depleting oxygen supply. Officially, 25000 people were killed, but the governor leaked a figure of 250000 to the neutral press. The city was not strategically important for war effort. It was not a military base. So, you wonder…why did the allies bomb Dresden? Was it the British who wanted to get back at the Germans for destroying Coventry, an innocent British city? Or the Soviets, who later engraved the Dresden palace entryway with a declaration that it was they who rebuilt the city from the ruins? Was it a lesson for the Germans, because they created two world wars in a span of 30 years? Whatever be the reason, the result was utterly devastating. And now, with large-scale reinvention and flourishing industries (automobile, aircraft, food and local wine), it’s difficult to believe that the city had been wiped off from the face of the earth. Talk about second lives!

Past several reconstructed communist buildings and the AlteMarkt square (where lively Christmas markets have been held since the 15th century), alight at the first stop…the sprawling Residenzschloss, a Royal Palace built in Renaissance style in the 13th century for the Saxon prince elector, completely rebuilt after total destruction. Its unbelievable, looks centuries old! Look up. Notice a bridged corridor connecting the palace to the house that Frederick the Great had built for his favourite mistress. I thought I caught a glimpse of her gliding past the elegant yellow-and-white stained glass windows, the diamante buttons studded on her mint green gown catching the light and glittering for a split second? But I was daydreaming! Maybe you will too.

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The palace is famed for its Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe), one of the finest collections of royal treasures in all of Europe. Tickets are sold out months in advance, and only 100 people are allowed in per hour, so pre-plan. The heavily guarded Vault feels like Fort Knox…only here it’s not boring gold bricks, but 3000 unimaginably stunning, precious artworks of gold, silver, gems, enamel, ivory, bronze and amber. Ogle at a 49.7 carat diamond, a 648-carat sapphire and the piece de resistance…the world’s largest green diamond, 41-carat is size, smuggled from India to London. Bedazzle yourself with “The Royal Household at Delhi on the Occasion of the Birthday of Grand Mogul Aurangzeb”…statuettes of Aurangzeb and his courtiers, decorated with 4,909 diamonds, 164 emeralds and 160 rubies.

Brace yourself…the eye candy has just started. Head a few metres across to the Zwinger Palace, one of the best examples of late Baroque architecture in Germany. From the main gates into the large open space enclosed by the palace walls, you will be transfixed momentarily, if you allow your gaze to sweep over the grand balustrades and sculptures, pretty balconies and arched glass windows. Pay attention to the symmetrical balance of baroque styling. Despite different colours of the various copper domes…indicating that the structure was completed over several stages at different periods, it all looks so homogenous. As for me, I flashed back to that day, that year, when August the Strong had celebrated the wedding of his son here with full royal guard and all extravaganza…paving the way for an era when the Zwinger became the seat for all court festivities and tournaments.

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Today, thousands of tourists throng this vast complex of pavilions, galleries and inner courtyards, now home to first-class museums like the Old Masters Gallery (“Alte Meister”), and one of Europe’s greatest collections of Renaissance art exhibits, including the famous Madonna Sistina of Rafael. Signs indicate the main attraction…Canaletto’s cityscapes depicting Dresden as it once was. If you’re an art-lover, a tour of the art gallery comes highly recommended.

Parade around the royal residence complex, in and out of its many pavilions and galleries, stop to admire the elaborate fountain of Nymphenbad. Delicate statues of mythical creatures and sea-gods will surround you…and the soft splashing of the water will be hypnotic, should you linger and allow your imagination to take over. I perched on the ledge of the fantasy nymph pool and closed my eyes for a few seconds. Clouds were floating at my feet and the strains of a harp were wafting in my ears. I could almost smell roses. Heaven?

Exiting onto Theaterplatz, there is a beautiful square framed by the city’s other most important landmarks…the Hofkirche and the Semper Opera House. From close quarters, you will see how the sandstone used in the buildings has blackened with time. I feel age has only lent it more class and elegance. Horse-drawn carriages roll past with a group of elderly British tourists…hop on for a feel of those days.

From here, you are very close to the river banks. Walk towards the famed Brühl Terrace, a terraced promenade (once Dresden’s defensive rampart), up a monumental staircase, flanked by four bronze statues. Stroll leisurely under the leafy canopy of linden trees; gaze up to the beautiful historic Royal Art Academy and the Albertinum Museum facing the riverbanks. On this ‘Balcony of Europe’ overlooking Elbe as Goethe had rightly labeled it, take a few moments to reflect on the serenity of the vistas. The city was stripped of its Unesco heritage status after a modern bridge was built across the river, but this not deterred the two million tourists that visit every year. You will agree with me that true beauty attracts, certificate or no certificate.

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From the back side of the Bruhl Terrace, descend onto the Münzgasse, a beautiful promenade overflowing with cafes, restaurants, beer houses, music bars. Dainty Dresden china shops line the marketplace…little figurines, bowls, dishes, pitchers, powder boxes, dinnerware…exquisitely manufactured and painstakingly painted by skilled artisans. Grab a local delicacy and if your pocket allows, pick up an extravagantly expensive piece of ‘white gold’ to take back home.

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Walking further, you will reach the grand protestant Church of Our Lady, completed in 1743. This towering structure is Germany’s answer to St.Paul’s in London. The story goes that after the WW II bombing, when concerned locals rushed towards the church, they found that it had miraculously survived! But the next day the whole structure came crumbling down. Stones had expanded due to the fire, but when they cooled down, the construction could not hold. The Church was rebuilt after reunification (about 45% of the stones are original) mostly with funds from donations. Venture to the ramp between the inner and outer dome onto a viewing platform at the top of the dome, just below the cupola…for magnificent views of the city. The importance of the church is evident when you connect it to Martin Luther, who started the Protestant movement, took refuge in Dresden and translated the Bible. And this is why Dresden became a stronghold of Protestant faith.

For an indelible last impression…locate the largest porcelain mural in the world on the Royal Palace wall on Auguststrasse. It depicts a parade of Saxonian princes and dukes to commemorate the 1000-year long reign of the Wettin dynasty since 1127. Pace along the 330-feet long painting. Originally scratched stucco, it was covered with over 25,000 porcelain tiles in 1906 to improve its life span. The paint and colours look as fresh as they would have been in those days…a marvellous monochrome story on a pale yellow background, from a distance it looks like a scrolling movie reel, high up along the wall.

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And when you leave Dresden with the immensity of this glorious family tree embedded in your mind, you will reaffirm your faith in the ability of the human race to survive. And smile.

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61 thoughts on “A city risen from the ashes

  1. I’ve heard great things about Dresden before but had no idea about its deep history. Loved reading this as I am a big WWII history buff. Would love to visit one day and see these historical sites for myself!

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  2. Dresden is such a beautiful and culturally rich city! Have researched so much about this place that I added it to my when in Europe must visit list. After reading this article of yours it totally feels like I made a good decision 😀

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  3. What a beautiful city and the story behind it as well. The city has too much to see in a short time and I would try to spend a month there just to be able to see and do a part of it. I think the photo of mural was the thing I liked best. Jewes are nice but those things created by man that endure like the mural are much grander to me.

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  4. After reading your post, why do I have this feeling that it seems a great idea to spend the Christmas season here? Hahaha this place is sooo grand and full of spirit! I love it

    -blairvillanueva

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  5. War is dreadful, and I remember visiting Plymouth cathedral in the UK, which is also burnt out and left as a monument……this is such an uplifting post though and with some great photos, I have really loved visiting Dresden through your fab post here!

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  6. What a beautiful post. I felt like I was doing a walking tour of Dresden with you. With the city so beautiful now, it is good to always remember the past so we can continue to learn from it.

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  7. Agree the first picture is a picture postcard view epitomizing the amazing architecture of the city. Its astonishing to know that even after the 85% of the town was down to ashes today the city stands with pride and all the glory.

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  8. You missed the more cosmopolitan side of the city, In the other side of the river! I loved the singing façade! Anyway, the bombing of Dresden was considered a way to demoralize Germany even though it was already almos on its knees. A display of brute force. When I was there there was this artist that had set a system in one of the bridges. If you were there and covered your ears with your hands while putting the elbows on the rail, you could actually listen to what the people in the bunkers were listening. It was definetely something impressive. And yes, it’s amazing how that city re-emerged from nothing!

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  9. (Technically the Germans didn’t start the first WW, they just came to aid of Austria, can’t blame us for everything^^)…but then back to the actual topic^^…yes Dresden is a real gem for anybody traveling to Germany…but go in the winter, their christmas market is absolutly stunning =)

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  10. I just love knowing about places that involve historical facts. The place is beautiful but the best thing is it can be described si beautifully with its fabulous story 🙂

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  11. A beautiful city to add to my ever growing list. Hard to believe the tragedy that is part of the history of this beautiful city.
    I would defo love to visit the Green Vault glad it is crowd controlled though thanks for the tip about booking in advance.

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  12. Great job telling the story of this city and how it has been resurrected. I recall, years ago, taking a train that passed directly thru Dresden…in hindsight it looks like it would have been worth a stop.

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  13. It’s impressive how Dresden has died and risen from its ashes, if I can use this expression. I have actually passed by the city, on my way from Berlin to Prague. I remember being on the train, crossing the river, and being amazed by the view of the city, dominated by the impressive cathedral.

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  14. I recently moved to Germany and am planning a trip to Dresden for the Christmas festivals. I am super excited to experience this gorgeous and historical city firsthand. After seeing your photos and telling of the tale, it is clear to me that I will also have to come here during warmer weather.

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  15. This is an unbelievable story. It is hard to imagine a city so beautiful that was literally rebuilt from the ashes. Quite intriguing and interesting to read the story of this city. Very well narrated as is the case with your blog

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  16. I loved your writing and you have beautifully crafted the history of Dresden in this post! Dresden is a city that boasts magnificent architectural styles from Renaissance to Modernism and Post-modernism! I ‘d definitely love to visit there some day in my life!

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  17. 250 000 people were killed … that is too horrible! Of course, most official sources lie about the figures because the truth is too horrifying and no one wants to take the responsibility for that…
    Today Dresden looks very beautiful!

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  18. Dresden seems just like a place out of nowhere, something between amazing due to this historic side and also because of its story. I get so interested reading all of those facts and yea, it’s just risen from the ashes!

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  19. What a charming place Dresden is. Looking at its serene calm, it is difficult to imagine the time when it was enveloped by the ugly fumes of war and the town was rent by the despairing cries of its citizens. Probably the city is a living testimony to the futility of war.

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