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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.