Photography by the authors
We’d heard of Dresden. Who hasn’t? “The Florence on the Elbe.” Perhaps the most beautiful city in Europe but destroyed by war. Despite being dominated by communism after the World War II, this city pulled itself up by its bootstraps and rebuilt. Dresden is the city of the famous Meissen china and the Rafael painting of the Sistine Madonna.
Our image, somehow, looks like a 1930s postcard!
We are reluctant to spend our limited time in Dresden out in the countryside as a friend suggests. But if we’d ignored her advice it would have been a big mistake; however, that’s another story.
As always, where to stay is the first question. We have a Germany Rail Europe Pass and know we want the convenience of a hotel near the train station. The Hotel Pullman surely meets our needs. In the photograph, that’s the station in the background less than a five-minute walk. The Kepinsky group is more upscale and its glamorous hotel is a similar five-minute walk to the famous Semper Opera House, but we will be at the opera only once and many times at the railway station so that, plus the price, makes it an easy choice.
We sit in the city opposite our guide Christoph Muench, Dresden’s International Press Manager, in the former Hungarian restaurant Steiger am Landhaus and, over a dark beer, challenge him: “Why come to Dresden? What’s so special here?”
He answers earnestly. Dresden is one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. Dresden is a condensed book of German history: everything from the glamour of its royalty to its destruction in war. Dresden has everything a foreign visitor could expect of a German city: cultures, museums and music. The city is known all over as having one of the 10 best city orchestras in the world and has 50 museums, so this is a great place for visitors if it rains!
Plus, the city has castles, wineries, mountains and lakes — with one of the oldest and largest paddle steamer fleets anywhere on the globe. It is romantic and picturesque and close to other interesting countries like the Czech Republic and Poland. That’s why The New York Times says Dresden is one of the 41 best cities anyone could visit; so walk around and you’ll see why!
Indeed walking around is the way to go with all those historic cities that began long before the days of the automobile. You could wear out a pair of Mephisto shoes on any long vacation in Europe, although in Dresden you can enjoy its incredibly precise public transportation and even take a river boat on the Elbe.
The details from two murals, separated by five minutes’ walk, emphasize Dresden’s contrasting history. The 1969 Way of the Red Flag is very much in your face. As part of East Germany, the city was run for 40 years by the communist government. The wall painting dares you stand in the way “of growth, of progress.”
In contrast the older Fuerstenzug Procession of Princes painted in 1871 to 1876 (and replaced in the early 20th century with Meissen porcelain tiles to make it weatherproof), makes onlookers feel they’re cheering at a parade and perhaps a very part of it.
We stop at the statue that’s a memorial to Julius Otto, the cantor of the Dresden Boys’ Choir, the Kreuzchor,from 1830 to 1875. The choir has about 150 members between the ages of 9 to 19 and has performed all over the world. Although 700 years’ old it is actually younger than the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir in Leipzig. A new standing figure has been added to the statue (not shown) to reveal the modest change in uniform.
The other famous attraction to see in Dresden is Rafael’s Sistine Madonna revered for many reasons including its history and the fact it shows the youngest and most beautiful Madonna of any paintings. But it also fascinates because of the expressions on the two principals’ faces.
Our walk through Dresden soon brings us to very heart of the “old city.” What looks old has, of course, been restored, rebuilt in the style of how the buildings looked before. We are stopped by statues crying out to be photographed. We take the shots sometimes without quite knowing what we are pointing our cameras at!
And when Ted Ehrlich, our guide, tells us what we are pointing our cameras at it’s unbelievable: restored churches, rebuilt museums, re-created statues. This beautiful, elegant, old city is in fact new, reconstructed to look like the original. Not only have new buildings arisen but the fine points on their faces have been brought back such as archaic wood carvings on doors and intricate details on sundials.
We had seen one of the oddities of communism at dinner the previous night at the restaurant Steiger am Landhaus when we walked up the stairs past its stained glass window. The scene was Hungarian! We found out why: in communist East Germany travel was no longer allowed to the traditional vacation places for other Germans. But Dresden people could visit Hungary as it was communist also. Hungarian art was therefore encouraged to make Dresden people travel as all good comrades would.
The art on the ceilings of the Pompeii-style Semper Opera House shows a happier era. A bust reveals the thoughtful face of German composer and conductor Richard Strauss (1864-1949). Strauss composed his Serenade for wind instruments at the age of 16 — and later when he turned to opera and produced Salome for its premiere in Dresden in 1905, the audience gave him 38 curtain calls. (Strauss was not related to the Strauss of Blue Danube fame.)
Léo Delibes’s amusing and low key ballet Coppélia became the highlight of our visit to Dresden, although we did wonder why diabolical inventors like Doctor Coppelius are so often called Doctor.
We chat with a German couple over coffee at Intermission. They speak fairly fluent English, which we tend to find more and more in northern Europe. The couple tries, hesitatingly, to avoid comment on the destruction of their city in the last few months of World War II. They have issues with that. We don’t comment on the bombing of London. We are guests in their country.
But the man makes some agonizing points. We listen and nod; we understand. We do.
“I’m 38,” he says. “I know my city only from black and white photographs from before the war. Because my city does not exist anymore from what happened in 1945.”
He glances up at the beautifully painted Semper ceiling and smiles painfully.
“I feel my city is like a phantom pain,” he continues. “You’re medical, you know what I mean. Yes, we have reconstructed the important buildings but, y’know, a city needs its smaller buildings, too.”
The theater bell rings and as we go back in he smiles again and says, “The soul of Dresden is in our museums. You must see some!’
It seems a big jump from opera to war. The original opera house was built in 1841; the present Military History Museum opened in 2012. It consists of an arsenal built in 1877 and a wedge extension designed by U.S. architect Daniel Libeskind. Exhibits include “War and Suffering,” “Technology and the Military,” and “Politics and the Use of Force.” Displays of prosthetic limbs (including an ancient metal forearm) compete with a surreal expression of a Great War cavalryman and an interesting example of how the warrior has protected his body through the ages.
Captain Sebastian Bangert, the museum’s information officer, shares desert and coffee with us in the restaurant.
“We are already the biggest history museum in Germany,” he says, “a museum about violence over seven centuries.” As he goes back to his office he raises the question: “Is violence part of the human psyche? We don’t make judgments here. We just tell it like it was.”
Others have already suggested that every war has been caused by human emotions like love and hate. And since cynics have also said, “Generals stand tall on mountains of the dead,” maybe pride comes into the equation as well.
It’s perhaps not ironic that the most beautiful city in Europe that was almost completely destroyed in the darker days of World War II in February 1945 has itself become the home of the largest museum of war in Germany. It is also ironic that the opera performed the nights of the air raid in 1945 was Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, an opera about guns and “shooting controlled by an ‘Evil One.’”
And it’s magnificent that the first opera performed in the rebuilt Semper Opera House 40 years later was the same one; the last one performed before its destruction.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.