If you’re looking for a town of opposites and contradictions, Dresden is your place. Buried deep in the heart of eastern Germany, this small Saxon town has a history of opulence combined with complete and utter loss. All this results in an eclectic mix in its architecture and culture.
Dresden began life as a village on the lazy Elbe River in the 1100s, but it really came into its own during the reign of the Polish leader, Augustus II (1670-1733). He liked to call himself Augustus The Strong. Nothing like talking yourself up. There is a big, rather unattractive statue of him in the Neustadt (Dresden is divided into a new city and an old city). It is very gold and the sculptor did nothing to enhance his subject’s face. This might be a artistic chuckle to the fact that the Big “A” owned allegiance to the Habsburgs, that interesting looking inbred family of Eastern Europe. Strong or not, Augustus was a lover of the arts and everything beautiful. This, it would seem, included women, fathering no less than 300 children, give or take a few. You can be sure that most of his courting took place in The Zwinger, the leader’s pleasure palace. The Zwinger for the swingers, you might say. A grander, more beautiful architecture you’ll be hard to find, and with figures of the god, Bacchus depicted on almost any free wall space, it’s easy to see what Augustus’ intentions for this place were. This site is located just a handy, small hop, skip and jump from the main schloss (royal castle). The tough guy also loved arts and music and strongly encouraged both. Today he leaves behind one of the world’s most beautiful art collections. The castle is still under reconstruction from the famous annihilation the city endured from allied forces during WWII. It’s hard to believe that Dresden is still recovering from a war that seems so long ago now, and the deception is that most of the buildings of the new city are older than their baroque brothers in the old city, almost all of which have been reconstructed. The date of 13th February 1945 is one which Dresden would be happy to forget. With an estimated 25,000 of its population killed thanks to the allied air raid. It seems cruel to learn that the ammunition factories north of the city were left untouched with the glorious old city left as a pile of rubble. Could have the bombers’ aim been that bad????!!!! There is a film shown at the transport museum that shows footage of Dresden in its heyday pre 1945 and afterwards, and it really hits home the ridiculous pointless destruction of war. Most people would have just looked at the ruined city, thought “too hard basket” and walked away. But not the people of Dresden, or the women more specifically. With most of the men dead (or still busy war-mongering????), it was up to the “Trummer Frauen” (Ruins Women) to clean up the mess. It reminds me of a quote from the movie, The History Boys where a female history teacher tells her class, “ Can you, for a moment, imagine how depressing it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude?…..history is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men……history is women following behind with a bucket”. Case in point.
Right…so off my feminist high horse and onto more of Dresden. Other phenomenon reconstructions are the two churches, the Frauenkirche and the Kreuzkirche. The Frauenkirche is the crowning jewel in Dresden and was only completed in 2005. The Kreuzkirche (or Church of the Holy Cross) seems an unfortunate little soul, having been burnt to the ground no fewer than five times. It supposedly held a relic which was a splinter from Christ’s cross. Hmmmmmm. Both these structures help to make up Dresden’s stunning skyline, which looked perfect against the watercolour sky which was to accompany the sunset. It seems such a shame that these beautiful buildings have been crowded out, to a point, by communist ugliness. All that oppression does nothing for the creative juices, with architects managing little more than grey, concrete boxes as their artistic designs. I guess post war required buildings fast and cheap, and in that respect, they achieved their goals. It was interesting to be told how most people here over 40 could not speak English, just German and Russian, and old footage shows how the second language was very much encouraged with street signs and posters in both languages.
However, not all is lost when it comes to Dresden’s creativeness as the city claims to have invented not only toothpaste, but also beer mats, shoe polish in a tube, the teabag, milk chocolate and the wonderbra! The new city is also a haven of creative quirkiness, with an array of very unique little bars and cafes, with a charm all their own. Highlights were the Sheune Cafe (a fab Indian restaurant/ bar/ jazz club), Cafe Combo and Bautzner Tor, which brings back those East German days in all their “glory”. A visit to the Sophien Keller is an interesting little experience too. German to boot, it sits on the site of the old Sophien Church and it is here that you can try a shot of liqueur supposedly made from the tears of Augustus’ mistress, Cosel. I’m still not sure why Cosel was so upset, but with her lover succumbing to diabetes and obesity in his old age, this may have had something to do with it.
Dresden is a treasure trove of eclectic craziness, and although, to be honest, it was not what I expected, it was an experience for all the senses and one to treasure.