A damp clung to my bones. It was mid-afternoon and the morning’s fog stuck in the air as a fine grey mist. I took refuge in a hotel close to the famed Frauenkirche – a restored version of its grand predecessor destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. I had spent the previous two hours walking the reconstructed cobblestone streets around it admiring the architecture and was not tired and cold. But the afternoon and my walking tour of one of Germany’s most beautiful cities was just beginning.
Warming myself in the hotel’s lobby, I brushed off the cold and discomfort from walking the uneven streets. I was excited to stay out and see more of the city, to learn about its rich history. Twelve years ago I spent two days in Dresden, all inside my hotel room. I was hit with the flu bug upon my arrival and only saw the 800-year-old city known as the Florence of the Elbe through my hotel room window. I was determined to experience it differently this time.
I gathered with the rest of my RIAS Berlin Kommission group in the Neumarkt square surrounding the Frauenkirche. A chapel was first built on the site in the 11th century, followed by the foundation of the first Frauenkirche being laid in 1726. It stood in splendor – enjoying music played by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner in the church – for hundreds of years. And then, two days after the Allies dropped an estimated 650,000 incendiary bombs on Dresden at the end of World War II, the ruins of the church collapsed.
The square was a mess of rubble for the next 45 years, only being reconstructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Parts of the old buiding – blackened from the firebombs which killed over 30,000 people – were used as the symbol of Dresden was pieced back together once again, completed in 2005 as a symbol of reconciliation and peace between former enemies. I took a moment later in my stay to look inside the church, admiring it’s finely decorated interior. But now we gathered in its shadow, shivering and clutching ourselves to keep warm on the chilly afternoon.
Our guide, a short fifties-ish woman with straw-blonde hair, spoke to us in almost perfect English; only a hint of her Saxon dialect could be detected. She briefly explained the historical richness of Dresden, taking a moment to discuss the Allied bombing and the destruction of the Frauenkirche. I stood in the cold, amazed that she could do it with such historical indifference; the firebombing is commonly viewed as an unnecessary and brutal act on the part of the Allies as retaliation for the destruction of Coventry, England by the German Luftwaffe. She spoke of it without connection or feeling, simply and clearly stating the facts regarding what occurred between February 13 and 15, 1945.
Briefly escaping the shadow of the setting sun, we escaped to a pedestrian terrace on the south bank of the Elbe – the Bruhlsche Terrasse. We admired the cityscape stretching past the smokestack made famous in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The disparity between the historic tourist district and the rest of the city, which is nicknamed Silicon Saxony for its computer industry, sit in stark contrast; the area surrounding the Neumarkt is doubtlessly the heart of Dresden, though.
Stepping down from the terrace, we stood at the junction of the Augustusbrucke and Augustusstrasse – Augustus Bridge and Street. The magnificient Furstenzug, the biggest procelain painting in the world, stretches for over 100 meters (more than 330 feet) and is more than ten meters (34 feet) tall; the mosaic contains more than 25,000 individual porcelain tiles. It depicts a parade of all of the Saxon princesses and kings on their horses, including King Augustus the Strong of Poland. It was his reign (1694 – 1733) that brought an infusion of technology and art to Dresden, making it one of the wealthiest and most impressive cities in Europe.
We later appreciated these treasures in the nearby Historiches Grunes Gewolbe (Green Vault) Museum, founded in 1723 by Augustus the Strong. The building, severely damaged in the World War II firebombing, is still being rebuilt, but houses an impressive collection of fine jewelry and arms. Precious Baroque treasures on display include the exceptional Dresden Green Diamond.
From the Furstenzug mosaic, we passed through the lobby of the museum and out to a view of the Semper Opera House (above) and the Zwinger Palace, located across the street from the Dresden Castle and Kathedrale (below). The palace was rebuilt after the Allied bombings and now houses a collection of art, all of which was evacuated to a safe location before the building as destroyed.
The museum was closed during our visit, but we could appreciate the oppulence from a palace courtyard as the sun fell below the horizon. Watching the fountains shoot water into the air made me think of the days long since gone, days of grand celebrations and extravagence by the royals and Electors of Dresden – the city known as The Jewel Box.
The evening was chilly, but dampness had disappeared and so it felt warmer than earlier in the afternoon. It did not matter, though; the beer and fine cuisine of the nearby Sophienkeller warmed us as we rested our tired bodies. It had been a long day, one of the best of our week in Germany, and we happily ended it with shared stories and smiles from the day.