On September 1, 2022, yet another lovely day, we left Prague and headed back into Germany, where our next two nights would be spent in Dresden. The train ride was perfection: quiet and smooth. I was trying to read a book but the architecture and the landscape constantly drew my attention. Despite the drought, the countryside was surprisingly green.
(Reminder: You can click on the images in each “Gallery” block to see them as a slide show.)
Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony (our stops in Bayreuth and Munich had been in Bavaria) and, like Leipzig and half of Berlin, was located from 1949 to 1990 in the former communist state of East Germany. Since the mid-1400s Dresden was the seat of Saxony nobility, who invested time, money and effort to make it into a world-class cultural centre. In the 1800s it became known for its technology as well as its art. At one point, due to a “personal union,” it also became the seat of Polish monarchs, who contributed to its magnificent baroque and rococo architecture.
I had not realized that Dresden had been flattened by the Allies near the end of World War II, much less that the bombings have always been controversial, seen by many as indiscriminate and unnecessary as Dresden was not a military target. [This is a correction. When I first wrote this post I thought the bombings had occurred after peace had been declared. I erred and I am grateful to the reader who pointed out my error.] Then about a month before we left for Germany, both of my sons urged me to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. What a great book that is! The writing style is remarkably distinctive (I hadn’t read Vonnegut before. Now I’ll read more) and the structure of the novel is brilliant, particularly the way it manages time. But quite aside from its literary qualities, Slaughterhouse Five provided me with an intimate picture of what it was like to be in Dresden as the war drew to a close.
The bombing of Dresden by British and American troops nearly reduced the entire historic and beautiful old city to rubble. During this event, which occurred between Feb. 13 and 15, 1945, “772 heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city. The bombing and the resulting firestorm destroyed more than 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of the city centre. An estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed. Three more USAAF air raids followed, two occurring on 2 March aimed at the city’s railway marshalling yard and one smaller raid on 17 April aimed at industrial areas.” Wikipedia This is the central incident in Slaughterhouse Five, which Vonnegut based on his personal experience as a prisoner of war who was being held in Dresden by the Germans when the attack occurred. Many of the buildings we visited in Dresden featured photographs of what they’d looked like after the bombing, and the amount of restoration that has been required (and completed so far) is astonishing.
We stayed in the old town but at the relatively new Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss, in a room that was bright and functional –although having the bathroom in the middle of the suite was a new experience for me. We headed out for dinner and of course could not find the restaurant I had chosen (which, it later turned out, was a dining room right in the hotel where we were staying but it was only open for conference attendees). But we found a great alternative on the square, had a very tasty meal, and walked around a bit of the old town before calling it a day.
Our first stop on September 2 was the mammoth Residenzschloss, or Residence Palace, which was right across the street from our hotel. This building is a major exhibitor of state and city art in Dresden, as it has been since the Saxony kings built the castle to live in, in the mid-1400s.
First we saw a series of drawings from the Hoesch Collection which were on temporary exhibit at the palace. The exhibition, entitled Anselmi to Zuccari, included works from Italian artists from the 16th to 18th century as well as selections from the Kupferstich-Kabinett (Dresden State Art Collection). They were fascinating.
We then set out to explore the permanent collection of the Residenzschloss, and we could have spent all of our remaining time in Dresden there – if not the rest of our lives. It contains a lot of amazing stuff. By the time we were half way through it I was reduced to walking from piece to piece, unable to differentiate between the astonishing and the merely stunning. I took way too many photos of it all, thinking that I would examine them more closely later. I have done some of that today. 🙂 Here is a sample (Most of the Turkish influence came by way of Poland, btw):
After lunch, we wandered around old Dresden for a couple of hours. We viewed the lovely baroque interior of the Dresden Frauenkirche, the exterior of the Dresden opera house (Semperoper) and the grounds of the Zwinger Palace, which is still in the process of restoration and which houses many works of art that we did not pay to see. Arnie and a street musician exchanged some musical notes, and we took a stroll over the Elbe by means of the Carolabrucke (Carola Bridge). We could see how low the river was after many months of drought.
And speaking of the drought, just before we left Canada my elder son had sent me information about a phenomenon known as “Hunger Stones,” which are etchings on rocks from long ago by the sides of rivers that have been exposed due to the low water conditions in recent years. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of a Guardian article on the subject:
“Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (“If you see me, then weep”), reads the grim inscription on a rock in the Elbe River near the northern Czech town of Děčín, close to the German border. As Europe’s rivers run dry in a devastating drought that scientists say could prove the worst in 500 years, their receding waters are revealing long-hidden artefacts, from Roman camps to ghost villages and second world war shipwrecks.”
Messages left on stones are warnings from the past that hunger and hardship are not far off once the waters have receded far enough that the messages – some of which date back as far as the 15th century – can be read. Many of these are along the River Elbe in the Czech Republic and Germany, but they have also been found in recent years in Italy, Spain, Serbia and other parts of Europe.
After our afternoon stroll, Arnie wisely took a nap but I just had to check out a few more rooms in the Residenzschloss, since my ticket was still valid. By the time I was finished, I could barely walk, but it was worth it.
We concluded our Big Day in Dresden with dinner at Edelweiss, a Swiss restaurant near the Frauenkirche and then wandered back to the hotel where we collapsed into bed to rest up for our trip the next day to our final destination in Germany: Berlin.
*Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I gave the number “9” to the last two posts. I am reluctant to change the most recent post to “10” because it will make the url incorrect. But this is still “11,” no matter how you look at it.