Like a Phoenix From the Ashes

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Saturday, October 7, 2006

October 6-7

The train from Prague delivered me to Dresden around 2:00 in the afternoon. It had been an uneventful trip once I got settled-in...for the second time. You see, the rail pass I had purchased for this trip was valid in 13 countries across Europe. The Czech Republic was not one of them. So I knew from the start that I would have to buy a separate ticket for this leg of my journey. The adventure of making it into town on the night train - just finding a seat - ruled out any thoughts of first vs. second class. In truth, I was just happy to be aboard at that point. But leaving Prague was a different story. I'd paid what I considered to be a supplemental fair on top of my first-class Eurail pass for the pleasure of seeing Praha. Ok, fine. Although it does seem a little ridiculous. I mean, aren't they a part of the EU now? Shouldn't they be part of the Eurail system? But, whatever.
So when I climbed aboard I naturally assumed that my pass and the supplemental ticket I'd purchased entitled me to a seat in first class. Remember, I was heading back into Germany. More than half the trip would be executed within that country's borders. The way I saw it, I was owed a seat that reclined and had a nice big picture window.
To be honest though, that's about all the difference there really was between the classes on that particular train. In some countries, like Spain and France for example, there's a big difference. Not so much with the Czechia's. Even still, I was all settled-in there in first class - had my shoes off, was reading my book, had the iPod on - and we were 20 minutes into the journey when this thin-lipped, tight-assed porter comes strolling down the aisle giving me this look from the other end of the car. You know, the look that says, "Just what does HE think he's doing sitting up here?" And I'll admit, I didn't really look the part. I was one of the few backpackers I ever saw in the first class cabins. But I'd paid for that damn pass and I intended to use it everywhere I could.
Well, anyway, he came up to me and asked to see my ticket. I pressed pause on my iPod, removed the ear bud from my left side and handed over the ticket, along with my rail pass, rather nonchalantly indicating my inherent right to occupy that particular seat. The porter glanced at the ticket but, instead of handing it back to me with newfound respect and reverence, as I suspected he might, he all but glowered at me. In excellent, if heavily accented, English he told me, "Zis ticket iz fur zecond class. You vill have to move."
Calmly, I tried to explain. "But you don't understand. You see there, my Eurail pass, it's for first class."
"Yes, but your ticket here," he said waving the supplemental ticket I'd been railroaded (heh heh, get it?) into purchasing, "iz fur second class. I'm sorry but, you vill have to move."
Apparently even though we would be in Germany in less than an hour's time, my precious pass meant nothing on this entire leg of the journey. I slowly collected my things - put my shoes back on, packed-up my iPod and my book - and, in disgrace, trudged past my well healed elders who would remain in their large, comfy seats to enjoy a complementary meal at some point during the trip. Fie! on you Czech Rail. I curse your separatist ways. Get with the program - the EU is giving you all kinds of market advantages. How about a little help here?!
But like I said, there really wasn't that big a difference between first and second class - I guess.
So, where was I? Ah yes, we pulled into Dresden around 2:00, yeah I said that already and...oh, I know. I could immediately tell something different was going here. I mean, both Prague and Dresden had languished under Communist rule for the second half of the 20th century. However, the former East German outpost seemed to be recovering more quickly. It was the rail station that first gave me this impression. Clearly it had been built recently, if unimaginatively. This was a refrain that would repeat itself throughout Dresden but, would also be juxtaposed with some of the most stunning restorative work of old-world architecture anywhere. This was, after all, where the Allies had sent a message to the Third Reich during the closing days of the war.
The fire-bombing of this city and it's near total annihilation was intended to convince the remaining hold-outs that not only was there no hope of turning the tide but, also to make them understand the consequences of pursuing such a fool's errand. Effectively, what one now sees when visiting Dresden comes in three flavors; bland Communist era-designed buildings, the oft daring (but locally controversial) post re-unification stylings or, achingly beautiful baroque masterpieces that are (generally) in some state or another of repair and restoration from the bombing those long years ago. It's taken this long to get at it because the Communist's had their hands full with little things like trying to find enough for everyone to eat and constantly spying on all of their citizens. Priorities, you know. In fact though, before the war, Dresden was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, rivaled only by Paris and perhaps Prague. I can only imagine what that must have looked like.
As I made my way through the rail station, I realized that I had a problem. I had no idea which way to go. I emerged from the sterile halls and couldn't tell which way led into town. I couldn't find a tourism office inside the station either. It was a nice day though, the sun shining brightly, so I guessed and headed toward a corridor of tallish modern buildings not too far away. After maybe 1,000 meters I saw a tourism office in the distance. "All right. We're in business."
I entered and solicited some help in finding a nearby hotel. Problem was, the map this woman showed me was not very well crafted. I thought I was choosing a hotel closer to the city center but, from the moment I left there heading for the hotel I was, in fact, walking away from town. And it took me almost a half hour to get to the hotel on foot, during which time some pretty ominous clouds began to roll in and the temperature dropped precipitously.
Once at the cookie-cutter, budget hotel, I decided to rest for a minute after my long hike. I flipped on the TV. CNN was showing a documentary about Donald Rumsfeld and I easily became engrossed. What an asshole. After a nice hot shower I dressed in anticipation of slogging back the way I'd come an hour or so ago. However, upon investigation out my little hotel room window I saw a most unwelcome sight. A persistent, if light, rain was falling and it had become decidedly chilly as well. There was no way I was going to repeat the walk I'd just done and then walk who knows how much further to the old town itself. Not in this weather. I opted instead to make for the restaurant next door, across the parking lot.
It was a fairly typical establishment mimicking the old world kind of style but, clearly had been built within the last decade or so. They served traditional German fare; hot and hearty, rib-sticking food. Afterward, as the rain continued, I returned to the hotel to read for a few hours before calling it quits for the day. An inauspicious start for Dresden.
I set my alarm for an early wake up intending to get in a workout, figuring the weather would likely continue the washout. But instead I awoke to a complete 180 and I quickly changed my mind. It was a beautiful morning with a pleasant crispness to the air far removed from the previous evening's chill and the sun was shining brightly. I bagged the workout and had a quick Frühstuck in the all too generic breakfast room, then packed up my gear and headed back to the train station.
There, I stowed my larger pack in a locker to be retrieved later that afternoon. I also unloaded all unnecessary items from my day-pack; the things I wouldn't be needing for a day's worth of exploring. I walked past the tourism office where I'd been the day before and on toward town, fairly sure I was heading in the right direction this time. When I came to the outer ring I saw one of those double-decker tour busses advertising stops at all the major sites of Dresden. I inquired as to the price and schedule. Busses ran every 15 minutes and the price included a walking tour of the old town. It sounded like a good way to see lot in the short amount of time I had so, I climbed aboard.
As we began to drive it struck me, it's hard to believe this was once East Germany. You could definitely see remnants of the old order but, there was so much that was new too. I'd come here expressly on Norbert's recommendation. He had told me what a beautiful city it was and insisted that if I was going to be traveling from Prague to Berlin, I must stop off to see it. I was now starting to understand why.
We cruised past Volkswagen's production facility for their Phaeton model. The entire factory is sheathed in glass so you can literally watch them building the cars as they roll down the line. From there, we made our way over to the Blue Wonder Bridge. There I got off the bus for a look around.
This was the first bridge of its size ever built without pilings. It is also the only bridge in Dresden to have survived the war. As the Nazis retreated, they set charges on all the bridges crossing the Elbe to slow the Allies' pursuit. But two townsmen independently cut the wiring saving this one bridge. They must have been big engineering fans, I guess. I walked the length of the bridge and back again, taking some nice snaps of the river and the hillsides along its banks. Soon another bus came along and I continued on the tour.
A few miles down the road we came to a famous dairy shop. While the foodstuffs on offer are supposed to be fantastic, all fresh and homemade, what they are really famous for is the ornate tiling that covers every square inch of the interior. I've never seen such a ridiculously cool place to buy your butter. I got back on the bus again and went a few stops further down the line, disembarking at the Waldschlößen Brauerei.
There I climbed a flight of stairs from street level and found myself in a cozy little beer garden in the courtyard in front of the brewery. It was almost noon so, I grabbed myself a halb Maß and a bretzel mit senf. I took a table near the railing which had a nice view looking back toward the city proper. I was on the opposite side of the river now from the old town and up on the hillside looking down on the valley unfolding below. It had become an absolutely gorgeous fall day, warming slightly, which just magnified the impact of the scenery. It dawned on me that since I'd entered the German speaking countries, a pattern had emerged of rain and cold one day, followed by a brilliant day of sunshine the next. I can live with that.
When I'd finished my snack I went back down the landing and sat on the stoop until another bus came by. It only took 5 or 10 minutes. We proceeded to make our way through the new town (which is really the original section but, had been destroyed in wars and rebuilt so then it was "new" - confusing, I know) then back over the river and into old town again. I had been catching glimpses and admiring the view of the city from afar but, now that I was in the middle of it, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. In the same way Neuschwanstein had epitomized the castle-in-the-hills notion of what I thought Europe would look like, Dresden did the same for the ideal of an old-world city. At least, to the degree that they've been able to put the pieces back together.
I got off the bus and located on my map the meeting point for the walking tour of the old town. The rendezvous was at the entrance to the Zwinger Palace, one of Dresden's landmark sites. It was built atop the site of the old stronghold of the city. The palace was later converted to house the Royal art collections and serve as a place to hold festivals. Its main gate, the Kronentur, features a large golden crown overlooking a moat and is one of the iconic images of the city.
We met our guide inside the large courtyard and made a loop around, getting a general history of Dresden and the Zwinger itself. Then name Dresden comes from Old Sorbian Drezïany, which means people of the riverside forest. It has a storied history as the capital and royal residence for the Kings of Saxony who cultivated the cultural and artistic aspects of the city, making it a world leader for centuries. Today it is the capital city of the German Federal Free State of Saxony.
Starting in 1485, it was the seat of the Dukes of Saxony, and from 1547 the electors as well. The Elector and ruler of Saxony Frederick Augustus I (August the Strong, 1670-1733) gathered many of the best musicians, architects and painters from all over Europe to Dresden. He is the one who ushered in the era of Dresden as a leading European city for technology and art. New town (remember, the old section) suffered heavy destruction in the Seven Years' War during the middle of the 18th century. Of course, that wouldn't be the last time.
Between 1806 and 1918 the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony (which was a part of the German Empire from 1871). During the Napoleonic Wars the French emperor made it his base of operations, winning a decisive battle nearby. Dresden was also the center of the German Revolutions in 1849 with the May Uprising. It was a terribly bloddy affair and many lives were lost and a great deal of damage was done (again) in the historic town center.
During the 19th century the city became a major center of economic growth, including automobile production, food processing, banking, manufacturing of medical equipment and tobacco processing. The city grew quickly during this period, quadrupling the population between 1849 and 1900 as a result of the rapid industrialization.
In the early 20th century Dresden was particularly well-known for its camera works and its cigarette factories. Between 1918 and 1934 Dresden was capital of the first Free State of Saxony. It was also considered the center of European modern art until 1933.
Dresden was both an important garrison as well as a center of military industry during the Second World War. The bombing of Dresden by the Allies between February 13 and February 15, 1945, remains one of the more controversial actions of the war. It was a brutal, punishing attack. The inner city of Dresden was heavily destroyed during what proved to be the final weeks of the war in Europe. If only they could have held off those few more days, perhaps the city's treasures could have been spared. But hindsight is always 20/20, right? And the commanders made the decision, in part, to force surrender so, perhaps it was necessary.
Returning to the palace for a minute, the name derives from the German word Zwinger (outer ward of a concentric castle). It was so named for the cannons that were placed between the outer wall and the major wall. You see, August the Strong had embarked on a grand tour through France and Italy from 1687-89, during which time Louis XIV had moved his court to Versailles. Upon his return, he wanted something similarly spectacular for himself. He felt the fortifications were no longer needed and provided readily available space for his plans so he co-opted that space from the old stronghold.
We exited the Zwinger from the gate opposite the Kronentur where I was greeted by a view of the Saxon State Opera House to my left and the Hofkirche to my right. The latter is the large Catholic Church built by August the Strong. He aspired to become King of Poland, in addition to his title as Elector of Saxony. At the time, Dresden was an exclusively Protestant enclave. However, Poland was a Catholic country. What to do? Build a church that would prove the conviction of his conversion to the Poles, of course. The massive cathedral was built between 1739 and 1755.
Next to the Hofkirche, we passed by the Dresden Castle which, like nearly every other major historical site in town, has been largely reconstructed. It's costing the citizens of Dresden, and for that matter all of Germany, millions of Euro each year for all this reconstruction but, the results are stunning. What is emerging, or rather re-emerging, is a gorgeous city center once again.
Past the Castle we made our way to the Fürstenzug - a long wall with a mural depicting the line of Saxon sovereigns as far back as history records. The mural looks as if it might just be painted directly on the stonework, however, in reality it is made up of thousands of individual tiles. It's impressive to say the least.
A short walk from there led us to the Neumarkt district which has been heavily reconstructed as well. There we found the unrivaled landmark of Dresden, the Frauenkirche. Unlike August the Strong's Hofkirche, this grand church was originally built by the citizens themselves between 1726 and 1743. It is often cited as the greatest cupola building in central and northern Europe. It also served as one of the rare instances (on my trip anyway) where a Protestant church outsized all of the Catholic structures in town. But this building has seen hard times.
During the firebombing, thousands of Dresden residents took refuge within its walls. The grand dome withstood the initial onslaught and those who had sought shelter there were spared. The fires in and around the church burned for three days before she succumbed to the intense heat and the beautiful cupola came crumbling down. All that was left was a massive pile of rubble that was left largely untouched for the next five decades. It was an uncharacteristic move by the Communists not to clean up the site. They left the one-time icon of the city in ruins to remind everyone who would see it of the cost of war.
Following German re-unification in 1991, a massive fund raising effort was undertaken and slowly the old church began to rise from its ashes. Using sophisticated engineering software and old photographs of the original structure, they were able to replace all of the salvageable stones to their original positions in the new building (amazing!). If you look at the photos I've uploaded here, you can see that the preponderance of the building is made up of light colored, new stone. The dark stone blocks are from the original structure, charred by the fires of war.
The rebuilt church was opened to the public on Reformation Day 2005, a year before Dresden's 800th birthday. I wanted to go inside for a look around. After all, this whole trip I've been touring Catholic churches and I'm a Lutheran. I mean, there's a huge statue of Martin Luther right out front of this place. Here was my chance to see our side can do. Right? Wrong. It was closed for a baptism. Great. I mean, I'm glad and all that some kid was getting baptized but, it did kinda screw up my plans. Whatever.
Despite the almost complete annihilation of the inner city in the war, much of the central area has been restored to its former glory. It's really quite amazing what they've been able to accomplish in the short period of 16 years since Communism fell. There's still more to do but, this is now definitely a city worth visiting. I hadn't initially intended on stopping here when I mapped out my itinerary. But as I said earlier, shortly before I left Munich Norbert implored me to go, "Yes, I'm telling you, you vill love it! It is such a beautiful city!"
As my train pulled out of the station, headed for Berlin, I had to admit, he'd certainly been right about that one.
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