Rebuilding from the rubble

Trip Start Apr 08, 2007
Trip End Oct 01, 2007

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Where I stayed
Hostel Mondpalast Dresden

Flag of Germany  ,
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Here we are in a city that rings familiar in the minds of most people that know Germany. Anyone the least bit familiar with World War II knows of the terrible fate of Dresden, bombed to oblivion one fateful day in February 1945. The Communist government of the GDR left the place to rot for about 50 years, and then finally the civic authorities under the newly united German state decided to pick up the pieces again. I've been wanting to come here for ages, but just never had a chance. Now, with it perfectly en route between Prague and our eventual destination of Amsterdam, I had the best opportunity.

The first thing I have to comment on is how much of a work in progress it still is. They've been working on reconstruction for over 15 years now, but there's still SO much left to do. Which is not to say that they haven't made a good dent. For the first time in over 60 years (as of 2006), the beautiful Frauenkirche once again towers over the Altstadt. Yet all over the Altmarkt and Neumarkt (Old and New Market Squares), ongoing construction is still digging foundations, tearing up wide open spaces of nothingness and restoring long-lost facades. It really puts into perspective how devastated the place must have been in 1945. I always knew it was a massive loss of life and culture, but this somehow made it so much more real.

I'd like to say that Dresden is a gorgeous city, but as of yet, I think that's a little premature. Numerous parts of Neustadt across the Elbe river have retained their pre-war elegance. Even the Altstadt still presents an incredible view on the approach across the Augustusbrücke and Carolabrücke. But jammed into the middle of many of these picturesque scenes are the glaring ugliness of Communist-style functionalism. Old baroque hotels have concrete eyesores hemmed up against them, the elegance of the old Blockhaus on the Elbe sits forlorn against faceless blocks, and the characteristically dour Plattenhäuser (concrete apartment blocks) so typical of Eastern Europe line almost the entire stretch of St. Petersburger Straße across from the Altstadt.

So I'll say that Dresden is a once beautiful city that may hopefully be beautiful again. Certainly the will, the manpower and the money is there. A major effort has been underway for a while, so probably in 10 to 20 years time, much of the old glory will be restored. Yet it's obvious it'll never be as it once was; the glaring difference between the (frankly few) old, blackened stones of Frauenkirche and the shiny, near-white face of the bordering restored ones is a tell-tale sign. It's been fascinating wandering through the place the past few days though, from the reconstructed opulence of the Semper Opera House to the glorious Zwinger palace to the elegant old castle along the Elbe. Certainly it would be equally fascinating to return a couple decades down the line and see how much has changed (or improved!).

Walking the sights of the Altstadt (and, to a lesser extent, the Neustadt) took well under the two days time we've had here. Since Mayu and I are not particularly avid fans of museums, we declined the entry fees and the time spent indoors on such beautiful days. So instead, this afternoon we took an easy daytrip out to Meißen, a small, but stunning old city about 40 minutes out of town on the S-bahn. Considered the "cradle of Saxony," it turned out to be a terrifically picturesque place, with its stark Gothic cathedral and castle jutting out from a hilltop overlooking the medieval city. Being a rather tiny place too, it was perfect for the half-day we had available, so we were able to get a fairly thorough impression. Interestingly enough, I knew nothing about the place previous to coming to Dresden; as a matter of fact, the only reason we knew to go was because Mayu had read something about it in her Japanese guidebook. So kudos to her for picking such a gem!

Tomorrow morning we move on northwards, with an early train to Berlin and an onwards connection by ICE to Hamburg. With about three days to spare there, we'll hopefully be able to look around one or two other places in the area - most preferably Lübeck, an old Hanseatic city that I've long wanted to see. So, from the next entry, we should be in northern Germany.
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