A Short Break in Dresden
Reviewed by Paul Charlesworth
For many people in Britain, Dresden will be most closely associated with the devastating bombing raids inflicted by the Allies towards the end of The Second World War and it is certainly true that recent history is never far away from you during a visit to the city.
Meticulous restoration, first during the period of the German Democratic Republic and more especially since reunification has, however, now allowed Dresden to reclaim its position as one of the architectural and cultural highlights of Europe.
As former capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, it is perhaps not surprising that Dresden should have its fair share of royal palaces and art treasures. If restoration is one narrative that pursues a visitor, another is Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony at the start of the Eighteenth century. With the help of what seems an indecently casual change of religion, Augustus, formerly a champion of the Reformation, managed to add the Catholic kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania to his commonwealth and it was his patronage of arts and architecture that gives Dresden its very special baroque flavour today.
Covering the ground and absorbing culture can be tiring, but one of the great advantages of Dresden is its compactness. Most of the major historical sites of the city are all within a few hundred metres of each other. The Royal Palace contains a series of museums including the remarkable Historic Green Vault, an ensemble of highly ornate chambers created by Augustus to display the state treasures and crown jewels of Saxony. This collection continues in the New Green Vault on another floor. In all, the visitor is presented with over 4,000 precious objects. At the back of the royal mews is a 102 metre long mural, known as the Procession of Princes, made from over 25,000 Meissen ceramic tiles. During the bombing of Dresden, incendiary bombs caused a firestorm that engulfed the city centre and gave rise to temperatures that cause marble to turn to chalk. This ceramic mural, however, survived intact due to the very high melting point of the glaze.
Almost next door to the Royal palace is the Zwinger Palace. After visiting Versailles, Augustus the strong commissioned his architect, Popplemann, to come up with something that would reflect his own status and that of the city. The result was a startling rococo complex, built around a large area of formal gardens and fountains, where Augustus could entertain visiting dignitaries. The Zwinger now contains Dresden’s old masters museum, which famously includes Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, a porcelain collection and a very recently opened Museum of physical and mathematical instruments. The city’s cathedral, the Frauenkirche, was pretty much totally destroyed during the air raids of February 1945. Under the GDR, the authorities decided to leave the ruins as an anti-war memorial. Following reunification, however, the church has been rebuilt and the interior, the decoration of which achieves a harmony that manages to evade the sometimes oppressive weight of extreme German baroque, has been meticulously restored. The church contains a cross made out of nails rescued from the ruins of the old cathedral at Coventry, Dresden’s twin city.
In very close proximity are Dresden’s opera house, the Semperoper, surely one of the prettiest in Europe and the Albertinium art Galleries, which house a particularly good collection of European art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For those wishing to escape the city, the Elbe valley offers plenty of easily accessible options. You might take a short trip on a restored paddle steamer upstream to the Chinese influenced baroque palace at Pillnitz and walk around the extensive gardens and arboretum. In the opposite direction a bus ride takes you to the city of Meissen, birthplace of European porcelain production, where you can visit the Meissen factory museum and see how this world famous porcelain is made, before eating lunch from fine Meissen porcelain in the museum’s restaurant. Alternatively, a narrow gauge steam railway will take you through Saxony’s vineyards, past the beautifully situated Moritzburg castle to Radeburg, or for a bit of moderate exercise, why not hire a bicycle and take a leisurely trip along the traffic-free river Elbe cycle path?
Those seeking nightlife will head out to Dresden’s Neustadt where there is an abundance of bars, restaurants and nightclubs to meet all tastes.
The story of the city’s recovery and restoration adds a fascinating dimension to a visit. The determination to recreate a heritage, large parts of which had been destroyed, and the remarkable attention to detail, which even extended to the use of eighteenth century contemporary technology in the replacing of mirrors in the Historic Green Vault, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the support that the city has received qualifies it as a symbol of international and interdenominational good will and cooperation.
Air France Cityjet has recently started a six-times-week service from London City Airport to Dresden International, which is a short train or bus ride form the city centre. Another option is to fly to Leipzig, which is served by Lufthansa from Heathrow or Ryanair from Stanstead, and then do a bus or rail transfer to Dresden (about one and a half hours). The city also has convenient transport links with Berlin.
Visitors may be surprised at the relatively low cost of accommodation and dining in this part of Germany. For somewhere different to eat, it’s worth trying the Pulverturm restaurant, which occupies the restored vaults of an old armoury and where they serve excellent Saxon specialities such as suckling pig with potato dumplings and sauerkraut, Those who regularly do city breaks will find that, for price, Dresden compares very favourably with most European destinations and it should certainly be on your list if you are thinking about a relaxed break, with plenty of cultural and recreational possibilities on offer.
Return flights from London to Dresden are available with fares starting from just £99 return (€116), including all taxes and charges. To book flights visit www.CityJet.com or call reservations on 0871 666 5050.
CityJet operates non-stop services from London City to 21 popular destinations in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe including Amsterdam, Antwerp, Avignon, Brest, Brive, Deauville, Dresden, Dublin, Dundee, Edinburgh, Florence, Luxembourg, Milan, Münster-Osnabrück, Nantes, Nuremberg, Paderborn, Paris Orly, Pau, Rotterdam and Toulon.