Very few European cities were as hard hit by World War II as Dresden, Germany. The city was in flaming ruins from the Allied firebomb attacks of February 13, 1945, depicted in Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse Five. It is estimated that between 35,000 and 135,000 people died in the attacks. Rebuilding began shortly after and some projects were completed as recently as 2005, like the Frauenkirche, one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Known as the “Church of Our Lady,” this Lutheran church was turned to rubble in the attack and stood as a monument to peace when it was carefully put back together, stone by stone, like pieces of a puzzle. Of the 8,500 stones recovered from the site, 3,800 were reused. The golden orb atop the tower was donated by the UK as an unspoken apology for the devastation.
What was once known as the “pearl of the Baroque” and home to Saxon kings is now a modern reconstruction of the pre-1945 architecture. Kurt Vonnegut famously said that post-war Dresden reminded him more of Dayton, Ohio. While it still has that Baroque feel, it can have an almost Disneyland quality to it since everything has been recreated. But it is beautiful either way.
I took a day trip to Dresden from Berlin. The two and a half hour bus ride gave our guide Naomi plenty of time to give us background information on Dresden before arrival. Our first stop of the day was the Dresdner Zwinger palace and its Baroque gardens. The palace was badly damaged in the war and Naomi showed us images of what it looked like before reconstruction. The photos depicted buildings that were barely recognizable to the ones before us: burnt and crumbling ruins. The gardens were less grand than in the pictures, but you could see that it once rivaled those of Versailles in Paris or Schonbrunn in Vienna. The fountains, surrounded by statues of cherubs, appeared to be as impressive as they were pre-war.
On the hour and a half walking tour, we were led to the palace of Augustus the Strong, a notorious womanizer and Saxon king. His palace had a hallway attached to the palace of his favorite mistress. From there, we saw the “Balcony of Europe,” which has beautiful views of the river lined with cafes. Unfortunately the rainy weather didn’t do the landscape justice. We finished our tour at the Fürstenzug, the biggest porcelain painting in the world, which depicts most of the Saxon kings, including Augustus. It was lined with souvenir stalls selling postcards and porcelain, one of the city’s top products. From there we had over two hours to explore the city on our own. Many people chose to tour the stunning Semper Opera House that was once the stomping grounds of composer Robert Wagner. I, however, wandered the streets looking in local shops. After a big lunch at Watzke, a local beer hall, I settled in for hot chocolate at Café Schinkelwache, which used to be a guard’s house and now serves some of the best pastries in town.
I was glad I took the day trip to Dresden from Berlin as I felt I could see all the sights in a day. But with the two hours each way, it’s a very full day. If you prefer a slower pace, there are plenty of places to stay overnight.
- Caroline Eubanks