Dresden - Florence of the Elbe

Saxony's capital city sits in baroque splendor on a wide sweep of the Elbe River, and its proponents are working with German thoroughness to recapture the city's old reputation as "the Florence on the Elbe." Its yellow and pale-green facades are enormously appealing, and their mere presence is even more overwhelming when you compare what you see today with photographs of Dresden from February 1945, after an Allied bombing raid destroyed the city overnight. Dresden was the capital of Saxony as early as the 15th century, although most of its architectural masterpieces date from the 18th century and the reigns of Augustus the Strong and his son, Frederick Augustus II.

Though some parts of the city center still look as if they're stuck halfway between demolition and construction, the present city is an enormous tribute to the Dresdeners' skills and dedication. The resemblance of today's riverside to Dresden cityscapes painted by Canaletto in the mid-1700s is remarkable. Unfortunately, the war-inflicted gaps in the urban landscape in other parts of the city are too big to be closed anytime soon.

Our Dresden experience includes:

Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). Dresden's Church of Our Lady, completed in 1743, was one of the masterpieces of baroque church architecture. The huge dome set on a smaller square base, known as the Stone Bell, was the inspiration of George Bähr, who designed the church to be built "as if it was a single stone from the base to the top." On February 15, 1945, two days after the bombing of Dresden, the burned-out shell of the magnificent Stone Bell collapsed. For the following five decades the remains of the church, a pile of rubble, remained a gripping memorial to the horrors of war. In a move shocking to the East German authorities, who organized all public demonstrations, a group of young people spontaneously met here on February 13, 1982, for a candlelight vigil for peace.

Although the will to rebuild the church was strong, the political and economic situation in the GDR prevented it. It wasn't until the reunification of Germany that Dresden began to seriously consider reconstruction. In the early 1990s a citizens' initiative, joined by the Lutheran Church of Saxony and the city of Dresden, decided to rebuild the church using the original stones. The goal of completing the church by 2006, Dresden's 800th anniversary, seemed insurmountable. Money soon started pouring in from around the globe, however, and work began. The rubble was cleared away, and the size and shape of each stone were cataloged. Computer-imaging technology helped place each recovered stone in its original location.

Residenzschloss (Royal Palace). Restoration work is still under way behind the Renaissance facade of this former royal palace, much of which was built between 1709 and 1722. Some of the finished rooms in the Georgenbau (Count George Wing) hold historical exhibits, among them an excellent one on the reconstruction of the palace itself. The palace's main gateway, the Georgentor, has an enormous statue of the fully armed Saxon count GeorgeThe palace's old Hausmannsturm (Hausmann Tower) offers a wonderful view of the city and the Elbe River.

The main attraction in the Royal Palace, though, is the world-famous Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault). Named after a green room in the palace of Augustus the Strong, the collection is a veritable Saxon treasure-chest. Tickets for the Vault are very difficult to come by, so please let us know if you’d like us to arrange a visit for you.

Semperoper (Semper Opera House). One of Germany's best-known and most popular theaters, this magnificent opera house saw the premieres of Richard Wagner's Rienzi, Der Fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser and Richard Strauss's Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier. The Dresden architect Gottfried Semper built the house in 1838–41 in Italian Renaissance style, then saw his work destroyed in a fire caused by a careless lamplighter. Semper had to flee Dresden after participating in a democratic uprising but his son Manfred rebuilt the theater in the neo-Renaissance style you see today, though even Manfred Semper's version had to be rebuilt after the devastating bombing raid of February 1945. On the 40th anniversary of that raid—February 13, 1985—the Semperoper reopened with a performance of Der Freischütz, by Carl Maria von Weber, the last opera performed in the building before its destruction. There is a statue of Weber, another artist who did much to make Dresden a leading center of German music and culture, outside the opera house in the shadow of the Zwinger. Even if you're no opera buff, the Semper's lavish interior can't fail to impress. Velvet, brocade, and well-crafted imitation marble create an atmosphere of intimate luxury (it seats 1,323). Guided tours (must be reserved in advance) of the building are offered throughout the day, depending on the opera's rehearsal schedule. Check the Web site for schedules. Tours begin at the entrance to your right as you face the Elbe River.

Zwinger (Bailey). Dresden's magnificent baroque showpiece is entered by way of the mighty Kronentor (Crown Gate), off Ostra-Allee. Augustus the Strong hired a small army of artists and artisans to create a "pleasure ground" worthy of the Saxon court on the site of the former bailey, part of the city fortifications. The artisans worked under the direction of the architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann, who came reluctantly out of retirement to design what would be his greatest work, begun in 1707 and completed in 1728. Completely enclosing a central courtyard filled with lawns, pools, and fountains, the complex is made up of six linked pavilions, one of which boasts a carillon of Meissen bells, hence its name: Glockenspielpavillon.

Johanneum. At one time the royal stables, this 16th-century building now houses the Verkehrsmuseum (Transportation Museum), a collection of historic conveyances, including vintage automobiles and engines. The former stable exercise yard, behind the Johanneum and enclosed by elegant Renaissance arcades, was used during the 16th century as an open-air festival ground. A ramp leading up from the courtyard made it possible for royalty to reach the upper story to view the jousting below without having to dismount. More popular even than jousting in those days was Ringelstechen, a risky pursuit in which riders at full gallop had to catch small rings on their lances. Horses and riders often came to grief in the narrow confines of the stable yard.

The Fürstenzug. On the outside wall of the Johanneum is a remarkable example of porcelain art: a 336-foot-long Meissen tile mural of a royal procession.More than 100 members of the royal Saxon house of Wettin, half of them on horseback, are represented on the giant mosaic, known as the "Procession of Princes," which is made of 25,000 porcelain tiles, painted in 1904–07 after a design by Wilhelm Walther. The representations are in chronological order: at 1694, Augustus the Strong's horse is trampling a rose, the symbol of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. The Johanneum is reached by steps leading down from the Brühlsche Terrasse.

Katholische Hofkirche (Catholic Court Church). The largest church in Saxony is also known as the Cathedral of St. Trinitatis. Frederick Augustus II (who reigned 1733–63) brought architects and builders from Italy to construct a Catholic church in a city that had been the first large center of Lutheran Protestantism (like his father, Frederick Augustus II had to convert to Catholicism to be eligible to wear the Polish crown). Inside, the treasures include a beautiful stone pulpit by the royal sculptor Balthasar Permoser and a painstakingly restored 250-year-old organ said to be one of the finest ever to come from the mountain workshops of the famous Silbermann family. In the cathedral's crypt are the tombs of 49 Saxon rulers and a reliquary containing the heart of Augustus the Strong, which is rumored to start beating if a beautiful woman comes near

Augustusbrücke (Augustus Bridge). This bridge, which spans the river in front of the Katholische Hofkirche, is the reconstruction of a 17th-century baroque bridge blown up by the SS shortly before the end of World War II. It was restored and renamed for Georgi Dimitroff, the Bulgarian Communist accused by the Nazis of instigating the Reichstag fire; after the fall of Communism the original name, honoring Augustus the Strong, was reinstated.

Japanisches Palais (Japanese Palace). This baroque palace was built in 1715–33 to hold Augustus the Strong's collection of fine china. One of the city's most magnificent buildings, it features Asian architectural elements such as porticoes and courtyard statues as well as a roof reminiscent of a pagoda. Today the palace houses the Those who have already visited similar museums in Berlin may wish to skip these, though special exhibits may make them worth your while.

Kreuzkirche (Cross Church). Soaring high above the Altmarkt, the richly decorated tower of the baroque Kreuzkirche dates back to 1792. The city's main Protestant church is still undergoing postwar restoration, but the tower and church hall are open to the public. A famous boys' choir, the Kreuzchor, performs here regularly (check Web site or call for times).

Pfund's Molkerei (Pfund's Dairy Shop). This decorative 19th-century shop has been a Dresden institution since 1880, and offers a wide assortment of cheese and other goods. The shop is renowned for its intricate tile mosaics on the floor and walls. Pfund's is also famous for introducing pasteurized milk to the industry; it invented milk soap and specially treated milk for infants as early as 1900.

Altmarkt (Old Market Square). Although dominated by the nearby, unappealing, Kulturpalast (Palace of Culture), the Altmarkt is a fascinating concrete leftover from the 1970s (check out the workers and peasants GDR mosaic); the broad square and its surrounding streets are the true center of Dresden. The colonnaded beauty (from the Stalinist-era architecture of the early 1950s) survived the efforts of city planners to turn it into a huge outdoor parking lot. The rebuilt Rathaus (Town Hall) is here (go around the front to see bullet holes in the statuary), as is the yellow-stucco, 18th-century Landhaus, which contains the Stadtmuseum Dresden im Landhaus.

The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Gallery of Old Masters ) was built to house portions of the royal art collections. Among the priceless paintings are works by Dürer, Holbein, Jan van Eyck, Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck, Hals, Vermeer, Raphael, Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Velázquez, Murillo, Canaletto, and Watteau. On the wall of the entrance archway you'll see an inscription in Russian, one of the few amusing reminders of World War II in Dresden. It rhymes in Russian: "Museum checked. No mines. Chanutin did the checking." Chanutin, presumably, was the Russian soldier responsible for checking one of Germany's greatest art galleries for anything more explosive than a Rubens nude. The highlight of the collection is Raphael's Sistine Madonna, whose mournful look is slightly less famous than the two cherubs who were added by Raphael after the painting was completed, in order to fill an empty space at the

Albertinum. The Albertinum is named after Saxony's King Albert, who between 1884 and 1887 converted a royal arsenal into a suitable setting for the treasures he and his forebears had collected. This massive, imperial-style building houses one of the world's great galleries featuring works from the romantic period to the modern. The Galerie Neue Meister (New Masters Gallery) has an extensive collection ranging from Caspar David Friedrich and Gauguin to Ernst Kirchner and Georg Baselitz.

Deutsches Hygiene-Museum Dresden. This unique (even in a country with a national tendency for excessive cleanliness) and unfortunately named museum relates the history of public health and science. The permanent exhibit offers lots of hands-on activities. The building itself housed the Nazi eugenics program, and the special exhibit on this period is not recommended for children under 12.

If time and interest permit, we can expand our Dresden day to include:

Radebeul. Radebeul is the birthplace of Germany's well-loved novelist Karl May, who wrote popular, convincing Westerns without once visiting America. A museum here explains just how he did it. Have a beer at the Karl May Saloon, near the museum; Friday night is line-dancing night.

Schloss Pillnitz (Pillnitz Palace). This romantic baroque palace, once a summer retreat for King Augustus the Strong, was built in 1720–22 and is surrounded by a landscaped garden and two smaller palaces, the Wasserpalais and the Bergpalais. Both buildings were designed in Germany's late baroque faux-Chinese pagoda style. Today they house the Kunstgewerbemuseum, which showcases baroque furniture and crafts as well as modern design.

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