On a warm evening, its beautiful medieval streets are thronged with sightseers – but they are almost all Germans rediscovering the part of their own country that was hidden for so long behind the iron curtain that divided Europe.
Some may, of course, consider it an advantage that the British hen and stag parties which are unavoidable in so many European capitals have not yet arrived. But it is probably only a matter of time as prices here are still so reasonable. We paid around £12 per head for a two-course meal in a prime spot watching the sun set over the wide, silvery Elbe.
Dresden has put its terrible recent past behind it now – or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it is returning to its true self. Once the main market town of Saxony, set amid the rolling greenery of fertile farming land along the banks of the Elbe, Dresden was, for most of its history, a placid, prosperous place.
Martin Luther preached here and a great baroque Lutheran Cathedral, the Frauenkirche, stands at the centre of the city, its interior a pretty, pastel wedding cake. This cathedral represents one of the most remarkable reconstructions ever undertaken as it was almost completely rebuilt from a pile of blackened rubble after the wall came down,with substantial help from fundraisers in the UK who donated the huge gold cross put on the top. The 3000-odd blackened blocks of Elbe sandstone that came from the original structure are clearly visible among tens of thousands of new ones. Questions have been asked by historians about whether this 21st century version is in any sense the same building, but the tourists who queue to see the interior don’t seem to have any doubts. Wandering around the town, which is a mixture of original baroque and nineteenth-century grandeur, it is almost possible to imagine that the twentieth century never happened, although there are odd reminders here and there, such as a plaque at the entrance to the Zwinger Palace, recording that in 1945 the Allies freed Saxony from Nazi rule. Sipping coffee at tables set out amid fountains and gardens on the Bruhl Terrace, which Goethe called “the balcony of Europe”– a wide terraced walkway reached by a huge staircase and decorated with enormous sculptures which forms a shared balcony for grand hotels on one side and a place to watch the river on the other– you can imagine being a Victorian travellerwith a Baedeker guide book and a parasol.
Many of the sights such travellers would have visited are still must-dos – the art gallerywith its Old Masters including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna; and the paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew,which because of their attention to detail were used in the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. A monumental frieze which displays the triumphs of the ruling family over 1000 years is also of interest, as is the elegant Semper Opera House, one of several venues which makes the city popular with classical music fans.
Those with time to spare can take river trips to visit the castles of the Elbe. One such trip goes to Pillnitz Castle, a beautiful baroque/Renaissance palace and garden, boasting Europe’s oldest camilla and plane treewith a 20-foot-wide trunk, which was given by Dresden’s most famous leader, Augustus the Strong, to his mistress. (Augustus’s susceptibility to the female sex was legendary, and his heart, whichwas buried in the Catholic cathedral, the Hofkirche, is said still to flutter whenever a pretty woman walks by.)
Another idyllic day on the river is the trip to Meissen, famous for its vineyards and porcelain, and once one of Germany’s most important trading posts. Although this is a very historic city, of course there are reminders of the more recent past too – one of the most positive is a comprehensive tram system left over from the forme rGDR. Mementos of Stasiland also include the monstrous former Communist Party HQ, which has been transformed into a huge concert hall.
On the other side of the river, Neustadt, known as the New Town since the Old Town which was there burned down in 1685, is home to the artists’ quarter. Lively cafes and restaurants throng the area and a series of contemporary sculptures featuring crazy mirrors an dweird trumpet-like drainage adorn the exteriors of buildings in the Art Passage. There are plenty of restaurants and cafes all over town to stop for a glass of excellent beer or some hearty food. Typical northern European fare, the menus tend to feature large helpings of meat accompanied with seasonal vegetables. Duck is a popular choice – though it often comes in portions so large they are hard to finish.
For the vigorous trencherman with room for dessert, there’ll be apple strudel, apple charlotte and several other cakes to choose from. Well, if plainly, cooked, the food resembles the “meat and two veg” that was once the mainstay of the British diet. However, the more adventurous can seek out the ubiquitous Italian restaurants which are found all over the world, and there are representatives of other staples of the global kitchen such as Chinese and Thai, too.
Dresden tends to be busy in the summer months and is perhaps undersupplied with hotel rooms, so booking ahead is advisable. The Holiday Inn offers good value for money in the centre but the transport system is so reliable that one option to save money may be to book a room fora good price in a hotel on the outskirts of town and travel in by bus or tram.
There are several ways to get there.We flew to Berlin with Air Berlin, from Glasgow via Stansted. The fact that it is the same plane all the way makes for a less stressful journey, as passengers do not have to worry about being late for a connection.
We then took the train from the main station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. A recent construction, the building is on a vaster scale than anything in Britain, a 21st-century version of a grand central station. There is a frequent service to Dresden – the train we took was an express bound for Budapest which reached Dresden in two hours. The time passed very pleasantly, seated at a table in the waitress-service cafe car, watching the countryside speed by.