Dresden: A City of Light

Most people know Paris is the city most associated with the phrase, “City of Light,” but it’s also been used to describe the following cities in one way or another:

We missed all these interestingly named towns in Germany.

Anchorage, Alaska; Aurora, Illinois; Baghdad, Iraq; Baltimore, Maryland; Birmingham, Alabama, United States;  Buffalo, New York; Curepipe, Mauritius; Eindhoven, Netherlands; Elbląg, Poland; Gwangju, South Korea; Jyväskylä, Finland; Johannesburg, South Africa; Karachi, Pakistan; Las Vegas Valley, United States;  Los Angeles, California; Lucerne, Switzerland;  Lyon, France; Manresa, Spain; Medina, Saudi Arabia; Miami, Florida; Milford, Pennsylvania; Natchitoches, Louisiana; New Bedford, Massachusetts; Ohrid, Macedonia; Perth, Western Australia; Tehran, Iran; Tamworth, Australia;  Quanzhou, China; Varanasi (Banaras), India; Venice, Italy; Wheeling, West Virginia; and Wolverhampton, United Kingdom.

And so, in keeping with my “A City of…” theme for this trip, I offer up Dresden as another entry to that already long list. Here’s why:

dresden bombingIn February of 1945 the US and England dropped almost 1,500 tons of high explosives bombs and over 1,100 tons of incendiary bombs on Dresden, creating a hellacious firestorm and pretty much destroying the entire inner city. The bombing remains controversial to this day.

On one hand, the Germans considered Dresden an important defensive military strongpoint and a vital hindrance to the advance of the Soviet armies. On the other hand, the war was almost over, and Dresden was a beautiful city (nicknamed the “Florence on the Elbe” as well as “The Jewel Box”). It appears that the English and Americans bombed it mostly because they had the bombs anyway, plus they may have wanted to damage a place that was sure to be in Soviet hands after the war.

But since the city was chock full of refugees fleeing the Soviet advance, mostly innocent civilians died in the raid, with estimates ranging from 35,000 to 135,000.

In any case, for a couple of nights during the war, it was most certainly one of the brightest lit cities on the planet.

After the war, it fell under the control of East Germany (and therefore the USSR). They rebuilt some of the historic buildings, but they also built a number of buildings in the ugly, boxy, “socialist modern” style; I guess so that we’d always remember how boring Communism is.

dresden at night
A much better picture of Dresden than I could have taken.

We found Dresden to be absolutely stunning in the inner city area, with buildings that, while rebuilt, are surely just as gorgeous and impressive as the originals. But the rest of the city looked a little blah to us, with its boxy apartment buildings, nondescript structures, and not a whole lot else that was interesting. That said, we were mostly on foot and certainly didn’t see the entire area, but without that inner city, it’s hard to imagine Dresden being any kind of tourist destination today.

And so, without further ado, here are our pictures:

bruhls' terraceThis is an area called Brühl’s Terrace in the inner city. It is a popular location for taking walks, people watching, and debating with your travel companions as to how you pronounce the ü. I argued for Ooh-dot-dot.

catholic church 2This is Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony, aka The Dresden Cathedral. The church was badly damaged during the bombing (which will be a common theme here). The East German government restored much of it, and after reunification it was restored more fully. It was originally completed in 1751.

church of our ladyNot to be outdone by the Catholics, the Lutherans have the Frauenkirche of Dresden, which is now one of the most important churches in Germany. It was mostly destroyed by the firestorm as well. It remains an important symbol because the Communists wanted to turn it into a parking lot. The Germans simply wouldn’t allow that, but the church wasn’t fully rebuilt until after the German reunification.

catholic church of the royal court of saxonyThe Semperoper is the opera house of the Saxon State Opera, and was originally built in 1841. Only an empty shell was left after the Dresden firestorm. Exactly 40 years later, on February 13th, 1985, the opera’s reconstruction was completed. Of course, I’m not sure anyone bothered to ask who listens to opera anymore, but it’s an impressive building nonetheless.

a life without joy is like a long journey without a guesthouse.When we saw this building with that big slogan, I didn’t know if was some propaganda relic from East Germany’s past or an advertisement for a pub. I translated it with Google Translate, and this is what it apparently says: “A life without joy is like a long journey without a guesthouse.”

So I’m guessing that’s a hotel? Looks more like a prison maybe. In any case, just an idea of the blah kind of landscape outside of the inner city.

img_9464We couldn’t tell the date of construction of apartments like this, but the blocky style is certainly reminiscent of the Communist approach to architecture, i.e. bo-ring…

img_9465I’m pretty sure this was built after the reunification because it actually has some artistic design to it. I don’t think it’s an atomic plant, however. We didn’t think so because we didn’t grow a third eye or anything after walking by it. Yet anyway.

img_9519The inner city of Dresden at night.

wiener platzThis is a Christmas tree in the Wiener Platz, which is an important transportation hub of Dresden, especially for sausages. Otherwise, why would they call it Wiener Platz? Duh!

golden riderThis monument, dubbed “The Golden Horseman,” is a statue of Augustus the Strong (1670-1733) and is covered with gold leaf. Augustus’ great physical strength earned him the nickname by breaking horseshoes with his bare hands (!) and engaging in fox tossing by holding the end of his sling with just one finger while two of the strongest men in his court held the other end.

Fox tossing. Now there’s a sport we don’t see on ESPN very often. I’d have been more impressed, however, if the animal were an elephant or a hippo.

img_9493Carolyn freezing in front of the Katholische Hofkirche.

img_9499A wide angle view of the inner city square.

img_9552A view of the Frauenkirche of Dresden as seen through the Fürstenzug on Augustusstraße (talk about a mouthful!). The Fürstenzug (Procession of Princes) is a large mural of a mounted procession of the rulers of Saxony, and is one of the largest porcelain tile artworks in the world.

royal palace muralIt was originally painted between 1871 and 1876 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Wettin Dynasty, Saxony’s ruling family. In order to make the work weatherproof, it was replaced with approximately 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles between 1904 and 1907. Apparently those are the things to use for construction if you anticipate a fire bombing, because the damage to it was minimal.

img_9553According to Google Translate, that sign says, “A tribe of horses whose career extends to our days in the gray past, he went on to say with our people.” Apparently any kind of writing on walls is essentially graffiti, which is almost always unintelligible.

img_9563The view across the river Elbe.

img_9564More inner city Dresden. The whole area is easily walked in less than an hour, but only can be fully appreciated with a day or two of exploration.

img_8748I thought it a good idea to reach out between nations and hug a Pole.

img_9476This is the outside of the Zwinger, which is a palace in Dresden. Zwinger is actually a term for what is essentially a killing ground: an open area between two defensive walls that was used for defensive purposes during the Middle Ages.

img_9488This Zwinger was eventually walled in, and is now a museum complex that contains the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), the Dresden Porcelain Collection (Dresdener Porzellansammlung) and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon (Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments).

img_9544It was of course largely destroyed in the bombing, but like much of the rest of inner city Dresden, has been rebuilt to its former glory.

green vaultWe also went into a museum called “The Green Vault” that houses the largest collection of treasures in Europe. It was founded by Augustus the Strong, and so I would’ve expected some broken horseshoes or a video of fox tossing, but no.

They also didn’t allow any pictures so all I could do is steal the one above from the internet.

As we wandered through some shops, I came across these sweatshirts on a rack. No other city was represented. Portland and Seattle are our two hubs in the US when we go back. I guess we’ll have to go back and be tourists there now! They must be so exotic!

img_9571We were flummoxed when we found out our train to Prague was delayed by about half an hour. I’d read that German trains are on time 99% of the time! What the hell’s going on here?

This is what you do when you’re waiting for a train and otherwise have absolutely nothing else to do.

dresden shirtSo that’s Dresden. It only gets one entry because the area wasn’t huge and there was only so much to see. Plus we already covered the Christmas markets in a previous blog, and that was some of the reason we went there.

Other interesting Dresden factoids:

The Christmas market there is Germany’s oldest.

Originally, back in 1933, Dresden was home to over 6,000 Jews. In 1945, only 41 were left.

The novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (one of my favorite authors of all time) was set in wartime Dresden. As a result of that novel, I had a mental picture of what I thought Dresden might look like. It looked nothing like I had pictured.

From 1985 to 1990 Vladimir Putin, while working for the KGB, was stationed in Dresden.

The following products were invented in or around Dresden:

  • The bra
  • The toothpaste tube
  • Mouthwash
  • Coffee filters
  • Those man-shaped nutcrackers


Now on to Prague!


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