Japanese and Chinese influences are evident in the architecture of Schloss Pillnitz (Pillnitz castle).

Dresden: A China doll

The city has risen from the ashes
of World War II with its
heritage shining anew

By Daniel Kane
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The historic city of Dresden lies in the southeastern corner of Germany, straddling the Elbe River, Eastern Europe's main link to the Atlantic. Dresden is perhaps most noted for its famed porcelain. The porcelain of Meissen, near Dresden, is coveted by connoisseurs.


Dresden's role for more than 400 years as the seat of the elector of Saxony (one of the seven German electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor) ensured it a generous award of material riches. It also sits in a prosperous agricultural region along the Elbe and is within 30 miles of stunning mountain vistas that served to inspire the German Romantic movement.

Today, as the capital of Germany's Free State of Saxony, Dresden offers both a rich cultural heritage and a refreshing sense of progress. The city's heart is bisected by the Elbe. To the river's south lies the older, more historic district, the Altstadt, while to its north is the "new city," or Neustadt, which traces its origins to Dresden's industrial 19th century.

While the Altstadt may be home to most of the city's renowned art collections and Baroque masterpieces, Neustadt claims a vibrant music, bar and restaurant scene.

Gazing upon Dresden from the Augustusbrücke (the Bridge of Augustus), linking the city's old and new districts, it may seem that World War II skipped over Dresden, the way it did Krakow and Prague (a couple of hours away by train). Looking from the bridge upon Dresden's riverfront promenade, dubbed "Europe's Balcony," you'll see it alive with strollers. It was this promenade that drew me to Dresden.

The "Japanese faces" of the Japanisches Palais.

One of Ivan Turgenev's novels ends with its old Russian protagonist passing his twilight years in exile, strolling the Dresden promenade, lost in reverie. Looking out upon the embankment, which is dwarfed by the town's massive Baroque structures, such as the Hofkirche, it seemed nothing had changed.

But Dresden has had an eventful century since Turgenev last saw it. The city was leveled in a bombing campaign by British and American air forces in the war's final weeks.

Pictures of Dresden in February 1945 show a city in utter ruin. Until 1945 the dome of Dresden's Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), once called the "stone bell" for its immense stone copula, had watched over the city for two centuries, the crowning glory of Germany's most important Protestant church. The view from its belfry inspired Goethe and a generation of young Romantics.

Two days after the bombing, the church's lofty dome, weakened by fire and structural damage, collapsed. Its fate was not singular. Of the many Gothic, Neoclassical and Baroque structures crowding Altstadt, only the steeple of the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross), famed for its boys choir, broke the landscape of postwar destruction, and even then only as a charred skeleton of its former self.

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a half-century makes. Dresden now radiates an air of renewal and dynamism, its historic districts fast regaining their former splendors, the grand promenade along the Elbe River again crowded with locals and visitors, its galleries and their embarrassment of riches again a pilgrimage for art lovers.

There are other cities that have rebuilt themselves from the rubble of the war. For instance, Berlin, a two-hour train ride away, is still in the midst of a vast restoration. But no comeback is as impressive as Dresden's.

Even the Frauenkirche, which lay in ruin for nearly half a century under communist rule, is being rebuilt and, most remarkably, is using nearly a third of its original masonry, which was meticulously salvaged and cataloged starting in 1992 and is being reincorporated into the structure as construction progresses.

Hopes are that the church, stone bell and all, will be fully restored in time for Dresden's 800th birthday in 2006. The church and its dome are touted as symbols of reconciliation and peace.

DRESDEN OWES its fame and rich heritage to the efforts of Augustus the Strong. His presence pervades the city. It was Augustus, elector of Saxony -- an office he held concurrently with that of king of Poland (as August II) -- who decided to make Dresden a cultural center at the end of the 17th century.

Dresden's Hofkirche, or cathedral, dominates the city from its spot on Schlossplatz at the head of the Augustusbrücke.

The heart of Augustus now rests in the city's Hofkirche, or cathedral, which dominates the city from its spot on Schlossplatz at the head of the Augustusbrücke.

Dresden remains, as under Augustus and his successors, a city of artistic masterpieces. Under massive reconstruction and renovation efforts, the city is fast regaining its fame as an architectural showcase. Three hundred years after Augustus, Dresden's 30 museums continue to ensure its reputation as a center of art and culture.

The best known of Dresden's galleries is the Gemaldegalerie Alter Meister (the Old Masters' Gallery), located in Dresden's famous architectural structure, the Zwinger, a vast, late Baroque edifice just off the Theaterplatz and easily identifiable by its dome, crowned with the arms of Augustus the Strong.

Here, along with the Old Masters' Gallery, carrying such pieces as Raphael's "Sistine Madonna," you will find the Zwinger's collection of porcelain, including priceless Meissen ware and early Chinese and Japanese pieces. Not to be missed is Dresden's New Master's Gallery in the Albertinum or the Saxon Museum of Folk Art, located in the New Town in the oldest preserved Renaissance building in Dresden, the compact Jagerhof.

Dresden's wide variety of museums cover the gamut from transportation to porcelain to hygiene. The city's Museum of Prehistory and Ethnology is intriguing for its building, if not for its contents. It is located along the Elbe in the Japanisches Palais, a building originally meant to house Augustus' collection of Japanese and Chinese porcelain. The structure's sloping roof and themed decor are a captivating blend of East and West.

Walking from the Zinger to the heart of Neumarkt, you will be greeted by the Furstenzug -- the procession of princes. The mural depicts all the rulers of Saxony from 1123 to 1904.

Explore the meandering alleys of historic buildings around the Frauenkirche on Neumarkt, where restoration continues on that 18th-century church. Or take a tour of the medieval casements of the Bruhlsche Terrace, a fortress that once dominated the Elbe, protecting what was once Dresden proper but is now the Altstadt.

Visitors who walk to the heart of Newmarkt will come upon Furstenzug, or the procession of princes. The mural depicts all the rulers of Saxony from 1123 to 1904.

For a change of pace from the heritage of the old city, cross the Elbe on the Augustusbrücke to Neustadt. The new city revolves around the central Albertplatz. One radiating spoke off Albertplatz is Konigstrasse (King Street), the inspiration of Augustus the Strong.

Konigstrasse has been renovated along traditional lines, with austere rows of patrician homes. It is a charming place for a walk or for shopping and dining. Many of the homes, usually with courtyards, house boutiques or small restaurants. The area around Albertplatz is also home to many nightclubs, restaurants and hotels.

While you are in the Neumarkt, don't miss out on Pfund's Molkerei (Pfund's Milkery), just east of Albertplatz on Bautzner Strasse 79. Pfund's is a dairy store that boasts not just a porcelain-lined interior, but the largest selection of cheeses in the world, as the Guinness World Record Book can attest. It gives new meaning to the bull -- or, in this case, the cow -- in the china shop.

DRESDEN DOES NOT give the impression of a city of half a million. The countryside seeps in and seems at times on the verge of enveloping it. The Elbe's expansive green banks, called the Elbewiesen (Elbe Meadows), are traversed by foot and bike paths that lend Dresden a bucolic feel, even at the city's center. An errant cow, grazing along the riverfront, hardly surprised me.

Take in the scenery with a 30-minute stroll or a three-hour bike ride along the river. Another option is a ride on one of the steam paddle boats.

Dresden boasts the world's largest fleet of steam paddle boats -- eight. Prices for a river jaunt vary. Some travel just along the few miles of city front, while others venture upriver to the former residence of the kings of Saxony at Schloss Pillnitz (Pillnitz castle), or into the landscape of the "Saxon Switzerland." Some of the longer cruises offer dinner.

A man bikes through the Elbewiesen (Elbe Meadows) with a backdrop of Augustusbrücke, Hofkirche and Semper Opera House.

However you get there, Pillnitz castle is a must. Its unique layout, as well as its peaceful gardens, are well worth a day's excursion. Pillnitz was spared the destruction visited upon Dresden, and is where Dresden's priceless trove of art had been taken for safekeeping late in the war. Access is by steamboat or bus. An ideal trip might include a bus ride out through charming riverside towns that dot the hills above the Elbe, and a return by ferry. The ferry would drop you off in central Dresden, where a climb up the embankments can be rewarded with a pint of Pilsner at sunset at one of the riverside cafes.

Construction on Pillnitz started in 1594 as a residence for the electors of Saxony (the region's rulers not yet boasting the title of kings). Its present grand dimensions didn't begin to take shape until the early 18th century, when work was begun on the complex's Water Palace and its twin, the Hill Palace. It was Augustus the Strong who opted to transform Pillnitz and its grounds into his "Far Eastern dream," complete with a pagoda.

Chinoiserie was enjoying a vogue in Augustus' day, owing in great part to the knowledge of China being brought back by Jesuit missionaries, then enjoying a heyday of influence at the Chinese court in Peking. You may find Augustus' "inspiration" a bit gaudy. The outer and inner walls of the Water and Hill Palaces are generously decorated in Chinese-inspired designs. Sages of the Celestial Empire in lampshade hats and umbrella-touting maidens caper around willow trees and pagodas. Wispy clouds mix with swirling dragons in what can only be described as a flight of fancy for a man such as Augustus, who had never seen China.

Pillnitz is where the monarchs of Europe met in 1791 to issue their "Declaration of Pillnitz," calling for the defense of absolute monarchy against the rising tide of the French Revolution. It was a lost cause. Fifteen years later, one product of that revolution, the French Emperor Napoleon, gazed upon its ornate walls as his armies moved eastward.

A close-up reveals the detail found in one of the "Japanese faces" at the Japaisches Palais.

DRESDEN IS EASILY accessible by train from Berlin to the north or Prague to the south. Both cities are linked to Dresden by several trains a day. For budget travelers, a popular place to stay is the Mondpalast Hostel located on Katharinenstrasse 11-13 and a stone's throw from Albertplatz. It offers affordable rooms and an international atmosphere, a modest buffet breakfast and a resident bar.

The area around the hostel along Alaunstrasse and Konigsbrückerstrasse is home to a thriving community of small art shops, international cuisine and an underground culture that comes alive at night. Dresden is served by a convenient public transport system that combines buses with electric trolleys. Maps are available at the tourist booths in the train station or at information kiosks around the city.

True to its reputation as a cultural center, Dresden offers a variety of festivals throughout the year. Perhaps the best known is its Steam Engine Festival, held in mid-May in conjunction with the International Dixieland Festival, kicked off with a Steamboat Parade.

Dresden has also become widely known for its International Festival of Animation and Short Films, held annually in mid-April since 1989. This year's festival is slated for April 15-20. The city also holds its Contemporary Music Festival each October.

Daniel Kane is a freelance writer who divides his time between Hawaii and Korea.

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