Time Almost Stands Still in Saxony
By Allan Seiden
I had such a clear memory of Dresden that I was totally surprised to find that it looked nothing like the timeworn and neglected city I’d visited in 1990, soon after the Berlin Wall was breached and East and West Germany were reunified. None of my memories linked to the vibrant, beautifully restored riverside city I revisited this past autumn while on a weeklong stay in Saxony.
In a sense this was not the same city. In the 20 years since reunification neglect has been replaced by transformation.
Dresden has been reborn, its historic core, the Altstadt, restored, its churches rebuilt from rubble, centuries-old facades masterfully reproduced, palaces and museums restored to Saxon grandeur. Dresden was heir to commercial wealth and cultural prestige that spanned six centuries, starting in the late middle ages and continuing until the unification of Germany, dominated by Prussia, late in the 19th century.
No small fry to the finer things, Saxony’s dukes, most notable Augustus the Great, were also
Electors of the German confederation known as the Holy Roman Empire. Dresden, the Saxon royal capital, was therefore also a European cultural and architectural capital. All that was turned to rubble in mid-February, 1945, when the city was attacked in a coordinated attack by 1,299 American and British planes, a prelude to Nazi Germany’s imminent defeat.
During the communist-ruled decades that followed World War II, Saxony became something of a backwater, with little government money or motivation for restoring what represented a time of royal privilege.
German reunification in 1990 changed all that, with West German marks, discipline, and commitment tackling the challenge as a historic cultural obligation. All of Saxony, I would soon discover, had benefited dramatically from reunification.
Leipzig, Saxony’s largest city with more than 500,000 people, lies an hour+ west of Dresden. It too was subject to air attacks by Allied bombers as early as 1942, with British and American planes taking aim at factories and rail infrastructure. In one raid in 1944 more than 15,000 buildings were hit, with more than 4,000 totally destroyed.
In look and feel Dresden and Leipzig are quite different. Leipzig’s prominence was commercially driven and was largely independent of the royal patronage that made Dresden spectacular and renowned.
Leipzig offered a more avant-garde environment for men of creative genius like J.S. Bach, who served as Cantor at the Thomaskirche for much of his life.
Others would follow in his footsteps, drawn to and becoming part of the city: Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Mahler all used Leipzig as a creative base. The beautiful Bach museum documents generations of musical accomplishment, while the Schumann and Mendelssohn homes reveal the private lives of men who would become cultural icons. Live music is still a component of the city’s cultural life (see SEIDBAR).
Traditional and contemporary mingle in Leipzig. While a core district surrounding the 15th century rathaus (city hall) hints of far earlier times, the city’s most prominent architecture is of later vintage, stylistically Art Nouveau and Art Deco,
architectural masterpieces integrated into a city that is diverse and pedestrian friendly, with a central pedestrian mall that’s great for taking in the passing scene, which ranges staid to counter culture, a reminder of an indepdnent streak that is part of Leipzig legend: It was anti-government demonstrations in Leipzig that led to the collapse of the communist regime.
I wandered the city for much of the day, taking in the wonderful collection of modern art at the Museum der bildenden Kunst (Contemporary Art Museum) to escape a misty rain, lunching on bratwurst from a street vendor and
indulging in famed Leipzig chocolates and marzipan,
ending the day browsing through bookstores like those that I remember from my childhood in New York, places with smell of paper and the promise of undiscovered treasures. That proved true of Saxony’s scenic countryside as well, with historic palaces, extravagant manor houses, and gardens beautifully restored and open to the public. Add good food, natural beauty and dollar value to the equation and you’ll understand why I left wishing I’d had one more day in Dresden, and one for an additional palace, and a couple to hike its forested landscape.
Tenth in size & sixth most populous of Germany’s
16 states, bordering the Czech Republic to the south and Poland to the east. The Elbe River links Saxony to Europe. Dresden, Leipzig (Saxony’s financial and commercial hub), Meissen (renowned for its glass), and Chemnitz. An independent Duchy, from the 10th century on, Saxony was part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1870 it was incorporated into the German Empire. In the 20 years since German reunification, Saxony has reemerged as a cultural and commercial hub.
WHEN TO GO
I went in October, with gardens, estates and countryside in colorful transition and temperatures ranging cold (high 40s) to perfect (mid-70s). Summer temperatures range into the 80s and can be humid, with the countryside richly green.
Leipzig’s crowded during the annual Trade Fair (late August-early September), one of Europe’s largest takes over the town. Plan for six days for Dresden and Leipzig with stops at gardens and historic homes. Add a day each for Meissen and Chemnitz. Check to see if choral or orchestral performances are scheduled while you’re in Leipzig. The renowned Bach Festival is held in June.
GETTING THERE: Berlin is the main gateway, with a pleasant two-hour +/- train ride to Dresden or Leipzig. Trains link Dresden, Leipzig, Meissen and Chemnitz, Saxony’s hour historic cities, with day tours offered to outlying palaces, castles and gardens.
***** NOT TO BE MISSED *****
The Residenzschloss: Housed in the restored royal palace, thousands of dazzling treasures in a variety of applied arts make this an awe-inspiring collection that incorporates art and architecture, most notably in the Green Vault. This collection, begun in the 17th century, speaks of the wealth and influence of Saxony’s ruling princes.
Frauenkirche: Almost totally destroy by Allied bombs in February 1945; this architectural gem was a masterfully rebuilt. The dome offers overviews of Dresden’s historic core.
A Walk Along the Elbe: Several bridges cross the Elbe from old Dresden to the opposite shore where a promenade offers a perfect place to enjoy a sunset silhouettes the city’s historic skyline against the colorful dusk sky.
Pillnitz: A lovely 17th century palace fronting the Elbe River (paddle-wheelers depart frequently for Pillnitz from the Dresden riverside), Pillnitz was built as a “modest” retreat from Dresden’s grandeur. Centuries-old evergreens, maple, beech, and other deciduous giants line elegant paths that link the palace to outlying pavilions.
St. Tohmas Church, where Bach is buried, is adjacent to the very informative museum of the multigenerational Bach family. St. Nicholas Church: Bach also served here, but the lure is the unusual interior architecture.
Auerbachs Keller: With Mephistopheles the theme, this is Leipzig’s most unique restaurant in theme and for dining.
Mendelssohn Home: A glimpse of mid-19th century life that is very personal.
The Leipzig Botanical Garden is the oldest botanical garden in Germany, and the Zoological Garden, which houses the world’s largest facilities for primates.
The Neues Rathous (City Hall): An eclectic architectural masterpiece, as is the nearby Federal Administrative Court.
Battle of the Nations Monument is located on the outskirts of the city, this massive building is a monument to both the war dead, and to the aggrandizement of military might.
Where to Stay
Dresden: The small, hip InnSide Hotel (a Melia brand) in the heart of Altstadt, provided a perfect base, with a great breakfast included. Rates begin at $121, with seasonal spikes.
Leipzig: The Westin Leipzig, big and modern, offers panoramic views of the city and proved an excellent base for exploring Leipzig on foot. Rates begin at $120, and may well price out higher.
© Allan Seiden, 2011