| DRESDEN, Germany, March 28
DRESDEN, Germany, March 28 American novelist
Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War
Two, has a scene in "Slaughterhouse Five" where time-travelling
hero Billy Pilgrim sees the city's firebombing in reverse, with
phosphorous bombs sucked back into warplanes.
Visitors today to the German city that proudly, if a bit
cheekily, calls itself "Florence on the Elbe", in a nod to its
Italianate architecture, could almost think the scene was
prescient of Dresden's resurrection since World War Two.
Imprisoned at a slaughterhouse that inspired the novel's
title, Vonnegut lived through the infamous bombing raid in
February 1945 which destroyed the old part of the city three
months before the war in Europe ended. It killed, according to
widely varying estimates, 35,000 to 100,000 people, or more.
Emerging from the relative safety of the slaughterhouse,
Vonnegut wrote that the destroyed city looked like a moonscape.
Today the moonscape can be seen only in photographs. Sited
on land that slopes up gently from the scenic Elbe in the
historic kingdom of Saxony, Dresden, formerly part of communist
East Germany, is one of the beneficiaries of German unification.
Its booming semiconductor, pharmaceutical and manufacturing
industries, including a glass-fronted factory that produces
Volkswagen's luxury Phaeton model, and is a tourist attraction
in its own right, mean the city is flush with cash to support a
thriving restaurant, boutique and cultural and arts scene.
One of Germany's most prestigious opera houses, the
Semperoper, which saw the premieres of nine of Richard Strauss's
operas and three of Richard Wagner's, dominates a vast square.
Nearby, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture
Gallery) has a spectacular collection including works by Rubens,
Durer, Rembrandt and Canaletto, plus touchstones of art like
Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" and Vermeer's "Girl Reading a Letter
at an Open Window".
Dresden is also the site of a modern miracle in the
reconstruction of its historic old town, especially the
rebuilding of the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our
Lady). The heart and soul of the old city collapsed into rubble
two days after the bombing raid due to the intense heat
generated by the firestorm.
While the communist authorities who ran East Germany until
1989 spent money to rebuild the destroyed Semperoper, they would
not fork out money for the church. Townspeople cleared the site
and stored the remaining original stones nearby, waiting for
their time to come, which it did when communism collapsed and
the Berlin Wall was torn down.
With donations from throughout the world, including a
substantial sum from a trust in Coventry, England, scene of
another devastating church bombing in World War Two, the
Frauenkirche was rebuilt from the rubble.
Since it reopened in 2005 it has become one of the top five
tourist attractions in Germany, partly for its meticulously
restored, pale white baroque interior, partly because it has a
reputation for being "the biggest puzzle in the world".
Dotted throughout the church, inside and out, are the dark
original stones, reinserted in their former positions as a
result of painstaking research and computer-imaging technology.
The end result is striking and extraordinary - a mostly
light-coloured structure flecked with dark that provides a stark
visual reminder of the cruelty and destruction of war.
BIG PARTY TOWN TOO
Dresden has another side, largely courtesy of the Wettin
dynasty which ruled Saxony for more than 800 years and began
building palaces and other vast buildings in what had once been
a small fishing village on the banks of the Elbe.
One of the more fantastic architectural legacies of Wettin
rule is the sprawling Zwinger complex, essentially a folly
inspired by Versailles and consisting of ornate Baroque
buildings that were never really intended as living quarters.
Instead, the Zwinger was the setting for one of the longest
and most lavish parties of the 18th century. Friedrich August,
the only known legal son of Augustus II, whose nickname was
Augustus the Strong and who was fabled to have had 500
mistresses and 365 children, married a Habsburg princess in
1719. "Half of Europe" was invited to the party, which lasted
four weeks and cost a then-princely sum of four million thalers.
Like other royal buildings, the Zwinger suffered extensive
damage in the war, but was rebuilt in its original style in the
1950s and 1960s. It houses a magnificent porcelain collection
and also, in a wing designed in a later style, the Old Masters
Picture Gallery. A clock at one end of the Zwinger's open
courtyard features Meissen-porcelain bells that chime the hours.
Porcelain, which came to Europe from China, was considered
to be "white gold" and Augustus the Strong was anxious to
develop his own source. When an alchemist came up with a process
to make it, the Saxon ruler promoted the creation of workshops
at Meissen, a small town northwest of Dresden, to manufacture
porcelain which is still made there today.
A "Procession of the Princes" mural that stretches 102
metres (335 feet) along the wall of the royal stables was
painted in the late 1800s to celebrate the 800th anniversary of
the dynasty. Between 1904 and 1907, to preserve it, the painting
was replaced with 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles depicting the
same scene, making it the largest Meissen porcelain artwork in
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Volkswagen's "transparent factory" allows visitors to watch
a car being assembled, with one of the highlights being the
moment when the finished vehicle is twirled up into a
glass-enclosed tower-like holding area.
(www.glaesernemanufaktur.de/en/, tours must be booked by
But when it comes to having a look inside, almost nothing
compares to Dresden's Deutsches Hygiene-Museum (www.dhmd.de), a
museum of public health and sciences which explores pretty much
every aspect of human life, from birth to death, with exhibits
that leave nothing to the imagination.
A visitor knows this is going to be an unusual experience
from the first room. It features a black metal X-ray machine
from the 1920s that is about the size of small car and features
large dials and a tubular glass ray-emitting tube that would
look right at home in Dr. Frankenstein's lab.
A bit further on there are foetuses at several stages of
development preserved in glass containers, exhibits of the
instruments needed to deliver a baby and display cases showing
how a child is conceived, and how it develops in the womb.
A considerable amount of space is devoted to discussing,
with German and English texts, how the Nazis used the museum to
promote their theories of racial supremacy. A spectacularly
unappetising video shows how fishfingers are made. And the last
room contains one of the world's largest collections of antique
flasks, jars and containers for beauty products.
There are bus sightseeing tours of the entire city and
cruises of the Elbe River, from April until the fall.
WHERE TO EAT
One thing to bear in mind with German cooking, if you are a
vegetarian, is that sometimes the vegetable dishes contain meat.
That is the case with the sauerkraut and fried potatoes served
at the Augustiner An der Frauenkirche, near the famous church.
The Augustiner in other respects is the ideal place to fill
up on hearty German cooking, from a plate of roasted
Nuremberg-style sausages to a grilled knuckle of pork to roast
duck or pork goulash.
Side dishes include cucumber salad and tomato salad, while
the menu advertises at least one "big mixed salad" with no hint
of meat, though it might be a good idea to ask. The draft beer
is superb and it would be hard to spend more than 25 euros per
person, easy to spend considerably less.
Rauschenbach Deli, across the main boulevard from the old
city, is among a half dozen restaurants on Weisse Gasse offering
everything from tapas to Vietnamese food. Pork knuckle is on the
menu, but Rauschenbach also has salmon fillet in a leak and
cream sauce and on a recent visit served a perfectly cooked
halibut portion in a similar sauce.
There are pasta dishes that do not contain meat or fish, and
with a glass of wine or stein of beer, plus a starter, the tab
is about 30 euros per person.
Alte Meister Cafe & Restaurant, a step away from the Old
Masters gallery and the Semperoper, is installed in the elegant
surroundings of the former mansion of the architect who rebuilt
the Zwinger. Specialities include pork belly with herbs or veal
in a parsnip and mustard crust with gravy, green peppers,
radishes and layered potatoes. Figure 35 to 40 euros per person.
The waiters and waitresses in the Sophienkeller, Taschenberg
3, near the posh Kempinski Hotel, wear local costume and the
food has a Saxon theme, including a Saxon potato soup with
sausage, grill-roasted suckling pig and Saxon "Quarkkaulchen",
which is described as a speciality made from potato and curd,
fried and rolled in sugar with apple sauce. You won't go away
hungry and the tab should be about 30 euros per person.
There is a friendly and lively row of cafes and bars, many
of them open late, behind the Frauenkirche on Munzgasse, running
down to the riverfront. But for a younger scene, the place to go
is across the river to the "new city", where most of the clubs,
cafes, cinemas and nightlife are located.
A nice way to ease into the scene is to start at Cafe
Scheune at Alaunstrasse 36-40 (www.scheune.org). This is a
multi-purpose venue featuring a laid-back bar and cafe with a
Pakistani-Indian restaurant that also serves a wicked Sunday
brunch. Upstairs is a theatre which, depending on the day,
offers music, plays, "poetry slams", dance parties, book
readings and more. It would help to speak German, but command of
the language is not necessary to dance or enjoy the music.
The area includes more cafes and bars, clothes shops and a
more eclectic range of restaurants than the old town.
WHERE TO STAY
The Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais is among the priciest
hotels in the city but offers a setting - in the remodelled and
reconstructed Taschenberg Palace - and location, a stone's throw
from the opera house and the Frauenkirche, to match.
For travellers who want to stay on the other side of the
river, but within walking or tram distance of all the main
sights, the Rothenburger Hof, Rothenburger Strasse 15-17, has
rooms that are impeccably furnished, if not overly large, and
prices that won't break the bank. (www.dresden-hotel.de)
(Editing by Andrew Roche)