Dresden’s old New Town

The entrance to Dresden’s Neustadt is marked by a big and exuberantly golden statue of Augustus the Strong riding a horse. The statue of Saxony’s legendary 18th century ruler is the largest piece of bling in the entire city. Illuminated in the spring sunshine the reflection is blindingly bright. You can probably see it from space. I got the feeling that it was painted this colour as a visual joke, it looks absurd on its sooty plinth. Locals call it the Golden Horseman.

The other non-visual joke about the Neustadt is that it’s actually older than Dresden’s Old Town. Right up until a devastating fire burned it to the ground in 1685, the New Town was the Old Town. The baroque reconstruction was very modern so the name was changed. In another irony, the old New Town received comparatively light damage during the massive bombing raids of February 1945, and remains home to some very attractive period buildings.

Augustus the Strong statue, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We started our exploration of the Neustadt by wandering up Hauptstrasse, the broad avenue that heads north from the Golden Horseman towards Albertplatz. It’s a lovely tree-lined street that, architecturally, mixes the old and the new, and gives you a real sense of the grandeur of Dresden in the 18th century. Several arrow-straight avenues lead away from the riverbank, which is still home to multiple grandiose palaces. This was town planning intended to impress.

We’d come to the Neustadt because it’s the living, beating heart of the contemporary city. In places, it has an alternative, counter-culture vibe that felt similar to areas of Hamburg – although even Hamburg hasn’t renamed a square after US whistleblower, Edward Snowden. This only serves to underline the Jekyll and Hyde personality of Dresden. The former East German town is, after all, a stronghold of the German far-right.

It was across the river in the new Old Town, in October 2014, that far right supporters of the extremist anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement began regular marches and protests against asylum-seekers and immigrants. At its height, the PEGIDA movement was able to rally 20,000 people in Dresden. According to Deutsche Welle, Dresden is officially the only major German city that is right-wing. No surprise then that far-right political party, Alternative für Deutschland, gained 27 percent of the vote in Saxony.

Even as 20,000 far-right protesters marched in the city, equally large numbers of anti-fascist protesters held countermarches. Many came from Dresden itself, and in the Neustadt evidence of their existence can be found everywhere – from the occasional squat, to street art. The Old Town is the main tourist draw, but the Neustadt feels like a more grounded place, with diverse communities and the city’s best eating and drinking options.

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We spent the best part of half a day wandering the streets, exploring traditional hofs and alleys that contain art galleries, bars and restaurants. In the end the Museum of Military History, designed by Daniel Libeskind, was just too much effort to get to. It will be on the list when we return – although I’m not sure the most right-wing town in the country is the best place for a museum dedicated to 800-years of German military history.

We had a late lunch sat on the street under a warm sun before heading back towards the Old Town, making a detour so we could walk the wide sweep of a bend in the River Elbe along the way. The grassy banks of the river had been transformed by dozens of families and groups of friends having picnics and barbecues. The atmosphere was jovial and happy as we walked in front of the massive former royal palaces. It was a perfect way to spend our last day in the city – at least on this trip.

Dresden, the city of Augustus the Strong

Too excited to sleep, I was up early to wander Dresden’s quiet streets. There was a chill in the air, but the city was at its most evocative in the early morning light. It may just be my overactive imagination, but the ghosts of Dresden’s legendary history, ancient and modern, seemed to accompany me as I passed down cobbled streets in the shadow of Baroque churches. I was stopped in my tracks at the open space in front of the sublime Semper Opera House. The sun transforming the brown stone with golden hues.

A short stroll brought me to the courtyard of the magnificent Zwinger Palace, partially under reconstruction but still one of the most beautiful buildings in Dresden. I had the entire place to myself, and I sat on the edge of a fountain to drink in the atmosphere. On the orders of Saxony’s greatest ruler, Augustus the Strong, the Zwinger was built in imitation of the Palace of Versailles. As the sun crept over the gardens, I walked around admiring the Baroque flourishes of the buildings.

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühlschen Garten, Dresden, Germany

Dresden is in many ways the city of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Although the Dukes and Electors of Saxony had made Dresden their capital in 1485, it was the man known as “the Saxon Hercules” who has left perhaps the greatest mark on the city. During his rule Dresden became one of Europe’s great cities and a leading cultural centre. Augustus may have left a mixed legacy as a military ruler – he was no Frederick the Great – but Dresden thrived.

Perhaps the finest of all Augustus’ cultural legacies is the Grünes Gewölbe, the Green Vault, one of Europe’s earliest museums that he filled with priceless treasures. The tickets aren’t cheap, but a visit to the Green Room in a former royal palace is worth the €21 price tag. The entire building was destroyed in the Second World War, but it has been lovingly restored to its former glory. Photography isn’t permitted, so you’ll have to take my word that it alone is a reason to come to Dresden.

Around the corner from the Green Room, Augustus features in one of Dresden’s other iconic sights, the Fürstenzug. This time though he doesn’t take centre stage. That honour goes to Conrad I, who founded the dynasty that would rule from Dresden until the catastrophe of the First World War. This 102m long depiction of all but two of the rulers of Saxony contains 23,000 glazed porcelain tiles made in nearby Meissen. The 35 rulers depicted cover a period from 1127 to 1904.

The presence of porcelain tiles gives a hint of another reason for Dresden’s fame and wealth. Augustus the Strong was responsible for inventing European porcelain, a much sought after luxury product. He sponsored unsuccessful experiments in Dresden before efforts moved to Meissen, where they bore fruit. Porcelain would decorate the palaces of Saxony for centuries to come. The Fürstenzug is close to Augustusbrücke, where I crossed to the north bank of the River Elbe.

Fürstenzug, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Augustusbrücke, River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

The views back across the city were magnificent, the spring sun illuminating the spires and domes that punctuate the cityscape. The views of the city were ever-changing as I walked along the riverfront towards the main road bridge, and for the first time it was possible to truly understand why Dresden was known as “Florence on the Elbe”. The Brühlschen gardens provided views over the Frauenkirche, before my stroll finished along Brühl’s Terrace with views over the Elbe.

It was time for a late breakfast, but Dresden had already proven itself as the capital of Saxon royalty – with architecture to match.

Slaughterhouse-Five, the making of modern Dresden

Dresden, just a couple of hours south of Berlin, is a beautiful city, especially on a warm early spring weekend. From the Baroque glories of the Zwinger Palace, to the sublime Renaissance Brühl’s Terrace, know as the “Balcony of Europe”, to the magnificent dome of the Frauenkirche, a thousand years of history seems to drip from the very fabric of the city. Appearances can be deceptive though, and what visitors to Dresden see today is a carefully reconstructed version of the ancient capital of Saxony.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the events of 1945 will be aware that, after three days of utterly devastating aerial bombardment, Dresden was little more than a smoking ruin. Bombing raids raised an immense firestorm in the city, temperatures of close to 1,000°C melted glass and metal. It burned oxygen from the atmosphere and people suffocated before being incinerated in their thousands. Many of the dead were found clustered together in cellars, where they’d sought protection from the bombs.

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

River Elbe in Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Neumarkt, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

When it was over, the city that was renowned throughout the world as the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ was obliterated. More than 20km2 of the city was little more than rubble when the shattered population of more than 650,000 people finally reemerged from their hiding places. Dresden had been considered safe, largely because it was of such historic and architectual value. Like Rome, Paris and Kyoto it could, should have been saved from the nearly 4,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries.

Dresden, to all intents and purposes economically and militarily unimportant to the Nazi war effort, wasn’t a battle. It was a slaughter from the air. It’s little wonder that American novelist, Kurt Vonnegut, based much of his critically acclaimed anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, on his experiences of living through the Dresden bombing raids. Vonnegut, an American serviceman captured at the Battle of the Bulge, survived by hiding in a meat locker at the slaughterhouse where he was held prisoner.

The debate about whether the bombing of Dresden was a war crime still goes on, but Vonnegut recalled that, “When we came up the city was gone … They burnt the whole damn town down.” The most accurate estimates agree that around 25,000 civilians were killed in the attacks between February 13 – 15. The scale of the destruction was so great that after the war, when Dresden found itself in the Soviet zone of occupation, there were serious discussions about whether the entire city should be levelled.

That, thankfully, wasn’t to be Dresden’s ultimate fate. Starting with the beautiful Saxon royal residence, the Zwinger Palace, the Baroque centre of the city was resurrected. A true Phoenix from the flames of war emerged in the decades after the war. While the architectural and artistic treasure trove for which the city was famed will never be fully recovered, a walk along the northern banks of the River Elbe admiring the magnificent cityscape provides a stunning perspective of this remade Baroque beauty.

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl's Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Our first impression of Dresden was the town’s central Neumarkt late on a Friday night after the drive from Berlin. We’d arrived with just enough time to find a few places still serving food. Our search for nourishment didn’t stop us admiring the illuminated dome of the Frauenkirche. A delicate 18th century architectural beauty that dominates the square and surrounding buildings, the Frauenkirche was left as a ruin after the war and was only reconstructed following German reunification in 1990.

We took a quick stroll around the town after dinner, thankful that the East German authorities hadn’t ploughed all this magnificent history into the ground. We stood on Brühl’s Terrace and admired the view across to the Neustadt, bridges and buildings reflected in the calm waters of the River Elbe. It was peaceful and serene, as far as it could possibly be from those fearsome nights in February 1945.