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Dreamy Dresden

Delight in the romantic skyline of the German city, even as you explore its modern facets and painful past

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Lee Siew Hua on 16 Sep 2018

The Straits Times

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It takes just a moment to leave behind modern Germany and glide into an earlier epoch, as our quintet of vintage paddleboats cruises by the dreamy silhouette of Dresden.

 

We are floating on the Elbe River, a tranquil thread through a countryside of fairy-tale castles and chateaus fashioned by Crazy Rich Germans who splurged on some of the fanciest real estate in Europe, from mediaeval times to the last century.

 

That whiff of very old money is a perfect prelude for an illusory scene that appears near the end of our river voyage: A woman in a vermilion gown twirls her parasol in front of a Baroque palace, while a stilt-walker steps past her like an apparition in white.

 

Lords and ladies dance to the music of a bygone era while the Pillnitz Palace (http://www.schlosspillnitz.de/en/home), first mentioned as a seat of nobility in 1335, glows under a warm pink sunset.

 

I imagine the merrymakers are evoking the extravagant days of Prince Elector Johann Georg IV, who bought the summer palace for his mistress Magdalena Sybilla von Neidschutz.

 

This was a vibrant venue of weddings, wine festivals and Venetian-style masked balls for aristocrats.

 

Our Baroque spectacle is staged, of course.

 

That evening in May, Pillnitz is once again a pleasure palace - this time for the entertainment of global delegates who have converged on Dresden for the Germany Travel Mart, an annual trade fair.

 

During my four-day visit, Dresden reveals itself as an old-world city, romantic and seemingly suspended in time. I think about our interlude on the Elbe River and the illuminated night scenes of Dresden's Old Town.

 

But the 800-year-old city in eastern Germany is equally defined by its very contemporary spirit, visible in the artsy New Town filled with young people and the sleek Transparent Factory of German carmaker Volkswagen.

 

BAROQUE BEAUTIES AND ROYAL RICHES

 

After our Elbe cruise, our hosts treat us to a late-night stroll around the Old Town (Altstadt). From our paddleboats, we had been admiring its cathedrals and palaces, an ancient skyline crowned with spires and sculptures on roofs.

 

This skyline is all the more mesmerising when travellers remember that much of Dresden was fire-bombed by the Allies in 1945, in the final months of World War II even as the fall of Nazi Germany seemed imminent.

 

The cathedral-city was not militarily significant, so the air raids remain controversial.

 

Once so resplendent that it was christened "Florence on the Elbe", Dresden was scorched and lay in ruins.

 

A good number of historic gems have been elegantly restored, however, and peace prevails amid a lingering poignancy.

 

We visit a trio of restored Baroque beauties, including the Zwinger Palace (www.der-dresdner-zwinger.de/en/home) that we enter at the late, secret hour of 10pm for a zippy private tour of its masterpieces.

 

I pause by The Chocolate Girl, a pastel by Swiss portraitist Jeanne-Etienne Liotard, which depicts a maid bearing a porcelain cup of chocolate to someone unseen.

 

Also intriguing is the Sleeping Venus, the first known Western painting of a recumbent nude. Painted by Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione before he succumbed to plague, the monumental artwork was completed by his contemporary Titian in 1510.

 

That night, I am only skimming the surface of this city of culture, home to about 50 museums that celebrate art, books, puppets, porcelain, globes and more.

 

Dresden is now a candidate for the European Capital of Culture in 2025.

 

Soon, I pop into the Royal Palace (Taschenberg 2, 01067 Dresden), left a shell after the war. It is splendid again and we zoom in on the Green Vault, reputed to house the world's greatest collection of royal treasures and curios.

 

Its rare 40-carat Dresden Green Diamond is on a par with the more famous Mountain of Light in the priceless Crown Jewels collection ensconced in the Tower of London. I peer at curiosities too, including a cherry stone impossibly carved with microscopic portraits.

 

We bustle through the Semperoper (www.semperoper.de/en.html), an opera house with a dazzling, four-tiered interior where composers Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner premiered their works. It is silent that night but, in the vast square outside, a string quartet serenades midnight revellers, amplifying Dresden's romance.

 

WAR AND WORSHIP

 

By day, Dresden is just as romantic and inspiring.

 

There is a lightness and beauty inside the Frauenkirche Dresden, or Church of Our Lady, during a pipe organ concert. Majestic music fills the church, still a place of worship, and now a new symbol of hope after it was rebuilt from the ashes of World War II.

 

More than 8,000 stained stones from the rubble are embedded in the pale facade and the sanctuary of the church (www.frauenkirche-dresden.de/en), powerfully evoking both the darkness of war and a spirit of reconciliation.

 

A golden cross built by the son of a British pilot who bombed Dresden in 1945 has been set atop the church, the city's signature landmark.

 

Donations came in from around the world.

 

"A deep wound that has bled for so long can be healed," Dresden Bishop Jochen Bohl said during the consecration service, when the church reopened in 2005. "From hate and evil, a community of reconciliation can grow, which makes peace possible."

 

Indeed, Dresden, overcoming its grim history, is harmonious again and one hopeful sign is its birth rate, among Germany's highest.

 

Strollers are everywhere in the New Town (Neustadt). This is a facet of Young Dresden, with its street art, craft beer scene, hipster cafes, art galleries and indie shops.

 

Here, the Kunsthofpassage (Gorlitzer Strasse 21-25, 01099 Dresden) is a series of intimate courtyards designed by local artists. The fun highlight is a set of rain pipes that zigzags across a turquoise facade. When it rains, the pipes play elemental music.

 

TRANSPARENCY

 

Also imaginative is Volkswagen's Transparent Factory (www.glaesernemanufaktur.de/en/). It is known as the Centre of Future Mobility and showcases the digitalisation of the Volkswagen brand.

 

Visitors can watch the new e-Golf being assembled in the bright and surprisingly hushed factory, and test-drive it. Guided tours of about 75 minutes (admission: €7 or S$11) can be booked online.

 

All eyes are drawn to the circular 40m glass tower, where new cars are stored before their owners collect the keys. The tower dominates the avant-garde factory, which can be transformed into a theatre for ballet or concerts.

 

The architects have also placed the unlikely factory amid lakes and gardens. One more surprise: As we exit the factory, we hear soft chirping, but it is not from birds. Concealed outdoor speakers emit the sound to prevent birds from flying into the glass building.

 

Glass is also used dramatically at the Museum of Military History (Olbrichtplatz 2, 01099 Dresden).

 

A modern five-storey wedge made of glass and steel bisects an old arsenal circa 1877. The glass shard - completed in 2011 by Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind, son of Holocaust survivors - is a new extension that points to where the first bombs fell.

 

In the museum, thematic exhibits make us think about the impact of war on society.

 

There are toys depicting violence such as Star Wars figurines, animals exploited in battle including mine-clearing sheep in the Falklands, military fashion and more.

 

COMPLEXITY

 

The museum creates dialogue about war in a city that appears willing to confront its difficult history. Over the days, travellers will discover a complexity beyond the romance and the vivaciousness of Dresden.

 

Meanwhile, at the Kulturpalast concert hall, the atmosphere is a little lighter as the city continues to lavish attention on the delegates. We enjoy a special showcase of Dresden's arts and entertainment, including modern dance and choral singing.

 

My favourite is the indie pop group Woods of Birnam and their haunting modern ballad, dipped in angst and beauty, titled I'll Call Thee Hamlet.

 

Shakespeare's Hamlet was a tortured soul and I think about Dresden's torment. Still, the city seems to possess grace and resilience.

 

During our light-hearted cruise on the Elbe, as jazz plays and the late sunset gilds the horizon, all seems fine with Dresden. "We must have done something right in life," a new German acquaintance says, as he wonders why we deserve this idyll.

 

Dresden's dreaminess endures, even as it modernises. And the city's timelessness abides, even as its present-day dialogue about war and hope resonates with travellers from afar.

 

• This is the second instalment of a two-part travelogue on Germany. Last week, the writer explored Dusseldorf. Her trip was hosted by the German National Tourist Board and German National Tourist Office (Asean).

 

• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

 

GORGEOUS LANDSCAPES AND RICH CULTURE BEYOND DRESDEN

 

Just beyond Dresden are sublime pinnacles and canyons that have inspired Hollywood fantasy film-makers and Romantic painters. Also, mediaeval towns and a world of lustrous German porcelain lie in the locale.

 

Here are three places, efficiently linked by road and rail, just an hour or less from Dresden.

 

ELBE SANDSTONE MOUNTAINS

 

The wintry wedding scene in the 2014 movie The Grand Budapest Hotel was filmed from the hallucinatory heights of the Bastei Bridge (above) in these mountains, a perfect location for director Wes Anderson's fabulist style.

 

Other fantasy movies filmed among these peaks straddling Germany and the Czech Republic are The Chronicles Of Narnia (2005-2010) and Cloud Atlas (2012).

 

The table mountains, rock arches and gorges here have epitomised the romance of travel in wild places for artist-wanderers, poets and kings in recent centuries.

 

These days, active vacationers relive the romance along the walking, cycling, climbing and horse-riding routes or go boating on the Elbe River. For nature lovers, this is a sanctuary for falcons, lynxes and wild salmon. The air is invigorating, so fitness farms and spas, some from the 19th century, dot the region.

 

Now, as in the past, the mountains appeal to travellers who seek beauty and flights of fantasy.

 

PIRNA

 

The sweetness and light of this mediaeval town conceals some of its darker history and theological divide.

 

The Sonnenstein Castle was a Nazi euthanasia centre where 15,000 people were murdered in secrecy. The Pirna-Sonnenstein Memorial remembers the victims, most of whom were mentally ill.

 

Pirna is also the birthplace of Johann Tetzel (1465 to 1519), a Dominician friar and advocate of indulgences. He provoked theologian Martin Luther into nailing his 95 Theses against indulgences on the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation that split Christianity.

 

In Pirna, I pass the whitewashed Tetzel's House in the town centre that is crammed with historic gems. I admire the Church of St Mary with its painted vaulted ceiling and baptismal fount encircled by child figurines (above).

 

Canaletto, a Venetian landscape painter, created 11 scenes of Pirna with the help of a camera obscura, and we gaze at these replicas in a gallery.

 

Art abounds at the Sonnenstein Fortress, which hosts the annual Summer of Sculpture on the ramparts above Pirna. It is fun to walk among sculptures (above) that mix social statement and whimsy, such as a career-woman Madonna in heels, a rambunctious child on her hips.

 

At a workshop on the cool ramparts, I pick up a chisel and wooden mallet to carve a nautilus into local sandstone, a moment of immersion in Pirna.

 

MEISSEN

 

This little town is known around the world for its lustrous porcelain. In Meissen, a factory was set up after German alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger invented European porcelain in 1708.

 

At the elegant House-of-Meissen Theme World, it is all things porcelain. We watch porcelain artists at work (above), walk through porcelain galleries, browse in an outlet store, listen to tunes from a porcelain-pipe organ, and relish a lunch served on Meissen crockery.

 

It boggles the mind, learning that the Meissen brand has top-secret colour recipes for 10,000 hues, and 700,000 moulds amassed from three centuries, inside its vast archives.

 

The live demonstrations by porcelain artists are entrancing, including the modeller who sculpts minuscule toe-nails on a cherub and sticks an oak leaf on a tableau.

 

Alchemists, mathematicians and smelting experts also work at Meissen. The talents here have produced pieces for a global clientele, including bespoke watches with porcelain dials for Singapore.

 

The building is a picture of artistry, beginning in the lobby where Saxonia, the state's own Statue of Liberty, stands tall at 1.8m. The world's largest free-standing porcelain statue, her dress is adorned with 8,000 hand-crafted flowers.

 

In the galleries are artworks both old world and modern, from immense Baroque centrepieces to a monkey band to a pouting Asian cherub.

 

A morning here feels sumptuous yet delicate, much like Meissen porcelain.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.