When it comes to Dresden, most people fall into one of two categories. (Obviously, this does not apply to Germans and/or people who have, in fact, been to Dresden.) The first group has never heard of the German city. The second group is semi-familiar with it through WWII history or from reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I fell into the second category, a Vonnegut die-hard for many years.
While I have been curious about Dresden since I was a teenager, mostly in terms of its association with Vonnegut’s famous novel, I didn’t really know much about the city itself. Still, when the chance came up to explore Dresden for a few days, I was beyond myself excited. Not only would I be able to get my literary geek on, but I would be visiting ‘East’ Germany for the first time.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I am very rarely disappointed in my travels. I have a glass half-full attitude, and always manage to find things I love in every city I visit. With this in mind, I already knew I would have a great time in Dresden. What I didn’t expect, was to be totally blown away. I found myself questioning the world. How is that this city has flown under the radar for so long? How is that so many people, when told about my visit, had never even heard of Dresden?
Dresden is easily the most surprising city I have ever visited- and this is why.
1. The History is Incredible
Before World War II, Dresden was known as the ‘Jewel Box’ of Europe. The capital of Saxony had been home to a long line of Kings who built their legacy through culture, arts, and incredible architecture all around the city. Dresden was well-known the world over for its beautiful cityscape, and visitors came from everywhere to walk along the River Elbe and see the baroque and rococo masterpieces for themselves. From the 19th century to the 1920’s, Dresden was what Paris and London are to art and culture lovers today.
2. Dresden Embodies ‘The Phoenix’
On February 13th, 1945, at 10:14 pm, the first bombs were dropped on Dresden’s city centre. The American and British Air Force continued to firebomb the city over the next two days. The allied forces attack on Dresden became one of the most controversial campaigns during World War II, second only to the bombing of Hiroshima. Many critics argue that the city had no military significance.
By February 15th, 1945- everything was gone. Dresden’s magnificent buildings were rubble, and over 25,000 people were dead. (Some estimates put the death toll closer to 200,000 but because there were many undocumented refugees in the city, the exact number is still unknown.)
This dark chapter of history has undoubtedly made an enormous impact on the city of Dresden but it is what happened after that sets it apart. They rebuilt. Not just the homes and necessary municipal buildings. They rebuilt the cathedrals, the baroque facades. Many European cities that were destroyed during the war re-built quickly and their pre-war identity was lost. Dresden has recreated its former self, brick by brick. Walk through the city centre today and you will think that you are looking at a city many centuries old, but in fact, almost everything you see is new.
I heard a local refer to the city centre as Disneyland, hinting at the fact that everything you see is new and a fake version of the original. I couldn’t disagree more. Dresden in its current form is an absolute triumph. They have made the best of a very unfortunate situation, giving visitors a chance to see Dresden in its glory, as it once was. Dresden has risen from the ashes, and the result is magnificent.
3. A Thriving Youth Culture
Take a walk over the Augustus Bridge and head into the neighborhood of Neustadt. Despite its name, this area is one of the oldest in Dresden, largely escaping most of the damage during WWII. While the buildings may be old, this area of Dresden is in the midst of a kind of renaissance. Walking down one of the narrow streets, covered in street art, you may think you took a wrong turn into Berlin.
The Neustadt is hip, young, and energetic. There always seemed to be something going on, whether it was 2 pm or 2 am. Incredible murals drape crumbling walls, vintage shops sit next door to heavy metal clubs, and the people who live here are passionate – passionate about their future. Every turn of a corner holds a surprise to discover. Buildings that play music in the rain, a bar that humorously recaptures the GDR era, or stenciled protests that suggest the Neustadt-ians are on the right side of the divide. I definitely wasn’t expecting to find something so… well, cool.
4. Billy Pilgrim Exists
Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” doesn’t really exist. He is fictional afterall. But, you can visit the actual slaughterhouse where Billy hid out during the bombings of Dresden, based on Vonnegut’s real life experience being held there as a Prisoner of War. I had expected to find a memorial or mention of Vonnegut during my visit, but I didn’t expect to meet someone who could take me inside the actual slaughterhouse where the group of POW’s were held.
While I will share more details of this very special opportunity in a later post, I can tell you that it was an incredibly moving experience. Mr. Vonnegut also made the trip back to Dresden later in his life, unfortunately when he tried to track down slaughterhouse-five, the guides brought him to the wrong location and he died never seeing the building where he survived those many years ago. Still, for fans of Vonnegut and history buffs, standing in Billy Pilgrim’s “Schlachthof Fünf” is an unforgettable experience.
5. The Angels
While Dresden may have been well-known for its arts and culture back in the day, I had no idea that the city still had so much to offer – including some very famous works of art. I was absolutely breathless when I stepped onto the grounds of Zwinger Palace for the first time. This is one of the buildings that was destroyed during WWII, and you would never know it. The Rococo style is flawless, and inside you can find various museums such as The Old Masters Picture Gallery and The Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments. If it didn’t rain on me the entire time I was in Dresden, I would have loved to grab a picnic lunch and enjoy the grounds for longer.
Luckily for me, museums make great escapes from rain. Although photography wasn’t allowed inside, I bought a postcard of a particular famous portrait inside the gift shop. The most famous angels on Earth live in Dresden. I was surprised, but now I know that this is just one of many, many secrets the city holds.
I could have written 5,000 reasons why Dresden surprised me, but I know most of your attention spans would have given up on me. All I can say is go. When you are travelling through Germany, visiting Berlin and Munich and Cologne – add Dresden to the itinerary. You won’t be disappointed, in fact, you too will be surprised. It is a gorgeous city, and one that I have no doubt will eventually get the praise it is due. For now it will remain my (and now yours as well) little secret.
Dresden, you are forever my phoenix.