No porcelain was made in Dresden. In my years of growing up I used to see porcelain figurines that carried the Dresden blue crown mark and wonder about the place that could produce such delicate pieces of art. It was only after I went to Dresden, a German city on the River Elbe, last year that I figured it out. Fifteen miles from the Saxony capital and down the Elbe is the town of Meissen which has actually been the home of porcelain making.
Yet the fashionably dressed figurines are down right to Dresden’s credit. After those figurines were made in Meissen, they were sent to Dresden for the finishing touches. Decorators in Dresden used to dip fragile lace into porcelain casting liquid before using it on the figurines. On firing, the lace would ignite and leave behind a filigree of billowy ensembles on the figurines.
On an early morning in Berlin, I caught the Flix bus to Dresden. The Flix is your cheap fix if you want to travel within Europe on a low budget, with the comforts of air conditioning, wifi and a toilet on board. People take it for long distance travel too. Sophia, a 20-year-old British-French girl and co-traveller was going to take the Flix to Paris from Berlin. A journey that took her some 20-odd hours.
I was exasperated when the Flix bus arrived so very late at the bus station in Berlin and a bit incredulous because I was in Germany after all. Where trains and buses always run on the dot. On the other hand, Sophia got lucky because just as the bus was about to leave she arrived, all flustered.
At Dresden Hauptbahnof (train station), Sophia asked me about the bus that was going to take us back to Berlin. Here was someone who was more nervous than me about missing the bus back. On that note of empathy, we teamed up and headed into Dresden.
With just a few hours at hand, we came upon a city that is mired in history. That is so beautiful that ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ become standard exclamations at every bend of every alley. Using the elements of grandeur and drama, two styles of architecture stand out at once in Dresden. The late 16th century Baroque school, characterised by a design that emphasises the wealth and power of the church, and the 18th century Late-Baroque or Rococo style that was an about-turn from the Baroque school and insisted instead upon playful, elegant elements in design.
From a Slavonic fishing village that came up late in the 12th century as a merchants’ settlement along the Elbe, it became home to the Saxon dukes, electoral princes and kings since the 15th century. Dresden became synonymous with art, culture, education, politics, architecture, and beauty to the extent that it was referred to as ‘Elbflorenz’ or Florence of the Elbe.
Then came WWII. British and American forces had carpet bombed Dresden by 1945. Ninety per cent of its centre was reduced to rubble, not to mention the major loss of lives. I had seen another city like this – Warszawa (Warsaw). It was an insight into how both sides were affected in the aftermath of the war. Yet there is a marked difference between Warsaw and Dresden. The architecture in Warsaw is markedly new though it was built to recreate the centre as it once must have been. Dresden however had the perfect comeback with the ancient look intact in its rebuilt monuments – the various churches, opera house and palaces looked right out of the times when the Kings of Saxony would have lived in Dresden.
We had earlier passed by the section of the city that is a reminder of its former German Democratic Republic past, in the bus. Massive Brutalist blocks of apartments made me wonder Why such buildings were allowed to materialise in the Soviet bloc. The most significant GDR building in Dresden is the Kulturpalast, a jarring piece of urban architecture, apart from which an Eastern Bloc mural of a female worker reminds you of Dresden’s brush with socialism. Maybe someday they shall disappear. Maybe aesthetic structures shall come up in lieu of those cold blocks of monstrosity.
We spent the next few hours in the city, walking around the Alstadt (Old Town). The historic heart of the city is mesmerising. The Zwinger in the Innere Altstadt (or Inner Old Town”) had particularly absorbed my attention. It was the idea of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who was inspired by Louis XIV. The French emperor had just moved his court from Paris to Versailles. Augustus in the 17th century had travelled to France and Italy and he wanted something just as grand for himself. The Zwinger was constructed with its fantastic orangery, galleries and festival arena to live up to the king’s wishes.
We climbed the stairs in the Frauenkirsche (Church of Our Lady) and from its massive bell-shaped dome had a stunning view of the city in every direction. It was poignant to think of the damage that had been wreaked on all of these monuments during WWII including the church we were surveying the city from. But it was a wonderful indicator – that we humans are a determined lot. We move on because we have to move on.
I think Dresden was blessed when the 1950s and 60s came to an end and GDR rule became a thing of the past. The Neumarkt (the area immediately around the Frauenkirsche) and Altmarkt used to be vacant during the GDR days and only the ruins of the Frauenkirche were left in a pile as a reminder of the horrors of war.
We were so taken in by the city, that we barely had time to eat anything. We sat in the Neumarkt on the pavement tables of a beautiful old café and tucked into a Dresden delicacy – the Eierschecke. The cake made of yeast dough, egg custard and quark cheese was dry but it did look nicer than it tasted.
I made up for the disappointment with a big cone of gelato on that hot day and just as we were tucking into our cones we realised that we had just 5 minutes to reach the hauptbahnof. We ran all the way back to it and made it just in the nick of time.
Dresden reminded me of a Ray Bradbury quote which always strikes home. “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”