Resilient Dresden rises again

Paul Mansfield, Evening Standard

Last updated at 17:37 21 October 2002


Dresden: Now a hip young German hotspot

In the Kreuzkirche, the oldest church in Dresden, there's a cross of silver nails, donated by the people of Coventry, another city which suffered badly in the Second World War. The cross stands just above a photographic exhibition, and both commemorate what happened here on 13 February, 1945.

On that single night, the Allies destroyed Dresden. Wave after wave of saturation bombing annihilated the city centre; between 35,000 and 100,000 people died, and Dresden more or less ceased to exist. The photographs show a bustling city reduced to rubble.

While communist postwar rulers rebuilt some of the bigger buildings, they left many in ruins, and refashioned the capital of Saxony in a dreary, functionalist way. Now, however, it's rising from the ashes, with a major wave of reconstruction under way.

The year 2006 is Dresden's 800th anniversary, and the city council plans to restore it by then to its former glory.

Even the recent floods failed to dampen spirits: all its public buildings and monuments have since reopened to the public, while the luxury Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais unlocks its doors after repairs in the first week of November.

My own visit was in winter - possibly the most atmospheric time to go. The Taschenbergpalais was a splendid confection of Baroque elegance with sumptuous public rooms. It was built by a ruler of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, to house one of his many mistresses.

This is luxury on a grand scale, and a reminder that for 200 years Dresden was one of the most beautiful and civilised cities in Europe.

On the south side of the River Elbe lies the Altstadt, home of the big public buildings restored after the war, including the State Opera House, the cathedral and the vast Zwinger Palace, with its museums and exhibition halls. They are impressive, but inside them you can feel dwarfed by their scale.

This is a city which needs perspective. It was only when I crossed the river and looked back that I saw why Dresden was once known as the "Florence of the Elbe", and why Canaletto, among others, painted her from this angle. The old town stood humped beneath a soft grey sky, with thin shafts of light filtering through from a wintry sun.

The "new town" north of the river was actually built in the early 18th century. It, too, suffered-huge damage, but is slowly reviving. Its outer edge is a Bohemian quarter of narrow lanes and warehouses, filling up with street art, bars and shops. But this isn't Berlin. Howlers like The Shill Out, Hardcore Bar and Drop-out Records indicate Dresden does not "do" cool very well.

What it does do well is refined elegance. Around Konigstrasse, in the new town, are rows of patrician houses and pretty, tree-lined squares containing antique shops and restaurants. This area is also home to Dresden's only Michelin-starred restaurant, the Carousel, in the Hotel Bulow Residenz.

The Carousel oozed oldworld charm and the menu - scallops with caviar, red mullet in a saffron-mussel sauce - was sensational. The wine waiter's choice, Grauburgunder Kabinett, was a superb red produced, he stated proudly, on a castle estate only 10 miles away.

It had started to snow and on the next day, a Sunday, there were even some skiers in the streets, which lent the place a jolly, festive air. I climbed on one of the city's yellow trams, for a bargain tour of Dresden.

We left the city centre, where newly restored Baroque facades peeped from behind boarded-up ruins, and rumbled out through swathes of Soviet-style apartment blocks.

Finally, we arrived at the suburb of Blasewitz. This area of prosperous mansions and villas has now been made into a protected monument.

Blasewitz was not badly affected by the Allied bombardment. From the Blaues Wunder ("Blue Wonder") suspension bridge there were spectacular views back across the city. The new town spread out from the Elbe under a blanket of snow, with thick, wooded hills behind. The Altstadt, sedate and imposing, stood opposite it on the left bank.

But above its stone spires and towers there was a telling sight: the half-dozen giant cranes that offer a glimpse not of Dresden's past, but its future.

Way to go

Paul Mansfield travelled to Dresden with Kirker Holidays (020 7231 3333). Three nights at the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais costs from £559pp B&B, including return flights.

Sorry we are not currently accepting comments on this article.