Dresden’s renaissance

Reformed: Martin Luther in front of the rebuilt Frauenkirche

The sky is lit up over Dresden and a rat-ta-ta-ta-tat cuts through the night. All eyes fixed on the flash of red, blue and yellow sparks above.

There is a collective sigh, and an explosion… of applause. And the Augustus the Strong river cruise ship wends its way slowly back up the Elbe.

Because this is Dresden, the shining jewel of Renaissance Saxony in eastern Germany which was flattened by the Allies in early 1945 in one of the most controversial air raids of the War.

Our tour guide Ingrid is a proud Dresden and recalls her grandmother talking about the ‘Red Heaven’, the firestorm that claimed 25,000 lives an left the city she loved a hollow shell.

If the Allies ripped the heart out of Dresden, its next visitors moved in for its soul.

Only Ingrid is testament that while the Saxons tolerate their Communist occupiers of 45 years they never ever considered making a Faustian pact with them.

Drum roll: On the Augustus the Strong river cruise ship on the River Elbe

Ingrid recalls having Socialist history drummed into her at school where the narrative was always a justification of the GDR, while every child was also told that Saxon history only began in 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution.

Ingrid guides us through the Baroque-style restored city centre and keeps us amused and informed in equal measure, relaying how the Communists had wanted to replace a famous statue with one of a tractor, but how the Saxons put the plans ‘in a box’, one of many such crackpot ideas they diplomatically prevaricated on.

Amid it all, the Dresden’s showed great ingenuity to try to bring colour to that grey regime, one former cigarette factory, Yenidze, being housed in a minaret-style building a prime example.

Martin Luther and Augustus the Strong’s statues tower over Dresden.

Augustus and Martin are two very different characters, and while you might never have heard of the former (I hadn’t) he left quite an impression, enough to give his name to our ship and much more besides. And he has a better nickname than Martin.

King Augustus II apparently earned his moniker after breaking a horseshoe in two with his bare hand (the trick was that he made it himself).

Life in a doll’s house: Augustus II’s doll’s house

He also spent money like it was going out of fashion which he never was.

A portrait in the palatial Green Vault in Dresden Castle shows him to be a forerunner to Christian Louboutin while the great man, naturally, also surrounded himself with beautiful objects, adornments… and, of course, concubines whom he showered gifts.

The greatest jewel is the still gleaming 41-carat Indian green diamond hat clasp, the most popular exhibit in the collection.

For a man such as Augustus, it was always less about the use and more about the ornament, a sumptuous, golden tea set which you could never drink from because gold being a conductor of heat, it would scald anyone sipping from the cups, is a case in point.

If you get the impression that Augustus was living some kind of doll’s house existence, you would be right.

His ambition is there for all to wonder at in an extravagant but compelling doll’s house be commissioned,

He modelled it on the birthday celebrations of the Moghul son of the Indian ruler who famously had the Taj Mahal built in memory of his wife.

Judging by the goings-on in this doll’s house which boast 164 emeralds, 160 rubies, a sapphire and 16 pearls (and elephant), it’s more a doll’s Xanadu, to be fair.

Moghul Jnr, and Augustus lived by a different code to Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation (see, not as catchy a nickname). But he still has a gaze on his fellow Saxons, every bit as great as Augustus.

Luther dominates the main platz, the Neumark Square, just next to our comfortable 4* hotel, the AmPlaza.

The great zealot, Luther follows you everywhere, and the only place you can escape his knowing stare is ironically in the Frauenkirche church (Church of Our Lady) which is at his back. It is there that we gather to hear the ;pastor… well, it is Sunday.

His sermon is personal and moving, he recalls holding his father’s hand as a boy when only two pillars and Luther’s statue stood here before, with donations from the international community, including the UK, this grand old church was rebuilt at the cost of 180 million euro and completed in 2005.

Stirring Classical music fills the church and my eyes fix on the holy figures adoring the facade above the altar with their gold beard and I conclude that while God knows few would deny the Dresdeners a little (or lot) of colour in their lives after all their suffering, the puritanical Luther is probably best having his back to this grandiose church.

The Frauenkirche is just one of many refurbs in the city… the Zwinger palace, the sumptuous Semperoper (opera house) the 334ft wide, 34ft high Furstenzug porcelain mural which depicts Saxony’s great leaders from history and much more besides.

A personal story: The pastor Inside the Fraurenkirche

It is worth considering that the Florentines’ renaissance developed over 400 years and they didn’t have to go back and start again.

You’ll never cover it all in one visit which is why, fat as Augustus the gloop (my name), or a Communist apparatchik, from my cruise buffet of unpronounceable German meat and beers, I choose to clear my head and latch onto the night-time Highlights of Dresden tour.

It’s written on the wall: Saxon history

We cover much the same ground as I had earlier in the day but I still see new aspects of the artefact while this time I get to view th art too, and especially Raphael’s Sistine Madonna with those cheeky cherubs, much reproduced in postcards, posters and all manner of giftware.

I hear too that it was one of Stalin’s favourite paintings and that he spirited it to Russia after the War where two soldiers stood guard over it with machine guns.

It is home now where it belongs, the Saxony government having shelled out its entire annual arts budget on it.

For all that Dresden has restored its reputation as a Renaissance city, it has not airbrushed it recent past which is as it should be.

Ingrid reminds us of the need to preserve the Communist thumbprint: the mural of Red-flag waving comrades and Marx and Engels in Kulturpalast speaks of the regime’s folly.

Preserving history: The Communist mural

It wold be ignoring the lessons of history she argues and we would be condemned to repeat them if we ever to try to erase history as the Communists did.

Dresden is a sum of its parts and its people.

Ingrid straddles Dresden’s past and present and it is a privilege to have her walk us through it.

East and West: Ingrid and Jim

As the tour draws to a close and night descends on Dresden I catch her in the corner of my eye near the Communist mural.

She opens her arms and we embrace – East and West.

Now capture that on a mural.

TRAVEL FACTS

How to get there: KLM Dublin to Dresden via Amsterdam (167 euro) Return (157 euro). Visit http://www.klm.com.

Where to stay: The Amedia Plaza hotel in the old city: B&B three nights 243-315 euro for business single in July. http://www.amediahotels.com/en/hotels/dresden.

Important website: Visit http://www.dresden.de. http://www.germanygtravel.

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