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2005-06-21 Part of my heart will remain in Dresden

"And did they believe when they answered the call, did they really believe that this war would end wars?" (Eric Bogle - "Green Fields of France").

 

For me, one of life's saddest realities, from the advent of so-called civilisation, is that people never take on board the futility of war.

 

When I was studying history in secondary school, one particular photograph always had a profound effect on me - it was a photograph of the beautiful old city of Dresden, having been reduced to rubble by British and American bombers in World War Two.

 

Sadly, as is often the case, when I heard the name `Dresden' in later years, that bleak black and white photo continued to return to haunt me. I had sub-consciously given Dresden a label, and simply viewed it as a symbol of Germany's painful and costly defeat in the Second World War. On February 13th/14th 1945, on what can only have been `nights from hell' for the petrified residents of Dresden, around 35,000 people were killed by `the allies' - `the good guys'! One malevolent madman, and his army of misled disciples, had attempted to force their evil ideologies on their nation and on the world, and had failed, but as always there were innocents on both sides who had been literally caught in the crossfire.

 

I had been to the Saxony capital, Dresden, on three occasions. Sadly, all three visits were wet ones. On my fourth visit, the sun shone, and so I decided to make the most of my day and joined an open-top bus tour - one of the best ways to see any city. My tour-guide, Dr Eckhard Bahr - a university lecturer, freelance publicist and writer - had recently returned home from working in South Africa. He spoke near-perfect English, with the intensity of David Attenborough and the passion of David Bellamy.

 

Dresden was first mentioned in a document dating from 1206, and so next year celebrates its 800th anniversary. Having been destroyed by fire in the 15th century, and by wars in the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries, Dresden is a near-successful mix of Renaissance, Baroque, Italian, Victorian and modern architecture. Part of the informative tour included a suspension railway trip to Lüschwitzaue, which offered a commanding view across the city and the fertile Elbe valley with its formidable castles and splendid homes. This was followed by a short river cruise back to the city centre on one of the world's oldest paddle-steamers.

 

Dresden rises majestically out of the Elbe, and is crowned by the distinctive dome of the sandstone Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). This church has become the true symbol of Dresden's miraculous restoration, and a symbol of reconciliation between nations. This fine example of Baroque Saxon architecture was completely flattened in the blitz, but by saving and treating the original stones, it has risen, like the Phoenix, quite literally from the ashes. An epic `Adopt a stone' scheme has already raised a whopping  ¬ 60 million. Many donations have come from the USA and the UK, but anyone can sponsor a brick and receive a map showing where your brick is.

 

The nearby `Procession of Princes' is a monumental porcelain mosaic which was somehow spared in the air-raids. Some buildings are black, due to a high iron content in the Elbe sandstone. The Semper Opera House in Italian Renaissance style, is a reminder of how important Dresden was, and is, musically and culturally. Names such as Weber, Schütz, Strauss, Wagner, and the poet Schiller lived and/or worked here. The Dresden Philharmonic has also gained well-earned worldwide respect.

 

Other highlights include the Cathedral with its 83 metre bell-tower, the `Zwinger' with its wealth of artistic treasures and its famous `Green Vault' - often called `the German Louvre', the Georgenbau fassade opening onto the Theaterplatz, the Royal Palace, the buzzing Altmarkt, the picturesque Brühlsche Terrace on the city walls, the trendy bars/cafes and wacky `Art passage' of the Old Town, the many splendid castles in the wider vicinity, the Hygiene Museum where mouthwash was invented (!), and last but by no means least the famed Dresden and Meissen porcelain.

 

Dresden's principal ruler `Augustus the Strong' was buried in Krakow, but his heart was buried separately in Dresden.

 

Having seen this beautiful city rise from its ashes, I think part of my heart will remain there too.