Dresden, “The Florence on the Elbe” A Quick Dip of the Toe into Western European Architecture and Beer!

Dresden Germany “The Florence on the Elbe”, the center of the Prussian Empire’s power, politics, wealth, art, music, literature, poetry, all things that are German, were cultivated in Dresden, the jewel of the Empire throughout the 17th, 18th and early 19th Centuries.  In other times, it’s fame spread throughout the Western World, the center of Saxony, the most powerful and wealthy of the German States prior to unification in 1871.
My Personal Favorite Wikipedia on Germany!   Yes, my personal favorite as it’s opinion and not researched fact, but I also like the moniker, Germany “for Dummies” so I’ll use it often.  Besides we’re not doing academics here, just touring!

It’s only 2 hours by slow, slow, slow train from Prague to Dresden straight down the Vltava and then Elbe Rivers.  A story on that experience in a minute.  Prague was directly occupied by Germany in 1938 prior to the Polish invasion and stayed an unwilling participant and Nazi occupied territory throughout the War.  That was a result of being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, being dragged into that War with the Germans.  Austro-Hungarian Empire .  Prague was bombed as a result of being mistaken as Dresden and so the affects spilled over boarders into a broader architectural affect.  Dresden was leveled by fire bombing carried out by the Royal Air Force RAF and the USAF on February 13th 1945, only months before the end of the War Bombing of Dresden .


There are many opinions about this tragedy, which of course includes the Soviet Union’s attitude about Germany and German cities after the War.  Doris, my Deutche girlfriend at the time said Germans referred to it as “der Platz fur Hundin”  You understand the translation.  The bombing was a political move as repayment to the German population for the War.  More importantly it was a complete and wholesale destruction of some of the most significant Baroque architecture in history.  The perpetrators of this crime have had to live with their consciences during their lives, and must have realized the collective consciousness that swept them up into a murderous fervor.

I visited Dresden when I had a German girlfriend in 1989 before the Wall came down.  I was shocked.  The place was a field with piles of black rubble stones the size of SUV’s strewn everywhere.  As I mentioned the entire “city” looked much like the base of the Flatirons in Boulder, piled up 3, 4, stories tall burned out towers everywhere.  The Zwinger was half destroyed, and the pieces in rows around the perimeter with tags of numbers, cataloging the artwork.  The fields of open space full of weeds, lie in every direction.  Soviet style block housing ringed the outside of the “city”.  They had only started renovating the Opera House, everything else was collapsed and unrecognizable as structures.  Soviet troops marched up and down the streets and across the plazas in their smart dark gray uniforms and large brimmed hats banded with the red star.  It was an eerie sight.  Shocking.

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On my return from Europe in 1989 I went to my parent’s house in Pittsburgh to visit and Dresden came up. My Dad and all my uncles fought in the War.  I’m named Fred as my Uncle Fred was killed shortly after D Day in France.  I got into an argument with Mom and Dad about the collective responsibility and results of war.  We all left feeling a bit disgruntled.  All we agreed on only one thing…”War is Hell”.  Well and that Hitler should never have been born. I mention all this as the entirety of Europe…Western, Central, Eastern still show dramatic affects from the War of all wars.  It’s fundamentally changed the urban fabric, the architecture, art, culture, social systems, on the road to shaking off the old monarchies for the 20th Century political movements of greater and lesser success.  Architecture and power are intrinsically linked in a duality that expresses in physical form the politics of the time.  From that perspective, the War and all it meant is still represented today as a living memorial for what should never be, the white vs. black stones of Dresden acting as an allegory.  It reminds us all of the consequences of such solutions as now seen in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and so on.  Hard lessons will be relived as part of human development as the urban fabric represents those lessons.

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I’ll leave this discussion and hope that it inspires you to dig deeper into these issues of change and our cities.  Sustainability for my discussion includes concepts of a city, architecture, housing, culture standing the tests of diversity, time and money.  Are they sustainable along those three tests?  Will they thrive for a long period of time in a diverse environment and changing finances?  What makes Sustainable Urbanism work on a social scale.  What constructs will designers, architects, urban designers create to create more sustainable cities and places to live into the next century and beyond?  I suggest that with all it’s incredible conflagrations, that Dresden is one of the most sustainable cities in all of Europe.  Today it’s alive and thriving, bustling and fun.  It’s full of music, art, soooooooo many museums, concert halls, performance centers that would rival any large European center.  It’s on the move with the museum of it’s illustrious past on display as icons and allegories rather than historical records.  I leave it to you.  What makes a city sustainable?  What makes for sustainability in urban development?  What can we glean from these hard lessons to address such fallen places as Detroit and Buffalo and Cleveland and Albany and Dayton, those cities that have self destructed from within with the same exact level of urban destruction as in Dresden?

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One last antidote, as I know everyone likes stories.  I speak enough German to get by.  The Germans are famous for their punctuality and precision so no worries, right?   Waiting for the 2 hour train # 179 from Dresden to Prague last night, and being there 10 minutes early which is no small feat for me, there was a train load of passengers waiting and looking up the tracks. At 7:09 the appointed time, no train, 7:30, no sign or explanation, we’re all checking our tickets for the platform.  No, we are correct.  7:45, 8:00 nothing.  Suddenly the sign with our train and the 7:09 departure was gone!  Just gone!  No explanation,  just vaporized!  Scrambling, someone comes up from the ticket counter and says in German “the train is late”.  Oh really?  OK, a solution???  They spin around on their heels and walk away.  A typical official German move.  8:30, 8:45, 9:00 almost 2 hours late…no word other than “the Zug is verspatetung”.  Gnugh.  Ja?   A new train # 2 shows up, on the opposite platform and says Prasha (Prague) on the side.  I’m the appointed spokesperson due to my Pig Latin German…the conductors all say “squeeze” into the new train, # 179 is tot!  as in dead!  “kaput” “schlect”  you get the picture.  4 dozen of us haul our stuff onto the new train, get situated, shifted around finding unreserved seats, stuffing bags, then finally settled.  I go out one last time and verify this is the solution, “Ja, ja, der Zug is tot”.  Got it.

Two…I mean 2 minutes later train # 179 shows up.  It’s now 9:45, 2 1/2 hours late.  The conductors stand there with their jaws down kind of like there are no cell phones or IT capabilities or electronics in the country just yet and point us to the old late # 179, like nothing was wrong finally coming into to train # 2 and rustling us out and into # 179.  Like there’s nothing wrong, like it’s usual.  So much for German punctuality and precision!  No wonder they lost the War!  😉

It’s not over…we roll into Prague at 12:05, the station is 12 miles from my Pension.  The trains in town run only until 12:15 unbeknownst to me or anyone else coming from out of town.  I get to the transfer station for the Metro (subway) to the surface tram at 12:25 and wait for the tram to take me the remaining 10 miles.  And wait, and wait…it’s 12:30, 12:45.  Someone points out that the trams stopped running a half an hour ago.  No taxis anywhere so I’m on my smart phone’s GPS calculating the route and distance to walk to the hotel.  I start walking, and walking, finally finding a throng of locals on a tram platform.  A night train platform (who knew!), so I was finally rescued from an entire night of urban hiking by the “Midnight Train from Prague”!  See, there’s always something!  Off to Krakow on the “Midnight train to Krakow”.  We’ll see what happens next!

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One thought on “Dresden, “The Florence on the Elbe” A Quick Dip of the Toe into Western European Architecture and Beer!

  1. How poetic! Wouldn’t you know you actually manage to show up early for something and that something is 2 1/2 hours late. And German. And totally non apologetic.

    Great story.

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