Rick Steves' Travel Blog
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The intriguing and fun city of Dresden, Germany, winds up on far fewer American itineraries than it deserves to. Don’t make that mistake.
Dresden surprises visitors with fanciful Baroque architecture in a delightful-to-stroll cityscape, a dynamic history that mingles tragedy with inspiration, and some of the best museum-going in Germany. A generation ago, Dresden was a dreary East German burg, but today it’s a young and vibrant city, crawling with proud locals, cheery tourists, and happy-go-lucky students who have no memory of communism.
At the peak of its power in the 18th century, Dresden, the capital of Saxony, ruled most of present-day Poland and eastern Germany from the banks of the Elbe River. Its king imported artists from all over Europe, peppering his city with fine Baroque buildings and filling his treasury with lavish jewels and artwork. Dresden’s grand architecture and dedication to the arts — along with the gently rolling hills surrounding the city — earned it the nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”
But most people know Dresden for its most tragic chapter: On the night of February 13, 1945 — just months before the end of World War II — Allied warplanes dropped firebombs on the city. Dresden was bombed so hard that a rare firestorm was created — a hellish weather system that ends up sucking much of the city into its fiery center… and oblivion.
Rising above the cityscape is the handbell-shaped dome of the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady)–the symbol and soul of the city. When completed in 1743, this was Germany’s tallest Protestant church (310 feet high). After the war, the Frauenkirche was left a pile of rubble and turned into a peace monument. Only after reunification was the decision made to rebuild it, completely and painstakingly. It reopened to the public in 2005. Crowning the new church is a shiny bronze cross–a copy of the original and a gift from the British people in 2000, on the 55th anniversary of the bombing. It was crafted by an English coppersmith whose father had dropped bombs on the church that fateful night.
Today Dresden is rebuilt, full of life, and wide-open for visitors. I love strolling Dresden’s delightful promenade. Enjoying its perch overlooking the river, you hardly notice it was once a defensive rampart. In the early 1800s, it was turned into a public park, with a leafy canopy of linden trees, and was given the odd nickname “The Balcony of Europe.” Dresden claims to have the world’s largest and oldest fleet of historic paddleboat steamers. A few of its nine riverboats from the 19th century are ready to take visitors for a ride.
I find visiting the rebuilt Frauenkirche very poignant. Inside stands the church’s twisted old cross, which fell 300 feet and burned in the rubble. Lost until restorers uncovered it from the pile of stones in 1993, it stands exactly on the place where it was found — still relatively intact.
Dresden is a city where the heritage of destruction is hard to ignore. I’ll never forget standing on the Old Market Square… just another square. Then, looking down at the pavement, I saw an inscription that read, “After the air attack on Dresden on February 13-14 1945, the corpses of 6,865 people were burned on this spot.” Carved on a piece of granite above that was a simple statement: “We brought the war to the world, and ultimately it came home to us.”
Spending the day with my German guide at the Documentation Center was intellectually exhausting. We explored Hitler-mania and the methods used to create the cult of Hitler (such as placing the dictator alongside Goethe and Beethoven in the pantheon of great Germans).
I find that older guides in Germany are less comfortable talking about the Nazi period. My guide was young and had plenty of ideas to share. Looking back on German society since World War II, he said, “There were three generations: the participants, the generation of unknowns, and the current curious and educated generation.” Today’s young Germans see the end of WWII as a liberation rather than a defeat.
The exhibits at Nürnberg’s Documentation Center illustrate how extremists rise in bad times. They offer easy solutions and scapegoats. And they push fear. In Germany’s roaring ’20s, Hitler’s support was at 2%. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, suddenly Hitler had a 37% approval rating.
The exhibits also show how totalitarian societies take over part of the parenting role and give kids hope for the future. Nazi youth organizations created a frame of reference. They dealt with the complexities of teenage life pre-emptively and on their terms.
I asked my guide about the “socialism” part of National Socialism (Nazism). He explained that National Socialism was born in the trenches of World War I. Germany was very developed around 1900, and its workers’ economy should have been ripe for Marx’s idea of a proletarian revolt. But WWI trenches brought together all levels of society (farmers, factory workers, teachers, doctors). The enemy of the people became not the owners of das Kapital, but foreign nations. It was workers as a nation against exterior threats spearheaded by a presumed Jewish conspiracy (as it was believed that Britain, France, and the USA all had Jewish power-brokers). And that’s where the “socialism” in National Socialism came from.
Discussing how post-WWII Europe compares with the mess in Iraq today, we considered how while the Nazi leadership was defeated, Nazi infrastructure survived the war and helped rebuild German society. In the case of Iraq, no societal infrastructure survived Saddam Hussein. While post-Hitler Germany became strong, post-Saddam Iraq faces a more difficult path.
So much can be learned from history. But too often, those who make it took other classes.
I’m in Nürnberg, which has some of the most thought-provoking sites anywhere relating to Germany’s Nazi past. Those curious about this dark period can visit Hitler’s vast Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and learn more at the excellent Nazi Documentation Center.
The goal of a “Documentation Center” is to catalog, analyze, and attempt to explain the crimes of the Nazis — to ensure that this important history is never forgotten. With the passing of the generation that lived through WWII and the Holocaust, oral history is now transferred into these historic sites.
I remember when the Germans I met seemed to know very little about the Holocaust and Hitler. In the 1960s and 1970s, German history teachers mysteriously ran out of time when they got to World War I. But these days, it’s clear to me that Germans feel a responsibility to inform themselves about past generations’ crimes. It’s built into their school curriculum: Literature classes include The Diary of Anne Frank. All German 8th graders learn about the basic concepts of nationalism, patriotism, socialism, and fascism as they study “the 19th-century roots of 20th-century turbulence.” The 9th grade history curriculum is entirely dedicated to World War I, the rise of Hitler, and World War II. And German 10th graders learn about the Cold War and Reunification. Every student makes several field trips to Nazi Documentations Centers (like the one in Nürnberg) as well as concentration camp memorials.
Visitors to Europe’s Nazi and Holocaust sites inevitably ask the same haunting question: How could this happen? Nürnberg’s superb Documentation Center does its best to provide an answer. It meticulously traces the evolution of the National Socialist (Nazi) movement, focusing on how it both energized and terrified the German on the street. This is not a WWII or Holocaust museum; those events are almost an afterthought. Instead, the center frankly analyzes the Nazi phenomenon, to understand how it happened — and to prevent it from happening again.
Nürnberg’s Documentation Center is sometimes called “a spear through Speer,” as it’s housed in a modern annex slicing diagonally through the middle of the Albert Speer-designed Nazi Congress Hall building. Just like post-WWII doctors didn’t want to take advantage of medical knowledge gained through Nazi torture, modern architects who designed the museum didn’t want to utilize anything the Nazis had built here.
The unfinished Nazi Congress Hall is a strangely chilling sight. It was to be big enough for an audience of 50,000. Inspired by Rome’s Colosseum, it was originally intended to be topped with a roof and skylight.
Nürnberg’s Documentation Center plays an important role in a society determined to learn from the horrible deeds of its dark past. For example, students at police and military academies go to special required programs taught in classrooms like this one, right on this sobering site.
Rothenburg may feel touristy, but in its day, it was a major artistic and economic force. You see that by the amazing carved altarpiece in its main church.
In St. Jacob’s Church is the artistic highlight of Rothenburg, and perhaps the most wonderful woodcarving in all of Germany: the glorious 500-year-old, 35-foot-high Altar of the Holy Blood. Tilman Riemenschneider, the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers, carved this from 1499 to 1504 to hold a precious rock-crystal capsule that contains a scrap of tablecloth miraculously stained in the shape of a cross by a drop of communion wine.
I was capturing my thoughts in front of Rothenburg’s altarpiece and taking notes in my little book. The passage I was working on: “Before continuing on, take a moment to simply linger over the lovingly executed details: the curly locks of the apostles’ hair and beards, and the folds of their garments; the delicate vines intertwining above their heads; Jesus’ expression, at once tender and accusing.” A man next to me caught my eye. It felt like we were old friends, but I couldn’t place him. He said something like, “Good old-fashioned journalism — in the field with a pencil and notepad…I like that.” He told me that he and his wife were fans of my books and TV shows, and I still couldn’t place him. Finally he said, “I’m Doyle McManus.” Turns out he’s one of my favorite political commentators — a regular on PBS’s Washington Week and columnist for the Los Angeles Times — and he was having a great trip.
I wish every town offered an opportunity to connect with real locals, as Rothenburg does. For over 20 years, whenever I’m in town on a Wednesday evening, I drop by Rothenburg’s English Conversation Club. It’s a rare chance to mix it up with locals who aren’t selling anything. Just bring your favorite slang and tongue twisters to Mario’s Altfränkische Weinstube am Klosterhof (Wednesdays after 6 p.m.). This group of intrepid linguists has met more than 1,000 times. Hermann the German and his sidekick Wolfgang are regulars. When the beer starts to sink in, the crowd grows, and everyone seems to speak that second language a bit more easily. Do you know any other club like this in Europe where an American would be so welcome?
Rothenburg is one of Germany’s most touristy towns. And I absolutely love it.
For years I searched for the elusive “untouristy Rothenburg.” There are many contenders, but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, Japanese-speaking night watchmen, and, yes, even Schneeballen, Rothenburg is best. Save time and mileage and be satisfied with the winner.
I just finished my research visit to Rothenburg (updating my Rick Steves’ Germany guidebook for 2015), and today and tomorrow, I’ll share a few thoughts, along with a handful of photos.
One thing I added to our Rothenburg chapter was a fun little shopping walk, which leads down the charming main drag, Spitalgasse. I always like to give a new walk I’ve written one last run-through before leaving town. Fun things always happen, and I can add them to my chapter.
Strolling through town as I followed my own tour, I met the owner of an etching shop I mentioned. What I learned from him let me bring more life to his listing:
“At Kunsthandlung Leyrer, Peter Leyer would love to show you his etchings. He’s one of the last artisans using the copper plate technique of Albrecht Dürer to print his art. (After Peter retires in 2017, his 3,500 copper plates from all over Germany will go to a museum.) Peter and his wife print the black-and-white etchings, and then watercolor them in.”
When you travel for several decades, as I have, you see the slow churning of traditions and lifestyles as small family-run enterprises give way to the rising tide of giant corporations. Small hotels, shops, pubs, and so on simply don’t have the economy of scale to compete, and eventually they get washed away. (Particularly insidious are giant chains faking like they’re one-offs that care about their communities; English pub chains are expert at this.) Shops like Peter’s — so real, yet becoming so rare — are a joy to stumble upon.
Do you have any favorite small medieval town in Germany that rivals Rothenburg?
Plönlein, a famously picturesque corner in Rothenburg, is named for the carpenters’ plum line — a string anchored by a plum, creating what gravity guarantees is a straight line. Of course, in this centuries-old town, nothing is “to plum.” If you look up the lane from here, you can see some cute pastel buildings that stand straighter. Being uniform and perfectly to plum indicates they were rebuilt after WWII bombings hit this part of town. By the way, if this image brings you back to your childhood, that’s because it inspired the animators of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940).
In my various lectures, I’ve long driven home the point that in the Middle Ages, today’s Germany — the size of Montana — was made up of hundreds of tiny states. I just found a painting in the streets of Rothenburg that helps visualize the fragmentation of feudal Germany. This painting shows a bird’s eye view of the “country” of Rothenburg in 1537. Back then, Rothenburg actually ruled its own little state — one of about 300 petty dukedoms like this that made up what is today’s Germany. It was 12 miles by 12 miles (or about the size of Denver), with 180 villages.
One evening after dinner, I simply found myself wandering Rothenburg’s cobbled lanes at that moment when the lamps and the sky hold hands — when the sky is no brighter or darker than the streetlamp-lit buildings. The next day I mentioned it to a local friend, who said, “That’s what we call ‘die blaue Stunde’ — the blue hour.” (I was so distracted by the experience, I forgot to take a photo. This one’s by one of our tour guides, Cary Walker.) I’m glad that I now have a term for my favorite time of day in a medieval town.
Great breakfasts are routine in good German hotels, but this one I just enjoyed in Nürnberg is a real prizewinner. As I say in this clip, I’m in no mood to be “on camera” before my morning coffee. But my hotel’s breakfast was so classy, I just had to share it with you.
World War II exacted a toll not just on people and cities, but on great works of art — countless were plundered, and many were destroyed. I just toured an underground museum in Nürnberg that tells the story of some priceless masterpieces that survived.
Nürnberg’s Historic Art Bunker is a series of cellars used by the Nazis to store art plundered from conquered lands and evacuated from its own great buildings in anticipation of bombing. The only way to visit this claustrophobic underground space is with a tour (daily at 14:30, €5, 75 minutes, headphones for English-speakers). The theme of the tour is “How what was called ‘the treasure chest of the German Empire’ emerged from the devastation of WWII.”
Nürnberg was bombed only late in the war. As German officials saw it coming and knew how northwestern cities were devastated, they were better prepared, and more of the city’s treasures survived. (Many wonder why bombed German cities didn’t just relocate. Because the subterranean infrastructure of great cities survived the bombs of WWII — as you’ll see on this tour — it made sense to rebuild on the same footprint.) In this little video clip, I’m following my local guide deep under the city.
Nürnberg, Bavaria’s second city, is known for its glorious medieval architecture, its important Germanic history museum, its haunting Nazi past, its famous Christmas market (Germany’s biggest), and its little bratwurst (Germany’s tiniest…and perhaps most beloved).
Just an hour from Munich by train, Nürnberg may be Germany’s most underrated city. For a historian, the city is fascinating for its ties to both the First Reich (the Holy Roman Emperor’s castle) and the Third Reich (Hitler’s choice for grand spectacles and rallies). While here researching, I kept thinking, “I need to come back here on vacation and just enjoy its powerful museums” — both the Germanic National Museum and the Nazi Documentation Center.
Nürnberg was one of Europe’s leading cities in about 1500, and its large Imperial Castle marked it as a stronghold of the Holy Roman Empire. In this little video clip, my local guide uses the castle to explain his take on the essential elements of a castle.
Picturesquely situated in a river valley surrounded by vine-draped hills, and boasting one of Germany’s most enjoyable palaces (the prince-bishop’s Residenz), the bustling little city of Würzburg is well worth checking out.
Many travelers zip from the Rhine directly to Rothenburg without considering a stop in Würzburg. But those folks miss out on a tourist-friendly town that’s easy to navigate by foot or streetcar. While the town isn’t quite “charming” (thanks to its unmistakable post-WWII-rebuild vibe), Würzburg’s old center is quiet and people-friendly, and filled with atmospheric wine bars.
While you’re here, be sure to stroll the city’s atmospheric old bridge. Lined with stone statues, surrounded by vineyard-laced hills, and with a stout fortress looming overhead, it feels like a low-rent version of Prague’s famous Charles Bridge.
A park-like, picnic-perfect stretch of riverbank stretches from the old bridge to the crane. There are plenty of benches and a long, inviting, concrete embankment to spread out your meal. It comes with beer-drinking students, the down-and-out collecting their bottles, and great views of the river, bridge, and castle.
While busily checking out restaurants for my guidebook, I had to pause and appreciate this amazing Würzburg view. While the view itself — with Würzburg’s river and fortress glowing in the setting sun — was striking, what capped it off was the conviviality of the people enjoying the setting.
The Germans really, really love their various breads and pretzels. And this is nothing new. In fact, in this Gothic church’s stained-glass window, when God sends Moses and the Israelites manna from heaven, it comes in the form of divine pretzels.
German marketing can be uniquely eye-catching. While most men find that this woman’s cleavage draws their eyes to the pretzels, many German men might say that the pretzels draw their attention to the cleavage.
I’ve long wished my favorite Rhine town, Bacharach, had a museum. I found the attraction I craved in the next village over: The Kulturhaus Oberwesel is the best museum of its kind along this part of the Rhine. You’ll learn how salmon were once fished here, and how timber traders lashed together huge rafts and floated them to the Netherlands to sell. You’ll also see dramatic photos of the river when it was jammed with ice, and — as seen in this clip — review three decades of local wine queens.