Dresden’s Wettins Rule

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At exactly 11:15 in the courtyard of the royal palace in Dresden, forty Meissen porcelain bells began a sweet three-minute melody. I left the shelter of my guide’s umbrella to get a closer look at the bell tower. Squinting into a mist, I could just see the porcelain bells vibrate when hit. I was mesmerized by this little royal trick. Then I wondered why I was so thrilled. Several groups of sturdy Russian tourists who crowded the same square didn’t seem to be that impressed.

Then I realized I was on a Dresden high. In an eastern German town I’ve known for just a few years, I had enjoyed new insights and great new sights — newly restored and newly open to the public.

The Wettin Dynasty ruled Saxony from Dresden for 800 years. Their Louis XIV-style big shot was Augustus the Strong. They say he could break horseshoes with his bare hands and fathered 365 children. He loved being portrayed with the rose of Luther (symbol of the Protestant movement in Germany) being crushed under his horse’s hoof.

The Wettins taught the rest of Europe’s royal courts the art and importance of having their own porcelain works. The Wettins’ Meissen was the first. I thought I knew the best crown jewels…until I saw the Wettin jewels in Dresden’s “Historic Green Vault” — newly opened and requiring an advance reservation to see. They’re absolutely dazzling, and a clear reminder that those Wettins were something in their day.

Then, after pausing to enjoy several street musicians (ever since Romania was admitted to the EU, there has been a flood of street musicians in this part of Europe), I went out to see Volkswagen’s “Transparent Factory,” where visitors are welcome to watch fancy new models actually being assembled. The factory is so politically correct that parts are brought in by “Cargo Trams” — which congest the city’s traffic less than trucks.

Finally, the highlight: the newly restored Frauenkirche. Dresden’s 310-foot-tall Church of Our Lady was destroyed during the massive bombings one night in 1945. With a huge international effort, the heart and soul of the city was put together like a massive jigsaw puzzle — using as much of the original stone as possible. Today it’s open once again. The interior is stunning: pastel to heighten the festive nature of the worship, curvy balconies to enhance the feeling of community, and with seven equal doors — to welcome all equally and send worshippers out symbolically to all corners to share their enthusiasm for their faith.

My Dresden visit started rocky. Riding the express train into town, I figured it would just stop at the main station. The train pulled into Dresden Neustadt — the New City of Dresden. Okay. Most of the passengers got out. So did I. The train took off. I walked and walked with my bag, really sweating, in a confused fog. I must have walked twenty minutes as my denial that I had gotten off on the wrong station slowly faded. After circling the big block and pretty embarrassed at my mistake, I pondered cutting my losses and just taking a taxi to my hotel. But another train was leaving in minutes for what must be the central station. I hopped on. Five minutes later we arrived. I hopped out at Dresden Mitte. The train took off and I stepped outside the station again, and it slowly sunk in: I made the same mistake again. Another train came in a few minutes. I got on it and finally made it to my intended station: Dresden Hauptbahnhof — a block from my hotel. As I tell travelers in lectures: “Many towns have more than one train station.”

One of my best skills — extremely helpful in my line of work — is the ability to make mistakes…with gusto. After a day in Dresden, the frustrating start was a distant memory. And I had a new appreciation of a city that just 60 years ago lay in smoldering rubble, just 20 years ago was in a USSR-imposed economic hole, and today seems to have caught up with Western Germany.

After the masses of Americans I saw in Berlin and Rothenburg, I saw barely one during my entire Dresden visit. Hey, travelers — check out Saxony. Those Wettins rule.


16 Replies to “Dresden’s Wettins Rule”

  1. Thanks for a great post and an insight into Eastern Germany. I’m so glad you had train problems! When we were in Colgone in May, we caught our return train back to St. Goar. We didn’t realize we were on a different train than we expected until we had gone through a few little villages and nothing seemed familiar. It then occurred to me that we were probably on the “other” side of the Rhine but still headed to Koblentz. One of my travel partners exclaimed with relief and sigh, upon reaching the confluence of the Rhine and Moiselle where a gigantic statue of Kaiser Wilhelm is the landmark, “I never thought I would be so glad to see the Kaiser!”

  2. At a street corner in Dresden, using Emmy’s limited German we talked to two elderly ladies who had lived through the terrible bombing in February 1945. We are unable to communicate well enough to recount a complete story, but again, we lament the fact that we have found no books that relate how the real people, the “little” people, not members of the government or the military, lived in Dresden throughout the war, and the years of Communist oppression. During one of our several visits in Bern, Switzerland, we visited the country’s Capitol Building and asked for a book that tells about living in Switzerland during WW II. The official we talked to was very interested in that idea, but said he knew of no such book. (1991) ======= By the time of our last trip to Europe in 1995, about the only thing of interest to us that had changed since our first visit in 1970, was the removal of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and the beginning of the restoration of Dresden, Germany. (1970-1995)

  3. The rest of Germany sounds happening. Berlin will make progress in time. Such a variety of things for the traveler to experience. Have you had their chocolate yet this trip? Happy travels!

  4. I lived in Dresden for six months, from late 2001 to early 2002. I have revisited twice since then, the last time just four months ago. The changes in just the last few years have been astonishing, as Dresden has reconstructed its pre-1945 skyline. Check out Brennnessel (great restaurant), Das Haus Des Buches (great bookstore, with picture books on the bombing for those interested in it but also much else), and the grand old buildings (newly restored) along the river. If you’re into something younger and hipper, check out Neustadt’s shops and night life. Dresden is likely to be as crowded with Americans as Prague soon, see it now while it’s still a find!

  5. In 1991, at the newly opened Spar Supermarket in Dresden, (former East) Germany, we saw people who were just sightseeing, enjoying their first look at how the West had lived all these years. The look on their faces reminded us of kids looking at gifts under a Christmas tree. A rather new, several-floor building, formerly an East German Government Konsum Store, was now a Karstadt Department Store, a member of the West German chain. The store name was a cloth banner hung from the roof. Clerks, customers, and carpenters wandered among racks of clothes and piles of lumber, the clatter of jack hammers competed with the jingle of cash registers. The customers were happy, they weren’t inconvenienced by the construction work. When we visited in 1995, business had been so good, Karstadt was in the process of building a larger store just across Prager Straße from the original.

  6. Hi Rick, I’ve just now caught one of your shows on PBS…luved it. I’ll be following along on your blog.

  7. We visited Dresden following two weeks in Eastern Europe last September and the Frauenkirche was one of the highlights of the entire trip. The message of hope and renewal and the participation of the world in the reconstruction was inspiring. We were missing our usual Rick Steves recommendations for lodging however..ended up in a big box hotel. Spent four nights in Berlin in a Rick recommended apt. in a neighborhood-felt we experienced Berlin at a more intimate level-loved all of Berlin!

  8. How exciting to hear of the changes in Dresden! It is definately a city I want to visit during my next trip to Germany. It is interesting to hear it hasn’t been overwhelmed with American tourists yet, maybe like Berlin was when I visited 10 years ago, building everywhere, the crane the most significant landmark. Thanks Rick!

  9. Just finished a singing tour with the UWRF Alumni Choir and friends to Poland, Hungary, and Austria. It all started in Dresden. The Hotel Maritim was luxurious with a killer breakfast spread (better than Moevenpick). We performed at Elbhangfest, enjoyed the wine, and loved the Old Masters Gallery. It’s a Rembrandt lovers dream as well as many other fantastic artists on display. Tried the Dresden speciality, an egg custard based dessert, pretty tasty. The prairie restoration along the Elbe is fun to see as well. Dresden was a beaut!

  10. Rick, We were in Dresden in June 2004 and loved it. We visited the Zwinger enjoying the art museum there. We watched as they put the finishing outside touches on the Frauenkirche. We hired a local guide one afternoon and he helped us further appreciate the history of this city. We were impressed by the very modern three story mall with stores of every kind. The breakfasts at the Mercur hotel were fabulous as was 9th floor view from our all glass room.

  11. We just returned from a trip to Germany visiting Wurzburg, Berlin, Dresden, and Gorlitz. Rick’s advice on Dresden was very accurate and very helpful. We spent an afternoon at the Zwinger palace complex and really enjoyed the Gemaldegalerie with the old master’s paintings. We were also completely awed by the newly restored Frauenkirche. We visited it in the morning and had a very hard time pulling ourselves away from it. What a beautiful and faith inspiring church this is. Rick is also right about the lack of Americans visiting Dresden. We didn’t recall over hearing one American accent while there. They are really missing out on a great travel experience. We also spent a day visiting Saxon Switzerland National Park. Wow, what a beautiful place to walk in nature and enjoy the beech forests and incredible views from a top the bridge that spans the rock formations! This was a welcome respite from the cities we had been visiting prior to coming to Dresden. Thanks Rick!

  12. Hi Rick, My family was in Dresden on June 20. Sorry we missed you! We stopped on our way to Krakow, but the highlight of our trip was, Wroclaw, Poland. If you haven’t, check it out.

  13. We drove through Dresden in 1985, and the scope of the unreconstructed destruction and drabness of the city was striking. As we had not made arrangements in advance for accommodations with the DDR officials, we were not allowed to stop at one of the few hotels, so we continued on to our destination, Czechoslovakia. Then in 1995 we visited an open city. Gilded domes greeted us; the Frauenkirche site was swathed in scaffolding, and only the basement and foundation was complete, but we enjoyed hearing about the project in a lecture (all in German) in the large underground room. Can’t wait to go back and check progress.

  14. Hi from Seattle! Last fall we were living in Leipzig, and on a weekend trip to Prague made the same mistake, getting off at the wrong station. We had a connection to make so we hopped into a taxi and sped across the city, but just missed our train. Next one out–6:30 the next morning. So we stayed overnight at the Mercur in a room with a fully glass-enclosed shower that allowed one to watch tv while they showered or steamed. (Ja, Ich bin ein Amerikanerin.)

  15. Howdy from Austin! Your story sounds pretty funny – we were confused by German trains as well when we spent our holiday in Dresden last spring. Even tho we didn’t get off the train for so many times before reaching Dresden main station. On our day trips we often used the local trains then and it’s pretty easy to understand if you once got it ;) my husband and I were really impressed by the stunning landscape hiding in the easternmost part of Germany. We were well informed before we arrived in Germany – thanks to http://saechsische-schweiz.de/english . I can only recommend the Saxon Switzerland to visitors – it’s fascinating!

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