Thursday, September 23, 2010

Augie Wettin's Hometown is a Blast

An early morning wake up puts me, as usual, in a sparkling frame of mind. Kat, though not quite as sparkling, is up and showering. We know and appreciate how fortunate we are to be well and alive and able to experience the excitement of international travel. We often wonder if we'll have the opportunity to share future travels with any of our grandchildren. The one time we did (Emily (14) in France - 2006 - Ed.) we had a wonderful time. The tricky part is getting the right kid, at the right age, going to the right place. We doubt any pre-teen would get much enjoyment checking out old churches, old war memorials, and old societies with old us.

Thursday - September 23, 2010

With tickets in hand we stood upon the number one platform on the lowest level of the Hauptbanhof. It was a remarkably quick and easy transit from the Sochenshof to the main train station, and as usual we were a half hour early. What is it about getting older that makes you want to be early rather than late? We had played the game of "Which do you Prefer" recently and late versus early will be added to hot or cold, awake or asleep and sunrise and sunset ponderings. The train was late. We know it's preference.

We dutifully boarded with our reserved seat tickets and were surprised to see our seats occupied. What's the appropriate response in Germany? In France we would laugh if off, in Italy scoff at the idea of reserved anything, and in the Netherlands look forward to an interesting discussion with our fellow travelers. But what was the protocol here? We decided to take some nearby seats and leave the resolution to fate and the conductor. As it turned out, no one cared and fate dealt us better window seats in the middle of the car. Nice.

It was a beautiful sky-blue day, perfect for a train ride. Within minutes of leaving the Berlin station we were surrounded by lush farmland where autumn had burnished the sides of some trees with gold foil. It was so peaceful and pleasant and the gentle rocking of the train car lulled us to sleep. A very short (for us) 2 and 1/2 hours later we pulled into the Dresden Hbf station just a short walk from our hotel and minutes from the "old" part of town. It couldn't have been easier, or more relaxing.

We dropped off our luggage and backpacks at the 3rd IBIS along Pragerstrasse (a clean 1960ish set of cookie cutter hotels) and headed into town. The primary reason for our trip to Dresden was to visit the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, (Old Masters Picture Gallery) museum, the domicile of two Vermeers: The Girl with a Pearl Necklace and The Procuress. An added bonus would be Raphael's Sistine Madonna a small portion of which has overshadowed the beautiful and poignant madonna.

Our entire understanding of Dresden came from old pictures, movies, and what we had read in the guidebooks. We knew these three things: it had once been the capital of Saxony ruled by Augustus the Strong and was known as "Florence on the Elbe," during WWII it was heavily bombed and mostly destroyed, and lastly, after the war it ended up in the Soviet sector of East Germany (GDR) and stagnated. Stuck in the southeastern corner where western television and radio could not be received the area was known as the "Valley of the Clueless." We could hardly wait to see what was left.

In fact what was left is absolutely beautiful, and charming, and on that fine day, glorious. Everywhere we looked there were stately 18th century baroque buildings that looked as if they had just been built. And in fact most of them, to a great extent, had. Sprinkled amongst the new clean sandstone blocks like pepper on rice, were some of the original blocks, darkened with age. Many of the spires (and there are many spires) are clad with blackened copper and have bright shiny golden crosses on top that catch the sunlight. The orange tile roofs contrast perfectly with the dark blue sky. The Wettin dynasty, of which Augustus (Augie to his friends) was the most famous, ruled for 800 years and built much of this beautiful town.

The Gemäldegalerie museum is part of a complex called the Zwinger, a masterful collection of perfectly proportioned buildings that surround a fountained courtyard. It felt more like we were in the Tuilleries than old East Germany. Standing in the middle of the yard each cardinal point presented an interesting view. Our favorite was the Orangerie, the building where the orange trees were kept in winter. Hey, when you've got money to burn, why not? Directly opposite is the Glockenspiel Pavillion, an exit gate adorned by 40 Meissen porcelain bells that ring every 15 minutes. Standing in this large, elegant, beautifully proportioned courtyard pleases the senses.

Inside the museum fate had dealt us another kind blow. Not only were our two Vermeers at home, they were being visited by 2 others in a special temporary exhibit called The Young Vermeer. Seeing that he died when he was 43, I thought everything he did was the work of the "young" Vermeer. "The Procuress" was joined by "Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" (loaned from Edinburgh) and "Diana and Her Companions" (loaned from the Mauritshuis in the Hague) and had their own room. Seeing the three of them side by side was like looking at an artist maturing into his own style right before your eyes. The Procuress was everything we hoped it would be. Everyone at the time was doing "little brothels scene" paintings but Vermeer brought a sense of dignity and modesty to his. We felt so fortunate that the timing worked. Not long after we saw them, all three paintings were packed up and on their way to the next stop of the special exhibition.

The last Vermeer on display and part of the permanent collection at the Zwinger was the "The Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window." Painted in 1657 it is the first of his more realistic paintings; real life in 17th century Delft. Before you get to the painting you pass through a room where a documentary detailing the restoration process used on the painting played on large screen TVs. Though we understood not a word we were mesmerized by it. In the adjacent room there was a stage setting set up to mimic the scene in the painting. You can stand where the painter would have and mentally compose the picture. It was fascinating. Then finally we entered the large crowded salon where "The Girl" is prominently displayed. Standing before it we marveled at the precision and thoughtfulness of the painting. It is remarkable.

Our last stop was a tribute to mass marketing. How could Raphael have known that the little afterthoughts he added to his "Sistine Madonna" would become his most well known work. Adorning everything from refrigerator magnets (we bought one) to pillowcases these adorable little angels sit in stark contrast to the clearly conflicted Mary. This painting was actually an altarpiece and there is a theory that it's proximity to her son's crucifixion is the reason for her expression.

Lunchtime. Behind a nice old fountain with a fearsome fellow holding the basin on his back is a modern little Italian cafe called Solino. It is in the back corner or the large and opulent Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, has a beautiful selection of pastries, a very tasty salad Caprese and good local beer. If you go there, see if you can find the restrooms, "just down the hall", in less time than it took us.

Dresden is loaded with churches, and most of them are naturally, Protestant (let's not forget that the old renegade Martin Luther "protested" (thus protest-ants) a few towns away). Upon Dad's death Augie's son (Augustus the Strong) wanted to remain king of Poland, which was Catholic, so he made a deal with the Pope and built the beautiful Hofkirche in trade. And beautiful it is. There is a very modern Meissen porcelain pietà with Christ resting his head on Mary's lap in a rear chapel. Knowing my brother Rich's love of modern art, but dislike for church hopping I think he would enjoy it. What caught my eye (given my love of woodwork) was the bright linden wood pulpit in the nave. It had been dismantled and hidden in the woods during the war, then returned to the church when it was safe. Sweeping upward from the floor the gilded trim work glistens in the diffused sunlight. It really is beautiful and uplifting.

Back out in the sunshine we walked along the "Parade of Nobles", which is the longest piece of artwork we've ever seen. There are 24,000 individually painted and fired porcelain tiles telling the 700 year old story of the Saxon kings. Although fairly modern (circa 1910), it looks much older - after all it did survive the bombing. I lost interest about half way along. I admire the craftsmanship (and was humbled considering my bathroom tile job), but old costumes and pageantry don't hold wonder for me. In fact the blue wonder is on our agenda for the day, but it will have to wait until later; we have one last church and a balcony to walk.

From 1743 to February 13, 1945 the big beautiful Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was the religious center of Dresden. From February 15, 1945 to 1992 this church was a big pile of rubble. Reconstruction ended in 2005, and once again the Frauenkirche is Dresden's central church. Except for the blackened original stones that dot the facades, and a twisted cross in a side chapel, the church looks pristine. Unlike the dark, heavy interiors of the churches of our Catholic youth, this church is bright and light and glows. We figured we better get out of there before we converted.

Like all really beautiful cities, Dresden has a river attraction, the Elbe, and above the banks is said to be one of the most beautiful promenades in the world: the Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl was an adviser to the Augies). We stood looking down along the Elbe to the Augustus bridge and it really is something to behold. Reminding us of the staging for Vermeer's painting at the Zwinger, there is a metal frame set up where you can imagine the scene in front of you as a painting. It is a very popular spot and I had to give it a try, but no matter how long I waited, I couldn't get a clear shot. So I decided to take my pic and hope photo editor could fix it in the future. What a great place for relaxing and people watching.

This is the best I could do. Ed.

The day was still young so we decided to go in search of the blue wonder. It was almost 3 and 1/2 miles from where we stood on the terrace and we still hadn't checked into our hotel, so we figured we'd take care of some business and then take a tram ride. On the way back to our IBIS we passed a couple of relics from the old GDR days in this charming "clueless valley."

On the side of the Cultural Palace (?), a typical Soviet inspired square box of a building, there was an enormous mural containing many of the themes of the past, including zombie like folks, women that look like men, and the ubiquitous red star.

Our frowns turned to smiles when we noticed the little "don't walk" symbol on the post at the corner was a little pigtailed girl. Now that's culture we can get down with.

All checked in, we walked the two blocks to the tram stop and caught the next one heading to the eastern suburbs and the "Blue Wonder Bridge." The trams are new, modern, and quick. Really quick "off the line" and neither of us was prepared for the lurch that sent us both onto our backsides. Jumping to our feet we sheepishly assured everyone we were fine, knowing black and blue marks were only hours away. (We were right - real beauties - no pics. Ed.)Speaking of blue, the wonder of this bridge is that it survived the firestorm bombing without a scratch. Other than that there is not much to see but the surrounding towns are neat and in our case, a tram ride to remember. We poked our heads into the Schiller Garten - a large 300 year old beer garden that is famous for it's Feldschlößchen beer (a special brew that is served only in this garden and restaurant). We should have, but didn't, stopped for one. For no good reason we were still a little trepidatious about the environment. That's something we have to work on; how often are we going to be at the beer garden of Dresden. We hope at least once more.

Kat and I agreed that if time allowed we would make one more stop before searching out dinner. She had read of a famous fresco on a wall (inside or outside was a question) at the Hygiene Museum (really?) and would like to take a peek. We found it on our map and plotted our tram course. Now one would think that anything as famous as a museum dedicated to hygiene, small as it must be, would be well marked but one would be wrong. We exited the tram onto a 1950ish GDR tall, gray, bland apartment building block with dusk well on it's way to becoming dark. They might have filmed the excellent Stasi morality film "The Lives of Others" in this neighborhood. (This movie is an accademy award winner - Best Foreign Film of 2006 - and highly recommended even if you have NO interest in the GDR. Ed.) It was a little creepy, and except for the eyes watching us from all the buildings, we were alone. After wandering through an even creepier courtyard of one of the apartment high rises, we asked a bagman who was stumbling along if he knew where the museum was. Alright, it wasn't all that creepy, and the bag contained groceries, and he was very nice and helpful. We were on the wrong side of the street, and about two long, very long, blocks away from the place. The end of this story is that the building was very large (it once was the headquarters for a very nasty bit of Nazi work involving eugenics), very stark, very imposing, very GDR and very closed, with no mural in sight. By now it was also very dark and I take back what I said about not being creeped out a little. In any event the mural along with the Schiller beer will have to wait upon our return.

After a surprisingly short walk back to old town Dresden we scouted out places to eat. People certainly eat earlier in Germany than in other European countries. By 8:00 it was clear the evening dinner service was winding down. In Italy we would still be in the anteroom eating with the family if we showed up this early. We ended up at the Altmarkt Keller, a real Saxon-Bohemian Beerhouse right in the main market square, and are glad we did. Since we missed the beer garden we would celebrate the beer cellar. The waitresses were robust, lively and friendly, and the menu was a real mystery (the German was subtitled with what looked like Polish maybe, and NO help to us at all (e.g. would you like the Prager Ratsherrenpfanne (Pekáč pražskéhoradní)?). There was a general air of goodwill and camaraderie amongst the patrons. We sat at a table for 4 but most were set for 6 to 10 - a real sociable set of numbers. There were several parties of 8 and we felt like socially deficient pikers. We tend to eschew the mariachis at Mexican, the violinists at Italian, and the chatty managers everywhere else when eating. In this case, a comic German army private was table jumping, having pleasant (and we think bawdy) little sing-a-longs at each stop. Accompanied by a fair amount of alcohol consumption everyone involved seem to be having a great time. It was fun to watch but like at the magic show, no desire to be participants. The waitresses were extraordinary with their ability to bring out a platter of pig knuckles (each the size of a cantaloupe) in one hand and six mugs of beer in the other. Impressive.

Our dinners were very good but certainly pedestrian in comparison to what we could have ordered. (You can take a look at the menu at the web site above - Ed.). I had a beer onion soup and noodles in a cream sauce accompanied by a Radeberger beer, Kat the potato soup and chicken breast with bacon and a coke. Everything was delicious and we even got used to the singing soldier before it was time to go. I bet the place is really hopping on a Friday or Saturday night. Our bill was under 30 Euros, so not only an experience but a cheap one as well.

It had been quite a day, and we dragged ourselves back to the hotel, a very nice, short walk. Over dinner we made the decision to leave Dresden in the morning (we really had hit everything on must see list) as we had open tickets for the return. We really liked Dresden and surely would return. There is the whole other side of the Elbe and "New Town" Dresden (built in the recent 1700s) left to explore. And we could go to an outdoor beergarten and listen to the porcelain bells at the Zwinger. And maybe go to the Hygiene museum. Tomorrow it's back to Berlin.

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