Dresden 2017 (3/4). The ‘Old’ Altstadt

A walk around Dresden’s Altstadt, where all things look like they’re loaded with history, rooted in a past where Dresden was acknowledged as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Dresden’s Old Town is a gem.


I dare any first-time visitor to step out onto Schlossplatz or stroll down Sophienstrasse or reach Theaterplatz, and know exactly their way and instantly know what is where. Seriously, go out there and tell me you can identify each building right there right then. I will give you a prize.

Like, say you’re standing in the middle of Schlossplatz, the bridge over the Elba river on your left. What is the austere, solemn-looking building in front of you? And the majestic church behind you? How about the staircase to the left? They lead up to a terrace-like area, lined with equally imposing, elegant buildings topped by domes and temple-like porches, as well as monuments honouring key painters and writers from the old days. So what is that?

You have a look around the Altstadt, and all things look like they’re loaded with history. They’re likely to be much more recent than they look, since post-war reconstruction began in Dresden in 1953 and continued in earnest throughout the 1960s. Despite their seemingly neat, glossy look, though, I couldn’t help thinking that what the buildings showed was only the latest in a number of layers rooted in the past, a past where Dresden was acknowledged as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and arts and culture were the backbone of society.

If you check the Altstadt on a map, you will easily identify three main areas of interest: Schlossplatz, Theaterplatz and the Zwinger area. Bobby and I approached the centre by walking across the Altmarkt, Dresden’s oldest square.

Before we made it to Schlossplatz, we sought (and found) shelter from the snow, cold and wind in a café on Schlossstrasse, right across the street from the Kulturpalast, which also happens to be the epitome of the spirit of the reconstruction Dresden went through after WWII.

The Kulturpalast is a major architectural symbol of the GDR in Dresden. Opened in 1969 as venue for events, shows and festivals, it displays neat, straight lines and neutral colours (glass facade and copper roof), which obey the architectural standards of those days. The only touch of colour is the mural covering one of the outer walls of the building, which portrays in majestic, solemn terms ‘The Way of the Red Flag’ (‘Der Weg der Roten Fahne’).

After a mugful of the hottest coffee ever brewed on Earth, we headed back to Schlossplatz and let ourselves be overwhelmed with art, history and culture. Schlossplatz is a vaguely rectangular square marked by landmark buildings: the (Catholic) Holy Trinity Cathedral, Georgentor (or Georgenbau), the Oberlandesgericht (High Court) and the Augustusbrücke (Augustus Bridge), overlooking the Elba river and its spacious shores. As for the staircase to the left of the High Court, they lead up to the Brühlsche Terrasse, aka ‘The Balcony of Europe’.

It’s funny how the terrace only covers a few hundred metres in length, yet it may potentially take hours on end to walk to its opposite end. Its left side overlooks the Elba in its entirety, also providing great views of the Neustadt and of the river itself. The view we got had a particularly dramatic feel to it, like fifty actual shades of icy grey and white and, against it, the pitch black of the bare trees. It was mesmerising. It was also abnormally cold, which turned our seemingly nonchalant stroll into a kind of goofy march whose only aim was to keep us on the move while also standing erect.

The ‘cool’ buildings are all lined up on the right-hand side of the terrace, and there are lots of them, from the Museum Festung (formerly Dresden fortress) to the baroque Coselpalais and, most importantly, the Albertinum. Dating back to the 19th century, the Albertinum is home to a number of major art venues, namely the Galerie Neue Meister (Gallery of the New Masters), the Sculpture Collection, the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), and the Lipsius Buiding (home to temporary exhibitions).

We crossed the Terrasse twice in two days, and the snow was so thick we could barely keep our heads high enough to look ahead of us. We shamefully didn’t visit any of the galleries listed above (I’ve already said ‘shamefully’ once): having so little time on our hands, we privileged the wandering about rather than individual venues. But if there’s one thing that stuck with me is the monument to Caspar David Friedrich. Its delicate, highly symbolic quality makes it stand out much more than if it were the most monumental of statues.

When you get to the end of Brühlsche Terrasse, you might want to keep an eye out for two buildings. One is an ochre cube vaguely spinning on itself and, oh wait, there’s another one right next to it. That’s the New Synagogue, erected in 2001 to replace the old one, built by Gottfried Semper and destroyed in 1938 on the notorious ‘Kristallnacht’. The other is a large, fancy palace-like building with sort of corner towers. The towers look like they ought to be topped by domes, which are in fact not there: they look like they were removed and not replaced by anything. Also, the buiding is not a palace, but the Polizei-präsidium, aka the HQ of Dresden police.

We eventually went back to Schlossplatz and stood (again) in front of the High Court. Then we turned right into Augustus Strasse, and our attention was inevitably drawn to the huge artwork we knew we’d found there, but didn’t expect to be so massive and monumental. The Fürstenzug is a gigantic mosaic that portrays the procession of Saxon kings, noblemen and electors. It survived the 1945 bombing, and it’s covered with 23,000 tiles of Meissen porcelain (i.e. porcelain of the finest type originally from the city of Meissen, just outside Dresden). So, just stand there in front of the picture and focus on it till you find the only female character in the crowd – which, by the way, I wasn’t able to spot.

If you want to go and see the actual beating heart of Dresden, though, you have to leave all the buildings and places mentioned so far (literally) behind, and head straight to what is the one and only true symbol of the city, i.e. the (protestant) Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). The history of the cathedral largely coincides with the history of the city: coincidentally, the former the shortly after the latter was heavily bombed by the Allies on the night between 13 and 14 February 1945.

In the 1980s it was made into a symbol of the peace movement that fiercely opposed the GDR regime. Finally, in 1990 reconstruction began and, not without criticism, the church was reopened in 2005. However blurred a memory of its original counterpart, today’s Frauenkirche does retain a kind of unique, strikingly awing quality. The fact that pieces from the original building are embedded in its outer walls, and a fragment of the 18th-century dome lies right next to it undoubtedly adds to the picture.

Well, yes, such lengthy, extensive description was only and entirely referred to one in three key areas of the Altstadt. The other two are equally impressive and unique, yet not equally demanding in terms of area covered and number of buildings involved.

Theaterplatz is very close to Schlossplatz, and boasts one of Dresden’s best-known buildings: the Semperoper. Dresden opera house is named after its architect, the same Gottfried Semper who designed the old synagogue. He actually built the theatre twice, in 1841 and around thirty years later, when it was heavily damaged by fire. WWII almost destroyed it again, but it was eventually brought back to life in 1985. Its three-storey curved facade makes it look stunningly massive. Which it actually is, but the curved perimeter of the square where it sits makes it look even more majestic and monumental.

If you’re not in Dresden on a day trip, do make sure you go and have a look at the opera theatre at night. In fact, first go and have a look at Semperoper, and then head back toward Schlossplatz as well. We happened to walk past almost by accident: Bobby had to buy a magnet for her Mum, and the only kiosk still open was the one right next to the catholic cathedral. Then we walk all around its walls and as far as Theaterplatz, turned around and…

It was all enveloped in warm yellow lights, made even brighter by the thick layer of glistening ice that covered the ground and, if possible, the (few) car lights intercepting snowflakes in mid air. Yes, it was snowing again.

As for the (super baroque) Zwinger complex, well the truth is, it took me a while to identify it and be confident that that was the one. I mean, I’d seen it, obviously (not even blindfolded you could miss it), but at first I, ahem, mistook it for Semperoper (LOL), so then I obviously wondered what the other huge building in the square was. Then that huge building turned out to be the opera theatre, so how about the first one? So yes, I shamefully struggled a bit at first, but then grew familiar with the area. Also, I understood that the reason I couldn’t quite tell where the Zwinger was was that it was virtually everywhere. The area it covers is so vast that if you look at the map you will see that there are bits of Zwinger in the majority of streets and squares in the vicinity of Theaterplatz. Zwinger everywhere.

If it looks massive from the outside, just wait till you go inside. The complex is home to a number of uber well-known Dresden museums, namely the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), the Porcelain Collection and a uniquely valuable scientific collection. Plus, the courtyard is… You know the average, standard courtyard of historic palaces, royal palaces and the like, right? Well, its Zwinger counterpart is nothing like that. Its vastness truly escapes imagination, and it includes everything: arches, porches, fountains (Nymph bath fountain included), statues, caves… nothing’s missing. It’s truly astounding. The Zwinger is one of the Dresden sights I can’t wait to visit again without snow. Its usual ‘self’ must be nothing like the one we saw in January, what with the (truly) heavy snow, the silence, and the overcast sky, which also contributed to the whiteness of the view and the vastness of the space.

Our day in the Altstadt came to an end early in the evening, when we found ourselves on one of the Elba bridges, frozen as icicles, staring at the city lights in the distance. As we stood in the darkness of the bridge, huddled like penguins to fight the icy wind, our eyes roamed over the frozen Elba, then shifted back toward the Old Town till they glimpsed an onion dome… ‘Wait, what’.

As we later discovered, the onion dome is the Yenidze Mosque, which does faithfully resemble a mosque but in fact is as far from religion as it can get. Built as a tobacco factory in the early 20th century, the Yenidze is named after the Ottoman city tobacco was imported from. Harshly criticised for its falsely mosque-like shape, it is now used as an office building. A restaurant is also open next to the dome, which toward sunset glows in colourful lights.

The time we spotted the Yenidze was also the time of the day (8.30pm) when we were too tired to even speak, and the only option we had left was drag ourselves back to our hostel and collapse on the (bunk) beds we’d be allocated by the (grumpy) reception guy. Which sounded like a reasonably good plan before going back out there and explore the Neustadt.

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