Saturday, 2 July 2011

Crossing the Elbe

This year is turning out to be a year of achieving long-harboured ambitions to discover places I've mused about going to for several decades. Dallas for example isn't the kind of place you'd be straight on the phone to a travel agent about, but I wouldn't mind passing through it on the way to somewhere with a bit more to hold the interest.. like perhaps the French Quarter of New Orleans. So it'd been with Dresden. Since I was a teenager and first read Slaughterhouse Five I've wondered what Dresden was like: the firestorm, the scale of the destruction, the central and symbolic role in the rebuilding of the city played by the Frauenkirche church (left).

Life has taken me to a good many places since that first reading of Vonnegut, and none of them have been Dresden: of course the years in the East didn't make things any easier but it's not been exactly easy to get to or a must-see place like Berlin or Munich. But with a week's work around Germany earlier this year, I lay up for the weekend in Dresden and started to read up a bit on the city's history.

Obviously the bombing of February 1945 is a big theme, even now. The place was hammered. Dresden looked like it'd been hit with a nuclear bomb. The shelves of books in every shop about the attack cover the raid and the rebuilding in great detail. Entering the church at the centre of the city that was almost destroyed - the Frauenkirche - is a strange experience. While I'm not particularly religious, I haven't experienced what the people of Dresden went through - the bombing, the death, the suffering - so perhaps I can't fully understand what that church means to them as a symbol of them rebuilding their lives and restoring a treasure. So it was with a strange sense of apology that I marvelled at the wonders of the altar and the story of the tin tears cried by the figure of Jesus when the roof melted in the inferno and dripped molten metal onto his face.

 The inside of the Frauenkirche really is a work of art, and in my view the restoration of that church is a worthy and righteous symbol of the power of reconciliation. The war with Germany is a long time ago and the world is well rid of the Nazis and their evil but the loss of culture and beauty that went with their removal is a shame that is still not entirely restored. All power to the rebuilders of the Frauenkirche, people of all nations including the UK. And yes, I apologised for the actions of the RAF in the intense carpetbombing of Dresden, a city full of refugees at the time, thousands of whom were incinerated in the firestorm. I took a tram out of the centre and it was a fifteen minute ride before the buildings started to look like they were pre-war (ie weren't Soviet-style concrete flats.) Sure, I understand the arguments about it being militarily necessary to pulverise cities so war leaders understand the message, but I operate on a human basis as well.
If you're passing through that part of Germany, take a diversion to Dresden. Stay at the Inter City Hotel just by the station and enjoy the views from the top of the Frauenkirche and the stroll along the side of the Elbe, known as the balcony. Dresden's known as the Florence of the Elbe.. here you can see why.

Visiting on a cold February Saturday may not be the ideal time to go .. the wind whips in from that river but it's a picturesque city full of architectural splendour. Just give thanks that Dresden's almost back the way it was.

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