Andy and Sue Jervis have been on their travels again, recently spending a few days discovering Dresden and Berlin. Andy penned these words about their experiences.
Dresden is a beautiful city. It sits on the banks of the River Elbe, from where boat travellers are treated to wonderful views of fine baroque architecture, with beautiful old buildings grouped around the city, each with its own character and significance. One has the sense of a historic place, untouched by the centuries.
Yet the truth is very different. Dresden is remarkable for what happened in February, 1945, and in the years that followed.
On the 13th February of that year Allied bombers rained thousands of tons of high explosives into the heart of the city, leaving it a burned out shell. You only need to search the web for ‘Dresden bombing’ to discover graphic images of the destruction.
So when I asked friends and family when they supposed that these fine buildings had been constructed, they guessed in multiples of hundreds of years ago. Yet in reality the Frauenkirche, the elegant church in the centre of the old town, was only rebuilt in 2005, having stood as a pile of rubble for 50 years in memory of that night of destruction. And the buildings in the photograph above, redolent of an illustrious history, were only rebuilt in the 1970’s.
In fact, Dresden remains a hotbed of construction activity. New buildings, modeled on their earlier predecessors, are taking shape across the city, whilst earlier reconstructions completed under East German rule are being redone to higher, more authentic standards. The transformation of the city is hugely impressive.
The revival of Dresden as a cultural and architectural gem is a huge testament to the spirit and vision of its people. On our visit we learned that the city has a fascinating history, with a back story populated by a multitude of outstanding characters. Perhaps the most illustrious of all was the revered Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, a reputed giant of a man whose title was earned as a result of his extraordinary physical strength as well as his military and political prowess. It was alleged that Augustus would fight bears with his bare hands, and was partial to ‘fox-tossing’ whereby animals were tossed in a sling, supposedly with only one finger. It’s a sport that would be unlikely to gain much support in modern times, but seems to have been all the rage in the early 1700s. Under his rule the city became a hugely important and popular venue, attracting visitors from all over Europe who came to witness its beauty. Its selection as a military target for destruction by the Allies was, and remains, controversial.
But, sitting in the thriving centre of the Old Town at one of the many street restaurants, drinking the local beer and enjoying the tasty ‘Flammkuchen’, a wafer-thin-crusted pizza that’s a speciality here, it’s easy to ignore the recent past and just bask in the beautiful surroundings. The city has a peaceful heart, and we can understand why visitors have flocked here over the centuries.
Berlin is different again. Our coach has delivered us into the centre of the city, although it seems that there is disagreement about where the centre truly lies. Our hotel is located on the Friedrichstrasse, the city’s longest street and within walking distance of key attractions. From here we are taken on a tour of the sights, and Andy Thomas, our extremely knowledgeable guide, clearly has a long and loving association with the place.
We find that to visit Berlin is to visit its associations with the past. Standing in the University Square, the Bebelplatz, is interesting in itself, but when we learn that this was the site of the ‘burning of the books’ in 1933 the place takes on a new dimension. The memorial to the burning, a perspex covered chamber in the centre of the square containing nothing but empty bookshelves, brings home the significance of what happened here.
Further along Friedrichstrasse we turn to find the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most potent symbol of Berlin, forever associated with images of jubilant East and West Europeans standing atop it celebrating the fall of the Wall, actions that would probably have earned them a bullet a short time before.
And then there is the Wall itself. Although mostly gone, sufficient remnants remain to help the visitor to understand the scale of its presence, and the desperation that it caused for the City’s residents on both sides, but mainly for those on the East. From being an unapproachable icon for fear of death under the watchful eye of the armed guards and sentries that manned its length, the Wall is now a unique tourist attraction, festooned in places by accomplished artworks as well as the inevitable graffiti. It’s a stark reminder of the privations suffered by millions under the oppressive regime that took power after WW2.
Museums and street hoarding information boards and images abound, especially around the site of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’, the famous border crossing in the centre of Friedrichstrasse, together with a recreation of the original checkpoint and its accompanying signage. Here you can learn about people such as Peter Fechter, who was shot by the guards whilst crossing the no-man’s land known as the ‘death strip’ which separated the two regimes. Badly wounded, Fechter lay for hours untended and eventually bled to death as each side refused to enter the area. No wonder that there was such jubilation when the Wall finally fell.
Of course there’s much more to Berlin than its recent past, and our visit is but a short introduction to the city. There’s a lot more to explore, both in the centre and outside the city within driving distance. But our trip has helped us to understand Berlin’s story of a divided and reunited city, a story that remains highly relevant to today’s politics, and one that everyone should be aware of. We’re glad we’ve visited and learned so much about the City and its history.
Andy and Sue visited Dresden and Berlin on a trip organised by Riviera Travel, and found it a great way to learn all about these fascinating cities. If you relate to their experience, or if you've enjoyed a trip that you'd like to share, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'd be delighted to feature your story on our blog.