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Reizen Magazine (NL)

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Germany: Scenic Drive around Dresden

The Irony of History

Diplodocus in dinosaur park Sauriergarten, Kleinwelka.



This scenic drive is a wintry exploration of the area around Saxony’s capital, Dresden, including the former Elbe Valley UNESCO world heritage site. It starts in porcelain city Meißen and ends in Zittau near the spot where Germany, Poland and Czechia meet. On the way it visits Bautzen and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains with its table mountains and national park.

This feature offers an anecdotal and often humorous perspective on the history of the area, mingled with contemporary Saxony developments.


Excerpts of the article

Text & photos: © Paul Smit

Once again Johann Friedrich Böttger had been locked up. This time not in a dungeon but in one of the most beautiful castles of Europe: the Albrechtsburg above the Elbe near Meißen.

The master alchemist had boasted to August the Strong, King of the Saxons, that he could make gold. “Go for it,” August said and supplied him with all the equipment he needed…and a dungeon as his laboratory. August deemed isolation the safest way to ensure the alchemist would under no circumstance reveal his working methods to others. Böttger (1682-1719) failed again and again, but one of his experiments led to the making of porcelain, which at the time was only made in China. This was a fortunate ‘accident’, as porcelain objects were highly collectible at the European courts. August realised that Böttger, in his own way, had stumbled on a goldmine. So he didn’t set him free but moved him to the Albrechtsburg, an empty castle of his forebears, where he had him build a porcelain factory. >>>


“What is Dresden like nowadays?” I wonder. I haven’t been there since the reunification. Even in the days of the GDR this city surprised me. The proud Florence-on-Elbe, destroyed in the allied firestorm, had already risen substantively from the ashes. The baroque silhouette gracing the river banks was back, music played in the Semper Opera, and in the Zwinger, the pleasure garden of August the Strong, tourists wandered as if they had never left.

White as the Taj Mahal

At the end of our drive from Meißen to Dresden, overlooking the vineyard hills across the Elbe, we are struck by the colossal, elegant dome in the middle of the cityscape. Not the colour of brown coal as before the war, but white as the Taj Mahal.

As a fata morgana the reconstructed Frauenkirche rises above the Elbe.

The GDR government had decided to leave the monumental pile of stones from the collapsed Frauenkirche the way it was, as a memorial to the War. After the Wende the decision was finally made to rebuild this baroque church, possibly the most beautiful in Europe. In July 2004 the scaffolding was removed from the exterior and the interior was finished in October 2005, in time for Dresden's 800th anniversary.

The work started in 1993, with astounding Gründlichkeit, typically German thoroughness. For each individual stone the former position in the original construction was determined. With the help of digital cameras, 3D-software and computers, this took six hours per stone. After that the mere 22.000 cubic metres of rubble had been catalogued and the stones were stored in colossal metal racks, which loomed over the resurrecting church for quite a time. The funding of the project was tackled in similarly thorough German fashion. Anyone who was interested could buy a stone to donate to the Frauenkirche. If you donated stone EVR 71, (tower E, front right, stone layer 71) your name was written down next to that stone in the Golden Book. It was an enormous success. >>>

Kunsthof Passage in Dresden-Neustadt<<< Dresden’s recent metamorphosis is the most remarkable in Neustadt. Formerly this was its most neglected neighbourhood, because the GDR could not use it to gain prestige as it could with the baroque monuments on the other side of the Elbe. Houses were not well maintained, the residents were obliged to move to high-rise neighbourhoods outside of town and the city planned ultimately to bulldozer the area and build new buildings. And that while this is the only original old neighbourhood to have escaped the bombs. Fortunately, the town lacked the funds for their plans and squatters occupied the empty buildings, to safeguard them from tumbling down for as long as possible. After the Wende these colourful residents were the engine behind the metamorphosis of the neighbourhood. These streets close to the river became chic and trendy, with shops filled with the good things in life. Behind that, around the Alaunstraße, there is a small area full of friendly cafes and trendy bars that rivals the Amsterdam Jordan area. It has similar tiny and strange shops, a summery street life and most especially the same unbridled creativity. >>>

Sächsische Schweiz national park

<<< If you were to mistake the graceful poplars for cypresses, the Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains), as Dresden’s back garden is called, would remind you of Tuscany and just like in Italy you can go on wonderful excursions here. >>>

<<< Unless you are armed with a map or walking guide; then the labyrinth turns into a walking paradise, protected for future generations as it lies in Saxon Switzerland National Park.

Those less fleet-of-foot can best view this area in the Bastei, where Nature has built a castle of its own – right above the Elbe – to go with the labyrinth. Man has added bridges and railings. Another must-see is the Pravcicka Gate (Prebischtor) just over the Czech border, the biggest rock arch in middle Europe. >>>. <<< You can fancy yourself back in prehistoric times between these colossal rock needles with their breathtaking views.

The dinosaurs of Franz Gruß

Late Franz Gruß must have hiked here in his youth. Where else would he get the inspiration to build a dinosaur in his back garden, one day in 1978, life-sized and hair-raisingly realistic. He continued to make more and our trail takes us along his work in Sebnitz, Großwelka and Kleinwelka.

The life story of Franz Gruß is reminiscent of that of mailman Cheval in the French Drôme. He had found a beautiful stone: the first step in a fantasy construction, he decided. It resulted in a formidable fairytale palace, now drawing hundreds of visitors. Gruß also was hooked after his first sculpture and in 1981 his garden was brimming over. The council generously offered him the use of a forest area with lakes that bordered on his garden. Now Gruß could place his giants in their natural environment, in realistic situations. He gave up his job and devoted himself exclusively to recreating the prehistoric era. The council supplied him with concrete and paint and a minuscule allowance to keep him from starving. And so a dinosaur park without equal came into existence behind the Iron Curtain, long before the dinosaur hype began in Europe and America. >>>

Capital of the Sorbs

We continue on our trip and arrive in Bautzen, or Budysin, as the municipal sign also says. This is the capital of the Sorbs, a Slavic minority in Germany. A tribe that Hitler of course wanted no part of, over half a century ago. Under Soviet Bautzenrule this fraternal clan was held in high esteem. And so 50,000 Sorbs roam through history without any influence on it of their own. >>> <<< Without the Wende historical Bautzen would never have made it to the Millennium. So no criticism of the cosmetic mistakes made during renovation, such as the plastic windowsills. >>>

<<< It’s snowing gently when we take leave of Bautzen, rendering the surrounding Oberlausitz even lovelier. One half-timbered village after another passes us by, with lit-up spruces in the gardens. By the time the world has gone entirely white, we are in Jonsdorf in the Zittauer Gebirge. Half-timbered hotel, gluhwein in the timber-finished Lausitzer Stube – the Christmas spirit nestles in our hearts.

The next day, after a wonderful walk in the snow, we complete our scenic drive to Zittau. Zittau is located on the point where three countries, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, meet. Children screech with delight on the merry-go-round on the Christmas Market. >>> <<< Time for some Christmas contemplation. We enter the most famous church of Zittau. Not famous for its size, which is downright modest, but for its Fastentuch (Lent Cloth). In the Middle Ages during Lent these cloths would shroud the altar, the most holy, to make the congregation also fast in a spiritual sense. Originally they were white, later biblical stories were painted on them. They ultimately became quite huge and would hide the entire choir from sight with their comic strips. Only a handful has survived history. The cloth in Zittau is the largest and most beautiful. >>>

<<< We look at our guide uncomprehendingly as he expertly increases the tension with his silence. “After Berlin fell, there were still some scattered Russian troops in this region. Dirt poor boys from Siberia and Kazachstan, they were overjoyed to have survived the war alive. They happened upon the cloth by coincidence and had no idea of its age or value. They turned it into a sauna tent.” In shock we look at the cloth again, realising the bizarre and barbarian art desecration. We hear the laughing soldiers, feel the spattering of their splashing, imagine their joy after years of cheerless strife. Whoever says history is boring and art is all about dead things is wrong. The point is what those flaxen threads of the cloth have experienced: human tragedy with a sense of humour.


The hotel

Hotel Alte Gerberei, BautzenMaria Löcken-Hierl was born in Bautzen, but grew up in West Germany. This gives her a better understanding of what modern tourists are seeking than most Bautzeners. So when she joined forces with her Manfred in 1993, leaving the stressful corporate life behind to realise a dream in her town of birth, she applied just the right touch in the restoration and decoration of the old tannery on the Spree. The garden behind the baroque building is an oasis and nutrition is the key word in the French-Italian kitchen. Their reclaimed joy of living can be felt throughout the Alte Gerberei. >>>


The restaurant

Restaurant Wjelbik, BautzenYou are offered salt and bread upon entering, a Slavic welcoming custom. Restaurant Wjelbik in the heart of Bautzen, run by Veronika Mahling, in traditional clothing, is an authentic Sorb restaurant. Here you won’t have sophisticated western healthy cooking, but sturdy and tasty Slavic dishes. The interior shows what was thought to be the height of good taste during GDR rule, so rates high on nostalgia by now, without the owner being aware of the fact. >>>


The view: Königstein Castle

River Elbe with Lilienstein table mountainKönigstein, the ultimate Saxon castle, was reputed to be impregnable, and indeed was never conquered. Visiting there helps you understand why no well-thinking enemy would even consider a siege. And there is a second reason to climb this table mountain: the imposing view of the Elbe and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. >>>


The village: Obercunnersdorf

ObercunnersdorfThe Oberlausitz between Bautzen and Zittau has many half-timbered villages, but none of them compares to Obercunnersdorf. This village has a specific type of half-timbered architecture, the Umgebindehäuser. >>>


Possible streamers

City of wine and porcelain - MEISSEN

The youthful flair of Dresden - NEUSTADT


Dinos in the forest - SAURIERPARK KLEINWELKA

Saved from destruction - BAUTZEN


A web of cell-vaults, unfolding like Japanese origami, elegant and seemingly weightless.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, antiques shops have been flourishing here, looking like they have existed for hundreds of years.

If you were to mistake the graceful poplars for cypresses, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains would remind you of Tuscany.

Franz Gruß gave up his job and devoted himself exclusively to recreating the prehistoric era.

And so a dinosaur park without equal came into existence behind the Iron Curtain, long before the Jurassic Park hype began in America and Europe.

Without the Wende historical Bautzen would never have made it to the Third Millennium.

Who is going to blame the citizens for the overly sweet tones on their facades. Previously there was only one colour: dark brown.

For two weeks Russian soldiers enjoyed the comfort of a sauna tent, while hot steam rose through the medieval Lent cloth, dissolving and discolouring centuries of pigments.


Translated from the Dutch by Elise Reynolds


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This feature has been published in REIZEN MAGAZINE, the leading Dutch travel journal.

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