For most visitors DRESDEN is synonymous with devastation; in fact, it’s all about regeneration. Of the major cities, only Berlin or Hamburg suffered such total obliteration in the war, and Dresden had far more to lose. For two centuries before its Altstadt was reduced to a smouldering heap in February 1945, it was acclaimed the most beautiful city in Germany. Italian master Canaletto immortalized it as a “Florence on the Elbe”. Visitors on the Grand Tour marvelled at a Baroque streetscape unparalleled in Central Europe. Dresden’s coming of age was thanks to Elector Augustus the Strong (Augustus Der Stark; 1696–1763). No matter that the regent had an ugly absolutist streak, nor that the city’s rejuvenation was all about personal vanity – a transformation to reflect the glory of a self-styled Saxony Sun King. Augustus gathered to his court a brilliant group of architects and artists. Between them they created a city of extraordinary grace in which nobles rode through perfect squares, were serenaded by church bells in elegant spires, or drifted up the Grand Canal of the Elbe to alfresco balls in the Zwinger.
Then came the bombs. After reunification Dresdeners began to rebuild the iconic buildings that had been left as ruins by the communists. Begun in 1990, the reconstruction became a metaphor for reconciliation, not just for East and West Germany but among wartime enemies. When the wraps came off the Frauenkirche in 2005, the last icon of Europe’s most striking Baroque city was resurrected.
Part of the attraction of the Altstadt is that it remains in the act of creation as the GDR past is airbrushed and the Baroque streetscape of its glory days reappears – regime apparatchiks would be disgusted. Consequently the city fabric is patchy in places except around the showpieces that extend behind the Elbe between the two axes of the Altstadt: civic space Neumarkt, home to the Frauenkirche; and the Residenzschloss and splendid Zwinger pleasure palace – the former with some of its finest museums, the latter not just the great glory of Baroque Dresden but a prize of Germany. The Neustadt on the north bank emerged from the war with barely a scratch. Originally the Baroque “new town” of its name, it splits between the Innere Neustadt south of Albertplatz and Äussere Neustadt, where most culture is of the bar variety.
Dresden today is as rooted in its past as ever. Yet the two districts are effectively strangers. In one you have historic buildings and museums, tour groups and cafés. In the other, the north-bank Neustadt, is the best bar district south of Berlin and a young multicultural population for whom the historical city is just that – history. That they coexist happily accounts for much of Dresden’s appeal as two cities in one.