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My fifth visit to Dresden, 2005: A remarkable transformation

Dresden in 2005, a quarter of a century after my first visit, is very different to how it was. This time I arrived in my own car driven all the way from England. Gone are the Trabants and Wartburgs, and driving through the outskirts, Dresden appears like any another German city.

As you reach the centre, it's clear that the face of the Altstadt has been transformed, and is still being transformed: Lots more construction is in progress.

The Semper Oper is now a familiar show-piece of the city, used in adverts for the locally brewed Radeberger Pilsner. The castle and neighbouring Hofkirche are mostly complete, their tall slender towers piercing the skyline as in pre-war times.

The Zwinger Palace is magnificent, as before, and many other historic buildings are complete or in an advanced state of reconstruction, their domes, spires and clock towers forming an ensemble that changes with the angle of view.

But the most magnificent and captivating sight is where the great pile of rubble used to be, the rebuilt Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. There is no more powerful symbol of the rebirth of Dresden after wartime annihilation and Soviet-dominated stagnation than the Frauenkirche.

The tall, bell-shaped church has a pale honey coloured exterior, here and there incorporating darker original stones, as well as the side sections, the only part of the Frauenkirche to remain standing after the devastating attacks of February 1945.

On the very top of the church, which was completed in 2004, is a golden Orb and Cross made by craftsmen from Coventry, Dresden's twin city in the UK.

And when the bells ring, echoing around the city, the symbolism is overwhelming. War, destruction, dictatorship, economic collapse, have all been overcome, Europe is reborn.

You could argue that cities like Prague and Krakow are better places to visit as they were left mostly untouched by war and so are more 'authentic'.

But destruction and renewal are part of the cycle of every city, and there is something compelling about witnessing the gradual rebirth of a city which in 1945 was virtually wiped off the face of the earth. And in my view, ruins can be fascinating. Caspar David Friedrich, whose paintings can be seen in Dresden also liked ruins. The completed Frauenkirche is like a time capsule taking you back three centuries, the stonework and wood carvings looking as fresh as they did just after they were completed by craftsmen in the 18th century.

It's true that present day Dresden is a lesser version of how it was before the destruction. Everywhere you'll find books, videos and post cards allowing you to explore the old Dresden. Outside the immediate city centre most buildings are in the plain and functional style used by GDR planners in the 1960s. Many buildings have still to be reconstructed and remain a post-1945 shell. Some buildings whose exteriors survived the war, most notably the Kreuzkirche, still need huge renovation work on the inside.

But thanks to the reconstruction of a number of key buildings, most importantly the Frauenkirche, the spirit of Dresden has been rekindled, and shines out along the banks of the River Elbe, into the suburbs and the wider world beyond.

Tourists now come to Dresden from all over the world. I was going to say 'flock' but the fact is that 15 years after reunification, the city still suffers from the 'Iron Curtain' effect. The 'tour bus count', my indicator of the popularity of a tourist destination, is fairly high but not as high as you'd expect. Tourists are conservative folk, and in their short visit generally want to go to the old favourites rather than the new discoveries. Many have never heard of Dresden, or perhaps associate it with wartime destruction and east bloc gloom.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dresden should not be an afterthought, pencilled in under 'if we have time' on the itinerary. Dresden arguably should be near the top of the list for Germany. No longer is it hidden behind the Iron Curtain closer to Volgograd than Vienna, today it's literally in the heart of the EU between the great European capitals of Berlin and Prague.

Life in Dresden today seems so much more colourful, lively, varied and optimistic than it did in 1980. There are more concerts, more museums, more day trips, more shops and restaurants to visit, more excursions to go on, more renovation projects to keep track of, either underway or in planning, than you would ever have time for on a single trip. The changing face of Dresden is a reason why people should go back again and again. Looking at images of Dresden on some of the advent calendars on sale in bookshops, I think the run up to Christmas would be a great time to visit.

There are numerous hotels including no less than three Ibis hotels on Prager Straße, the Ibis Bastei, Lilienstein, Koenigstein each occupying one of three former residentail blocks. The 'Socialism is Victorious' sign once stood on the third block on the right, but has long since been removed. Prager Straße also has the Hotel Merkur and two Karstadt department stores, or more exactly, one split across two buildings on either side of the street.

Unlike 25 years ago, Dresden is easy to get to. A Euro City train from Berlin takes 1 hour 41 minutes, from Prague 2 hours 21. The Autobahn is a 10 minute drive from the centre with direct links to the rest of Germany and Europe. My car journey to Manchester took 16 hours driving time. I wish it was as close as Sheffield... or Coventry.

The quickest and cheapest way to Dresden from all parts of Europe is by low cost airline to Berlin Schönefeld, then train. Book in advance for the best fares. Train info and timetables at www.bahn.de

Read the account of my visit to Dresden in 1980

See all Dresden and related photos

See my images of Prague and Berlin

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Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-07-14

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