The drive took two and a half hours and I didn’t see the sign telling me I was leaving Bayern and entering Sachsen. And I love those signs. I love them almost as much as I love those signs welcoming me to an entirely new country because crossing state borders in Germany is sometimes quite like driving into an entirely new country. As we drove from our current home in Bavaria’s Oberpfalz region (and it is important to remember we are in that region, lest we think we are in any other region) and I expressed my excitement at finally getting to see a city in the former DDR, SG of the North nodded before grimly intoning, ‘do you know that whenever there is a poll about the sexiest German accent, the eastern accent always comes last, with the Baden Württembergers?’ I have heard Joachim Löw speak, the BW thing I did not doubt. I asked who always wins and he said, deigning to indulge me, ‘the north, obviously.’
‘The East’ has been somewhere I have wanted to go for quite some time. Having lived in the north-west, spent some time in the far north, and now living in the south-east, East Germany – notably the state of Sachsen – and Baden Württemberg (double bad-accent whammy) are two key places that have always managed to slip under my radar. The divide between East and West is not just a geographic one, indeed that divide is quite beside the point. Post WW2, when the West went to the UK, USA and France (The Federal Republic of Germany) and the East (Germany Democratic Republic) to the Soviet Union, the two parts of a country already accustomed to segmentation and with a history rooted in insular sub-cultures and the regulations of individual regions, was politically and ideologically split.
Unification happened 22 years ago and yet there still remains an East vs West mentality. I say that as an outsider looking in, as someone not from this now unified country, not from either of its previously segregated parts. I say it having seen it in classrooms, in conversation, in literature, in my friends. There is – it seems to be – a maintained cultural and political divide. There is an obvious economic divide. It has been 22 years of being one country but 40 years of deliberately creating a separate identity based on differing ideals, influenced by differing political, geographic and economic circumstances.
The city of Dresden has come to be something of a symbol of the former East and current east – in the geographical sense – but prior to 1949 and the creation of the former DDR, it enjoyed a long and illustrious history, one that produced some of modern Germany’s most stunning architecture and a city of great cultural significance. Dresden was where the Kings of Saxony resided, the city of opera and art. Dresden’s skyline was the muse of artists, her Baroque and Rococo architecture what earned her the name of ‘Jewel Box’. Alongside cultivating this abundance of culture, early 20th century Dresden was carving out a name for itself as a city of manufacturing and industry.
Allied bombing during WW2 all but decimated Dresden, the buildings of its Altstadt and thousands of people, casualties of a massive air raid in 1945. Post German surrender, and post divvying up of Germany, Dresden faced the latter half of the twentieth century under Soviet Union administration and began the process of rebuilding its ruined centre. Post German reunification, restoration continued,not only of Dresden’s buildings, but of its reputation as a European city of cultural eminence.
So all of this history (and what I have tried to nutshell is but a simplistic snapshot) this backdrop of royal riches, Baroque buildings, opera and art, a city razed to the ground as a World War drew to an end, a city shaped and molded by the politics and ideologies of an administrative body it had no control over, a city reunified, rebuilt and now re-existing in an excellent, expensive, painstaking approximation of what it was like in its glory years – all of this made me desperate to see it in the flesh. And having spent all of my time in what constitutes the former ‘west’, my observations regarding and insights into German culture are clearly skewed, rooted in cities and towns whose subcultures have developed differently to those in the east.
That being said, we only had a couple of days, and Dresden cannot be expected to represent the entire former DDR. I know that. But it was a taste. It was enough to see the Frauenkirche, completed in 2005, with its salvaged, old blocks of sandstone painstakingly replaced in their original positions, alongside the newer, brighter blocks.
To see Dresden’s famous, restored skyline, a panorama of spires and quiet pride.
To have a cup of tea with a blog reader, a Dresden local who has lived in the states and travelled to India. To discuss German tics and the cultural consistences and inconsistencies that exist in this endlessly interesting country, to talk about East vs West and accents and stereotypes.
To have the Residenzschloss, the former royal palace, right outside our hotel window.
Dresden was as beautiful as I thought it would be, as photogenic as a city can be. But it is the context within which these architectural gems sit, that make it such an important place to visit. If you have been to Berlin and marvelled at the remnants of the wall, the visible division of a segregated country, then go east. See more.
We stayed at the Swissotel Dresden am Schloss and it was superb. Review here.