When you visit places like the Vatican and Versailles and cities like Rome and Paris with their amazing Cathedrals, Museums and Art Galleries, it is hard not to be in awe of the genius, vision, design, artistry and craftsmanship of those who conceived and built these Cathedrals, churches, Art Galleries, Museums and buildings. Equally impressive are the many Palaces, Castles and Chateaux that are spread out across Europe.
The French Revolution (1789) and American Revolution (1783) brought with them an era of change – where Liberty, Fraternity, Equality were the cries of the Revolutionaries. This was a massive challenge to the accepted ‘divine right’ of Kings and nobility and their ‘birthright’ to rule as the established Aristocracy over the ‘masses’ of commoners in society.
Up until this time, there was both an acceptance and respect for the established ‘order of society’, where a King only reported to God, the King having a ‘Divine Right’ ordained by God alone and then a hierarchical lineage of titled queens, princes, dukes, lords, barons, knights and other titles forming the ‘Royalty’ and noble aristocracy.
Alongside the ruling Noble elite and landed Gentry was the Church and its own hierarchy of church leaders headed by the Pope, Cardinals and Arch Bishops, and in a land of ‘God fearing’ people, both the Church and the Nobility were able to maintain an established order in society. The Nobles also believed very much in their ‘God Given’ rights to rule, as an established way of life and part of ‘God’s plan’ for life on earth. There were also strong connections between the nobility and the church hierarchies too.
While the wealth and riches of a King, Church, Merchant traders and land owners may well be hidden from view, it many cases it is used to signal to the world their fortune and success and no-where is this more apparent than in the creation of buildings. The Pharaohs built their Pyramids, the church their Cathedrals and the Kings their palaces.
Here in Dresden, Augustus II the Strong (1670-1733) had seen the Palace of Versailles and the beauty of Florence and Rome around 1687-1689, so he too set about creating his own great city to rival those he had seen.
While some of his time was spent showing off his Strength (breaking metal horseshoes and other feats of strength), and fathering 9 children to 6 different women, he also managed to build some grand buildings here in Dresden. He, rightly or wrongly was also said to have fathered many other children too, such were his amorous ways.
Augustus II the Strong held the title of ‘Prince Elector of Saxony’ from 1694 to 1773, and also held the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland and Lithuanian Commonwealth (1697-1706), converting from his German Protestant Lutheran religion to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of Poland.
While Augustus was involved in a number of wars, his lasting legacy are the Palaces and Museums that he built, along with the riches he bought and collected to be housed in his Palaces and other buildings, much of which can still be seen today.
- Dresden Castle - This Castle overlooking the Elbe River was first constructed around 1200 as the Home for the ‘Electors’, passing down through the generations over centuries with more rooms and wings added as time went by, including by Augustus II in the early 1700’s in order to house some of his collection of Silver, Jewels, Ivory, Porcelain, Paintings and Bronzes.
On February 13th, 1945, Dresden Castle, along with most of the old part of the City was bombed and destroyed by British and American forces, but while the Castle was left as a virtual shell ruin, luckily the Collections of Augustus was saved, having been moved earlier in the war to the Königstein Fortress for safety.
Between 1960 and 2013 the Castle and its towers were re-built and today Dresden Castle holds the Collection of Augustus and a number of other collections in five museums within the Castle Vault Rooms and Treasure Chambers. It is a vast collection with collections of prints, paintings, weapons, Meissen Ceramics, Coins, medals, books and much more.
- Zwinger Palace and Park – this Rococco style Palace and its grand garden forecourt was built between 1710 and 1728 and today houses a number of Gallery Museums – with the Dresden Porcelain Collection, Old Masters Paintings and the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Scientific Instruments. They are all displayed within grand richly decorated rooms with Vaulted Barrel painted ceilings and gold filigree, beautiful floors and other features, making a visit here quite awe inspiring.
The Garden Forecourt or Square is equally majestic with its fountains and water features bordered by the Zwinger Palace, Semper Opera House and other buildings.
The Palace and gardens were also bombed in 1945 but the Palace has now been restored to its former glory. Two nights of bombing to destroy the Palace took until 1963 to restore.
- Semperoper – Opera House – This beautiful Opera House was initially constructed in 1841, but then burned down in 1869, rebuilt by 1878 and completely destroyed by the bombs in February 1945. It took until 1985 for re-construction and restoration to be completed and is said to have some of the finest acoustics for Opera in the world.
- Frauenkirke (Church) This is the church with the massive dome on top, that dominates the skyline of Dresden. The Church dates back to 1726 -1743 when it was first constructed, but was also destroyed by bombs in the bombing raids on the 13th of February 1945, the dome shattered to the ground just two days after the bombing. The Church was only re-constructed in 2005 using original plans from the 1700’s. At night the church and dome are lit up, making for a great photo. There are tours of the Church and a Visitor Centre here too.
- Meissen and Dresden Porcelain - One of Augustus II the Strong’s passions was for fine porcelain or china – the word ‘china’ originating in China where china eating bowls and other china had been produced for centuries using processes yet to be found by the Europeans.
Augustus II the Strong in 1701 found a young alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), who had fled from the court of the King of Prussia, Frederick I, having proclaimed that he had the secret to making Gold. Augustus imprisoned Böttger, but instead of changing other metals into Gold, Böttger fired pottery in kilns using local clay and Kaolin at a much higher temperature, creating a new level of sophisticated Porcelain. This would be the start of a new industry and the name ‘Dresden’ and ‘Meissen’ are still world renowned for their porcelain. The town of ‘Meissen’ is located about 25 kilometres from Dresden, next to the Elbe River. It is possible to visit the Meissen workshops in Meissen. Also in Meissen is the Meissen Cathedral next to Albrechtsburg Castle.
- Albrechtsburg Castle – is the massive castle that overlooks the Elbe River in Meissen. It was built between 1471 and 1524 and is now a museum. It is set high up on the ridge, so a bit of a climb to get to it, but there is also an elevator too, with Tours during the summer months. It is the oldest castle in Germany to be used as a residence. Castles up to this point had been built as fortifications, not as residencies.
- Pillnitz Castle – This castle is also located in Dresden on the Elbe River and it is made up of three long buildings – the Riverside Palace in the middle (built 1720-21) and the Upper Palace (built 1723-24) and New Palace (built 1826) to each side. The setting, location and buildings are all beautiful as is the garden, pavilions, fountain and interiors, now housing a Palace Museum (Schlossmuseum). There is even a replica of the Royal Gondola used by Frederick Augustus I to carry him from his home in Dresden to his Pillnitz Summer Castle.
- Moritzburg Castle – is another stunning castle located on its own artificial island just 13 kilometres north-west from Dresden. It was initially built as a hunting lodge between 1542 and 1546 but was greatly expanded by Augustus II the Strong in 1723-1733 (1733 being the year that he died), and following his death, subsequent Electors added their own touches too.
The Castle itself has 4 massive towers with dome roofs on its four corners creating an imposing sight both day and night and in the grounds there is another Little Pheasant Castle too with a massive ‘Well of Venus’ fountain and ponds, as well as a building constructed to look like an ancient ruins – for the sheer pleasure of the Elector.
If you have ever thought of becoming a King – maybe some of Augustus II the Strong’s little indulgences here in the castle might also appeal to you – for example Gold-gilded leather wall linings; a four poster bed cover woven from the feathers of peacocks, pheasants, ducks and guinea fowls; a line of Royal Carriages located in your entrance hall; specially commissioned porcelain pieces based on a hunting theme; chairs made in Silver, or perhaps a miniature harbour complete with lighthouse and battleships to play with and a lodge for your pheasants ready for a day’s hunting. This castle is a stunner!
- Weesenstein Castle is another Castle to the south of Dresden is where 12 generations of the Family Bünau Family lived with parts of the castle dating back to the 12th century. It is also open during the summer months and has many furnished rooms to see.
- Militărhistorisches Museum - This is a museum which looks at the many aspects and results of war over the centuries. The Museum looks at the effects of wars on people, animals, the environment, industry, children and many other ways, making this a very involving and interesting museum to visit. The wisdom and necessity of bombing such a beautiful and historic city as Dresden continues to be debated, but there is no doubt that the City lives on and it is once again a beautiful city to visit.
The best way to see Dresden is in the summer months, but all year round the city is special and there is a day or multi day Dresden Card that will give you your transport and discounts to some of the Museums and sights to see. Also look to take a local cruise on the River too. It is a great way to see some of the sights that lie next to the River.
Dresden has some great Parks, a Botanic Garden and Zoo and besides being a very historic city, it also has many festivals, good bars, restaurants, hotels and entertainment mostly in the areas called the Outer Neustadt and Altstadt.
Volkswagen, the world’s biggest car company also has established a start-up Incubator - what they call a ‘Showcase of Electromobility’ – see www.glaesernemanufaktur.de where they have invested in 10 or so start-up companies that are developing ideas for self-drive cars, internet of things (IoF) and other transport ideas. Check their website above for times to visit.
Dresden with a population of a little over 530,000 is a great city to visit and as you can see above there is a lot to see and take in. If you have the time and inclination, you might also want to see the Saxon National Park near Dresden that has some very rugged rock formations and forest areas.
Some 120 kilometres by train or autobahn from Dresden there is the city of Leipzig, that was also was bombed during World War Two, but not so extensively as Dresden which was fire bombed using Incendiary Bombs. Leipzig is also has a beautiful old town centre and has a population that is around 560,000.
Leipzig is best known as the city where Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) lived for much of his life, but also the composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) was born here and Felix Mendelssohn- Bartholdy (1809-1847) born in Hamburg also lived in Leipzig and died here, having formed the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in 1843. His apartment is now a House Museum – see www.mendelssohn-stiftung.de
One of the students of the Conservatory was the Norwegian musician, Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) who studied there between 1858 and 1862. The composer, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) also studied law at Leipzig University for a time too and lived for a time in Leipzig when he first married.
This is a city where Classical Music was almost born, with the famous Boys Choir,’ the Thomanerchor’ in Leipzig dating back to its first formation in the year 1212 – the oldest choir in the world. Ask at the Visitor Centre to see times and places to hear the Choir singing and you will also find small group walking tours that take you to places where the famous composers worked, lived or played. Leipzig also has an Opera House and again it is best to check with the Visitor’s centre to see what is happening there while you are in town.
Leipzig is also famous as one of the main cities that the theologian and Catholic Monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546) became a protestant and spent time in translating the Bible into German in 1534, with the Lutheran Church itself formed in 1517 and named after him, the date that he posted his 95 Reform Theses challenge to the workings of the Catholic Church. His teachings and beliefs centred on the idea that the Scriptures of the Bible were the only basis for faith and life. Central to his disagreements with the Catholic Church and Rome was the practice of ‘Indulgences’ where a priest had the authority to absolve a person’s sin on the basis of them paying the Church to do this.
Martin Luther also married twice, and after his first wife died, he married his second wife who had been a nun. Such a situation would never have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church and his Treatise led to him being Ex-communicated by the Catholic Church.
In Leipzig today you can visit St Thomas Church where Johann Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran was the Cantor (Teacher from 1723 to 1750) and composed most of his works. He is also buried here too (having been buried elsewhere for a time) and a statue of him is in front of the church, with another close by of Mendelssohn.
St Thomas Church was consecrated in 1496 and Martin Luther preached here in 1539, with the church partially destroyed by British bombing raids in 1943, but since restored. There has been a church on this site since the 12th century and it is the home church of the Boys Choir, the Thomanerchor.
For music lovers and those who studied or listen to Bach, there is a Bach Museum (see www.bach-leipzig.de) and also a museum with musical instruments too within the Grassi Museum (see www.grassimuseum.de Johannis Platz 5-11 ) where you can see violins, cellos and other instruments, some dating back up to 500 years. In May-June each year there is also a Bach Festival, so if you are a Bach fan, check to see what dates it is on.
While Leipzig has its music history, it also was in GTR East Germany and post -World War Two, the city came under the East German Secret Police, called the Stasi, and there is a Museum that tells the story of those times – see www.runde-eche-leipzig.de
In May 1989 the people of Leipzig began a protest movement that led up to the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ seeking to overthrow the Communist Government of East Germany. From a small start numbers grew into the thousands by the end of October 1989 and on the 9th November, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, leading on to the official re-unification of Germany in October, 1990. You can read and see more of this story at the Zeitgeschichtiches Forum Museum see www.hdg.de/leipzig and visit the Church of St Nicholas where the ‘Peaceful Revolution’ took place on Nikolakirchhof 3.
Leipzig has been affected by wars and the aftermath of war over the centuries and while most attention is on World War Two which resulted in Leipzig becoming part of the East German Soviet Bloc, it is the Battle of the Nations War in 1813 where there is a significant 91 metre (299 feet) high monument in Leipzig.
The Völkerschiachtdenkmal Monument located at 18 October Stasse 100 is dedicated to the 80,000 to 100,000 soldiers who died here in Leipzig in the 4 day battles that took place in the Napoleonic Wars that were fought here between the forces of Prussia, Austria, Sweden and Russia against the forces of Napoleon, in what became one of his major defeats. There were around 225,000 French and 380,000 soldiers on the Russian and its allied side in the battles. This monument and the museum located here tell the story of those battles. It is also possible to climb to the top of the monument too when it is opened.
Leipzig main Railway Station is one of the biggest in Europe and is also a large shopping destination too, so you won’t have far to go to find places to eat, drink or shop. The Haupbahnhof building itself is worth seeing, while another Shopping Mall is the Mädlerpassage located on Grimmaische Strasse 2-4. This shopping centre with its glass dome roof also has a lucky ‘statue’ of Faust – made famous in the play published in 1808 by the German writer, Johann von Goethe (1749-1832). There are also other shopping arcades within walking distance too – including Speck’s Hof, Hansa Haus, Petersbogen – with a nice mix of both history and new facilities.
Many people coming to Leipzig will also do a side trip to see Colditz and the Castle made famous during World War Two or more famous from the films that told the story of the escapes from Colditz, the most amazing story being the one where they attempted to build a glider to fly from the roof of the Castle wartime prison known as Oflag IV-C. Colditz is just 50 kilometres from Leipzig and the best way to get there is by bus tour from the Hauptbahnhof (Main Station).
Certainly, Leipzig has its music connections and heritage, and also good nightlife, movies, bars, good hotels, beer gardens and the other facilities that you would expect in a modern German City.
I hope you have a good time travelling to Dresden and Leipzig and getting to know this part of Germany.