Dresden's stunning architecture, tragic history, and nationalist far-right populism usually make headlines. Join DW’s Eesha Kheny as she visits the royal city and neighboring Saxon Switzerland National Park.
The insistent huff of the steam engine paused conversation. Here I was, floating down the Elbe River on a 120-year-old paddle steamer, passing idyllic German towns with towers, churches and an occasional castle perched high on the cliffs. The rhythmic movement of the boat, the rushing sound of the water and the warm wind in my hair made for a true summer feeling. But for all the natural beauty around me, the highlight of my journey turned out to be a chance encounter with Hannah Hahn.
Historic steamboats: All aboard!
We were both on-board the 'Kurort Rathen', a member of the oldest and largest paddle steamer fleet in the world. Based in Dresden, these boats have been restored and operate daily, carrying 700,000 passengers a year. The tradition came into being back in 1837 when 'Königin Maria' became the first passenger steamboat to navigate the Upper Elbe. Hannah Hahn has lived in Dresden for the past 60 years — although she's originally from Magdeburg — and she has always loved these steamboats. Knowing her way around, she showed me the ship's engine and paddles, while at the same time explaining how the steam that’s generated propels the vessel through the water. Hannah was also happy to share interesting life stories and advice based on her decades of experience. When I told her of my hiking plans she remarked, "Don’t visit Bastei. It is too crowded! I always tell people to do the climb across the river. You can see the Bastei from there too but there are no tourists." The Bastei — an iconic viewpoint in the Saxon Switzerland National Park — is a massive rock formation created a million years ago by water erosion. With panoramic views of the Elbe valley, the area has over the centuries been a source of inspiration for painters and writers. Perhaps the most well-known depiction is the 'Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains' — or 'Felsenpartie im Elbsandsteingebirge', as it's called in German — by the famous German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich dating from 1823. Following in these footsteps, I was hoping to be bowled over by this area while also avoiding the dreaded crowds.
A steamboat offers a unique slow-paced option to explore the region. For a price of 29 euros (33 US $), you can travel from Dresden to Bad Schandau and back again. During my three-and-a-half-hour trip, Hannah Hahn's friendly and enthusiastic nature brought history to life. She was appalled by the tragedies of World War II and the bombing raids on Dresden which destroyed the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady). On February 15, 1945, this prominent Lutheran Church collapsed to the ground, its 17-meter high ruins left untouched for almost 50 years as a reminder of the destruction of Dresden and the horrors of war. Through international funding and relentless community support, reconstruction of the church eventually began in 1994. After 11 years in 2005 it re-opened to the public and has since served as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Hannah Hahn seemed to be an easy-going person who could get along with anyone. No sooner had she taken a seat opposite me, than we started talking — she very obviously enjoyed meeting new people. Hannah Hahn also had an air of self-sufficiency about her. She was spending the day alone, taking photographs on her digital camera — which she went on to show me — and making use of her annual steamboat pass. While I had been preparing for a solo boat ride down the Elbe, I never imagined I'd meet someone who would make me feel at home almost instantly.
Bastei — The balcony of Saxon Switzerland
My hike to Bastei from the spa town of Bad Schandau was a solitary journey: peaceful yet unnerving. The trails crossed through dense forests and open meadows before I started my final ascent from Rathen. Although I already knew what to expect — having seen numerous photographs online — I was awe-struck by the beauty of my destination. This unique rocky landscape is located at a height of 194 meters (636 feet) above the Elbe river, which means that the climb is steep and challenging — but worth every bit of effort. As I arrived late in the day the crowds had already thinned out as many already descended. This was the icing on the cake because I was able to enjoy peaceful calm in this visitor hotspot.
The Bastei bridge is itself an architectural marvel. In 1851, this 76.5 meter (251 feet) long sandstone bridge was built — replacing an old wooden one — with seven arches balanced across a 40 meter (131 feet) deep ravine. Looking down into the narrow gorge my knees buckled, and stomach churned. I crossed over to the other side of the bridge, where I could access the ruins of Felsenburg Neurathen for an entry fee of 2 euros. Despite railings on either side, there was no denying the dizzying height. This site belonged to one of the largest medieval rock castles, estimated to have been built in the 11th century. Now, only ruins with speculative information await tourists, who visit primarily for a bird's eye view of Bastei Bridge and the entire region.
Dresden: A city reborn from the ashes of war
After my steamboat and hiking adventures I found myself the following morning, a Sunday, sitting in in the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) at 9:30 am listening to the heavenly sounds of the city's largest organ — with more than 6,300 pipes. This Evangelical-Lutheran Church in its lifetime had endured five fires, the last one during the Second World War. On the night of February 13 to 14, 1945, Dresden, located in eastern Germany on the Elbe River, was targeted by approximately 4,000 tons of Allied bombs, creating a firestorm that nearly razed the city to the ground. Its city center has since been rebuilt from the rubble and restored in its original image. Everywhere I turned, my eyes fell on larger-than-life gothic-baroque architecture: looking deceptively old but which I knew to be brand new.
The most visited sight, without doubt, is the Frauenkirche with its striking 91.23-meter (299 ft.) stone dome and exquisite interiors. The church's crypt also houses the restored tomb of its designer: master architect George Bähr. Sitting in the pastel-hued church, I recalled Hannah Hahn's description of the years when no Frauenkirche existed. During this time there was a gap in the city's skyline and huge piles of blackened stones which lay in the very spot I was sitting.
Dresden's old city is pretty much an open-air museum, constantly under construction. Prior to the Frauenkirche, The Zwinger Palace was restored by 1963, The Semperoper (Opera House of Dresden) was reconstructed and opened in 1985, while the work on Dresden Castle — which began in the 1960's — is still ongoing. Despite the cordoned off bridge and cranes propped up on the horizon, the city was a sight to behold.
The other face of Dresden
In the shadows of its majestic buildings, I joined groups of curious onlookers to watch musicians perform and painters display their work. Amidst all this gaiety, I met Keerthana Srinivasan, an Indian master's student of molecular bioengineering who has been studying and living in Dresden since 2016. Talking about her life she said‚ "‘It's been an amazing experience. I feel a good vibe from the city but initially, I had a few bad experiences with people here." She went on to tell me a harrowing tale of when an old lady verbally assaulted her in the bus, yelling and pointing. Unable to understand what was being shouted, receiving no help from others around her and deeply embarrassed, Keerthana got off at the next stop. Despite another similar negative encounters, she is determined to find a job in Dresden after graduation and continue living in the city that she now calls home. Such incidents are not rare. Even as a tourist, I found myself being starred at and even had a racist remark yelled at me from a passing car. In the past few years, Saxony has seen a rise in popularity of extreme right-wing ideologies. Its supporters stand for German nationalism and are strongly opposed to immigration, which could prove to be problematic for foreign nationals like Keerthana who want to live, study and work in the State of Saxony.
Contemplating these thoughts, I found myself walking the length of the Fürstenzug (Procession of Princes). It seems incredible that these 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles covering a length of 102 meters (335 feet) had survived the firebombing of the Second World War. This mural is estimated to be the world's largest porcelain artwork, depicting a procession of Saxony's rulers up to the 20th century. Having learned so much about the city's past, I suddenly had an idea about its future: The people of Dresden embody its spirit. They fought for their city after it was virtually destroyed, bringing it back to life. They will be the ones to decide again what this city will represent. Personally, I choose to believe in the kindness shown towards me by the people of Dresden, like Hannah Hahn, and hope when the decisive moment arrives, it will prove to be the stronger force.