Europe has always fascinated history-buffs like me. Her ancient palaces, her antique art-works, and her monuments to heroes, and revolutionary battles, have haunted me, despite my many visits.
With every border I’ve crossed, within her patchwork, I’ve discovered yet another key to her magnificent past. “But if you weren’t a travel-writer, and merely a mortal, with your (leave) days numbered, how would you take in the best of European history in just one week?” asks a close friend. The task seems impossible, until I stumble upon Saxony, a place of superlatives when it comes to the continent’s legacy.
I walk across the oldest bridge in Dresden, the Augustus Bridge, just as the sun rises over the Saxon city. The rays cast their golden reflection on the waters of the Elbe that flow beneath me. As I wait for my guide, I take in the gorgeous skyline -- carved spires reaching for the sky, majestic domes belonging to palaces, and sepia-toned buildings, enclosing the serene Elbe. To complete the picture-perfect scene, a steamer sails by leisurely and I am mesmerised.
Almost on cue a voice adds, “Now you know why Dresden is referred to as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’”. It is my guide Seema Prakash, one of the few guides in Saxony who speaks fluent English, German and Hindi.
She picks the perfect spot to introduce me to the 800-year-old city, which was once the cultural capital of Europe, a title earned under Augustus the Strong. It was his artistic vision that led to the creation of Dresden’s most beautiful buildings. But the bombing raids of the World War II saw it razed to the ground.
Subsequently, all of Saxony fell behind the iron curtain. But today, the city has been re-built with German precision, brick by brick, to recapture its heyday. The list of re-created monuments is large, so I go with Seema’s favourite, The Zwinger.
“Is it a palace, or is it a city,” I ask as I catch my first glimpse of the sprawling structure. “It was Augustus the Strong’s party palace,” explaine Prakash. Given the size and splendour of the Zwinger, Augustus really knew how to party! But today, the Zwinger itself is cause for celebration since it is one of the best examples of Baroque the world has ever seen, marked by exaggerated opulence -- gilded statues, ornamented arches, detailed fountains and so on.
True to its intention, the Zwinger has open courtyards which can hold many guests. But my favourite among them is the cloistered inner courtyard because here lies the ‘Bath of the Nymphs’, a fountain carved out of angelic figurines. With high walls that disconnect me from the outside, I sit by this fountain and am instantly transported to another time and space. I can almost picture the festivities in full swing -- women in voluminous taffeta gowns, men in embellished coats and breeches, with feathered hats to complete the look of yore. But the chime of the Meissen bells on the roof brings me back to reality.
I step inside the Zwinger, which today aptly houses many works of arts in different galleries. I make my way to The Old Masters Gallery which showcases Raphael’s Sistine Madonna bearing the famous little angels. I admire the many Meissen creations at The Porcelain Collection. I have to stop myself from touching the precious objects made from gold, ivory and diamonds that lie stacked on unprotected shelves, at The Historical Green Vault.
Room after room, the Zwinger holds many treasures. It is a lot to take in, yet not nearly enough. Sensing my desire to glimpse more of Dresden’s past, Prakash leads me to the Frauenkirche.
I look up at one of the largest domes in Europe. Little wonder that it belongs to one of the most significant protestant churches in the continent. This is the Frauenkirche. For those, like me, who cannot pronounce the name, it is The Church of Our Lady.
The church is carved entirely in stone and displays elements typical of protestant architecture. But it’s the history which fascinates me — The foundation of the church was first laid down in the 11th century as a Roman catholic church. But this house of worship converted during the protestant reformation. Its faith was tested once again when it was destroyed during the horrific bomb raids, and the rubble was deliberately left in the open, for decades, as a memorial.
Finally, in the 1990’s an action group called for its rebuilding and it was re-opened in 2005. I make my way to the viewing platform, atop the dome, 67 meters above ground and got a bird’s eye-view of this city.
But as I take in the sweeping sights, I cannot help but marvel at the resilience of the Saxons, and their ability to piece together their city, after such immense destruction. Is it pragmatism, or it is spirituality that gives them strength? Prakash explains it best, “A Saxon friend once told me that death isn’t the end of life; but a part of it.”
The Konigstein Fortress
I hop onboard an iconic steamship, a monstrous vessel which is part of the largest and oldest paddle steamer fleet in the world, The Saxon Steamship Company. With a forceful gust of steam, and a piercing whistle which could probably be heard across the Elbe Valley, my journey begins towards the town of Konigstein in Saxon Switzerland.
As the ship nears my destination, and I take in the view, I understand the meaning behind the region’s peculiar name. The sight before me is magnificent — jarring sand-stone mountains in a variety of abstract shapes and sizes. The beautiful rock formations seem to be reaching for the sky. And the scene appears almost painted.
Yet it is a simple fortress atop the hill that captures my attention, for it is the highest fortress in Europe. I take a short bus ride, from the town of Konigstein to this 750-year-old military bastion, named after the town. And there as I walk around its outer walls, and look onto the valley below, time comes to a complete standstill, even as I chase history.
I take a one-and-a-half-hour-long speedy road trip with Seema, as we make our way from Dresden to Leipzig. “Leipzig was the main force behind the revolution that tore down the Berlin wall in 1989,” she informs. But the city is known the world over, not just for this peaceful uprising, but for its music. Leipzig is where Wagner was born; where Bach spent a large part of his life, and where Europe’s oldest civilian concert orchestra, the Gewandhaus, was born.
The orchestra was founded in 1743, under the name of the ‘Grand Concerts’. But in 1781, the orchestra found its first real home in a trading house of the cloth-makers’ guild, or Gewandhaus, as it is referred to in German. The name of the venue caught on, and the orchestra was renamed the Gewandhaus.
Even though I don’t catch a performance inside this world-famous structure, I can hear the music everywhere in Leipzig. From the Bach Memorial where the composer stands against an organ, to the Bach Museum, to the Musikinstrumenten Museum which houses musical instruments spanning five centuries, to the Leipzig Opera House and more. With a melody playing in my head, and a spring in my step, my time in Saxony comes to an end. As I mull over all I have seen, in just one week, I know that Saxony holds some of the best pages of Europe’s past.
Make it happen
Getting there: Fly Lufthansa from Mumbai to Dresden, with a stop-over in Frankfurt. Best time to go: The summer months, from June to August, when temperatures are mild. But be prepared for a few showers. Other remarkable sites in Saxony: Europe’s largest monument — A tribute to the Battle of the Nations of 1813, this monument in Leipzig, commemorates Napolean’s defeat in the city Europe’s first winery experience — Schloss Wackerbarth lies in the town of Redebeul, between the cities of Dresden and Meissen. It houses Saxony’s oldest production facility for sparkling wine and it is also Europe’s first vineyard to allow guests onto its estates, to discover and experience the world of wine, first-hand The most beautiful dairy shop in the world — Built in neo-renaissance style, the funds Dairy in Dresden, has earned mention in The Guinness Book of Records.