Everything you’ve heard about Dresden is true, and laid out for all to see, It’s a beautiful city; perhaps once more beautiful, but the ravages of time have taken their toll – especially the bombing by the British and Americans in 1945. Like a faded dowager, she covers her blemishes and goes out for a good time in the Alte Stadt (Old Town), never forgetting the past, but not allowing it to define her.
It’s not all about the past, though. Dresden is a young city too, with thousands of university students, several high tech companies, and all sorts of entertainment options, from fine dining to just sitting and watching people go by. A great place to visit and see a lot of interesting people and street art is in the Neustadt District. Maggie and I spent an entire day hanging out in what we called an “East Austin Look Alike” district. We both loved the street art.
Transportation is easy; there are trams and buses everywhere, and the system is pretty easy to figure out. We had two trams that stopped a block from our apartment, and two buses that stopped two blocks away. Together they took us to Neue Stadt, Alte Stadt and to other places of interest, such as the Military History Museum.
We were surprised what a big deal Dresden had been in previous times. The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Gallery) has several first rate pieces and artists, including Raphael’s most famous painting, the Sistine Madonna.
We’ve said this before, but we saw another example of how the Germans are dealing with their history. You’d be hard pressed to find a people that look at their past in this much detail. In Dresden, there is the Military History Museum, which discusses the causes and consequences of aggression throughout history. There are exhibits that go back to the middle ages, but a large part of the permanent exhibit space is devoted to the horrors of WWI and WWII. Because this is a military history museum, there is less attention given to the Holocaust, and more to military atrocities: the invasion of Poland, the bombing of Rotterdam, decimation of Eastern Europe – and of course, the fire bombing of German cities, with Dresden being the primary example. There’s a collection of artifacts: bombs, bullets, the wing of a P51 fighter, pinned up like it was torn from some giant insect. The emphasis of the museum is on the human experience of war: a sound wall of a battle, where shouts and screams seem to come from everywhere; helmets pierced by bullet holes; a door that opens to the smell of a trench. We came away crushed by the experience. You can’t go through this museum and come out feeling that war is just a tool that politicians can wield to suit their purposes.
Maggie and I had a unique opportunity to see life out of the tourist districts. We contacted a former coworker of mine, from AMD days many years ago. She hadn’t changed a bit, except she now had a husband and three children. You never saw such a happy family. The kids played outside, interacted with the adults, and generally acted like you wish your kids would act when they’re around other adults. They have a beautiful life on the outskirts of Dresden. We took the tram to the last stop, then walked a half mile through the woods to get to their house. We were treated to an old fashioned barbecue with lots of German sausages and veggies, and a little schnapps afterwards. I even had the chance to teach their son a little about building a fire. I hope I didn’t set his development back too far.
Being in Germany, how could we pass on visiting the local Volkswagen factory? They have a state-of-the-art auto plant, which VW calls the Transparent Factory, built in 2002 to build the Phaeton. You know it’s something new just walking up to the place. Inside, the major walls are all glass: floor to ceiling glass on the outer windows, there’s a glass wall separating the offices from the factory, even a glass silo of new cars waiting for delivery. It’s a long way from the Chevrolet factory we got to tour when I was about nine years old.
Initially, we were disappointed to learn that the Phaeton production line has been shut down and being transitioned to a new model. That disappointment was short-lived however, when we realized the tour would now take us directly to the factory floor, instead of viewing it from a a catwalk above. The assembly line was spotlessly clean, with wood floors (not what we expected!) because they are quieter and more comfortable for the workers to stand on. The Transparent Factory is an assembly line, where completed modules are installed on the auto chassis and body. The car body is carried along the assembly line in a giant claw on wheels, that can be positioned so the auto worker doesn’t have to assume any uncomfortable positions to install an assembly. The body and chassis are “married” on a hydraulic jig, then roll down the line for final assembly and testing. We would have loved to have made photos, but sadly that was not allowed.
We came to Dresden with an uncomplicated set of preconceptions, but we came away with a better idea of what a multifaceted city it is. It goes back to what we had in mind for this trip from the beginning: to spend enough time in each place to get a better idea of its subtleties. We wish we could see more of the world in this much detail, but with our limited time, we are going to take in as much as we can.