Dresden – Past and Present Glory

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.

clay fire


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.


Dresden – Past and Present Glory

Oh, Cologne

If you don’t like big cities, you won’t like Cologne. We do, so we did. There’s a lot more to see and do than we could absorb in the few days that we were there.

Maggie and I are big history buffs, so we delved into a couple of history museums. We learned that Cologne has been part of The Roman Empire, The Frankish Empire, The Holy Roman Empire, the French Empire, the Prussian Empire, Germany, West Germany and now Germany again. (I’m using the spelling of the city name that we get from the French; it’s Köln in German, or Koeln if your keyboard doesn’t have an umlat.) Today the city is a mixture of old and new, existing side by side.


The Germans we met encourage visitors to speak their language; maybe that’s partly because Cologne has been a part of so many different countries. There are lots of other reasons, as well: there are 90 million native German speakers in Europe, more than any other language. Germany has earned its place as one of the economic leaders on the continent. They are justifiably proud of that accomplishment, so they expect that visitors will give their language and culture the respect it deserves. You will find plenty of people  who can speak a little English, but you can’t assume that everybody is ready to carry on a conversation. You’ll be OK if you learn the basics: a simple greeting, please and thank you, and a few numbers will make things go a lot easier.

One thing you have to give the Germans credit for, they don’t hide from their history. Several cities have museums that are partly or completely devoted to the history of Nazism. The National Socialism Documentation Center in Cologne is in the former Gestapo headquarters. It was an administrative building for thirty years after the war, until the trial of Kurt Lischka,  the head of the Cologne Gestapo raised public awareness of the history of the building. The resulting protests turned into a movement, and in 1979 the city and the national government voted to transform the building into a memorial, a museum, and a center where historians could study the history of the Nazis.

In the basement, here are cells where up to ten people at a time were held for interrogation and torture. This could go on for days, it might take weeks, or stretch into months. Up to ten people at a time were imprisoned in cells like this one:


The walls are still covered in the original graffiti. The prisoners wrote with whatever they could find:  used coal, lipstick, even their own fingernails. They wrote their names, messages of encouragement to other prisoners, messages to their loved ones, drawings, diaries, calendars marking off the days, rants against their jailers – pretty much anything.  They wrote with no expectation that anybody but other prisoners would ever see their messages. The futility is heart-breaking, but at the same time, we were stirred by the tenacity of these people, to hang on to their humanity in the bleakest conditions.

There’s a yard out back, where executions were committed. The top floors house an in-depth study of the rise of National Socialism. The treatment of the Jews, Gypsies, gays, and other so-called “undesirables” gets a thorough description, both in large scale statistics and detailed histories of individuals.

The war itself doesn’t get a lot of space, because that’s not the focus of this museum. One large room shows the devastation that Germany caused and suffered during the war;  another smaller room describes the war’s after effects. As you walk down the last hall to the exit, the sound system automatically kicks in to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”. I needed that.

Cologne today is a new city, since 95% of it was destroyed in WWII by the British and American bombing raids, then rebuilt after the war, partly funded with billions of dollars in US aid. There are few old buildings that survived or were restored: churches, parts of the medieval wall and some artifacts left from the Romans. The central part of downtown is dominated by a shopping district that’s packed with tourists. I don’t know why. It’s the same high-end stores selling the same luxuries that you can find in every major American or European city – if all they’re going to do is buy unnecessary stuff, why do they go to Cologne, Prague, or Rome when flights to Las Vegas are so cheap? You might wonder if this is what the framers of the Marshall Plan had in mind when they were laying out the plans for the rebuilt city – but on the other hand, how can we deny the people of Cologne the right to remake their city according to their own needs?

We didn’t spend a lot of time shopping for clothes, but you gotta eat. After paying too-high prices in England, Scotland and Ireland, we were relieved to find that everything was back down to levels we were used to – sometimes even less. French and Italian wines were a deal; at home we try to keep the price of a bottle of wine in the $10 to $20 range. In Cologne, the 5€ (about $5.50) wines were pretty good,  and for 8€ we could get a bottle that was as good as we ever drink. The selection was great, and we got to try out some wines that we had never heard of.

As we were leaving, a giant outdoor festival was starting up that had venues all over the city. We got to see a little of the preparations before we left, enough to make us think that Cologne would be a good destination for a longer visit. That’s what we love about big cities: there’s always something going on, even if you don’t always get to take advantage of it.




Oh, Cologne

Cork – I barely knew you!

After leaving Dingle, Ireland we headed to Cork to catch our flight to Germany for a few weeks.  We discovered that we had a couple of extra days, so we decided to spend 3 nights in a hotel in Cork which gave us only a couple of days to explore Cork. This was our first hotel stay of our trip.  The old beautiful hotel in Cork was excellent, but after our independent living for several months in apartments and home rentals, we had a little adjustment to make.  We survived quiet nicely I might add.

After being in Cork for a couple of days we realized we had made the first (but hopefully  the last) mistake of our trip.  Cork was awesome!  We should have stayed longer.  There were great restaurants, pubs, live music, and hiking around the area.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to hike because of the short time there, but learned a lot about hiking in the nearby areas at the Cork Visitor Center.   We would encourage anyone going to Ireland not to forget about Cork!  It is a foodie place for sure – from local pubs to gourmet restaurants that fill the city with delicious smells.

Being in Ireland for the 100th anniversary of the 1916 rebellion we decided that we needed to be more educated about the uprising so we headed to a museum in Cork totally dedicated to the 1916 rebellion.  St. Peters Church was chosen as the site for aligning with the National Program of  “remembering, reconciling, presenting, imagining and celebrating”.  Below is a copy of the 1916 declaration on the wall at St. Peters Church annex.

Maggie at Museum


We spent hours there and learned so much about the rebellion.  Toward the end we met a wonderful Irishman who upon finding out we were Americans, went out of his way to give us additional information.  He kept stressing that the organizers of the rebellion were a band of “poets, Irish language enthusiasts, former British soldiers, and a revolutionary Marxist”.  Interesting to Clay and me was the fact that all this happened while Great Britain was mired in WWI with tens of thousand Irishmen fighting for Britain.  I had a hard time wrapping my head around the irony of all of this.

As with any Irishmen who has found two good listeners – he also launched into the current events of the day – Brixit.  He shared his concerns that there is so much to work through, and he held no expectations that Northern Ireland and Ireland might reunite as a result of this.  He also fascinated us with his knowledge of American history.  When he mentioned that he even had learned the state capitals of all 50 states.  I said “may I challenge you?” giving him a way out so he went for it.  A lot of people assume or guess that Birmingham is the capital of Alabama, but he quickly without hesitation said -“Montgomery of course”.  I was impressed.

This casual meeting with the Irishman with a love of American history is the true purpose of traveling to me.  No check lists for us.  We leave lots of time for really talking to people.  I still believe that you cut your “to do” list in half for a trip and give yourself more time to really communicate with the locals.  We are learning so much about the people of Ireland!  It’s good!

Before we headed to the museum we had walked through their farmers market called The English Market.  As a foodie myself I gave it an A+.  They even have a cafe and restaurant upstairs that get their food directly from the downstairs market.  Clay and I agreed that the best meal that we have had in Ireland was at the Farmers Restaurant.  From the fish main course to the dessert we were in foodie paradise.  Cod was on the left in the photo, and potatoes on the right.  We shared the delicious greens and fresh peas as our side.  When the dessert arrived we scarfed it down before we remembered to take a photo.  Sorry.

Cod at famers market

The visit to Cork was too short folks!  The blame is mine (Maggie), but don’t you make the same mistake and consider Cork on your Ireland itinerary .  Saturday morning came to quickly, but our flight to Cologne was departing, and off we went to begin the next phase of our adventure in Germany.








Cork – I barely knew you!

Down in Dingle

Why Dingle? Because the most Irish person we know said it was the one place to go in Ireland, if you couldn’t go anywhere else. Having been there, I can see why. First of all, it’s beautiful everything is Irish green but the sheep because it pours rain every day even in July and oh sorry I got off the track a little. Second of all, it’s the most easily accessible place to go where Irish is spoken. There are Irish communities where people live year round, Irish schools where students come to learn the Irish language and culture, and people who come here to restore their connections to their roots. Third of all, Dingle has a little of everything you’re looking for in Ireland: several good pubs, lots of good music, some nice restaurants, an old church, and a  short drive away there’s a scenic loop with wild landscape and artifacts that date from recent history to the Stone Age.

If you plan it right, your introduction to Dingle is a trip over the magnificent Conor Pass. You wind your way up the mountain side on a twisty little road that’s single track for a long stretch, overhung by rocks flowing with water from unseen streams. At the top there’s a pullout where you can look at the two valleys on either side: on one side is the land you just came from, spreading out across low rolling hills to the sea, and Dingle waiting below you on the other.

The village of Dingle has two main strips: one runs up the hill and one along the harbor. On the hill, nearly every business is a restaurant, a pub, a pub/restaurant, pub/hardware store, pub/antique store, or pub/dry goods store. Nobody goes hungry or thirsty around here, even while buying a hammer. I hope that store doesn’t sell power tools.

The strip along the harbor is unfortunately, for the tourists. There are T-shirt shops, fish and chip carts, souvenir stands and tour companies of all sorts. The bright spots are The Chart House restaurant (really good food is a classy but comfortable atmosphere, not part of the American chain with the same name) and Murphy’s Ice Cream, with the boys and girls passing out samples on the street, their faces as fresh as cream.

When you’ve had enough of this, you don’t have to go far to get away. Keep on driving, in a few minutes you’re on the scenic route around the Dingle Peninsula, known as Slea Head Drive (Ceann Sleibhe in Irish). All of the signs are in English using bold block letters with the Irish in a smaller font and italics above that. It made me wonder how long it will be before that’s the other way around. The English have dominated southwest Ireland for 800 years, so it will probably be a while longer.

You don’t need me to describe the loop in detail; Rick Steves did a good job of that.  So I’ll just show you some of the pictures we took.



In the other direction from Dingle is Brandon Point, which is not as dramatic as the Slea Head Loop, but well worth the trip, for hikers at least.


We had a B&B that was walking distance from town – just far enough to be dark and quiet at night, and with great views. Kevin, our host, was a wealth of information. Listening to him, we truly understood how a person could love living here. We loved our time here, too, but for us it was time to move on.


Down in Dingle