Shaking off the dark days of wartime bombing and, more recently, floods and drought, the city of Dresden just gets better and more interesting by the day
Early spring in Dresden, and the locals are sunning themselves on the beach. A clever trick to pull off when you consider this city in the former East Germany is a long way from the sea. This is no ordinary beach, though: it’s a man-made one on the bank of what is normally the fast-flowing River Elbe – except that in recent years there have been droughts and flooding, which means the water levels are now unreliable, to say the least.
As a result, many of the river cruisers that normally ply their trade running tourist excursions to the old castles, forests and other sights that line both banks of the waterway are occasionally confined to their moorings in the city centre. There is sometimes either too much of a current running or simply not enough water to allow them to move without the risk of running aground.
Dresden is no stranger to difficulty, of course. Some of the older locals still remember the devastation caused by Allied fire bombing during the Second World War when, on 13 February 1945, 35,000 people were killed. The city still bears grim reminders of that fateful night. To this day there are piles of masonry, the stones all carefully numbered, waiting their turn to be used in the reconstruction of this beautiful city.
Finest symbol of this reconstruction is probably the Church of Our Lady (the Frauenkirche), which escaped the bombing but later collapsed when the sandstone from which it is constructed cracked as it cooled down after the firestorm. Having been left for years as a reminder of the raid, it has now been restored to its former glory.
But the long and often sad history of Dresden does nothing to alter the fact that this is a very special city to visit. The dark days before the reunification of Germany are well in the past and there is a new and exciting optimism. Even the piles of rubble are largely hidden behind hoardings and the focus now is on the magnificent buildings, which either escaped damage or have since been magnificently rebuilt.
Make time to visit the many grand old buildings such as the Royal Palace (Residenzschloss), built in 1530 for Duke George the Bearded, and the impressive stable block, where horses were housed on the first floor, accessed by a long ramp. There’s also, of course, the Semper Opera House, reflecting Dresden’s fame as a music centre.
For something really different, take a tour in one of the old and very basic East German Trabant cars. You can rent them in the square outside the Taschenbergpalais hotel.
For a glimpse into Dresden’s future, visit the building known as “The Transparent Factory”, close to the city centre. A state-of-the-art manufacturing plant built by Volkswagen, it's part factory, part tourist attraction, where you can watch through glass walls as the cars glide silently along the production line. You could even order one. Go into a special room and you can use computer-generated images to choose the colour, the upholstery and the rest of the specification you want. Perhaps the ultimate souvenir to bring home.
Opt for the Taschenbergpalais, right in the city centre and built originally by one-time ruler, August the Strong, as a palace for his mistress, Countess Anna Constanze von Cosel. After years of neglect, when it was pretty much a ruin, it reopened in 1995, after a massive rebuilding programme, as the top-class Kempinski hotel.
The five-star Radisson SAS Gewandhaus is worth considering. Originally built in 1770 as a warehouse, the Gewandhaus, like so much of Dresden, was reduced to rubble during the war but was rebuilt as a hotel in the 1960s, since when it has gone from strength to strength.
If you are looking for somewhere smart then look no further than one of the restaurants in the Taschenbergpalais hotel (see above). If the weather is fine you could even opt for a table in the secluded internal courtyard.
If, on the other hand, you want to experience Germany’s food at its rawest and most authentic, book a table downstairs in the Sophienkeller, a cross between a beer hall and a restaurant where you sit at long communal tables while waitresses in Bavarian costume serve foaming pots of beer. Do not expect any nouvelle cuisine here, though: the menu runs to hearty dishes.