Ok, we got lazy in Dresden. From our campground it was a bus ride into the tram system, so we'd have to change vehicles to get to the city center. We decided, why not just drive? What could we see from places we could get to in our Roadtrek? We waited until Sunday, when traffic would be at its lightest, punched the city center into the satnav, and headed out. I had gotten much braver about city driving now that we were back in countries where the GPS worked. My moments of terror in Budapest and Prague were only because I was using a handwritten turn by turn itinerary, and hadn't seen anything written on it in half an hour.
We had been thoroughly impressed with the German road system ever since we had crossed the border, even though we have restricted our travels to non-toll roads. The highways are well engineered, and full of signs giving you at least as much information as you want to have, even counting down the distance to exits in 100-meter increments. They're smooth, wide, and allow you to travel fast. But what about the cities? We were about to find out.
We really didn't know much about Dresden, other than general knowledge about the firebombing near the end of World War II that caused such horrendous civilian casualties – 25,000 people died in a raid that was planned and executed well into 1945, and has been debated back and forth ever since. You'd think it would have destroyed the entire city, and there wouldn't be much to see. However, we were pleasantly surprised as we approached the city center to see spires and grandiose buildings everywhere. They were made of stone, and had either survived the fire or been rebuilt. Dresden was the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, and was famous for its art and rococo and baroque architecture.
I read up on it later and found out the problem was with the medieval residential buildings in the altstadt, or old town, which were multistory timber frame buildings clustered around the city hall, cathedral, etc. They were only still there because of centuries of diligence by the town's firefighters, and were of sufficient extent that once the incendiaries started the fire, it developed into a firestorm visible 300 miles away and of such intensity that it consumed all the oxygen at ground level. People in cellars and air raid shelters died of suffocation. Many of the stone buildings were damaged, and rebuilding was a slow process, partly because Dresden was in East Germany. The Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, now the symbol of Dresden, was not restored until 2005. Old, burned stones were mixed with new as a reminder of the destruction of World War II.
We were pleasantly surprised upon approaching the city center to find that German city streets were like German highways – spacious and easily navigated. One advantage of doing extensive reconstruction is that you can bring your ancient city into the automotive age, and we were downtown along the Terrassenufer, the riverside boulevard. After one quick pass to scout out the situation, we turned around and came back along it, looking for targets of opportunity. One road led up between these giant old buildings, and the mix of tour buses and taxis promised a prime tourist spot. There were tram tracks down the middle of the street, and they came zipping along with cars nonchalantly getting out of their way. I certainly got out of their way. We were in what turned out to be the Theaterplatz, and were surrounded by more architecture than we could take in at once. We pulled over and found we were able to sit, with a watchful eye out for cops telling us to move that thing, and then on up Sophienstrasse, past more giant buildings, and out and back down to the river for another pass.
We made three more passes, each time trying new areas, until we had seen most of the major sights, gaining confidence as we learned the system. Finally, we headed on back to our campingplatz, glad to have seen the sights from the comfort of our Roadtrek, without a lot of public transportation and walking. You really can't get out and explore on foot by doing it this way, but the tradeoff is you can cover much more area than you can on foot, or at least than we can on foot. In situations like Dresden where vehicular access is easy, it's an acceptable substitute.