A Tale of Two Cities

A look at the historic cities of Leipzig and Dresden By: Jim Calio
Mendebrunnen Fountain on Augustusplatz in Leipzig // © 2010 Torsten Schulz
Mendebrunnen Fountain on Augustusplatz in Leipzig // © 2010 Torsten Schulz

For many travelers visiting Germany, Berlin is one of the first destinations that comes to mind. And it’s no wonder — the city was once the cultural and intellectual capital of Europe. During World War II, it was the hub of the Nazi war machine. And after the war, when Germany was divided, it was at the crossroads of the spy game between the East and West.

When traveling from Berlin, two other cities, Leipzig and Dresden, in the German state of Saxony, are well worth a visit, and they are within easy driving distance from the city.

During a recent visit, we arrived in Leipzig on a cool, cloudy day — fitting, perhaps, for a city that once boasted such heavyweight residents as Bach, Goethe and Wagner. We had driven from Berlin, and we barely had time to drop our luggage off at the hotel before heading for lunch at the famous Auerbachs Keller restaurant, one of the oldest in Europe, having served traditional German cuisine continuously since 1530.

The restaurant has two sections. Upstairs, there is a large, cheerful space with a warm reception, packed tables and a robust selection of food. The house specialties were roasted meats and other typically Saxon fare.

Downstairs is a different story. There is a cozier, more famous room where the ghost of Goethe’s “Faust” is present. Bronze sculptures, modeled after characters from the play, line the stairway and, presumably, if you touch the feet of one of them, it’s said to bring good luck. Needless to say, some of the characters’ toes are well-worn. In the vaulted dining room downstairs, there is also a huge oak barrel said to be a model of the barrel the devil rode in the play.

After our meal, we headed to our hotel. Right after the reunification of East and West Germany in 1989, international hotel companies moved in  and bought existing properties in the East; most of them had not been modernized in any way since before the war due to dismal economic conditions in East Germany. As a result, many of Germany’s finest hotels, especially those in the eastern states, are now housed in old, architecturally beautiful buildings, and have been upgraded with modern amenities.

The Hotel Fuerstenhof, now a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, is typical. It occupies the Lohr Haus, one of the city’s oldest mansions. Located within walking distance from the Leipzig train station, it’s the epitome of 19th-century grandeur — red wallpaper, black serpentine stone inside and a bar under a bright glass cupola.

Leipzig is mindful of its place in history. Much of the city was destroyed by Allied bombing toward the end of World War II. Beginning shortly thereafter, and continuing even today, the reconstruction of Leipzig has generated praise and consternation. Praise because the resources of the city were mobilized so fast, but consternation because so much of the pre-war architecture has been replaced by more modern, and not always popular, designs.

To get a feeling for the city, it’s best to meander down the streets and old alleyways, stopping for coffee and cake or enjoying ice cream at the Pinguin milk bar. Nightlife in Leipzig has blossomed, as it has in most European cities, with clubs and after-hour “sponton-parties” that are only announced on the Internet and held in out-of-the-way places.

Unlike Leipzig, Dresden was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut have only to recall his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, to relive the horror of that terrible time. In the book, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, an American P.O.W., witnessed the firebombing of the city. Vonnegut used himself as a model — he was actually a prisoner in Dresden during the Allied bombing.

But Dresden has come a long way toward reclaiming its former glory as one of the great architectural capitals of the world. One example is The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) which sits at one end of the Neumarkt, or the city’s huge main square. My hotel, The Steigenberger Hotel De Saxe, was situated at the other end with a spectacular view of the church from my front-room window.

After the war, city officials salvaged more than 8,500 or so original stones from the bombed church. Of these, 3,800 were reused in the reconstruction. The older stones are easy to spot: They are darker in color due to fire damage and weathering. In addition, thousands of pieces of its shattered altarpiece were also used in the rebuilding process.

The builders had to rely on thousands of old photographs to approximate what the church looked like before it was destroyed. For that, they asked citizens who had been married there to donate photos and, since many couples had posed in front of the church on their wedding day, the builders had a reasonably good idea of what it once looked like.

There are other reminders of what came after the war for East Germany, at least in the form of the dreaded Stasi, or state secret police. As with many German cities now, the doors of the former Stasi prison, on Bautzner Strasse in Dresden, have been opened to the public and used as a grim reminder of a dark period in the country’s long history.

Despite Germany’s recent and turbulent history, some things remain the same — and endure. This year marks the 300th anniversary of world-famous Dresden porcelain. The factory that first produced the delicate masterpieces, Meissen, is a short, 20-minute drive from the city center and will celebrate the jubilee with exhibitions and commemorations.

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