DRESDEN: My first trip east

One of the most glaring gaps in my travels in Germany thus far has been how little of eastern Germany I have seen. Despite having made three previous trips to Germany, I never made it farther east than Weimar, located in central-east Germany in the state of Thüringen (Thuringia) -- and that was only as a day trip. Beyond that, much of the states of the former GDR (including Berlin) are a mystery to me.

When my parents started planning their trip to visit me over my school's fall break and they decided to start in Prague, I used that as my excuse to plan my first proper excursion into eastern Germany: a trip to Dresden, which is only about 2 hours from Prague. The idea was that I could have a nice weekend in Dresden with my boyfriend and then catch a bus or train over to Prague to meet my parents and begin our traveling. My planning was far from flawless, as soon became apparent, due to a couple critical errors on my part (more on that later), but regardless I made it out there and am so happy to have finally had a chance to visit Dresden.

I used this trip as another opportunity to do something I've never done before -- make use of the various opportunities in Germany to rideshare with someone rather than pay for a train ticket. I used the website Mitfahrgelgenheit (literally, "Rideshare Opportunity") to locate a guy named Willy, who would be traveling from Frankfurt to Dresden on the Friday we wanted to leave. The trip cost only 25EUR one-way, a good deal compared a normal-priced train ticket, which would cost around 50-70EUR.

So the plan was for my boyfriend and I to meet up with Willy outside a train station in Frankfurt at around 2 p.m. in the afternoon on a Friday. However, on the train ride from Fulda to Frankfurt, I realized the first of my two critical errors this trip: I had forgotten my passport. When traveling within Germany, I rarely bring my passport and really only use it when staying at hostels when they want to verify my ID. But, I was worried for when I would leave Germany to head to Prague to meet my parents, as well as my later travels with them to Vienna and Budapest. Technically all of these are in the Schengen Zone of the EU, which means there are no passport checks at the border, but I was concerned that only having my U.S. drivers license as a form of legal ID would not cut it if for some reason people needed to see proof of a valid ID (i.e., when traveling on a train).

Since we were already en route to Frankfurt and it was so close to the time we were planning to meet Willy, I didn't want to head back right then to get my passport -- this was my fault, and I felt bad canceling on him with so little notice, since he was expecting to have two people traveling with him to share the cost of gas. So, I settled on the rather undesirable option of spending my Sunday in Dresden traveling to and from Fulda to retrieve my passport. This would mean about 8 hours (round-trip) of travel and spendng 80 euros out of pocket, but I didn't know what else to do -- I didn't want to take the risk of traveling outside of Germany without it.

Besides that unfortunate discovery, the meetup with Willy in Frankfurt went smoothly and we hopped in the car, ready to head toward Dresden. There was one other girl in the car, Vicki, who was a chemistry student doing an internship in Saarbrücken (where Willy was coming from as well). We made some small talk, and overall it was a pleasant journey -- but long. There was a lot of traffic in the area around Frankfurt, so it took us a while to get out of the area, and then we started hitting Friday evening rush hour traffic. In the end, we didn't get into Dresden until a little after 7 p.m., which was longer than I thought it would take (longer than the train would have taken, since that's only 4 hours). I suppose it was still a good deal for the price, and it's not like there's anything we could have done to avoid the traffic. 

It was quite rainy when we arrived, and we didn't quite have the public transportation aspect figured out, so we ended up walking much more than we needed to find the hostel. Once we finally got to the hostel (Lollis Homestay) and had a chance to drop off our bags and decompress, we set out in search of food. Hungry and not wanting to make the process any more difficult that it had to be, we stopped by a Turkish imbiss and enjoyed some delicious döner. Afterward we tried to find a bar we liked, but much to my dismay they all allowed smoking, and lots of it (this is something that's not consistent throughout Germany -- some cities have indoor smoking bans, or at least require that the smoking sections be clearly distinct from the non-smoking sections; others have no rules at all). Eventually we settled on a Big Lebowski-themed bar, complete with Lebowski paintings and the movie shown on continuous loop.

A typical street in Dresden's Neustadt.  

The next day, Saturday, was our main day for exploring Dresden. I had already heard so much about the city and seen so many pictures, so I was very excited to finally see it for myself. We made the trip on foot from the Neustadt, working our way south to the tree-lined Hauptstrasse. Walking through the city, I just loved looking around and seeing how different everything looked. There's a clear design aesthetic specific to East Germany, and it was so interesting to look down a street and know that you could make no mistake as to where in Germany you are based on the buildings you see. There may not be a wall dividing Germany any more, but you can still tell when you've crossed that now-invisible line between east and west.

The Hauptstrasse in Dresden eventually ends at the Goldener Reiter, just before the Elbe River begins. The Goldener Reiter is an impressively shiny golden statue of Frederick August I, who was the Elector of Saxony in the late 17th century/early 18th. The statue gleamed as if it had just been polished that day, which perhaps it had been -- I'm sure there's a lot of maintenance involved in keeping a statue looking that nice.

From the Goldener Reiter, we crossed over the Augustusbrücke to cross from the Neustadt into the Altstadt. It was a very overcast day, so the view of the Altstadt from the bridge was perhaps not quite as striking as it might have been on a clear, sunny day, but it was still a great view. Famous sights like the Frauenkirche and the Katholische Hofkirche loom so magnificently over the skyline that you almost forget how much destruction the city actually endured at the end of World War II. Having heard so much about the extent of the city's devastation, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much of its old charm the city seemed to retain, though of course much of it has been rebuilt.

We spent a few hours exploring the city, including the central courtyard of the Zwinger Palace. The palace currently houses several different museums, but we decided we didn't feel like paying to go in. The courtyard itself was really beautiful, and it offered a great chance to sit and enjoy the 18th-century architecture (though technically what exists today is a reconstruction, since the palace was mostly destroyed in 1945). 

The courtyard of the Zwinger palace.  

One sight that was not quite what I expected it to be was the Frauenkirche. This was the one sight in Dresden I had heard the most about. The Frauenkirche is Dresden's flagship church. Originally built in the 18th century, the church was completely destroyed in 1945, and for decades it remained a pile of rubble and treated as an anti-war memorial. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a movement to rebuild the church began forming and gaining steam. The reconstruction effort formally began in 1993 and was completed in 2005. The church is lovely both inside and out, but what struck me as odd was that none of this rich history seemed to be acknowledged inside or outside of the church, beyond a single, non-descript monument outside the church. I was expecting some sort of photo timeline outside, some sort of exhibit inside... just something to educate visitors on what an exceptional history this building has had. According the church's Wikipedia page , such an exhibit does exist at the Stadtmuseum in Dresden, which I suppose is fine; I just would have liked to have seen more of this kind of information at the church itself. I think you would appreciate learning about the church's destruction and rebuilding more when you are actually in or near the church and thus better able to marvel at its beauty and the fact that it even exists at all today.

After seeing most of the city, the weather started to turn rainy again, so we made our way back to our hostel in the Neustadt. One nice aspect of Dresden is that the Alstadt is not very large, so you can more or less see everything you want to in half a day or so.

One important development on Saturday was the discovery of my second critical error in planning my trip to Dresden (the first being forgetting my passport). My plan had been to go to Prague on Monday to meet my parents, except, as I learned on Saturday, my parents weren't arriving on Monday. They were, in fact, arriving in Prague on Tuesday, meaning I needed to figure out what I would be doing with myself on Monday and where I would be staying.

Ordinarily, I am a much better traveler/planner than this, but I was in rare form this trip. However, this second error in a way fixed my first problem. Given these developments, I decided that instead of spending Sunday going back to Fulda to retrieve my passport so I could then go from Dresden to Prague on Monday, I would go back to Fulda on Monday, retrieve my passport, and set out for Prague on Tuesday from Fulda. Complicated, right?  Just trust me when I say this was the most logical option.  

The Militärhistorisches Museum in Dresden.

Overly complex travel logistics aside, I was very excited to get my Sunday in Dresden back. My boyfriend Sven and I decided to the Militärhistorisches Museum, which is the German military's official museum detailing both the history of the military in Germany as well as general exhibits on various military-related topics (animals in the military; protection and destruction; etc.). Since Germany is a country that is not known for idolizing or revering its military (for obvious historical reasons), I was interested to see how they tackled this topic.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the museum. It is extremely modern (it's current space is only a couple years old) and well-laid out, and also very accessible for English speakers. There were three main areas of the museum covering three eras: 1300-1915; 1915-1945; and 1945-present. As you would expect, there was a LOT of history to be covered in this groups, and my only "criticism" of the museum would be that there's just too much to see. We spent about 4 hours in the museum and still didn't see everything. We even breezed through the later years of the military's history (~1950 and on) simply because we were getting exhausted and overwhelmed. There were several additional exhibits we didn't see or gave only a cursory glance. So be forewarned -- this is not a museum you can do in just a couple hours. But, it would definitely be good for a rainy day.

Once specific aspect of the museum I was interested to see was its treatment of the Nazi era. The Militärhistorisches Museum is an official extension of the Bundeswehr (the national army), but it's in no way a propaganda tool, nor does it seek to gloss over shameful moments in the history of the military of Germany. The tone of the exhibits was more straightforward than overly apologetic -- the exhibits clearly detailed the actions and history of the military during World War II, sparing no important or relevant details but also not seeking to make a political statement. It's a museum of history, nothing more and nothing less.

Since the museum took most of the day, that was the last significant thing I did in Dresden -- otherwise, Sven and I ate, packed up and got some sleep before departing back to Frankfurt early the next morning.  

After my first proper trip to East Germany, I think I'm hooked. There's just such a different vibe in that part of the country, and the history is so fascinating to me. I would love to come back to Dresden to dig a little deeper into both the history of the city as well as its modern-day happenings. Beyond Dresden, I know for sure I will be going to Berlin in December, but Leipzig is also topping my list of German cities I most want to see. There's a whole side of Germany I'm only beginning to scratch the surface of, and I'm excited to keep pushing east.