My latest method of dealing with stress: swim a lot and go to a country that speaks German, so I can order food and talk to taxi drivers without any hand gestures or writing things down. And Dresden fit this criteria perfectly, and also gave me time to reflect on both European history and my own hometown of Detroit.
Fresh off the bus my first night, I found my hostel on the Neustadt side of Dresden (the “newer” area.) In a lively neighborhood with tons of little cafes, pubs and shops, I happened on a Vietnamese cafe— with this great soup: cucumbers, carrots, mushrooms, green onions, lettuce, broccoli, green beans and slightly fried tofu, all the veggies still crisp and lightly simmered in broth. (And yes, I ate a lot of soup on this trip, as it’s very good in cool weather.)
On top of my list of touristy sights is a church, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) that was almost entirely destroyed during the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. Left as rubble by the Communist for years, it was finally restored to its former glory in 2004. The outside is the most fascinating part: the darker, more aged bricks are from the original church, while the lighter colored stone newer. I happened to be taking photos of the church at noon, and the bells chiming was lovely.
Also on my list was a faint trace of the GDR’s propaganda: a building that used to have a huge neon sign now just has a light mark of the sign, on the very top, that read Der Sozialismus Siegt (Socialism Prevails).
Now, I think I understand people who come to Detroit looking for ruins of buildings a little better now. While once I may have sneered at the folks who photograph Detroit’s ruins, I understand trying to see not just a postcard view of a city, but the heart and scars of a place as well. While the touristy area of Altstadt is being carefully restored, there are large swaths of Dresden that are more modern, or just haven’t been rebuilt yet. Sometimes, I want to see past the architectural restorations and the surviving Art Deco and Baroque buildings, edged in graffiti. I wanted to see the traces of Communism, and more importantly, how the centuries have layered together to form the city.
Which is a lot to ask in just a couple of days. So I settled for taking pictures of the Ampelmann in the stoplights and chatting with East Germans in the hostel I was at.
About the ampelmann: I was completely charmed by them. A symbol of the former GDR, they seemed at once both deeply whimsical and yet a sharp reminder of the city’s past. (And the feminist in me was happy to see the ampelfrau, sporting pigtails alongside her fedora-wearing traffic light comrade.)
After some time exploring and taking photos, I had lunch at the Aha Cafe, on the Altstadt side of the Elbe River. I went with soup: chunks of zucchini, tomato and potatoes, with spinach, pine nuts and olives, in a tasty broth. Also, they had a good list of juice, and I chose banana. (And yes, they do have an English menu.)
In the afternoon I hit up the Old Master’s Pictures gallery, which has a wonderful collection of art. (It’s the home to Raphael’s famous Sistene Madonna, the one with the cherubs.) Also, I sprang for the audio guide, which was totally worth it. The museum didn’t allow photos, which was fine— I could concentrate on the paintings more. Also, it was great to see that such a collection with a past— it survived the Dresden bombing, was temporarily carted off to the Soviet Union, and the art museum itself was only recently restored— was still intact and well-taken care of.
On the “old town” side of Dresden, but removed from the main toursity areas, is the cozy restaurant BrennNessel. They have a lengthy menu in both English and German, and after a lot of wrestling, I went with a savory, creamy nettle soup, followed by a cauliflower bake. The cauliflower dish was topped with walnuts and cheese, underneath spinach, cranberries, red pepper and layered over wild rice. While it was super tasty— and very filling— both portions were pretty huge, so I had to take the cauliflower bake back to the hostel in a doggie bag.
Next morning, I ate my leftovers and set out for a different kind of museum: the Book Museum of the Saxon State and University Library. It was pretty neat: on the second floor of the library, you had to call the security guard to let you in, as the books were kept behind a heavy metal door. While the museum was small, they had some fascinating rare books on display: a Greek papyrus, miniature Koran, sheet music actually written by both Bach and Vilvadi, and a lengthy Mayan manuscript (the Dresden Codex.) Before WWII, Dresden had a reputation of being a center for arts and culture, and it was reassuring to see it still retained this. Also, it was nice to get out of the toursity areas, and the tram ride through Dresden’s university area was interesting: a mixture of modern glass and steel buildings, brightly painted small apartments and the stucco-walled, red-tiled roof homes common in Central Europe.
The weather turned from rainy to sunny, and I found a perfect cafe for a sunny day: Flax, located in the Neustadt side of Dreden. The food was amazing. The Gemischer salat was just delicious, with light yet creamy dressing, sweet potatoes, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, red peppers, red onion, quinoa and sesame seeds. Also, they had an inventive take on vegetarian sushi: made with red quinoa instead of rice, the little nori rolls had avocado, red pepper and seasoned tofu. The tofu and quinoa made them filling, and they were simple yet tasty.
Finally, I decided to take a swim at the Nordbad pool in Dresden. My map described it as the “smallest indoor pool in Dresden,” and it was jut beautiful. Skylight, hanging plants, white ceramic tiles and ornate blue columns. Plus, it had small water jets on timers.
After the swim, I grabbed a quick bite at Curry & Co to finish off the trip. They had excellent french fries, with vegan mayo, and I couldn’t resist trying a vegan German currywurst (sausage spiced with curry.) Inexpensive, and they had a nice selection of toppings for the sausages. (Note: I cannot vouch for these being gluten-free.)
In the end, I was glad I didn’t try to force a trip to a castle in. While Dresden has some lovely-looking castles, I may just come back for a second trip. In the meantime, just being able to easily communicate and be understood was enough.