Thursday 1 August 2013
Samarkand on the Elbe
Where's this? The clue is in the title: not in central Asia or the middle east, to which I so often long to return after years of untroubled wanderings there, but in Dresden. On the 'wrong' side of the tracks to the Altstadt, with the railway line running just past it, is this magnificent folly created on the earnings from smoke, the Yenidze Tobacco Factory. I well remember passing this neo-orientalist fantasy on our train journey from Berlin to Prague back in 1990.
The Yenidze was lucky to survive the bombs as, of course, the city's other great dome, that of the Frauenkirche, did not. Designed by architect Martin Hammitzsch and built between 1907 and 1909, the factory took its title from the place where the Jewish entrepreneur Hugo Zietz established a tobacco business for import to Germany; Ottoman Yenidze in Thrace is now Greek Genisea in another part of the world redolent of a personally significant train journey, our InterRail travel to Istanbul.
Wiki, the only source of any detail, tells me the edifice 'has 600 windows of various styles; the dome is 20m high'. Detail is impressive, as in this gateway to what are now the office quarters, converted in the 1996 restoration.
I read that there was a cafe and restaurant just under the dome, so - following the night of our reason for being here, the Semperoper performance of Der Rosenkavalier - off we went after our morning's exhaustive visit to the treasures of the Neues Grünes Gewölbe and eventually discovered the narrow passageway at the north end leading to the lift up to the Kuppelrestaurant's beer garden at the north end.
The terrace beneath the stained glass dome was as we imagined it, the service by a spirited young east German waiter delightful (aided by 'wanderer' John, who's very chatty with any new acquaintance he warms to) and the food a good deal better than we'd expected in such a setting. You can't go far wrong, though, with seasonal white asparagus, and the salmon and potatoes accompanying it were fine.Good views, too, over the old town, .
the hills and the river as far as the sandstone quarries. Though nothing can surpass the splendour of the dome; I'd like to have seen it lit up at night.
Not inappropriately, we made our way back to the palace museums to look at the gilded, bejewelled weaponry and the gorgeous tents of the Turkish wars. The heat then drove us back to our splendid bargain of an apartment just off the Neumarkt. I don't think many readers will be unaware of the colossal civic gesture involved in the resurrection of the Frauenkirche, which began life in 1736 as a people's protest to the Catholic conversion, with attendant Hofkirche, of Augustus I (an expedience owed to his Polish regnancy).
More generally known is that it was flattened in 1945, leaving only two walls standing. That was how it stood until 1993, rubble like so much else in Dresden due to the painful lack of funds in East Germany, and so that's how I saw it on my first visit in 1990. This image from 1973 comes from the Deutsche Fotothek.
After the reunification there was a colossal drive towards what seemed like an impossible reconstruction, supported by fellow organisations in Britain, America, France and Switzerland. 3539 of the original building blocks were used to send the Frauenkirche reaching skywards again
accounting for 45 per cent of the material used. The darker colour of the old sandstone makes them stand out (Dresden's blackening sandstone is due not to pollution but to the high proportion of iron). Though the interior is hideous - panels painted in what looks like Italian bathroom style of the 1990s - and packed with tour groups throughout the day, that's not the point: the gesture is as heroic as the rebuilding of Warsaw's old town, and literally crowned by reforged bonds between the city and its destroyers in the shape of the orb and cross.
They were constructed in 18th century style, with help from London's Grant Macdonald Silversmiths, by Alan Smith. His father had been part of the 'Bomber' Harris' squadron which flattened and incinerated a great city. The thought of that restitution certainly brings tears to the eyes: we can move on, we can go some way to repairing the sins of the past.
And so the vast square in front of the Frauenkirche easily absorbs the thousands of daytrippers - much reduced, I was told, in the week following the floods - and the souvenir stands. The facades aren't exactly like the ones in Bellotto's famous view, but will do. The angle from which I took this photo is at least taken from the same building, and the same staircase, featured from a distance on the same side in Bellotto's panorama.
One remnant of the DDR era remains as an oddity in the Neumarkt, the Kulturpalast still used as the Dresden Philharmonic's concert hall - Marek Janowski resigned when plans for a new hall came to nothing - and on one side only they've left the rather splendid mural as a reminder of the ideals that soured.
I dug out my 1990 pictures and saw that there was more decoration on the south side, not to mention the Lenin group in the Altmarkt, now gone along with the Inter Hotel behind the Kulturpalast. The Altmarkt remains a sterile space.
How things have changes, too, around the Residenzschloss and the Hausmann Tower. 1990:
Pristine now, too, is the Augustusstrasse, though again clogged with halting tour groups. Buskers of superior quality to your usual boring statues liven up the scene beneath the 102-metre 'Procession of Princes' , painted in the 1870s by Wilhelm Walter. Its original stucco was covered over in 2006 with 25,000 Meissen tiles. Wasted effort? The jury's out on that one, but grand it is. Anyway, we enjoyed the man with permanently windswept tie and toy dog on a lead who spun around every couple of minutes
and a top-notch brass trio from St Petersburg intoning Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves among other anniversary hits.
Back, then, to our packed touristic day. We took a late afternoon siesta and met up with John for an evening stroll in the balmy summer weather. The old town spires and putti were silhouetted in the sunset
and along the Elbe on the Neustadt side students and young people were all out peacefully chatting, drinking and smoking.
Here's more or less the famous view by Bellotto, as unspoilt as the Thames above Richmond and a good deal grander (a picture frame actually marks the spot).
And so along to the lovely grounds, open to all, of the Japanese Palace, where I enjoyed a chat with a delightful old Dresden lady very proud of her city and the nearby palaces, with views across to the Yenidze. A blissful evening, a real midsummer night's dream of peace and reconciliation in a once-troubled city.