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Travel Guide: Dresden

Sometimes I like to escape my usual world for a while, just to feel my feet under me again. A beautiful way to do this is out in nature, literally just outside the door, and I do this often. But sometimes I like to go exploring in a different way, the way that reaffirms my confidence in walking independently through the world. I’m not a city girl, as much as I’ve tried to be (much more of a kopi at the hawker girl, a friend aptly said), but I like spending time in cities. I like watching people, I like getting lost, and I like the anonymity that comes with crowded spaces.

And this is how I ended up in Dresden last weekend.

I arrived in the rain and was delighted when the sun came out and kept the rain at bay for the remainder of my visit. My first impressions were everything that comes out of story books. Stone buildings, castles and churches, graceful bridges.

An extraordinary thing about Dresden is that everything has been rebuilt since firebombs destroyed the city in February 1945. This tells us something about what is meaningful to people and, I think, it tells us something about the power of place. These ideas stayed with me as I stopped on Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl’s Terrace) to look back at the city.

View of Brühlsche Terrasse from across the Elbe

From there I headed for Neustadt, a neighbourhood located across the Elbe from Dresden’s Altstadt, or old town. First, I took a brief walk through Neustädter Markthalle where the vendors sell a variety of local, handmade, and interesting products. Unsurprisingly, the book exchange shelf, a mark of communities everywhere, was my favourite part.

Just around the corner is the Kunsthofpassage, a series of painted courtyards and art galleries dedicated to different themes. I walked into many of the galleries just for a look around and would have loved a seat outside at one of the many cafés, but I was far from the only one with that idea.

The rest of my afternoon walking through Neustadt was pleasant and the temperature slowly climbed, keeping me wandering down neighborhood streets that grew slowly more lively.

I spent the early evening sitting at a beer garden on the Elbe watching the sun, the water, and people enjoying their time outside. It seemed to me that the river is the soul of Dresden. This is where people play and gather and this, in my eyes, is what makes a place a home.

The following morning I stayed on the Altstadt side of the river and joined a walking tour to learn about the history of Dresden. We covered the time period from the Holy Roman Empire through present day, and I was again struck by how old Europe is. I am still tickled by this. Notable stops on the tour included the famous Frauenkirche, which was rebuilt using some of the recovered stone that had been part of a memorial after World War II . . .

. . . and the Fürstenzug, a porcelain tile mural first created in the 1870s that depicts the leaders of Dresden from 1127 until 1904 (the later part was an addition). Interestingly, the tour guide explained, the Fürstenzug survived the war with minimal damage because porcelain is heated to extreme temperatures during its production. As a result, the firebombing that destroyed the city did little damage here. I was intrigued to hear this, as well as to see the rather large club of bearded men (no joke) who were also there for a visit.

Our guide also took us through the inner courtyard of the Residenzschloss (residence castle) . . .

. . . past the Catholic church built by Polish king Augustus the Strong during his role as Elector of Saxony . . .

. . . the Zwinger Palace, also built by Augustus the Strong following a visit to Versailles . . .

. . . the Semperoper, Dresden’s opera house . . .

. . . and a mural celebrating life under communism that functioned as a wonderful piece of propaganda during its time.

As usual, there’s a great deal else to find in an old city with architecture that makes me wonder about the people who crafted it. These are stories I would like to hear.

To get out of the high winds that afternoon, I visited the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (State Art Collection), which is particularly known for the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault. There is a historic Green Vault and a new Green Vault, which contains stunning treasures housed in a normal museum (which happens to be the Residenzschloss) rather than in a literal historic green vault. I’ve been to many art museums, but never one with such whimsical works from centuries ago. Intricate carvings on everything ranging from a cherry seed to coconut shell, for example, as well as works of porcelain, glass, and ivory. I was also particularly interested in an exhibit on Ottoman military tents, which should give you a sense of the range of treasures this museum has to offer.

The following morning I visited the Stadtmuseum (City Museum), which utilizes a collection of artifacts to told the story of Dresden from its founding through the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was especially interesting to see repurposed military items from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany), such as a bomb casing turned into a stove. The Stadtmuseum also highlighted Dresden’s Jewish history with the open question of how to reckon with history, a question that applies in so many societies in our world today.

By the time I needed to catch a train, I felt content with my solitude and comfortable enough with my surroundings to no longer feel lost. And by the time I returned, remembering my pounding heart as I arrived by train almost a year ago, I was fully glad to be back. It’s nice to go away for a while, and part of going away means coming home.

Travel Guide: Berlin

One sibling loved every moment while the other did not speak highly of the experience. Friends have visited multiple times, reportedly always leaving with a desire to return. I once heard a comment that it felt wrong for a European capital to be new and modern rather than old and charming. As for me, I’ve been reading a lot and the reading has helped put Berlin into context. It is a very complicated place.

Throughout my time in Berlin, I was in awe at its history, taken in by its spirit, and curious about what I would find around the next corner. There was an unpredictability to Berlin that I had not expected, an element of surprise that makes complete sense considering the significance and history of this city. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t quite get over the fact that I was there in this place, which, not long ago, was a completely different place. People make a place and the people who made this one are amazing to me.

This is why I started my visit to Berlin in Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood known today for its art scene but a neighbourhood with a much grittier history than that.

I stopped first at the Berlin Wall Museum (expensive but worth every penny) and the East Side Gallery. I wanted to understand the people who call Berlin home and the people who stood together to rebuild it. I wanted to understand the stories that people around the world want to tell about Berlin and what its separation and reunification symbolize to them. More than anything, I felt that Berlin reflected an attitude of deliberate commitment to a very clear choice, and I think the world could use more of that.

I recently read Helena Merriman’s Tunnel 29 and it gave me a great deal of background information that I would not have otherwise had. Walking along Bernauer Straße and coming to the corner of Ackerstraße left me standing a little straighter, full of hope for the future, and deeply moved by thoughts of what it must have been like for the world to completely and utterly change over the course of a single night.

With that, it was time to find out more about the longer history of Berlin and follow a very knowledgeable guide through Mitte, the central district.

The stops that struck a particular chord with me were the memorial to the Nazi era book burnings . . .

. . . the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie (be aware that the Disneyland-like environment around it is just really strange) . . .

. . . the carpark area built over Hitler’s bunker . . .

. . . and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The guide suggested walking through it individually and in silence, which was a powerful experience. Part confusion and isolation, part a sense of losing direction, and part a feeling of being trapped with no place to go.

I retraced some of our steps the following day to consider Germany today and its role on the world stage. When I first told friends I was moving to Germany one of them asked, “How does it feel to be going to a country led by a woman?” I have to say, it felt pretty good.

As I wandered, I paused at two quiet memorials. I’ve written about memorials before and at the very least, these made me pause. It was evident that the same was true for others. (I also really like the German word for memorial, das Denkmal. Denken means “to think” and I don’t need to say any more than that.)

My last night in Berlin, with much warmer weather than when I arrived, I happened upon a Christmas Market as I walked along the Ku’damm to take in the lights and designer shops. Christmas Markets are scattered throughout the city and are normally all over Germany, but this year is not a normal year. Clear entry points with masks and vaccine proof, but it’s a small price to pay. I was glad to spend a little time there and glad for the energy of those around.

There’s so much more to see and do in Berlin, and I admit this post is a selection of highlights. I’ll certainly be back, hopefully next time without icy wind blowing down from the north. I left Berlin having gained a new sense of respect for this city and this country, a heightened awareness of what it means to work towards something important. I am very aware that I am a guest here in Germany, and truly grateful for the opportunity to know, to learn, and to try to understand.

Travel Guide: Nuremberg

Prior to visiting, most of what I knew of Nuremberg (Nürnberg in German) was that Nazi war criminals had been tried there and justice had been served. However, there is a great deal more to this medieval town and I was glad to spend a few days there.

My favourite part of European cities, and the thing that painted my fantasies of the Europe I first read about in historical fiction novels, is the old town. And now that I live somewhere with an old town, I can attest that it remains as charming as on the first visit.

Although Nuremberg’s famed Christmas market was closed due to Covid regulations, the main market remained open and I was pleasantly surprised by its variety. Nuremberg is a city of just over 800,000 people, several universities, and what seemed to be a large immigrant community. I heard more languages than I have heard in a while, which was fun, and there was a greater variety of vegan food here than I had expected, as well as cuisine that I cannot get in my small town.

I had been told that Nuremberg has beautiful churches, and this was certainly true. Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth came to mind; I know the building of churches and cathedrals was anything but romantic but they certainly provide an atmosphere to a place.

I had also been told to visit the landmarks of the Weisser Turm and Ehekarussell, the latter of which is a rather whimsical look at a marital relationship.

But no city is charming alone. No city is without a history, and sometimes that history is dark. I had two destinations in mind to pay homage to Nurember’s more recent history, which is why I caught a tram to the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds on the first afternoon. The air field and still unfinished stadium complete with grandstand was the site of the Nuremberg rallies from 1933 to 1938. It was a cold afternoon with bright sunshine and shocking blue skies, and it was beautiful around the water. I am familiar with the history, but I never think about it with blue sky. Maybe that’s what made it difficult to be there.

And maybe that’s why it was important to be there. The woman with the hula hoop illustrated the juxtaposition of the atmosphere and I paused for a moment for think.

The following very cold morning, I returned to medieval history to visit the Kaiserburg, Nuremberg’s castle dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. It provided wonderful views of the city and the museum, which I visited as a respite from the cold, provided a nice overview of the previous nearly 1,000 years.

As someone who grew up in North America, I am still tickled by the thought of structures that have been, in some form, in the same location for such a long time. And I am saddened by the fact that North America, though it is not often considered in this capacity, has an equally old history, so much of which was destroyed by people who found no value in knowledge of the land and its environs.

As a contrast, though times are changing, I had earlier passed a memorial for LGBT victims of the Holocaust. This was a reminder of how we move beyond atrocity.

There is a history of hurt the world over and it is only through active awareness of it that we can live up to “Never again”. This attitude is also what made my later destination, the Way of Human Rights so poignant. And perhaps I am looking for signs (I don’t believe in signs but I also don’t not believe in signs) but the sunlight did take on significance that was likely undeserved.

I intentionally stopped at the Way of Human Rights on the way to the Memorium Nuremberg Trials and Courtroom 600, the room where the trials took place. It is still in use today and the audioguide provided a clear description of what the room would have looked like at that time.

It was eerie to be there, strange to see bright sunshine on the walls and to sit quietly and listen to a historical overview that I had often brushed off. I now remember why, after writing my undergraduate thesis on the Hitler Youth movement, I took a long break from Holocaust reading and research. The sense of obligation that I felt to read every single word has not gone away and each word takes a toll.

I was surprised, though, to find myself angry, and it was over Glühwein and my journal later that evening that I was able to place it. I was not angry at the perpetrators or at the bystanders. I was not angry at the deniers or those who continue spreading hate in countless communities. Rather, I was angry because the Nuremberg Trials meted out justice in a way that was reasonable, fair, and largely undisputed. These were actual trials with evidence and sentencing. Individuals were convicted as far as the evidence could provide and sentencing was carried out swiftly and with due process. These trials paved a way forward for how to deal with crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, crimes of war.

And yet, there is so much bias in legal systems today. Trials have outcomes before they happen. Consequences are seemingly inconsequential. I thought about this, I thought about recent global political news, and I was angry. The Nuremberg Trials provided a framework and an opportunity and I wondered at where this legacy has gone.

I learned a few things at the Memorium, too, like the fact that simultaneous translation was used for the first time here and that the translation staff numbered 350. The proceedings followed Anglo-American legal traditions, which differ from continental European legal traditions, and this created some controversy. There were follow-up trials in later years, including of Japanese crimes in the Pacific war, but the later trials in Europe never generated the press or popular support of the first trials.

It was dark by the time I set my journal and book aside and left the café where I had taken refuge hours earlier. Sometimes it’s just good to be around people.

As a medieval city, Nuremberg’s old town is still surrounded by walls and I found myself quite taken by them.

This fascination remained even without sunlight. The morning of my last full day was warmer than the previous days, and I was glad of this. My plan was to walk the 5k trail that is maintained around the walls. The walls are imposing and I can imagine how impenetrable they were when first built; they seem that way now, even with playgrounds for children, a skatepark, and courts for basketball and racquet sports.

Finally, I visited the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, which has an impressive and overwhelming collection of artifacts dating throughout human history. There were also installations from the Global Art Festival scattered throughout the exhibits and I enjoyed those very much. If you’re happy to spend a few hours wandering through a museum that makes its home in a former monastery, I’d recommend a visit.

The city of Nuremberg today prides itself on being a city for human rights, which is a tall order. Perhaps this is why I saw greater diversity there than I had expected, or why different languages were so prevalent. Or perhaps this commitment itself created the environment of the place. I was glad for the opportunity to be there and look forward to a return, perhaps when there are Christmas markets again.