Sunday, August 14, 2016

Elbe Bike Route V: Meissen and Dresden, the Cultural Heart of the Upper Elbe

With our bike now repaired in Torgau, we set out for Meissen, home of the Meissen Porcelain Factory and Museum, with Dresden to follow.  As we approached Meissen we saw something we had not seen before on the Elbe, hills.  We had seen some sand dunes, including some that were so covered in trees they looked like hills, but these were the real thing!  We also encountered some trail surfaces that, in keeping with our new resolve to protect the bike rims, we dismounted and walked.  At least some of the negativity of that issue was offset by a pair of picnic spots, one for each of the two days it took.

The second day was short so that we could check into our pension, change into walking shoes, and trot 1 km over to the Porcelain Museum.  All worked as planned and we had an interesting time there.  While waiting for the first part of the tour, we had a chance to see some Meissen porcelain up close, with price tags to temper the enthusiasm.  Golly this stuff is pricey, with each of these sets over 2K!  BTW, the prices are in euros, so well over two grand in dollars.

Then we had a 45-minute introduction to how the porcelain is made and formed.  Most of it is actually made in a mold, although a statue like this may have a dozen or more sections made in different molds and then carefully -- sorry -- molded together.  The figure on the right has not yet been fired, the second one shows how much it shrinks, as well as lightens in color.  After the initial firing it is hand-painted and then fired a second time, or multiple times when there are multiple colors.

Then we had as much or as little time as we chose to have to wander through the museum.  As our regular readers can guess, it was not a short visit.

One interesting piece combined a statue of miners extracting feldspar with samples of the three ingredients of Meissen porcelain:  kaolin, feldspar and quartz.

Meissen Porcelain was first created in 1710 and was inspired, of course, by china that had been entering Europe for a century or two.  Quite naturally, many early pieces mimicked oriental designs.

Very early on, the company made decorative statuettes and knick knacks, as well as the high quality tableware that was their mainstay.

Of course, porcelain followed many of the same artistic trends as painting and other decorative arts.  The first item below was made for a World's Fair in the 1890s, the second for one in the early 1930s.  But you already figured that out, right?

Ironically, two of Meissen's largest markets today are in the Far East: Japan and Taiwan, where they gobble up porcelain zodiac figures such as these.

From Meissen to Dresden it was only 27 km, less than 90 minutes of biking.  The folks in the Viking tour boat we passed probably took twice as long, particularly going upstream against the brisk flow of the Elbe.  Along the way both they and we enjoyed seeing more hills, this time with the occasional vineyard and/or manor house.

One final surprise, a Dutch windmill along the trail, with a nearby sign educating us on all the fish in the Elbe (and their German names).

Our home for three nights was an apartment we found through Airbnb.  It was wonderful, filled with light and the warm glow of trees outside the windows.  The street was quiet except for a half hour each morning when it came alive with a steady stream of young kids heading, usually with a parent or two, to the elementary school across the street.  Having a kitchen also gave us a chance to do some home cooking, which our stomachs appreciated after so many restaurant meals.

Dresden escaped much of the bombing of WWII until February 1945, when it was hit with one of the most devastating attacks of the war.  It's actually surprising to see much of the city looking almost normal and streets like the ones in this neighborhood looking old, until you realize that there are gaps where obviously new buildings have replaced ones that couldn't be rebuilt.  It's hard to know as well how many of these older buildings are actually new buildings inside old shells of homes that were burned in the attack.

The most famous ruin was that of the Frauenkirche, or "Our Lady's Church."  The East German government kept it in ruins as a reminder of the attack by British and American planes.  After reunification a push was made to rebuild it in its former glory, and after more than a decade of work, it reopened in 2005.  Outside you can see the juxtaposition of the rebuilt old church dome, some obviously new architecture surrounding it, and a large pit which is planned for rebuilding in the near future but which just as obviously has been an eyesore for some 70 years.  From the main square, however, all you see is the glory of the church, and of Martin Luther out front.

Step inside, and you are almost certainly saying "WOW!"

While digging through the rubble in the 1990s, workers stumbled onto the cross which once topped the church.  Rather than repair it, the cross was put aside as one visible reminder of the destruction, and a new gold cross was erected with donations from British citizens in a gesture of reconciliation.

Nearby is the recently reopened Albertinum, the city's famous art museum that focuses on the 19th and 20th centuries.  Not surprisingly, they have a good collection of German romantic painters, especially Caspar David Friedrichs.  Here is his View over the Elbe Valley, painted in 1807.

View of Dresden at Full Moon is a terrific painting by someone we're not familiar with, Johan Christian Dahl.

Karl Blechen's moody 1826 painting, Gothic Church Ruins, seems also eerily prescient, foreshadowing the many church ruins Germany would have 120 years later.

We'll close with two paintings by another German painter previously unknown to us, Gotthardt Kuehl, done at the end of the 19th century in a style obviously evolved from the French Impressionists.  The first is Augustus Bridge, Dresden, in Snow and the second The Garden Room.

The rebuilding of the cultural center of Dresden is finally nearing completion (parts of the Zwinger are still in progress and a few empty spots in the center are finally being built on), and it is quite stunning.  Here are a few shots.

Two items are worthy of special mention.  One is a procession, in thousands of Meissen tiles, of the various rulers of this part of Germany.  It runs along one wall of their palace, and covers the rulers from shortly after 1000 AD to the 1870s.

The other is the Zwinger, yet another palace complex nearby.  It now serves to hold several museums. We didn't go into any of them, but it sure was fun to walk around the large complex.

Our final exploration in Dresden was in the Great Garden, a large park we could reach on the city tram.  Large parts are forest, yet more large sections are lawns that stretch into infinity, but it did have some gardeners showing how they achieve perfection with the topiary, and a few flower gardens that brightened things up.

Did you catch that all four of these are dahlias?  They are our favorite flower, since they were the flower of choice for our wedding.

The park is also famous for a train.  Actually a miniature train, run in part by kids.  Children 10 years and up can learn how to do many of the jobs over the winter, then start doing them during the summer season.  This fellow told us he was 11 years old when we caught him on his way to work, as it were.  And sure enough, he helped dispatch our train several minutes later.  FYI, it was an adult actually driving the locomotive. 

The day we left Dresden we biked 21 km to .  .  . Dresden!  Actually to a place called Pillnitz, but it's still officially part of Dresden.  Along the way we spotted several palaces and castles high above the Elbe on the right bank, and a bridge called "The Blue Wonder" spanning the river.  It went up in 1895 and was considered quite a long bridge at the time.

After taking a ferry to the right bank we missed a turn in the bike route and found ourselves on a wondrously bad piece of path once again, but it had the pleasant effect of giving us a close-up view of the sidewheeler steamboat that plies this part of the Elbe.

Our destination was Schloss Pillnitz, where we had a room immediately adjacent to the palace and decorated in quite suitable colors, since Pillnitz is most famous for its gardens.

It was a garden worth seeing, with the plantings enhancing the matching wings of the palace and a camellia tree that is over 250 years old, quite possibly the oldest one in Europe.  Each Fall that greenhouse slides over on a pair of tracks and protects it from the cold German winter.

We'll close with Pillnitz Garden's clever pair of botanical peacocks.  Our next blog entry will be from a little further up the Elbe, the area called "Saxon Switzerland."  You'll see why when we get there and have the photos to show it..

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