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Dresden Then and Now

The conference was in Dresden, and as it happens I’ve been to a conference there before, way back in 1997. Last time, the conference delegates were taken on a walking tour of the Old Town by some of the graduate students from Dresden University, so we got a good introduction to the city. This time, I managed to squeeze in a quick hour of high-speed sightseeing in between conference sessions, so I was able to compare and contrast. There was a huge difference in the city between then and now.

Back in 1997, it was only eight years since the Wall had come down, and Eastern Germany was still emerging from the shadow of communism. The conference hotel was a large Communist-era towerblock, hastily refurbished into a 2* Ibis hotel – not up to usual conference hotel standards! The conference itself was held in the university Engineering Department lecture theatre, which was the only suitable meeting space. Trabants were ubiquitous on the roads, and only the students appeared to speak good English – most people’s second language was Russian. And I distinctly remember the food as being grey – grey meatballs, in a grey sauce with grey potatoes and sauerkraut.

This time it was completely different, and a real tribute to the German economy over the past 16 years. The conference was held in a purpose-built congress centre just outside the Old Town, adjacent to a very comfortable hotel that was converted from a rebuilt warehouse on the banks of the Elbe (rebuilt that is after the Brits flattened it, and most of the rest of the city, in 1945). The roads were full of VWs, Audis and Mercedes, and I passed a large Porsche dealership on my way in from the airport. I only saw two Trabants this visit – one had been turned into a stretch-limo for taking tourists on a guided tour of the Old Town, and the second was parked outside the hotel, advertising a DDR Museum. Almost everyone I met spoke fluent English, and spoke to me in English even when I made an effort and addressed them in German – I must have an extremely strong English accent! And the food was completely different – I was in the world of international hotel buffets: beautifully presented and very colourful, but somehow rather lacking in flavour.

I had been very impressed last time with the Old Town. It had largely been razed to the ground during the bombing in 1945, and the DDR government had diligently rebuilt many of the old buildings stone for stone. They had made a good job of much of the city centre, and restored the view from the bridges across the Elbe to something very close to that painted by Canelletto. One significant building the Communists had left unreconstructed was the Frauenkirche, a once-beautiful church that had been blown to smithereens. When I was there in 1997 it was being lovingly rebuilt, and I remember climbing up into the partially-finished dome to see a very affecting exhibition about the effects of the bomb raids. It was definitely not a good place to have a strong English accent! This time, the Frauenkirche was completely finished – I think it was reconsecrated in about 2005. It had been rebuilt to exactly match early photographs of its interior, and was (to my eyes at least) completely Over The Top with marble and gilding. I have to say that I much preferred it as a semi-rebuilt ruin – it had much more atmosphere! And the Old Town as a whole wasn’t as atmospheric as I remembered – huge amounts of money had clearly been invested in it, with shiny new shopping malls and extremely up-market shops. But I felt that much of the charm of the city had been lost in the process. A shame, but perhaps that’s the price you have to pay for economic progress. Certainly, there was far, far more money around than there was sixteen years ago.