Saxony: State of the Art in Germany

The German state of Saxony makes its cultural landscape a focal point of its tourism

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A twilight view of Dresden, “The Florence on the Elbe” (Saxony Tourism/Dirk Brzoska)
A twilight view of Dresden, “The Florence on the Elbe” (Saxony Tourism/Dirk Brzoska)

There’s a special allure to the German state of Saxony, located along the border of the Czech Republic and Poland. The Elbe River meanders its length through hilly, even mountainous landscapes, such as “The Saxon Switzerland,” offering panoramic vistas and a thousand peaks for climbing.

Travel in Saxony

Saxony is also rich in history. So powerful and influential were its rulers they played an essential role in advancing the Reformation, protecting Martin Luther and crusading for his theological reforms.

Those rulers were also wealthy, their coffers enriched by the silver and other minerals in the Erzgebirge, or “Ore Mountains.” Most notably, the rulers used that wealth to advance the arts, for centuries making their region one of the cultural hotbeds of Europe.

That vibrant arts scene exists even into the present day, and I had the good fortune to take a tour throughout Saxony with a special focus on arts and culture. Here are a few of the treasures I discovered.

The Armory, with displays of knights on horseback, is another of the museums of the Saxon State Art Collection housed inside Dresden’s Royal Palace. (Saxony Tourism/Wolfgang Gärtner)
The Armory, with displays of knights on horseback, is another of the museums of the Saxon State Art Collection housed inside Dresden’s Royal Palace. (Saxony Tourism/Wolfgang Gärtner)

Visiting Dresden

Anyone who’s seen the skyline of Dresden will never forget the splendor of this Baroque jewel box of a city. It seems inconceivable that it was all a pile of rubble after the infamous firebombing in the waning days of World War II.

Now meticulously restored to their original grandeur, the buildings in central Dresden are an architectural triumph that will delight you at every turn. For an overview, start with the “Procession of Princes,” a mural a full football field’s length painted on the exterior of the Royal Palace. Marching in single file, the rulers of Saxony parade one after another.

Many of them had colorful names, like George the Bearded and William the One-Eyed, but the most illustrious is Augustus the Strong, a powerful ruler whose physical strength was also legendary. It’s said he could break horseshoes with his bare hands. It was Augustus who went on a building spree during his rule from 1694 to 1733, creating the masterpieces that caused Dresden to become known as “The Florence on the Elbe.”

The dome of the lovingly restored Frauenkirche, “The Church of Our Lady,” is the tallest in Europe north of the Alps (Rich Warren)
The dome of the lovingly restored Frauenkirche, “The Church of Our Lady,” is the tallest in Europe north of the Alps (Rich Warren)

Towering above all the other buildings is the renowned Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. At more than 300 feet in height, the church’s dome is the largest in Europe north of the Alps. It survived the 1945 bombing but collapsed two days later into a giant pile of stones that was left for decades as a peace memorial.

Between 1994 and 2005, the beloved church was reconstructed with the donations of tens of thousands of people worldwide. It’s easy to see the mosaic effect on the church’s exterior made by the original, darker stones intermixed with the new, lighter ones.

And though it’s still a working Lutheran church, the Frauenkirche is also a place where 130 choral and organ concerts take place each year. A tour of its interior will leave you marveling at the towering altar topped by a golden sunburst and huge silver organ pipes.

Those who don’t mind a physical challenge should climb to the viewing platform high atop the dome. On a clear day, the reward for your efforts is a view of Dresden at your feet and the mountains of the Saxon Switzerland in the distance.

Plan to spend at least a full day at the adjacent Royal Palace, a complex of structures retaining a High Renaissance appearance. It’s what’s inside that will knock you over.

The “Valuables Hall” in the Saxon State Art Collection’s legendary Green Vault contains hundreds of priceless treasures (Saxony Tourism/David Brandt)
The “Valuables Hall” in the Saxon State Art Collection’s legendary Green Vault contains hundreds of priceless treasures (Saxony Tourism/David Brandt)

Several museums of the Saxon State Art Collection are housed in the palace, including the Museum of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; the Coin Cabinet; the Armory; the Turkish Chamber; and the breathtaking “Grünes Gewölbe” (Green Vault) and “Neues Grünes Gewölbe” (New Green Vault), which contain thousands of dazzling treasures, including the 41-carat Green Diamond, a huge frigate carved in ivory held aloft by the sea god Neptune, and the miniature Throne of the Grand Mogul Aurengzeb with more than 5,000 diamonds and dozens of rubies and emeralds.

The Armory is similarly spectacular with displays of armored-clad knights atop armored-clad horses, a veritable forest of pikes, and whole constellations of daggers and swords artfully arranged to dazzle the eye. There’s even a line of swirling knights complete with plumed helmets and velvet pantaloons engaging in sword play.

Outside the Royal Palace is the Zwinger, an enormous terraced courtyard flanked by ornate, symmetrical buildings with lines of statuary atop them. Picture members of the Saxon court parading through this outdoor space in their finery, then pop inside the buildings for two more museums of the Saxon State Art Collection, one focusing on porcelain and another containing the Old Masters Gallery with Raphael’s famous Sistine Madonna (with its equally famous cherubs playing peek-a-boo).

The Zwinger, an elaborate courtyard outside the Royal Palace in Dresden, is now a setting for concerts and other events. (Saxony Tourism/Hagen König)
The Zwinger, an elaborate courtyard outside the Royal Palace in Dresden, is now a setting for concerts and other events. (Saxony Tourism/Hagen König)

To top off your visit to Dresden, take one of the paddle-wheel steam boats down the Elbe to Pillnitz Palace, where the Countess Cosel, Augustus’s mistress, held sway in an elaborate complex of buildings with Oriental motifs, including rooftop pagodas.

Yet another museum, the State Museum of Decorative Arts, can be seen here, but it will be the horticultural arts found in the extensive gardens that will most enthrall you. Don’t miss the huge 250-year old camellia. As winter approaches, it’s housed indoors inside a building that is transported to it, not the other way around.

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