The electric tram slid quietly through the frozen streets of Dresden, Germany, from my hotel near the train station down toward the slow curve of the River Elbe. Impatient, I wished that it could scoot even faster. I was worried about being late for the Christmas concert I’d booked.
Gazing out the tram window, I thought that the Cold War-era apartment blocks marching past one after another didn’t promise much in the way of the holiday-season warmth I’d come here in search of. Nor did the Michael Bolton posters plastered everywhere.
And then I saw it, rising from the southern bank of the river: a crescent of elegant Baroque palaces, churches, theaters, clock towers and gateways, belted at the waist by a riverside promenade studded with statues. The entire architectural ensemble, which the Electors of Saxony, ruling from Dresden for centuries, had built to impress, was bathed in floodlight so intense that the tallest spires stood out like giant inverted icicles against the ink-black sky.
With no time to spare, I found my seat in the Frauenkirche, the imposing cathedral at the center of the recently restored old city, just as the choir and orchestra launched into the Christmas Oratorio of Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer from Leipzig, 65 miles to the west, who had once presented his work in this church himself. As his music filled the sanctuary, it wasn’t hard to imagine that he, too, might have craned his neck to follow a joyful trumpet note as it bounced up into the church’s massive dome and to the illuminated star glowing atop it, visible throughout the city on this December night.
I would see that same multi-pointed Moravian star in many sizes and colors during a 72-hour stay in the city last year during the Advent season. At this time of year, which begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve, the theater and Dresden’s famous Semper Opera sell out, candles (mostly electric these days) light up countless windows, and people saunter through the Christmas markets that pop up at seemingly every major crossroads and train station.
Makeshift villages of plywood decorated with bright lights, painted signs and evergreens, the markets are found in towns and cities throughout Germany and Central Europe, but the main market of Dresden, the Striezelmarkt, dating from 1434, is certainly one of the oldest. The city is also uniquely situated near the Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains, a remote region near the Czech border whose residents switched to woodcarving when the mines played out a hundred years ago, and who today produce high-end Christmas decorations that are sold throughout Germany and at such U.S. outlets as Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
According to Torsten Rex, a Dresden native who works in the city tourist office, the best time to sample the lively scene on the streets is at night. “The real atmosphere and the spirit of the market you will only get after dark,” he says. Not a problem, I realize, since dusk arrives at 4 p.m. here during the winter.
At the Advent auf der Neuplatz market, just outside the Frauenkirche, fresh straw covers the paving stones, and a mix of roasting nuts, buttery cakes and half a dozen varieties of sausage build a sort of aromatic rampart against the cold. I chat first with a couple from Berlin, who have come to the city for two nights for no better reason than to stretch the legs of their new Audi A6 Quattro, and later with Holger Klausing, a young vendor with a booth selling 300 varieties of handmade brushes, including pig-bristle models for washing bottles and one shaped like a bishop’s crook to reach underneath the furniture.
A trumpeter plays in the distance, and open-flame torches throw light on live conifers that form a maze of lanes between the stalls. Klausing tells me that this market owes its Old World character to the private event-planning firm that runs it. Vendors are vetted for the authenticity of their goods and asked to wear turn-of-the-century costumes. “In small towns you have historic markets like this, but we are here in the city,” says Klausing, eyeing a potential customer. “Still,” he says before darting off, “it’s a little romantic.”
Hungry, I sample a slice of rahmbrot — rye bread hot from a wood-fired oven, topped with sour cream and green onions — before wandering to another market, this one pinched into the Munzgasse, a narrow passage that leads to the river, for a nightcap. The snowsuit-clad children perched on their parents’ shoulders are back at home now, and a younger drinking crowd has taken their place — and turned up the volume. (Every mug of rum punch and feuerzangenbowle, a spiced wine concoction with caramelized sugar, can be fortified with a shot of schnapps for an extra euro.) The celebration isn’t flagging, but I am; time to find a tram to take me back to my hotel.
To the rest of Germany, the people of Dresden are a somewhat old-fashioned lot, due in part to the country’s decades-long division into communist east and capitalist west. Located deep within the former East Germany, the city lived for decades beyond the reach of Western TV broadcasts, in a zone that outsiders dubbed the Valley of Darkness. “Of course, they had their ways of staying informed,” a friend from Berlin tells me, but deference to tradition and a certain formal politeness remain hallmarks of life in the region.
The city is also still deeply marked by events that took place in the last weeks of World War II, when waves of Allied bombers appeared overhead, igniting a firestorm that raged for days. Civilian losses were heavy, and much of the majestic city center — Florence on the Elbe, it had been called — was reduced to rubble. Photographs in tourist brochures show scenes of breathtaking destruction. And with the resources of the East German regime focused on the capital in East Berlin, Dresden played the role of dowdy stepsister. Piles of tumbled stone remained in place in some spots until after German reunification in 1990.
I had visited Dresden once before, before the reconstruction was complete, and retained a pair of indelible memories. One was the image of my elderly mother sitting transfixed before Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, one of the treasures of the city’s Old Masters Picture Gallery. (Another attraction to check out, especially with children: August the Strong’s famous Green Vault in the Residenzschloss, or Royal Palace, a cabinet of wonders filled with bizarre objects made of gold, ivory, ostrich eggs, coral and many other rare materials.)
My other memory was of the sumptuous breakfast buffet with champagne at the five-star Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, an experience I now seek to re-create as a means of fortifying myself for a day of sightseeing.
Children with ice skates head toward a rink set up in one of the hotel courtyards, but my attention is riveted by Guenther Weichelt, a woodcarver from the Erzgebirge who has set up shop in the lobby, with an array of amazingly detailed carved figures and miniature stage sets depicting the Nativity or a mountain village, including miners, children, churches and groves of tiny pines. The region’s traditional decorations, it strikes me, may be the original snow domes, only missing the protective plastic bubble.
Many German artisans, even those considered high quality, start with sheets of wood that are stamped and cut by machines. Weichelt makes his items entirely by hand, carving them in heavy relief with blades, gouges and burrs. His English-speaking daughter, Anna, walks me through the range of Erzgebirge specialties — the schwiboggen, an arch-shaped candleholder whose form is said to represent the yawning mouth of a mine hung with lanterns, and the pyramid, which looks like a multi-tiered wedding cake and spins when the propellers at the top catch the heat from the candles burning around the base.
Next, she shows me a selection of rauchermanner, or smoking men, carved figures that puff on pipes fed by actual smoke from incense that’s burned inside the figures. “All of these you won’t find in Bavaria,” says Anna with pride. “They have woodcarving, but not the same as ours.” Her enthusiasm comes from the heart. “Christmas is important to us; we go to church,” she says of life in the mountains. “The family is what makes this holiday.”
The idea of Anna and her family bent over their woodcarving in a mountain workshop stays with me as I tour the city’s main holiday market in Altmarkt Square, a caloric marathon of gingerbread, pepper cookies, smoked sausage, cured meats and Dresden stollen, the city’s nutmeg-and almond-flavored fruitcake. With parades, a Santa Claus house, a puppet show, acres of souvenir stands and its own post office, it’s a carnival on the scale of a U.S. state fair. Sated, I leave with a shopping bag of star-shaped wooden tree ornaments and a selection of miniature pewter replicas of some of Germany’s famous buildings.
That night, I take in a new production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the ornate opera house, where grande dames wearing conspicuous jewels sip Dresden’s favorite brew, Radeberger pilsner, from tulip-shaped glasses. The next morning, I impulsively decide, I’ll get up early, catch the first train to the mountains and see for myself the small towns with domed churches that have inspired generations of woodcarvers.
Tonight, I’ll enjoy one more swing through the buzzing streets of the old city, where Christmas is being celebrated much as it has been for as long as anybody here can remember. By the time I reach the wide stone walk that runs along the river, I’m alone, and a sharp gust of wind off the Elbe takes a bite out of my cheek, as if to suggest that I’ve found quite enough of the warmth I came looking for. Ahead, I see a tall man dressed in the frock coat and curly wig of an 18th-century courtier hurry across the snow to his parked car, hop inside and zoom off into the darkness.
Rogers is a senior editor at Allure magazine.
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