After all: Rebirth of Dresden's Frauenkirche
Loving and thorough restoration of Dresden's famous Frauenkirche was not just a spectacular engineering feat, but also a triumph of democracy and westernisation, assures E&T.
On my first visit to Dresden in October 1992, I was mistaken for a high-profile 'heavy'. I was in the city to report on the Queen's first trip to the former East Germany, and I was accompanied by a young woman from Her Majesty's press office, who vaguely resembled the then Princess of Wales. Stepping off the Royal Train, we became separated from the rest of the press pack, and, to be in time for the next Royal function at the Rathaus (Town Hall), had to run across Dresden, periodically stopping to ask for directions.
One pedestrian squinted at my companion and said in English: "I know who you are. You are Princess Diana." Despite the lady's ardent denial, he didn't budge: "Don't try to fool me," he insisted. "You are Diana!"
"And who do you think I am? Prince Charles?" I demanded impatiently.
"No," he uttered firmly. "You must be Diana's bodyguard!"
I shall never forget that first flying visit to Dresden. The mutilated capital of Saxony, once known as 'the Florence on the Elbe' and the realm of the glorious Saxon kings, had only just started recovering from 40 years of Communist rule. The roads were rugged, the houses dreary and unkempt. The famous Frauenkirche in Neumarkt still lay in ruins after a direct hit from the Allies' bombers during the war.
My second encounter with Dresden, four years later, offered an opportunity to more closely investigate this baroque pile of rubble - all that remained of architect George Bahr's inspired creation. Of course, negotiating my way through the city to the Neumarkt was still an issue.
"Go through my backside and then turn left!" advised the buxom blonde receptionist of my Dresden hotel.
I'm fairly sure she meant the hotel's back door; I had noticed that many native German speakers tended to misuse the word 'backside', thinking it described anything that was behind them.
By the time of my second visit the city had tidied itself up, replacing a number of 'Communist' facades with new, 'Western' ones, although multiple scars of the past were still visible everywhere. Some of these scars were mobile: clumsy GDR-made Trabants (or 'Trabies', as they were affectionately called in East Germany); these much-ridiculed snuffboxes on wheels were coughing defiantly amongst gleaming Western limos.
Having negotiated the good couple of miles that lay to the rear of the receptionist, I finally reached the grassy Neumarkt Square, and could not believe what I saw: the foundation and some of the supports of the destroyed Frauenkirche were back in place. What's more, all its remaining fragments (about 10,000) were dug out, numbered and neatly piled under canvas tents. Non-existent only a couple of years before, the magnificent church was now being reborn in front of my eyes, methodically reassembled by builders and engineers, who were displaying those truly German traits of meticulousness and precision.
As if I needed any further convincing, while mulling over a coffee about the resilience of twice-destroyed, twice-disfigured, but never-dispirited Dresden, my attention was drawn to an opening hours sign on the café's door:
"Samstag: 10.01 - 02.02
Sonntag: 10.01 - 22.21
Montag- Dienstag: 10.01 - 00.31"
The meticulousness and precision of even Germany's café life was all the convincing I needed: the Frauenkirche was going to be fully restored one day, and not a single salvaged fragment would be missing.
The chances of my being mistaken for Diana's bodyguard on my third visit to Dresden were close to zero; for one, the Princess herself was dead. However, there was an added fact that the faces of the characters in the never-ending soap-opera of the British Royal Family became too familiar in the former East Germany.
Despite high unemployment and the rise of the Far Right, Dresden's westernisation was going ahead full speed. Those asthmatic Trabies have all but vanished, and the only 'Communist' car I could spot was an abandoned coffin-like Skoda. A new, state-of-the art Volkswagen factory was being built in Neustadt area. Its main assembly line was being placed under a huge glass dome, which would allow passers-by to observe the goings-on inside. The brand-new cars were to be stored in a special tower, also made of glass and visible from afar. The whole project was about space, openness and accessibility - a daring architectural decision for Dresden, the city that valued its newly reacquired freedom.
Eager to see how the restoration of the Frauenkirche was progressing, I stepped onto a brand-new tram to the city centre; these had recently replaced the squeaky Czechoslovakian-made trams with much smoother German ones.
My ride, however, was still slow and bumpy. According to the official statistics, 6 per cent of Dresden roads were being 'upgraded' every year, yet it felt as if our tram was deliberately avoiding them. Also, every couple of minutes it would grind to a long halt at one of the countless sets of traffic lights that seemed to display three variations of one and the same colour - red. During one such stop, the driver entered the salon to announce: "Tram Kaput!", and everyone had to get off. I did it without regret, thanking Dresden's erratic electricity supply for interrupting my endless journey and giving me an excuse to take a cab.
The piles of numbered stones in the middle of Neumarkt had reduced considerably since my previous visit, and the church itself had climbed several metres higher. Like the growth of a flower, its progress was invisible to the eye, and yet continuous and unstoppable. It was like witnessing the rebuilding of Democracy itself - a laborious task that cannot be completed overnight...
PS: The restoration of the Frauenkirche was completed ahead of schedule and the church was reconsecrated on 30 October 2005.