Dresden Green

It felt lovely to arrive in the quiet suburban village of Laubegast and relax in the company of Elisabeth’s relatives for short stay. Sitting out in the garden and eating home cooked food was especially welcome after all that relentless city sightseeing. Christoph and Erdmuth speak only a modest amount of English and my German is pretty non-existent but, assisted by Google, a few photographs and a fine old Communist-era atlas, we managed perfectly well. I even learned a new German word: “puffenkisser”, an obsessive lover of steam trains.

The following morning, before I set off to the city centre for the obligatory round of pavement pounding and cultural overload, Edmuth was kind enough to take me to visit the Refugee Reception Centre at the local church where she works. Being a holiday, there weren’t many people around but it appears that the faith groups here work very closely with the government to provide language classes and many other forms of community support. I noticed a lot of facilities for children and I asked why they came here rather than to school but it seems that even the legendary efficiency of the Germans cannot process asylum applications fast enough to get these children the stability that they so desperately need if they are to overcome the lasting trauma of all that they have seen.

What was completely absent in this environment was any discussion about whether so many hundreds of thousands of refugees should have been accepted into Germany during the past few years. Here, amongst all that envelope stuffing, decorative kindergarden posters and pasted up “to do” lists, it is obviously just considered to be the right thing to do. I have looked at the various maps, charts and statistics of recent migration in Europe until they swim in front of my eyes but am no nearer to an understanding of the comparative statistics. As a matter of policy Germany may have granted more people asylum than any other European country but this does not equate to anything like the percentage of overall population experienced in a much smaller country like Sweden. Also, as an “end destination” it had at least a significant amount of the necessary policies and bureaucracy in place. The same cannot be said of “transit” countries like Hungary, where borders have been overwhelmed and documentation all but abandoned.

While it is pretty clear that the not-so-united United Kingdom has raced to occupy a spot comfortably close to the bottom it is by no means obvious who actually occupies top place in the welcome extended to refugees. In 2014 Dresden was actually the birthplace of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) and has been the scene of some of the most extreme anti-immigrant protests in the country. This is an organisation that shelters a number of its very own “refugees”: former members of several banned neo-Nazi groups. Conscientious policing keeps the violence to a minimum and so their antics seldom hit the international news bulletins but few foreign visitors are aware of how skillfully their tour operators avoid the centre of the city on a Monday, which is the day on which supporters of the far right have chosen to assemble.

Well, I’ve already said it was a Saturday, so I popped my Euros into the easy-to-understand machine and hopped onto the two trams that would take me into that famous city centre (it’s so much easier to find your way when you are re-tracing your steps). The first thing that struck me was the completed restoration of the Frauenkirch, that great baroque church whose silhouetted ruins had stood against the skyline for fifty years symbolising the complete destruction of the city by Allied bombers in February of 1945. While some projects remain to be completed, it is difficult now to imagine the devastation that made the photographs of post-War Dresden so very iconic. In fact, some would say that the renewal has gone a little too far, the Dresden Elbe Valley being only the second place in the world to lose its World Heritage status. This happened in 2009 because of the construction of an ill-advised bridge – even North Korea has managed to hang onto its two WH tickets!

In order to make best use of my time, I decided to focus my attentions upon the castle, the (almost completely restored) residence of the fabulously wealthy Electors of Saxony since 1547. Here in the Kunstkammer I would be able to see the legendary Green Vault and the (even more) legendary Dresden Green Diamond which my gemmological studies had introduced me to longer ago than I care to remember. Now it is important to understand that, as supporters of the Holy Roman Empire, these people were really, really rich. Moreover, to the enduring benefit of antique experts the world over, they were also unbelievably acquisitive. Whatever it was, from a chamber pot to a falconer’s glove, it needed more gilding, more gemstones, more enameling and more conspicuous consumption than the ordinary imagination could conceive.

After four hours, I emerged, punch-drunk and ever so slightly nauseated, into the afternoon sunshine to attempt to reflect upon all that I had seen. How could human beings have worn that much cloth-of-gold without falling over or spontaneously combusting? How would you find a pencil sharpener in a hundred-drawered writing cabinet? What was the point of armour that was polished to such a shine it could be seen in the next county? Who needed a suite of twenty diamond buttons (each one larger than a Kardashian’s engagement ring) to do up their coat? I can see I’m going to have to order up one of those coffee table books when I get home, just to remind myself that I did actually see all of that stuff and just how tasteless some of it actually was. To my eyes, at least.

However, I did make a couple of notes for further study. In the sixteenth century Elector Augustus amassed a huge collection of everyday objects from farm implements and carpentry tools to surgical instruments. He also commissioned model siege engines and unbelievably intricate automatons, all of which indicated an obsessive, almost Leonardo-esque fascination with the way that things worked. I should definitely like to know more about him as, indeed, I am keen to find out just where all of these many treasures waited out the Second World War and the Communist era to be returned here to the people of Germany so impressively intact. I’d also just love to understand how lady falconers managed to handle their delicate and highly-strung charges without tripping over their petticoats but that final reflection really applies just as much to the court of Henry VIII of England.

Dresden was nothing like the city I had expected to find and I know I have seen only a small fraction of its many sights. I hope that I get the opportunity to return one day – I might even try to make it on a Monday.

Categories: Europe


  • Chris says:

    Well, what did you think about the Dresden Green Diamond after waiting all these years to see it?

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    It is truly gorgeous to look at and it felt like quite an achievement to meet one of Jean Baptiste’s greatest Golconda treasures. It is no longer housed in the Green Vault itself so that you don’t have to pay extra for a timed ticket just to see it but has it’s own chamber specially equipped with reinforced walls and heavy security doors. I managed some quite creditable photographs but unfortunately, someone (who had probably better remain nameless) has chosen a bright red background. The stone itself is a lovely, soft apple-green and this setting does it no favours at all.

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