3 Artsy Reasons to Visit Dresden’s Theater Square

February is not the most popular month to visit Dresden—the glittering Christmas Market is long gone, and there are no summery flower boxes or outdoor cafés. But for music and museum lovers like me, winter is a thrilling time to visit this musical city.

Dresden's Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Semper Opera House on the Theaterplatz. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

One of my primary reasons to travel to Dresden was to attend a performance in its world-renowned Semper Opera House, which simultaneously juggles at least three operas, a ballet, and orchestra concerts during the winter months. Before I departed in early February, I peeked at a map of Dresden’s historic Old Town (Altstadt) and was thrilled that the opera house located in the heart of the historic city.

In fact, the entire square, the Theaterplatz, is named for the venerated opera house. Dresden’s Old Town contains many architectural and cultural gems, and some of the most spectacular are concentrated in the Theaterplatz, including the glorious Rococo-style Zwinger Palace, home to several fantastic museums.

Though there are many other gorgeous and historic buildings and churches to enjoy in Dresden, you can’t go wrong starting in Theater Square. There were three sites in the Theater Square that I particularly enjoyed: The Zwinger, the Old Masters Picture Gallery, and the opera house itself.

Sculptures on the Zwinger pavilion ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sculptures at the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

1. The Zwinger

What’s a “zwinger”? The word sounds like a hip nightclub, and back in the early 1700s when it was built, Dresden’s Zwinger was indeed an 18th-century party venue for the aristocracy.

“Zwinger” is an Old German word that refers to an area between a castle’s walls and the outer fortress walls. Dresden’s ornate Zwinger, often called the Zwinger Palace, was originally designed as an orangery and a setting for court festivities. It was later used for exhibitions; today it houses several museums.

Dresden’s Zwinger Palace is known for its beautiful baroque architecture, which, as you can see from the photos, means there are lots and lots of showy arches, curlicues, floral motifs, fountains, walkways, and Greek-inspired statutes.

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion The porcelain bells chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The porcelain bells mounted in the Zwinger Glockenspiel Pavilion chime on the half-hour. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Zwinger is an ideal place to stroll on a nice day—and it’s free to the public. At the southeast end of the Zwinger’s courtyard is the Carillon/Glockenspiel Pavilion with a collection of white glockenspiel bells made of porcelain by the famous Meissen factory. The bells play a tune every half-hour, which usually attracts a bit of a crowd.

The Nymph Garden and Crown Gate are filled with enchanting mythological sculptures and fountains (which were dry during my visit in February).

Statues in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ice-cold statues of naked goddesses in the Zwinger Palace ©Laurel Kallenbach

I would have loved to linger in the Zwinger for longer than I did, but a chilly wind was blowing, and all the unclad goddesses made me feel even colder. I vowed to return to Dresden in summer, when flowers and fountains and weather would be brilliant.

Luckily, the Zwinger Palace houses wonderful museums (entry fees apply): the Dresden Porcelain Collection, the Mathematics and Physics Museum, and the Old Masters Picture Gallery. It was into this last museum that I hurried in to warm up.

2. Old Masters Picture Gallery

This museum, in the Semper building adjoining the Zwinger, contains one of the world’s most important collection of paintings dating from the baroque and Renaissance period. The 700-piece collection was started 300 years ago by Augustus II the Strong, who built the Zwinger, along with a lot of the baroque structures in Old Town Dresden, the capitol of Saxony.

Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" at the Old Master's Gallery

Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” at the Old Master’s Gallery

The most famous painting in the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alter Meister) is Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” which I wanted to see mostly because of the two comical cupids at the Virgin’s feet. Their image is so popular that it appears on refrigerator magnets, greeting cards, and blank journal books.

Apparently the exasperated cherubs’ fame has also reached the Far East, because when I arrived in the chamber with the wall-sized Madonna, a group of Japanese tourists was getting their pictures taken in front of the painting—first individually, then in pairs, and finally many different exposures and arrangements of the entire group at once. I wanted to get closer to the painting to see the cherubs in detail, but I didn’t want to spoil anyone’s pictures. The photo session took so long that I gave up and went in search of some other art.

The Renaissance painters, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586), saved the day. Paintings by the younger Cranach were so detailed and realistic that they looked more like photographs than oils.

I was enthralled by “David and Bathsheba,” which focused on Bathsheba and her handmaidens, one of whom has turned and stares straight at the viewer. Though the scene is biblical, the women were dressed in Renaissance garb. I thought the painting was mistitled because King David was nowhere to be seen. At the last minute, when I was moving on to look at the next painting, I spotted in the upper left-hand corner a man wearing a crown high in a castle tower. King David was almost out of the picture, but we could still see his lusty stare!

"Paradise" by Lucas Cranach the Elder in Old Masters Gallery

“Paradise” by Lucas Cranach the Elder in The Old Masters Picture Gallery

Cranach the Elder’s depiction of the Garden of Eden accentuated pairs of animals, including unicorns (on the far right). Adam and Eve are in the background; that story is overly told, but the animals in Paradise were a refreshing twist.

It would have been easy to spend a couple of hours in the Old Masters Gallery, but I had just an hour. With more time, I would have looked up Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”—and maybe I would have returned to the Raphael “Madonna” when there were fewer people.

3. Semper Opera House

As a musician, I was drawn most of all to the iconic Semper Opera House, which for me is a temple of music—the equivalent of visiting a great cathedral. Even if you’re not an opera fan, the opera house is worth touring for its stunning architecture and ornate interior. It’s also home to the Saxon State Opera, the Saxon State Orchestra, and the Semperoper Ballet.

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

The posh theater in the Semper Opera House. Photo courtesy Visit Dresden

I took a 45-minute tour given in English of the magnificent building, during which I learned about its three incarnations. Originally built in 1841 by architect Gottfried Semper, the opera house wowed audiences throughout Europe. The brilliant (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner was one of its early music directors. Three of Wagner’s operas premiered at the Semper Opera House: Rienzi, The Flying Dutchman, and Tannhäuser.

Unfortunately, the opera house burned down in 1869 and didn’t reopen in its full glory until 1878, when it was reconstructed according to another of Semper’s designs.

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A beautifully decorated ceiling at the Semperoper with Apollo and his swan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The second opera house was almost entirely destroyed during the bombing of Dresden in 1945. It took 40 years to rebuild, but in the 1980s, restorers painstakingly recreated nearly every detail of the former structure—plus they added more comfortable seating with better sight lines, modern heating/air conditioning, and state-of-the-art stage machinery.

When I walked through the halls and beheld the elaborately painted ceilings, the chandeliers, and the statues of singers and composers, I understand why the acoustically excellent Semper Opera House is also consideed one of the world’s loveliest. Though the 1980s reconstruction took place under the East German communist government, attention to detail was perfect, although many of the special craftsmen who knew how to create such wonderful finishes where gone.

Inside the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

Intermission at the glorious Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

The balustrades are made of serpentine stone, and the green “marble” pillars are actually built from brick covered with plaster, glue, and paint—then polished so that they gleam like marble. The giant chandelier in the theater weighs 1.9 tons and can be lowered from the ceiling so that it can be cleaned and its 258 light bulbs changed.

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

Theater tour in English at the Dresden Opera House

My guide took the tour group into the theater, where stagehands were preparing for the next show. They attached scenery to the stage’s fly system, and the orchestra pit had been raised to stage level so that they could roll in the celeste for the night’s performance. (A celeste is keyboard instrument that plays the glockenspiel part for the character of Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. (Most people are familiar with the celeste’s best-known solo, “The Waltz of the Sugarplum Fairy” in The Nutcracker ballet.)

That night, I attended The Magic Flute performance at the Semper Opera House, a beautifully sung production set in a modern fantasyland that was half Edward Scissorhands and half Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The theater was packed; the Germans really support the opera with enthusiastic attendance.

A pre-show view of "The Magic Flute" at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

A pre-show view of “The Magic Flute” at the Semper Opera House ©Laurel Kallenbach

From my seats in the 1st Ring, I could see and hear wonderfully, and the supertitles—the lyrics projected above the stage—were in both English and German, so it was easy to know what the characters were singing.

Most notable was the Queen of the Night’s aria, a stratospherically high and notoriously difficult part sung by a coloratura soprano. The performer’s mouth opened wider than I’ve ever seen before, but her pitches were bright and true. It was breathtaking, and the applause was thunderous when she finished. Attending an opera in the spectacular Semper Opera House was an unforgettable experience.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The Semper Opera House at night. Courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The Semper Opera House at night. Photo courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

 

Christmas Market Dazzles in Wiesbaden, Germany

I grew up with a lot of German Christmas traditions, and for years I’ve thought going to a Christmas market in Germany, would be fun way to kick off the season. My hunch was right: Germany knows how to celebrate Christmas in an Old World way.

Wiesbaden’s Old Town Square fills with people enjoying the annual Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Wiesbaden, just a half-hour train ride from Frankfurt, hosts the lovely Sternschnuppen Market (sternschnuppe translates as “shooting star”). I was enthralled at its beauty, which combines traditional seasonal décor with contemporary lily-shaped light sculptures above the marketplace. (The lily, or fleur-de-lis, is on the town’s motif.) The whole affair—wooden huts where vendors sell foods and handcrafts—is held in the old town’s historic square, in the shadow of the church, or Marktkirche.

Tree ornaments are just some of the goods for sale at the Christmas Market. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At the annual market, locals and tourists alike gather to hear live music—one night I caught a quartet of alphorns (you just don’t hear that every day in the States!)—to shop, to mingle, and to toast the season with glühwein (hot, mulled wine sold in specially designed mugs that you either keep as a souvenir or return for your deposit).

Tempting Christmas cookies sold at the Sternschnuppen Market, Wiesbaden. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Christmas

I quickly discovered that German Christmas Markets and glühwein go hand in hand. When the temperatures drop, nothing warms you more than a mug of steaming red or white glühwein held between your mittens while you sip and chat with friends while admiring the Christmas lights.

And who can resist the aromas of cooking? There are plenty of traditional market foods as well, including bratwurst and other sausages of various kinds and sizes, and potato pancakes (kartoffelpuffer) served with applesauce.

The Germans are passionate about sausages. Giant grills cooked all types of bratwurst, including the long, half-meter brats (cut in half to fit them on a bun. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I tasted these yummy, crisp-fried treats with Wiesbaden’s mayor, who happened to be at the Puffer Christ’l stand at the same time as I was. Owner Christl Glöckner joined us and brought some white glühwein for us to share.

Through my handy translator and guide Yvonne Skala, of Wiesbaden Marketing, the newly elected mayor told me one of the things that makes the city’s Christmas Market so special is that the organizers select vendors who sell handmade or German-made crafts.” No “Made in China” stickers here.

Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) Sven Gerich and Christl Glöckner, owner of Puffer Christ’l potato pancake food truck, toast to the Wiesbaden Christmas Market with some glühwein. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Indeed, as I browsed the huts, I found traditional ornaments, carvings, candles, nutcrackers, knitted gloves and hats, handmade lace, wooden toys, local cheeses and game, and more. For amusement, there’s a colorful, Baroque-style carousel for kids of all ages to ride.

Presiding over all the festivities is the high-spired, Marktkirche church, built in the mid-1800s.

As a special treat, Yvonne took me to the daily weekday 5:45 organ music inside this Protestant church. We sat in one of the pews and gazed at the star-painted ceilings and neo-Gothic arches while the organist pulled out all the stops on the pipe organ. Compared to the revelries outside, it’s a welcome, contemplative timeout for some reflection on the quieter side of Christmas. Visitors are welcome to stay for the following Advent church service, but we continued out into the marketplace.

Wooden incense smokers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shelter and Relaxation

I stayed in posh digs in Wiesbaden: the Hotel Nassauer Hof, a historic hotel that has hosted the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, and Vladimir Putin. Among the hotel’s many attributes was a location just a five-minute walk from the Christmas Market.

Another plus was that the Nassauer Hof has its own thermal spring, which feeds into the hotel pool. The result is naturally warmed mineral water, slightly salty, which buoys you up. Floating in heated water was the perfect antidote to several hours at the chilly outdoor market.

Another way to warm up during the Wiesbaden winter is in the saunas, steam rooms, and mineral baths at the Kaiser-Friedrich-Therme. This spa is built on the ruins of the ancient Roman baths, and the current baths were built in 1913, and restored for the centenary. I’ll blog more about this later, but it’s a truly unique place to visit and “take the waters.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally posted on December 21, 2103)

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

The stage at the center of the market often has live performances, such as the four alphorn players I listened to. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shakespeare’s Words Journey Across Centuries on First Folio Tour

Portrait of William Shakespeare in 1609

Portrait of William Shakespeare in 1609

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and in celebration of the Bard, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.,  has launched a tour of the First Folio, a book published in 1623 that includes 36 of his plays—18 of which had never been published before.

Why stand in line to see an old (and rare) book published by friends and fellow actors seven years after Shakespeare was dead? By my reckoning, The Bard’s plays have influenced Western culture more than any other written work except the Bible.

Researchers believe that 750 or fewer copies of the First Folio were printed; 233 survive today, of which 82 are in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.

Shakespeare's First Folio tours the U.S. in honor of the 400th year of The Bard's death. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Shakespeare’s First Folio, a collection of his plays, tours the United States in honor of the 400th year of The Bard’s death. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On the national tour, the book is open to the immortal words of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. As I stood over the nearly 400-year-old book—separated from it by security glass—I got chills as I read the whole monologue. Those so-familiar lines ponder questions about life and death.

How far that little candle throws his beams (Merchant of Venice)

The Boulder exhibit includes costumes worn in productions by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Costumes worn in productions by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Without the First Folio, some of my favorite Shakespeare plays, such as Macbeth, As You Like It, The Tempest, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale could have been lost.

Can you imagine a world without lines such as “Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble” from Macbeth? Or “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Shakespeare tackled human dilemmas of yesteryear that are still pertinent today. For instance, racism appears center stage in Othello and The Merchant of Venice. We can learn as much from Julius Caesar’s chilling tale of political ambition today as people did more than 400 years ago.

Sir, I am too old to learn (Midsummer Night’s Dream)

The exhibition, titled First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare brings the First Folio to all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. The 2016 exhibition features First Folios from the Folger Shakespeare Library, whose collection of 82 of these very rare books is the largest in the world.

Anatomy drawing by Vesalius ©Laurel Kallenbach

Anatomy drawing by Vesalius ©Laurel Kallenbach

The First Folio exhibition also includes Renaissance books that were contemporaries of Shakespeare, including an anatomy manual by Andreas Vesalius, Galileo’s drawings of moon craters, a handbook of herbal medicines, Demonology by King James I, and history books and maps that may have inspired Shakespeare when he was writing his plays.

Colorado’s First Folio was hosted at the University of Colorado Art Museum in Boulder. At our exhibition were also costumes and stage weapons used by actors in the annual Colorado Shakespeare Festival, held on the CU campus.

My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! (King John)

Going to see the First Folio here in Boulder (through the end of August 2016) was the literary equivalent of the Holy Grail for me. Back when I was a kid, I used to peruse a heavy, green-silk bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays—an ancient book that was bigger than anything else on my parents’ bookshelves. At first, I trolled Will’s plays for exotic names for characters in stories I wrote.

Hamlet's monologue: To be or not to be. On the right column is the famous line: "Get thee to a Nunnery." Photo courtesy Folger Library

Hamlet’s monologue: To be or not to be. On the right column is the famous line: “Get thee to a Nunnery.” Photo courtesy Folger Library

In junior high, I named our family’s black cat “Hecate” after the goddess of witchcraft, who appears in Macbeth. In eight and ninth grade I read Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As an English major, I took courses in Shakespeare in both undergrad and grad school.

Starting in 1986, I began playing music on the lawn before performances of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival—and have done so every year since. Attending the plays in an outdoor amphitheater under the stars is a magical, annual summer tradition.

Get thee to a nunnery… or a First Folio (Hamlet)

The First Folio sign ©Laurel Kallenbach

The First Folio sign ©Laurel Kallenbach

  • Theatre geeks and Shakespeare fans should flock to the First Folio, which is on display at museums, libraries, and theatres across the country. Click here to see when the First Folio is coming your way in 2016.
  • First Folio at the University of Colorado–Boulder: August 2016
  • A full digital version of one of the Folger’s First Folios (no. 68) can be viewed in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s digital image collection.

Laurel Kallenbach, “I’ll call for pen and ink and write my mind” (Henry VI, Part I)

The Wisdom of Will:

“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and
some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Twelfth Night)

“Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind. And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” (Hamlet)

I've always been in love with William Shakespeare. ©Ken Aikin

I’ve always been in love with William Shakespeare. ©Ken Aikin

“Cowards die many times before their deaths. The valiant never taste of death but once.” (Julius Caesar)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (As You Like It)

“Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.” (Romeo and Juliet)

“Have more than thou showest. Speak less than thou knowest.”(King Lear)

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” (Alls’s Well That Ends Well)

“This above all: to thine own self be true.” (Hamlet)

 

 

Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach