Warm Up with a German Sipping Chocolate in Dresden

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I loved sipping this rich Schokoccino—dark chocolate and espresso—at Camondas chocolate shop. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Dresden’s Old Town, if the temperatures chill, if a cold wind blows, or if rain sweeps down from the skies, it’s time to duck into the Camondas chocolate shop.

I was walking back to the Swissôtel Dresden am Schloss from the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), and Camondas’ signs for drinking chocolates enticed me. I succumbed and stepped into a warmly-lit fantasyland of chocolate.

Camondas sells sweets from around the world. As I browsed through cigar-shaped chocolate from Cuba and espresso-filled chocolate from Italy, I removed my gloves. The Venezuelan dark chocolates prompted me to unwrap my scarf. At the Swiss display I took off my hat. By the time I discovered the section of Saxon chocolates—Dresden is the capital of Saxony—I had unzipped my coat and decided to stay awhile.

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of mouthwatering truffles at Camondas ©Laurel Kallenbach

I turned my attention to the counter and decided to focus on which chocolate drink I should order—and there were many. Because I was struggling to read the German menu board, I asked a woman behind the counter what was in one of them. Her English was good, but to make things easier, she handed me the menu printed in English.

Even with descriptions I could understand, I still had trouble deciding between a Nougat Blast (hazelnut nougat with melted milk chocolate, whipped cream, and a sprinkle of chopped hazelnuts on top), the Chocolate Cream Liqueur (containing a shot of creamy chocolate liqueur made from brandy that matures for a year in oak casks), a dark-chocolate ice-cream shake, and the Schokoccino (an aromatic espresso and thick, creamy cocoa topped with chocolate chips.) They all sounded divine, but this last concoction won out.

Yet there was another decision to make: Would I like to add spice on top? The choice of spices was eclectic: rosemary, curry, ginger, cinnamon, chili, nutmeg. I went with cardamom, paid my 4.75 €, and claimed a seat at one of café tables lit by a candle.

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden's reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Commemorative chocolates in honor of Dresden’s reconstructed Frauenkirche. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Before my drink arrived, I occupied my time admiring more chocolates: There were local chocolates in wooden boxes stamped with an illustration of the Frauenkirche. There were truffles, organic sweets, and chocolates filled with matcha green tea.

Soon the chocolate lady arrived with my glass cup of aromatic chocolate. She told me it was lightly sweetened but that I could add the natural sugar on my table to suit my taste buds. Then I was alone with my Schokoccino.

The cup lay sensually before me. I sniffed a dizzying mix of sweet cardamom and rich, loamy cacao. Its consistency was like warm lava, and I didn’t want to disturb the natural swirl of the darkest-of-dark chocolate too soon.

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

A display of chocolate made in Saxony ©Laurel Kallenbach

While soft jazz played in the background, I beheld the luscious cup. Eventually I was ready and took my first sip. I was rewarded with a flavor so deep I could practically sink into it.

I felt like I was in Vianne Rocher’s magic candy shop in Chocolat, one of my favorite books (and films).

I sat for a long while, watching the people who came into Camondas chocolate shop and listening to the melody of German vowels and consonants. I never did add any sugar; sipping that Schokoccino was the perfect bittersweet ending for my last night in the enchanting Old Town of Dresden.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Dresden, Germany:

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flavors of Beschle chocolate from Switzerland ©Laurel Kallenbach

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

 

Dresden’s Frauenkirche: from a Church in Ruins to a Rising Phoenix

The famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed in February 1945.

The famous photo of Dresden after it was bombed in February 1945.

Grainy black-and-white photos of Dresden, Germany, as an ash-covered, bombed-out city with piles of burned corpses in the streets are all that remains of the days and years of annihilation that followed after the WWII bombings in early 1945. Or are they?

I write this on February 13, 2017, Dresden’s Memorial Day, on which the city commemorates February 13, 1945, the day the British and American allies began the bombing of this historic city, sometimes called “Florence of the Elbe River” because its church domes, spires, and ornate palaces and opera house are reminiscent of Florence, Italy.

The bombing turned much of the historic Old City to rubble. Few structures withstood either the bombs or the ensuing inferno generated by about 650,000 incendiary bombs the Allies dropped on the city within 48 hours. The human toll was about 25,000 people, mostly civilians.

The ruins of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, taken in the 1960s.

The ruins of the Church of Our Lady in Dresden, taken in the 1960s.

Some say Dresden was an “innocent” city with no Nazi ammunition factories or tactical advantage for the war.

Others, including my guide for the “Slaughterhouse Five” tour (more about that in my next post), point out that in 1934, Dresden welcomed Hitler with open arms when he attended an opera at the Semper Opera House in the Theatreplatz. In honor of the fuhrer, Dresdeners renamed their theater square as “Adolf-Hitler-Platz.”

In addition, there seem to have been some logistical centers located in Dresden during the war. Apparently, armaments were stored there, and military training was done in or near the city. These may have been for defense of the city—in times of war, it’s always difficult to know where to draw the line. And after almost six years of the war, the Allies were desperate to finish it, although Dresden’s destruction may not have played much of a part, other than as a display of terrorism.

The Symbolism of the Church of Our Lady

Dresden's Frauenkirche current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

Dresden’s Frauenkirche’s current reincarnation. Photo by Christoph Muench, courtesy Dresden Marketing Board

The primary symbol of Dresden’s destruction is the Lutheran Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which had one of the largest domes in Europe. Several hundred people took shelter from the bombs in the church’s underground vaults and crypts.

The church withstood the bombing for two days, but ultimately, the dome collapsed on the morning of February 15 from extreme heat; the temperature surrounding the church was estimated at 1,830°F. Reports say the church pillars became red-hot and exploded and that the outer walls shattered. More than 5,000 tons of stone plummeted to earth. The people in the basement evacuated just in time, only to succumb to the firestorm outside.

For decades, Dresden remained a city of rubble. The East German communist government cleared the streets of tons and tons of rubble, and decided to leave the two pieces of wall that stood as a memorial to war. After German Reunification, plans began to rebuild the Frauenkirche. In 1993, archaeologists numbered every stone in the Frauenkirche ruins and photographed each stone’s location before clearing the area for reconstruction. “Rebuilding by replacing every stone that still existed into its original place became the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle,” says Grit Jandura, PR manager for Frauenkirche Dresden.

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

Visitors light candles for peace inside the Frauenkirche sanctuary. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

The church was completed and re-consecrated on October 30, 2005. It now stands as regally as ever, dominating the Neumarkt Square, with the statue of Martin Luther in front standing upright again. (During the bombing, he was “knocked out of his shoes” as the German expression says; only his feet on the pedestal were intact.)

War and Peace

The rebuilt church is now a monument to peace and reconciliation after the horror of war; perhaps the wounds have healed, yet the painful scars from the bombing still exist, says Jandura. I found a number of stories about the church’s resurrection to be especially touching. For instance, on the altar is a cross made from three iron nails taken from the ruins of England’s Coventry Cathedral, which the Germans blitzed in November of 1940. Both Dresden and Coventry suffered a similar tragedy during WWII, and with this gift, they are forever linked.

The bent and melted tower cross was discovered in the rubble. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

The bent and melted tower cross was discovered in the rubble. Photo courtesy Frauenkirche Dresden

Also, the tower cross that crowned the Frauenkirche’s dome was bent and melted after it fell. It is now displayed inside the sanctuary as a reminder of the destruction, but the new tower cross atop the church was donated by the people of the United Kingdom, the country that dropped the first bombs. The Englishman who insisted on crafting the metalwork for that cross, free of charge, turned out to be the son of one of the pilots who bombed Dresden.

There are those who say that the restored Church of Our Lady is lovely, but it’s no longer a harsh reminder of wartime attrocities. “Many wonder how they can teach children the cruelty of war now that the Frauenkirche is whole again,” says Jandura.

Outside the Frauenkirche during my February visit is a temporary art installation of upended buses by Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni that serves as a monument to contemporary wars. In Aleppo, people have been using buses as barricades against sniper bullets.

An art installation titled "Monument" recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up vertically in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

An art installation titled “Monument” recreates an image from the Syrian civil war: buses propped up in an Aleppo street as a barricade against sniper fire. (This view shows the underside of the buses.) The artist is Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni. In the background is the Frauenkirche. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

 

The bus art installation—raw, mechanical, and titled “Monument”—has been quite controversial, yet here is a new testament to war’s horrors. In Dresden, where the Frauenkirche has returned to “normal,” it’s unsettling to remember that the world is still filled with violence and hatred, and that wars rage on.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Flowers and notes are attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses. The note says, "Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We Are Humans ©Laurel Kallenbach

Flowers and notes are attached to the grillwork on the underbelly of the buses in Neumarkt Square. The white, paper note says, “Respect, Tolerance, Courage, Change, Responsibility, We are (all) Humans.” Photo ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

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