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 2017 visit was 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

A 2017 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”—was quite controversial, yet it was 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

 

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 Hyperion Hotel 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

Christmas Past and Present in a Medieval German Town

Esslingen’s Old Town Hall presides over the Medieval Christmas Fair. ©Esslinger Stadtmarketing & Tourismus GmbH

In an old-town square in Esslingen, Germany, a jester on stilts roams the cobblestones, stopping to juggle and pose for photos with wide-eyed children. Musicians on a stage play ancient, nasally instruments and sing bawdy songs. (Although I don’t speak German, naughty humor seems to be universal.) A woman in a long skirt and laced-up bodice carries a basket of elegant, hand-dipped candles for sale.

Colorful scenes like these unfold before me as I eat homemade suppe und brot—soup and bread—served in handmade crockery bowls in the medieval part of the Esslingen Christmas and Medieval Market.

Medieval drummers and musicians entertain in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Held annually from late November until December 21st, the Medieval Christmas Fair (Mittelalter-märkt) and the traditional Christmas Market have lured me to historic Esslingen am Neckar, a 1,200-year-old town near Stuttgart in southern Germany. Just a 2.5-hour train ride from modern Frankfurt, old-town Esslingen feels centuries away, with its medieval churches and colorfully painted, half-timbered houses with crisscrossed beams.

Esslingen has hosted a Christmas fair since the Middle Ages. Called Weihnachtsmärkte and Christkindlmärkte in German, Christmas markets originated as town fairs as long as a millennia ago so that villagers could stock up on supplies for the oncoming winter.

The medieval streets of Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Esslingen is the ideal location for this annual celebration, and I’m among hundreds of delighted visitors exploring the exotic booths and huts in the costumed medieval portion of the market—while also appreciating the Christmasy atmosphere in the “contemporary” part of the market, which itself is actually quite Old World and old-fashioned.

Going Medieval

The Medieval Market—a cross between a Renaissance festival and Christmas fair—has the appeal of craftspeople dressed in period costumes demonstrating revived old art forms and trades. During my two days in Esslingen, I watch calligraphers, candle makers, blacksmiths, knife grinders, soap makers, bakers, tanners, brush- and basket-makers, and mead brewers plying their trades as they might have 700 years ago.

I linger at a number of tents and rustic huts and buy gifts: herb-scented soaps, a fudge-like Afghani sweet called shirpera flavored with cardamom, rosewater, and pistachio. (Such Middle Eastern treats came to medieval Europe via the Silk Road.)

A baker checks on fresh bread baked in a wood-fired oven. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In a special kids’ courtyard, children play Old World games such as hatchet-throwing, egg-breaking, and archery, and they ride a wooden Ferris wheel.

Give Me That Old-Time Christmas

In the traditional part of Esslingen’s Weihnachtsmärkt, rows of wooden huts (called stuben) are so thickly decorated with evergreen and pinecones I think of fairytales—the ones where the forest magically engulfs the kingdom, which sleeps for centuries. If that’s what happened in Esslingen, the town joyfully awakened to celebrate Christmas.

A fir-covered “stube” selling candy in the Christmas Market in Esslingen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

From the elaborately embellished huts, local vendors sell chocolates, pretzels, stollen, wood and glass ornaments, jewelry, and regional specialties such as handcrafted schnapps, honey, jam, and wild boar meat.

Browsing through Esslingen’s traditional Christmas market, I pause to watch as an old man in a Bavarian hat carves a bird. With fine-edged knives spread on his worktable, Helmut Höschle removes bits of wood from the feathers with a surgeon’s skill. His handiwork is quintessential Old World carving, much like the Nativity set my parents have at home—a gift from relatives who brought home figures of shepherds and the three kings decades ago from their travels in West Germany.

Gluhwein mug, Esslingen ©Laurel Kallenbach

Walking through a Christmas Market is a sensory carnival, with elaborate decorations to gaze at, special holiday foods to sample, gifts to shop for, and all manner of music and entertainment.

When you get a bit overwhelmed, it’s time for a mug of glühwein—hot, spiced wine (pronounced “gloo-vine”), which is surprisingly sweet with hints of cinnamon and citrus. It can pack a punch, too, depending how long it’s been since you ate a bratwurst or currywurst.

In Esslingen, there are several glühwein vendors. My favorite is the giant Glühwein Pyramid: an outdoor tavern topped by a giant multi-tiered “carousel” with carved motifs such as angels, snowmen, toy soldiers, or manger scenes and a propeller on top.

Closeup of the Pyramid atop the gluhwein bar. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bar also serves beer, alcohol-free drinks, and Kinderpunsch (berry juice for kids). At German Christmas markets, you pay a deposit for the commemorative mug. I keep mine as a souvenir, but you can return the mug in exchange for your deposit.

Time Out from the Market

Thoroughly chilled and footsore from hours of exploring the old town and the markets, I take respite at a 150-year-old Schwaben restaurant (the region where Esslingen is located) called Der Palmscher Bau. 

Located in an 18th-century building, its comfort-food recipes, served in rustic-tavern ambiance, are a hit with me. The hot, creamy forest-mushroom soup thaws me out, and I love the Schwabian rostbraten (roast beef) with grilled onions and a dark sauce served with noodles and sauerkraut. (A dry Esslingen Riesling accompanies my dinner, naturally.) For dessert, I choose apple küchle, a roll-up with thin layers of dough and subtly spiced apples. Every sweet morsel gets forked into my grateful mouth.

Even a market as dramatic as Esslingen’s requires a few timeouts from the revelry. My choice: soak in the natural thermal waters at Merkel’sches Baths and Pool, about 10 minutes away from the Old Town center. The saunas, steam rooms, mineral baths, and massages are divine. (Most Germans don’t wear bathing suits except in the large sports pool. Check the schedule for women-only hours if you’re the modest type.)

Another diversion: a tour through the Kessler wine cellars to see how the oldest sparkling wine in Germany is fermented. A guide takes me down into the 13th-century vaults where bottles of the wine ferment. From the damp ceilings, cellar mold hangs like Spanish moss; it’s not cleaned away, the guide explains, because the growth absorbs stagnant air and releases oxygen, which freshens the air. After the tour, the tasting room is a revelation. I sip the 2009 Pinot Blanc, which tastes of apples and herbs in the midst of December.

The chestnut seller peels off the outer husk of the winter treat before roasting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Grand Finale

After sunset, I pull my wool cap farther down around my ears. The smell of roasting chestnuts lures me. A man calls out to the crowd: “Heisse Marroni! Hot chestnuts!” He removes the lid off the three-foot-diameter pan and stirs the browned chestnuts, their skins popping open. I buy a paper cone of the hot nuts and gingerly peel one. My fingers blacken from handling the charred skins, but they’re warm. I pop the smoky, starchy chestnut meat into my mouth. It’s bland and dry, but everywhere people are gobbling them, so I figure it’s an acquired taste.

After dark, the Christmas Markets blazes with colored lights. In the pulse-quickening medieval streets, however, only a few are electric; the rest are flaming torches and braziers, which lend an ancient mystery and romance to the place. Musicians pound on drums while a fire-dancer snapped sparks into the air with a bullwhip.

The astronomical clock on the front of Esslingen’s Old Town Hall marks the hour with the animated flapping of the eagle’s wings. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Then the church bells peal to announce 5:00 Mass. A crowd forms around the Old Town Hall with its wedding-cake curlicues on the façade and its astronomical clock (built in 1589), which still keeps exact time and displays positions of the sun, moon, and zodiac constellations.

What everyone cranes to see is the mechanical Imperial Eagle above the clock as he flaps his wings. Even though today’s crowd wears Gore-Tex parkas and snaps pictures on cell phones, we’re collectively enthralled by the magic of an antique clock. It just goes to show that Christmas beauty and merriment have lasted for centuries … and will continue on, I hope.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Esslingen Medieval and Christmas Markets: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily from late November until a few days before Christmas. Search for information on all of Germany’s picturesque Christmas markets, visit Germany: The Travel Destination.

Read more about Germany’s Christmas markets:

Helmut Höschle, a local woodcarver, works on his beautiful figures in his cheery Christmas hut. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Originally posted in December 2014

Denver’s Tuba Christmas: Heavy Metal for the Holidays

I like quirky events—in any part of the world. They highlight lesser-known facets of our culture, reminding me that there’s so much diversity in any given country, state, or city.

A tuba player gets in the spirit of the season during downtown Denver’s annual Tuba Christmas concert. About 250 tubas participated in this year’s event. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Denver, for example, isn’t just a Broncos-watching, ski-crazy, cowboy-hat-wearing Western metropolis. It’s got plenty of arts and culture: a symphony, opera and ballet companies, jazz clubs, a theatre complex, art galleries.

And then there are the tubas.

Yes, every December, literally hundreds of tubas and their variants serenade downtown Denver with Christmas carols played in the surprisingly mellow tones of these unwieldy low-brass instruments.

In an orchestra, tubas are tucked in the back of the ensemble because, really, no one could see the conductor if the tuba sat farther forward. So it’s satisfying when the tuba get its moment in the spotlight at the annual Tuba Christmas. (Full disclosure: I play bassoon, another orchestral bass instrument, so I have an affinity for tubas. We rarely get showy solos, but a symphony wouldn’t sound the same without us!)

Imagine the delight of the masses this year when a choir of 250 tubas gathered in their Santa hats to play harmonious renditions of “Joy to the World,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “Silent Night.”

Trust me, your Christmas is not complete without the bass, baritone, and tenor tones of tubas.

A pair of euphoniums were introduced at the annual Tuba Christmas concert. ©Ken Aikin

In 2018, Denver’s annual Tuba Christmas concert takes place on December 16 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex in downtown. Featuring tuba players from all over the region—and a few from other states, including New York—Tuba Christmas is one of the most celebrated and longest-running holiday festivities in Colorado.

When we went a few years ago, my husband (who plays trumpet, the highest voice of the brass section) and I elbowed our way through a crowd of around 500 people to get closer to the low-brass ensemble, many of whom wore Tuba Christmas stocking caps and decked out their instrument with seasonal décor. (There is nothing bah-humbug about these tubas!)

The Biggest Concert of the Year

Tuba Christmas was founded by the Harvey Phillips Foundation, which focuses on developing, expanding, and preserving the musical arts—with special attention given to instruments not ordinarily the “object of other support.” (Ahem…this means that despite their size, tubas get overlooked.) The first Tuba Christmas was held in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza Ice Rink in 1974. Today, concerts take place across the globe.

In addition to conducting merry carols—many of us crowd members sang along— retired music professor Bill Clark introduced the metallic musicians with the assistance of Jeanie Schroder, the tuba player in indie-pop group DeVotchka. Playing with 2014’s Tuba Christmas were tuba players from schools and colleges all over the state. They ranged from age 7 to 90, and quite a few multigenerational families performed. Clearly, tuba players enjoy longevity and musical genes.

In addition, we audience members learned that tubas come in all shapes and sizes. There were traditional bass tubas that consist of 18 feet of tubing. There were flashy sousaphones—the ones seen in marching bands with the huge bells that usually spell out the name of a high school mascot. There were euphoniums, sometimes called “tenor tubas,” which look like mini-tubas. A few double-belled euphoniums were present; the joke is they can play duets with themselves.

I believe it’s impossible to listen to a multitude of tubas playing Christmas carols without smiling, singing, and even dancing around. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself! Tuba Christmas always takes place in Denver on the third Sunday of December—snow or shine.

Let heaven and tubas sing!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Denver’s 2014 Tuba Christmas concert attracted tuba, euphonium, and sousaphone players of all ages from all over the country. Onlookers enjoyed singing along.  ©Laurel Kallenbach