Or: you could at least get off that Prague train a couple of hours earlier and give Dresden a try. If you're not at least pleasantly surprised, or more likely staggered by the returning beauty of the city that used to be known as the Florence of the north, you'll be in the minority. Dresden's cultural treasures were famously and tragically all but destroyed by the February 1945 firebombing and again endangered just last summer by the flood of the century, but every time I go there it seems that there are more jewels to admire. The view of the restored Semper Opera House, palatial museum and gallery complex named the Zwinger, and the Brühl Terrace along the bank of the Elbe is stunning, especially illuminated in the evening. Scaling the skyline and emerging day-by-day at last from its own rubble is Dresden's symbol and soon again its crowning glory, the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Tear yourself away and cross the river and you'll find an entirely different city, home to countless pubs, trendy shops and döner kebab outlets. Stray into the suburbs and you might stumble across an exquisite palace, such as Pillnitz or Moritzburg, or even the world's oldest suspension railway. Dresden remains a well-kept secret to many, yet its fame is also widespread. On an arctic December Sunday the 569th Striezelmarkt, Germany's oldest Christmas market, was overflowing with people quaffing glühwein and snapping up kitsch. At the building site where the city's castle is being unearthed from the ruins many Japanese were to be seen, lured by the porcelain in nearby Meißen and any eye for a city worth visiting.
Similar in size and age, just over an hour away by train and very different in spirit is Leipzig. This was where much dissent came from in 1989 and is a progressive place, of less obvious historical note than its neighbour but with a cavernous shopping mall in its train station, impressive new sporting developments and a bid on the table for the 2012 Olympics. It also features reputedly two of Europe's biggest: the Honky-Tonk pub and live music festival (next debauchery is on May 24) and the Moritzbastei student club. Too much fun? South-west of here you'll find many towns boasting beautiful architecture and impressive culture. In intellectual Weimar you can visit the houses of literary giants Goethe and Schiller, or there is the Martin Luther trail, of which the highlight is the well-preserved Wartburg castle near Eisenach, his refuge as he translated the New Testament.
Eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, is struggling economically, and off the beaten track this is obvious. There's lots of mistrust between its citizens, still known often disparagingly as Ossis, and the Wessis on the other side of the border, and you may see skinheads (I even live with one, but she's kind enough not to hate me for being a foreigner) and certainly will come across a few mullets. Many yearn for the good old days when they had their allotted niche and stable job, and recent rumour has it that a GDR Ostalgie theme park is even to be built near Berlin. But eastern Germany is a varied landscape with much to offer beside its cities and unique history. A rail trip from Dresden into the Sächsische Schweiz, or Saxon Switzerland, especially at autumn time, is astonishing. You can go skiing there too, or at one of a number of other winter sport resorts. If you've been to Eisenach you're ideally placed to take on Germany's most celebrated and oldest hiking trail, the 168-kilometre Rennsteig, and in summer why not bare all, as many East Germans still merrily do, at one of thousands of lakes or even in the Baltic sea. Whether it's history and culture, entertainment or relaxation you're looking for, Dresden and eastern Germany have so much to offer that you won't be in a hurry to leave them behind.
© Ben Koschalka, Nordhausen, March 2003
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