The Jewel Box

An ode to the spellbinding city of Dresden, with its gripping past, its refined yet resilient inhabitants, and its stellar local brew.

My late mother was born and raised in a little village in the eastern German state of Saxony. At the age of 18, she left home to pursue a professional degree in the state capital: Dresden.

So much has already been said and written about Dresden. About its churches and palaces, its museums and art galleries, its great operatic tradition; about its history, and its significance in this day and age.

For me personally, above all else, it is the city that my mother loved so dearly; a love that was inevitably transferred on to me through the twinkle in her eye that appeared at the sound of its name, the engaging manner in which she told of its charms and peculiarities.

Dresden ˗ also known as “Florence on the Elbe”, synonymous with splendour and apocalyptic destruction alike.

Dresden: “The Jewel Box”.

The Rise and Fall of a City

What started as a 12th century Slavonic settlement named Drezdzany ˗ meaning “Forest Dwellers on the Plain” ˗ on the right bank of the Elbe, in a broad basin sheltered by hills to the north and south, had by the end of the 18th century evolved into a continental centre for politics, culture and economic development, set in a dazzling display of modern architecture on both sides of the river.

Owing to its elegant Baroque and Rococo design, and the abundance of art treasures it housed, Dresden was widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities for almost two centuries.

Then, on the night of February 13 ˗ 14, 1945, all its grandeur was levelled with the ground by a mighty armada of RAF heavy bombers. The USAAF got involved too, the next day, ensuring complete obliteration.

A total of four air raids were conducted within the space of 37 hours by some 1500 Allied aircraft, who dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary devices on the city in the process. The result can only be described as a cataclysm of biblical proportions: A hellish firestorm, one that was visible from more than 100 km away.

Dresden burned for days and nights on end; weeks later, the piles of rubble that remained were still smouldering. Of the circa 35,500 residential buildings located within the most central districts, a mere 7,500 were undamaged or not destroyed. Expressed in the dry terms inherent to air-raid statistics, there were 42.5 tons of rubble per inhabitant ˗ that’s more than eleven lorry-loads full.

Collateral Damage

The loss of life was staggering. Primarily due to the influx of ethnic German refugees seeking safety from the advancing Soviet troops on the eastern front, Dresden’s population had ballooned from approximately 630,000 in peacetime to anywhere between 1,200,000 and 1,400,000 on the night of the bombings. Many of these displaced people, mainly Silesians, had no proper home or direct access to an air-raid shelter.

As a result, various post-war estimates placed the death toll between 35,000 and 135,000. At the dawn of the 21st century these figures were reassessed by an official commission that concluded up to 25,000 people had perished. The vast majority were elderly individuals, women, and children. The most common causes of death among them were lack of oxygen and carbon-monoxide poisoning.

There were corpses everywhere; the smell of death was pervasive. In the weeks following the atrocity, survivors sifted through the rubble in search of loved ones so that they could be spared the indignity of mass burial in a common grave.

Winter gradually turned into Spring, and with it came the real danger of a typhus epidemic. Every day, a procession of jolting carts loaded with neatly stacked, decaying bodies could be seen making its way to the pine and eucalyptus forests north of the city. Grim does not even begin to describe the circumstances endured by the proud people of Dresden during that period.

Picking up the Pieces

When the war had come to an end and efforts turned to rebuilding, it was suggested that it might be best to tear down what little was left of Dresden’s historical centre – commonly known as Altstadt, meaning Old City – so that it could be replaced with the Stalinist architecture endorsed by the city’s Soviet “liberators”. Thankfully, the locals ˗ proud as ever ˗ banded together and convinced the newly installed communist authorities otherwise.

A compromise was reached which saw the heart of the city, right on the left bank of the Elbe, designated a long-term restoration site. The famous Zwinger, the Saxon royal palace, was the first of Dresden’s landmarks to be rebuilt during the 1950’s and 60’s. The Hofkirche (Court Church) and Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross) were also restored during this period. Meanwhile, brutalist tower blocks had started to arise on the fringes of Dresden’s historical centre and beyond.

View of Theaterplatz, and the restored Semperoper (r) and Zwinger (l)

The ruins of what was once the Dresden skyline’s most distinct feature ˗ the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), with its elegant bell-shaped dome ˗ were left undisturbed. A forbidding reminder of the twisted society that had preceded communism; a mark of suffering in the shape of an enormous mound of rubble.

Conveyed Impressions

Such was the cityscape my mother found herself in from 1961 until 1968. I remember her telling me how ˗ after completing her studies and gaining employment at a hospital located on Altstadt‘s western fringes ˗ she moved in with family friends who resided in Loschwitz, an eastern suburb on the right bank of the Elbe that had barely suffered any damage during the war.

Every morning, she would walk downhill to the district’s central square, named Körnerplatz, and catch a tram into the city centre from there. The route led across the Loschwitzer Brücke ˗ affectionately referred to as “das Blaues Wunder” (The Blue Miracle) ˗ before veering away from the curving Elbe and cutting across the district of Johannstadt in a westerly direction.

As the tram advanced closer to the city centre, the open spaces became more glaring, the piles of rubble higher. Over twenty years of peace had come and gone, but the traumas of that fateful February night in 1945 were still palpable.

The rebuilding process proved equally arduous in the decades that followed. While an “economic miracle” fuelled by American investment had transpired in West Germany, war reparations were still being paid to the Soviets by East Germany. Many other cities ˗ including Berlin, Leipzig and Magdeburg ˗ had been badly destroyed too; there simply wasn’t enough money in the state treasury to revive all of them at once.

View of Loschwitz and “The Blue Miracle”

Tracing Footsteps

I myself never witnessed Dresden in that forsaken and forlorn state. My earliest, clear recollections of the place stem from my adolescence, seven or eight years after Die Wende (or “the turning point”; colloquial term for the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990). By then, foreign investment and private donations had already started pouring in and the city’s historic centre had the appearance of a large construction site.

To the delight of my mother and many others, it had been decided that not only the Frauenkirche, but the cobbled streets lined by stately town houses that had once led to it, were to be restored to their original state. Generations of Saxons born during or after the war would finally be able to behold the “Florence on the Elbe” in the same, glorious form their parents or grandparents had.

The next time I passed through Dresden, I was in my early twenties and much of the work had already been completed. Sadly, my travel companions and I were in a rush, and we did not grant ourselves more than a brief glance at all that had been achieved.

It would take almost 18 years for me to return. Eight months had flown by since my mother’s passing and while the worst of winter was over, my grief was proving more tenacious. I had various reasons for wanting to visit Dresden, one of them being a desire to meet some of my mother’s old friends ˗ those who had been particularly supportive of her as she wrestled with a terminal illness ˗ and thank them personally for all the positive distractions they had provided throughout the ordeal.

Moreover, I felt an urge to explore some of the places my mother had described when talking of her youth. All of a sudden, I needed to see them with my own eyes again; I needed to be where she had once been.

Blending In

I arrived at Dresden’s central train station around dinner time on a Tuesday evening. The hotel I had booked was right across the road, near the southern entryway to the Prager Straße and the city centre’s main shopping quarter. I was neither hungry nor thirsty, I just wanted to stretch my legs and soak in the atmosphere.

It was a chilly night and the city was practically deserted. I had the Theaterplatz all to myself and spent minutes slowly rotating around my own axis, marvelling at the Semperoper, then the Zwinger, followed the Hofkirche, and finally the Augustusbrücke, stretching across the Elbe to the Neustadt (New City) district. One after another, over and over again.

As I approached the adjacent Schloßplatz and the imposing Higher Regional Courthouse of Saxony, located on the other side of the Hofkirche, I could see a handful of people with their phones out. They were recording a busker, a tenor performing Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in the passageway under the Georgentor. His rendition was breathtaking. I leaned up against a street sign and thought of my mother.

View of Schloßplatz, and the restored Hofkirche (r) and Georgentor (l), in daylight

Over the course of the next few days, I got into the routine of exploring Dresden on foot in the mornings and spending my afternoons in the company of my mother’s friends. The reception I received was truly heart-warming, regardless of whether we had met before or not.

On one afternoon, I drank Sekt ˗ the local version of Prosecco ˗ and smoked cigarettes with a lady who has since turned 90. That very same evening, I was invited to dinner at a beautiful home up on the Weinberg, on the northern fringes of the city, where I was treated to spectacular views of “The Jewel Box” and a generous flow of Flensburger.

During another meeting, a house call in one of the high-rises that towers over Prager Straße, my hostess had invited her granddaughter ˗ who is my age and whom I had met several times as a teenager ˗ to drop by as well.

The granddaughter, who we shall call M. for convenience, could not stay long but was kind enough to invite me to a children’s choir recital at a venue in Pieschen. I had no idea where that was, so I agreed instantly. Now I also had plans for Friday night.

Neustadt and the North Bank

I stuck to my routine and was on the move by 10 on Friday morning, taking my sweet time to make my way into the historic centre and across the Augustusbrücke to Neustadt.

It was a lovely day in the valley. The sun was out, it was practically wind-still, temperatures were expected to rise up to 15°C, several brave souls had already opted to leave their jackets at home ˗ all promising signs of an early Spring. Sometime around 11:30, I stopped at a sunny café to eat brunch and have a beer.

Brunch of champions in Neustadt: Linsensuppe (lentil soup) and a Dunkles (dark beer)

It was my first daytime beer of the trip ˗ the first of many, as future chronicles shall reveal. Belly full, I circled back to the inventively-named Japanisches Palais (Japanese Palace) and the riverbank, and continued east along a recreational lane that runs along the Elbe’s floodplains between Neustadt and Loschwitz.

Those expansive floodplains on both sides of the river is where, on that fatal night in 1945, hundreds of terrified men, women, and children had sought relief from the firestorm. To no avail ˗ Allied aircraft swooped down and opened machine gun fire on them.

Since I had already explored Loschwitz the previous day, I turned back when the riveted steel girders of “The Blue Miracle” came into view around the river’s bend. The bohemian section of Neustadt, a grid of half a dozen streets south of the Alaunpark, was coming to life in the mid-afternoon sunshine. I took a breather at a small cafeteria facing a crowded intersection, and had myself a schnitzel baguette and a nice cold beer.

Dresdner Feldschlößchen

I arrived in Pieschen, located approximately 2 km north-west of central Neustadt, with time to spare. The venue, an old factory complex newly christened Zentralwerk, is located in a predominantly residential area and I had difficulty finding a spot to pause and quench my thirst.

Worse still, my left leg was starting to bother me. I had walked at least 10 km per day for three days straight; all those traced footsteps were beginning to take their toll.

Relieved to find that the neighbourhood grill house had a spacious seating area, I made my way to the cooler to inspect their beer selection. The variety of 0.5 litre bottles was limited and mostly unfamiliar. One row stood out for its tongue-twisting name and jolly logo of a young lad extending two large, foamy mugs to his audience ˗ Dresdner Feldschlößchen.

0.5 litre bottles of Dresdner Feldschlößchen

As soon as I had grabbed myself a bottle and turned away from the cooler, one of the patrons waiting at the counter for his takeaway meal congratulated me on my choice. He was an intimidating fellow, almost my height but of a sturdier frame, sporting a thick pair of ginger mutton chops. Judging by his trousers and footwear, he was a handyman of some sort. Had the layer of dust clinging to them been thicker, I would have readily assumed he made ends meet as a human wrecking ball.

He was also nice and lifted; at least three beers in at 6:30 in the evening. I explained to him in my best German, which is far from perfect but improving steadily after years of neglect, that I had never tried Feldschlößchen before but felt compelled to because it is clearly as local as it gets.

Radeberger and Freiberger are both brewed not far beyond the city limits, this I already knew ˗ but I wasn’t aware that there was a brewery in Dresden itself. The wrecking ball told me it was his favourite, passed me the bottle opener hanging from his bulky key chain and grabbed himself a bottle too.

We exchanged a few more pleasantries before he turned to rejoin his missus. When he did, I could not help but notice that the back of his skull was inked ˗ a round logo of some sort, with oriental elements including a bamboo forest and a dojo. The guy was obviously a bona fide beast.

A Brand New Friend

On top of that, the good man clearly knew his beer. Dresdner Feldschlößchen is, in all probability, the most sparkling fresh pilsner I have ever had the pleasure of sampling. Its excellent natural taste is the brew’s only defining feature, and I was hooked straight away. For the rest, there is really not much to write home about.

Its aroma is fairly typical ˗ light malts and grain. Its flavour is mild, with hints of citrus that fizzle in the mouth ˗ nothing extraordinary. But, oh boy, does it go down like a treat! I was about halfway through my Feldschlößchen when the giant wrecking ninja approached my table to announce that he was ready for another one. And rightly so; at a mere €2.50 per bottle, you may as well go for it.

I applauded his zest and assured him I was enjoying mine. We had some more banter, through which it was revealed that he hailed from Bautzen, a town about 50 km east of Dresden, where my mother attended secondary school. It was the next planned destination on my trip, and a fine topic for a separate chronicle.

Meanwhile, M. had texted to let me know that she was running late due to perpetual chaos on the home front, and ask whether I would prefer to wait for her at the entrance of the venue or to enter at my own risk. I told her I’d see her inside.

The Past is Never Far

It was a few minutes before 7 when I reached the Zentralwerk compound. The first production facility, a factory where sewing machines and type writers were made, was built on the site in the 1920’s; during the 2nd World War, it was expanded for armaments production and handed over to Zeiss Ikon for cover.

The specialised and skilled workers needed to make detonators ˗ such as toolmakers, watchmakers and precision mechanics ˗ were generally forced labourers plucked from the local Jewish community and, ultimately, the concentration camps.

It is argued by some that the type of covert operations carried out at the Zeiss Ikon plant, and other local factories that primarily produced toothpaste and baby powder, is ample ground for the bombing of Dresden to be justified. There is no denying that the damage caused to these facilities did indeed throw another spanner in the Nazi war machine; whether it actually made any difference is debatable.

On the night Dresden was destroyed, the 3rd Reich was already on its knees. Paris had been liberated by the Allies almost 6 months prior, the Italian campaign was well underway, the Soviet army was marching towards Berlin at a staggering pace; was it absolutely necessary, at that stage of the war, to decimate a cultural centre with limited industrial infrastructure and output? A city in the midst of a refugee crisis, moreover – was it really worth it?

Soaking in the Culture

I digress ˗ back to Zentralwerk! During the communist era, and up until 1996, the reconstructed production facilities in Pieschen were utilised by a graphic printing company. Today the compound is home to a communal living arrangement and numerous art studios, with expositions and other public events frequently organised in the old mess hall. The various buildings are built around a central courtyard; since I had no idea where I was going, I decided to check in at the reception desk beside the main entrance.

The young lady behind the counter was preoccupied when I entered, giving me the opportunity to inspect the contents of the cooler that stood on the other side of the small room. Just as I had hoped: Feldschlößchen aplenty! I was informed the recital would be taking place in the hall, shown the right direction and charged €1.80 for the half litre bottle. I knew there and then that I was about to have a great night.

The hall had almost completely filled up by the time I walked in. It was a rectangular space, about 30 m long and 15 m wide, with an apron stage at the far end. A flight of stairs either side of me led up to a platform and pair of balconies that spanned the entire length of the walls. This upper section had been reserved for the performers; rows of chairs had been set up for the crowd on the ground level.

There was, however, no seat left for me. In a small storage room under the staircase to my left, a gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties was shuffling around between towers of stacked chairs. I ducked into the doorway and asked him if I could take two. He looked at me disapprovingly and pointed to the floor ˗ I was standing on top of a notice prohibiting non-staff to enter. All apologies, I took a step back. The man nodded gravely and brought the chairs out himself.

And so I had become the last row, three steps from the door and about ten from the bar in the foyer. Nobody would notice when it was time for me to get another Feldschlößchen. M. showed up halfway through the opening song and, during the applause that followed, quickly explained that we were watching a collaboration between the Dresdner Kammer Chor (Dresden Chamber Choir) and the choir of a local grammar school. The daughter of a close friend was among the performers.

M. was also quick to voice her envy at not having had the foresight to buy a drink on the way in. After the third or fourth song, she ducked out into the foyer and returned with a 0.33 litre bottle of Sekt for herself and a big bottle of Feldschlößchen for me. Not that it was a prerequisite for enjoying the show ˗ I was genuinely impressed with the talent on display and very much appreciated their rendition of “Only You”. I am sure my mother would have enjoyed it too.

Choir recital at Zentralwerk

After the recital had been concluded, there was a gathering in the foyer where I had the pleasure of meeting some of the performers, their parents, and grandparents, and drinking more Feldschlößchen.

The clock had already struck 9 when two of M.’s friends confirmed that their respective hubby’s had set off with the kids and that the last obstacles to celebrating International Woman’s Day together ˗ with me ˗ were out of the way. The ladies were in the mood for dinner; I made it known that there was an exceptional grill room less than ten minutes’ walk up the road.

The battering ram from Bautzen was no longer in attendance and the grill room’s cooler had been re-stocked with bottles of Feldschlößchen. I had one to wash down my meal and, when settling my bill, grabbed one more for the road. The ladies were all set to paint Neustadt red but I felt compelled to excuse myself. It had been a long day; I was tired, my leg hurt, and a close friend would be joining me in Dresden the following afternoon.

A Night on the Town

We shall call my travel companion Chicho (meaning “Uncle” in Bulgarian) Mitko because this respectful acknowledgement is music to his ears. He arrived in Dresden around 4 p.m. on a Saturday, having completed the drive from The Netherlands in eight hours. Eager to stretch his legs and see the sights, we dropped Mitko’s luggage in the room and were on our way. First stop: The supermarket on the ground floor. It was time for a beer.

I had already started raving about Feldschlößchen but, sadly, there was none to be had. Brandishing our half litre bottles of Meissner Schwerter Privat Pils, brewed in the nearby town of Meißen, I gave Mitko a quick tour of the Altstadt before sundown.

We would spend most of the evening in the bohemian section of Neustadt, drinking beer and discussing the week of road tripping that lay ahead of us. Here, Chicho Mitko was introduced to Feldschlößchen ˗ he too was full of praise.

View of Neustadt in daylight hours

After enjoying yet another one on our walk back to the hotel, and refusing to accept that the vending machines in the lobby did not stock any, we found what we were looking for at the late night store in one of the halls of the train station. We purchased two bottles each to drown out the rest of the night; one Pilsner and one Export apiece.

Dresden’s Finest

The history of Dresdner Feldschlößchen has run a similar course to the city’s. Records indicate that a single farm at the foot of the Hahneberg in the southern suburbs already had permission to serve wine and beer in 1644.

Some 40 years later, an excursion restaurant of sorts was built in close proximity to the farm. The Feldschlößchen (Small Castle in the Field), as the restaurant out in the fields came to be known, became increasingly popular as the years turned into decades, and so on.

In 1838, the property was purchased by two brothers who began building a brewery on the site of the old restaurant. By 1909, this brewery had achieved a reputation outstanding enough to be awarded the “Medal of Merit of the Royal Capital and Residence City of Dresden”.

The brewery was also heavily damaged during the bombings but, surprisingly enough, it was fully operational again by June of 1945.

In a manner befitting the place and time, Feldschlößchen and two other Dresden-based breweries formed a state-owned company in the 1960’s. Over the years, this brewing cooperative was expanded to include a total of 14 local beer producers. From 1983 until die Wende, a newly built brewery in the southern district of Coschütz served as their communal headquarters.

Post-reunification, a massive reorganisation resulted in the founding of the Sächsichen Brau-Union (Saxon Brewing Union). In 1992, the SBU was taken over by Holsten and renamed Feldschlößchen Aktiengesellschaft Dresden several years later. Feldschlößchen also existed under the Carlsberg banner for a while after the Danish powerhouse acquired a majority of shares in Holsten in 2004. The brewery has been back in East German hands since 2011.

It was also during this era that the brewery started making more of a concerted effort to engage with the local community. A taproom and restaurant situated in the restored machine house of an old Feldschlößchen production facility near the central train station was opened in 1998, the first of many brewery festivals was held in Coschütz in 2005, and an annual Pichmännel-Oktoberfest has been organised around town since 2013.

Pichmännel referring to the previously mentioned, prominent brand logo that reappeared on all Feldschlößchen bottle labels in 2006. This popular figure of days long gone once stood for original brewing art and had been the reason why the people of Dresden affectionately called their Feldschlößchen “Männelbier” ˗ roughly translated: Guys beer.

The character was named after the workers who once upon a time sealed the insides of wooden beer barrels with brewer’s pitch, an oil-based product purified by having hot oxygen blown through it. The caulking of the barrels was called “Pichen”, and as a reward for all the hard work, the Pichmännel frequently had themselves a real “picheling” ˗ just like I had done that weekend.

View of Alstadt from across the Elbe

No Goodbyes

In the German language, the word “goodbye” does not exist ˗ granted, there is the informal Tschüss, but the proper phrase is Auf Wiedersehen, which translates to: May we see each other again. They were the last words I whispered in my mother’s ear on her deathbed; they were the words I whispered under my breath as Chicho Mitko steered his car across the Elbebrücke on the day we left Dresden.

It was a sunny Monday morning, the river glistened to my right and in the background, as if it were a mirage rising out of the reflected light, in all its glory: The Jewel Box. There is no telling when I will have the opportunity to return, but I do not intend to wait another 18 years before doing so. Especially now that I have come to realise just how special Dresden is to me, and how much I have yet to learn about its past and present.

One thing is certain: On my next visit, I am heading straight for the Feldschlößchen taproom to find out whether the stuff tastes even better on draught!

By Christopher Andel

Born in Bangkok to a Dutch father and German mother, Christopher has spent much of his life pedalling back and forth between Europe and South East Asia. A true ‘Jack of all trades’, he has worked as an environmental consultant, language tutor, and roadie for the Chippendales, just to name a few. He currently resides in the Netherlands and is patiently plotting a return to greener pastures.

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