City has myriad unusual attractions outside historical center
Posted: March 13, 2013
With a wealth of Baroque architecture - much of it re-risen from the ashes of Allied bombing in World War II, open squares contributing to a relaxed atmosphere and thriving nightlife, Dresden does not struggle to attract tourists. Yet, the capital of Saxony, just two hours from Prague, offers a series of offbeat attractions that are often overlooked.
The city's hygiene museum made headlines in the 1950s when it unveiled a transparent human being with arteries, veins, bones and other otherwise hidden features, and just next door is a facility that has taken this theme and applied it on a grand scale for the technology-driven era. Volkswagen's transparent factory or "Die Gläserne Manufaktur," to use the official name, is both a technological showcase and an indulgent vanity project.
Built in 2002, the factory is open to view from the nearby pavements, allowing for a look at how cars are assembled down the line. Walking inside offers a further glimpse into automotive production, although the plant, which produces the luxury Phaeton model, is such a no-expense-spared showcase that it is perhaps not representative of the car industry as a whole. Guided tours are available six days a week, although those just wanting a quick peek can get it from a public viewing area.
Even on a weekend, when the lines are stationary instead of cranking out 44 vehicles per day, it makes for a fascinating sight: Cars are carried along the production line from above by a metal rail, the doors absent and rear trunks open. Nearby, vehicles at a later stage of the production process are propped one or two feet above the Canadian maple floor, each car sitting beside a self-moving workbench that follows along carrying parts. Components are brought in on blue trams that use the same tracks as the yellow public ones. The finished vehicles are on view in spectacular style: Near the public entrance is a vast cylindrical silo, stretching more than a dozen stories, on which completed cars are stored for collection by their buyers.
The cost of the factory must have been staggering, the attention to detail quite intense. It is hard to imagine the project has generated revenues to cover its vast costs, not least because the Phaeton, for all the sparkling reviews it received when it was launched, has struggled to attract buyers, hampered by a badge that lacks the cache of Audi, Mercedes or BMW. More recently, however, the Phaeton has enjoyed a surprising upturn in fortunes thanks to growing sales in China.
A tram line near the plant leads to the far east of the city, to another, but very different, out-of-the-ordinary tourist attraction.
Pillnitz Castle, on the banks of the Elbe River (what Czechs call the Labe), may have been where the kings of Saxony headed for the summer, yet it has Chinese motifs in its design. While not an uncommon theme in European architecture from the 1600s onward, such influences stand out in this setting. The buildings are painted with Chinese figures at work in fields, pulling camels or standing beside characteristic pagodas.
More than 700 years ago, the first fortress was built on the site of the castle, but the buildings standing today largely date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the external influences from the Far East, the buildings are almost defiantly European on the inside, full of classical columns and religious frescoes. The castle's setting, peaceful and picturesque with beautifully kept gardens, offers a delightful retreat from the rest of Dresden.
Back in the city proper, to the west of the center, beyond a series of striking derelict industrial buildings, sits another curiosity that offers superficial foreign influences.
Yenidze, dating from the early 20th century, was originally a cigarette factory, but there are few clues of this on the outside. On the initiative of the Turkish firm that developed the building, it was designed to resemble a mosque, and such is the similarity that the designer, Martin Hammitzsch, was said to have been expelled from the local architectural association, which disapproved of the project.
With its elegant dome, minarets - actually disguised chimneys - colorful mosaics and arched windows, the building would not look out of place to the casual observer in Turkey or Albania. Restored in the 1990s, it now hosts offices and a pleasant café that, being close to the top, offers fine views of the city center and the suburbs as they stretch to the surrounding countryside.
Apart from the dome above it, the café is without Islamic influences, instead decorated with pictures of stars from the golden age of cinema, among them Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper and Otto Gebühr.
They offer cheery, if slightly surreal, company to the tourist relaxing with a coffee after a day spent enjoying Dresden's more unusual attractions.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at