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Quick Xmas Trip to Dresden - With Reminders of Fundamental Travel Truths

Got back late last night from a whirlwind trip to Saxony and I worked all day in my capacity as definitely not a tour guide so apologies if this is a little disjointed. It's a busy time of year!

Backstory: We live in Southern Germany and have traveled extensively in our time here and my husband has an irregular work schedule and we could be shipped back to the USA at any time, which makes long-term travel planning difficult. But we're also on a Goverment salary which means we probably travel a bit more on the budget side than the average person here. So for two years running, we've taken advantage of the German Rail Pass to do some Christmas-market based travel. It is a really good deal if you want to cover long distances but don't plan in advance, although it can induce a little insanity (I'll cover that in the report).

Last year we used the pass to go to Berlin and Innsbruck and had a great time. This year we originally planned to use the special offer to get 7 days travel for the price of 5, for a twin pass - this means every day of unlimited travel on any train in Germany and a few places beyond works out to around 23 euros per person. Even with tickets purchased months in advance you can't get that deal. Unfortunately as I've experienced at the Deutschebahn Reisenzentrum in the past, the people who work there are pretty unhelpful. I'd checked the website and read the fine print and it appeared we could get this special 7 days for the price of 5 by buying in person, but the agent there had not only heard of the deal but said it was only available if you ordered online to have the tickets delivered by mail. The showed me his screen which did not say that at all (I can understand enough German) but he was unmoving and our plan was to leave in the morning. I didn't have time to fight this and I wasn't sure we could do enough travel in a month to use 7 days so I resigned myself to the normal 5 day German Rail Twin pass which is still a great deal at 340 euros for 2 people.

We went to Salzburg for Krampusnacht which was super fun and I may get around to writing about it, just as an overnight, came back home, hosted the best Hanukkah party EVER, and 2 days later we're off again.

My plan with utilizing the Rail Pass was ambitious - since we get a full day of travel, why not get up early, stop at an interesting place along the way, see the market, go to our ultimate destination (Dresden) for two nights, then on the way back hit another place along the way? So the plan was Erfurt, then Dresden, then Leipzig on the way back.

Problem is I'd contracted a pretty awful cold during our Salzburg trip, we hosted a huge party, my husband was working inbetween trips, so when it came time to get up early on our travel day we just opted to take the later train. We cut out Erfurt. I know! I wanted to go there. But it's the closest place to us and the easiest to get to in the future.

Travel lesson 1: Don't put too much on your plate and be realistic about what is enjoyable on a trip.

New plan: Depart around 11, get into Leipzig around 2pm, see the market and the Current History Exhibit, then get back on the train to Dresden at 8:30 pm.

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2945 posts

So yes, a few hours in Leipzig is probably not giving justice to the city. It has a lovely main square, and a very good exhibit about the DDR (not campy, but engaging and quite serious) at the Current History Forum, which happens to be free. There's a handful of Christmas markets throughout the center of town, the main one being both scenic and enjoyable but not amazing if you're an old hand at Christmas markets. The middle-ages market behind the Rathaus had a few surprises.

The standout thing about the Leipzig markets was the food. Apparently bread baked with cheese and bacon cubes/veggies is a Saxon specialty. It seems to go by several different names (Heurekraner) and I'd only ever seen it at the Esslingen Middle-Ages market until Saxony, where it seemed to be everywhere in various forms, as was other bread-based street food, like Schmarmbrot which seemed similar but not exactly the same thing, various crispy garlic breads with toppings, and the like.

There was also an impressive raclette (melted swiss cheese on potatoes or bread) stand which I've seen in Esslingen and Ludwigsburg but nowhere else, and an amazing stand with battered and deep-fried cubes of cheese on a stick. Sadly I was too full from the aforementioned food that I could not eat any more (they had cheese soup, too!) and I was very sad about it.

It's probably unfair in some ways but even with such a short visit I don't know if I'd return to Leipzig specifically. It was very beautiful and is probably worth a day or two of exploration. Despite being part of the former Communist east and having plenty of concrete brutalist architecture it seemed a little bit short on sights as opposed to Dresden, which had too many to deal with. I don't regret our time there but neither my husband or I have any pressing need to return.

In retrospect, I wish we'd gone straight to Dresden, because wow, what a city! So impressive it needs it's own post.

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2945 posts

So due to our Leipzig adventure we arrived around 22:00 in Dresden, well after the Christmas markets had closed and proceeded via public transit to our apartment hotel in the old city. I'd really debated staying in the hip, Berlin-esque "Outer new city" for 25 euros less per night but figured it would be great to be centrally located since our main purpose was Christmas markets so the Aparthotel Am Schloss at 100 per night (a significant last minute discount per Booking.com) fit the bill.

Travel lesson #2: Sometimes being centrally located is worth the price...and sometimes it's not.

We're both night owls who enjoy a bar scene but at 11:00 the old city of Dresden is dead. We made it to the Karl May bar, named after the famous German writer of Westerns, but found it overpriced and overrated. Had a quick drink at a very uninspiring Irish pub afterwards. We were both tired and should have probably just stayed in our comfortable studio room OR had the fortitude to venture via public transit to the action in Neustadt. For us, in retrospect, we'd have had a better time staying out of the old city, but if you're the type who is more than happy to go to bed at 21:00, staying in the aldstadt is perfect. I think our problem is that we still want to be in the former category but we're leaning towards the latter and we can't quite reconcile that yet!

So thanks to our not-great nightlife adventure in the altstadt we got a late start on Thursday, having coffee and pastries procured nearby. The location of this hotel is really unbelievable, we were steps away from four different Christmas markets! I wanted to see so much in Dresden but with the competing markets we decided to focus on the Old Green Vault, which was magnificent and must be seen. We didn't buy tickets in advance, and it was fine, but I would do so if visiting in the summer; it was still plenty crowded. I have enjoyed the "Curio cabinets" of various European rulers in museums before, but the collection at the Green Vault has to been to be believed, and the "in situ" aspect of these rooms added to it too.

Sadly there's a lot we did not have time for, such as the rest of the royal palace including the new green vault, the old master's gallery in that other palace, the new master's gallery located in yet another palace, and much more. If you're into art, history, or music Dresden could easily entertain you for 4-7 days. We had 1 1/2. PLUS Christmas markets. We told ourselves we will return in summer, because there is also apparently a wealth of riverside biergartens.

As dusk fell we started to attempt to hit all 7 of the markets but were instantly enchanted by the one at the Neumarkt - an impossibly huge and beautiful square in front of the famous Frauenkirche. The level of decoration and lighting was subdued, to showcase the dome of the church, but it had giant trees lit only by Moravian stars on top, then with canvass below to create tents with candle-lit lanterns hanging from branches underneath and rustic wood tables radiating out like spokes from the giant trees.

As my husband pointed out, most markets fail to provide enough places to stand and enjoy your gluhwein and food and this one was thoughtfully laid out. All the very unique stands had hand-painted signs and while not being expressively medieval, made use of traditional materials. The effect was lovely and this may be my favorite Christmas market after Esslingen and it never felt crowded. There was also a particular punch stand that had the tastiest hot alcoholic beverage I've had in my life, topped with chopped almonds, which sounds crazy, but it works.

I miss this market already! But there are other markets. So continued...

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2945 posts

So my ambitious plan was to spend from 4pm to 10pm at markets then go to Neustadt for a couple drinks. But after the market at Neumarkt we went to the famous Streizelmarkt, the oldest Christmas market in the world, in Dresden's Altmarkt square. And it's not a letdown! It's a beautiful market in the shadow of a beautiful church (and a less beautiful modern mall) with a lot of good food and drink stands.

That said, being spoiled for some of the best markets back home, this market didn't particularly stand out. It would be an amazing market for a normal visitor, far better than a lot of markets that are held up as great, like Nurnberg and Salzberg. Maybe I just like it when they decorate the booths, which they do here, and in Stuttgart.

We had an excellent goose sausage with sour berry mustard from a fancy restaurant stand that also did very good fancy gluhwein.

We wasted time walking far to the market on the main shopping street - nothing special. The market behind the Frauenkirche is very typical but charming, on a touristy street, but you could walk up on the old fortifications (the "Balcony of Europe") for great pictures of the Frauenkirche and market.

I'd had the idea that we'd walk across the famous bridge (a ton of construction in front of it currently) to visit the two markets in the Neustadt but that was too ambitious. We returned to the Adventmarkt am Neumarkt that I gushed about previously for more delicious punch and stuffed bread.

Travel tip: Local specializations can be overrated
So Dresden is famous for two things: it's Stollen, which is often called a fruitcake but it's more like a slightly sweet bread studded with fruit and various wood carved items that come from more remote areas in Saxony. You can get both all over Germany the the prices are better in Dresden. Both are probably overrated for the price, but that's up to your calculation.

I felt the pressure to buy both because I was there, but in reality, I don't like stollen and I'm Jewish so I don't really need Christmas decorations. If you're into charming wood figures, or the famous pyramids or arches, the prices are good for the quality from what i saw in Dresden in general. Probably cheaper if you actually venture into the Ore Mountains,

Part of me does want one of the arches (sorry, my brain is dead and I can't think of the term in German right now) but the ones that impress me are always over 200 euro and so nope. I almost bought some wooden ornaments or figures until I remembered that I don't actually like that stuff. I got some postcards instead.

I did buy half a pastry cake called a mohnstreizel. Unlikely stollen, it's moist and delicious. It's still probably overpriced but it satisfied my need to buy something pastry-ish from Dresden.

Oh, spoiler alert: instead of going out to Neustadt we just went back to the apartment. In theory it was to drop off the various mugs we'd collected but in reality, we're old. No party time for us on this trip.

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248 posts

I'm interested in whether you, or others who have been to Dresden since the 1990's reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, think that the reconstruction of Dresden has restored it (as much as possible) to what it was before the bombing of early 1945?
When I visited it many years ago, there certainly were reminders of the WW2 devastation.

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2945 posts

I did forget to mention - inbetween the Green Vault and markets, we took a break at a chain Carribean restaurant called "Turtle Bay". Not normally our MO, but we wanted to sit inside somewhere, it was convenient, and while the food wont win any awards, getting "Cheesy jerk fries" and "Sweet corn fritters" while it happened to be happy hour (2 for 1 cocktails) was a pleasant respite. It won't win any awards for urban Americans who are used to better food/drinks, but in Germany it was pretty good. Service was great (almost too good).

The next day we got up a bit earlier, checked out and stowed our luggage with the apartment hotel front desk (which is also a souvenir shop, a little awkward) and finally took the tram from the new and highly fortified Synagogue (a depressing feature of most Synagogues in Europe - you can't just drop in for a casual visit) to the Neustadt to visit the German Army Military History Museum.

My husband is a veteran and a war gamer (i.e. he paints tiny figures of little dudes for fun which makes him sound way older than his 42 years) so we've been to LOTS of military history museums in Europe. Sometimes twice, if he didn't get to finish. I almost said, "Hey dude, you're on your own, I've got a date with a Duerer painting at the Old Masters' Gallery," but I'm really glad I didn't because this may have been one of the best museums I've visited in Europe, period.

The museum is part of an active military complex and was obviously originally one of those dusty old museums in an old building pushing the typical narrative. What makes it different is a total reimagining, made stark by Daniel Liebskind's shattering of the museum with his "shard" that rips the old stately building apart, and in doing so rips apart the lie of nationalism and war.

Last year we'd visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin and I wasn't that impressed with the way it was laid out or how the similar "shard" functioned but in this museum it was perfect. I'm not an architecture nerd by any measure but the effect of the museum and the quality of the presentation in the modern shard portion have stuck with me. It was so well laid-out, in a narrative sense, and it's kind of embarrassing to be the weeping person in a museum, but that was me. From a painted portrait of some random Saxon general, ripped apart by bayonets from the Soviet red army to a typewriter that was in Hitler's last bunker, it was hard to escape the notion that we humans seem to default to armed conflict.

Dresden and it's royal palace and churches and all of that are well-worth a visit, but this museum is so good I'd say it's a reason to travel to Dresden specifically to see it. It's at the level of the Imperial War Museum in London, which is high praise.

We spent so much time at the museum that we only had time to collect our luggage and get back on the very long trip back to Stuttgart, but of course on an ICE train, the trip is pleasant and comfortable. I adore the freedom of a German Rail Pass.

I feel a little bit ashamed for not having visited Dresden sooner. If you're going to Berlin and have an extra couple days, it's well worth the time. If it's Christmas? Go to Dresden! Thanks to the good advice on this board for pointing us in a great direction. My only regret is:

Travel tip: Don't try to do too much. Leipzig was nice. We both wish we'd gone straight to Dresden and spent more time there. Don't underestimate the time spent with connecting trains, stowing luggage, finding your bearings, etc.

Just pick a good place that has a lot to do in it and do that. Trying to see too much too quickly is the bane of enjoyable travel.

Also stollen is still overrated

Posted by
2908 posts

Thanks for your great, detailed reports. Glad to see that you are considering a return trip to Dresden.

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2945 posts

@curioustraveler: You're right that I didn't hit on the devastation. Dresden is pretty famous in the Anglo-American mind as the place "hit the hardest" and there was a feel of that in some of the brochures and marketing materials but not in the city itself.

Keep in mind, I live in Stuttgart, which was bombed repeatedly by the Allies. 90% of Stuttgart's downtown area was destroyed. (You can visit a hill that contains the remains of buildings, called the Birkenkopf, in the west of Stuttgart).

Every major German capital was hit hard with these raids. Nuremberg suffered horribly, but it's not part of our consciousness like Dresden is. I don't know why.

I'm not a WWII historian, so I don't know if the loss of life in Dresden was especially horrific compared to other German cities although I do know the bombing happened quite late in the war and there's a good argument that it was completely unnecessary.

All that said, no, there's no more evidence of the destruction than you'd see today in any other German capital. The royal palace for example looks to be largely intact although looking closely you can see where new stone was placed in the rebuliding - but again, the same is true of the historic buildings in Stuttgart or anywhere, really.

More notable for me, at least, having lived in west Germany for so long, are the remnants of communism in Leipzig and Dresden. I'd done the "fun" DDR museum in Berlin a couple times, but the Leipzig exhibition doesn't play around: it is frank in showcasing the horror of living under what the museum refers to as a "dictatorship". We didn't visit the DDR museum in Dresden but the Military Museum didn't play around with the subject of the cold war and the DDR either. The brutalist architecture in both cities was also quite notable.

That said, my friends joked that I was going to the "deep, dark east" - there is a perception among westerners that there is something backward about the east to this day - and we really didn't experience that. Everyone was friendly and kind (by German standards, anyway). Dresden is very touristy and seems to have realized that accommodating tourists is good for their bottom line. i wish Stuttgart could figure this out!

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2945 posts

I also forgot to mention: The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is a marvel and a wonder. It's so good. It might be better than Berlin. Why is the east full of great train stations when the west (OK, I'm really just talking about Stuttgart) has the world's most awful train station?

I'm so jealous. They've got a Pizza Hut. And Rewe To Go AND an Aldi and a Rossmans and literally everything you'd ever need in a well-laid-out-mall that still preserves the beautiful architecture of the original station.

It's actually like Paris-Est but better. I have been ruined for train stations forever.

Posted by
248 posts

@OP: Thank you for addressing the WW2 obliteration of Dresden and its population.
I wonder how many tourists are aware that what they see in Dresden is not what was there before?

Posted by
6061 posts

Thanks Sarah for your report. I've wondered whether Dresden was worth visiting.

Posted by
19171 posts

curioustraveler, I took a walking tour of Dresden in 2015. Signed up at the tourist office. The guide made it clear that the old-style buildings in the center were rebuilds. I think all guide books are clear on that point, too. Of course, we can tell from this forum that many travelers don't read guide books, so...

Posted by
774 posts

"Any recognition of the complete devastation wrought upon Dresden by the controversial bombing by the US and Royal air forces in WW2?"

If you're interested in that sort of thing I highly recommend a periodical called "After the Battle". Published in UK it covers current areas and cities with pictures from during the war and current photos of the same places.

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248 posts

@KGC: Thank you for the book reference, I'm interested in that kind of thing. Noting the 1990's reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche, I remember being in Munich's Frauenkirche and, knowing that it was severely damaged in WW2, I walked around looking closely and, if I didn't know it was nearly destroyed in WW2, I wouldn't have known it by looking at the restored version. I suppose that Dresden is just one example of the German cities that voted to reconstruct exact replicas (as nearly as possible), compared to cities like Frankfurt that chose to rebuild modern.

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7944 posts

Thank you Sarah, once again, for a fabulous trip report. I love reading about your travels.
Another fan of the Leipzig train station. Similar in style to the one in Frankfurt though not nearly as old, it has a light airy feel to it. Especially the lower levels. Sadly it is all I have seen of Leipzig so far.
Another fan of Dresden, though haven't made it to their Christmas market yet. The Green Vault can certainly blow your socks off with extravagant excess. Glad to hear they have decorated stands like Stuttgart, Mainz and Frankfurt. The market at Nuremberg just looks boring in comparison. So, will put Dresden on my list for Christmas markets to visit next year.

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6570 posts

We have a relative that left Dresden 80 years ago when she was 15 years old. Oma and her mother went ahead to the Port of Hamburg. The dad stayed back in order to tell his mother good bye, and she was euphemized by the family physician. Opi was literally one step ahead of the authorities who were physically searching for him. It was just a miracle that they ever got on the last U.S. ship to leave Germany before the start of The War. To this day, Oma cries at the sight of the Statue of Liberty--like she saw Thanksgiving Day, 1938. She's now going downhill fast, but she really has been a positive influence in her years as an educator and headmistress of a private academy outside Nashville.

Posted by
26038 posts

Thanks, Sarah, lots of good take-aways here.

I happen to be watching a youtube of of the Silversterstadl in Klagenfurt 2013/2014 and enjoying the nostalgia which is so enjoyed in the German speaking countries. (Nothing like a bit of Schlager for breakfast). Silvester is New Year's eve for non German speakers.

I applaud those who who have had their city destroyed all around them to put it back the way it was.

Even Frankfurt a. M. with their new Altstadt. Sounds like a contradiction but it isn't.

I'd like to one day see Dresden and its Dom. When I was living near Coventry in England we sent a gold cross to the Dom for its steeple to replace the one destroyed. Coventry and Dresden are sister cities.

Thanks for posting this thread.

Posted by
940 posts

Lovely report, Sarah. We've only been to Germany briefly on an RS tour and have considered visiting more extensively. Dresden was not on my radar, but that just goes to show that there are plenty of great things still to be seen in those many cities that were bombed to smithereens. Now I'm going to have to add some research about Dresden!

Posted by
8398 posts

Thank you Sarah! I love your trip reports!

Posted by
1622 posts

one of the arches (sorry, my brain is dead and I can't think of the term in German right now)

@Sarah

That should have been a so called Schwibbogen, manufactured in the area of Seifen in the Ore Mountanis (Erzgebirge)

The Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is a marvel and a wonder.

... thanks to the historical fact that is was actually two stations, the Saxonian one and the Prussian one, build axial symetrically around the central platforms hall. So they have plenty of space for shops.

When I was living near Coventry in England we sent a gold cross to the Dom for its steeple to replace the one destroyed.

@Nigel

Back in 2004, I saw the cross standing in front of the Frauenkirche before it was pulled on top of the dome. A very moving moment. By the way, besides the material support by the British Dresden Trust it was also thanks to the intellectual support from Coventry that the citizens' initiative for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche finally succeeded. The Saxon Protestant Church itself initially was not interested at all. The remains of the destroyed cross are on exhibition inside the church, and on the altar is the nail cross of Convetry, which was brought from there to Dresden for the inaugurational ceremony. I think if you visit Dresden, you will almost feel at home a little bit.

Posted by
1013 posts

Thanks for the boots on the ground report from a “local”. Germany was my next trip before illness cancelled it. One day...

Most of Germany’s Old Towns have been rebuilt after the war. Cities had a choice between rebuilding in the modern style and the old. Since the old way and past was used by the Nazis, many cities like Frankfort rebuilt in the modern style until tourism made Old Towns lucrative.

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26038 posts

Since the old way and past was used by the Nazis, many cities like Frankfort (sic) rebuilt in the modern style until tourism made Old Towns lucrative.

Heather, that's an interesting point of view.

Since you haven't been to Germany which source suggests that point of view?

My experience is different.

And remember that the east and the west went down different paths.

Posted by
12400 posts

The first time I went to Dresden was in 1992 on a guided tour by bus from Berlin, saw for the first time the rubble and ruins of the Frauenkirche left as a memorial to that horrific bombing of Feb 1945. The last time in Dresden was in 2016, obviously the Frauenkirche had already been rebuilt, restored, etc. .

One can easily go see the Military History in Neustadt by taking the tram and bus from Dresden Hbf., which admittedly I have not done yet in spite of my visits in the city. I am mainly interested in the military history prior to 1918, when Saxony had its own War Minister and its Military Attache assigned to Berlin, even though the primary focus is on the Bundeswehr.

That area around the Military History Museum was the traditional military complex and escaped the bombing in 1945. The Anglo-American bombers did not specifically target this HQ complex.

Dresden has a military history going back to the 18th century, if not earlier. Both Frederick the Great and Napoleon had their own "Battle of Dresden" The city was also HQ for a military district (Wehrkreis), the location of the War Academy and Infantry School (Infanterie-Schule).

At the same time because of its architecture, etc, it was known as "Florence on the Elbe." prior to WW2.

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12400 posts

If one wants to avoid towns/cities that were not rebuilt after the war, numerous places, places that escaped the destruction, fit this description, such as Flensburg, Lüneburg, Heidelberg, Sigmaringen an der Donau, Eutin/Holstein, Weimar.

I went to Sigmaringen an der Donau the first time in 1971, saw immediately that relative to other cities I had been to in (west) Germany, it was obviously that Sigmaringen had not been raked by artillery fire or bombs. In 2009 I went back to this town for the second time, saw it had changed, almost didn't recognise it, especially the Zentrum. I asked and was told that in the late 1980s the town had gone through renovation, construction, etc. Obviously, the buildings are not going to stay or remodeled in the same style.

Posted by
4671 posts

The only bits of the old town of Dresden that were rebuilt as replicas were the famous palaces and church buildings close to the river. The section of the city between the Zwinger and the station is pretty much pure DDR.

Posted by
227 posts

The Transportation Museum, steps from your hotel, has a 20 minute (or so) film it shows every hour. Made in late 20’s it shows life and great street views of Dresden before it was bombed. The fact it was in German did not spoil it for us! So if you want to compare today with yesterday, take the time to visit! We also stayed in your hotel...huge living room/kitchen/dining area, large separate bedroom. Large bathroom with a washer & dryer - we loved it! The staff was so nice! Just under $100! It was about 3 years ago and they were constructing a huge building in front of it. Dresden is gorgeous and, I agree, the Markets wonderful!

Posted by
12400 posts

"...LOTS of military history museums in Europe."

Which ones? Where? Prague,Koblenz, Vienna, Compiegne, Manchester, London, Toulon, Paris, ?

Posted by
262 posts

Very good report here.
Dresden: my friend's 90-something mom just died. As a teen, she'd been taken from her rural Ukrainian home by the Germans in order to serve as a nanny for some high-ranking Nazi official in Dresden. She was there when the bombing happened. In recent years, I somehow became her fave among her son's pals, and she more than once described the horrors of that terrible time to me during cottage visits. Her past had hardened her and frankly, she was never an easy person to spend time with. Count your blessings.
I am done. The end.

Posted by
2645 posts

HI, Sarah. Thanks for the report. I also have not yet made it to Dresden, but it's on my radar for 2021. Your report makes me want to get there sooner!