Years of neglect bring rewards to modern Pirna

April 23, 1995|By Eleanor Ostman | Eleanor Ostman,Knight-Ridder News Service

Pirna, Germany -- Had Augustus the Strong chosen the important Saxony city of Pirna as his home in the early 1700s, rather than the lesser Dresden where he created his baroque showplace, perhaps Pirna would have been the one to be flattened 50 years ago in World War II.

Surviving that conflict with only minor bridge damage while Dresden was destroyed, the quiet medieval town on the Elbe entered an even more devastating era, four decades of neglect during the East German communist regime.

Middle Ages architecture, with no money for its upkeep, leaned and crumbled. "During German Democratic Republic times, plans came down to bulldoze the town. Luckily, the economy was so bad that the government didn't have money for bulldozers," says Pirna's burgermeister, Hans-Peter Bohrig.

"Reunification couldn't have happened any later," he adds. "If communism had lasted even a few more years, we wouldn't be redoing our historic area. It would have all fallen down."

If anything positive came out of that political experiment, it was the lack of funds for modernizations, blessedly sparing Pirna from a downtown interspersing 20th-century glass and steel buildings with its more comely Germanic gables and facades. The Italian artist Canaletto painted 12 scenes of Pirna in the 1740s, and his view remains nearly unchanged: the bay-windowed merchants' houses, the marketplace centered by the town hall with its clock-tower spire, and in the background, the Gothic Marienkirche.

Above the town, he saw then the 16th-century Sonnenstein Fortress which remains today, smudged by its more recent uses as an insane asylum and a Nazi gas chamber where 30,000 died during World War II.

"Visitors always tell us how lovely our town is, and we're excited about welcoming them now. For so many decades, that wasn't possible," says the burgermeister. "We survived the war basically intact, but the ruins you see are actually the leftovers of our war of socialism."

Looking at his American visitors, he adds, "Reunification is not only a German situation; it has significance for the larger world. You don't know the meaning of freedom. Only those who have been unfree can understand it."

Travelers who tear themselves away from the more formal rehabilitation of Dresden and drive along the Elbe for an hour, almost to the Czech Republic border, will see not only the rugged stone formations known as Saxon Switzerland, but glimpse historically significant Pirna awakening from its long sleep. Now that reunification has opened up the former Eastern Germany, Pirna is rousing to the possibilities of tourism. The lure is its medieval charms and rich history.

In effect, the Reformation was born in Pirna. Martin Luther visited the city and was so infuriated by the selling of papal indulgences he witnessed there that he formulated his 95 theses challenging the Church. Pirna was the birthplace, in 1465, of the Dominican monk Johannes Tetzel, whose home still stands. Tetzel took money, ostensibly for the building of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, in exchange for the promise of absolution of sins and heavenly rewards. His trade inspired a rhyme that is still recited by European youngsters: "When a coin in the strongbox rings, a soul into heaven springs."

Other notable visitors over the centuries have included Hans Christian Andersen who wrote of the city;Napoleon, who wanted to but couldn't capture the nearby fortress of Koenigstein; writer Goethe, and the musician Wagner, who lived for seven years in the nearby village of Graupa.

Pirna has grabbed its bootstraps and is rebuilding, very much a work in progress, with plenty of opportunities remaining for rehabilitation. "The two hotels in the historic area were basically in ruins," the mayor said. But now, the Hotel Deutsches Haus, which is part of the Romantik Hotels association, and the Pirnascher Hof right on the market square both offer pleasant overnights.

"This house was really and truly a ruin," said Lutz Dunkel, co-owner of the Pirnascher Hof. "Up until the end of the '80s, the building was a residence for several families. As the roof rotted away, the families moved down floor by floor." Now totally rebuilt, the most charming space in the hotel is its wine cellar-restaurant with vaulted stone ceiling and walls. "This used to be the coal celler," Mr. Dunkel said. The night's menu included potatoes blended with a variety of cream cheese known as quark, ragout with wild mushrooms, and Reformation bread, which is shaped to look like a cardinal's hat, reflecting Pirna's role in that great church upheaval.

Reconstruction is a major industry in the town, and work is visible everywhere. Strict rules preserve historical facades in a city that has been designated as a national heritage town. In interiors, painted ceilings dating from the Middle Ages, Renaissance galleries, baroque stucco, even more modern art nouveau touches, must all be restored as Pirna tries to recapture its many centuries of prominence.

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