Letter from Europe

A bridge too far

Issue no. 2013/25


Tomorrow, a mighty stream of cars will roll over a new bridge across the River Elbe at Dresden. The bridge's opening is not being celebrated in any very public manner. For many Germans, it is a Bridge of Shame, for it is the reason why that part of the Elbe Valley, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004,was taken off the same list just five years later.

Dear fellow travellers

In 1790, an Italian count had a handsome little château built on the edge of the forest as a gift for his Irish wife. The building became known as the Waldschlösschen - a nicely poetic name for any country hideaway. The name means "the little palace in the woods".

Count Camillo Marcolini was successful on many fronts. In 1778, the year of his marriage to Maria Anne O'Kelly, he was appointed to the position of Chamberlain of the Royal Household of the Kingdom of Saxony. That was his Dresden job, but Marcolini was for forty years director of the famous porcelain works in Meissen. Quite how he managed to combine the two roles is difficult to fathom, but clearly he was a busy man, so no surprise perhaps that the Countess needed some distractions to keep her entertained.

The Waldschlösschen occupied a spot of delicate beauty. There was a fine view down the Elbe towards the centre of Dresden, with the bell-shaped dome of the Frauenkirche dominating the city skyline. On summer evenings Maria Anne O'Kelly would walk down towards the riverbank at dusk, watching the bats dance low over the Elbe.

Tomorrow, a mighty stream of cars will roll over a new bridge just at the spot where Maria watched the bats at nightfall. The bridge obscures the classic view of Dresden downstream. It takes its name from the Countess' riverside lodge: the Waldschlösschenbrücke.

The bridge's opening is not being celebrated in any very public manner. For many Germans, it is a Bridge of Shame. When the High Court in Saxony gave the go-ahead for the new bridge in 2007, many German politicians, artists and writers condemned the decision. "This is a black day for Germany," said Wolfgang Thierse, one-time President of the Bundestag.

The cultural and natural landscapes of the Elbe Valley were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004. The decision to build a new bridge over the Elbe brought worldwide criticism. For some in Dresden, the decision to push ahead with the bridge was more than merely an opportunity to address traffic problems in the city. It was a chance to snub the entire process of international decision-making - a moment to show that Dresden ruled the roost.

Bridge construction started in 2007. UNESCO protested, but eventually gave up on Dresden. It struck the city from the World Heritage List in 2009.

Curiously, worries by ecologists about the welfare of the colony of rare bats on the banks of the Elbe almost scuppered the project half-way through. For a while it even looked as though the bats might prevail. But ultimately they were treated with much the same disregard as UNESCO.

The deletion of Dresden from the World Heritage List has shamed Dresden - and much of Germany. It is the first time that a European city has so brazenly confronted UNESCO, and only the second occasion that any World Heritage Site has been delisted thus.

Saxony, and neighbouring states in eastern Germany, are now sweet-talking the world with good news stories about World Heritage. There are plenty of good tales to tell from Dessau to Quedlinburg, from Weimar to Wittenberg. Travel writers venturing to these spots will surely be implored to write enthusiastically about how the eastern half of Germany is overflowing with World Heritage - which it is. And those writers will most certainly be implored not to mention the sad saga of Dresden's new bridge.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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