WITH its clamorous skyline of spires, domes and breathtaking baroque stonework, the Saxon capital of Dresden was rightfully known as the Florence of the North.
One of the most beautiful cities on Earth, this cultured and mannered place, draped like a sandstone fantasy along the sparkling River Elbe, was the artistic treasure house of Middle Europe – a centre of excellence in music, crafts, opera, theatre, painting, and, most famously, ceramics.
Then, 64 years ago this week, its world ended.
Just a few weeks before the end of the Second World War, a devastating series of allied air raids pounded the historic centre into rubble. Nearly 4,000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs flattened the Altstadt. And, one by one, its glorious edifices burned and collapsed.
Up to 40,000 people perished. What had been a beacon of civilization became a morgue.
If it had been any other city, it would have slid into obscurity.
But Dresden is not any other city.
Visit today, and you’ll find something that would be instantly recognisable to 18th century travellers. In other words, spires, domes and breathtaking baroque stonework – with an artistic life that, once again, puts most capital cities to shame.
So culturally important, and stunningly beautiful, is this German gem that the United Nations has declared a lovely great chunk of it a Unesco World Heritage Site – giving it the same protection as the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal.
“All of this is protected,” announces Christoph Munch, opera singer, musician and member of the Dresden tourist board.
“That includes the old town, the whole riverfront… and even the Elbe itself,” he adds, with an expansive sweep of his arms.
We are standing at the Augustusbrucke – an ancient stone bridge linking the lively, and relatively modern, Neustadt with the baroque heart of the city – a riot of churches, palaces, gilded statues and monumental public buildings.
It is a scene straight out of a fairytale book.
Christophe smiles. “Yes, it is beautiful, but nearly everything you see has been rebuilt and restored,” he says, revelling in my disbelief.
“It has been reconstructed block by block. See that building?” he asks, pointing at a grand old townhouse with ornate plasterwork and cute rows of windows emerging from its red tile roof. “That was finished last year. And the one next to it.
“We are rebuilding the city to how it was before the war. And we are making sure it is exactly the same. More or less!”
Sitting at the heart of the city is its crowning glory and greatest symbol – the jaw-dropping 18th century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) – Germany’s greatest Protestant church.
It is a stunning spectacle – standing proudly like a giant wedding cake. An enormous dome flanked by spires and porticoes. Its ornate white stonework dazzles, changing colour with the light.
Yet, like many things here, it is not as it seems. This enormous place of worship is almost entirely new.
Although the original church initially survived the bombing, its pews and galleries burned in the resulting firestorm. Unable to withstand the ferocious heat, its great sandstone piers exploded under the immense weight of the 12,000-tonne dome. And, two days after the raids, it collapsed.
After the war, the city found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, in what was rather ironically known as the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik – or DDR).
The cash-strapped East German regime left the ruined church as a war memorial – leaving it as a great open scar at the heart of the city. Roses grew on the pile of rubble, while great chunks of its masonry were put into storage. Then, following reunification, work began to restore the masterpiece.
Like a giants’ jigsaw, the church was slowly reassembled, with traditional craftsmen ensuring it looked identical to its former self.
It opened to gob-smacked Dresdeners 11 years later.
It now serves not only as a place of worship but, like its sister church, Coventry Cathedral, as a centre of peace and reconciliation.
Visitors can explore its interior and enjoy the crystal-clear acoustics with a packed programme of choral concerts and recitals.
A stone’s throw from the Frauenkirche is yet another eye-popping splendour, the turreted Royal Palace, a wing of which houses one of the world’s finest collections of treasure – the Green Vault.
Housing the personal collection of the city’s most famous former resident, the 18th century Saxon prince and notorious lothario, Augustus the Strong, this is a sensory overload of riches – stuffed full of jade, amber, ivory, jewels, silver and gold, gold and more gold.
Led around the sumptuous panelled rooms at your own pace with the aid of a neat audio-guide, you feel irresistibly close to these priceless objects.
Indeed, you have to stop yourself from reaching out and touching some of the statuettes, which are not even behind glass.
So overpowering is the sensation of opulence and glitz, it’s hard to stay focussed... and to keep your hands in your pockets!
Certainly, you’ll find yourself in need of a reality check – and a good drink. Fortunately, this being Deutschland, good drinks are in plentiful supply.
If all that opulence has left you struck with delusions of grandeur, you could follow in the footsteps of the hard-partying Augustus himself, and enjoy a tipple or two in baroque splendour in one of the gorgeous bars around the old town’s main square, the Neumarkt.
But, for a jolt back to earth, take a glimpse at the trendy side of town, by hopping on a tram and heading over the river to Neustadt.
This student quarter has always been the city’s nonconformist, radical district and today houses its best bars, cool restaurants, hip galleries, and shops. Its architecture ranges from the very old (this area escaped the bombing), to the avant garde.
Massive works of graffiti art sit beside blackened churches, brutalist communist architecture, traditional tiled dairies and even an infamous DDR-era sex shop.
It is also home to a lively gay scene and a banging club culture, which frequently spills out into the streets in an explosion of hedonism.
Think Berlin, Prague or Budapest, but cheaper, cooler, and without the stag parties. This is a party town worth exploring – before the crowds catch on.
For lovers of socialist chic, Dresden is a gem. Reminders of its totalitarian past are everywhere – from the impressive workers’ mural in the old town – with its heroic images of defiant peasants and proletariat raising aloft hammers and sickles – to the modernist glass and concrete architecture on the edge of the centre.
One good reason to visit this year, is that it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of Germany. The event is marked by a series of celebrations recalling those heady days and looking back at those decades when the country was sealed off from the outside world.
For an insight into East Germany’s Cold War past you can’t afford to miss the DDR museum, a tram ride away in Radebeul.
Housed in a massive concrete office block, this does for East Germany what the Green Vaults does for 18th Saxony. It is a living, breathing exhibition of the best of that dowdy, threadbare, but utterly fascinating era.
You can spend hours inspecting comically petite Trabant cars, and wander through reconstructed schools, offices, holiday campsites, and apartments, with everything from displays of military uniforms to furniture, toys, big wooden radiograms and records by homegrown East rock bands (mullets and moustaches a speciality). Though, to be honest, much of it would not look out of place in your gran’s frontroom.
As strange as it may seem there is a growing sense of nostalgia for those days of austerity.
“They were hard days, but you knew where you were,” says Dresdener Volker Hammerschmidt. “Looking back, things were drab and grey, but everyone had a job and we felt secure. We call it ‘ostalgie’ from the German words for ‘east’ and ‘nostalgia’.
“People want to celebrate that culture they grew up with. It’s nice to joke about the terrible cars and the awful food, but we also had many good things. And, importantly, people looked after each other.
“Still, no-one really wants to go back to those days.
“Dresden these days is a world-class city again. We are proud of what we have here – and we want the world to see!”