I left the shelter of my guide's umbrella to get a closer look at the glockenspiel. Squinting into a mist, I could just see the porcelain bells vibrate when hit. I was mesmerized by this little royal trick.
Then I realized I was on a Dresden high. In an eastern German town I've known for just a few years, I had enjoyed great sights and new insights.
The Wettin Dynasty ruled Saxony from Dresden for eight centuries, right up until the end of World War I. Their Louis XIV-style big shot was Augustus the Strong. They say he could break horseshoes with his bare hands and fathered 365 children.
He loved being portrayed with the rose of Luther (symbol of the Protestant movement in Germany) being crushed under his horse's hoof.
The Wettins taught the rest of Europe's royal courts the art and importance of having their own porcelain works. The Wettins' Meissen was the first. I thought I knew the best crown jewels ... until I saw the glittering Wettin jewels in Dresden's "Historic Green Vault," which requires a reservation to see. They're absolutely dazzling, and a clear reminder that those Wettins were a powerhouse in their day.
After lingering to enjoy a group of street musicians, I zipped out to Volkswagen's "Transparent Factory" on the edge of Dresden, where visitors are welcome to watch fancy new models being assembled. The factory is so politically correct that parts are brought in by special "cargo trams," which congest the city's traffic less than trucks.
Back in town, along the Elbe River, I headed for the terrace called the Balcony of Europe -- once Dresden's defensive rampart. By Baroque times, fortresses were no longer necessary, and this became one of Europe's most charming promenades.
A stroll beneath a leafy canopy of linden trees to the balcony's east end takes you to the Albertinum, which houses several of Dresden's best collections: the Sculpture Collection and the New Masters Gallery, featuring works by 19th and 20th century greats such as Renoir, Rodin, van Gogh, Degas and Klimt.
Finally, the highlight: the restored Frauenkirche, the heart and soul of the city. Dresden's 310-foot-tall Church of Our Lady was destroyed during the massive Allied bombings that flattened two-thirds of the city on Feb. 13, 1945. The church sat in ruins for decades.
Finally, in 1992, a huge international rebuilding effort was launched. Like a massive jigsaw puzzle, the church was painstakingly reassembled using as much of the original stone as possible, and reopened to the public in 2005.
The interior is stunning: pastel to heighten the festive nature of the worship, curvy balconies to enhance the feeling of community, and with seven equal doors, to welcome all equally and send worshippers out symbolically to all corners to share their enthusiasm for their faith.
Today's Dresden is a young and vibrant city, crawling with proud locals and happy-go-lucky students who barely remember communism. While the city is packed with tourists, most of them are German or Russian. Until Americans rediscover Dresden, you'll feel like you're in on a secret.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
If you go
Sleeping: Splurge on Hotel Bayerischer Hof Dresden, near Neustadt train station, with its elegant public spaces in a grand old building; www.bayerischer-hof-dresden.de.
The moderately priced Hotel Martha Hospiz has a glassed-in winter garden and an outdoor breakfast terrace (www.hotel-martha-hospiz.de).
Eating: Jolly murals, cheesy music and a lively crowd add to the fun at Altmarkt Keller, a festive beer cellar in the Old Town (Altmarkt 4).
Dresden 1900, a streetcar-themed eatery, can't be beat for a good lunch (An der Frauenkirche 20).
Getting around: Dresden's network of trams and buses is so slick you might just spend an hour joyriding. Berlin is 2.25 hours away by train, every two hours.
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