At exactly 11:15 in the courtyard of the royal palace in Dresden, forty Meissen porcelain bells began a sweet three-minute melody. I left the shelter of my guide’s umbrella to get a closer look at the bell tower. Squinting into a mist, I could just see the porcelain bells vibrate when hit. I was mesmerized by this little royal trick. Then I wondered why I was so thrilled. Several groups of sturdy Russian tourists who crowded the same square didn’t seem to be that impressed.
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 new insights and great new sights — newly restored and newly open to the public.
The Wettin Dynasty ruled Saxony from Dresden for 800 years. 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 Wettin jewels in Dresden’s “Historic Green Vault” — newly opened and requiring an advance reservation to see. They’re absolutely dazzling, and a clear reminder that those Wettins were something in their day.
Then, after pausing to enjoy several street musicians (ever since Romania was admitted to the EU, there has been a flood of street musicians in this part of Europe), I went out to see Volkswagen’s “Transparent Factory,” where visitors are welcome to watch fancy new models actually being assembled. The factory is so politically correct that parts are brought in by “Cargo Trams” — which congest the city’s traffic less than trucks.
Finally, the highlight: the newly restored Frauenkirche. Dresden’s 310-foot-tall Church of Our Lady was destroyed during the massive bombings one night in 1945. With a huge international effort, the heart and soul of the city was put together like a massive jigsaw puzzle — using as much of the original stone as possible. Today it’s open once again. 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.
My Dresden visit started rocky. Riding the express train into town, I figured it would just stop at the main station. The train pulled into Dresden Neustadt — the New City of Dresden. Okay. Most of the passengers got out. So did I. The train took off. I walked and walked with my bag, really sweating, in a confused fog. I must have walked twenty minutes as my denial that I had gotten off on the wrong station slowly faded. After circling the big block and pretty embarrassed at my mistake, I pondered cutting my losses and just taking a taxi to my hotel. But another train was leaving in minutes for what must be the central station. I hopped on. Five minutes later we arrived. I hopped out at Dresden Mitte. The train took off and I stepped outside the station again, and it slowly sunk in: I made the same mistake again. Another train came in a few minutes. I got on it and finally made it to my intended station: Dresden Hauptbahnhof — a block from my hotel. As I tell travelers in lectures: “Many towns have more than one train station.”
One of my best skills — extremely helpful in my line of work — is the ability to make mistakes…with gusto. After a day in Dresden, the frustrating start was a distant memory. And I had a new appreciation of a city that just 60 years ago lay in smoldering rubble, just 20 years ago was in a USSR-imposed economic hole, and today seems to have caught up with Western Germany.
After the masses of Americans I saw in Berlin and Rothenburg, I saw barely one during my entire Dresden visit. Hey, travelers — check out Saxony. Those Wettins rule.