At exactly 10:15 a.m. in the courtyard of the Zwinger palace complex in Dresden, 40 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 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 the 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 an advance 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 actually 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 February 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.