Trip Tips: Dresden - the city that rose again on the Elbe

Trip Tips: Dresden - the city that rose again on the Elbe
People walk past a statue of King Johann of Saxony in front of the Semperoper opera house in Dresden, Germany.

DRESDEN, Germany - American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war in Dresden during World War Two, has a scene in "Slaughterhouse Five" where time-travelling hero Billy Pilgrim sees the city's firebombing in reverse, with phosphorous bombs sucked back into warplanes.

Visitors today to the German city that proudly, if a bit cheekily, calls itself "Florence on the Elbe", in a nod to its Italianate architecture, could almost think the scene was prescient of Dresden's resurrection since World War Two.

Imprisoned at a slaughterhouse that inspired the novel's title, Vonnegut lived through the infamous bombing raid in February 1945 which destroyed the old part of the city three months before the war in Europe ended. It killed, according to widely varying estimates, 35,000 to 100,000 people, or more.

Emerging from the relative safety of the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut wrote that the destroyed city looked like a moonscape.

Today the moonscape can be seen only in photographs. Sited on land that slopes up gently from the scenic Elbe in the historic kingdom of Saxony, Dresden, formerly part of communist East Germany, is one of the beneficiaries of German unification.

Its booming semiconductor, pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, including a glass-fronted factory that produces Volkswagen's luxury Phaeton model, and is a tourist attraction in its own right, mean the city is flush with cash to support a thriving restaurant, boutique and cultural and arts scene.

One of Germany's most prestigious opera houses, the Semperoper, which saw the premieres of nine of Richard Strauss's operas and three of Richard Wagner's, dominates a vast square.

Nearby, the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) has a spectacular collection including works by Rubens, Durer, Rembrandt and Canaletto, plus touchstones of art like Raphael's "Sistine Madonna" and Vermeer's "Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window".

Dresden is also the site of a modern miracle in the reconstruction of its historic old town, especially the rebuilding of the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). The heart and soul of the old city collapsed into rubble two days after the bombing raid due to the intense heat generated by the firestorm.

While the communist authorities who ran East Germany until 1989 spent money to rebuild the destroyed Semperoper, they would not fork out money for the church. Townspeople cleared the site and stored the remaining original stones nearby, waiting for their time to come, which it did when communism collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down.

With donations from throughout the world, including a substantial sum from a trust in Coventry, England, scene of another devastating church bombing in World War Two, the Frauenkirche was rebuilt from the rubble.

Since it reopened in 2005 it has become one of the top five tourist attractions in Germany, partly for its meticulously restored, pale white baroque interior, partly because it has a reputation for being "the biggest puzzle in the world".

Dotted throughout the church, inside and out, are the dark original stones, reinserted in their former positions as a result of painstaking research and computer-imaging technology.

The end result is striking and extraordinary - a mostly light-coloured structure flecked with dark that provides a stark visual reminder of the cruelty and destruction of war.

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