No city in Europe paid a higher price for World War II than did Dresden. Known in prewar days as the "Florence of Germany," the downtown was about 85% destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945, just at the end of the war. The huge Allied bombing raid triggered a firestorm that killed 35,000 people.

The city's greatest buildings the - Semper Opera, the Zwinger Art Museum, the Royal Palace, the Frauenkirche and the Cathedral - were burnt-out shells.

During communist times, Dresden was virtually inaccessible to the West. Since the city lies in a valley and couldn't even receive Western television, its residents had little notion of life elsewhere.

Except for the Semper Opera, little was done until reunification to repair the war damage.

Now, however, the pace of reconstruction is feverish. The great old buildings are being restored on a schedule that will have them ready by the year 2006 when Dresden celebrates its 1,000th anniversary.

Though relatively small at only 1,300 seats, the Semper is nonetheless one of world's finest opera venues. It hosted the world premieres of the Flying Dutchman and Der Rosenkavalier and has been restored to its original gold and red plush decor.

The Zwinger, too, is back in the "zwing." It is one of Dresden's 40 museums and home to a marvelous collection of paintings including Raphael's Sistine Madonna.

But Dresden's biggest rebuilding challenge has been the Frauenkirche which is being pieced together like a mammoth jigsaw puzzle. The construction, amazingly enough, may be as much as two years ahead of schedule and is financed in part by a lottery.

One of the first steps in the process was to raise, from 10 to 33 meters (108 feet), the nearly 10,000 square-foot roof which covers the inner construction site. Exterior walls are now over 50 feet high. The site is one of Dresden's top tourist attractions, attracting over 10,000 visitors a month.

If You're Dresden Bound

• A new city tour offers visitors the opportunity to interrupt their sight-seeing at any of 12 stops along the way and then continue the tour 30 minutes later. Break for a beer at the Waldschlosschen Brewery; checkout the Fahrgarten, the "most beautiful dairy store in the world;" or shop the Königstrasse with its many boutiques and more than 20 pubs and restaurants. One don't-miss stop would have to be the "Green Vault," considered Europe's finest collection of priceless jewels, exquisite glassware, gem-encrusted clocks, gold tea services, etc.

• The Castle of Weesenstein, 20 km from Dresden, has grown from an insider's tip to one of Saxony's major attractions. Built in the 13th century, the castle is one of the most unusual in Germany, constructed from uphill to downhill, which puts the stables on the 5th floor. Set on a jutting cliff in the narrow Muglitz Valley, the complex consists of an upper fort, lower palace and park. There is an impressive banquet room, a palace chapel, a leather tapestry room, and the bird tapestry room. Valuable treasures such as the battling amazons of sterling silver by August Kiss, five haunting frescoes on the monk's floor, and an organ, built in 1741, the sound of which was said to heal the sick, are among a number of interesting items. The palace can be seen daily and is reached via B-172 from Dresden to Pirna (at Heidenau junction in the direction of Altenberg) or by S-Bahn, Dresden-Schna change in Heidenau to the train to Altenberg.

• Fans of the Austrian artist-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, will be interested to learn that he is building a new Dresden landmark. The project will house apartments and a hotel and cost $35 million.

Replete with bay-windows, balconies, gables and onion towers, the building will climax in a 100-foot corner tower suggesting a combination ship's bow and the hanging gardens of Babylon.

The 1:50 scale site model is already a tourist attraction and a souvenir shop peddling Hundertwasser articles is already up and running.

The ever modest Hundertwasser says his project will "realize and expand the dreams and the longings of mankind. Something everyone has long hoped for."

• Three Romantik Hotels of Saxony the - Pattis in Dresden, the Waldidyll in Hartenstein in the Erzgebirge Mountains, and the Deutsches Haus in Pirna - are overnight stops on a tour through some of the most attractive sights of Saxony. Starting point is the Pattis (three red roof-peaks in the Michelin Red Guide for Germany) in Dresden's nature preserve area of Zschornergrund. Highlight of the trip is a two-day stagecoach tour In The Tracks of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from Hartenstein to the Bohemian spa of Carlsbad. Contact Romantikhotel Pattis, Merbitzer Str. 53, D-01157 Dresden, tel. +49/351/425 50, fax 425 5255.

• Ground was broken this month for a new Dresden synagogue next to the Brühl Garden in the old historical city center.

In May of 1840, a synagogue designed by Gottfried Semper, the architect for Dresden's great opera house, was opened on this spot. But, during the "pogrom night" of May 9, 1938, it was destroyed by fire. Dresden firemen were forbidden to extinguish the flames and members of the Jewish community had to pay to have the ruins torn down. The stones were then used to build streets. Only the Star of David was rescued by one of the firemen; it will now be placed on the new synagogue.

November 1998