Dresden is one of Germany's urban jewels, boasting a stunning skyline dominated by beautiful baroque buildings that have dazzled visitors to this historic center of regional royal power for centuries.
Today Dresden is still an important place, serving as the capital of Saxony, one of Germany's 16 states, which shares a border with both the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as four other German states - including Katja's home state of Bavaria.
Nestled in a valley along the banks of the Elbe River, Dresden has been celebrated as a world heritage site filled with great art and architecture and is renowned for its “Saxon” hospitality, seasonal Christmas market and goodies, including Stollen, a rich buttery fruit cake dusted in powdery white sugar.
Summer fun in the Saxon capital
And it is also attractive during the summer months to young people like Katja, who took a train from Nuremberg to visit her very cool aunt Senta - a musician who plays the clarinet and lives in a funky downtown apartment - just in time to experience the Dresdner Stadtfest, or city festival, held this year from August 14 to 16.
An estimated 420,000 people came out to enjoy the 11th annual Stadtfest, which marked Dresden's 803rd birthday, with some 450 special displays and events at 17 thematically grouped venues across the city. A variety of vendors sold all kinds of foods, crafts and other wares. Live music could be heard throughout the city. Games and athletic activities also provided fun for the whole family.
The main themes of the 2009 festival were Kultur (culture) and Klassik (classical culture and music). Senta explained a lot about classical music to Katja after they watched some live concerts during the three-day weekend. And, just like every year, the festival concluded with a magical nocturnal fireworks display.
The majesty of the Green Vault
Senta also took Katja to see the Grünes Gewölbe, or Green Vault, which is world-renowned as one of Europe's most sumptuous “treasure chambers”. After it was on exhibit in Dresden's Albertinum museum for 30 years, the famous collection of the region's former noble leaders has returned to its historic home in the Dresden Royal Palace.
In two different exhibition areas, the Neues Grünes Gewölbe (New Green Vault) and Historisches Grünes Gewölbe (Historic Green Vault), visitors can now view these magnificent artworks of gold, silver, precious gems, enamel, ivory, bronze and amber the way they were intended to be seen.
When US President Barack Obama visited Germany in June 2009, he stayed in Dresden and met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the famous Green Vault.
Vorsprung durch Technik
During her trip to Dresden, Katja also enjoyed going to the city's zoo and seeing other historic buildings, such as the Semperoper opera house. And she went shopping in Dresden's bustling pedestrian zone, where she checked out the local kids' favorite fashions, browsed in bookstores, and indulged in some Italian gelato at a local Eiscafe, or ice cream parlor.
Because Katja is really into art and photography, she also spent a lot of time in the Kupferstich-Kabinett. One of the world's most prominent art museums for drawings, prints and photographs, its collection comprises over 500,000 works on paper by more than 11,000 artists spanning eight centuries.
She was also impressed by Volkswagen's Gläserne Manufaktur, or Transparent Factory, where you can watch German automaker VW outfit and display its Phaeton car models right before your very eyes! Construction began on the glass complex where architecture meets industry in 1999 and it was open for business by 2001.
From destruction to renewal
Dresden has a long history as a leading European center of art, classical music, culture and science. Yet it was almost totally destroyed during heavy bombing by British and American Allied aircraft in February 1945, just a few months before World War II ended in Europe with Germany's surrender in May 1945.
The bombing of Dresden serves as the backdrop of the famous novel “Slaughterhouse Five” by the late American author Kurt Vonnegut. It has informed debate about the nature of war all over the world.
A symbol of postwar peace and reconciliation in Europe is Dresden's iconic domed Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, which was almost entirely destroyed in the wartime air raids but fully restored between 1994 and 2005 through private contributions, including from Great Britain and the United States.
Because of its location in southeastern Germany, postwar Dresden was occupied by Soviet forces and became part of the former East Germany until German reunification in 1990 - when West Germany and East Germany were finally unified again as one nation after decades of artificial separation during the Cold War.
Since then the restoration and revival of Dresden has continued apace along with the rest of the former East Germany.
Dresden is now once again a major cultural and commercial center at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe, with a vibrant alternative scene that attracts young people, students and creative types meeting in the myriad cafes, restaurants, clubs and parks across the city.
Other important major cities in the state of Saxony are Leipzig and Chemnitz. Among the state's striking natural landscapes popular with hikers and nature lovers are the high peaks of the Sächsische Schweiz, or Saxon Switzerland, the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains), Lausitzer Bergland (Lusatian Mountains), and the Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains) carved by the Elbe River.