DRESDEN, Germany - By the standards of this house, the treasure before me is modest: a finely hammered gold goblet with four inlaid thumb-size sapphires, and a few rubies and pearls. It belonged to Ivan the Terrible, who perhaps quaffed from it after conquering Siberia in the late 1500s.
The chalice has a warm, burnished glow. No doubt that on the black market, it would bring enough to buy a middling hedge fund. But in Dresden's legendary Green Vault, the treasure house of 18th-century Saxon monarch August the Strong, the adorned solid gold drinking vessel is remarkable in its relative simplicity compared with the jewels, gems, trinkets, and heirlooms here in such splendor and number.
The Green Vault's gem room, for instance, has in display cases hundreds of sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds that suggest their collector wanted his trove to have every hue in the spectrum.
My sister and I are pausing on an odyssey into our family history in Germany and Poland. We have heard that the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a visitor magnet, a once-royal capital rescued from the ruins of war, with historic treasures at every turn.
Set beside the gentle folds of the Elbe River beneath the Ore Mountain foothills, Dresden was once one of Europe's great capitals. August, who ruled Saxony and Poland from 1697-1733, built Dresden into a center of wealth, power, and culture, and the city center was universally admired as one of Europe's most magnificent.
After the city was firebombed by British and US planes in still-controversial raids between Feb. 13-15, 1945, Dresden became a symbol for inexplicable aggression. With few significant military or industrial targets, and the war's outcome clear, its destruction appeared unjustified to many. More than 5 square miles burned, and no one knows how many thousands died in a city that was full of refugees. One of the victims was the Frauenkirche, the Lutheran cathedral, which collapsed two days after the raid.
Many historians suspect the strike was in retaliation for German raids in 1940 on Coventry, England, that destroyed the Cathedral Church of St. Michael, which dated to 1300.
British citizens dedicated money and spiritual support to Dresden, which started to rebuild after the collapse of communist East Germany in 1990. The airy, light-filled Frauenkirche is now a beacon of hope and reconciliation. Among many compelling symbols, the new cross at its top was made by the son of a Royal Air Force pilot who had bombed the city. The rebuilt Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) was consecrated in 2005, and has since drawn more than 2 million visitors.
I learn this from a church docent, a white-haired, stoop-shouldered volunteer who notices me peering at a charred piece of stone in the altar, following the nondenominational service of reconciliation that takes place each Tuesday evening.
"Those are precious," he tells me. "Interesting, yes? Charred stones that are gems. They are from the original 1743 building. We used them wherever we could during the rebuilding."
Archeologists were called in to help sort the rubble when reconstruction began in 1993, and today 44 percent of the new building is composed of pieces of the old - thousands of ebony fragments that dot the church, like so many tiny memorials, culminating in the blackened tower cross that stands in a nave near the altar. Visitors are invited to light a candle for peace nearby.
European capitals in which history fills the air are numerous. What stands out in Dresden is the great care taken in its reconstruction. The stone plazas between buildings, for instance, are patterned in gray, rose, and lavender granite, and the modern replacements match the originals in color and pattern. A painfully dull Soviet-era arts center looms over a central plaza like a monolith; but nearby, newly-built condominium complexes mirror the Baroque style of nearby palaces.
Those palaces abound - six, at least. The Royal Palace, which contains the Green Vault, was reconstructed from half-ruin and the treasure house reopened in 2006 (the gems themselves had been removed from Dresden during the war). Dresden's most glorious hotel, an outpost of the Kempinski chain, occupies one old palace, the Taschenberg; a spiffy restaurant, Grand Café Coselpalais, is in another. Both sport the lemon yellow paint favored by Baroque palace decorators, and the Taschenberg is a pastel paint-pot of lemon, mustard, ivory, apricot, and café au lait.
There are two other restored churches, Hofkirche, the Roman Catholic cathedral, and a Protestant citadel, the Kreuzkirche, home to a famous boys' choir; a magnificent opera house, the Semper, that has become a mecca for music (Richard Strauss premiered nine of his 12 operas here); and a half-dozen museums focusing on Saxon armor, folk art, coins, and sculpture. Perhaps the best-known example of the latter is a 12-foot gilded monument from 1735 to August the Strong, the "Golden Rider," next to the Elbe.
Saxon cuisine is enjoying a revival at several city-center restaurants, including the Coselpalais, which features pheasant breast with bacon and venison saddle with wild berries, the latter a dish as rich and royal as any Green Vault jewels. At Radeberger Spezialausschank, a tavern perched in an old house along the riverside fortifications, I try sauerbraten with raisin sauce. "Raisins?" I ask the waitress, a cheery 25-year-old who speaks perfect English.
"Saxon tradition," she says. "August the Strong's favorite dish. Same recipe." Her grin lets me know this jest is fondly borne of her city's long history.
Eric Lucas, a freelance writer in Seattle, can be reached at email@example.com.