DRESDEN, Germany - Welcome to Dresden, one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. Its grandeur has only recently been restored since German reunification in 1990, giving its classic baroque buildings a modern twist.
As World War II came to an end in 1945, Allied forces blanketed the city's renowned historic district with fire bombs, reducing cathedrals and museums to piles of rubble. Over 20,000 people were killed in what's regarded as one of the most controversial events of the war. Critics argue is was unnecessary and immoral. Some of that rubble sat for 50 years as a painful reminder of the consequences of war, but today Dresden is a model of success.
Dresden is the capital of Saxony, a former East German state that's been very good at wooing high tech companies from the western part of the country. The workforce was already in place because Saxony has Germany's biggest concentration of technical colleges and universities. Unemployment now hovers around 4 to 5% in Dresden, and average wages are high. It's one of two leading IT centers in all of Europe.
Dresden (and Saxony) also has a huge concentration of cultural institutions like opera houses and world-class symphonies and museums. To the delight of visitors and residents, ticket prices stay low because supply slightly trumps demand. Good opportunities for education, good jobs and good culture leads to a healthy economy that's currently the exception in Germany (and much of Europe). It's one of the only places in Germany where the population is growing.
But one has to consider why they're doing so well. Dresden basically rebooted after reunification in 1990. Leaders have had the unique chance (and the money) to start over and make their city and region more attractive.
VW's Transparent Factory is one of the most interesting stops in Dresden. Built into the middle of the city in 2001, this modern car factory produces the luxury model Phaeton. But the facility itself is the attraction here (ironically the Phaeton is one of VW's least popular models). Visitors can watch nearly all aspects of production. 21 cars are churned out per day, with one taking 3 to 4 days from start to finish. 4,500 vehicles rolled off this assembly line in 2013, and 70% go to China. The Phaeton was offered in the US in 2004 and 2005 but was pulled because of low sales. The 900-foot glass tower at the front of the factory can hold 400 finished Phaetons. It's truly an incredible feat of technology and architecture, making the plant a symbol of East Germany's successful resurgence.
The XL1 concept car had just been delivered a few days before our visit. Only 250 will be made. This tiny, lightweight car gets up to 100 miles per hour, and can travel nearly 250 miles on one gallon of diesel! It's slick and sleek, but it'll set you back $150,000.