Our first encounter with Görlitz was miserable.

In 1978 my wife, Heidi, and I traveled to Poland by car. It meant using the transit route through eastern Germany, the DDR, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the former communist country of East Germany. To use the transit route, even West Germans needed a visa and they had to use designated border crossings when entering and leaving the DDR. In our case, the border crossing into Poland was at Görlitz at the Neisse River, the eastern border of East Germany.

In the days of the Cold War, traveling on a transit route through the communist empire was no fun. Drivers had to deal with an autobahn from the days of Adolf Hitler and a speed limit of 50 mph (tough for West Germans used to higher limits or none at all). The road surface was like a washboard and it was patrolled by police, who would come out of hiding if they caught you speeding or crossing an unbroken line, or if they just wanted to check your papers. And driving off the transit route was a major crime that could cost you up to 1,000 marks (about 510 euros) or time in jail.

So it is easy to understand why we were happy to finally see the silhouette of Görlitz appear in the evening. We entered the town, desperately needing hot coffee, a break from the now-steady rain and a rest for our backs, which were stiff from the "clonk, clonk, clonk" pounding on the shoddy roads.

We were shocked. The city, dark and gloomy, looked deserted. There was little sign of life and only a few lights. The dominant color of the empty, worn-down buildings was a dirty brown-gray. And there was no restaurant or bar in sight.

Deciding there was no point in wasting time looking for hidden treasures here, we drove on to the Polish border. At last, some luck: There were only 13 cars ahead of us.

It took us seven hours to get through customs.

Last year, 30 years later, we thought it was time for another look at Görlitz. Dramatic changes had taken place. Germany was united, the communist bloc was history, Poland was a member of the European Union and NATO, and Wiesbaden, our hometown, had asked Görlitz to become a sister city.

Planning our trip, we checked the Internet for a place to stay and for general information about the town. We were amazed. Görlitz, a town of about 56,000 inhabitants, now had about 40 hotels and pensions and 60 private apartments for rent. And one comment called it "the most beautiful town in Germany."

"Could this be the same place we fled 30 years ago?" I asked my wife.

Two weeks later, we were heading east on a widened and modernized six-lane autobahn. No more "clonk, clonk, clonk," no more cops trying to ambush us. We reached Görlitz in good time, feeling relaxed.

Then our first surprise: The furnished apartment at Villa Hoffmann was a dream. Located in a big park with old trees, the stately mansion housed an attractive apartment in art nouveau style with two rooms, kitchen, bathroom, fitness area and free parking space. All for 50 euros per night for the two of us.

That was followed by more pleasant discoveries. The once dark-and-gloomy town shone in its century-old glory. We walked up and down its narrow lanes, its secret arcades, its glorious squares, discovering hidden corners and interesting details. We looked up at its towers, turrets and spires. One amazing view was rivaled by another.

Görlitz is a magic picture book of architectural styles. From Gothic and Renaissance, to Baroque and art nouveau, not many European towns can challenge Görlitz for its richness. We didn’t miss at all the fact that there were no half-timbered houses.

We also admired the restorations that had taken place on such a scale and with such success. More than 3,500 buildings and monuments are protected under preservation laws, most returned to their pastel or bright colors. Only once in a while would we find a dirty, run-down house sticking out like a rotten tooth, ugly and brown-gray between its multicolored neighbors.

Görlitz, at 900 years old and one of the oldest towns of Germany, was able to save its historic richness because it was not damaged in World War II.

However, much of the city fell into disrepair under the communists since many of those who occupied buildings felt no sense of ownership or responsibility for maintaining them. That attitude has changed in the past 20 years, and the buildings show it.

Like Berlin, Görlitz was a divided city. At the end of World War II, German troops blew up all bridges crossing the Neisse River, which ran through the city. When the river was made the border between East Germany and Poland, Görlitz lost one-fifth of its area to the new Polish city of Zgorzelec.

Human and administrative ties were reduced to a minimum between the two towns. Only one bridge was rebuilt to span the border crossing — the infamous opening where Heidi and I spent seven endless hours trying to get into our eastern neighbor.

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