Air of unreality

William Cook finds that today's town planners have restored Dresden's historic buildings, but not it

The man in the Dynamo Dresden shop was fed up. It was a busy weekday morning and the streets were full of shoppers, but I was his only customer. Yes, last summer's World Cup had been a big success, he said, but almost all the matches had been played in western Germany. A few foreign football fans had found their way here from Leipzig, the only World Cup stadium in the east, but otherwise the Weltmeisterschaft had completely passed him by. Dynamo Dresden used to be the DDR's top football club, and after the Wall came down there had been plans to build a big new stadium - big enough for World Cup games. The local council, however, was more interested in restoring buildings that had been flattened by the RAF in 1945.

Wandering around Dresden that afternoon, I could see what he meant. After my previous visit, a few years ago, I thought I knew Dresden pretty well. Now I felt like a newcomer in this newly antiquated city. Far from slowing down, as I'd assumed it would, Dresden's frantic renovation seemed to be accelerating. The flamboyant Schloss, a burnt-out shell throughout the cold war, had been restored to its former glory. The Protestant cathedral, the Frauenkirche, had been rebuilt. For the first time in 60 years, you could trace the skyline that Canaletto painted. And yet there was something missing, although it took me a while to work out what.

My father was born in Dresden during the Second World War and survived its destruction as a child. When I first came here, ten years ago, his birthplace was part curiosity shop, part car park - a few baroque relics, stranded in a sea of cement. These iconic ruins have since been patched up, and the windswept spaces between them are being colonised by department stores and office blocks. I'd always longed to see the city my grandmother saw when she arrived here in 1942 with my father in her belly, but now that this postcard vista was complete, I realised it isn't churches and palaces that make a city. It's the humdrum places where people used to live, places the firestorm devoured.

The historic Altstadt was the creation of Augustus the Strong of Saxony - a particularly unpleasant monarch, even compared with his absolutist peers. He built the city's Catholic cathedral to claim the crown of Poland, and the Taschenbergpalais beside it as a playpen for his favourite mistress. It's a five-star hotel nowadays, if you fancy a right royal dirty weekend. Yet it wasn't these pompous follies that made Dresden live and breathe, but the ancient tenements between them. That's why it burned so well.

The new apartment blocks that are rising up here today are designed for couples rather than extended families. The shops below them are earmarked for chain stores, rather than family-run cafés. This is happening everywhere, of course, but nowhere else is there so little history left to build on. This is one thing local people never mention when they talk about the bombing - how it swept away their past, leaving them like foreigners in their own land.

Dresden's architectural meisterwerke add to the air of unreality. The Altstadt looks splendid, but it's like a theme park or a film set. The old buildings are venerated, rather like geriatric relatives, but they feel useless and superfluous - and somehow less historic than the communist tower blocks that surround them. Weighed down by history, the city's rococo landmarks are more like war memorials than tourist attractions. Yet the tourists keep on coming, in search of a joie de vivre that vanished in 1945.

After the bombing, Dresden's inhabitants retreated to the suburbs. They never really returned. By day, the city centre is awash with sightseers, but it's deserted after dark. As I strolled along these empty avenues, it struck me that maybe this is why we find it easier to grieve for bombed-out buildings than for the strangers who perished in them. These people are unknown to us. The only way we can picture them is in the places where they lived. Perhaps this explains the present compulsion to rebuild: an attempt to revive the dead. The Altstadt used to be a building site. Now it's a museum.

As darkness fell, I walked across the robust bridge that straddles the River Elbe, blown up by the SS in 1945 in a futile attempt to thwart the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt after the war. On the other side is Neustadt, the 18th-century New Town. Less badly bombed than the Altstadt, and less elaborately rebuilt, it is a place where people live and work rather than traipse around on guided tours. It was a relief to see the graffiti and posters on the run-down tenements. These scruffy sidestreets felt far more alive than the showpiece boulevards.

On my last day I caught a commuter train to the dormitory town where my dad was born. Last time I went there, the station was derelict and decaying. Now it was spick and span. My grandma's old house had been spruced up, too. It used to be porridge grey, like virtually every building in East Germany. Now it was clean and light and freshly painted, but the man who lives there seemed weary and out of sorts. He had aged since I'd last seen him. Reunification has been a blessing for his children, but, for this refugee from a redundant epoch, you could sense it had been a huge ordeal.

As I left Dresden, probably for the last time, I remembered how excited I'd been on my first visit ten years earlier, and I wondered why the city no longer stirred me in the same way. Part of it was the usual vanity of the traveller - the delusion that you've discovered a place, just because you found your way there a few years before the coach parties. Yet there was a bit more to it than that. Ten years ago Dresden was a frontier town on the eastern edge of the European Union. In that brief armistice between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the World Trade Center, it felt young again: a place of infinite possibilities. Yet really that exhilarating limbo existed only for outsiders. Its inhabitants have had their fill of history. They'd rather have a new football stadium than another resurrected folly. Like every place with a violent past, Dresden now yearns for a century of normality. And it probably deserves it, after the century it's been through.