Germany: Chapter Two

After we down pots of coffee, copious amounts of eggs, bacon, sausages, pastries, bread and cheese at the Hotel Europa breakfast buffet, we waddle to our car to tackle the 3-hour drive to Berlin.

BERLIN. One of the truly amazing capitals of Europe. So many stories, so many tragedies and so much brilliance. It is my second visit and Bob’s first. Bob is hit with many of the same feelings as I had my first time. I will let him say it in his own words.

Arriving in Berlin has a visceral impact that takes me by surprise, especially during our walking tour of East Berlin. We walk on streets amongst buildings used by the Fascist Nazi dictatorship and the totalitarian communist GDR. We, in the USA, have grown up with books, pictures and movies, and know the stories of Nazi Germany and Soviet East Germany from a distance, but it was jarring for me to reach out and TOUCH the buildings where camps were designed to exterminate the Jews and, from 1950 to 1990 (all of my younger life), Erich Mielke ran the Stasi engine that terrorized, tortured and killed the German people and their spirit. This is one of the reasons we are traveling, to feel the emotional impact of historical events and make real our childhood history lessons.

Our rush to arrive in Berlin on time is because we have scheduled a walking tour of East Berlin with Glen, a Brit ex-pat who adopted East Berlin as his home a number of years ago.  Glen is a Liverpudlian freelance photographer whose deep fascination with and knowledge of Soviet-era Berlin is impressive and engaging. 

East Berlin is in many ways the new heart of Berlin. (Don’t say that in front of West Berliners). It is where young European ex-pats have flocked looking for opportunity, cheaper rents (long gone) a community of creatives, technos, misfits and the excitement of being part of a grand new experiment. While the grandeur of the Prussian kings is still evident here and there—mostly in rebuilt form, it is the remains of Soviet-era Berlin that fascinate. The Stalinist people’s postwar housing along grand boulevards that doubled as parade routes, was built to show that the GDR had more to offer workers than the capitalist West. They had elevators, central heating and hot water, parquet floors and doorbell systems. Inspired by social realism, Stalinist neo-classical buildings were monumental and ornate—referred to as called “wedding cake”.  

After Stalin’s death, building trends take on a more modernist/brutalist look and the ornate and monumental apartment blocks fall into disrepair. War reparations to Russia and the destruction of East Germany’s industrial sector bring about economic hardships. With the economy faltering, taking with it the vision of a people’s utopia, mass uprisings occur throughout the country. The East German government loses control and Soviet tanks come in to violently suppress the uprising. After the 1953 uprising, the “Stasi” or Ministry for State Security establish a system of spying on the population—turning citizens into informers. If you haven’t seen the German film “ Other People’s Lives”, it does a brilliant job of portraying the absurd lengths to which they go to spy on ordinary citizens.

All this is to say, we spend a good bit of time at the Stasi headquarters listening to Glen’s forceful and eloquent narration and looking at historic photos. The building is now a memorial and a museum as is the Stasi prison in the Hohenschonhausen district.

The next day we take another city walk with Glen. At one point, as we stand looking at a section of the Berlin wall, Glen points to the building behind us saying it was the headquarters of Hermann Goring’s Luftwaffe. It is from this building that he orchestrated the bombing of London. Ironically, it is also one of the very few Nazi command centers that survived the bombing of Berlin untouched.

But moving on from the morbid and the gruesome, we come to West Germany where life is rich and resentment towards the East Germans is strong because of the heavy “solidarity” tax West German citizens have been paying to support their brethren. The look here is green, graceful and grand with truly “capitalistical and decadent”—as my brother Keyvan would say—shopping malls. We spend a delightful afternoon touring the Charlottenburg castle and its park-like grounds. On the way home, we walk by a street salsa dance party and stop to shake our butts a bit.

That night was the annual Long Night of Museums where all museums are open and free till 2 am. I take in the scene on Museum Island. Brazilian samba drums and dancers parade the grounds in front of the Alte Museum, a Ukrainian acapella choir performs in the Berlin Cathedral and people in snake lines wait to get into various museums. It is raucous and joyous and I can’t quite get enough of it.

My sense is in the next decade, East Germany will catch up economically as international corporate investment finally gets going. Tesla is building its first European manufacturing plant in Gruneheide, Brandenburg. The Canadian company, Rock Tech Lithium, is manufacturing electric car batteries and Intel is building two semiconductor factories—the largest ever direct foreign investment in Germany.  This means East Germany is fast becoming the hub of electric car manufacturing in Europe.

I realize this is shaping up to be a heavy-on-history-and-factoids and light-on-traveling-tales post, so we will move on. Down the road towards Paris, we make a stop in a little town between Koln and Bonn that is the home to one of Germany’s top palaces and a UNESCO World Heritage site—Bruhl Palaces Augustusburg. On the way—a slight detour—and we visit the Gothic cathedral of Koln, another UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the shrine of the Three Wise Men. The limestone with which it was built reacting to the sulphuric acid in rain is now black and the structure is immense. It can hold up to 20,000 people and has spectacular stained glass windows.

Of the Bruhl Palaces, I will say little because the photos say it best. The interior shots are from the Palace’s small hunting lodge where Mozart was once a guest. 

Our lodging for two nights is a charming little inn called Clostermanns Hof in the village of Niederkassel. The village is really just a cluster of houses surrounded by fields with a church and a bus stop. Lest it sounds too bucolic, there is also a huge factory on the horizon. This is Germany and industry is always present.

Finally, we head to France and manage to spend 2 hours in Belgium on the way. A wrong turn drops us into a deep and beautiful forested valley where we come upon the town of Spa. Yes, Spa. This is where the word originated. 

Bastogne, another small town in Belgium is graced with a U.S. Sherman tank in its central square along with a statue of General McAuliffe as a reminder of its role in WW11’s Battle of the Bulge. Legend has it that when the German emissaries asked the Americans to surrender, McAuliffe answered NUTS!  We have a beer in his honor at a cafe in the square called the Nuts Cafe.

Next up—France!