German detour

Trip Start May 10, 2013
Trip End Oct 20, 2013

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Flag of Germany  , Saxony,
Friday, July 26, 2013

Have done a detour over to Germany because although have been here before, never made it as far as Berlin. It was an eight hour direct bus trip from Krakow, which was quicker than taking a train and changing at Warsaw.  Berlin, on the banks of the river Spree, is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with about nine centuries of history. Our first stop was the usual walking tour, but this time instead of meeting up with 10 - 20 others there were about 300 people waiting!  All good though as they were obviously prepared for these numbers and had many guides, so before we knew it were in a much smaller group and on our way. A good introduction to the city and after that we went back to see some sites again, then continued on to other attractions.  Berlin's best known symbol is the Brandenburg Gate, which overlooks Pariser Platz.  It was built in 1790 as the key entry point into Berlin, which was the capital of Prussia at the time, and modeled on the temple porticos of ancient Athens. It still looks magnificent, especially at night.  In a piece of irony, Napoleon stole the quadriga statue from the gate and took it back to Paris, but when he was subsequently defeated in 1814 by Prussia, the statue was brought back to Berlin.  Following this, the plaza it overlooks was re-named to show victory over "Paris". 
From 1961 to 1989, access to the gate was shut off for both East and West Germans, but re-opened after the wall fell. There are signs of the old  Berlin Wall everywhere, with the actual route marked on the roads and footpaths by a double row of cobbles, plus several short segments of wall still standing, and many memorials to those who died trying to escape.  Most remnants of the wall are now covered with graffiti art. Checkpoint Charlie was dismantled after the wall came down, but because so many tourists kept asking where it was, a replica of the US side was recreated, and is a mecca for visitors.   The original wall was erected on a single night in August 1961, and ran for 155kms.  Over time, the East Germans made many modifications to improve its ability to contain and restrain its citizens from fleeing to West Berlin, which was deemed a crime. There were a lot of tourists here (both German and foreigners) as confirmed by the huge numbers wanting walking tours, but it was possible to escape them by walking through the huge Tiergarten park adjacent to the Reichstag building where the Bundestag (Parliament) meets.   This park is 520 acres and was originally a hunting ground for royalty but became a park for everyone in the 1830's.  Immediately after the war, all the trees were cut down for firewood, and any vacant land was cultivated to grow vegetables, but subsequently replanted.  There were plenty of paths, lakes, gardens and monuments etc. and it was a very peaceful place.  The Reichstag was severely damaged by fire in 1933, probably by the Nazi's, and never fully restored until after re-unification in 1990.  It is possible to go up into the large glass dome via a circular ramp that winds to a viewing platform directly above the Bundestag chamber itself with impressive 360 degree views over the city.  We were very lucky to get tickets because the dome was to be closed for a week of cleaning the following day. Also, we were treated to a wonderful sunset. Were tempted to hire bikes in Berlin because it is a very cycle friendly city, but decided there were too many road works and detours for us to handle.  Cycleways are well used by the locals which is possibly why we saw little traffic congestion.  Berlin was sunny and hot - high 20's, so took to the Pergamon Museum one hot afternoon to see the ancient alter of Pergamon dating from 160BC.  The entire alter was removed from Turkey in the 19th century by German archaeologists, along with many other Pergamon treasures, and couldn't help thinking how much better they would have looked at their original site.  As well as the permanent Pergamon exhibition, it also had several other exhibitions showing ancient civilisations, such as Uruk which was a mega city in Mesopotamia (now Southern Iraq) dating back 5,000 years. It was amazing to see artifacts and cuneiform script from so long ago. Pergamon was one of 5 museums built on a small island in the Spree river and has UNESCO world heritage status.  Close by was the DDR museum which depicted life in East Germany during communist rule, and was very "hands on". We saw a typical East German flat, many of which didn't even have their own bathrooms. plus sat in a Trabi car, which was a basic car with a two stroke motor and people waited ten years to get one of these.  Took a walk through Potsdamer Platz, which only about 10 years ago was the largest construction site in Europe, and now has the huge Sony European HQ centre at its core. When walking around the city, it is hard to know if you are in what was east or west Berlin, and there is still a lot of construction work going on, restoring old buildings or building on vacant sites. We wondered why there were so many dark sculptures and monuments on lighter coloured sandstone buildings.  Discovered this was because Hitler ordered them to be taken down and stored in bunkers till after the war, so he obviously thought monuments were more important to save than people!  Berlin was a really interesting city which we enjoyed a lot, and couldn't help thinking how different life must have been here thirty years ago.
Had a brief stopover in Dresden, which is on the Elbe river and was the former capital and royal residence for the kings of Saxony.  This was another German city where the centre was almost completely destroyed by WWII, and although much has been rebuilt, there are still vacant sites waiting to be built on.  A lot of the old historic buildings have been rebuilt using a mixture of new materials and old recycled rubble, which seems to work well. 
It is mid summer here and obviously a great holiday destination for Germans as there are so many here, plus a few foreigners, like us.  We had planned on renting a car to see a bit of the Saxon countryside, but there were none available so did a boat trip up the Elbe instead.  The river is lined with castles and palaces, many of which were built for Augustus the Strong who was ruler of Saxony in the 1700's. The Elbe is a wide, fast flowing river that in 2002, rose 9 metres above normal and caused major flooding. Consequently, large areas beside the river are free of buildings to create a flood plain. It was a relaxing day with a 2 hour stop at the small town of Pillnitz, which had a castle retreat for King Augustus.  There were nice parks and gardens, but many were closed for maintenance so a bit disappointing.  Nothing that a cold beer couldn't fix on the way back.  Aside from the many churches and palaces in Dresden, there were other interesting old buildings such as the stable courtyard which has on its outside, a mural of the Procession of Princes dating from the 13th to the 19th century.  The mural is comprised of 25,000 porcelain plates about 200 metres long and 2 stories high. This was not the original mural, which had to be completely replaced in the early 1900's due to weather exposure, and it survived all the bombing of 1945. After a couple of days here it was time for a break from the cities and we are moving on this morning for the countryside - yay!
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alan & diana on

Fantastic - love your descriptions. Wish we had been with you. Where are you now?

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