East to West
Trip Start Nov 25, 2010
17Trip End Feb 23, 2011
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With Prague well and truly behind us, we travelled north through the Czech-German border for a three day stint in the city of Dresden where, for the first time in our trip, we found not a single English speaking tourist. Although the tourism industry in Dresden is actually booming, the city is decidedly more popular among German residents than it is international visitors. In many ways, this is understandable, as Dresden is less so a city with things to ‘see’ and often acts as a sort of getaway, shopping destination or otherwise. Yet Dresden also saw the brunt of many extensive allied attacks and bombings during World War II, with all that remains in the Old Town district still standing charred and blackened. At the centre of town, the former palace (or Schloss) stands tall above all else, it’s many decorative statues lining magnificent Prussian architecture appearing now like burn victims from the blasts of enemy fire. The interior of the Schloss now acts as a museum, photographs displaying the extent of the damage to the former palace grounds whilst also offering a staggeringly beautiful collection of royal items of luxury crafted from rare and exotic materials. Spiralled towers of intricately carved ivory stood side-by-side miniature statues of rhinoceros horn and exquisite Venetian blown glass; all, of course, draped liberally in solid gold trimmings
Taking a day away from the city limits, we decided at the last minute to journey forth to Koenigstein, a small town at the foot of Germany’s largest and oldest fortress. A lazy Sunday under blue skies and fine weather, we took the longer route uphill to the fortress grounds, hiking a good forty-five minutes through the woodlands and snow overlooking the riverside. Upon arriving at the fortress grounds proper, we were dumbstruck by the immensity of the structure. Built into the bedrock of the mountain face, it’s foreboding walls tower above all else in the region. After purchasing a ticket for admission, it was soon discovered the only way in and out of the complex was via an elevator which takes forty-five seconds to reach the top. If you think about that for even a moment, you’ll realise just how sizable and impressive a structure we’re talking. No sooner had we exited the elevator were we treated to the stunning panoramic views all around us of Koenigstein and the unique Elbe valley rock formations dotted along the hillsides. The complex was almost like a small town in its own right, complete with its own bakery, chapel, ‘town hall’ and other such structures
Before long, however, our three days in Dresden were up, finding ourselves hurtling toward the Prussian capital of Berlin; a city steeped in history and famous world over for its tolerance and artistic community. Whilst the weather worked somewhat against us for the duration of our stay, we wasted no time, kickstarting things off with a free walking tour of the city. Introducing us to all the key sights along the way, the tour was simply fantastic, explaining everything from Berlin’s rocky beginnings on the foundations of a swamp, it’s rise as political head of the German Empire, it’s inevitable fall in World War II and the subsequent erection and destruction of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. Indeed, the mere mention of Berlin is almost synonymous with the infamous wall of the same name, and it’s not hard to figure out why, given the bizarre - and all too recent - history surrounding the wall and the division of Germany post World War II. Following the allied powers victory over Germany, as is widely known, the German land was split amongst the four major powers; the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia. Whilst the US, UK and France worked toward a unified German democracy - to be known as West Germany - Russia decided to go the route of imposing hardcore communism upon it’s ‘liberated’ territories - East Germany and the Iron Curtain
Today, only a few segments of the Berlin wall still remain. On our walking tour through the city centre, were passed a particularly ugly segment that certainly conjures just the right amount of disgust within you for everything it represents. However, we took the time out of another day to visit the largest segment of the wall still remaining for a far more uplifting experience. Decorated by miles of grafitti and street art murals celebrating love and peace, this segment of the wall is treated almost as an open-air art gallery and a testament to the human spirit. We spent a good hour or more walking the length of the wall and enjoying the many fantastic paintings before eventually meandering back. However, similarly powerful experiences are abound in Berlin, another taking place on our walking tour in the form of Berlin’s largest and perhaps most important memorial; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The title of this memorial certainly doesn’t beat around the bush and nor should it. Installed in 2005, the memorial covers a gigantic block of land and is filled with large, stone columns of varying heights spaced equally apart from one another
As you can already tell, Berlin is literally teeming with history. Perhaps moreso than a large majority of world capitals. No small feat when you consider ninety percent of the city was destroyed in 1945. And although financially the poorest capital in Western Europe, Berlin is now a vibrant metropolis, home to a young population of creatives, artists and free-thinkers with an openly gay mayor who describes the city as ‘poor, but sexy’. Because Berlin is far from a pretty city. In many places, it’s downright ugly. It has a lot of grit and character, displaying vibrantly painted buildings and street art alongside giant concrete slabs and ugly, open-air pink piping that runs through most of the city. I don’t know if I would ever opt to live in Berlin, but I certainly know I’d love to go back. It has tremendous character, and a host of art galleries, museums, restaurants and districts still left unexplored despite our best efforts to cover ground during our stay. But for now, we find ourselves in Bremen; a wonderful little city with a Medieval old town centre. And I couldn’t think of anywhere better to say our final farewells to our time in Germany. Away from the drab of Berlin’s streets and the reminder of Germany’s sordid past, Bremen is a picturesque city that leaves a good taste in ones mouth; a reminder of Germany’s beauty and triumphs over a more unfortunate era. Displaying one of Europe’s finest town halls and cathedrals in its tiny little square, the beauty of Bremen’s Rathaus, Dom St Petri and thin, steepled rooftops will stay with us long into the final legs of our journey.
And that final leg has finally arrived with the trifecta of infamous capitals that is Amsterdam, Paris and London. First stop, deep within Holland and the Netherlands, is Amsterdam. Just in time for my birthday. No explanations needed.