For the past fortnight I have enjoyed the pleasures and borne the anxieties of solo travel. I’ve always considered myself an uncultured swine for not having seen enough of the world, nor consumed adequately of its literature to compensate. My summer was from the outset a directionless, uncoordinated void so I decided to take measures to rectify this and book myself into a couple of German Youth Hostels. What follows is an account of the time spent in the country complete with detours, tangents and a few pictures for your perusal.
Sitting here in Oranienburg im Gartenzimmer called Glaube (belief). An unconventional start to the whole ship’s log – yesterday I was too exhausted to write clearly.
I’m in Oranienburg because on the outskirts lies the Sachsenhausen Gedenkstätte – a town whose most famous tourist attraction is a concentration camp.
Sachsenhausen is massive, and one is bombarded on all sides with copious information detailing the various humiliations, atrocities and appalling violations of human dignity which went on at every corner. The main memorial statue depicts a scene of liberation – a Soviet soldier shelters two cowering, rake-thin prisoners with what appears to be a cape. On the colossal tower which serves as a backdrop to this sculpture there is an array of red triangles – the symbol denoting political prisoners, who were this particular camp’s main victims. Of course in addition to the ideologically opposed the usual cohort of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other “inferior” races also passed through these gates, a good lot never to return.
More disturbing than sheer statistics were the original features preserved such as execution blocks, hanging poles, prison cells and even mass crematoriums (used before the SS men started getting inmates to burn their own dead in vast open air pyres). It was in the shelter of one of these “ovens” that a weaker, altogether less triumphant memorial than that of the political martyrs stands. This statue depicts the beating of a skin-and-bones prisoner by two camp guards.
Spent the morning and early part of the afternoon in Potsdam, which is a beautiful city with impressive neo-classical architecture. It was the seat of the German Kaisers and the heart of the Prussian Empire under the Fredericks. The town is eager to point out that it is home to the first Brandenburger Tor, and that Berlin’s much bigger gate is only a copycat.
For housing such grand buildings, the city seems strangely empty. Just discovered that beer is unbelievably cheap here. So is bread.
I do the Berlin walking tour today (as recommended to me by I guy next to me on the flight in). The journey begins to the backdrop of, this time the real, Brandenburger Tor. From there to the Denkmal für den ermordeten Juden Europas, or Holocaust memorial. This is an awe-inspiring and eerie piece of sculpture – but this is spoiled somewhat by the oppressive summer sun and the unfilterable sound of children’s laughter and ignorant play. I resolve to return and visit the museum under the construction.
Next we are ushered a little way down the street to a curiously inconspicuous carpark of all places. We are soon informed of the reason we have stopped – this is the largely unmarked site of Hitler’s bunker.
Partly demolished by the wrath of Soviet soldiers at the end of the war, the remaining structure was filled in with concrete by those who wished to eliminate all trace of the place where the Führer decided to end it all, so as not to fuel the Hitler cult. The plaque, hidden away in the corner of the carpark, to acknowledge the location’s historical significance was paid for by the residents who were sick of the constant enquiries of inquisitive Third Reich tourists. There has been no funding to commemorate the spot by the German federal government.
Bundestag Open Day today!
Spent the past three hours, and 4 euros, in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. I especially enjoyed the Early Modern section, which was a bit of a throwback to first year – ah, the nostalgia, so long ago!
In the morning I took a walk to the Eastside Gallery – a preserved section of the Berlin Wall. This was definitely worth it, if for the guitarist clad only in beach shorts and a rubber horse mask singing The Strokes’ Someday halfway along alone.
It appears that quite a lot of the wall is not merely maintained, but also updated, with the political emphasis accordingly renewed. Some of the structure does feel like a gallery, and it’s a shame about the fence which cordons off a significant chunk. That being said, those parts without a fence do seem to receive a heavy dose of somewhat less than artistic graffiti – but isn’t that more authentic then?
Around midday the weather took a turn for the torrential and I had to run for shelter having not taken my large hooded coat to conserve space. My newly impulse-purchased bomber jacket served as a mediocre rain shield here. I found myself at a roadside Lidl (well, when in Germany!). Bought a little pizza and, I couldn’t resist, ein Berliner for afters! Basically a glorified jam doughnut.
Daytrip to Prague. By some miracle I managed to get there and back on schedule.
I arrived, to my ignorant shame, promptly to discovered that the Czech Republic is not indeed in the Eurozone when I tried to pay for the use of the toilet with a 50 cent piece. The Czechs use crowns.
My impression of the city: Prague is beautiful, but not in a contrived, artificially enhanced way. When she wakes in the morning, dishevelled and unmade up, she still retains a fundamental character of splendour that is inherent and ineffaceable.
What I mean, in less flowery terms, is that despite the rather haphazard layout, smatterings of graffiti, and not exactly ill-kept, but not exactly pristine, streets, Prague defies these minor imperfections with a cultivated and easy charm. Angular diagonals intersect where least expected and one finds oneself unintentionally sucked up an endearing lane flanked narrowly by pastel coloured, ornamented buildings.
I was able to see the magnificent revolving Kafka sculpture outside a shopping centre, and photographed the obligatory astronomical clock. Then I took a hike up to Letna Park, where I am reliably informed once stood the world’s largest statue of Stalin. This was toppled with the fall of Soviet communism and in its place now stands a beguiling animatronic arm which rotates perplexingly for no clear reason. Between two great cauldrons/beacons is now stretched a line upon which several pairs of shoes are strung. Again, absolutely no idea as to the significance.
The accommodation at the Burg, Spreewald Youth Hostel is making me question why I visited the DDR Museum in Berlin. This is an East German flat, and no replica either. My room is so orange and low-ceilinged, it’s like I’m on an old sitcom set or in the Utopia prequel episode or something. I laugh to myself as I feel the bathroom furnishings. Everything from the taps to the toilet is plastic – bathed in a Bakelite sheen.
A balmy evening here. Very pleasant. Lebensmittel five minutes away! No Wi-Fi though – eek. Whereas Berlin was bilingual with (pretty much) everyone reverting to English as soon as they were able to pinpoint my nationality, Burg is near the border so signs are also in Polish.
So it seems to be Cottbus day today. Unlike in Berlin where one can go pretty much anywhere for 3 euros, this city’s network is more limited in terms of affordable travel. It would cost me around 20 euros each way to visit Leipzig or Dresden from here; I’m not sure that’s a bill I’m willing to front.
Cottbus is lovely though, with the Altstadt being especially pretty. I resolve to hire a bike to expand my radius of possible travel.
Okay, so I managed to hire a bike for four days. I feel so powerful – move over pedestrians, I am the king of the pavement (and cycle path) now!
My steed only has three gears, and is not the most comfortable of beasts, but it suffices. Brandenburg is the flattest of the Bundesländer – I can go anywhere! Mobility, freedom and speed are mine!
In a little town called Calau now. I’m overlooking a large pond surrounded by reeds – in the middle there is a small eyelet upon which sprouts an oak. A sizable population of ducks swim hither and thither endearingly. Every time an acorn falls from the encircling canopy above, one of the ducks bolts through the water towards it before it can sink and attempts to force the thing down its gullet. Is this normal behaviour for such waterfowl?
I’m sitting on a bench on the outskirts of our Spreewald sister-town, Lübbenau. It seems bigger and more populated than its altogether sleepier relative, Burg. The cycle route to get here was very beautiful – through secluded woods all the way and not so stressful as yesterday’s unsolicited forays into Privatgelände.
Bismarckturm! (Also free open day!) The view from the top was basically just trees, seeing as it is situated in the middle of a big forest. In the afternoon I visited the Spreewald thermal pools, which I believe did me some good – sehr entspannend!
Cottbus seems to be one of the few free Wi-Fi zones in the entire Spreewald area. I opened my phone to find 58 new notfications *gulp* It seems that Hilary Clinton has pneumonia. Are we one step closer to having Donald Trump become the most powerful person in the world? *shudder*
Reflections on the trip as a whole
Length: although I tried to cram a lot into two weeks of Germany time I feel like the travel to time ratio could have been more weighted in favour of moving around. Berlin is a big city with a great many possibilities and an excellent and affordable transport system to boot. Burg, however, is just a little village, and the surrounding area is full of little villages that while are quaint in their own way, remain fundamentally similar. Here I started my holiday asking for directions; by the end I was giving them.
On the issue of transport, Germany is great for its cycle routes – at least the Brandenburg area for starters. One is never forced to take a direct route with high traffic volumes – there are always side paths and bypasses in what amounts to a vast arterial network that interweaves the forest.
What has surprised or intrigued me? In Germany there are none of the British supermarkets – not a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s in sight. And why have them when they have such wonderful options of their own – Lidl, Aldi and my personal newfound favourite, Netto. There seems to be no such thing as self-service here, which I suppose can only be a good thing seeing as part of the reason for the trip was to improve my oral language skills. Also it seems that Germans do their recycling, or at least part of it, in supermarkets – perhaps there are incentives for such behaviour? Strangely enough, Tesco are in the Czech Republic.
+ DDR Museum
+ Eastside Gallery
+ Deutsches Historisches Museum
+ Spreewald Thermen
– Not being able to open that bottle of .39-euro beer
– Torrential rain with no hood/shelter in Berlin
– Lack of free public toilets!
– No Wi-Fi in Burg