“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.”
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.
My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets. Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?
Can you imagine having been intimidated, interrogated and abused in the ‘old days’ of madness, and then many years later, after walls came tumbling down, you bump into your bully in a grocery store?
That’s the story our hotelier in the amazing city Schwerin shared with us at breakfast. His wife was clearly still shaken up by this experience, but that is so much reality in many parts of Germany, or the larger previously communist Eastern Europe.
Heleen and I decided to explore the far northeast of Germany for a week and to see what surprise destinations, in both sights and history we could find. And oh boy, did I enjoy it.
Schwerin is the capital city of German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is particularly known for its breath-taking palace. The palace is currently the office of the state government and is situated on the lake island just out of town. It was February and as can be imagined, the weather was not ‘African friendly’ weather, but we were brave, tightened the scarves and strolled the beautiful island, amazed at the majestic palace before we sniffed out a delicious traditional German potato-, leek- and ‘wurst’ soup with bread and a glass of nearly acceptable quality wine in the well preserved ‘altstadt’.
I attempt to also appreciate the extremely interesting other historic periods strolling the town and sights, but the Stasi- and the cold war period is constantly in my head. So much more after having a very absorbing conversation with our hotelier and being informed that the big empty building 200m from the hotel is actually the old Stasi Head Office, where his wife had her nightmare experience many years before. It was actually right there on our doorstep and one of many places where so many serious atrocities happened resulting in numerous innocent people’s life so dramatically influenced by the communist and socialist bully methods. This incident, of the hotelier wife and her face-to-face years later with her interrogator immediately reminded me of Anna Fulder’s book, Stasiland, and that particular comment Miriam made to Anna when she said, ‘And I think about those Stasi men. They would never in their lives have imagined that they would seize to exist and that their offices would become a museum. A museum!’ She then further says ‘I like to drive up to the Runde Ecke and park right outside. I just sit there in the car and I feel …. triumph! Miriam makes a gesture which starts as a wave, and becomes a guillotine. ‘You lot are gone’.
And that’s the lesson. Nothing lasts. Not Eric Mielke and his Stasi nor the Gadaffi’s, Sadam Hussains, or Robert/Grace Mugabes and their cronies.
I like driving around in these remoter parts of the over developed Germany. Here you still get a feeling that its slightly remote and rural – definitely not Karoo remote – but at least slightly less built up than Northrhein Westfalen, where we live. Once you’ve succeeded in shifting the Stasi history out of your head for a while, you realise how scenically beautiful this part of Germany is. Schwerin sits next to a beautiful lake, the Schwerin See, (yes, the Europeans call a lake a sea and the sea a ‘meer’, but then again, Obelix did repeatedly state that they are slightly crazy!). This northern coast provides some extra scenic splendour including the white cliffs at Putgarten on the island Rügen. It’s a worthwhile destination to go hiking, even in bad weather. Bad weather here has the knack to shut you off from the rest of the world. Its just you, the grey of the air and sea and the beautiful green of the coast, with a bleak hint of the whitish cliffs in the distance. And just before you freeze, you end your hike back in town in a small pub-like restaurant with thick vegetable soup and fresh bread. Winter here is grey, but it’s a grey that has its own peculiar excellence.
Further east and on the border with Poland is the holiday town, Heringsdorf, on the Usedom Island. The area is known as Kaiserbad, as it was the favourite spa destination of the German Emperors in days gone by due its its clean beaches and the long sandy stretch. It actually is the longest sand beach in Europe, being 40km in total distance. Heringsorf was our base for a few days from where we visited the astonishing Świnoujście (Swinemünde) which has a harbour in the river mouth of the Swine river. This was a major German naval base during WW2 as well as the Cold War period. On the beaches of Heringsdorf the military lookout towers are still plentiful. The irony about these is that they were mostly used, similar to the Berlin Wall, to keep the ‘free’ people of the German ‘Democratic’ Republic from defecting, and not so much as defending against external threats entering!
Some 40km to the west of Heringsdorf we strolled in fascination through the museum in Peenemünde. Here an Army Research Centre was founded in 1937. Many serious weapons, including guided missile and rocket weapons were tested and designed here using the nearby concentration camp inmates as forced labour – forced to build weapons they knew would destroy their homeland and massacre their own people. During the Cold War Soviet days it was rumoured that the Soviets revived Peenemünde for their space program.
Heading back home to Bad Honnef, I decided to drive via the historic towns of (Lutherstad) Wittenberg and Erfurt to spend a few hours in the footsteps of Martin Luther, the father of the German Protestant movement. It is 500 years ago (October) since he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and certainly was a door I needed to see. The Luther church was inspiring to see, but as a town the old part of Erfurt was something extraordinary. It was here, in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained in the Cathedral of St Mary, which dates back to the 8th century and where he also delivered many of his sermons. Still intact in Erfurt is the Krämerbrucke (or merchant bridge) and its medieval houses spanning the Gera River. The original bridge was an important part of the trade and pilgrims routes connecting Rome with the Baltic Sea. It was originally a wooden bridge but was destroyed many times by fire. The current stone bridge, which is lined on both sides with half-timbered houses, was completed in 1472.
En route back home to ‘West Germany’, we stopped a last stop to sort of exit ‘Eastern Germany’ officially at a fantastically interesting museum called Point Alpha. Its one of many ‘Grenz’ museums where the ‘iron curtain’ became real. Point Alpha specifically was the border between the towns Rasdorf in the west and Geisa in the east. It has an excellent museum depicting the inner German border as well as some well-preserved samples of various stages of the original border.
After a thoroughly enjoyable week back in history and into a cold grey era, I must admit that there was a feeling of relief that we were heading west, and that it was into an era well beyond 9 November 1989, the day when such important walls came tumbling down. Walls aren’t the answer.
If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave
‘My house in Budapest
My hidden treasure chest,
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo’
For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.
Though often missed as a tourism destination, I made up my mind that Zagreb is a gem and secretly beautiful while genuinely worth a visit.
Dolac market in Zagreb
Its small and I was enthralled while strolling the inner city, just sitting and people watching (photographing) on Ban Jelacic Square or while browsing the open market Dolac. August though, was extremely hot and uncomfortable and after properly enjoying the shortest funicular in the world to elevate us to Gornji Grad or up-town Zagreb enjoying the magnificent Baroque architecture and descending throught the 13th century Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) to Donji Grad or down-town, it was time to head into the hinterland, where the breathtakingly beautiful Plitvice Lakes awaited.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of those destinations better described by photos.
Its waters flow over limestone chalk, building over time various natural dams and waterfalls reminiscent of beaver dams over which one can only stand in awe and take in the wonders of Gods creation. The wooden walkways at the side of the lakes and little bush footpaths provide the opportunity for a leisurely workout in nature, building up a nice sweat while deciding which angles will make the best pictures and traversing the many ups and downs of this nature walk. Its not a tough walk, but it does take time and one should be prepared by at least carrying sufficient water with you. It’s a natural wonder, though, and should be included in any bucket list venturing in the direction of Croatia.
But man steps in
Plitvice is also the sight where the first shots were fired in March 1991 when a policeman was killed as the start of the Croation independent war. Croatia was part of Yugoslavia during the communist era but splintered relations brewed as conflict for many years before the violent eruption in 1991. Croatia and Slovenia had a more liberal (imagine that irony, liberal communism) view and pushed for more autonomy versus the conservative hard-nosed Serbian side. Yugoslavia was a communist country since after WW1 and was made up of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Traveling is not sight seeing
Therefor we enjoy and mostly try to find slightly more ‘authentic’ places to stay. Renting self-catering accommodation in these parts directly from local homeowners provide that ideal opportunity to meet and chat to the locals. We stayed with Ana, in Apartment Ana, in the sort of town area Smoljanac. The beauty of staying here was that you experienced rural Croatian daily life as well. You have the opportunity to buy your beer at the local little crocery shop, and take a seat at the wooden table outside on the street where the local labourers offer you their seats. Maybe because we’re foreigners or maybe because we had our parents with us, but still, six hardworking men, at the end of a long day and enjoying their Ožujsko beer without hesitance giving up their seats made me feel welcome, in an area where right in front of Apartments Ana you still see the sadness of a recent war in the soldier monument guarding the valley. Even today, some houses and building still show the bullet holes in the walls. Except for the tourism and accommodation side of this rural community, the existence is very much small scale farming where beans, tomatoes and corn are picked by hand, goats are milked by hand and all fresh produce produced locally for daily consumption.
Dinner at the friendly (or rather I think it was friendly judged by the smiles, service quality and interest in us as we have no idea of the Croatian language, and they very little of English, German and no Afrikaans) Pansion žafran, Smoljanac 88 was delightful. We started to learn more about the Croatian cuisine, realising the influences of what we know as Greek, Italian, Mediterranean and a few regulars from Germany featuring on our plates. There were amongst others schnitzels and pizzas but also cobanac (a delicious spicy meat stew), cevapcici (a type of skinless spicy sausage), burek (a type of pastry dish) and for desert rozata (a flan like caramel covered desert) to name just a few.
Self-drive hands you the scenic route
Take the scenic route. Stop at the war memorials and plan the extra time to enable you the wonderful sights of the Dalmation coast. That’s what I believe! There are 101 or thereabout stops to be made, photo opportunities or cafe’s to be experienced and simply wondering about life out here when you venture off the beaten track. Taking route 25 through the heart of where serious battles were fought all the way to Karlobag at the coast and across the amazingly beautiful mountain passes to get there proved an excellent choice providing us with a stunningly scenic drive, feeling like an extended Chapman’s Peak, for the entire day. Our end destination was Split.
‘Split is nie vandag se kind nie!’ (Split is no youngster)
Split is an ancient city with some sources taking economic activity as far back as 2,400 years ago. It was Greek and Roman in its day, but today Split is a proud Croatian city providing a tourist destination ‘par excellance’ including access to many stunning Adriatic islands, perfect for a day tour in the sun and on the salty sea surface. That’s what we did. Chartered a skipper and ski-boat and we explored the fascinating Adriatic Sea, its islands of Hvar and Vis with a first stop in Komiža. We would occasionally dive into the crystal clear blue waters to cool off and then head further exploring. There is never enough time, but we did have time to visit one of my personal highlights, the ex Yugoslavian shelter for boats and submarines on the island Vis, just off the town of Rogačić. This is a 75m deep shelter carved into the shore and which forms part of an entire network of tunnels and underground shelters which the Yugoslavian army occupied for decades.
Further around Vis is the little island Ravnik and the Green Cave, where we ventured in with the boat, had the opportunity to snorkel and enjoy the beautiful images of the sun piercing through a hole in the roof to provide stunning scenes in the crystal clear water inside the cave. I know my home country is ‘the most beautiful country in the world’, but once you’ve broadened your horizons you realise how often beauty is in the eye of the beer holder!
Our charter captain for the day, Alex, was a wealth of information and a delight to chat with. While relaxing for lunch at Restaurant Zori, Palmizane, I was able to get him talking about the history, the war and the modern day Croatia. The irony of the situation stays with me. We were having the time of our lives, thinking about Croatia as the best thing since sliced bread and making plans to come live here, while he was only interested to move away, where he can find a ‘proper’ job and be away from the ugliness of what the war reminded him of. He went on about the day the war ended, the evacuating senior officer giving orders to bomb Split, even though his family were still living in Split and how, though he saw the beauty and exciting future of a modern day Croatia, he preferred to move on.
The more I learn about Europe, the less I understand war.
North of Split is the bay area with is seven Kaštels making up the seven towns, before you reach the walled little gem of a town, Trogir, with its ancient architecture, zillions of photos to be taken, cafè’s to be tried and corners where you can duck behind to just restore your jaw into place after hanging open at the sights. Wealthy families built these seven Kastels in the 1500s mostly as summer residences but also as fortification against the attacking Turks who would come from the sea. Those young Turks certainly were a menace!
Stumbling onto a gem
Starting the long journey back, my daughter took initiative and secured our last stop. We were now taking the highway and not the small roads as we had many kilometres to kill, but it was still a scenic route through the central mountainous terrain, which is Croatia.
Ševlje, is a small little rural village in Slovenia, but it’s ideally situated for what we needed. We needed scenery, little mountain roads, a day trip opportunity and a warm shower. Then we would be happy. The fact that we got all of this, plus a delicious home cooked Fettuccini Alfredo courtesy of Linda and Pieter, some good conversation and a sip of wine to discuss the day’s events over, was pure bonus.
As is my nature, I selected the smallest little roads to get to Bohinjsko Jezero, or Lake Bohinj. It’s the slightly less famous lake in the Slovenian Alps with that clear Alpine mountain water as forefront and the snow peaked (its August yes) in the background. Old architecture of bridges, churches and more provide amply photographic opportunities, while there’s always sufficient coffee and ice-cream available in Europe. Lake Bled is the more famous one of the two lakes, and has the world famous Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja (maybe slightly more pronounceable Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Maria) on the Island of Bled in the middle of the lake. After some canoeing on the lake and criss-crossing through and over the mountains to photograph the lonely Church of St Primoz with its majestic outlook over the world, we knew its time to move on.
A fantastic three week road-trip from Cologne, through the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria had to end with quick stopover in Munich, just to show off the Marienplatz to Pa Cas and Ouma Koekoe before embracing the autobahn all the way back.
It was a magical three weeks, 4,131km and uncountable photos, laughter, wow-moments, lessons from history, hope for the future and just pure wonderful nature experiences making me realise once more, ‘what a wonderful world’ we have.
Please click the photos to enlarge and please have a look at the video clip at the end
I do know its been nearly 26 years since this ugly curtain was drawn, but still there is some odd nostalgia to venture behind it, observe the interesting languages, food and diversity, discover the great cities and cringe at the stomach-turning history. Once you’ve seen Auschwitz, realized the terror of the communist cold war on the East European people, the modern day slavery inflicted on nations such as Hungary and slept in the Plitvicka (there should be a upside down caret on that ‘c’ but I have no idea how to type that!) where as recently as 20 years ago the Serbs and Croats were still fighting a fierce civil war, you realize that the human race is evil, really evil. Chris de Burhg says it: ‘I fail to see the wisdom of a war’.
I decided to acknowledge and see this history for myself, and Heleen and I planned our trip. Before you stop reading because ‘you’re not in the mood for a somber dark blog post’, let me entice you with the confirmation that what we have seen and how these former grey dark places have lifted themselves and created wonderful new destinations with breath-taking tourist destinations is the real wow of what we’ve discovered. I believe everyone should visit Eastern Europe.
Prague is a majestic old grand city and is often called the Paris of the east. Indeed it is a beautiful city, with a buzz of activity, street music, restored vintage cars as sight seeing opportunities and the exceptional architecture to challenge millions of camera lenses, mobile phones and even tablets; the most awful of tourist camera equipment available! We took a city tour in a 1929 Praga 10 seater car that proved to be an excellent choice. Feeling like the queen (and having to concentrate not to lift the hand in her familiar wave to the crowds) we were entertained through the streets of Prague including the old town, the bridges and the castle hill. We hooked up with friends from South Africa who nowadays stay in Prague and imagined ourselves rubbing shoulders for breakfast with the likes of Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka in the famous restaurant Louvre where both these gentlemen used to ‘hang out’.
But Prague was still very west and I urged to go deeper and, with a lunch stop over in beautiful Kutna Hora and a fabulous one-night stopover in the rural Czech town Házovice we headed to Krakow, Poland.
On our way, though, was Auschwitz.
This is the most horrific place I have ever seen. I cannot even try to write something about it. What strikes me about this history, and then the more recent war areas we’ve traveled through, is that it’s not ancient. It’s not Vlad the Impaler in the dark ages, or Atilla the Hun. It’s in our day and age. Some of the people involved and responsible for inconceivable atrocities are still living amongst us. In Auschwitz itself, the number varies on how many people were actually murdered there. Polish governments itself reduced their official number down from the originally broadcasted 4m to what seems to be the official number now of around 1.1 million. It’s much less, but by no means any less atrocious. Think about the numbers: 1.1 million people in 5 years. That’s 220,000 people per year being murdered or even more exasperating 603 innocent people per day. These were not soldiers shooting back, these were merely people different from the oppressing Nazi’s! It is incomprehensible! Nonetheless, in my view, and despite its horror, Auschwitz should be visited for the sake of improving the future.
Krakow is one funky, beautiful and definitely worthwhile city to visit. During the rule of King Krakus, very much as in the times of Lord Farquart (remember him?) I presume, the farmers in the vicinity of Wawel Hill got so fed-up with the weekly sacrifice of a cow to the local dragon that they ‘poisoned’ him by feeding him a cow skin filled with smoldering sulfur! With the dragon’s rule up in flames, Krakus built his castle in Wawel Hill and voila, Krakow was founded. Or at least, that’s according to some legends.
As with most of Europe, history is filled with violence, war en terror. Krakow is no exception. Krakow as city was spared during WW2, mostly because it served as a major Nazi base and formed the capital of this region. Soon after they, the Nazis decided that they will rid Krakow of all Jews and decided they were not willing to live near the Jews. Initially many Jews were deported, but then the Krakow Ghetto was established. Walled in as part of the city, this was where all Jews had to live in horrendous conditions. To visit the Jewish Ghetto Square and reflect on what happened was a truly thought provoking experience. I think I am loosing all respect in the human race. On the square is a memorial consisting of monumental chairs to signify the habit of the Nazis to enter Jewish apartments and throwing all the furniture out of the window. I immediately remembered why I couldn’t finish watching the film, The Pianist. I simply stopped watching the film when a crippled man in a wheel chair was unceremoniously thrown from the building! But there are always heroes as well, and part of our battery driven 8-seater golf cart tour was a quick visit to the factory of Oscar Schindler.
However, strolling the streets of the magnificent Kazimierz or Jewish Quarters, as well as the Old Town and its magnificent Rynek Glówny, Europe’s largest medieval square (which was grotesquely named Adolf Hitler Platz during the War) gave me new hope. Despite the past and the deliberate destruction of culture and beliefs by a psychotic group, the evidence is there that the people of Krakow have built a funky, modern and stylish city with medieval architecture well intact but complimented with modern cafés, bars and restaurants. It is a pleasure to wander through this fascinating city. A visit to Krakow should be on everyone’s bucket list.
En route to Budapest and further south, we ventured off the beaten track through the incredibly scenic Štiavnica Mountains and explored the World heritage town Banská Štiavnica in the middle of an ancient caldera (collapsed volcano). I was here much more for the political fascinating (though sometimes truly mind blowing) history, architecture and ‘feel’ than for archeology though. And that ‘feel’ we fortunately did get. In Banská we had the privilege to see the real ‘old world charm’ of the East Block. I am struggling to accurately put in words what I mean when referring to this as charm though, as I have no doubt whatsoever that living under the communist regimes up to the end 80’s was no pleasure. Life was hard, mundane and without any luxury while architecture was unimaginative, square, grey and cold. But for me, now that life has changed for the locals, to wander through towns and apartment blocks in this town I could feel that ghastly reminisce of how isolated and living with eye-patches people were forced to live. Even in 2015 we were stared at strolling down the streets. I could see the curiosity in the eyes of an old man, wearing a vest as shirt, when we passed him, cheerfully and excited chatting in Afrikaans. I wondered if he has ever heard of a country called South Africa. But I more wandered what this man has seen in his approximate 80 years.
Adding to the sheer enjoyment was the limited English and even German understanding in restaurants and shops. Struggling to communicate in an odd manner adds to the enjoyment of travel, as it enhances that feeling of exploring, discovering and achieving, which are the essentials of great traveling.
There have been many conflicts in Budapest, which as a single city is actually quite new. Originally founded by Celts before the Romans ruled Budapest it is a city with a long and intriguing history. Its name stems from the two Bulgarian fortresses Buda and Pest situated on each side of the Danube River and which only merged as recent as 1870 into one city.
My first visit to Budapest was in January 1994, just five years after the Iron Curtain was lifted. I remember so well how fascinated I was with this absolutely stunning city with its distinctive ‘behind the curtain’ feel to it. I remember Katie Surek (our land lady at that time) complimenting us on our nice clothes (jeans, sweaters and sneakers) and charging us just 8 US dollars per night for accommodation. I remember exactly that feeling of being the only foreigner in the city, everybody staring at us while having magnificent coffee and cake in the classy Gerbeaud Coffee House on Vörösmarty Ter, or strolling the Vaci Utca, Andràssy Utca and the Hösòk Ter (Heroes Square). Said Katie, ‘people came with buses to the city to window-shop when the first Nike store opened in Vaci Utca. The West has arrived and Hungarians could express their individuality by being one self, by working for yourself and achieving for yourself!’
Now, 21 years later, the spectacular city is proof that these capitalistic, ideals and motivation paid off handsomely. Budapest has become a trendy vibrating place with cafes, bars and restaurants galore, while still maintaining that old character and heritage. Budapest now seem to be a happy place as opposed to those dark, dark years of communist rule and modern day ‘slavery’.
At 60 Andrassy Utca is the Terror Museum, which was unfortunately closed on the Monday I was there. They do however have an excellent display outside saying just enough to make sure I will go back and visit the museum on an open day. One such is the story of one Andràs Toma, the Hungarian soldier who was captured and put in a labour camp in 1944 by the Russian Red Army. Toma was captured on January 11, near Auschwitz and was taken to Boksitogorsk, or as the Russians call it Бокситогорск near St. Petersburgh. Toma picked up some illness and was transferred to another camp, Bistrjag (pronounced Bistrjag), some 1,000km further east and in 1947 transferred to a psychiatric hospital in Kotelnisch. Psychiatric patients were not labour camp prisoners and therefore András’ records were deleted. He was declared dead in 1954 and thus was ‘lost’. A linguist recognized his accent as being Hungarian and not Russian and his case was followed up. He was brought back to Hungary in 2000 after spending 54 years in a Russian Psychiatric hospital and with DNA tests he was reunited with his family. Since his military service was continuous, the Hungarian government paid him out all his back pay. Andràs Toma (who became Tamas) was probably the last WW2 POW to be returned home. Life’s a journey, they say.
If WW2 and Cold War is regarded as old school, our next destination entered areas of extreme scenic beauty and much more recent violent conflict. We headed to Croatia, which will be the topic of my next Blog post. For now I’ll leave
‘My house in Budapest
My hidden treasure chest,
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo’
For mountain lakes, Dalmation beaches, islands, boat cruises and gripping historic learning.
Ja well, to say the truth, two days at a couple of museums, but wow, what interesting stories, photos and places! Some of them seriously scary and entirely screwed up though!
Berlin’s history is not for the faint hearted. But nowadays, it is truly a magnificent city and I love going to Berlin. As a matter of fact, it must be my favourite city in all of Germany because of its vibrant new world feeling combined with that old world cold war inquisitiveness. And when you think further back, it obviously has a sickening place in history too, but to be able to wonder the exact same streets now and shake your head in misbelief on what has happened here in the recent past is simply a marvelous traveling experience.
And furthermore, I love to visit sites that featured in movies. When Jason Bourne ‘kidnapped’ Nicky on Alexanderplatz in The Bourne Supremacy, I new exactly where that was and how those trams operated. Thus, I decided to start my two-day museum visit in Berlin with coffee and croissant in Coffee Fellows on Alexanderplatz.
I need to qualify before saying anything further that I am no political analyst, I am no historian, I am no fundi on war nor spying, and I am not a psychologist. I will simply blog my experience and sentiment. I am, however so curiously intrigued by the German history and why certain things happened the way they did. Thus, even though I have visited the DDR museum previously and I decided that I don’t have to go there again, I simply strolled there on auto pilot and found myself wandering through this fascinating museum once more contemplating the irony why the socialist state called themselves the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (or German Democratic Republic – GDR). Can it be that these guys actually had a very deep deep hidden sick sense of humour? They were so democratic (and honest) that Walter Ulbricht (the Chairman of the GDR Council of the State) on June 15, 1961 answered a journalist who asked if they were planning to ‘erect a state border’ at Brandenburg Gate with a ‘Nobody intends to put up a wall’.
On the peaceful Sunday morning of August 13, 1961 the barbed wire were strung and the East Germans were erecting barriers. Walter Ulbricht signed the approval on August 12, 1961. That was the wiring that ended up in a full border around West Berlin consisting of a wall on its eastern border and fences along the northern, western and southern borders. In total, by 1989, this western island city was fenced in by:
106 kilometers of concrete plates
5 kilometers of metal fence
105 kilometers of anti-vehicle ditches
127 kilometers of sensor fence
124 kilometers of patrol paths
302 watch towers
20 bunkers and
259 dog runs
The main reason was the many GDR citizens who exercised their democratic right to relocate to the west (in 1960 about 360,000) reaching a climax in 1961 of 19,100 in June, 30,400 in July and 47,400 in the first half of August. Exercising one’s democratic rights under the German Democratic Republic’s autocratic powers was just to freethinking for their liking and image!
So, while the DDR museum enlightens one regarding life in East Germany for the period between WW2 and the fall of the Wall on 9 November 1989, the Deutsches Historisches Museum on the other side of the Berliner Dom tells the entire German history of the past 1500 years. Here you can follow history’s path through the political changes, the church reformation in the 1500’s, the language development and that interesting phenomenon and the pursuance thereof called ‘hegemony’.
This ‘big word’ features in the history of Germany, and Europe many times and coming from South Africa, I just shook my head in disbelief while wandering through the timelines and the resultant conflicts and shear scale of some of these conflicts. The first genocide mentioned in the Deutsches Historisches Museum is actually very close to home where it is mentioned that between 1904 and 1907 under the ‘Deutsch Südwest Afrika’ colonial regime (present day Namibia) eighty percent of the Herero population and 50 percent of the Nama population were killed in a brutal and deliberate scorched earth campaign. The drive was under the German General Lothar von Trotha and its estimated that between 24,000 and 100,000 Hereo and 10,000 Nama were massacred. According to Wikipedia, a copy of Trotha’s extermination order can be seen in the Botswana National Archives where it states ‘every Hereo, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women or children, I will drive them back to their people (to die in the desert) or let them be shot at’. These mass killings were named as the first example of a 20th century genocide.
What is wrong with the human race?
This is the third time I visited Berlin, and although Checkpoint Charlie is nowadays just a tourist photograph spot, with the most irritating wannabe dressed-up soldiers occupying the best photo spot and demanding money even to evacuate the spot so that you can take a photo sans them, I cannot not go there, have a coffee near the spot and sit and wonder. Café Adler is no more, unfortunately and has become part of a Berlin Café chain, but I did have the privilege to drink a coffee there in 2007 when I visited Berlin for the first time. I did find this excellent post regarding Café Adler though, and exactly as Francine Mathews so eloquently puts it, this is the reason I too keep returning to Checkpoint Charlie. Read it at http://www.francinemathews.com/cutout-spies.php
Sort of just around the corner in Niederkirchenerstraße is a preserved part of The Wall, with nowadays a brilliant museum consisting mainly of photographs of the Nazi party’s rise and atrocities during the war itself. I don’t think one can visit Berlin without putting a silent morbid hour or two asides to stroll through the Topograhie des Terrors.
My personal highlight, though was my visit to the Stasi Museum just off the U-Bahn Magdalenenstraße. This is the actual office and headquarters of the Ministry of Sate Security until the fall of the wall. This is the offices, boardroom and even bedroom where Erich Mielke ruled this State Department with his iron fist from 1957 to 1989. This was the spy headquarters where the East Germans conducted their propaganda, where they architected their subduing techniques and where the entire system of collaboration and civilian neighbour spying on civilian neighbour was run from.
Although the German history is scattered with atrocities of the grandest scale and incidents that truly make the stomach turn, there still is a weird and unexplainable nostalgia about the period of the cold war. In the seventies I was a child but remember the fascination I had when I heard the news mentioning the ‘lugbrug’ (air-bridge) of the western world servicing West Berlin or when my Dad told me about the spy novels he read where many scenes took place in Café Adler and those dark grey movie scenes portraying those days.
Leonard Cohen, that poet songwriter and singer is to the road trip what sweet green figs are to a good Roquefort, and don’t discard the Ratafia Haute Cabrière to finish it all off.
I’ve often thought of these words of Leonard Cohen when I think back and sometimes they really feel true, but now my emphasise is definitely on the ‘then we take Berlin’ phrase. A two-day break-away just became a week trip and no-one minded as the six people, a dachshund and plenty to see and talk about (plus that magnificent little Apple iPod with amongst 3749 other songs some great Leonard Cohen as well)had us all in pretty good spirit to build the anticipation for that magnificent world city, stooped in history which would be our base for the next four days.
Berlin was the Headquarters of the Nazi ruling party in World War 2 and the scene of many World War atrocities. My interest is however more on the Cold War period after World War 2, that period of communist’s ideology and how life was for the everyday citizen during those dark years. Furthermore the fact that these things happened in our lifetime! I’m not talking dark ages, I’m talking recent times, our parents have been born, and that, my dear friends makes it so much more incredible to ponder, and to wander the streets where the Berlin Wall once stood. Its not all doom and gloom though, as the good part of this story is that we did come to our senses, freedom in the end did win, both in Germany and in many more places across the globe including our own wonderful country. The challenge remains to maintain this newfound freedom in a sustainable way.
From our flower trip in Lisse, crossing under a part of the Ijsselmeer at Amsterdam and the over the Afsluitdijk at Den Oever we ventured through the province of Groningen, the city Groningen and stopped for bratwurst and beer (I’m sticking to the ‘alkoholfrei’ when driving – some brews actually have a version they call ‘drive’) in Hamburg before arriving in Berlin. It is notable to see that the countryside in this northern part of Germany, which was previously in Eastern Germany, is less built-up and seem to still have a larger part that is unspoilt. Larger parts are still natural forest and the farms houses are more remote than in the southern and western parts. I will have to come and venture on the ‘little’ roads of this area soon.
To really appreciate Berlin, one needs to know a little bit about the history of the city and Germany in the past 60 to 70 years. Therefor, focus for the next few minutes and grasp my layman’s and very shortened history lesson, as it really is fascinating stuff.
When the war was over in 1945, the allied powers, consisting of France, the USA, Britain and Russia, divided Germany into four administrative regions that were then governed by administrators or High Commissions from each of the allied countries. Since Berlin was the capital, it was divided into four regions as well, even though the city fell slap bang into the Russian sector of the country.
This is an important concept to understand. Shortly after this dispensation was put in place the proverbial pawpaw started to enter the fan. Josef Stalin started to impose the socialist ideology on his eastern sector and Eastern Germany and the east block was borne. As a deliberate political stance the other three of the allied union stood strong and never gave up on the western philosophy, even though the pressure was huge. Remember that Berlin was now a landlocked city surrounded by the GDR (imagine that, Eastern socialist Germany was called the German Democratic Republic). I can still remember how I sat fascinated in front of Riaan Cruywagen reading the news (the real news, not as Haas Das!) in the seventies and eighties and talking about stuff such as the Airbridge. At that time I didn’t fully comprehend what that was and what that meant! The United States Air Force and the United Kingdom Air Force flew more than 200 000 flights in one year into Tempelhof Airport, West Berlin with supplies. That translates into 548 flights per day or 22 per hour around the clock to deliver up to 4700 tons per day of necessities! Some Supply Chain lessons to be learned there!
During the fifties, close to three million refugees emigrated from East Germany to West Germany, most of them through the relative easy loophole created in Berlin, where the West was so near! Life under the commies wasn’t that lekker and people wanted better lives and futures. This caused a huge embarrassment to the Soviets and their socialist ideology. On 15 June 1961 the Chairman of the GDR still proclaimed in an international press conference, “Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”‘ (No-one is thinking of erecting a wall’). Nevertheless, in the early hours of Sunday 13 August 1961, temporary fortifications were erected at the western sector borders! West Berlin was now seriously fenced in and families and relatives were in many occasions split up. This armed blockade lead to many attempts to escape and many people lost their lives – 192 to 239 is the number of deaths on The Wall I could find.
Walking in streets such as Friedrichstraße where that famous Checkpoint Charlie (and still is though now as a commercialised tourist attraction), and Café Adler was leaves one both cold and awed with thoughts of what transpired here in the decades before the evening of 9 November 1989 when the crossing points were opened and The Wall in effect came tumbling down! In a weird sense its nearly romantic with visions of Michael Caine or Sean Connery or even Tom Cruise sipping something fancy in Café Adler and ‘spying on the east’. I’m sure I saw Dolf Lundgren ‘spying back’ from across the street!
On my previous visit to Berlin in June 2007, Café Adler still existed, though as a newer coffee-shop type café. We were seriously disappointed this time round to see that it disappeared with all that history and was replaced by a Cafe Einstein.
Just a block away from Checkpoint Charlie, on the corners of Wilhelmstraße and Niederkirchenstraße a 90 odd meter of The Wall was kept intact and serves as a museum/monument of the monster! Elsewhere in the streets, the path of The Wall is visible in the tarmac and pavement where it was paved in.
There are however, two other pieces of The Wall, which is still in tact. The one is known as the Eastside Gallery as it is used as an art mural nowadays.
Just a block away from Brandenburg Gate, a memorial for the holocaust victims was built. It consists of various grave-like structures of different sizes and heights with paths like a maze between them. Though it’s a real sombre and devoted place, it was amusing to see the majority of tourists just couldn’t stop themselves from using the play
opportunities the architecture provided, to the great frustration of the German caretaker trying his best to stop people from jumping and running on the monument.
Learn from the bad but focus on the good is always good advice, and this applies in Berlin as well. Since The Wall came down and the city united into one is a mere 23 years, but in those 20 years the city has become a world class modern city with the once barren Potsdammer Platz changed into a magnificent modern shopping area, the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff an ultra modern glass and steel structure which serves both as a five level train station and shopping centre.
Oupa Cas and Stean in particular lost themselves in the Deutsches Technik Museum where several floors of aeroplanes, boats, trains, computers and many other industrial megafters are on display, while Ouma Koekoe and Cara enjoyed the enormous Berlin Zoo. Heleen and I headed for the DDR (Deutsches Democratisches Republik) museum, where life in Eastern Germany is excellently displayed.
An interesting claim by this DDR museum is that the German preference for nude swimming actually stems from the era of socialism as a way of proclaiming individuality amongst the people. I think I’ll stick to jeans and t-shirts.
Leaving Berlin on the Bundesautobahn 115, we passed a strange sight. Next to the highway is an old stand, as if we were driving on a racing track of some sorts. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, but it also solves many questions, and after a quick iPad search while driving Heleen confirmed that indeed we were on the ‘Automobile-Verkehrs- und Übungstraße’. It was indeed a public road, also used for motor racing, though its not been in use for that purpose since 1936. The 1927 Berlin Grand Prix was actually held on this piece of road. Amazing, the spectator stands are still there, right next to the current highway.
There’s been a chain email doing the rounds of the Magdeburg waterway with the ships crossing it and though some people denied it being true, I can now personally say its real. We stopped there en route back to Köln to take the pictures. Standing under the incredible piece of civil engineering of one waterway crossing another in mid-air I couldn’t help thinking bemused how I struggled to waterproof my 2×1 meter fish pond, while these guys have a huge canal ‘hanging’ in the air, and not dripping!
So, our planned two-day flower trip to Keukenhof turned into a great seven-day 2000km circular trip that included too many sights to report on here. Something I have learned is that one should never try to compare sights, as each one is magnificent in its own right. Traveling is about seeing things, visiting places and experiences people, culture and foods. The two main attractions, Keukenhof and Berlin that we visited are both highly recommendable, though for me personally a visit to Berlin for the sake of the learning this city provides is a bucket list must!
Thanx Oupa Cas and Ouma Koekoe for your visit, we already miss you.