Cold and Grey, with protesting rays of sanity and beauty

Feb 2017

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’.

IMG_7010Schwerin Palace
Schwerin Palace

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’.


Schwerin Stasi Office
‘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.

Putgarten Clifs

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!

Beach whatch tower
Keeping your people from defecting, not enemies from 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.


‘And I think to myself ….’

I love music. I listen to music and it makes me think. I hear the words, I link it to real life issues and happenings and I get inspiration, motivation or sometimes simply a smile. Most songs actually have a useable message in there somewhere; think of the profound life lessons in classics such as ‘Oops, I did it again’, ‘Papparazi’ or ‘Daar onder lê drie pikkewyne’ (Down there lies three penguins) and ‘Baby Tjoklits’.

Me? I tend to prefer the real stuff. The Linkin Park, REM, Jan Blohm, Valiant Swart and of course Meatloaf type of stuff that is simply the inspiring uplifting songs with meaning, questions or philosophy entrenched in deep rhythm, rock, blues ……….. and ‘time’. I can’t stop wondering about some mystic ‘boer’, what I’ve done, in the end, a Van Goch touched canvass, those local odd-fellows behind the firehouse and how terrible it is to waste a kiss!

And that is the one song that I often refer back to when I’m hesitant to jump on a new opportunity, ‘A kiss is a terrible thing to waste’, as performed by Meatloaf and written by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman. This song is about letting the future in, and not allowing the things you leave behind to drag you back.

However, last night on my way to my German lesson, as part of letting my future in, I was rudely taken back to the past and I realised again that we couldn’t ignore nor forget the past. We have to learn and improve from it. As I stepped off the bus at Sülzburger Gurtel a small little plaque in the pavement caught my eye. It was the commemorative plaque of Benedikt and Lina Juhl, plastered into the pavement tar and which simply stated that this is where the couple lived, before they fled to Holland, were imprisoned to Westerbork (see my blog posting Hup Hup Holland) and then deported to Sobibor, Poland in 1943. There they died on 21 May 1943, next week 70 years ago.

Here lived Benedikt and Lina Juhl
Here lived Benedikt and Lina Juhl

And then I sat in the class, sharing the confusion whether its ‘die, der or das kugelschreiber’ and how funny it looks when you write out 999 in German (pretty much in Afrikaans too) as ‘neunhundertneunundneunzig’, with an American, an Aussie, two French, three Spaniards, a Cameroon, a Romanian, a Bulgarian, two Italians, two Greeks, two Zimbabweans and a Pole and I thought to myself ‘what a wonderful world!’

The above paragraph-long sentence at least shows that my German lessons are working.


The road to Gdansk

For someone who grew up in the southern parts of Africa in those dark global political days of the sixties, seventies and eighties, places such as Gdansk, Poznan, Donestk and Warschau were so far out of reach that I never thought that I may one day visit them, let alone see some brilliant soccer (football to the uneducated rest of the world) in one of them.

‘The road is long
with many a winding turn’

Furthermore, who would have thought that it will be to watch soccer that I will travel many many kilometres to watch as I grew up in South Africa where real men played rugby. We did not dive onto the grass pitch in agony if someone came within half a meter of you, clutching your ankle while looking to see if the referee actually believed your near Oscar winning performance!

And then you have kids and your whole world changes forever. We attended two Confed cup games in South Africa in 2008 as the pre-run for the Soccer World Cup 2010 and were hooked on this soccer thing. Both kids simply embraced the soccer and started to become real enthusiastic supporters and followers. In 2010 we watched 11 games in total and by this time the family was clearly divided between Spain and Germany, with me fighting for my rightful place in the rugby seats every now and then. Obviously we were Bafana supporters too, but they were sort of in the B-league. I mean, its due to the treatment Bafana received from officials and Suarez that still has me completely put off from this brilliant Uruguayan striker. Against the calibre of i.e. Torres, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Müller, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, Heuer (to name a few) even the likes of Matfield, Habana, Steyn (Frans), Bismarck and Hoeha (Hougaard according the Stuart Barnes on Sky) seemed to fade away.

So now Euro 2012 arrived and Cara obtained two tickets for Spain versus Ireland to be played in Gdansk.

Two tickets, great experience

The GPS is a wonderful little device and it’s hard to think back to those old days of travel, where I was driving and Heleen instructing from a Road Atlas. I can boast that I have driven the streets of Paris before the days of GPS and survived to boast about it!

With the GPS, you never get lost, though you still don’t always know where you are!

With our Gdansk trip, it was a little bit of that. We entered Poland and suddenly we were on this magnificent brand new piece of highway (tolled at 31 zloti for the 200km odd to Poznan – 3.4 zlotis buys you 1 euro) with a speed limit of 140km/h. ‘Easy peazy’ I thought, we’ll be in Gdansk soon. However, when the highway ends, you are thrown onto anyone of a few small roads where you have to do the next 200 plus kilometres at 50km/h, then 70km/h and sometimes the luxury of 90km/h but hardly ever for more than 8 to 10 km stretches though. It was late at night by then, I already had the better part of eight hours’ driving under the belt and this was not fun anymore. We did fortunately twice see foxes on these small stretches and seeing wildlife is always a huge delight to me, thus looking back; it was still an enjoyable drive.

It was 00:30 when we reached our campsite at Sopot and lights out an hour later after pitching the tent and relaxing with a hot shower.

Gdansk is a lovely port city on the shore of the southern Baltic Sea with the little spa beach resort town Sopot bordering its western flank.

Free city of Danzig

When Poland regained its independence after World War 1, Poland hoped that Gdansk would again be a mayor port harbour for them. However, according to the stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles, and since the majority of the Gdansk population were actually German natives, Gdansk did not fall back to Poland, but instead became a sort of quasi state called ‘The Free city of Danzig’ with its own constitution, anthem and even postal service, which, though the Poles had free use of the port, it caused tension between the neighbours.

My good old buddy, Henk back in the eighties and its share of political turmoil often used the phrase that its sport and music that makes the world turn!

‘Boere Spanjaarde’

And this proved so true in Gdansk last week. With all political tension of the past simply forgotten and all attention festively focused on singing, drumming, probably small amounts of beer and soccer the ‘Dlugi Targ’ (Long Market) were filled with fans enjoying themselves and the diversity amongst the crowd.

The local brew

Spaniards and Irish with plenty of Poles and three South Africans (we did notice one other Saffa trying his best to blend in with the Irish supporters wearing his similarly-than-the-Irish-attire green coloured Proteas cricket shirt) in-between them, simply absorbing the atmosphere in great anticipation of what lies ahead in the PGE Gdansk Arena later that evening.

Irish support in Long Market

And then it was stadium time!

Cara at the PGE Gdansk Arena

Before I say anything more I need to say to all those out there who is so quick to criticise the Spanish players for not singing along with their national anthem, ‘their national anthem has no words! You can’t sing along to the Spanish anthem, you can at best hum!’

There were probably three times more Irish supporters than the Spanish and nothing ever silences them! Not even a first goal in less than 4 minutes for Torres, who at long last again had an excellent game. Though he personally only had ball possession for 38 seconds during the match, he had 5 shots at goal of which 2 were successful. Welcome back El Nino!

No uncertainty who is supported

The Irish were brave and though the score-line was hugely in favour of Spain at 4:0 in the end, it was a great game of football with the Irish always competitive and threatening when they obtained possession. And on the stands they were the ones never stopping to sing and chant their support to their ‘men in green’. However, the sheer class of ‘la Roja’ was too much and in the end it was an emphatic win for the current Europe and World ‘campeón’.

The atmosphere with the traditional drumming of the Spanish support and singing of the Irish made me realise just how much that droning of vuvuzelas took away from the great traditional supporting singing and drumming at the World Cup in South Africa 2 years ago. In hindsight, they should definitely have been banned from the stadiums.

Sopot camp site

The alarm clocks were set for 07:00 the next morning to start the 1300km journey back home, but due to the very short nights in this part of the world in summer, the cold sleeping in our little two-man tent and the continuous stream of singing and shouting Irish supporters returning from their ‘nights on the town’ we were up at just after 04:00 and started to pack-up.

 ‘The road was long

With many a winding turn

That leads us who knows where, …’

 It was a short and intensely packed visit to Gdansk, driving through stunning Poland rural areas with grain fields and forests as far the eyes could see. We had just one day to look around and see the Sopot beaches and the stunning old part of the city of Gdansk, which included a magnificently preserved medieval port crane. I did however see enough to realise this is a stunning destination to spend more time in if the opportunity arises again. It will make for great summer vacation. Though there is simply no way you can understand any Polish with just English or Afrikaans as background, there seems to be more young people able to speak English, even than in Germany?

The Sopot beach, where the daily catch is sold and where you can leisure in the sun, with plenty cafes and bars at hand

And one should never underestimate the good for a country, especially the not so wealthy countries, which comes with hosting events such as a World Cup or the UEFA EURO 2012. It’s evident in infrastructure and hospitability of people all around you. And if managed correctly after the event is gone and dusted, it can lift a country to that needed next level to sustain and grow on what was achieved due to the event. I sincerely hope both Poland and the Ukraine will experience that.

Thanx Cara, I had a great trip.