The Walled City – tips for cycling the 165 km Berliner Mauerweg

All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.
All along the Mauerweg, there are monuments for the poor souls who lost their lives trying to cross from East to West.

Did you know that there’s a cycle path that follows the full length of the Berlin Wall? The most dramatic part of the Wall surely was the 40 km inner-city section that divided West and East Berlin. But a much longer stretch, 125 km long, ran around the whole of West Berlin, separating it from the surrounding GDR countryside. Apart from keeping GDR citizens from entering West Berlin, it also caused a kind of claustrophobia in many West-Berliners, who could not easily leave the city. You can try to get some idea of what life was like outside and inside the Wall by taking the Berliner Mauerweg, or Wall Trail, a fully signposted cycle and hiking path that follows the course of where the wall used to be – all 165 kilometres of it.

I cycled the path in two days in September 2015, starting at the former Chausseestrasse border crossing, continuing south through the city, and following the trace of the Wall clockwise. On the first day I cycled 72 km to Potsdam-Griebnitzsee, and took the S-Bahn back to Berlin-Mitte. On the second day, from the same S-Bahn station I continued clockwise for another 95 km back to Mitte.

East and West

These signs are placed along Berlin's boundary. Each shows the exact date and time that this particular border crossing opened.
These signs are placed at most roads leading out of (west) Berlin. Each shows the exact date and time at which that particular border crossing opened.

Cycling the Wall 25 years after German reunification is a strange experience. First of all, it’s astonishing how little there is left of it. There are information panels on the path that show aerial photos of what the border strip looked like in the 1980s – sandy wasteland, watchtowers, outer wall, inner wall… almost all of this has gone. On 125 km of Mauerweg outside the city, I’ve spotted two remaining watchtowers, and a few slabs of inner and outer wall – that’s it. (If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you might as well stick to the inner city). The no man’s land of the death strip is either overgrown, built up, or otherwise disguised. Again, there’s only a few places where it is immediately recognisable.

Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.
Sign shown the original layout of the inner and outer walls and the death strip.

What’s also strange is how hard it has become here to tell East from West. If you’ve been to Brandenburg towns outside Berlin (Oranienburg, for example), you probably agree that they still look very “GDR” in places. But on my clockwise run down the path that straddles the West-Berlin border, I had to keep reminding myself that “left is East” and “right is West”. The bits that run through nature of course look neutral. And in the parts where you ride through built-up areas, the houses on the eastern side are often just as nice (often because they’re newer) as the ones in the former West.

Cherrypicking or the Full Monty?

Obviously, doing the full Wall ride is satisfying in itself. The trouble is that if you want to do it justice, and also take some time for photography or reading the many explanatory signs, you’ll need three, maybe four, rather than just two days.

So if you have limited time, or are not keen on two full days of cycling, or want to experience more of what you see en-route, I would recommend cherry picking some stretches. Here’s the two that I liked best: one is the inner city bit that many guided tours also follow (partially or fully): starting at Bornholmer Strasse crossing in Prenzlauer Berg, the first border crossing to open on the night of 9 November 1989, and continuing as far south as, let’s say, Treptower Park.

In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform!
In many S-Bahn stations (like here at Griebnitzsee), you have to carry your bike to the platform.
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche (Saviour's Church), built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia
The Mauerweg takes you right past the Heilandskirche, built in 1844 after sketches by King Frederick William IV of Prussia

As for the country part of the Mauerweg, my favorite part starts at Potsdam Griebnitzsee S-Bahn station, which is right on the Wall Trail, and can easily be reached from Mitte on S7 and S1. There’s a bike (and canoe!) rental place right at the station. Continue northward, and you’ll cross Glienicker Brücke (famous for its Cold War spy exchanges), and ride through the park of Cecilienhof Palace. It’s a great way to explore the UNESCO Potsdam Havel area. The path traces the Havel lakes, past the lovely Heilandskirche (Church of the Redeemer), and then there’s a long forest ride. The first opportunity to put you and your bike back on a train to Mitte is at Berlin-Staaken railway station. The distance is roughly 35 km. Or you could turn around at the church and make your way back to the bike rental place at Griebnitzsee.

What bike?

Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.
Tree roots have caused the tarmac surface to break up, causing a bumpy ride.

Some people say you need a mountainbike to ride the Mauerweg. That’s not strictly true, although if you have one, go for it. The thing is, the path is quite good (for a 165 km initiative), but not that good. The tarmac, for example, is broken by tree roots in many places which makes for a very choppy ride. There’s stretches of gravel, which I like, some sand, which is OK depending on recent weather and your tyres, and a few kilometers of cobble stones, which are terrible. All of these problems are ok for short distances but if you want to complete the loop they can get very tiresome.

The southern half is not very hilly, but I did about 400 metres of climbing on the northern section (mostly short, steep hills). So if you can get your hands on a bike that has front suspension (for the bumps) and gears (for the hills) that would be good. Unless you have the stamina of a Paris-Roubaix racer, road bikes (Rennrad in German) are not suitable, not to speak of fixies (but then, they’re not actually for riding, are they?) Obviously bring a tyre repair kit (Flickzeug, one of my favourite German words) as most of the time, it’s a heck of a long walk to the nearest S-Bahn station or bike shop.

Catering

This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.
This little bakery in Zehlendorf was the first eatery I came across, 40 km after leaving Berlin at Treptow.

Which brings us to food. My app says I used about 4000 calories for the whole ride (with a 20 km/h moving average, which is not that fast). That’s the equivalent of 40 bananas or 8 Big Macs, none of which you can buy on the trail. There are some shops and cafes here and there, but outside the city, there are many stretches where you can ride for 30-40 kms without getting to a food outlet.  You could interrupt your ride and cycle into the city to find food, but it’s probably better to bring lots of fruit and sandwiches.

Navigation

The official Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleiting (deviation) signs, bless them!
The Mauerweg signs put up by the Berlin Senate. They even have official Umleitung (deviation) signs, bless them!

To find my way around, I mainly just used the official signs. I also had a GPS on my handlebars, which was nice as a backup, and as a warning for upcoming turns. You can download my gps .gpx track here. A map is great for getting your bearings in the grander scale of things (the Mauerweg has so many twists and turns that it’s easy to get disoriented). The PublicPress map  is cheap, durable, and, importantly, clearly shows S-Bahn stations, so you can always find your way back home. One side of the map shows the full Mauerweg, the other side shows an enlarged segment of the city centre. It’s also got some text explaining the sights along the way. Highly recommended.

The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.
The Berlin Wall Trail near Hennigsdorf. One of the few places where the former death strip still looks original.

So – the only thing left to do is actually do it. Stock up on food, pump up those tyres, and off you go. Just start riding, see how far you get (there’s plenty of S-Bahn stations in the first 20-30 kilometres to cut your ride short if you want to). There’s space in the comments for your experiences!

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Het verhaal van Irma Heinis-Walter – John le Carré tussen Purmerend en Oost-Berlijn (in Dutch)

Toen ik op een mooie zondagochtend aan mijn racefietsrondje vanuit Berlin-Mitte begon, moest ik even wachten bij het stoplicht op de kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse en de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee. Vanaf het bankje van haar rollator, geparkeerd voor de bakker, sprak een nette oude dame me in het Duits aan: “lekker weertje om te fietsen, hè meneer?” Ze vroeg of ik Berliner was, en toen ze hoorde dat ik uit Nederland kwam zei ze stralend: “Ik ook!”

Inge (links, 87) en Irma (90) voor hun oude huis aan de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17 in Weissensee
Inge (links, 87) en Irma (90) voor hun oude huis aan de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17 in Weissensee

Toen wilde ze weten waar ik in Nederland vandaan kwam, en voor ik het wist had ik m’n racefiets geparkeerd om het levensverhaal van Irma Heinis-Walter, want zo heet ze, aan te horen.

Irma, dit voorjaar met een groot feest 90 geworden, logeert een paar weken in Berlijn bij haar al even pronte zuster Inge (87), die zich al gauw met haar eigen rollator bij ons voegde, af en toe het hoofd schuddend over haar zuster, die er blijkbaar vaker genoegen in schept met wildvreemden over haar belevenissen te praten.

Kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse met de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee
Kruising van de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse met de Langhansstrasse in Weissensee

Irma leerde in 1945 haar Nederlandse echtgenoot in Berlijn kennen. In de chaos vlak na de oorlog was ze blij een baan als stenotypiste op het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf (in de Amerikaanse sector) te bemachtigen. Tot 1947 werkte ze op het consulaat, want toen kon haar man een goede baan bij de PTT in Nederland krijgen. Ze verhuisden naar Noord-Holland, waar ze drie zoons kregen. Eén van die zoons, niet toevallig leraar Duits geworden, heeft haar overigens voor de logeerpartij bij haar zus met de auto naar Berlijn gebracht.Inge en Irma Walter

Mevrouw Heinis-Walter vertelt dat ze omstreeks 1950 erg veel last van heimwee kreeg – naar Berlijn en naar haar familie. De DDR was toen net gesticht en visa waren heel moeilijk te krijgen. Toch deed ze een poging: omdat de reis vanuit Nederland door de Franse, Britse, én Russische bezettingssector zou lopen regelde ze vanuit Nederland visa voor al die gebieden. Tegen de wens van haar man in overigens, die (terecht, zoals later zal blijken) bang was dat zijn vrouw, eenmaal in Berlijn, niet meer terug zou kunnen komen.

Tot Marienborn verliep de reis voorspoedig, maar bij de grenspost aldaar wilden de DDR-autoriteiten mevrouw Heinis, met haar Russische visum, niet binnenlaten. Misschien omdat de DDR, zo kort na haar oprichting in 1949, haar tanden extra wilde laten zien?

Wat volgt is een verhaal dat John le Carré waardig is. Mevrouw Heinis, toen 25, zocht een eind verderop een landweggetje op, en wandelde zo illegaal de DDR binnen (de muur zou immers pas in 1961 gebouwd worden). Een vrachtwagenchauffeur gaf haar een lift naar Berlijn en zo klopte ze op een avond bij haar familie in de Gustav-Adolf-Strasse aan de deur.

Dat gaf natuurlijk consternatie, want als de Stasi erachter kwam dat haar familie onderdak verleende aan een illegale immigrante zouden ze in grote problemen komen. En bovendien kon Irma, vanwege het ontbreken van het juiste visum, ook niet zo maar meer terug over de grens naar het westen. Ook haar oude werkgever, het Nederlandse consulaat in Zehlendorf, kon officieel niets voor haar doen. Maar gelukkig wist één van haar oud-collega’s daar een ticket voor haar te bemachtigen op een vlucht van Tempelhof naar Hamburg. De kosten, 200 mark, moest haar Nederlandse familie voldoen op Schiphol. Zo vloog ze vanuit Berlijn terug naar het westen, waar ze de reis met de trein kon voortzetten.

Het winkelaanbod is in het oude buurtje van de zusters wel veranderd sinds de Wende...
Het winkelaanbod is in het oude buurtje van de zusters wel veranderd sinds de Wende…

Nu is alles anders. Zowel Irma Heinis als haar altijd in Duitsland gebleven zuster Inge zijn weduwe, en haar zoon brengt haar met de auto naar Berlijn als ze zin heeft om haar familie te zien. Inge en Irma wilden nog wel even poseren voor de deur van Gustav-Adolf-Strasse 17, het huis waar Irma kort, en Inge bijna haar hele leven gewoond heeft. Inge zegt: “mijn vader is hier gestorven, mijn moeder is hier gestorven, mijn man is hier gestorven, en ik sterf een stukje verderop” – ze heeft een paar jaar geleden een betere woning gekregen, een eindje verderop in de straat. Het was een voorrecht met de dames te spreken – wat heb ik als nieuwkomer in Berlijn (zelfs al was ik hier in 1992 voor het eerst) toch maar weinig van de geschiedenis van de stad meegemaakt!

Naschrift: om mevrouw Heinis dit verhaal te kunnen laten lezen, heb ik via internet contact gezocht met haar zoon. In zijn reactie noemde hij zijn moeder en tante ‘wandelende geschiedenisboeken’. Dat vond ik een mooie definitie van ‘oral history’, het vakbegrip onder historici voor het optekenen van ervaringen uit de mond van mensen die een gebeurtenis zelf hebben meegemaakt. Vaak een race tegen de tijd.

 Good Bye Leninplatz – first visit to a Plattenbau!

Many Berlin-based expats share a love for GDR history and architecture. And GDR architecture doesn’t come more in-your-face than Plattenbau – the prefab tower blocks that grace the edges (and often also the city centres) of many East German and other Eastern Europe towns.

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“Schlange” Plattenbau at Platz der Vereinten Nationen (ex Leninplatz)
When my 6-year old’s playmate Lukas needed a ride home to ‘Platz der Vereinten Nationen’ (United Nations Square) in East Berlin, not far from Alexanderplatz, Ijumped at the chance to visit a Plattenbau – the word literally means ‘panel construction’. As an expat who has ended up in scenic Mitte, I don’t meet that many people who live in Plattenbau buildings, as the apartments are mostly rented by people with East-German roots who don’t really mix with the professional/expat/creative crowd. So here was my opportunity.

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Other side of Schlange, with doorways
The current Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Square) started life around 1970 as Leninplatz – so, to honour the great revolutionary, this particular GDR project received a bit more thought than, let’s say, some of the rows of high-rises on the outskirts in Marzahn. Although all flats in this project are of the standard P2 and WBS70 types (trust the GDR to give innocent tower blocks military-sounding names), this was the first Plattenbau to be built in a curve. The builders developed special trapezoid prefab elements to be able to bend the building, meaning some lucky tenants have living rooms with five corners.

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Original doorways
First impression: the outside of these very centrally located East Berlin apartments looks pretty ok – lots of space around the buildings, they seem to be in a good state of repair, some colourful detailing – I know social housing and council estates in the Netherlands and the UK that look worse.  The entrance portals, and indeed the flats and the square itself, are protected as city landmarks. The square, a busy traffic junction, used to have an enormous Lenin monument, but it’s too late to protect that now. Removed in 1991, it gave the 2003 feel good blockbuster “Good Bye Lenin!” its name – in the movie, the monument can be seen dangling from a helicopter as it is taken down. This was poetic licence, as the actual statue was made of granite, and no helicopter on earth would have been able to lift it! All that’s left at the site of the monument today is a fountain, which somehow doesn’t fill the void left by Vladimir Ilyich.

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Lenin statue at Leninplatz (dismantled in 1991), image: Wikipedia

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Current fountain in same location
But back to the Plattenbau – my visit was to the building in the northwestern corner of the square, the ‘Schlange’, or snake – because of its curved shape, of course. Although 11 storeys high, the lifts in these buildings only stop at the 1st, 4th, 7th and 10th floors.

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Lift only stops at floors 1, 4, 7 and 10
It’s almost as if the Politburo begrudged their comrades lifts that actually took them to their front doors, but from a planning point of view it makes perfect sense: Lukas’ parents’ apartment, which is on the 6th floor, has an additional bedroom thanks to the fact that there is no hallway and corridor for the lift taking up space on their floor. Their upstairs neighbour, who doesn’t have to climb the stairs to get to the lift, in fact has two bedrooms less to pay for it. Inside the apartment, it’s not that bad – again, a bit like western Europe 1960s/1970s social housing projects. I did find the ceilings a bit low, and the rooms are cramped (the apartments are made up of 6x6m squares to fit in the prefab structure). But it’s nothing that some clever decorating and furnishing can’t fix. For privacy reasons, I won’t show you pictures of Lukas’ apartment, but the good news is that the Plattenbau apartment recreated at Berlin’s DDR Museum is also a P2 – so if you’ve seen that, you’ll know what it’s like.

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7th floor lift corridor – other floors have bedrooms in this space
Everything in Plattenbau design was aimed at efficiency – as we’ve seen with the lifts, not always leading to the most pleasant solutions for the tenants. The best example is the kitchen. For ease of construction, it’s good to have the kitchen and bathroom back to back, because it allows for sharing water pipes, drains and ventilation. And this is how they’re built – kitchens and bathrooms are next to each other, in the centre of the apartment. But this means that in the original layout, the kitchens only received indirect daylight, if any – through a gap in the wall dividing it from the living room. In most P2 apartments, the wall between kitchen and living room has now been removed, at the cost of a lot of cupboard space. Can’t see your cake and eat it, then.

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P2 floor plan – notice central kitchen and bathroom, and additional bedroom. Image: wikipedia
Summing up, then, I was happy to see that Plattenbau apartments are not as terrible as they are sometimes made out to be. They’re small, yes, but they’re cheap to rent, and they’re not much worse than 1960s/1970s social housing in the UK, Netherlands, France or indeed ex-West-Germany.

What you can hold against them is that the drive for efficiency sometimes went too far: the kitchens without daylight, the floors without lifts, and, let’s face it, the sheer ugliness of most of them. On the plus side, Lukas’ parents told me there’s a real sense of community in the Plattenbaus, with children sometimes settling only a few blocks, or even a few floors , away from their parents. And, in the case of ex-Leninplatz, in the centre of East Berlin, the location is perfect.

 

Ostalgia isn’t what it used to be – it’s getting worse! #Berlin’s #Ostpaket shop.

In the days of the GDR, West Germans would send their East German relatives relief packages called ‘Westpakete’ containing packs of coffee, or clothes, or even D-marks hidden inside packs of coffee. This was one of the few ways that contact was allowed between East and West, especially before travel restrictions were eased a bit in 1972.

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In a cunning play on words, Berlin has an ‘Ostpaket’ shop that opened a few years ago. It’s in a prime location on Spandauer Strasse, on the way from Alexanderplatz to Hackescher Markt (or should I say Marx-Engels-Platz?) and it’s a bit schizo in concept: when you go in, on the right hand side there’s your usual Berlin tourist tat: model Trabis, postcards, guidebooks, Ampelmann t-shirts – but on the left there’s something that I imagine an East German supermarket must have looked like: rows and rows of hearing-aid beige shelving, containing packages of apparently genuine East German foods.

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There’s even an appropriately empty cooler – no beer this month, sorry sir. Apparently, the Ossi stuff is all sourced from the factories that used to make them in the past – even though the products now have to comply with EU regulations. That means there’s actually some cocoa powder in the Ersatz chocolate now, and they’ve had to find alternatives for most of the food additives used in the GDR.

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Of course, all of this is pretty harmless and probably even funny – but that’s where I start to get a bit uncomfortable. With every honking parade of Trabis full of smiling, waving tourists, with every street vendor hawking fake DDR insignia, gas masks and Russian militaria, I’m getting more worried that people are forgetting the true nature of the terrible dictatorship that caused so much hardship, heartbreak and so many deaths (just visit the Bernauer Strasse wall memorial in your rented Trabi, for crying out loud).

As Hubertus Knabe, the director of the Memorial at Hohenschönhausen Stasi Prison has said in interviews about places like the Ostel (a hotel full of GDR symbolism, featuring a Honecker suite): “die DDR war keine Spassveranstaltung” – the GDR wasn’t fun and games. In his view, GDR insignia and symbols should only be used for educational purposes, with proper commentary to explain their relevance – in fact, Knabe makes the link to Third Reich parafernalia: you can’t go running around in Nazi uniforms wearing swastikas just for fun.

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I realise that selling packages of Tempo beans and bottles of Rotkäppchen Sekt is probably pretty harmless – but still, I very much respect Knabe’s point of view. Should we research the GDR? Definitely. Museums? Certainly, as long as they (also) show the dark side of life in the GDR. Shops selling GDR goods? I’m not sure. How about a mandatory video on Stasi crimes before your Trabi Safari, or a printed ‘Evil Government Health Warning’ on your Sandmann teabags and Spree Gherkins?

On how you can’t avoid German history – even on a Bastei hiking trip

“Die Reise in die deutsche Vergangenheit ist nicht immer eine Vergnügungsreise” (a journey into German history is not always a pleasure trip) wrote Maik Kopleck, editor of the excellent Pastfinder series of travel guides. True, and to that I’d like to add that any trip in Germany, and especially in the East, always becomes a trip into history.

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Take this weekend: we went to see the holiday region of Sächsische Schweiz (“Saxon Switzerland”). Its most famous feature is a scenic outcrop of rocks and boulders called Bastei that overlooks a picturesque stretch of the river Elbe, an easy day trip upstream from Dresden. There are many stone and metal bridges so that even hikers of moderate skill and fitness can see the sights. Picture-perfect Germany, and all relatively harmless, I thought.

For dinner, we ended up in the local village of Burg Hohnstein – not very famous, at least I’d never heard of it before. Its castle perches high above the town and turns out to be the only one on the upper Elbe’s right bank that is not in ruins.

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We were able to take a quick look at the castle just before it closed to non-staying guests for the night (it’s a youth hostel). Outside there were some memorials and monuments.Image

This monument was built by the GDR’s communist regime in 1961. It is dedicated to “the living, as a warning” and refers to the use of the castle in the Nazi era. The first thing the Nazis did after coming to power in 1933 was to clamp down on their political opponents, mainly communists and socialists. Burg Hohnstein (already a youth hostel before 1933, “the nicest in Germany”, according to one of the interpretive texts) was pressed into service as a prison for political prisoners, and became one of the earliest concentration camps.

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The facility’s first prisoner was Konrad Hahnewald, previously the youth hostel’s manager, imprisoned for refusing to hoist the Hakenkreuz flag. The fact that he was an official in the ADGB (the socialist trade union congress) probably didn’t help his case either. He was fortunate enough to be released later in 1933 but was banned from the town, joined a Dresden resistance group, and survived the war. Today, Burg Hohnstein’s primary school is named after Mr. Hahnewald.

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So far, so good then: a socialist ran the youth hostel in the castle, the nazis impounded the castle and imprisoned socialists and the youth hostel manager, the SED (East German communist party) put up a memorial for the socialists and named the local school after the imprisoned youth hostel leader – and then it all falls to pieces (as usual, where the SED is involved). According to the castle’s Wikipedia entry, towards the end of the GDR communist regime in the 1980s, the SED cynically planned to open a detention centre for 890 political opponents at Burg Hohnstein castle…

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On a totally different topic: for those of you old enough to remember Colditz, the castle may remind you a bit of the WW2 POW prison from the famous BBC television series. Well, totally coincidentally, from 1939 to 1940 Burg Hohnstein was Oflag IV a – and of course you know that Colditz was Oflag IV c. Before you ask: “but where was Oflag IV b?” – that was the Fortress of Königstein, just across the river from the Bastei. Maybe next time.

 

 

Thank you #SED and #GDR – for restoring #Dresden

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We went to see the sights of Dresden yesterday – the famous riverfront along the Elbe that has been so wonderfully restored after the devastation by the Allies in February 1945. At first sight, the beauty looks only skin-deep. The restored strip of historical buildings is really only the river front and a few hundred meters behind it. Behind that, 1960s modern, functional, GDR era Plattenbau starts – a stark contrast and a bit of a disappointment at first (such as when you look northward from the terraces of the Zwinger at the Ostra-Allee and the Postplatz).

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But then you think again – and you realise that what the communist regime in fact did restore, starting with the Zwinger palace just after the war, and up to the Semper Opera House and the Residential Palace in the late nineteen eighties, was a tremendous economical effort for a regime that even had difficulty keeping its population properly supplied with toilet paper, vegetables and tv sets.Image

So next time you see buildings such as the 1968 Kulturpalast (Culture Palace) right next door to the beautiful Frauenkirche , don’t scorn the communists. Despite all their other faults, they did the best they could.