Saturday, October 3, 2009

Holiday Pictures, or the Dreaded Travel Slide Show, Part 1

Do you remember the cliche 'slide show' that your nerdy relative or friend foisted upon you, complete with out-of-order, out-of-focus and totally mind-numbingly-boring shots? Well, hopefully this isn't that slide show. Well of course it isn't - you can just leave this site and go onto something new and exciting, not held polite social captive by your host.

This is the reason Bryan and I travelled to Germany, or the primary one:

Claudi is our German 'daughter', who lived with us for a year when she was 15-16. Now a successful young woman, a physiotherapist with a wonderful partner, Chris, and two sons: Valentin (3 1/2) and Leopold (6 months).

The day after we arrived, we took the boys for their morning walk with a special destination in mind. Pankow (the district in Berlin where they live) was once a city in its own right, with its own schloss. The building has had many lives, most recently as the site where the talks to work out the terms of reunification were held 20 years ago. It fell on hard times, abandoned and in disrepair. Two years ago a major restoration project was undertaken, and this was the first weekend that the public was allowed in to see the work. In fact, for people who had been born and raised in the shadow of the schloss, it was the first time they'd every been inside!

The grounds are extensive. The wall still stands in most places as do the gates and guardhouses. The boys' daycare is immediately adjacent to the grounds.

Looking at a room in progress. There aren't any furnishings yet - obviously. So much has been done but so very much more to do. Every room has a unique parquet floor, every wall different plasterwork and gilding.

That afternoon, Chris took us on our first look at Berlin. We drove into the city and did a driving once-over. He asked what we specially wanted to see and, as a child of the Cold War era, I asked to see Checkpoint Charlie and what remains of the wall. I told Chris (in his mid-30s, and so a teenager in what was East Berlin when the wall came down in 1989) that we were told the 'bad guys' were on the other side of the wall.

"We were told the same thing!" he said with a grin.

So many people took pieces of the wall that it was in danger of completely disappearing, and that would have been a shame. Officials have now put fencing around the few remaining pieces of the wall, including this section that has the artwork completed by artists from around the world.

THE Checkpoint Charlie. There is also Checkpoint Bravo on the Potsdam side of the city and probably Checkpoint Alpha (have to do my reseach). I saw Bravo, but you have to be paying attention.

We also saw the old US Embassy with the barracks and airstrip where the famous West Berlin Airlift was staged.

This double line of stones marks the location of the wall around West Berlin. But it is only one of the many walls of Berlin. It was the only wall that divided the city - the others were to protect it.

This is a piece of another more ancient wall. Commuter train tracks are on top, either side the photo. The famous Brandenburg Tor (gate) was a main gate into Berlin, which was surrounded by a wall. There is also a Little Brandenburg Tor in Charlottenburg (a city-now-suburb).

One last comment about Cold War stuff - on our way home from a day in Potsdam to visit Sanssouci Palace, we drove over an impressive bridge. Chris told us this was the bridge where agents from opposite sides of the wall exchanged information and 'assets'.

We very much had the non-conventional tour! Both Claudia and Chris are children of the old GDR.

So much construction in Berlin - I will never complain about Grande Prairie or Calgary again! There's a strange juxaposition of very old, new and 50s architecture jammed together.

"Remember," explained Chris, "that we had to have housing for all the people after the war. The ugly concrete apartment between two roccoco buildings replaced one that was bombed." Berlin was terribly damaged by bombs.

And replacing soul-less, shoddily build Soviet buildings. And trying to restore and preserve old, old buildings. And developing that terrible scar formerly known as No Man's Land along the wall.

Chris works for DOKA, international structural specialists. There's enough work in Berlin alone to keep him fully occupied the rest of his working life. Claudi would love to move out of the city, ideally back to beautiful green Thuringia, but Berlin is where the work is.

The old and new. The church is Anglican, I mention as a point of interest, and built in the 1600s if I recall, and of course undergoing restoration. Behind it is the very modern Alexanderplatz TV tower, showcase of the old GDR built in 1969 to show the world their technological expertise. It is the tallest structure in Europe, I think.

Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere is this cobblestone - all through the city, through all the cities of Thuringia we toured (Wittenburg, Erfurt, Weimar, Worlitz) and even into Denmark.

The stones are about 4" x 4" but what you don't see is that they're 6" deep. Who cut (cuts) all this stone?!!

These stonemasons are working in Wittenburg, but the scene is replicated in many places. The ultimate recyclers! The stones were pulled up to allow underground utility installation, and then re-laid. Because Wittenburg is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site (almost the whole of Thuringia is), they have to maintain the 'original' character as much as possible. But more about that later. We're still in Berlin.

Bryan on Claudia's bike with Leopold in the bike carrier. We were on our way back from taking Valentin to kindergarten.

Some strong impressions:

Berlin is an incredibly clean city - 4 million people but almost no garbage anywhere, absolutely no air pollution (extensive parks in the city, remarkable when you learn that all the trees were cut for heat/cooking during and immediately after the war), bicycles everywhere with riders who are fearless, and absolutely flat.

Berlin, northeastern Germany and Denmark are flat, flat, flat to an extent that would make Saskatchewan blush to claim the same. It's a two hour drive to the seaside from Berlin, and I'd wager that the city's only 40m max above sea level.

A person could easily become overwhelmed by the heritage buildings and museums (five alone on Museum Island in downtown Berlin). We 'did' a few castles and cathedrals (Todd's infamous AFC tour - "Another F***ing Castle/Cathedral) but no museums - not Bryan's forte. Europe is to be taken in small doses by North Americans. There's just too much to take in at one gulp. We didn't do justice to the very small piece that we saw.

There's a saying: "In America, 100 years is a long time. In Europe, 100 miles is a long distance."
Very true.

Time to get outside and work in my garden. There's fresh snow above 800m on the surrounding mountains but there's also 15 bags of composed steer manure in the back of the pick-up and some new trees that need a feeding. It's raining lightly - good weather for digging.

With Bryan away and the weather not condusive to motorcycling, I've no excuse not to get the account books updated and other inside tasks dealt with. I'll upload another installment of travel photos later.

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