From Prussia with love

Friday 21st July 2006, Potsdam
Well we are now on the outskirts of Berlin on a campsite beside yet another lake. Here though it is large, crowded, regimentally organised and expensive, being within reach of the suburban transport links into Berlin. At the entrance stands a customised Trabant which originally belonged to the campsite owner's parents. They had to wait for twelve years before one was ready for them. Now though it has been turned into a fashion accessory having been specially customised with a folding hood and painted bright yellow.

A ride well and truly pimped!

The day has definitely been cooler than yesterday though still hovering slightly above 30 degrees and this evening it is really close. After a shower we feel damper and stickier than ever. We are hemmed in on all sides by campers from the collected nations of Europe and the poor French couple in the tent next to us will probably have to sleep tonight with a view of our feet sticking out of Modestine's open back door as we cannot possibly cope with the heat if we close it.

Most of today has been spent travelling across the flat landscape of northern Germany, through endless forests of fir trees. Interspersed with this wooded landscape are areas of heathland and huge industrial areas where lignite or brown coal used to be mined in the days of the DDR. Now most of these areas form huge lakes which have been landscaped for recreational purposes. As we drove we noticed many signs were written in both German and Sorbian, a Slavonic language related to Polish. Certainly the names of the towns we passed through seemed more like Polish than German and we have been travelling not far from the border with Poland. Menus in restaurants also had Sorbian dishes on offer, Soljanka for example, which we think is a sort of soup. Far too hot for today's temperatures.

The landscape is very sparsely settled and driving has been easy if boring, along straight roads through the rather monotonous forests with barely another vehicle in sight. The houses in the villages have tended to be built in unrendered brick. Being a flat area without stone to quarry, brick is really the only suitable building material available - except for wood of course, and this is used extensively for church towers, windmills and similar buildings. Many of the wooden towered churches also have onion-shaped domes.

Around mid-morning we stopped for a break and some essential shopping in Altdöbern, a neat village with a baroque castle on the southern edge of the Spreewald. In the local bar where we went for a coffee, elderly women were busily folding serviettes in preparation for some coming celebration and chatting. The main purpose of the bar seemed to be to act as a social centre for all the different generations of the community.

In the area around Lübben in the Spreewald the low-lying terrain had been drained and was criss-crossed with canals extending for many kilometres – almost a little woodland Venice. Here visitors were being taken for rides in flat-bottomed gondolas, punted along the shallow canals by gondoliers in silk waistcoats. It looked very tempting as they slipped through the clear water beneath the willow trees, ducks swimming beside them. However, the heat of the sun was still very strong and there was no shelter on the punts. Two hours of such heat did not bear thinking about. Instead we settled at a shady wooden bench beside the water with a couple of local speciality rolls of salted fish, gherkins and onion rings and for Ian a glass of beer. Here we watched one of the boatman gut some fish and rinse his knife and wooden board in the river.

Punting at Lübben

Canal at Lübben

Gherkin and pickled herring stall, Lübben

Tourist information point, Lübben

From here we continued along busier roads to the town of Potsdam. It turned out to be far larger than we expected but we managed to find our way through and locate this campsite on the Templinersee on the Brandenburg side of the town.

Potsdam is famous for the palace of Sanssouci, home of the Prussian king Frederick the Great. We hope to visit it tomorrow and Berlin the following day.

It will not be our first visit to Potsdam which lies to the west of Berlin. It was formerly in the German Democratic Republic and was yet another of the places we visited with Hubert even longer back in our past, in the days when he lived in Leipzig. We recall it as being a modestly-sized palace set in attractive parkland. In those days it was slightly run-down but full of charm. It will be interesting to see it now it has been restored to its full glory.

Our previous visit to Potsdam was made from Berlin - East Berlin, not West. We had applied for our visa to visit the GDR six months previously, listing all the places we wished to visit and were supposed to report to the police at each location. We intended visiting Berlin but it was an impromptu decision to visit Potsdam while we were there. All had gone well and we had spent a very happy and interesting day at the palace. Because Potsdam lies beyond West Berlin the only way to get back into East Berlin was to take the train, known as the sputnik, right round Berlin to approach the city from the East. This is one of the cheapest journeys for the distance covered we have ever made. It travelled slowly right round West Berlin, clearly visible through the window. Unfortunately for us armed guards did a random check on passengers and our papers were not in order! We had not requested permission to visit Potsdam! Yes, we had got papers to visit Berlin but had broken the terms of our visa by daring to visit Potsdam! Our passports were taken away and we were left in a state of anxiety until we were almost back into East Berlin. Ian played to the gallery in his grovelling act, saying he had thought it was natural that visitors to the capital of the GDR would wish to visit such an important site, please don't be harsh on us etc etc. This caused a few nervous smiles from other passengers in the carriage and eventually our papers were returned, duly stamped to say we had been to Potsdam. We were allowed to continue but warned never to do such a wicked thing again!

Saturday 22nd July 2006, Potsdam
Well we have now done such a wicked thing again! Today we cycled the six kilometres through woodland to Potsdam. On the way we diverted into the beautiful parkland of Sanssouci. Because of the heat we were off from the campsite early in the day and therefore the parkland was fairly empty with just a few cyclists enjoying the shaded paths through the gardens before the palace opened to the public. Today we have really appreciated having Hinge and Bracket. It has been a wonderful experience to cycle down the empty allées edged on each side by beech hedges with vistas of court buildings of the 18th century or stone statues and seats wherever the allées cross. Suddenly the path would open out onto a formal garden with a water feature and a fountain spurting a white spray of water high into the air - such a delight on a day where temperatures were again well into the thirties. There were pagodas and palaces set in the huge and beautiful parkland. The large Neues Palais, constructed in 1763-69, which reminded us of Brideshead Revisted was at one end of the grounds and the original palace of Sanssouci, constructed for King Frederick the Great, was at the further end.

Hinge and Bracket visit the Neues Palais, Potsdam

Orangery, Sanssouci, Potsdam

On the way we discovered the amazing Rococo Chinese tea house designed by the King. It is a sheer delight reflecting the perception of China at that period and also the King's personal enthusiasm for music. There were gilded statues playing musical instruments while others carried out the tea ceremony. Here the King would listen to and even participate in concerts on summer evenings.

Chinese Tea House, Sanssouci, Potsdam

Detail of the Chinese Tea House, Sanssouci, Potsdam

One of the many delightful vistas, Sanssouci, Potsdam

Frog on a lily pad seen in the gardens, Sanssouci, Potsdam

Sanssouci was the retreat to which the King escaped during the summer months. Later in life he spent even more time there. He was a philosopher king, a keen musician and composer and delighted in surrounding himself with books in the French language. At that time French was considered to be the language of culture and literature and was the official language of the Prussian court.

Terraced vineyard in front of the palace of Sanssouci, Potsdam

Sanssouci, Potsdam

Sanssouci, Potsdam

Wrought iron pergola, Sanssouci, Potsdam

Picture gallery, Sanssouci, Potsdam

We queued for ages for tickets to see around the palace and were then obliged to accompany a tour given in German. Almost all the visitors on our tour were from other countries including Italy, Spain, France, Israel, Japan, China, UK and America and we were all given hand-out sheets. The visit was not really satisfactory as we were rushed and needed time to digest the written translation and relate it to the objects displayed in the rooms. We did however get a brief peep into the personal library of the king through the open door. Entry was not allowed. It was a circular room lined with polished rococo bookcases and was apparently the king's favourite room. We too thought it a wonderful room though not very practical for a library. As the man beside Ian grumbled to him –"in the old GDR days we could just go in there and wander about". Throughout our visit we had to wear huge felt slippers to protect and polish the original inlaid wooden floors as we traipsed through. We saw the chair in which Frederick died, his personal flute, the room where his compositions were performed by the court orchestra. (Carl Philip Emanuel Bach directed the orchestra here for many years.) The last room we visited is supposed to have been occupied by Voltaire at the invitation of the king. The room was in canary yellow and decorated with high-relief parrots, fruits and flowers It hardly looked the kind of room one could imagine a satirical, witty writer such as Voltaire willingly using.

Grave of Frederick the Great, Sanssouci, Potsdam
Buried next to some of his favourite dogs. Credited with introducing the potato to Prussia, so there are always a few to be found on his grave!

We collected our bikes from the railings near the entrance to the park where we had tethered them and cycled down into the town through Potsdam's own Brandenburg Gate. The town seems very pleasant, crowded with visitors and with many ornate statues and buildings.

Brandenburg Gate, Potsdam

Jill's sandals have finally given out so after buying a cheap pair to replace them we threw the others away and went off for a desperately needed coffee. Then we sought out an internet place which was excellent value giving us an hour's internet and chilled drinks for less than we often pay just for access.

As if we hadn't cycled enough on a hot day Ian directed us to the Neuer Garten with its large lake and gothic library. This had been built for Friedrich Wilhelm II in the 1790s and was set on the very edge of the lake surrounded by paths, trees and lawns. Feeling exhausted from the heat Jill was not sorry to find it closed.

Gothic library in the Neuer Garten, Potsdam

So we cycled on around the lake to find the Schloss Cecilienhof where the Potsdam Agreement was signed in August 1945 dividing up Germany and Berlin between the four conquering powers.

Schloss Cecilienhof was constructed around 1914 for Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife. Constructed in the style of an English country house it looked for all the world like a masterpiece by Lutyens complete with diamond patterned red brick nogging between oak timbers, pseudor Tudor beams and Elizabethan style chimneys. The gardens were beautifully laid out with bright English style flower beds and pretty ornamental ponds. As you see, we could almost have spent the afternoon in the Home Counties! It was most peculiar to discover such a building on the edge of Berlin!

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam

Schloss Cecilienhof, Potsdam

There is certainly a very great deal to see at Potsdam for a town of its size and we have been able to do no more that scratch the surface of what it has to offer. We were by now really weary and still had at least seven kilometres to cycle back to the campsite. Incidentally, there is a completely different attitude to cycles in most of Europe than we have in Britain. They are positively encouraged with cycle tracks alongside many of the main routes in and around towns. Cyclists have their own traffic lights and where it is not possible to have cycle tracks riders are usually at liberty to use the pavement along with pedestrians. This really seems to work very well and cyclists behave responsibly.

We left Potsdam and made our way back along the cycle track out of town and into the woodland. Back at the campsite we felt much better after cold showers, long drinks of cold water and glasses of red wine.

We do not think Modestine is alone in Berlin. As we stopped to look at the orangery and its gardens this morning Jill is convinced she saw another Romahome speeding along the road that edged the park! This is the very first we have seen in all our travels over the past year!

Sunday 23rd July 2006, Potsdam
This weather really is unbearable. Today we have been in Berlin and as we walked across the huge expanse of flagstones and builders' equipment that fill the Alexanderplatz the temperature was registering 38 degrees. Today it has not even been particularly sunny, that is just the ambient temperature. It is also incredibly humid so that we are permanently wet and moving anywhere is a real effort of will.

Even trying to write the blog is difficult as it is still hot and steamy at 10pm. Outside it is too dark to see the keyboard and inside Modestine is like a sauna. Once we turn the lights on, mosquitoes and other winged creatures of the night bang against our insect screens, trying to get inside and eat us. So we may be unable to do full justice to our account of today.

By way of introduction, the sights of Berlin on a manhole cover

Comradehole cover – "Made in GDR" Berlin

Visiting Berlin was expected to be one of the highlights of our year. We have both visited East Berlin in 1973, and in 1965 Ian passed through West Berlin as his exit point to the West at Friedrichstrasse. Today we got off the train at the same station and walked into what would have been the eastern sector of the city.

In 1973 there was a political coup in Chile while we were visiting Berlin for several days with Hubert. Immediately the government of the GDR organised a "spontaneous" rally in support of Chilean comrades. Everyone was given the afternoon off work and sent to demonstrate and march in the Schlossplatz. We found ourselves wrapped up with about 1,000,000 East Germans waving banners and marching. The memory of that day has remained clear in our minds ever since.

At that time too we walked up to the Brandenburg Gate at the end of Unter den Linden. Through it we could see West Berlin, as could the East German people from their side of the city, many with friends, family and loved ones living on the western side of that gate. In front was a no man's land patrolled by armed border guards, the Wall stretching away to either side. It was rather a frightening experience, particularly knowing that so many East Berliners had been shot or drowned in the river Spree trying to make it across the wall to the west. To them it seemed a Utopian dream, locked in as they were by the restrictive regime of their government acting under the strong influence of the Soviet Union.

As we walked around the streets during that visit we saw family groups standing on corners - parents with small children, or older couples. They formed an excited and expectant little crowd at the edge of the pavement. As we watched, coaches would come slowly around the corner or across the bridge. These were full of West Berliners or those from the east who had somehow made it across to the western sector and settled there. They were families divided. They could not easily return to visit their parents or children who were not free to visit them. Somehow, possibly as a way to get western currency, the GDR government would issue permits to a West Berlin company to drive tourists around the city in a closed vehicle. In that way families could make plans to see each other as the coach passed by! On the streets and in the coaches we saw people in tears as they waved frantically, or held up small children to be seen, but could not touch their loved ones.

Today we did the same walk again. How very different it was. All along the pavements there were cafés and souvenir shops. There were jugglers, stilt walkers, a man playing a barrel organ and at the gate itself people were happily cycling through from one side to the other without a second thought. There was for us something a little awesome in simply walking right up to the Brandenburg Gate, a slight shiver down the spine as we passed the very point where previously our way had been barred by armed guards, and passing through to find ourselves in West Berlin right near to where Hitler had his bunker and where the Reichstag is again the seat of government of a united Germany. This building was right up against the wall and could obviously not continue to function in such a location. So the Government moved to Bonn and the Reichstag, badly bombed and damaged in 1945, was left a decaying ruin for many years. Today it has been restored and looks much as it did except for the dome which has been replaced by glass, symbolising that the building had been open to the sky for so long.

Souvenirs of Berlin with Trabants and the coats of arms of the new Germany and the GDR, Unter den Linden

Brandenburg Gate from Unter den Linden

Brandenburg Gate seen from the western side

In the open area in front of the Reichstag is a recently erected memorial to those members of the Weimar Republic who were persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s. The name of each victim with their dates of birth and death is incised into the edge of a sheet of slate, the slates then arranged on their edge like books on the pavement.

Memorial to members of the Weimar Republic in front of the Reichstag, Western side of Berlin

The original path of the wall is marked out as a line on the pavement leading down beside the Reichstag to the river Spree. The river itself was in the eastern sector. Here we saw several white crosses placed there in the 1960s by West Berlin to commemorate East Germans killed up to that time trying to make it across at this point.

Line of the Berlin Wall with the Reichstag to the right

Memorial crosses right on the border beside the Spree, Berlin

Beside the river today are many functional buildings put up after reunification to house government offices as the seat of government returned to Berlin. Also near the Brandenburg Gate there is a huge monument to Jews who had died in the holocaust. It consists simply of 2,711 enormous blocks of grey stone of varying size displayed in a grid pattern. It was installed as recently as 2005; a similar monument to the Roma is planned.

New government buildings beside the Spree, Berlin

Memorial to Jewish holocaust victims, Berlin

We walked back along Unter den Linden. The division of Berlin had left the ancient heart of the city here in the East and we passed a series of famous monuments along or near the street – the National Library, the Humboldt University and the Neue Wache. The last time we visited this, it was a monument to the victims of fascism and militarism with an eternal flame and a soldier standing guard. Now there is no soldier, the interior is bare except for a sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz of a mother with her dead son, and the place is a memorial inviting reflection on all victims of political repression.

Neue Wache, Unter den Linden, Berlin

Inside Neue Wache, Unter den Linden, Berlin

National Library, Unter den Linden, Berlin

Humboldt University with statue of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Unter den Linden, Berlin

On the other side of Unter den Linden, in a square bounded by the sober lines of the State Opera House and St Hedwig's Cathedral, was a circle of some 200 bears – the symbol of Berlin. Each was colourfully decorated to represent a different country and a great deal of attention was being paid to them by visitors from many lands who sought out their own bear to pose beside. Nearby was a massive sculpture of a pile of books, commemorating the invention of printing. It was one of a series scattered throughout the city commemorating German ideas – in front of the Altes Museum we found another commemorating Einstein's theory of relativity. The location of the book sculpture was especially poignant as it was on the spot where the Nazis had held book burnings in the 1930s.

Book sculpture where Nazis burned works from the University Library, Berlin

Einstein's theory in front of the Altes Museum, Berlin

St. Hedwig's Cathedral with bears, Berlin

Sri Lankan bear as an example, Berlin

Near the main cathedral – the Deutscher Dom - stands the television tower. This was formerly part of the showpiece of East Berlin topped by a bright shining orb that caught the sunlight reflecting as a great glowing cross high above the Socialist city. East Berliners would secretly refer to it as St. Walter's cathedral, a reference to their then head of state, Walter Ulbricht. We noticed the surface has now been painted and the shining cross has disappeared.

Cathedral and television tower, Berlin

Ian was busy laying ghosts of the past today and wanted to visit Alexanderplatz. It had previously been the social hub of East Berlin with fountains and cafés. It was near here that we got swept up with the marching soldiers and the banner-waving solidarity with Chile parade. Then the area had been tight packed with demonstrators. Today the whole area is a massive long-term building site but there are still high rise blocks of socialist flats, a very socialist-looking water fountain, a bright mural of manual labourers and socialist workers and a huge international clock of which the East German authorities had been very proud. Its main function today was to provide a little shade for a group of young people with green hair wearing black clothing and lots of silver studs in their anatomy. Completely unimaginable when we were last there!

Fountain in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

International clock, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Stalinist architecture in Karl Marx Allee, Berlin

Former Haus der Lehrer, Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Utterly drained by walking around in the heat we eventually found somewhere to sit beneath a tree for an ice cream before heading off to see statues of Marx and Engels standing bemused in an open square with capitalist buildings going up all around them. There is so much to see in Berlin but it is so far from one place to another and requires much cooler weather. The city is four times the area of Paris and 90% was damaged during the war. The city was then little more than a massive pile of rubble. What buildings were left standing were pockmarked by millions of bullet holes, still clearly visible today. The Brandenburg Gate alone had hundreds of thousands. Everywhere has had to be rebuilt or restored so there is relatively little left that is actually genuine.

Marx and Engels memorial, Berlin

Loyal Socialist worker still toiling away, Berlin

We encountered somebody doing a free guided tour of the city in English. He was a charismatic, larger than life young man who made German history really come to life. His tour lasted for four hours and his audience were hanging on his every word. We saw them first by the Brandenburg Gate and listened in, enthralled by his dynamic presentation as he gave a summary of German history and the events that led up to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Several hours later we bumped into them again. His audience were sitting on the grass outside the massive Cathedral near the river and he was explaining the events of 1989 that led to the wall being breached and the rapid reunification of the German people. He was quite amazing, it was worthy of a one-man show in the West End! Ian spoke briefly to him afterwards mentioning that he had been in the Eastern sector back in the 1960s. The young guide would not even have been born then!

The enthralling tale of the fall of the Wall, Berlin

We did seek out a bit of West Berlin getting off the train at Kurfurstendamm, once the magic elegant centre of that inaccessible part of the city, full of expensive shops that those in East Berlin could only dream of. After the streets of Munich and other towns it all seemed rather ordinary. More of a curiosity at one end of the street was the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a church built in memory of the first Kaiser in the 1890s. It was bombed in the war and left as a shell with a new church beside it, rather like Coventry Cathedral. The Berliners, a disrespectful bunch, called it the "hollow tooth and lipstick" and the low church building to one side the "powder compact".

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, Berlin

We decided we really were too weary and sticky to walk around further so returned to the Hauptbahnhof and took the train back to Potsdam. By the time we had then caught a tram to the suburbs, found Hinge and Bracket and cycled back to Modestine it was already 6.30pm. Within minutes we had emptied several bottles of iced water and were starting to feel better under the shade of the trees.

After the war Berlin became notable for inventing the Currywurst or sausage. Everything in Germany seems to come sausage shaped anyway so it was probably just a natural development. Today we tried one for lunch served with Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes). It was quite nice, a large Bratwurst served in a spicy sauce and sprinkled with curry powder. (Incidentally, it occurs to us that since we have been in Germany we have used so many spas, lakes and pools, and consumed so many different types of sausages, we really should call this section of our blog "From Bad to Wurst"!)

There are three things Jill regrets about today. We searched the city in vain for doughnuts. We could find the Dunkin variety with holes in but not the round ones with jam inside. These are known in Germany as Berliners. Hence, when JFK in his famous speech in 1963 declared American solidarity with West Berlin using the memorable phrase "Ich bin ein Berliner" he was actually telling the world he was a jam doughnut. So our hopes of coffee and cakes have been dashed and we have no picture for the blog to amuse ourselves thinking up an appropriate caption.

The other regrets are that we didn't manage to get to the Stasi museum which we think we would have found fascinating. Nor did we get to Checkpoint Charlie. What we would have found if we had done so we will never know. Presumably it would be marked in some way today.