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"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Wests Head East to Germany - Week 1 East Germany

Castles, Cathedrals & Cuisine was the title of the 2008 Phi Mu Foundation trip. And the title lived up to its name as we saw many castles, tons of cathedrals, and ate like we were kings. My parents traveled with me on this two week adventure to Germany in early September.

After landing in Frankfurt on Sunday, September 7, we took a three hour train ride to Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, which Martin Luther described as "in the center of the center" of Germany. Erfurt is an attractive, lively city where we lingered for several days before heading for larger cities such as Dresden and Berlin. The night we arrived we attended the premier of The Tales of Hoffman at the Erfurt Opera House. Richard Carlucci, son-in-law of fellow traveler Marilyn Mann, was singing the role of Hoffman.

Our walking tour of this beautiful city included the Domplatz, or cathedral square, which is also the site of Erfurt's main Christmas Market. Above the Domplatz are the Cathedral of St. Mary (Mariendom) and the St. Severus Church, which are reached by climbing a flight of steps from the 14th Century. Not far from the cathedral hill is the Petersberg citadel, which is said to be "the only extensively preserved Baroque city fortress in Central Europe." We were treated to an underground passage tour of the citadel.

The Krämerbrücke, or Merchant's Bridge, is an Erfurt landmark. The sandstone bridge is nearly 400 feet long, with 32 houses (many containing shops on the ground floor) on both sides of its cobble-stoned pedestrian street. The bridge, which was built in 1325 and widened in the late 1400s, is said to be the only inhabited European bridge north of the Alps.

We found medieval and Renaissance houses throughout the city center, including some that have been put to other uses. The Fischmarket, site of the neo-Gothic town hall, is lined with beautiful Renaissance houses from the 1600s. We also walked along the riverside park below the Krämerbrücke, where we had a nice rear view of half-timbered medieval houses that line the bridge. The Anger Square was worth a visit, both for its historic buildings and its role as the shopping center of downtown Erfurt.

We spent the day exploring the city with Reiner Bosecke, a local guide and musician who treated us to a trumpet concert at St. Michael’s Church, and Hannas Schmidt our guide for our first week in Germany.

Tuesday, September 9, we said goodbye to Erfurt and headed east to Dresden. Dresden is the capital city of the state of Saxony. Our first stop when we arrived was a leisurely paddle wheel steamer boat ride up the Elbe River.

The best way to start off a trip through Dresden is by taking a walk through the Old Town. Many of the main tourist attractions in Dresden can be found under a mile from there. Old Town suffered heavy damage during World War II, but since reunification, efforts have been undertaken and Old Town is in the process of being restored to its former elegance.

Some of the highlights included many historic structures. Built during the 18th century, Zwinger Palace today houses several museums and contains more than 2000 paintings; the foremost among the paintings is the famous Sistine Madonna by Raphael.

The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is definitely one of the most popular tourist attractions in Dresden. Built in the 18th century, the church features a large 314 foot high dome. The dome weighs 12,000 tons and contains no internal supports. However, the Frauenkirche was destroyed during World War II. Reconstruction was attempted throughout the years, but it wasn’t until 1993 that the revival actually began. The price was steep, over $200 million, but by 2004 the outside of the church had been restored.

Perhaps the single greatest hardship suffered by the citizens of Dresden was the firebombing that took place toward the end of World War II. On Valentine’s Day, 1945, Allied planes carpet bombed the Altstadt (Old Town). Dresden was not considered militarily strategic, but the allies unleashed a bombing campaign because the Soviet army was merely fifty miles east of the city. The bombing was to stop the advance of the Red Army. The goal was to create a fire storm amidst the factories and buildings and prevent German resistance. However, ideal weather conditions caused a massive inferno that gutted tens of thousands of buildings and killed many innocent people. Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five" is based on this devastation in Dresden.

Wednesday we drove a short distance to Meissen. As the story goes, King Augustus the Strong ordered his subjects to find a way to manufacture gold. After much experimenting, scholars finally discovered the next best thing - "white gold" or porcelain, which proved a blessing for both the King and Meissen. The first porcelain in Europe was produced at the 300-year-old porcelain factory in Meissen. The factory brought fame to the town through the porcelain it exported around the world featuring the hallmark of two blue crossed swords.

In the afternoon we stopped at the Moritzburg Palace. The baroque palace of Moritzburg, which sits in a lake, much like an island, is one of Dresden's most charming recreation spots. In the 18th century, it was used as a hunting lodge by Augustus the Strong. The palace's collection of beautiful baroque leather wallpaper is second to none. But the “feather“ room was spectacular with a bedspread, wall hangings, and pillows all covered in beautiful bright feathers. The palace terrace is adorned with a number of sandstone statues dating from the 18th century.

Thursday we loaded up and headed towards Berlin, located in the north east part of the country, which is surrounded by the state of Brandenburg. Originally the capital for Prussia, Berlin has served as a cultural center for hundreds of years. The first written information of the city comes from as early as 1244 A.D. Berlin has swung between times of flourishing and times of darkness. The Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century saw a third of the homes damaged and half the population was lost.

However, following this devastating blow, Frederick William—a Duke, and later King of Prussia—instituted a policy encouraging immigration and religious freedom. A great number of people moved to Berlin in the following years and the city quickly rebounded. Following the dissolution of the Empire, the Weimar Republic was proclaimed in Berlin. The seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933 saw Berlin as a focus once again by declaring it the capital of the Third Reich. Following the end of World War II, the city was split into two halves—East Berlin was held by the Russians and communism while West Berlin was held by the allies and democracy. In 1961, the infamous Berlin Wall was constructed, further separating the two halves. However, the wall was torn down in 1989 and the country was unified once more.

All these different events have had a profound effect on Berlin transforming it into a unique and beautiful city. Its mix of the past and the present creates a feeling of magic and wonder as I walked through the streets. We paid a visit to the Charlottenburg Palace, home of the first Prussian King; Checkpoint Charlie, Potsdamer Square, Reichstag, Bradenberg Gate and many more attractions.

Of course, one cannot mention Berlin without speaking of the Berlin Wall. There isn’t terribly much left of the structure that split the city in two, but the Brandenburg Gate still stands, serving as a reminder of the past. To have a better understanding of the history behind the wall, we visited the Berlin Wall Museum.

Thursday evening we cruised along the canals of the city for an evening boat trip. The city has more bridges than Venice - 3000 total.

Friday we began our day by venturing to nearby Potsdam to tour Sanssouci Park and the designated “world cultural heritage sites” of New Palace and Sanssouci. The New Palace was begun in 1763, after the end of the Seven Years’ War, under Frederick the Great and was completed in 1769. It is considered to be the last great Prussian baroque palace. Sanssouci is the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. It is often counted among the German rivals of Versailles.

We dined at Cecileinhof Castle, which in 1945 was the site where the victorious allies negotiated the ‘Potsdam Agreement’. Just think, I was sitting in the same place as Truman, Churchill and Stalin.

The late afternoon was spent on Museum Island in Berlin. The Pergamon Museum is one of the best attractions in Berlin, probably the best museum on Museum Island. It features a wide variety of archaeological treasures from around the world, but the two truly exceptional ones are the Altar of Zeus from Pergamon, Turkey, and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. The Pergamon Altar is both impressively huge and well-preserved, and features a long frieze depicting the battle of the gods and giants. The Ishtar Gate, built by the Biblical king Nebuchadnezzar, is beautiful with its blue glazed bricks. We also stopped by the Altas Museum to see the bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Enjoy my photos from East Germany:


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