Well, we didn’t think it possible, but it’s happened – it’s finally stopped raining, the sun has come out – and stayed out – and we’ve been basking in mid-twenties temperatures for several days. And it’s October tomorrow! Glorious!
My last post was from the campsite in Potsdam the morning after our long drive from Elblog in Poland. We used the day for much needed recuperation and chores, getting ourselves back in shape for another burst of high-intensity tourism (they really could make this into an Olympic event such is the planning, organisation, exertion and stamina required for seeing the sites and learning a little of the local history at the pace we’re attempting!). We did manage to get out to the local pool, a very east German DDR-era facility, packed with kids doing water polo training including several sporting international colours (including one strapping lad in a pair of trunks in Welsh national colours!) and did a proper family training session (it helps that Frances is a qualified coach!).
On Wednesday we woke to a stunningly beautiful dawn as we watched the sun rise through the mist enveloping the lake from the cosy warmth of the caravan bed, the morning peace shattered only by the barking of the German rowing coach as he voiced his furious dissatisfaction at the evidently feeble efforts of his charges as they bust-a-gut in their skiffs. We left cosseting embrace of the very well provided campsite and hopped on the thoughtfully provided shuttle bus to the tram, took the tram into Potsdam’s central station and thence onto the mainline commuter train into Berlin. As someone who has spent the last four years commuting by train into London, I was immediately able to interpret the look of anguish on the faces of the travel-weary commuters – ‘Oh God, tourists…Noooo!’. Unphased, the kids prodded and needled each other while Frances and I pretended not to know them all the way in to Berlin’s incredibly impressive central station, a positive cathedral to the railways. We then made our way rapidly through some of the most historicly significant sites in all of Europe – the Reichstag, once again the seat of German government crowned with its Norman Foster designed glass dome to replace the original; the Brandenburg gate, sadly pretty much encased in scaffolding and staging due to last weekend’s marathon and this weekend’s anniversary of unification celebrations; on through the Holocaust memorial, past the remnants of the wall at Potsdammer Platz to Checkpoint Charlie and a brief look into the escape museum. I’d first visited this in 1974 when I was George’s age and it overlooked the very much in place wall. It’s an incredible tribute to the resourcefulness of those who refuse to allow tyranny to stand in their way. On which subject, we’d seen a poignant piece of graffiti on our way in to Berlin (graffiti is such a feature of the Berlin streetscape) – it read: ‘It’s better to be a lion for a day than a lamb for your whole life’.
And then to the highlight of the day – a Trabi Safari – a guided, self-driven convoy of Trabants, East Germany’s famous perople’s car, a two-stroke 650cc twin. We hopped in our convertible leopard-skin painted Trabant, Frances at the wheel, the commentary coming through the crackly radio from the lead car, and made our way in clouds of blue two-stroke smoke around the famous sites of East Berlin, with its grand boulevards (Unter Den Linden, Karl Marx Strasse and others) showcasing the marvellous success and prosperity of Honecker’s DDR. Now mostly renovated and refurbished, it’s a really vibrant and exciting city. The Trabants were great fun (if a little challenging to drive with none of the power assits of modern cars).
After a brief visit to the newly opened STASI museum, we took the U-bahn to Alexanderplatz, and visited the brilliant DDR museum. It gives a fascinating insight into life in the former East Germany, with its many hardships and depravations and its life of secrecy and oppression which obscure some of its undoubted successes – jobs and a first rate education and health system for all chief amongst them. Visiting Berlin is such a valuable hands-on modern-history lesson.
We made our way back by tram to the Haupt Bahn Hof and headed back to Potsdam, with another group of horrified commuters for company – then the tram home, including stopping off from our for a welcome roadside Bratwurst and beer – feeding and watering a family of four for €11 is not a bad deal, even if it means doing so in a car park!
Thursday was another beautiful sunrise, the rowing coach in better spirits (or his charges in better form). We de-camped, dropped our caravan off outside the site gates, and drove into Potsdam to visit the local sites. I had no idea that there would be any – but a quick drive past the university to Park Sans Souci revealed King Frederich The Great’s (I think – could have been Frederich the Fat, but let’s go with Great) utterly incredible park of castles, villas and gardens. That these incredible beautiful and ornate buildings survived the war and then fifty years of communist rule largely in-tact is amazing – and with the on-going renovation projects, they are being restored to their former glory for the benefit of all. We saw what we could in a couple of hours, and then hitched up and headed off to Dresden.
Again, with the wide and smooth autobahns, our progress was rapid – we’re cruising at just under 60mph, and getting used to the stomach churning sucking in and blowing out effect on the caravan of passing trucks (in fact, at 60mph, we’re travelling at pretty much their pace, so not getting overtaken nearly as much – makes life much more comfortable). The traffic on the roads is, nevertheless, incredible – big Mercs and BMWs flying past at well over twice our speed. The short on and off ramps are a bit of a challenge though – more than once I found myself hemmed in as cars flew past in the outside lane, trucks bearing down on me from behind, and big queues of impatient drivers trying to force themselves on to the autobahn in the space I’d thought was mine! I just have to rely on the protection of the sheer size of the Volvo and caravan as being reasonably intimidating to tackle with!
We found our way to our campsite in the late afternoon and made camp on the site’s grassy edge leading down to a lake – and finally, after about a four week gap, were able to put the awning up! It was dark by the time we’d finished, but the rewards are worth it – the space it gives us is fabulous. The children sleep in the awning in inner tents on air beds, carefully made up with blankets and duvets to keep them warm. We have lights and a blow heater to add to their creature comforts – and it creates so much more space in the caravan for Frances and me.
This morning, Friday, we were collected by the hop-on-off tourist bus right from the campsite for the drive into Dresden. This gave us a walking tour of the old city, and then access to the bus for the remainder of the day, before returning us back to the site in the evening. Our walking tour took us through the beautiful old city, with its palaces, opera house and churches created by King August of Saxony who went on to become the King of Poland and in order to do so renounced his Lutheran faith and joined the Catholic church. The incredible thing about all this, though, is not the sheer beauty of the city (it really is very beautiful) – but that it was all reduced to rubble by the allied bombing over three nights in February 1945. 25,000 people (at least) were killed and the central city totally destroyed by the firestorm that ensued. Everything we saw had been painstakingly re-built, the many hundreds of sandstone statues re-carved – even the more recent buildings have been built in a sympathetic style, to create a really beautiful city. Much of this rebuilding took place before the re-unification in 1990 by the DDR.
Our guide for the walking tour was a mid-thirties woman who had grown up in East Germany. We talked a bit about the changes her life has undergone through the reunification. Like many East Germans, her views were mixed. She described her childhood as perfect – faultless – a great education, a happy and carefree home life. Reunification happened so fast that the impact was dramatic. She, a girl of fifteen, had to explain the process, and the new order to her parents. Many important things in her own life came to an abrupt halt – her budding career as a bi-athlon stopped as her sports club immediately closed. Her music lessons stopped equally abruptly after years of learning the guitar. More significantly, much of the industry which supported East German employment closed down, with the loss of literally millions of jobs. Many in the public sector lost their jobs because no equivalent existed in the west. Even simple seemingly trivial things had an impact – the products that East Germans had grown up with were suddenly no longer available, replaced by the unfamiliar or unsuitable. Twenty years on she appreciates the economic, social and political freedom she now enjoys – but she and many others are nostalgic for much of what they had in the past. They wouldn’t, don’t seek to reverse the process – but they wish it had been handled at a slower, more sympathetic pace – and that it had accommodated the best of the East, not just the West in the new order. Fascinating.
We headed back to the campsite after a very rewarding day – we’ve learnt a great deal this week about the impact of war, the events which lead up to the Second World War and the massive changes to Europe in consequence of and after it. As with Scandinavia and Poland, we’ve been endlessly impressed with the friendliness and generosity of the people we meet.
We’ll have a rest day tomorrow (Saturday) and head to Prague on Sunday.
A couple of things slipped my comment on earlier posts. George and Charlie keep asking if I mentioned on one in particular. Having made camp in Elblag, we left the caravan and drove to Malbork , just us in the car. The roads were bumpy, but with no caravan, no great drama. And so it was the ultimate humiliation to find myself being overtaken on a straight stretch – by a Smart car!
And Frances is keen to add to our list of camping essentials the brown, fire-marked whistle kettle we’re using – salvaged from her parents, it accompanied her on her childhood travels around Europe with her parents, backpacking camping expeditions as a young adult, family bush camping adventures with us in Australia and now wakes one of us up every morning.