Are sometimes less travelled for a reason
Getting out of Brussels should have been easy but it wasn’t. Once again we started following the signs to the motorway only for them to disappear, leaving us ‘off the map’ with no idea where we were. Twice we found ourselves driving through pleasant leafy suburbs, far from the motorway and were forced to backtrack into the city to re-orientate ourselves. It took a very frustrating hour to get away.
Going back to Germany involved a long driving day as our destination, Bremen, was some 600 kilometres away, but given the average speed on the motorway was 130 kilometres per hour, this did not seem an issue. About an hour into our journey however, we hit our first traffic jam. Progress slowed to a crawl and for the next two hours we never got out of first gear. By late afternoon it was clear we would never reach Bremen before nightfall so we diverted to Dusseldorf. Dusseldorf doesn’t really jump out as a tourist destination, but it does have good nightlife. The entire length of the old town waterfront is like one giant beer hall. The lower boardwalk offers German pub food and drink and was absolutely pumping. The upper promenade is filled with classy restaurants.
The Germans have a very relaxed approach to street drinking. The bars serve people directly on the street, creating what is virtually a huge street party. Each bar charged a deposit on the glass to ensure its safe return. Although there were lots of people walking the streets drinking there was no police presence or any bouncers, but no one was out of control or rowdy and the whole atmosphere felt safe. Why is it that in Australian street drinking like this would likely lead to violence and antisocial behaviour?
That said, later that night as we were about to walk across one of the major city parks on the way back to our hotel, a police van approached us. It slowed to a crawl and the officers inside gave us a hard look, then they drove off. We laughed about being ‘international fugitives’ but a few minutes later 8 armed tactical response officers came charging down the street towards us. They flashed us with their torches and then moved on. Needless to say were a little startled and hurried on home.
The next day we set off early for Bremen. For lunch we stopped in Munster, partly because it was on the route and partly because the Lonely Planet gave the city a good plug. 90% of the city was razed to the ground during the Second World War but the old town had apparently been tastefully restored. Although it was buzzing with tourists, we found the city a little disappointing and quickly moved on. Taking a slight detour from Munster we visited Schloss Nord Kirche, one of Westphalia’s many 17th century palaces. We walked around the gardens and statuary park. There were several weddings in the grounds. Afterwards we visited the 14th century moated castle, Schloss Burg Vischering, which was stunning.
We arrived in Bremen in the late afternoon and found a cheap hostel near the waterfront. Like Munster, Bremen had been destroyed in the war and its old city had been rebuilt from scratch. But Bremen’s magnificent historical buildings were restored with real feeling and sensitivity, whereas Munster felt like it had been restored by Disney Corporation. But Bremen wasn’t all old buildings, it’s waterfront was similar to Düsseldorf’s, only a little smaller. It was Saturday night and the bars were pumping. There were numerous bucks and hens groups weaving their way through the crowds, although the groups were a little more restrained that the ones we see at home. We sampled many types of beer and enjoyed a sausage or two.
The Long Road
Bremen was a bit of a crossroads in the leg of our journey. We had originally planned to continue north east along the Baltic coast before turning south at Rostock and then crossing into Poland. However, the northern German cities we had visited hadn’t really inspired us that much so we decided to change to Plan B. We would forego the Baltic coast and drive straight to Berlin, stop overnight and then drive to Gdansk in Poland the next day. It would mean two long driving days but that would allow us to spend more time in Poland and places we’d never visited before.
But already the omens were ominous. Firstly, it was Sunday and everything in Bremen was shut, including McDonalds, so we set off without breakfast. Two hours later, just outside Hannover, we pulled into a servo in the hope of grabbing an early lunch and found the place overrun with metal heads. At first it was simply amusing to see so many death metal fans in one place, but as more and more began to pull into the servo we began to wonder why. It turned out there had been a three day heavy metal festival in Hamburg that weekend and people were beginning to head home - and all of them lived in Berlin apparently. When we pulled back onto the motorway it was four lanes of bumper to bumper traffic for the next 300 kilometres. Time for Plan C.
Erfurt lies in the geographical heart of Germany. The capital of Thuringia had received a very favourable write up in the Lonely Planet, apparently thanks to its beautifully restored medieval centre. It was another long drive, but anything was better than being stuck on the motorway. So we changed plans again and turned south at the next available exit. There was one thing we hadn’t counted on when we made our decision; Erfurt was in the former East Germany and we were coming from the former West Germany. There was no direct route. Despite our earlier navigational ‘challenges’ we were quite confident and by the B roads we would visit a number of other interesting little towns along the way.
The first was Hildesheim. Hildesheim had been bombed flat during the war and then rebuilt in Soviet brutalist style. After reunification the city voted to tear down its ugly Soviet era centre an rebuild it in a more traditional style. Although it's a modern reconstruction it is truly magnificent and makes the city worth the detour.
Then it was on to Goslar. Unlike most of the other cities we’d visited, Goslar had escaped damage in the war and it shows. The whole inner city, not just the central square, is medieval. Magnificent half timbered houses stretch along every street. What’s more, Goslar was open on Sunday and was doing a roaring trade. The streets were absolutely packed with tourists, all German. We wandered around for hours and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Being a small city, it was easy to get out of Goslar, but as we tried to navigate back towards the motorway we began to have problems again. Firstly we were directed into a small village which had no access to the motorway, then, after an hour of frustration going in circles, we found the motorway, but could not find any access to it in the direction we needed to go. By now thoroughly annoyed we ended up just getting on and driving in the opposite direction until we could turn off, turn around and get back on in the right direction. That detour cost us two hours.
We were now more determined than ever to stick with the motorway and avoid the B roads. We plotted a course to Erfurt and, given a good run, we could possibly make it by about 7 or 8pm. But once again we miscalculated. Much of the infrastructure in the former East Germany is new, like the motorway we were now driving on, but there is a lot remaining to be done. Like the turnoff to Erfurt, which we discovered was due to be built in 2011. Time for Plan D.
We decided to continue on the motorway to Leipzig. Unlike West Germany, which is densely populated, Saxony-Anhalt is largely rural. The lovely new motorway stretched on through low rolling meadows of wheat and corn, dotted around with cylindrical hay bales. It was certainly pleasant countryside, but I found my mind pre-occupied with other thoughts. Firstly, the petrol gauge was now showing less than a quarter of a tank, and secondly, we’d not passed a service station since we got onto the motorway. Leipzig was over 100 kilometres away. About 30 kilometres out of Leipzig the petrol warning light came on and things became very tense. In desperation we turned off the motorway at the next small town, but it was Sunday and everything was shut, including the petrol station. We had no choice now by to try and reach the city. Then we saw a sign for the airport; it was a toss up between 25 kms to Leipzig or 22 kms to the airport, so we turned to the airport. It was now almost 10pm so when we saw a few lights on in the centre of the satellite town of Markranstadt, we pulled over. There was a kebab shop open so we parked out the front, ordered a kebab (remembering that we had not had breakfast or lunch) and asked if there was a hotel and petrol station in town. The answer was yes to both questions. The petrol station was 300 metres further up the road. After picking up our kebabs we nursed the car into the petrol station with the warning light flashing. Of course, we paid a premium rate at the only hotel in town but enjoyed the best kebab in the world.
The next day we decided not to go into Leipzig after all. I had wanted to go to Zwickau, a city made famous as the home of MZ motorbikes (Motorrad Zwickau) and Audi. Zwickau has an outstanding auto museum that I was dying to visit, but we’d no sooner set off that we realised that it was Monday and the museum was closed (Damn!) and this foolishly influenced our decision making. The RIGHT decision was to write off yesterdays navigational blunders and head directly to Dresden, only 130 kms away. The WRONG decision was to try and go back to Erfurt, now 85 kms in the opposite direction. So clearly we went to Erfurt. Let me be clear - there is nothing wrong with Erfurt. It does have a nicely restored town centre and, if you’d not already visited Bremen, or Hildesheim, or Goslar, you’d think it was great. But we had. And so it wasn’t. So we went, took our photos, felt disappointed (knowing full well we’d made the wrong decision) and turned around and drove the 220 kms to Dresden.
Florence of the North
Dresden is perhaps my favourite city in Germany. We visited in 1998 and had been blown away. The architecture is magnificent - the great Gothic cathedral in the old city always reminds me of a dreadnought battleship steaming up the Elbe. Then there is the cruelty of the city’s destruction, with the scars so vividly left on the fabric of its buildings, and the Herculean efforts of the Dresdners to restore their city to its original glory.
For most of the Second World War Dresden had escaped much of the destruction wrought on other German cities because it was not an industrial centre and for its cultural heritage, and as a consquence by the war's end it was filled with refugees. In the last months of the war, the combined British and American airforces attacked the city with firebombs. More people died in the ensuing Dresden Firestorm than in the combined bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to destroy Dresden utterly, largely lay with Winston Churchill, and the reason, obscured for years by vague, political justifications, was to demonstrate to the approaching Russian armies that the Western Allies possessed the power and political will to utterly destroy their enemies. Correspondence between Churchill and chief of the British Bomber Command, ‘Bomber’ Harris, later revealed that both understood that if they were ever held to account in a Nuremburg type trial, both of them would hang for war crimes (Churchill, as an old imperialist, was fundamentally opposed to the Nuremburg trials; he’d recommended that all high ranking Nazi’s be summarily executed as soon as they were captured).
The process of restoration began back in the 1950’s, partly as an anti-western propaganda exercise by the East German government. The process slowed down considerably during the 70s and 80s but gained new impetus after reunification. The magnificent baroque masterpiece, the Frauenkirche, however, had been left as a pile of rubble as a monument to the destruction of the city, but in 2000 work began on its restoration. It took 8 years but the rebuilt cathedral is a masterpiece. Thousands of tourists flock through it, almost as an act of pilgrimage. People, young and old, were bought to tears by the experience. I think the building itself has become a symbol of resurrection.
From Dresden we set off on the road to Prague in the Czech Republic. A city of beautiful architecture, beautiful women, and cheap beer. Sounds like heaven….
Random thoughts about travelling in Germany
German radio seems to have a disturbing preference for 1980’s ‘middle of the road’ rock music and 1990’s power ballads. Or, Euro-pop. Either way it’s shit.
Popular fashions observed -
Beige pants, worn very high, with a checked shirt, T-shirt, or penguin top, tucked into the trousers.
Brown loafers or brown sandals with white socks.
Denim shorts, often disturbingly tight, or slightly too long (either way, something very not right)
Hair - short, buzz cut and totally style-less.
For men -
Same as above