Day tripping with Dresden Servas Hosts

During my visit to Dresden and the Elbe Valley, as a *Servas Traveler, I had the opportunity to stay in the home of a couple of Servas Hosts.

One clear, cool day Dresden Servas Host Michael, a software engineer, accompanied me up the Elbe River to the Pillnitz Castle. The expansive baroque palace was the former summer residence of the Wettin dynasty, one of the oldest in Europe. It was once included in the Dresden Elbe Valley UNESCO World Heritage listing before the designation was removed in 2009. This was due to a modern bridge which was built across the Elbe River near Dresden. (Numerous monuments and parks from the 16th to 20th centuries in Dresden had been included in this UNESCO designation also)

After walking around the well-manicured castle grounds, we crossed the river on a small ferry and then enjoyed a cup of tea at a waterside cafe overlooking the castle.

The following day Michael took me to the home of my next Servas Hosts, Ute and Werner, a retired teacher and a retired engineer, respectively. He joined us for dinner that evening. We all talked into the night about their lives under Communist rule following the Second World War and how their lives changed after reunification of Germany in 1990. They all agreed that, besides the fact that they ate better, living in reunified Germany was a life-changing experience.

Soon after reunification, Michael left former East Germany and traveled for the first time outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, visiting many parts of the world. He was about 33 years old at the time.

Michael and the couple live in close proximity to each other in a lovely neighborhood high on a hill about a 15 minute bus ride from downtown Dresden. They each own a flat in small multi-unit buildings which look like single family homes from the outside. (see photo at left of Michael’s building)

At first glance it appeared this neighborhood, with its beautiful old homes, had escaped the ravages of WWII.  I was wrong.  One day I asked Michael about a huge crane that I had noticed perched high over an open lot between two houses up the street from his house. He said that a bomb had taken out the house that used to be there and a new house was now being built on that lot.  He pointed out a new house on another block in which a similar thing had happened.

On my last day in Dresden Ute, Werner and I drove to Saxon Switzerland National Park, which is about 18 miles east of the city and close to the Czech border. We spent the day hiking in this beautiful mountainous area and stopped for a snack whenever we came upon a stunning view.

The park’s dramatic stone formations make it a popular place for serious rock climbers. We periodically exchanged waves with climbers who had made the perilous climb to the top of a steep, jagged rock formation. Two of these climbers turned out to be friends of Ute and Werner’s from their church. They repelled quickly down the side of the rocks and greeted us.

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*Servas is a non-profit organization of hosts and travelers. www.USServas.org

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Dresden, Baroque Capital of Saxony

Deep in the heart of former East Germany, Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, straddles the Elbe River near the border with the Czech Republic. This ancient city is known for its stunning collection of baroque buildings from the 18th century, including the Frauenkirche (originally built 1726, rebuilt 1993), and the Zwinger Palace (1719).

The allied bombing of the Second World War in1945 left Dresden’s historic city center in ruins. Since then, much of it has been rebuilt and built up in an intriguing display of architectural styles. Wide pedestrian malls lined with Soviet-era apartment blocks reside among plazas flanked with 18th century buildings.

King August II (August the Strong), former King of Poland (1670-1733), was responsible for transforming Dresden into a magnificent baroque capital.  He established porcelain manufacturing in the nearby town of Meissen in 1710.  For 150 years this factory produced the “White Gold” from the Meissen Albrechtsburg Castle, the oldest castle in Europe, which rises dramatically above the Elbe River valley. 

One day I walked over the historic Augustus Bridge to explore Dresden’s Neustadt district. Here the gilded equestrian statue of August the Strong stands majestically at the head of a pedestrian mall, the center of which was filled with purple crocuses in full bloom.

At a doner kebab shop I met a friendly, local English-speaking lady named Silvia with her two year old daughter. Silvia spent 20 years of her life in Poland but now lives in one of Dresden’s block apartment buildings in “group housing” with independent artists and writers and plans to live in Germany indefinitely. She only wears “free” clothes. When I asked if she was a citizen of Germany, she said she has no allegiance to any country. She said she speaks in English and Polish to her daughter, but not in German, confident that she will pick up German in school. Her friendliness and openness to me were heartwarming; her English was impeccable.

At her encouragement, I later visited a unique DDR Museum (former Democratic Republic) which was located in a nearby modern two-story shopping mall.  Labels were almost non-existant in this rather funky museum.  Some of the most interesting artifacts there was a row of colorful Soviet-era cars and DDR military uniforms and memorabilia. 

In my search for a historic public market, I found the multi-level, renovated Neustadter Markthalle (established 1899). It was usually humming with activity and became one of my favorite haunts for dining on a budget. Whenever I perched myself on a stool at one of the international food stalls, I usually became engaged in an interesting conversation, in English, with a local professional or *expat sitting next to me.

The popular weekly outdoor flea market along the Elbe River was another great place to interact with the locals. A couple of picture books of Dresden, which I browsed through, were especially interesting. At first glance the photos of Dresden’s baroque center in these books appeared to be present-day photos. However, after careful inspection, I realized all the photos were taken before the Second World War.

The fact that I could barely tell the difference between the magnificent baroque buildings in the pre-war photos and the same structures viewed today, is testament to the remarkable reconstruction that has been done to Dresden’s old town since the devastating, controversial 1945 allied bombing which leveled most of it.

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*An expatriate (often shortened to “expat”) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship.

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Saying Good-bye to Berlin

img_2782-resizedA double cobble-stone trail which identifies exactly where the Berlin Wall once stood is embedded in Berlin’s public spaces, such as side walks and roads.

On my last day in Berlin I followed this trail from Potsdamer Platz to Brandenburg Gate. It took me about an hour. It disappeared when it met an obstruction, such as a Wall fragment or a building, and then reappeared on the other side of that obstruction. It passed through the middle of a major street, along the edge of the Holocaust Memorial, and circled the western side of Brandenburg Gate.

Seeing the imposing, historic Brandenburg Gate come gradually into view from this significant trail and then slowly disappear after I passed it, was my way of saying goodbye to a dynamic city with a turbulent past and a promising future.  

Following is my photographic record of this walk.

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Remembering The Berlin Wall

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Twenty six years of reunification of East and West Germany have left an undeniable mark on this dynamic, cosmopolitan city of over 3 million people. Segments of the Berlin Wall still stand scattered along the 175 kilometer border of former West Berlin. Massive cranes still dot the landscape as the rebuilding of the war-raved city continues. They can be seen especially behind segments of The Wall which are still standing, such as at the famous “East Side Gallery.” Various artists have left their mark on this extensive remaining stretch of the Wall, one of the world’s largest open-air mural collections in the world.

Potsdamer Platz

img_2747-resizedThe Berlin Wall which went straight through Potsdamer Platz dividing the heart of the old city in half, left a large swath of desolate area begging to be developed once the city was reunited. The plaza has now been reconstructed with dramatic new buildings and entrances to the underground station. During the Cold War this station had been closed down and the entrances camouflaged. A few Wall segments remain standing. The plaza is now bustling with foot and vehicular traffic day and night.img_3590-resized img_3594-resized

I often stopped in Potzdamer Platz and pondered the open-air museum that the remaining Wall fragments provide. Artwork on each stone slab ranges from gum and bottle caps permanently embedded on the surface, to graffiti or “street art” with a political message. Poignant historical information and photographs concerning the Wall which are posted here attracts a steady stream of international camera-toting viewers.

Berlin Philharmonie

Once a week during lunchtime the Berlin Philharmonie, located in a heavily-bombed area near Potzdamer Platz, presents a free concert (Lunchkonzert) of classical music in the beautiful lobby. img_3106-resizedA pianist and violinist gave a stellar performance the afternoon I attended.

img_3102-resizedThe Philharmonie, which opened in 1963, is part of the recently-constructed Kulturforum, which was originally conceived to be the new culture center of West Berlin. Many of the city’s cultural venues had been lost behind the Iron Curtain when the Wall was built. img_3500-resizedOne of these was the 19th century Konzerthaus Berlin which is located in the historic former East Berlin square of Gendarmenmart. It was resurrected from the ruins of WWII. With the reuniting of the city, Berlin now has two outstanding concert performance halls.

The modern, dramatic open lobby area of the Philharmonie lends itself well to Lunchkonzerts. I moved to different vantage points at each break, stepping carefully around people of all ages who were perched on the staircases, img_3089-resizedthe main floor, and balconies, their cold-weather attire surrounding them.img_3676-resized As I worked my way among the crowds, many people gave me a smile and a nod, and occasionally a friendly greeting. I felt fortunate to be there.

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A Taste of Turkish Culture in Berlin

For independent travellers adventure is often in the journey, not necessarily in the destination.

This played out for me the other day during my excursion to Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin’s largest palace. While in the area, I unexpectedly experienced a taste of Berlin’s fine Turkish culture.

Schloss Charlottenburg was built as a summer palace at the end of the 17th century and was enlarged over the next century. The luxurious palace and formal gardens seen today were developed by the Hohenzollern clan who ruled for four centuries starting in the 1400’s. The historic apartments were splendid, although the audio recording repeatedly stated that most of what we were seeing was reconstructed since World War II.

Just outside the underground near Schloss Charlottenburg my attention was drawn to a bold red neon sign announcing the name of a restaurant. Beneath this sign large paper decorations which blocked the front windows seemed intent on diverting one’s attention away from the lovely surrounding architecture into this establishment. Out of curiosity I entered this restaurant which was brimming with traditional Turkish soups, vegetable dishes, meats and stews, all at reasonable prices. The exotic aroma alone was enough to get me to stay.

Tables were full of families enjoying traditional repast. Most women were wearing a hijab wrapped snugly around their heads and draped over their shoulders. Waiters and chefs were engulfed in animated discussions with each other over the counter tops.

img_3606-resizedI languished over soup, a variety of breads, and Turkish tea, while taking in the atmosphere. Fatima, a charming hostess, was of Turkish heritage but born in Germany.

The German government officially invited Turkish people to emigrate to the country as “Guest Workers” in the 1960’s due to a severe labor shortage at the time. There are now over three million Turks living in Germany.

This was the first time on this trip I had come face-to-face with German-Turkish families enjoying time together. My sole interaction with the German-Turkish community, up until this time, had been through my frequent visits to the small, local “doner kebap” shop near where I am staying.

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img_3277-resizedAnother day I experienced a different taste of Turkish culture – that of a traditional Turkish hamam. I was introduced to this by my *Servas Host Frieda with whom I stayed for a couple of days. The charming hamam with its steam bath and plentiful hot water was a welcome relief from a bitter cold day.img_3519-resized

Following signs to Sultan Hamam, we took a rickety elevator to the 2nd floor of an industrial-looking building. The hamam was decorated with low oriental tables, colorful Turkish cushions, and soft lighting. Marble seating areas throughout were heated with hot pipes running under them. The day we were there was for females only. A topless bikini was the order of the day inside the hamam.

img_3258-resizedFor three hours we relaxed and savoured our experience. We laid on a traditional marble heated scrubbing slab, and poured hot and cold water over ourselves from a marble wash basin with a silver bowl. The steam bath was so steamy I felt I was wrapped in a cloud. img_3526-resizedIn our dressing room a cacophony of languages engulfed us, including German, Turkish and French. We finished in the front tea room drinking Turkish tea.  All for only 19 Euros.

Frieda and I returned for another session at Sultan Hamam a week later. Neither Frieda nor Sultan Hamam will ever be forgotten.

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* Servas, a non profit international organization of hosts and travelers    www.USServas.org

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Introducing Berlin

An inexpensive flight out of London on Ryan Air brought me to Berlin where I planned to stay for a couple of weeks while exploring this dynamic city and surrounding area.

Some might say my choice of staying in a hostel while travelling in a part of the world where the weather dictates that I bundle up and deal with occasional snow and ice underfoot, is not the most pleasant way to travel. But when the hostel is walking distance to many of Berlin’s fascinating historical sites and has all the amenities needed for a comfortable stay on a budget, including good WIFI connection, a good buffet breakfast, and interesting international travellers to converse with, it can be a grand experience for an independent traveler such as myself.  Being off season, occasionally I score with a private room for the price of a dorm bed (20 Euros), as I have now as I write this posting for my blog.

My exploration of Berlin began with a leisurely walk to the famous Brandenburg Gate, a symbol of the reunification of East and West Germany.

For 40 years the Brandenburg Gate had been hidden behind the Berlin Wall in the German Democratic Republic (GDR/former East Germany) during the Cold War. The newly constructed US Embassy flanked one side. On arrival, I stood pensively observing the USA flag which was flying over the embassy, trying to grasp the full impact of the fact that it was flying in the same place the Berlin Wall stood 26 years ago.

I joined a free walking tour near the Brandenburg Gate. There were 20 people from 10 countries in our English-speaking group, all dressed to handle walking several hours in the brutally cold weather that day. Our professional tour guide was a young lady from England who has lived in Berlin for years. During introductions she told us she makes a living from tips on these walking tours. Thus she set the stage for us to decide at the end how much we thought she was worth, and then tip her accordingly. Two significant places she took us to were Checkpoint Charlie and the Holocaust Memorial.img_2727-resized1

Checkpoint Charlie is one of the powerful symbols of the Cold War. It was the principal gateway for foreigners and diplomats travelling between East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1990. Only a replica of the building stands here that processed these people. The original building was at the Allied Museum. I decided at that moment to go there the following day in anticipation of seeing it.img_2724-resized

We stopped at a free open-air exhibit which took us through significant events of the Cold War. This introduction to open-air historical exhibits in Berlin propelled me to search for them in the coming days. My search was often rewarded. (more on this later)

img_2727-resizedBerlin’s Holocaust Memorial is Germany’s main memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is close to the Brandenburg Gate on the former grounds of the Berlin Wall. 2700 concrete slabs of varying heights are in a grid pattern on uneven ground. We carefully walked through a few of the narrow corridors created by the stelae, slipping and sliding along the way. Despite the fact that ice was prevalent on the ground throughout, few in our group chose to forego the experience of walking through the memorial by walking around it.

Later I went back to this site and visited the underground information center where some of the most important memories of the Holocaust were displayed. With thousands of anonymous concrete slabs above, I felt like I was in a tomb.

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img_3316-resizedThe Allied Museum, located in an old theatre used by US troops and their families stationed in the former American Sector of West Berlin, was founded in 1996. One of the highlights was the documentation of the successful Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949, which took place during the Berlin Blockade. img_3315-resized

Included outside were original buildings in excellent condition from Checkpoint Charlie and a segment of the Berlin Wall covered with upbeat street art. Across the street the US flag was flying over the US Consulate, formerly the US Embassy.

The Allied Museum left me with a feeling that somehow I had come home.

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In the Footsteps of The Bard

1836-shakespeare-mosaic-resizedTreading in the path in England where William Shakespeare and his followers trod, and continue to do so, was an adventure.

Shakespeare, often called England’s National poet, was born during the Elizabethan era in 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, a medieval market town in England’s West Midlands.2166-shakespeare-birthplace-stratford  He married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway in 1582 when he was 18. His Tudor family home was near her famous 500-year-old family cottage. 2193-hathaway-house-in-stratford-resizedThe guides in these well-preserved houses, dressed in traditional attire of medieval times, enthusiastically related their history as we wandered through. The floors creaked with every step. 

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1236-the-globe-shakespeare-theatre-resizedOne cold, overcast day I crossed over the historic London Bridge to visit the *Shakspeare Globe Theater, an American-built complex which opened in 1997. I hoped to catch one of The Bard’s plays in the oak-and-thatch replica of the original Elizabethan theatre which stood close to this location during medieval times. Tourists and theatre-goers of all ages swarmed the complex and strolled along its famed waterfront, undeterred by the inclement weather.

Shakespere’s open-air Globe theatre was closed for the winter season. But I was able to secure a last minute, standing-room ticket for a play in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This year-round playhouse is notable for the reconstruction of the old Globe Theatre

The semi-circular wooden balcony where I stood was so steep that I had to lean forward and peer through the low-hung candlelit chandeliers in order to see the stage. Fortunately they were raised during the performance, giving me a clear view of the performers, albeit from high above. Before the play began, the intimacy of the location of my viewing facilitated interesting interaction with strangers who were standing close to me.  Many were regular Globe attendees and were quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare and this theatre.  

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img_1813-resizedOn a wall near Shakespeare’s Globe, as if to welcome people into the nearby historic Borough Market, stood his over-sized mosaic portrait.  A market was said to have been in this location long before his time. img_1821-resizedColorful fresh fruit stands and cheese stalls were scattered among a smorgasbord of international fresh food stalls. Whiffs of exotic food smells permeated the damp, cool air under the massive steel beams of the London Bridge.

img_2093-resizedThe London Bridge, which has been rebuilt numerous times, dates from the Roman period. It was probably a pontoon style crossing linking Roman roads across the River Thames. img_2033-resized

I frequented this enticing market regularly, appreciating the fact that it supports the interaction of the varied cultures that exist throughout London. It was always humming with foodies, especially on weekends, when long queues were the norm. During my visits I enoyed Thai coconut pancakes; koshari, Cairo street food; and fresh Italian pasta.  I often ate at an outside communal table and struck up a conversation with the international people who were seated there next to me.

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img_2058resizedAfter several unsuccessful attempts to see a Shakespeare play in various venues, I managed to secure a front row seat, for the price of 10 British Pounds, for the play “Much Ado About Nothing” in one of London’s premier theatres. A few tickets were made available at the box office each day of performance starting at 10am. I was one of the first in line that day.

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3457-resizedA couple of weeks later while I was visiting Leipzig, a charming, cosmopolitan city in former East Germany, Shakespeare’s trail reappeared in the form of music for “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Leipzig, with 1000 years of history, was once one of the major European centers of learning and culture in fields such as music and publishing. The composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) helped develop Leipzig as a center of music in 19th century Europe.

img_3443-resizedAt Mendelssohn’s house museum I listened rapturously to his overture for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which premiered in 1827.  An acoustical room was set up like an orchestra pit with separate tall speakers each representing an instrument. img_3462-resizedListeners, with headphones on, stood in the front, as if they were the conductor. A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture was household music in Germany until WWII. Due to anti-semitism, all performances of Mendelssohn’s music stopped until the end of the war.

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What a treasure trove it is to connect with Shakespeare, in some form, while traveling through Europe.

* Shakespeare’s Globe: http://www.shakespearesglobe.com

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