Conclusion – My travels through England, Former East Germany & Prague

On a solo journey during the winter of 2017, I explored parts of southern England, Former East Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Join me on my next adventure during the winter of 2018 when I will continue to explore the rich cultures of Central Europe, starting in Poland.

Following is my blog address for these European travels in 2018: http://www.ZellnerTravel2018.wordpress.com

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Travelogue written by Merrilee Zellner

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Images of Prague, Czech Republic, a UNESCO Monument

Prague, the capitol of the Czech Republic, remains one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. As early as the Middle Ages, Prague became one of the leading cultural centers of Christian Europe. The Prague Castle, which has been the seat of Czech kings, emperors and presidents for a thousand years, rises majestically over the old city.

The Old Town Square is surrounded by Gothic arcaded houses and various landmark attractions, such as the medieval Astronomical Clock. Watching the “Walk of the Apostles’, an hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures, is a popular public event.

Welcome to enigmatic Prague!

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

 

 

 

 

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Journey to Prague Jewish Quarter (Josefov), Czech Republic

Josefov, the Old Jewish Quarter in Prague, Czech Republic, dates from the 13th century when the Jewish people of Prague were ordered to move into this confined area. It is completely surrounded by Prague’s Old Town, or Stare Mesto. One of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe, it is dotted with somber reminders of its past.

The golden age of the former Prague Jewish Ghetto was in the end of the 16th century. A few valuable historical buildings remain including six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery. These monuments comprise the Jewish Museum. A couple of the synagogues have active congregations today.

It is believed that Adolf Hitler himself decided to preserve the Jewish Quarter. It was to be called the Museum of an Extinct Race.

I visited Josefov several times, always bundled up for the brisk walk which I usually made from the city’s Old Town Square. The cold winter weather was relentless.

The unusual 16th century Renaissance-style Jewish Town Hall with its clock tower rising high above the other historic buildings in the area always helped guide me to the center of the Old Jewish Quarter. One of the clocks on the tower has Hebrew numerals whose hands run counter clockwise because Hebrew reads from right to left.

The Pincas Synagogue, built in 1535, had been turned into a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia (formerly Czechoslovakia). As I gazed at the walls covered with names of Jews who perished, I felt a flood of emotion. That emotion transported me in my mind immediately to that very spot which I stood over 20 years ago when I last visited Prague. I stood there frozen for a moment, realizing the emotion I felt then hadn’t changed, despite my increased knowledge and exposure to the history of the Jews during my world travels over the years – or perhaps it was because of these travels that my emotions did not diminish.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in the 15th century, is among the oldest surviving Jewish burial grounds in the world. It is twelve graves deep with ancient, inscribed tombstones crowding the site at precarious angles. A few with niches containing prayer notes caught my attention as I wandered through the graveyard. They reminded me of a similar site I had observed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem where people tuck prayer requests between the ancient stones, as they have done for millennia.

One evening I enjoyed a classical concert held in the historic Spanish Synagogue. It was built in 1868 with impressive Moorish interior design, influenced by the famous Alhambra in Grenada, Spain. Sitting in the middle of this beautifully restored, colorful synagogue while classical music permeated the high Moorish arches kept me  spellbound.  

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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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