Sunday, 23 August 2009

Magdeburg Unplanned

Today we travelled to the ancient mediaeval city of Magdeburg, about 160km WSW of Berlin, capital of the state of Saxony-Anhalt, situated on the river Elbe.

We weren't supposed to be going there, but to Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where legend has it Martin Luther nailed his 'The Ninety Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences' to the door of the cathedral there and thereby set off The Reformation.

We had agreed to meet up with two friends on platform 2 of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, for a Regional Express train to Lutherstadt Wittenburg. We bought our Schönes Wochenende tickets, one of our friends arrived on time, and we phoned the other to see where he had got to. "I'm on platform two," he said. So were we. We looked up and down the platform. He wasn't there. "Yes I am," he phoned back, "at Friedrichstraße station like we said." No, we said the main station. "That is Friedrichstraße, yes?" No actually, the main station is Berlin Hauptbahnhof. That's why it is called Hauptbahnhof. "Ah, ok, I'll get the next train over there." But of course by the time he had arrived the train for Lutherstadt had already been and gone, and we still had our Schönes Wochenende tickets to use. Our other friend suggested Magdeburg as she had been there before and could give us a guided tour, so that's how we ended up at Magdeburg instead. And as it turned out, we enjoyed our ersatz Tagesausflug ('replacement day trip'), so Ende gut, alles gut ('all's well that ends well')!

My first impression of Magdeburg was of another former East German town which had suffered heavy bombing in the war and had been rebuilt in Soviet Realist style with lots of Plattenbau. The grand buildings lining the wide Ernst-Reuter-Allee (below) in particular were reminiscent of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee, though on a smaller scale.

Whilst Moscow-style buildings look to me a bit out of place in a German city, they are as nothing to the Grüne Zitadelle (Green Citadel) just around the corner. This apartment and gallery complex looks like it has been transplanted from Epsilon Zeta 9 (a very nice planet actually, in the Megliathlon star system). But no, it is of Earth, and was designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an artist with a somewhat unique and individualist style. In fact, it was his last piece of architecture, completed in 2005 (Hundertwasser died in February 2000).

The first thing that strikes you about the Green Citadel is how it very clearly isn't green, it is bright pink!

The second, third, and fourth things to strike you are also that it is bright pink!

You wonder what kind of person would live in a place like this?

And you wonder if they continue the colour scheme inside their own apartments, or is their internal décor minimalistic and all black and white to give their eyes a rest?

Or do they fill their rooms with aceeed stuff like they had on sale in the courtyard downstairs?

It is called the Green Citadel not because of its Mediterranean pink wall colours, but because it has been designed to be ecologically green. For example, the roof is actually turfed for insulation, and has a garden up there sloping down and around the top of the complex. We were working out which would be the best ski run down in Winter!

Whoever lives there, I bet they couldn't help but go through the day with a smile on their face. You couldn't help it could you? It would be like living in The Beatle's Yellow Submarine. Either that or you could be stressed out by hundreds of people taking photos of your house everyday, peering in the windows, writing blogs about you ... oops!

The obvious question is, how on earth did they get planning permission to plonk a totally incongruous style of building in the middle of the town centre. But then you look around Magdeburg and you realise how unplanned any of it is: the Green Citadel sits on the opposite side of Breiter Weg to a madly neo-Gothic former main Post Office, whilst further back along Breiter Weg are baroque town-houses reconstructed in DDR Plattenbau. We've just been seeing monumental scale buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Petrograd, and just across a Plaza from the Citadel, edged by modern glass and steel buildings, stands the impressively tall and imposing medieval Cathedral of Saints Catherine and Maurice.

This is yer actual Gothic, none of that mock-Gothik Romantisch revival stuff of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In fact this cathedral was the first Gothic church building in Germany, taking three hundred years to build and finally completed in 1520. It even has genuine original-feature gargoyles!

Okay, so it's not Notre Dame and doesn't soar elegantly up on flying buttresses and frankly it could do with a clean, but it does feel at least authentically German rather than the alien styles imposed elsewhere in Magdeburg. No doubt at the time when it was first conceived, local Burghers tutted when they saw the plans and complained that they didn't want any of that modern lah-dee-dah French architecture in the town. "This Gothic style will never catch on round here, you know."

Inside, the cathedral has magnificent ribbed ceilings supported on a forest of slender columns decorated with lots of intricate carving (including some 'green man' heads). Amongst many well-crafted sculptures, there is one of St Maurice himself, an Egyptian (now would be Sudanese) saint from the 3rd Century. What is notable is that with his African features this sculpture is considered to be the oldest surviving depiction of a black man in Europe. There is also a matching sculpture of the cathedral's other dedicated saint, St Catherine, as well as lots of depictions of cart-wheels (she was martyred by being broken on a wheel - nowadays tastefully remembered in the UK by lighting Catherine wheels on bonfire night which never seem to spin properly).

Magdeburg has a number of other mediaeval church buildings, reflecting its importance as a seat of an Archbishop and the largest city of the Holy Roman Empire. My favourite is perhaps 'Unser Lieben Frauen' (Our Beloved Lady) Monastery, which looks like it should have a maiden letting down her long hair from one of the towers:

The strange thing is that if you turn to look the other way, this former monastery is in the middle of an ugly Plattenbau high-rise housing estate. You are reminded that in the time of the DDR, religious worship didn't sit well with materialist Marxism. Churches, no matter their age and historical significance, were often neglected through misuse and fell into disrepair or, as seems to be the case here, just totally ignored whilst modern Stalinist housing developments grew up around them. The Goddess knows I'm not a believer in Christianity myself, but I like to have solid reminders of the march of history and the skills and belief systems of those who went before.

The monastery buildings are now put to a good, albeit secular, use as a museum of Modern Art. I very much like this self-portrait statue by Käthe Kollwitz in front of the former cloisters.

Of course, one of the main reasons that Magdeburg grew into such an important town was its position on the river Elbe. So, here's a photo of the river Elbe at Magdeburg:

The boat is the MS Clara Schumann, which takes people on cruises up and down the length of the Elbe. Clara Schumann was a musician and composer who lived most of the nineteenth century. I don't know what she would think of having a cruise boat named after her, and I can't say I know any of her works, but she said of Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' that it was "the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life", so, respect Clara!

Other evidence of Magdeburg's former trading importance (it was a member of the Hanseatic League) is its large market place outside the Rathaus, with its inevitable Roland statue. The construction of a new Roland is first recorded in 1419. The current statue isn't quite so old; it was created and erected in 2005! What is interesting about this one is that there is a Till Eulenspiegel figure carved on the back. He is a fool and prankster who has his own body of stories about his exploits, which were popular in the middle ages. This is a counterpoint to the noble stories of the Knight Roland's chivalric adventures.

The restored Rathaus ('town hall') was similarly reopened in 2005. You can see the Roland statue to the left of the entrance:

Just in front of the entrance is the Magdeburger Reiter, dating back to 1240 and, get this!, is supposed to be the first equestrian sculpture north of the alps. Well, who'd a thunked it? Sure looks pretty though.

Pssst, don't tell anyone, but the original statue is made of sandstone and is in the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg. This statue was made in 1966, and was only painted gold in 2000.

It is of course no coincidence that so much of the restoration work in Magdeburg has happened since German re-unification. Up until die Wende (the turning point), the city planners had to concentrate on providing housing for their desperate citizens rather than spend precious money on purposeless piles of old brick. This when the DDR was trying to keep up the appearance of a country able to bring about an economic miracle the equal of West Germany's. Since The Wall came down, a lot of money has poured into former East Germany to stop the economy and the infrastructure collapsing once the props of Soviet aid and creative accounting had been knocked away. A 'solidarity tax' surcharge of 5.5% on top of income tax helps to pay for this support. Many Wessie's (West Germans) resent having to pay this, perhaps not realising that the Ossie's have to pay the same tax, and that without this money a lot of restoration projects would go unfunded and the heritage common to all Germans (and Europeans) would crumble away.

Thankfully the planning is in the hands of people a lot more competent than our little group, who couldn't even plan a day trip to the right town. But we had a great day out never-the-less, and learnt a great deal about Germany, its history, and its future.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Dresden lies about 200km south of Berlin, and is about three hours away from us using the red RE3 regional train (change at Elsterwerda) and a Schönes Wochenende Ticket.

We went today with a group of friends hoping to take some lovely photos between us of this historic city. Had we checked on the Internet first we might have picked a quieter date, as Dresden was holding its Stadtfest . Yes, it was busy. Very busy!

By the way, I'd just like to record my thought that on these excursions with like-minded souls from Berlin, I have met in one year more interesting people from all around the world, than I have in the previous ten years. For example, our group consisted of a Canadian, a Malaysian, two delightful women from Guatemala, and of course us two Brits.

Anyway, back to Dresden, and a mandatory tourist-photo of the wonderfully baroque Frauenkirche (took whilst trying to shoot over the heads of about a hundred wurst-munching tourists):

What is amazing about this church is that it lay as a pile of blackened rubble from its near-destruction during the war, through the period of the DDR regime, until reconstruction work began in 1994. Only in 2005 was its rebuilding completed, and its distinctive dome with gilded cross took its place once more on the Dresden skyline. Poignantly, the 23-foot tall cross was designed by London-based goldsmith Alan Smith, whose father Frank was an aircrew member who took part in the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War.

Indeed what is remarkable about Dresden is not that it has so much architectural splendour like the Frauenkirche, than that it has any pre-War buildings at all. This is because of a deeply shameful episode when between 13th and 15th February 1945 it was unmercifully incendiary-bombed by allied air forces to such an intensity that a firestorm destroyed most of the (inhabited) centre of the city.

Here are some more of my photos of Dresden (click to make bigger), and whilst you look at them remember that these buildings were all but destroyed in a conflagration raging over a few days and nights in 1945. If only the lives of the civilian families who also burnt horribly to death could be reconstructed too.

The Residenzschloss, viewed from the Zwinger Palace:

The inner courtyard of the Zwinger Palace:

Das Kronentor (crown tower) at the Zwinger Palace:

The Academy of Art (Kunstakadamie) dome:
The Academy of Art (Kunstakadamie) from the side, with not much sunlight reaching it! My Beloved thinks that when they built Dresden they should have positioned it on the North bank of the river Elbe. I cannot but agree, but I think the photographers on the reconstruction committee were out-voted by those more concerned about historical accuracy. Anyway, it means the grand Brühlschen Terrasse, which stretches along the riverbank from the Kunstakadamie, is North-facing. Ah well.

The Wallpavillion at the North end of the Zwinger:

The Dreikönigskirche rising above the baroque residences on Königstraße:

Supposedly Japanese faces on the Japanisches Palais. Nobody Japanese actually ever resided in the palace (which is just as well), and it got its name because it was built to house an important Japanese porcelain collection, the Far East being the first to make such a thing, and Dresden (like nearby Meissen) pinched their ideas (if not the technology) back in the 18th Century. Anyway, these figures at least seem happy about it:

An der Frauenkirche. What the two people in period costume are doing up there, I don't know. Perhaps they are employed by the Tourist Office? Or maybe they just like posing:

Angel skyline from the Elbe:

Nymph fountain at the Zwinger Palace:

Another fountain above the Zwinger Palace:

Just to show that Dresden isn't just rebuilding its past but has modern architecture as well, here's the new 'Next' store they are building on Prager Strasse ...

... where there are also fountains which aren't spouted by fantastical fish or bathing nymphs:

With all this marvelous architecture and history you would think that Dresden might be on the Unesco World Heritage list, or something. Well it was placed on it in 2006, then taken off it again when the ugly Waldschlösschen Bridge was built. Dresden is only the second ever World Heritage site to be removed from the register. I just hope the bridge was worth it.

My impression of Dresden is that it reminded me a bit of Bath, in England, except with the neo-Classicism of Bath gone a bit Baroque bonkers. And Dresden's modern shopping precincts are a lot nicer than Bath's Southgate Shopping Centre of course.

You get stranger buskers than you do in Bath though!

Nah, she's making a brave public protest on behalf of PETA actually (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which as a vegetarian is an organisation I (mostly) agree with, so all power to her! (She had just been wrapped in polythene like meat in a supermarket. Hmm, maybe she wasn't demonstrating for veganism after all, but against cannibalism?)

Will we be back? I think yes, but next time we will come on a quieter day!

I leave you with a final photo of the Frauenkirche and the Neumarkt Platz:

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Is this the Prettiest Haltestelle on the BVG Network?

I don't think many tourists to Berlin are aware that their combined train/tram/bus ticket is also good for ferries as well. If so, then they are missing out on a delightful trip across the far end of the Müggelsee from Müggelwerderweg (pictured below) near Rahnsdorf on the small F23 boat.

Watery bliss!

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Quaint Quedlings of Quedlinburg

Some three and a half hours by Regional Express train SW of Berlin is the medieval town of Quedlinburg, with its prominent castle and cathedral towering above winding streets tumbling over with authentic half-timbered buildings. See map.

(above) View of the Castle & Cathedral from the Münzenberg, Quedlinburg.
As usual: copyright Andie Gilmour, and click for bigger!
We made the journey with a friend on a sunny August Saturday, having heard reports from other visitors of how picturesque Quedlinburg is. Indeed, the whole of its Altstadt (old town) area is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (full list of sites here), particularly because of its half-timbered buildings (in German, Fachwerkhäuser).

Still, we kind of expected a handful of rickety black-and-white painted Elizabethan structures with wonky roof-lines and bulging walls. The sort that you get in places in England such as Stratford-on-Avon, Chester and Warwick, and which usually are occupied by the Tourist Information Office, or a 'Ye Olde Englande Pubbe', or an antiquarian bookshop. Instead we found rows of delightful buildings attractively painted in pastel hues, and which were actually lived in by normal people and lovingly restored and maintained. And not just one or two streets like this, but almost the whole of the old town; 1,200 buildings in all, spanning six hundred years of construction and architectural changes in style.

Here are just a few photos to give you an idea of how it all looks. What strikes you though when you go up to these houses is how short the doors are. I'm no giant, but I would have to stoop to get through these portals. The ceilings inside must be just as low, making us think that the little Quedlings who used to live here were perhaps a race of Hobbits or something!

In the centre of the town is a large market square with an impressive Renaissance-style Town Hall. Standing in front of it is a Roland statue. When I told meine Geliebte that there was one there, she mischeviously asked if it was of Roland Rat; after all, it is in front of the Rathaus! Ja, ja, very funny.

Actually these statues of Charlemagne's knight Roland, who was famous in romantic ballads of medieval and renaissance Europe, stand in numerous cities across the former Holy Roman Empire, and represent the fact that the town has been granted special civil liberties ('Stadtrechte') including being allowed to hold a market. The statue in Quedlinburg was erected in the fifteenth century and is typical of its type in that Roland is depicted wielding Durendart, the sword of justice, and carries a shield with the heraldic device of a double-headed imperial eagle.

Quedlinburger Schloss (castle) stands on a steep outcrop of sandstone. This is amazing in that it is the first proper hill, of natural rock, I have had to climb since moving to Germany. And in fact Quedlinburg sits in the foothills of the Harz Mountains, which you can see from the castle terraces lurking moodily on the horizon. These mountains are quite respectable, with the highest peak The Brocken, or Blocksberg, reaching 1,141 metres. Not quite Alpine heights, but higher than e.g. Mt Snowdon in Wales at 1,085 metres.

Quedlinburg is an amazing place with photo opportunities around every corner. It seems too good to be real, like it is a stage-set perhaps. As usual for Germany, it wasn't overwhelmed by tourists either. If you imagine a town like this were located in the English Cotswalds say, there would be thirty-mile tailbacks on sunny Summer weekends and the only photos you'd get would be of the backs of people's heads. Just think of The Shambles in York for example.

A final surprise was at the train station, whilst waiting for the Hex train to Magdeburg (which as it turned out wasn't powered by witchcraft ('die hexe' = hag or witch in German)), when a steam-train pulled up on the next platform. Next thing we knew, a bunch of guys appeared, dressed in curled pointy shoes and peasant blouses, playing medieval style music à la Corvus Corax. At last, we had met some Quedlings!

Edit: Looking at the local paper Mitteldeutsche Zeitung I think the folk group are LaMarotte.

More photos of the day from Julie Woodhouse at Enjoy!