Sunday, 20 March 2011

Hellersdorf Trompe-l'œil

Mile upon mile of blocks of DDR-era Plattenbau high-rise flats stretch out East from Berlin providing accomodation for hundreds of thousands of families. This area, centred around Marzhan, is a place few tourists choose to explore. That's if they even know about it from a few footnotes in their tourist guides. But even Plattenbau can be Geil, as demonstrated here by some imaginatively rejuvenated high-rise flats on Stendaler Straße in Hellersdorf (click for bigger!):

Plattenbau doesn't need trompe l'oeil cats painted on it to make it look attractive though (but it helps!), just an eye for the effective use of colour:

Brandenburg an der Havel

Brandenburg's administrative capital is Potsdam, but the mediaeval  town of Brandenburg an der Havel, which gave the German Federal State its name, feels like its spiritual capital. This is not least because of the numerous churches, two monasteries, and a vast cathedral that lie within the mediaeval town walls.

Brandenburg an der Havel lies about 70km West of Berlin (approximately 1 hour away by Regional Express) and we decided to explore it on the last weekend of Winter.

The history of Brandenburg goes back at least a thousand years. Up until 929 AD it was the site of a Slavic fortress, named Castle Brenna in the chronicle for that year by the Saxon historian Widukind von Corvey. He described its conquest in 929 by the German King Henry the Fowler. It remained in German hands for the next 56 years until a Slavic rebellion regained control, and for the following 170 years was ruled by princes of the Slavic Hevelles tribe (who took their name from the river Havel. The area today known as Havelland is the land that the princes ruled over. Spandau Citadel was their most easterly fortress). Then in 1150 Albert the Bear of Saxony (Albrecht der Bär, no relation to Rupert) took possession again after the death of Pribislav, the last of the Slavic princes. This was not a bloody coup, at least not at first - Pribislav had deliberately cultivated good relations with the Saxon aristocracy, and was in fact the godfather for Albert's eldest son, Otto. Albert henceforth set about driving out all the Hevellians and creating the land of Mark Brandenburg, making himself Margrave, and ensuring his descendents - the House of Askania - ruled here until 1320. 'Mark' and 'Margrave' (German Markgrav) here relate to a boundary country (between the Germanic and the Slavic people) - the Welsh Marches and Margrave are English equivalents. There is a statue of Albert the Bear outside the Citadel at Spandau, sadly not looking as cute as a statue of Knut.

Brandenburg (the town) was comprehensively destroyed and plundered during the Thirty Years War, which was when the court upped and left for Potsdam, taking the seat of power over Brandenburg (the land) with them.

Brandenburg an der Havel had grown into a major centre for industry and steel production by the time of the Second World War, when it was nearly destroyed once more, this time by Allied bombing and the armoured division of the Red Liberation Army. 70% of industrial sites were wiped out, but incredibly only 15% of the total area of the town was damaged. This low figure goes towards explaining why we found so many mediaeval structures surviving in Brandenburg. However the bombing would probably have been heavier if news of the activities of the Nazis here had got out sooner: Brandenburg-Görden Prison was one of the first concentration camps, as well as a designated 'euthanasia' centre for children and adults with mental illnesses. It was here that the Nazis first experimented with using gas to murder their victims. Believe it or not, the local people complained about the smoke puring out from the crematorium at the prison day and night, and so the Nazis actually closed the old prison down in 1943 because of that. If only Auschwitz had had such a diligent Neighbourhood Watch.

Enough of the depressing stuff, let's get on with a tour of the town.

Visitors by train will probably get to the more interesting centre of town by way of the Steintorbrücke ( = stone gate bridge). By the way, click on any photo to see it larger!

Steintorbrücke in Brandenburg an der Havel
The Steintorturm (turm = tower), is one of four well-preserved watchtowers that originally overlooked gates in the mediaeval town wall, and is the largest. You can climb up to the top of it for a good view of the town (we didn't).

This bridge was also the way the Red Army tanks fought their way into town on 27th April 1945, and on the opposite side of the road from the tower is a Soviet graveyard and cenotaph to the fallen in the battle for Brandenburg.

Once over the bridge, Brandenburg starts to look a bit more picturesque: even its back-streets have a charm to them, with rows of tall Gründerzeit (mid 19thC) buildings padded out with tastefully done modern houses in pastel shades:

Brandenburg an der Havel

We took a right after Steintorbrücke, and walking along we caught glimpses of the mediaeval town wall at the bottom of people's gardens. Soon we came to the St.Paulikloster. Formerly a monastery built by Dominican monks starting in 1286, since 2008 it has housed the Brandenburg Land Archaeological Museum.

St Paulikloster / Archäologischen Landesmuseum Brandenburg
From the Paulikloster we could see a heavily Gothicised church tower rising above the rooftops towards the centre of the town, and we headed towards it. It turned out to be the St Katherinenkirche (St Catherine's Church, she of the wheel).
St Katherinenkirche Brandenburg

Particularly impressive, apart from its sheer size, was the wonderfully mad late-Gothik brickwork, or Backsteingotik as it is known. This is a style of architectural decoration that you see all over North Germany (and indeed, around the Baltic), gracing not just churches but also town halls and houses of important Burghers.

Here is more of the same around the main entrance to St Katherinenkirche. I especially like the banding of green glazed bricks alongside the usual red:

Entrance to St Katherinenkirche
And here's some more detail from the outside of the church:

St Katherinenkirche Saint Statues
St Katherinenkirche is right by the Molken Markt marketplace, which looks a lovely place to meet and chat over a coffee after a busy day's shopping on the high street. 

Molkenmarkt, Brandenburg
It looks like a lot of regeneration work has gone into making the marketplace attractive and enticing enough to draw in the big name stores. But even here, right on the market square, there are deserted buildings. Or maybe they are there to attract people like me, who loves the impromptu urban art:

Graffitied building, Brandenburg 
You always know when you are in a former East German town when you see trams trundling down cobbled streets, though in Brandenburg they run on cobbles down the middle of a modern pedestrianised shopping precinct.

Trams on the High Street
Heading NE from the marketplace we came to the second of the four towers in the town wall, Mühlentorturm, or the mill gate tower. Looking up at it we realised how tall the encircling walls must have been - the door you can see half way up the tower once opened out onto the wall ramparts.

Mühlentorturm, Brandenburg
What you also realise, because you cross over water again after passing the tower, is that you have just been on an island. In fact, Brandenburg was built on a number of islands, surrounded not just by the Havel river but also small lakes, and flooded moats that later became canals. We were now approaching the island on which the cathedral was built, and the view across the water here is gorgeous:

View of Brandenburg Cathedral
There are lots of other handsome buildings around here, as well as curious ones like the tower on the left, below. It has a clock face and hands when you get close up to it, but it isn't for measuring time but for water level:

Water Level Gauge - Brandenburg
Clustered around the Cathedral are a collection of brightly coloured buildings that are typically small-town Germany, like this bakery:

Holzofenbäckerei - or wood fired bakery
Here is another scene in the Domkiez, with the Cathedral in the background.

Domkiez, Brandenburg an der Havel
And for some reason known only to German urban planners, a pleasent 'village green' decorated with concrete statues of Triton and cavorting water-nymphs.

Domkiez water god and nymphs
The cathedral of St Peter and Paul is truly enormous. It is called the 'Mutter aller märkischen Kirchen' (mother of all the churches in Mark Brandenburg), and it really is one Mother of a church! The foundation stone was laid in 1165, on the highest point of an island surrounded by the Havel river. Building something with such a large mass of red bricks on an island that must often get swamped must have caused problems, but it seems to have fared well. 

The truly enormous Brandenburg Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul.
The outside of the building has some wonderful lancet windows and tracery, but it was to a large decoration of the Star of David that caught my eye.

Dom St Peter und Paul
The church is more Romanesque than Gothic, showing its venerable age. You are reminded that  Backsteinbau is so typical of Northern Germany and Europe becaue hey, where can you quarry any building stone on this vast, flat, plain?

Brandenburg Cathedral - windows

Around the top end of the Dominsel is a marina beside a curious mill, one half of which has been renovated, and the other left in ruins. This is the former 'Vereinigten Brandenburger Mühlenwerke' or United Mill Works of Brandenburg, here seen across the marina from another island, with the river cruise ship Sirius.

Vereinigten Brandenburger Mühlenwerke

I don't know if the plans are to eventually do up the whole of the mill, but for now I like the contrast between burnt out shell and ultra modern apartments. Here is a peep into the atrium for the new dwelings:

Vereinigten Brandenburger Mühlenwerke - a peek inside
After a refreshing beer sitting by the Havel watching the ducks and boats in the sun, we circled around the top of the islands and back across the Grillendamm and another bridge towards the town centre again. Up this end of town there are still a few buildings looking like they needed a bit of care and attention, but lovely in their decay for all that:

House on the Grillendamm
There was also a reminder here of the town's dark past. The marble wall memorial reads: "Here lived Gertrud Piter, murdered by the Fascist town council. Born 12/02/1899, murdered 22/09/1933. Never forget!"

Memorial to Gertrud Piter
Gertrud Piter was a trade unionist and a member of the German Communist Party, elected to the Town Council in 1924. After the Nazis came to power, she immediately lost her job on the Council. She went on to be part of the Nazi resistance movement which she went on to lead, until her and 45 others of the Brandenburg group were arrested in September 1933 after a tip-off by a spy. They were sent to Brandenburg prison, and she was beaten and raped during her ten day interrogation. Then she was sent to the Brandenburg concentration camp in the old Brandenburg prison. A day after her arrival, she was hung by the camp guards in her cell. Vergesst es nie.

Not long after and we found our third tower, this time der Rathenower Torturm:

Rathenower Torturm
And soon after, another church! This time St. Gotthardtkirche, dedicated to St. Godehard, bishop of Hildesheim (in Niedersachsen) until his death in 1038. This is the oldest church in Brandenburg; it was the chapel for the Slavic Castle Brenna, and until the building of the cathedral it was for a time the seat for the diocese of Brandenburg. Notice that the lower parts are built up of Feldsteine or cobblestones - it originated before anyone had started making red clay bricks.

St. Gotthardtkirche, Brandenburg an der Havel
The best part I think though is the  enormous Christ figure welcoming worshippers over the entrance:

St. Gotthardtkirche doorway
A bit further on and we came to the Altstädt Markt and its magnificent Rathaus (town hall) and, of course, ubiquitous Roland statue. The Rathaus is another outstanding work of Gothic brickwork, and it is incredible to think that it was a) nearly demolished in 1905 (the town council hadn't been sitting there for the past two hundred years), and b) was actually demolished by bombing in 1945. Now it is once again the seat of local government in Brandenburg.

Rathaus and Roland Statue, the Old Marketplace, Brandenburg.
The 5.35 metre sandstone Roland Statue fared better than the Rathaus during the bombing raids because it was taken away and buried down a well outside the town to keep it safe. Dating from 1474, the Roland was preceded by a wooden statue erected in 1402. Here's a close-up of the statue, also showing more detail of the filigree brickwork of the Town Hall. It looked kind of familiar, and indeed a 1905 copy of it was erected outside the Märkische Museum in Berlin. That's where I've seen it before!

Roland Statue Brandenburg Altstädt Markt
We then made our way down Plauer Straße, noting some more wonderfully dilapidated buildings:

Building on Plauer Str. Brandenburg
And of course, more trams! (I like trams. Trams are cool!):

Straßenbahn, Brandenburg an der Havel
Until we came to the fourth tower in the city walls. Originally there were ten gates in the town walls, each with a tower like this. Again, note the door high up the tower, which led out onto the wall ramparts.

Plauer- or Luckenberger Torturm, Brandenburg
I have found a 1560 illustration of the tower and gate on Wikipedia that I think is interesting for giving an idea about how these towers once looked. The tower of St. Gotthardt is in the background (but no trams). Apparently the wooden building beside the tower, through the gate, was burnt down by the Red Army in May 1945 along with most of the street. Until then, access to the tower was only through the building.

Illustration of the Plauer Torturm after an unknown mediaeval painter, 1560. Source:Wikipedia
Somebody has set terracotta sculptures of various animals into former wood-beam sockets in the base of the tower. What the point of them is, I don't know. But they look cute.

Terracotta animal heads in Plauer Torturm
From the Plauer Torturm (named BTW after the fishing village of Plaue on The Havel), we walked in front of the old town walls through a small pleasant park that was starting to fill up with the cherry tree and magnolia blossom of early Spring. The park led to the Jahrtausandbrücke (millenium bridge) and another old church, the St. Johanniskirche. This church was once part of the Franciscan Monastery in Brandenburg, but was almost destroyed by a British bomb raid in 1945 (doesn't it make you feel proud!). It was neglected during DDR (GDR) times, and in 1985 the entire Western wall collapsed into the choir, after which there were plans for it to be completely demolished. The political changes of 1989 gave it a reprive, and it is now trussed up with supports and internal braces to prevent its total collapase.

St. Johanniskirche, Brandenburg
Crossing the Jahrtausandbrücke (the bridge was built in 1929 on the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the town - see above for what happened in 929AD) we made our way back up the high street (Hauptstraße) and stopped for some well-deserved Kaffee und Küchen.

Hauptstraße Brandenburg an der Havel. Katherinenkirch in the background.
Finally, we started making our way back to the railway station, walking the Jungfernsteig along the old canal that was once a moat outside the town walls. There was lots of boat activity on the canal:

Boats on the canal, Brandenburg
 And proof  that there are fish in it:

Young angler makes a catch!
Plus there are views of the town walls and the St Pauli monastery:

St Paulikloster and St Annen Promenade, Brandenburg
Before reaching the railway station, we happened across a curious, small church right up against the main road running SW. This was the chapel for St James' hospital (St Jakobskappelle) and was erected in 1320 outside the town gates to care for victims of the plague who'd travelled long distances looking for help. That's outside the town walls of course, as they didn't want plague victims starting an epidemic in the town (you can see the Steintorturm at the end of the road, marking the entrance to the town). The chapel is known in the local vernacular as the Verrückte Kapelle, or crazy/crackpot/loopy chapel; this dates back to 1892 when an engineer widening the road had the entire church put onto a wooden sledge and moved 11m.

Conclusion: Brandenburg an der Havel is well worth a day-trip to from Berlin. Even if you aren't interested in mediaeval buildings or Backsteingotik, it has a small-town German charm with a modern shopping centre, opportunities for messing around on the water, theatres and cinemas, and public spaces to chill out in with a picnic and a Bier. It is, naturally (this is Germany) very clean and pristine, and hasn't suffered from Plattenbau-obsessed East German developers. And it's got quaint trams too! Why it isn't packed with tourists on a sunny weekend I don't know. Perhaps visitor numbers pick up in the high season? But if you want a taste of the State of Brandenburg and a contrast to Berlin, then a visit to the former capital of the Mark is recommended.