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|
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|
|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.
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.
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|
|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:
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.|
|Roland Statue Brandenburg Altstädt Markt|
|Building on Plauer Str. Brandenburg|
|Straßenbahn, Brandenburg an der Havel|
|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|
|St. Johanniskirche, Brandenburg|
|Hauptstraße Brandenburg an der Havel. Katherinenkirch in the background.|
|Boats on the canal, Brandenburg|
|Young angler makes a catch!|
|St Paulikloster and St Annen Promenade, Brandenburg|