Sunday, 28 September 2014

Lüneberg - City Built on Salt

Lüneberg Waterfront

Lüneberg in Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen) is a Hanseatic town, displaying all the usual elements of impressive merchants' houses, gothic churches, and a large market square. Like Halle in Saxony Anhalt it is also built above a dome of salt, from which its wealth derives.

We combined a visit here with a stopping-off at Stendal, yet another Hanseatic town, which made an interesting compare-and-contrast of otherwise cookie-cutter architecture between a mediaeval town that ended up in West Germany, with one that was in East Germany.

The most obvious difference is that Stendal looks like it was rebuilt yesterday (and is still being rebuilt), whereas Lüneberg is more settled in its post-war renovation and feels like there isn't a discontinuation between its modern incarnation and the middle ages Also Lüneberg is much more obvious about being a tourist town with many lively restaurants and bars and a bustling shopping centre and market. In Stendal meanwhile you get the feeling that commercialism and PR are recent introductions, and still considered a bit vulgar.

Both places are worth a visit, and within striking distance of Berlin, especially as Lüneberg is now on a speedy rail connection between Hamburg and Berlin on the cost-effective IRE (inter-regional express).

Here are some of my photos from Lüneberg to give you an idea what to expect:
























Stendal, Capital of the Cradle of Prussia


Stendal was an important Hanseatic town and has a history stretching back a thousand years. It was the largest town in the 'Altmark', the region to the West of the Elbe that through German eastward expansion with the conquest of Slav-controlled land became the Margraviate of Brandenburg. The Ascanian dynasty of Brandenburgian Margraves gave way to the Hohenzollern dynasty, under whom Brandenburg expanded further to become the Prussian and thence German Empire. For this reason Otto von Bismarck, who was born in the region, near Stendal, called the Altmark 'the Cradle of Prussia'. Even today the red Brandenburg eagle takes up half the official town coat-of-arms, even though Stendal is now in Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt) and not Brandenburg.

As a member of the Hanseatic league and with its own guild of sailors trading across the Baltic and North Seas, wealth poured into Stendal. This was expressed in the building of fortified city walls with elaborate gates, numerous large churches and a cathedral, progressive educational institutions, and elaborate town houses for the rich merchants around the market place. And all in the typical Backsteingotik which predominates wherever the Hansa merchants showed off their taste in architecture.

Stendal was also, from 1640 until the Soviets left in 1994, an important garrison town, The first Luftwaffe paratroopers were established in 1936 at nearby Stendal-Borstel airfield, to whom the famous boxer Max Schmeling was assigned for a period. The presence of troops here  attracted bombing during the Second World War. Stendal also happened to be on the direct route for Allied bombers heading for Berlin 120km East. The town mayor surrendered the city to American forces on 13th April 1945; a move that Joseph Goebbels denounced as ehrlos (dishonourable). Wenck's 12th Army surrendered his forces at the town hall on 4th May and the British army took over administration of Stendal until it was handed over to the Soviets on 1st of July 1945.

Lots of history then, but what's actually there for a visitor to see at Stendal? If you have visited other former-Hanseatic mediaeval German towns that then became part of East Germany and since re-unification have carried out major renovations, then you will know what to expect. Stendal does not disappoint, and so you will find:

Two former gates into the (now gone) city wall, both constructed in Backseteingotik.
Tangermünder Tor:

Tangermünder Tor

Uenglinger Tor:

Uenglinger Tor

Lots of old doorways:

A newly renovated shopping high street:

Monuments to former VIP's, in this case Johann Joachim Winckelmann (pioneering art historian and archaeologist):

A Marienkirche (St Mary's) with bridged twin towers:

Prussian eagles (here on the Schwarzer Adler hotel):

A Roland Statue on the Marktplatz - only this one has gone on a beauty treatment course. Oh yes, there are also lots of major renovation-works still going on in Stendal. It might all be finished in ten years time:

Pristine newly-cobbled streets and buildings that look sparklingly new:

The remains of an old village feel:

Impressive red-brick schools, like this which was the grammar school, established in 1338:

Lots of open parks adorned with graffitied ugly DDR-era statues:

A lot of buildings still in need of TLC:

Renovated Fachwerkhäuser (timber-framed buildings):

A cathedral:

Modern cutting-edge architecture cultural buildings, like the Theater der Altmark:

A rebuilt Pulverturm (where they used to store the town's gunpowder. Inevitably these were periodically blown up):

Elegant Gründerzeit town-houses:

And a large red-brick railway station:

By the way, we combined our visit to Stendal with a trip to Lüneberg. This is possible with a Schönes-Wochenende ticket, but it did mean getting up at 6am on a Saturday, and not making it back until nearly midnight.

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Peculiar Towers of Waldstadt Wünsdorf

There are strange towers in the forests between Wünsdorf and Zossen, around the former Overall HQ of the German Wehrmacht during WWII.

At first glance, they look like towers out of a fairy-tale, lost to the world for a hundred years, sleeping under a blanket of thorns and wild vines.

Wunsdorf Winkel Bunker

But there is no Dornröschen (sleeping beauty) inside these towers, no Rapunzel ready to let down her hair. In fact, there are no widows to let it down from. These towers are not in the least bit romantic, and are actually Second World War bunkers.

Wunsdorf Winkel Bunker

There used to be nineteen of them around Wünsdorf, and seven of them survive, some of them incongruously situated right beside modern housing estates.

They are called Winkeltürme, after their designer Leo Winkel, and over two hundred of them were built across Germany, They were mainly located at key railway yards of the Reichsbahn and were intended to protect railway employees.

The Spitzbunker design was intended so that any aerial bombs dropped on them would slide off and be deflected away from the tower. Inside, up to six hundred people would be sheltering on a number of levels behind thick reinforced concrete, tapering walls.

Their curious shape lent them their popular names of Betonzigarre (concrete cigar) or Zuckerhut (sugar loaf). To the Allied bombers who tried to land a bomb on them they were known as ant-hills. There is only one known hit that destroyed a Winkelturm (at the Focke-Wulf airplane factory in Bremen).

There are guided tours (in German only) of the bunkers, and also of the ruins of the nearby Wehrmacht HQ, starting at the so-called Bücherstadt (book town) created out of the former Soviet barracks in Waldstadt. But to be frank, unless you are really really interested in WWII bunker architecture then I wouldn't recommend the journey. For a start, it is quite a walk from Wünsdorf station alongside the busy B69 road (and turn left when you reach the B69 from the station - there are no signs for Waldstadt or Bücherstadt and we turned right and wasted a couple of rainy hours looking for the place). And then when you get there, well, Bücherstadt claims that it is based on the English book-town of Hay-on-Wye, but I wonder if the founders have ever really visited Hay-on-Wye, or even seen photos of it? Let's just say, Wünsdorf is not high on my top one hundred tourist attractions around Berlin, or even my top thousand.

I find it curious that this place isn't made more of. I mean, it was from here - right here! - that the entire German Army around the World was coordinated during WWII, right up until the fall of Berlin and the desperate attempts at re-grouping dispersed battalions routed by the Allied Armies. But, after the war it was taken over by the Soviet Army, who made their high command here and had no desire to preserve the Maibach buildings for future historians to pore over. Then with German Re-unification the Soviet Army slunked away and de-populated Wünsdorf as they took their families with them. Good luck with re-inventing themselves as a book town then, though I think they have a bit of a way to go before Wünsdorf gets onto the tourist maps.

If you do want to visit the Spitzbunkers, then Wünsdorf is about 45km directly south of Berlin, easily accessible by taking the S2 to the end of the line then getting on a regional train. But then there is the long walk along the B69. I recommend taking a bike along with you.

If you want to see a Spitzbunker / Winkelturm closer to home, then there is actually a smaller example in the Kulturzentrum RAW Temple, Friedrichshain, in Berlin. It is now a climbing tower where you can hone your mountain-climbing skills!

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Wot? No Nuts?!

Today a cute red squirrel appeared at the bird-feeder, looking in through our living-room window.

He looked reproachfully at us, as if to say 'where's the nuts?'.

I wonder if it is the same one that visited the bird-table in Spring last year? It is sad that Cassie isn't here any more to watch him. She would have been so excited at seeing the cheeky red-coated chappy.

There is a myth that Germans can't pronounce the word 'squirrel', and even that during WWII Policeman and the Home Guard were instructed to test suspected German spies by asking them to pronounce the word. I don't know about the veracity of this, but the test is reciprocal: can English speakers correctly pronounce the German word for squirrel das Eichhörnchen ? It is quite a tongue-twister!

Our squirrel is simply lovely. And I think I had better get me to the supermarket and buy him some nuts asap!

p.s. love the 'wilder Wein' in the background; that reminds me of a Rammstein song!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof

Berlin Tempelhof Airport was one of the first commercial airports in Germany and began regular services in 1923. It was extensively rebuilt and added to by the National Socialists, but never completed. After the war it was taken over by the US Air Force, and played a pivotal role in airlifting goods and fuel into West Berlin during the Berlin Blockade of 1948. During the 1950's Tempelhof Airport resumed commercial services, which continued and grew right up until the airport was closed on 30th October 2008. The year before its closure, around 350,000 passengers passed through its gate. This was a great reduction on the airport's heyday in the seventies when around five million passengers per year were handled.

Outside the airport is a memorial to the Berliner Luftbrücke, or Berlin Airlift, of 24th June 1948 to 12 May 1949 during which the airport played a crucial role. This crisis occurred when the Soviet Union blocked all road, railway and canal access to the Allied sectors of Berlin, with the aim of starving the population into submission and handing over full control of Berlin to the Soviets. Only by a truly phenomenal airlift of supplies - food, coal, clothing - by the Allied air-forces into Berlin-Tempelhof did the Allied Sector hold-out, and eventually the Soviet Union capitulated.

The Airlift Memorial pictured below represents the three air corridors used by Allied planes to keep West Berlin supplied with the necessities of life. It has a counterpart at Rhein-Main Airbase in Frankfurt (now part of Frankfurt International Airport) which if you consider is the other end of this memorial makes it the biggest sculpture in the World.

We visited Berlin-Tempelhof on a quiet Sunday afternoon in September as part of a guided tour in English. These start out Sundays at 2pm (Saturdays at 3pm) and depart from the airport's former General Aviation Terminal (GAT) building and cost 11€. They seem popular, so get there in good time. To get there, take the U-Bahn to Platz der Luftbrücke and walk South down the hill beside the dual-carriageway until you come to an Esso station on your right, next to the central Polizei offices. The GAT is on the opposite side of the road on your left, and the entrance is marked by an old observation tower (see photo below). Unfortunately you don't get to go up the tower as part of the tour!

Here is the former GAT entrance where the tour starts. Buy tickets here (or online here).

The former GAT was added to the National Socialist structure in the 1950's, and is surprisingly small in size.

Once you get going on the tour though, you begin to get a feel for the monumental architecture (some would say megalomaniac) that the Nazi regime was famous for. This airport was intended to be the flight gateway, in Hitler's schemes, to an awe-inspiring German capital (Germania) that would last for a thousand years. Indeed, the Berlin-Tempelhof building is still one of the largest single-structure buildings in the world, or as architect Sir Norman Foster called it; 'the mother of all airports'.

The National Socialists never got to use their newly designed airport as it was intended, but down below under the protection of the building you can still see where railtracks brought Messerschmitt planes in for repair during the war.

A warning though, if you have a walking disability. Apart from a trip in a large goods elevator, there are lots of steps to climb up and down on this tour!

Down in the bowels of the airport, there are bunkers where staff and their families could go in case of gas attack:

The walls are decorated by contemporary illustrations following the style and prose of children's humorist Wilhelm Busch. It is believed that the purpose of these wall-paintings was to try and dispel the fear and anxiety of the children who would have been huddled down here in times of air-bombings. It is notable that when the Americans re-painted the walls, they painted around the designs to preserve them.

This was an American airbase after the war, so naturally you will find a baseball court!

Up on the top floors, there are large spaces above false ceilings. The National Socialist architecture was designed to intimidate and impress with its colossal dimensions. In practical terms, they were just too gigantic to be realistically functional, as well as the heating costs for such vast hall-ways. So when Berlin-Tempelhof was re-commercialised in the 1950's, the ceilings were lowered to more realistic heights, leaving these unused areas, stripped of marble wall and pillar coverings and fixtures.

The more recent terminal areas that were functional right up until 2008 still stand as if the airport had closed for cleaning for the night. Actually, it occurs to you how well-polished and clean the floors and abandoned booths and baggage carousels are. Someone must routinely keep them clean, and the electrics working, and the heating on, and the structure sound. This for a building that is gigantic, and yet not used for anything any more.

Outside on the apron of the airfield they have kept preserved a 'Rosinenbomber' (English: something like 'candy bomber') that took part in the Berlin Airlift. They were so-called because of the actions of the American bomber pilots who in a demonstration of winning hearts and minds (and stomachs) dropped chocolate bars and sweets out of the plane on little parachutes for the children of Berlin to pick up. The originator of this practice is generally said to be American pilot Gail Halvorsen; he was nicknamed Uncle Wiggly Wings, because he would tip his wings on approach before releasing his gifts of sweets, so that the kids below would know it was him, and not be afraid that as all too recently the plane was going to drop explosives.

The tour is an interesting way to get to know the history of Berlin, and the two hours it takes soon passes. We visited Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof just before it closed, in November 2008, so it was doubly interesting for me to compare what it looks like now to the photos I took back then. Really, nothing much has changed, except that the departures and arrivals board is now empty, the baggage carousel is still, and the check-in desks are empty.

It is hard to know what Berlin City Council is going to do with these vast buildings now; there is controversy enough about whether to keep the airfield itself a public park, or to build apartment-blocks and businesses on this lucrative, inner-city green-space. I can't see the buildings being left empty forever though, so my advise is to go on the tour now, before it is turned into the new central library or an Ikea warehouse!