Palaces and parks
A wondrous whirl around eastern Germany’s World Heritage sites
GERMANY is full of surprises. None more so than the eastern region, known as the German Democratic Republic until unification with West Germany in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down. Home to 12 of Germany’s 39 UNESCO World Heritage listings, the old GDR is crammed with so much history, magnificent architecture and natural beauty that choosing a route presents a delicious conundrum for the curious traveller.
It is also a surprise to hear, over dinner in Berlin with people who lived in the GDR, that despite a violent and stultifying regime, life wasn’t so bad for many residents in the Soviet-controlled zone from 1949 to 1990. “My parents would never say it aloud,” says one 30-something professional woman who grew up in a town near Dresden, “but they weren’t overjoyed when the Wall came down. Back then there was full employment, free childcare, excellent medical services and cheap goods and services. When the Wall was destroyed, businesses and government offices closed. Both my parents lost their jobs overnight.”
Travel by train — services are fast (250km/h), reliable and not expensive if booked in advance — and evidence of derelict factories and abandoned houses assaults the eye. The restructuring of unprofitable businesses plus the impact of globalisation meant jobs disappeared, the unemployment rate rose and thousands moved west in search of work. But there is much beauty to be found in this 103,000sq km corner of Europe. A small fortune has been poured into restoring old buildings and 25 years on, Germany is celebrating its rich cultural heritage, unspoilt landscapes and country-house splendour.
UNESCO World Heritage routes cover several themes, such as historic town centres, architecture and design, churches and abbeys, and industrial heritage.
The palaces and parks route — starting in Berlin then on to Potsdam, Worlitz, Weimar, Dresden and Muskauer Park — is my choice, although a little too ambitious in only 10 days. The longest trip is a little more than two hours and all trains are efficient — and it’s wonderful to have an elevator at every station to cope with baggage.
I was last in Berlin in 1981. It’s a very different city today with most of the Wall gone and rampant commercialism. (Avoid Checkpoint Charlie, it’s now tacky and touristy.) On the plus side, Berlin is a vibrant city with a thriving art scene and colourful nightlife. One of Berlin’s most intriguing World Heritage sites comprises the Bauhaus suburbs designed and built for poor workers in the 1920s. The Ringsiedlung Siemensstadt Housing Development built in Charlottenburg in 1929 and the Hufeisensiedlung Housing Development built in Blasch- koallee in 1925 are two stunning examples of what public housing should be. The use of colour and light, access to parks and, in many cases, private gardens, and practical, attractive layouts proved so desirable that descendants of the original families still live there.
Wander around by yourself or if you really want to learn about the history of these amazing houses and apartments, book as an individual or group with Guiding Architects. This team of Berlin architects, led by Professor Thomas Kruger, specialises in walking tours. Both suburbs are flat and easily accessed by metro, but sensible shoes are a must.
On to Potsdam and what a relief after busy Berlin. This city is pure magic. Again, it’s flat and easy to get around. Alexandrowka (the Russian colony) and Hollaendisches Viertel (Dutch quarter) are not to be missed. But without a doubt, the highlight is the rococo Sanssouci Palace built by Frederick the Great in 1756 as a summer retreat from the constraints of court etiquette and ceremony. Set in huge parklands with its arbours, trellised gazebos and six-tiered terraces, it is a stunning experience. It is spine-tingling to stand in the music room where Frederick composed 120 sonnets for the flute, the library where he collected more than 7000 volumes, and his bedchamber where he died in his favourite wingback chair (still there) on August 17, 1786.
It’s a great place to stroll around and to take a picnic — there’s no shortage of tempting bakeries in town — and just savour the views. By contrast, the more subdued Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Worlitz offers a different but enjoyable experience. A small local train runs hourly from Dessau (home of the Bauhaus movement, the museum is a must for fans of modernist architecture) to Oranien-