Palaces and parks

A won­drous whirl around eastern Ger­many’s World Her­itage sites

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Britain & Europe - LYN­DALL CRISP

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-

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