We headed up to Berlin, where we met Sue, Stacey's Mum who will join us for about 3 weeks.
We had generally avoided war related history until now, as it was something Sue wanted to see with us. Berlin is possibly the best place to start, as no city reflects the effects of the war quite like Berlin. They are not shy to admit the wrong, and are very open to all cultures now. Peace is the one word that would present itself most in Berlin. Starting at the large Tiergarten, a huge park 210 ha where usually "old & smelly" German men walk around naked. Unfortunately as it was a crisp winters morning, the only nudity was on the statues. Tiergarten has a history of about 500 years, originally a hunting park for noblemen.
Throughout & immediately surrounding this huge park you find the usual Impressive and huge European things:
A Victory Column, 67m high with a bronze statue of Victoria (Ancient Roman goddess of Victory)
A Palace, where the President lives (Germany has a president and Chancellor) & the Parliament, where Hitler made all other political parties illegal, abolished freedom of speech, and implemented many extreme policies.
A huge gate, where the ancient defence wall of the city opened.
Everything in this park is impressive. Countless historical events happened here, including the famous moment when Michael Jackson hung his baby out the window (the hotel is by the Gate).
The most notable thing is that this is the area that Hitler ran the war and genocide from. Just beyond the reaches of the park is the underground bunker where Hitler killed himself. It is now a carpark with a little sign.
There is no hiding what happened in the 30's and 40's, and appropriately the monuments remembering the millions murdered are located at the most important location of the city.
The Hollocaust memorial being the largest, was designed in a way that the interpreter would see something that meant the most to them when they though of the war (It could be a destroyed city, mass tombs, etc).
After the Soviets decided the war was over (they really won the war), Germany was divided into east and west. Additionally the capital was also divided east and west, so there was now a unique situation where the soviet union surrounded a small bit of western controlled land. An unhappy german soviet citizen could simply step over the border, seek asylum and leave the east for the west.
As the west provided so much and the Soviets were very rough on the Germans that were now under their control, as many as 3.5 million left the east prompting a problem. In 1961 over night a wire fence and soviet armed military surrounded west Berlin, keeping the soviet population out of the "Fascist NATO controlled west" it wasn't long before the fence was 2 walls complete with death zone and snipers and mine fields. Basically the iron curtain has closed and you are here to stay.
It remained closed until the East Berlin spokesman Schabowski was announcing new regulations in November 1989. He wasn't part of the team that made the regulations, and didn't have all the information, but basically told people they were free to leave effective immediately, when that is not what the East had intended at all.
Beyond the war and the wall history, Berlin has so much to offer. We enjoyed many things, but can't stay forever.
A day on the trains got us from Berlin to the capital of the old large polish empire (about dating back 500 years) of Krakow.
A walled city, Krakow was the political center of Eastern Europe and Sweden, until the king accidentally burnt down half his castle (apparently in 1595 he was trying to make gold with alchemy, and the castle caught fire) then he moved to Warsaw, or so the story goes.
The walls were successful in defending attacking armies, and in the center of town a watch tower over the church gave a trumpeter the ability to warn the town of imminent attack. Every hour a trumpeter plays his tune, and as the story goes one trumpeter was shot with an arrow before the tune was complete which explains why the trumpeters song ends so abruptly.
That's not the only folktale from krakow..
Under the castle is a cave, and in the cave lived the Smok Wawelski (the Wawel dragon). There are many stories, but the most popular is that in the 15th Century King Krakus had a problem. The Dragon ate young girls, eventually the only young girl left was his daughter (the princess), so he offered her hand in marriage to any who could kill the dragon. Many failed attempts the king was getting restless, preparing to flee. However a Cobblers apprentice devised a plan of taking a dead sheep, fulling it with Sulphur, leaving it for the dragon outside its cave. The dragon ate the sheep whole, became thirsty and went to the river to drink. The thirst could not be quenched so the dragon kept drinking until it exploded. The cobbler's apprentice married the Princess and lived happily ever after. Nowdays there is a statue of Smok Wawelski that still is fire breathing (every 5 minutes).
Another awesome thing we excitedly rediscovered in Poland was the goulash and Bison vodka..
We also had more war history, including the German occupation, and the concentration and Death Camp Auschwitz - Birkenau.
Being the geographic centre of Europe, and having such a Jewish population nearby, Auschwitz and Auschwitz Birkenau was a key part of the Nazi's Endlösung der Judenfrage "final solution to the Jewish question". About 1.2 Million people were murdered here during the war & Hollocaust. At the extreme 12,000 people per day were sent to the Camp.
Upon arrival a Doctor would determine if the "prisoners" were fit to work. If yes, they lived and were sent to work camps where they were underfed, living in extreme conditions where temperature can go to -20 °C, and worked until death. The remaining 3/4 (not fit for work) of prisioners were lied to, told they would be showered and deloused, and so proceed to the showerblock. They were told to undress, enter the shower room. Cramed with about 1000 people, the SS threw in Zyklon B. It didnt even take 20 minutes. Later the SS started chopping off all the hair (which the Nazi's resued as material for textiles), removing jewerly & gold from teeth and then burning the corpses. No evidence remained.
The beginnings of Auschwitz was horrible, but not on the same industrial scale. Polish prisoners (anyone of power or high education) were sent there to the original Auschwitz Concentration camp. Food rashons were so bad most were lucky to last 3 months. Naughty prisoners were generally murdered, either shot, gassed, or most horribly locked in a room and set to suffocate, sometimes taking days.
Seeing this has made us realise the horrible nature of humans that can exist. What's worse is the realisation that this repeated itself in Cambodia only 30 years later. Also, of the 7000 SS troops that run Auschwitz, only 12% were convicted of war crimes.
The Czech Republic has a interesting history. As Hitler liked Prague, he basically left it damage free. We stayed in an apartment which was above the local Indian takeaway. I was keen to go out for a Czech beer (ranked #1 beer drinking country in the world) and find traditional goulash or pork knee... Stacey and Sue after the trip from Krakow only had eyes for one thing so butter chicken it was.
Ohwell. I got my goulash, pork knee and plenty of beer over the next few days.
Prague was busy, full of tourists, locals and culture.
Most interesting is the famous astronomical clock. Apparently it is the oldest still working, and has some very quirky features, and worth seeing (or watching on youtube here
We treated Sue to Ice hockey, where the local team lost (although the spirit of fans was impressive).
From Prague we ventured to Karlow Vary, a famous and pretty spa town in the west of the republic. It turns out they drink the spa water, not so much bathe in it. Ohwell gave it a go and we have been magically healed of all ailments (this is me drinking from a traditional ceramic cup thing).
The next day found us in Nürmberg, Germany. The home ground and HQ of the National Socialist party (the NAZI's).
Nürmberg is an interesting braviarian city, full of bier, würst and history, so appropiately we drunk, ate and explored.
Currywurst and Beer. Perfect day.
The next day we found the appropiately named "dokumentationszentrum reichsparteitagsgelände".
The Nazis were mental. They had their own army before they were legally recognised as a political party. They built a massive rally ground (dokumentationszentrum reichsparteitagsgelände). They unified Germany, unsettled from WWI with extreme policy and propoganda, eventually illegally taking over the country and then well you know the rest. The rally ground was to be the center of the Nazi world. Massive stadiums for the puropse of propoganda. Back then the Nürmberg locals seemed fond of the propoganda, as the Nazi's seemed to convince them that they would restore Nürmberg to the center of the new Empire, something that historically they had been.
After Nürmberg we ventured west some more to Cologne. Famous for giving its name to Eau de cologne, the first thing we did was visit the original cologne manufacturers shop, who was an Italian man with a French name living in Germany, Johann Maria Farina, who in 1709 made his famous concoction.
It wasn't easy getting there, as we had a nightmare on local transport, tickets come by way of coins or local eftpos cards, so our notes and Visa's left us about 4km away from where we wanted to be. Ohwell, we managed, and after some time learning about the cologne, where to next? We had to satisify Sue's sweet tooth so the Chocolate factory it was. Stacey laughed as she found Sue at the free samples and me watching the machinery.
Cologne has a massive church, with amazing stained stained glass windows, and is also where apparently the three wise men are buried. As our latin and german is rusty, we can say we think we know which tombs were theirs. Above the Church is a huge belltower (157 m tall). Offering the best views we ventured to the observation deck, about 100m up. Spiral staircase, steel steps and creaky noises made us wonder if the once tallest building in the world (1880-1890) would stay standing while we were up so high.
Also, apparently the busiest train bridge in Germany has an odd problem, too many padlocks are starting to add too much weight...
From Cologne we headed more west to the open minded Amsterdam.
Boats, Bicycles, the Anne Frank haus, museums with Rembrant and Van gough, pancakes and tradional dutch food saw us through.
We ventured around on bicycles, where Sue showed us how to fall off in most entertaining style.
Sue also dragged us though the famous red light district.
From the dam we picked up a car and headed over the massive Afsluitdijk dike. No, we didn't make up the name by pressing the keyboard randomly...
Its pretty cool... heres a link to see more on Afsluitdijk.
We also visited uncle jack, my Great Uncle who was killed in WWII, who's plane was shot down over the Netherlands.
From Uncle Jack we headed back to the dam, on the way stopping at a pretty town called Giethoorn, famous for not having roads...
On to Brussels, our last stop before we fly onto Canada. Belgium beer, waffles and chocolate.
Off to maple trees and moose! Canada here we come!