Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Exploring the Secrets of the Bunkerstadt Wünsdorf-Waldstadt

Zossen was an unexpected long stop, but I had to return to Wünsdorf-Waldstadt for finally seeing what I was really looking for: a slice of history that only recently - 1994 - was still in the making. 

For over a century, this place was a forbidden city. First, it was a training camp for the Prussians, than military headquarters for the Nazis and the Little Moscow until 1994. As I am walking the long path from the train station, I can hardly see anything, as most buildings are a couple of meters away from the public area, hidden under a thick forest wall. When once in a while some buildings are closer to the eyes, they look delapidated, giving you that feeling I often had in such places, like Beelitz, that I am in a historical adventure park.

But the adventure awaits at least one hour away, as the city was well hidden behind forests and getting to find it takes at least as long as the direct train ride for Berlin - a bit over an hour. At least, I can fill my city lungs with the green forest healthy vibes.

The much awaited historical adventure is suddenly entering my Zen universe, in the shape of an aerial defense bunker, one of the many spread over the residential area. Since 1971, the Red Army started to offer its generous help to the 'Democratic' Germany to defend its air space, therefore, the frequency of such bunkers.

Dilapidated remains lay near the residential area, in places that could have been playgrounds. Children can use them to climb, carefree of the heavy meaning of history they stump on.

There are many remains from those Soviet times, whose origin is unclear, unless you are lucky enough to be accompanied by a local guide to show you exactly the old ways.

Keen to immerse into the history with a proper guide, we book a one-hour German tour for 12 Euro after which there are not too many historical secrets left hidden. The tour starts with the dilapidated buildings from the Nazi times. In building blocks desguised as rural homes, the Wehrmacht and the Reichswehr motorized division settled their headquarters here since the beginning of the 1930s.

After so many years, no one ever did anything to change the situation of the buildings, and after the Soviet troops searched for any scrap of paper that might be taken away, they used some of the bunker facilities but left everything as bombed as at the end of the war. Bunkers Maybach I and II were used for various military operations during the war, but it was also where secret correspondence between people involved in the 20 July plot against Hitler was discovered which lead to the hunt for those involved.

The initial construction of the site dated from the time of the Prussian infantry school, back at the end of the 19th century, when this modest location was connected to Berlin via the rail network passing from Jüterbog

Although I grew up in a communist country and was pretty knowledgeable about the political skirmishes I was never exposed so openly to the historical part of it as I am in Germany, even so many years after the end of the Cold War. The traces are starting to disappear, many of them eaten out by the need to make space for residential compounds, but still there is an enormous recent history material all over the former communist Germany.

We are visiting a small part of a bunker formerly used by the Soviet Army and I cannot stop and observe all the very small details of the surroundings, such as the old time door settings.

We pass through small passageways leading to different small spaces, guarded by heavy metal doors.

Some spaces were used also for communication surveillance in the region. Mostly, the Soviet Army deployed here . around 80,000 soldiers as of 1953 - was aimed to defend the border around Western part of Berlin, but as usual in such cases, there were always some additional things to do to the basic military agenda. 

For a non-technical person, all those installations just look odd, but they can make it into a Cold War history of electricity, for instance.

In some cases, the German locals needed some linguistic help to understand how exactly to use them properly.

Very often in places where the Soviet Red Army passed by, there were always words left on the walls: in the Reichstag or Beelitz, and now here. Very often there are just names and I just say to myself to decipher this habit one day.

Happily, we are visiting this place when there is a warm sunny day outside, otherwise if it would have been during rain, we may have need it some wellies as well. The temperature underground is only one digit and it makes me think in what harsh conditions people were working so hard here for the pride of the country. As Wünsdorf-Walsdorf was the headquarters of the Red Army in Germany, most probably there was always a lot of commotion that now was just sucked into the history vortex.

From a small chair, comrade Lenin - only with his pensive head left, a frequent sight of my childhood, is having his stone glory moment. Those were his times, but those times are long gone and I can only be happy about it.

Outside, it is a warm weekend afternoon, and I am happy to breath the freedom air, although it is in a city which looks almost empty.

The post office is waiting for a postman that will never knock its's door and can't wait to learn a bit more - and preferably more war-less content - about this city.

There is some other attribute associated with Wünsdorf-Waldstadt which is even more appealing than the historical touch: Bücherstadt. It means in English 'city of books' and this is the first ever German city bearing it. The idea was launched in 1962 by Richard Booth from Wales, which created the first such town in Hay-on-Wye in 1962 as a complex of antique bookstores and other cultural activities. Wünsdorf-Waldstadt was awarded this title on September 12th.

Affordable books, mostly in German, and mostly from the old DDR times can be purchased for as much as 1 euro.

In some places the books are left unattended and you can serve yourself, while being trusted that you will left the corresponding amount in one of the many piggy banks in the corners.

But even in the 'city of books' section, you just cannot avoid history. During the WWI, here was also established a big POW camp - Halbmondlager -, which included soldiers of many religions and faiths, as a Hindu tomb reminds. For the Muslim residents of the camp, a mosque was built, the first ever on German soil, but was closed shortly of 1924 and never open again. There is also a Muslim cemetery a couple of kilometers away, close to a forest area.

If you want to learn even more about this place, the Garnison Museum is displaying some interesting historical facts and artefacts displayed in the small garten.

And, surprise, comrade Lenin, in a more revolutionary and full body pose, is also there.

Just another aerial defense bunker is showing its ugly shape, a reminder that history at least for a couple of decades to go, will never leave this place. However, given its relatively good positioning in the middle of a green area and its closeness to Berlin, it makes it into a good destination for real estate and there will be not too long when probably a debate about the need to keep all those artifacts versus the need of better and cheaper housing will arise.

Until then, the few residents - some of them probably left behind by the Soviet Army - are enjoying some outdoors meals in many of the restaurants in the area. Thinking about much happier places, we stop to a Greek restaurant, for a cold drink and some spicy aubergines in tomato sauce at Akropolis.
Near us, a group of people in their mid-60s arrived to celebrate a birthday and unless I turn my eyes out of my tasty plate looking at the bunkers surrounding on land and underground this place I would just think I am having a relaxed meal outdoors. But with so many history lessons around, it takes longer to start enjoying the foodie part of my trip. This is weight of history and I am happy I finally made it to this place.
Maybe I should hurry to see more such places until they are still around.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

What to do in Zossen bei Berlin

When I boarded my one hour and a bit trip from Berlin, I did not think one single second that I may have something to do there. My plan was to go further on to the more known Walsdorf-Wünsdorf, a former bunker city that you can reach theoretically by foot.

Situated in the Teltow-Fläming area of Brandenburg close to the Schönefeld Airport, Zossen was put on the Germany map since the second half of the 19th century, with the opening of the Berlin-Dresden rail connection. The trains from Zossen were going directly to the Potsdamer Bahnhof, at a time when this part of Berlin well known today for being the headquarters of Berlin Film Festival was becoming an important transportation knot in the Eastern part of the new country of Germany.
Those times of glory are long gone and on the Wednesday mid-day when we visited we crossed path with less than 0,01% of the 19,000 current residents. As many young people commute to Berlin for work and leisure, no wonder. However, we enjoyed the remoteness of the place.

Not too many directions are needed to reach the central area. Straight from the train station, you arrive in the center of the little town where you can have everything: the traditional for this part of Germany red-bricked city hall, surrounded by colourful benches waiting for being seated and shared some local little gossips. 

Nearby, there is one of the most important local cultural attractions: the Schulmuseum - open to the public only on Thursdays and Saturdays between 10 and 12 o'clock - which also hosts an art gallery and a café.

A long time during the Prusian times a garnison city - together with Wünsdorf - and once occupied by the Soviets a residential area for Russian military, Zossen is still searching for its architectural identity. The former occupiers of the buildings left and after a quarter of a century many buildings are derelict and completely abandoned. 

The historical memory is mostly built upon the wars, with a monument in the memory of victims of the two big wars erected discretely on the side of the main central area.

Completely empty, with the exception of a kebap store which is bubbling with life like the sizzling oil in the pan, without customers though, the main square which still keeps the memories of the former water wells looks like an architectural simulation. Everything was newly repainted and renovated in the last years and make it into a nice setting for public concerts or celebrations. Nothing so far right now and there are no visible announcements about some happenings. Maybe after so many historical turmoils, Zossen needs an ahistorical break.

It seems that the past was not always as simple and raw as a military training. Some delicate Art Nouveau-influenced house decorations offer a beginning of a local alternative history which might be written one day. It makes you think that Zossen also had some interesting local middle-class stories to tell. 

As we visited the place at the beginning of the spring, I indulge in a bit longer nature wanderings. You can, for instance, go fishing at the Melensee, or support the local businesses by buying some homemade honey. For me, just walking is enough for enjoying the mild season and the longer light hours. 

Discovering the city by foot allows me to see much more than an average travel guide - if you find any dedicated to Zossen, let me know - could reveal. For instance, the former Electricity factory - Elektrizitätswerk - which similarly with the former industrial spaces of Oberschöneweide in Berlin - was redesigned to accommodate new tastes: dance and yoga classes, cultural happenings and various local events.

Did I mention that our plans were to use Zossen as a departure point for visiting Wünsdorf? After a couple of intensive hours of exploring, the decision was to explore it at a different time. More about this in the next post...

Monday, November 19, 2018

Eberswalde, besides the Zoo Adventures

My travels were very limited lately, as I've spent the last two months working hard to a couple of projects and exploring various business opportunities. The break is over now, and I am ready to continue my adventures of putting as many off the beaten path German destinations on the travel maps.

Eberswalde was often mentioned in the discussion with my friends with children, being recommended for its Zoo, an outdoors park hosting unique animals. One hour away from Berlin by train, with a 8.40 daily ticket - combined with the AB monthly card - its colourful murals made my curious to explore even more.

Alongside Eisenbahnstraße, former industrial residences display a modest glamour which hardly reminds the times when Eberswalde was an important industrial center in this part of Germany.

Nowadays, former factories are hidden behind forests dressed in the golden-reddish shades of autumn. Many people, including some of those we shared the bikes' section with, are coming here for foraging which makes Eberswalde a perfect destination for nature lovers in Berlin looking for a fast fix.

After a couple of meters of walking, we are faced with the remains of what used once to be the first Europe's horshoe nail factory to use machines for production. The former 25-ton wagon lift nowadays hidden under the trees was powered by a hydraulic system which would raise a railroad car in maximum 15 minutes. Those were the days!

The wellbeing of the residents of Eberswalde, many coming here encouraged by the constant development of industrial facilities starting with the 17th century is reflected also in the details of some residential areas, with the beautiful colourful doors being probably a sign of social status.

Eberswalde also went through the communist revolution, with displays of working class professions favored at the time, showed on the high walls of the blocks of flats

When there is so much work to do, you need to take a break once in a while. The Alte Brauerei - Old Brewery - is welcoming his guests with homemade beers since the late 19th century. Nowadays, there are some live music and dancing events hosted here too. Another local attraction which involves a bit of food is the Roh Kao, a chocolate factory which was unfortunatelly closed the day we visited.

Which gave us more time to explore the colourful, newly renovated old quarter, with its timebred houses and one-storey buildings with red flowers on windowsills.

The autumn colours are matching pretty well the entire neighbourhood which with hardly someone out on the cobblestone streets looks very much out of our times.

The main market square has a more modern vibe, with a modern architecture and plenty of eateries full of people. Part of the square has in its center a statue of what is introduced as a young lady, in her early 20s, with a screaming attitude. Art is always a matter of taste, after all.

The other side of the square looks more entincing for me, with its mix of styles and colourful facades which remind me at a certain extent of Poznan.

The city hall is by far one of the most stylish construction, with the elegant curves of the roof and its adorned balconies. It also displays an open message of tolerance and acceptance of the difference, which make it even more sympathetic to me.

Luckily, we decided to travel in what looks like one of the last screams of the autumn, with only a couple of leaves still holding tight displaying an unique combination of natural colours.

Nature is moderately allowed to stay in the urban landscape, with an interesting tree structure left alive under metal sheets covering an outer house wall. 

After we've seen so many interesting things already, the trip to the Zoo, by bus, from the central area, is no more the highlight of our trip. You can see animals freely roaming and playing, but after visiting many many Zoos all over Germany and the world I wasn't extremely impressed by what I've seen. However, if you want to offer an outdoors adventure to your active children, you may also find besides the animals some playgrounds and climbing areas that will catch the attention of the little ones.

What I am really looking for right now is some autumn walking, not only for highering up my daily counting of steps. I've spent too many hours on a chair, indoors, in the last weeks, therefore I need some extra action. Slowly walking through the forest is one of the best medicine I ever had and the background is encouraging me to keep indulging in my walking habits.

In the middle of a little slice of wilderness, a former mill was turned into an alternative cultural center, most probably the only one center of young creativity in Eberswalde, Zainhammer Mühle

Accompanied by the autumn colours, I continue my walking meditation, joining many other locals, some of them together with their dogs, which are enjoying the outdoors walking outdoors.

With so many green woods - after all, the name of the town includes the word 'wald', which means forest in German - no wonder that here there is also a big botanical gardens park - Forstbotanischer Garten, were I am spending another batch of calories.

Back to the concrete world, it is very hard to figure out where I am, as I am passing a long row of manicured lawns and perfectly neat 1-2-story houses. Could it be London?

Karl Marx Platz with its empty park and the rememberance monuments to the WWII victims reminds me that I am in Germany though. As the evening is about to descend, the streets are becoming completely emptier.

For us, it is time for lunch, at Il Castello, in the old city. A plate of homemade Gorgonzola accompanied by a healthy glass of Montepulciano Italian red wine fills-in the energy lost in hours of urban hiking. The food is fine, the local is children friendly and with a fast service so we are relatively fine with our choice.

Our visit to Eberswalde is not over yet. In the train station, we learn something more about this place, besides its industrial past and zoo: here were created in 1832 the Spritzkuchen, a doughnut-looking glazed fried-pastry. It is one of my favorite sweet eats during this time of the year, and I am glad I've traced its history also.
It's so good to be back on the road and I can't wait to continue my adventures in the next weeks.