Saturday, June 1, 2019

Germany Off the Beaten Path: Eisenhüttenstadt

The fact that many springs ago I had the best of my childhood time in a city that used to be called the city of Stalin doesn't weight that much in my decision to visit Eisenhüttenstadt that was given this name in 1953, after the death of the Soviet dictator. In fact, it was planned to name it Karl Marx Stadt, but somehow, Chemnitz was luckier to be awarded the name of the German ideologist of communism - not necessarily a must-read and whose works were not too much understood at all by the Soviet comrades. More than this miscellanous fact was that Eisenhüttestadt is a remnant of former GDR, with its faded glory of the metallurgical plant. I wanted to see with my own eyes how this city survived the end of the communist Germany and the reunification and although I've chose a banking holiday for this exploration - therefore not too many chances to see the city fully at work - I took it as a beginning of a study in the making of the former Eastern Germany human and social landscape.  


First, a short stop to Frankfurt/Oder that I've visited the last year and even wrote an extensive travel guide about it.


The streets were almost empty which allowed me to see all those small fine layers of cultural and architectural memories from the last decades. But the time has come to finally go to switch trains and reach my destination...


Eisenhüttenstadt is situated 40 minutes away by train from Frankfurt/Oder. There is also a bus connection with an irregular schedule during the weekend and banking holidays. The first encounter with the city was exactly what you might expect while visiting an Eastern German town and a former communist part of the world in general: empty derelict, with an air of sad emptiness.


But we are in Germany after all, regardless if former communist and not. A clean sense of order cannot miss from the encounter with the urban setting in this part of the world. The clean one-story houses with elegant gardens set in line for an almost beauty contest on Bahnofstrasse didn't dissapoint. They exhaled that sense of quiet countryside with middle class inhabitants enjoying their bourgeous priviledges. No traces of Stalinist ideology here, hopefully. 


As usual in such places, history left gentle reminders. A monument dedicated to the fallen Soviet soldiers with the typical Red Star on the top is an example.


We are crossing a very empty historical area, despite the advanced hours of the day. No shops, restaurants and soul in sight. Is it a real city or just a Potemkin village for charming the one foreign visitor in this unknown and for sure forgotten part of Germany?


Besides the small bright painted houses bordering cobblestone streets, thre are also bigger, discrete stylish buildings that once used to be institutional buildings. Surrounded as well by empty streets. This building used to be the city hall - Rathaus - with the old market - Markt - where local farmers were selling their products, long before the city went through a massive industrialisation requested by the communist ideals.


Maybe behind those colourful, typical German doors for this part of the country, there is more action and life?


After almost one hour of wandering completely on my own, I am just getting pleasantly used with the fact that I might have this Eisenhüttenstadt only for myself.


Which comes with the bonus of the perfect view of the Oder displaying all its greatness in the front of my eyes. The spring is almost at the beginning and naked trees are sadly reflecting their emptiness in the blue waters.


Right now, it seems that all the local life is concentrated at Zum Kiez, a local restaurant with a view over the Oder, buzzing with life and enjoyed by all the town's generations. From small children to seniors, everyone is out enjoying the weather in the company of a meal. I decide to have here my yearly Spargel - asparagus - plate. It's a kind of personal tradition that in the previous years brought me as far as Beelitz - a traditional place for the lovers of this German specialty. It comes with a pair of well boiled potatoes, and the typical Hollandaise sauce and Kraut - cabbage salad. All are fine except the Spargel itself which is a bit unfinished and taste-wise unattractive. The raspberry lemonade I ordered is one of those syrupy things that do taste more artificial than fresh fruits and the ice coffee is not a great achievement either, but I overall the pleasure of enjoying a meal outside compensated for the taste issues.


Now, also after a bit of chatting with my table neighbours, I am convinced there is even more to see from Eisenhüttenstadt - after all, I haven't seen any of the communist-style buildings I was expecting to see. And back on the cobblestone streets I am...


After a heavy meal, a bit of nature hiking is always welcomed and just had some glimpse of tempting invitation to walking alongside the Oder Spree Channel.


First, I am crossing the Neue Brückenstraße...

 .
..which offers a pretty view of what I shall expect in terms of hiking trail.


Once starting to check by myself the opportunities, it seems there is a lot to be done: from biking to dog walking, jogging or just easy slow walking with a view that mixes nature and crane profiles.


Close by, there is a small colony of houses, where people are barbecuing and listening to music, everything well hidden behind a thick curtain of trees.


The hiking is going relatively easy - if you beware the fast running bicycles. You need some easy shoes and moderate energy. The pleasure of keeping walking will come by itself...


On one side of the train, you have fully nature trails.


On the other side, boat repair workshops and the traces of the communist past I was looking for from the very beginning of my trip here.


Sooner, my stereotypical curiosity will be fully rewarded. After filling my lungs with fresh air and rewarding my eyes with greens and blues, I am folowing a 2.5 km. pathway to the central area. Which is made exclusively of grey communist buildings. 


Some of them got a colourful remake and are looking like a normal housing project aimed at big urban concentrations, in the style of Gropiusstadt


Some or just empty, abandoned compounds that only the beautiful sprung of the pink spring flowers redeem their ugliness.


On the other side of Oder, the silhouette of the metallurgical plant (nowadays Arcelor Mittal) are hiding well behind the trees. Good they are not at work, otherwise this clear view will be hidden by the typical pollution clouds. 


And there are more and more abandoned buildings on Straße der Republik, near Karl Marx Allee. Once they were the glory of communism, nowadays there are here to mention a failure. 


I am almost close to my trail to the central area, and there is a different architecture to what I've encountered in the old part of the city. The typical Stalinist structures, eventually disposed in a carré. I imagine that here used to work the middle party bureaucrats and maybe their Soviet supervisors too. Everything is well arranged to offer the best visual and local control over the inhabitants. (I used to read too much Foucault once, I know).


The new city hall, currently operational, is reproducing the same housing style. Unfortunatelly, it is closed now so I cannot see the famous wall mosaic made by W. Womacka, aimed to outline the qualities of the socialist lifestyle. 


Built in the mid 1950s, the city hall was also a meeting place for various communist party meetings and other organised events. Despite the official unanimity used to describe life in the communist Germany, there were also moments of dissent and even strikes. One of those events took place in the summer of 1953, when the workers at the metallurgical plants went on strike and threatened to refuse working until the whole country is following their example. Unfortunatelly, the secret police was faster in cutting short their revolutionary plans.


On Lindenallee, the main walking avenue in the modern part of Eisenhüttenstadt, I am rewarded with a work of Womacka, titled 'Production in peace' - although some of the works of socialism were not peaceful at all. Such huge billboards were relatively efficient in keeping the 'dream' alive, at least at the beginning.


Like in the case of Frankfurt/Oder, this commercial avenue, which is lively with plenty of youngster enjoying their day off outdoors, there are many works of art freely displayed. Such an urban insertion makes life in urban cities a bit less rough.


In addition, the culture lovers in this town can enjoy the cultural program of Friedrich Wolf Theater, one of the few such venues I've seen during my journey. There is also a Technical Museum and the Fire Brigade Museum, as well as an art gallery displaying art from the DDR. Maybe I will come back one day to check those cultural attractions...


As the trip is coming to an end, I might confess that I am not disappointed by my unusual choice of a trip. There were some interesting things to see and think about, some of them reminding me of my communist experiences from the old country. Eisenhütenstadt was once labelled 'Germany's first socialist town' but right now is rather a typical city in what once used to be Eastern Germany. 


And if there is a reason to come back, it would be to understand the meaning of this bizarre statue on the top of a pole. Just because I am a very curious person that never has enough of strange and unusual encounters. 

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