In July 2013 we, my partner-in-travels husband, Ian and I, set off from Bakewell, ‘capital’ of the Peak District in Derbyshire, UK to catch the 11pm ferry from Dover to Calais, France. Our mode of transport was our campervan by the name of Jean-Claude (named after Jean-Claude Van Damme and the fact that our first night together was in a layby in Belgium!)
Our aim was a nostalgic return for me to Dresden deep in Eastern Germany, where I had been on a German language-speaking course in 2000. Beyond that, there was no plan except perhaps to ‘follow our noses’!
My trip in 2000 was not so far removed from the time that the Berlin Wall had come down and Dresden had proven to be a richly atmospheric and very moving city steeped in history and culture, not always comfortable. Had it changed? Would I still love it as much as I did then?
In North Beveland, an island now part of a peninsula in Zeeland, in southwest Netherlands, we visited De Zeeuwse Rozentuin (The Rose Garden of Zeeland) where over 1000 varieties of roses are grown. Also at the Rose Garden of Zeeland, we came across a site-specific art installation with shirts!
Into the Harz Mountains
We had decided that our aim was the Harz Mountains, an extensive mountain-range in central to northern Germany. After a 2-day stay at Badwaldliesborn where the site fee included unlimited use of the local wonderful spa facilities (I love Germany more and more!), and a visit to Paderborn, the home of a large British Army garrison, passing a salt-mine en route, we eventually arrived in Goslar.
This is a beautiful world heritage town in Saxony, set in increasingly mountainous landscape, well-known for its snowy Christmas Market. This was unspoiled medieval beauty with its wooden Council Chamber totally covered in very well-preserved wall paintings and numerous glorious medieval buildings, seemingly unspoiled.
Also in Goslar on the wall outside the medieval Guildhall, a rather memorable statue of a man with gold coins! Apparently it might have been an indication of concerns about money-laundering.
In Search of More “Bad” Towns
Onward we went, to the mountains and to Bad Harzburg and its peaceful pineforested campsite. (Yes, you’ve guessed it – we’re beginning to seek out the ‘Bad’ towns in the hopeful expectation of spa!)
Extended conversations with a German neighbour revealed that he had lived in West Berlin at the time of the Berlin Wall and used to reach this, his caravan-holiday-home, via the 200-mile long, barbed-wire corridor that had been created from West Berlin through the East German countryside to West Germany’s Harz Mountains.
Modern History Meets Legends
During our stay here we walked up the nearby granite Mount Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains at 1,142 metres (3,744 ft) above sea level and the great mountain which straddles the old East and West Germany. The legend surrounds the mountain that European witches fly to the top on MayDay Eve to party. Goethe refers to it in Faust. At the top are the remains of the East-West Wall and the stories of the ones who tried to escape. En route, we passed the Hexenexpress, the ‘Witch Train’ that chugs up and down the mountain.
It was very poignant and clear that we were moving into regions with turbulent recent history.
That evening we discovered and visited the spa-baths of Bad Harzburg, a veritable watery heaven-realm. Finnish rules so no pictures of us there! To cautious individuals such as ourselves, we were quite shocked (and impressed) by the German attitude to naturism. All very relaxed!
At Leipzig, we were overwhelmed by history and culture. We stopped in at Thomaskirche, the Church associated with Wagner and Mendelssohn, and especially with Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Kapellmeister here from 1723-1750. He died in a pauper’s grave but was moved to the Church in 1950.
On to Colditz Castle
Reluctant to leave, we drove on to Colditz Castle with its legendary stories of escape or attempted escape by imprisoned Allied soldiers during WW2. This was our first contact with British tourists, all ex-Services.
What stories!: soldiers dressing up in all sorts of guises in order to escape; display cases exhibiting bedsheets knotted together, false documents, authentic handmade buttons; even to the very end of the war, a famous account of a glider being built in the roof of the castle.
Thus far on our journey, there had been a number of times that we had been reminded of war, whether it was the Second World War or the Cold War. We had come across some very atmospheric places. We found it exceedingly moving that the history surrounding a lot of Germany’s rather challenging past was not hidden, not ‘swept under the carpet’, but very sensitively portrayed.
After that evening, having now arrived in Dresden, we went to a cello concert with two cellists playing music by Schubert and Wagner in the Frauenkirche (the Church that was rebuilt, and only finished in 2005, as a symbol of post-War reunification).
Leaving Dresden, following the majestic River Elbe southwards towards Prague, from dead flat, the landscape now changed to beautiful sandstone rock formations high up above the river.
On to Saxon Switzerland
This area is called Sächsische Schweiz or Saxon Switzerland and apparently it was the one of the first places that climbers rushed to after the Wall came down, in order to tackle its challenging rockfaces.
At a place called Bastei, walkways and a bridge had been carved into the upper reaches of the stone, which had once been inhabited by medieval dwellers wanting to stay out of reach of the forest with its wild animals and possible bandits.
This was the main reason I wished to return to this area. I remember with clarity the train journey that my American friend and I had made to Prague from Dresden. You could see these amazing rock formations and the people on the Bastei Bridge. What was this place?
Ian and I spent a day walking around this beautiful area, scrambling across some of the rock faces by means of the in-situ ladders and iron rungs (like the Dolomites in Northern Italy) which gave a helpful lift-off to rock climbers climbing the heady heights.
At this point I leave the story. Ian and I realised we wanted to swim in the balmy sea and so we carried on through Czech Republic and Slovenia to the northern Croatian coast.
We had spent much longer in Germany than anticipated, completely enthralled by its rolling countryside and its many beautiful and ancient towns and villages which had remained largely unspoiled. We were enthralled by its high culture, reflected in its art and crafts, music, buildings, in its fables and legends and by its poignant and revealing history. But above all, we were enthralled by its friendly and enormously likeable inhabitants. We love Germany. Here’s to going back again soon!
About the Author
Rosie Rose lives in the Peak District National Park in the UK and is a retired Teacher of Modern Languages.
She enjoys going on lovely local walks and playing the cello.
Photo Credits: Ian Rose