State of the Art is a series introducing Germany as a whole, but also highlighting an individual state or “Bundesland” every month.
After reunification in 1990, the 11 states of West Germany and the five of East Germany merged into one country. The former East German states are often referred to as “new states.”
This month our journey will lead us to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen and a part of Brandenburg.
Sandy beaches from east to west
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania) is the most northern “new state” and lies along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. It is one of Germany’s smaller states with an area of 23,174 square kilometers and 1.6 million inhabitants. Due to its extremely long name, Germans often refer to the state as “MeckPomm.”
Schwerin is the capital with 95,000 inhabitants and the smallest state capital in Germany. It is home to the State Parliament with Manuela Schwesig of the Social Democratic Party as the Minister President who has been in office since 2017.
The most prominent landmark in Schwerin is its castle built during the Romantic Era. It is situated on an island, has a number of towers with golden tops, a park, a historical museum and most of the luxurious rooms are furnished and ready to welcome visitors. A castle festival annually takes place in the summer.
Further attractions include the Altstadt, where magnificent city villas and town houses decorate the shores along the Pfaffenteich (lake). Small cobblestone alleys lead up to the heart of “Schelfstadt” where countless semi-timbered houses with steep gabled roofs gradually make room for red brick stone buildings. Many of the buildings entail small, enchanting gardens and courtyards. There are numerous churches and a charming shopping district.
“MeckPomm” is famed for its sandy beaches on 2,300 kilometers of coastline (including 25 islands and peninsulas) and its over 65 sea and spa towns. It is also home to both of Germany’s largest islands Rügen and Usedom, and there are two towns along the coast with exotic names, California and Brazil.
Chalk cliffs and an island of two countries
Rügen, the larger island is 926 square kilometers (somewhat larger than Berlin) and has 77,000 inhabitants. It is famed for its chalk cliffs that were formed about 15 million years ago. The highest point is Piekberg at an altitude of 161 meters, followed by the Königstuhl at 118 meters at the cliffs. As large sections of the cliffs have broken off and fallen into the sea in recent years, endangering or killing hikers, a “sky walk,” was recently opened for more security. Two bridges link the mainland to the island and there are ferries and trains that take passengers to Scandanavia. A trip with the Skane Jet, a high-speed catamaran, will take you to Malmö, Sweden, in 2.5 hours. The city and sea resort Binz is host to one of the largest sand sculpture festivals with this year’s theme being “Back to the Middle Ages.”
The smaller island of Usedom further east has an interesting history. Throughout time, it was German and Polish on and off. Today the western two-thirds of the island, which can be reached via several short bridges, is German while the border to Poland runs right through the City of Swinoujscie (German Swinemünde) and the island without any border patrols. Swinemünde and Zinnowitz have been two of the most popular sea baths for over a century. The small town of Peenemünde on the western tip was Europe’s largest military research center from 1936 to 1945. It then served as a key East German joint naval and air Base during the Cold War Era with Soviet reconnaissance flights over the Baltic Sea. Today it has a Historic Technical Museum with a Russian atomic submarine that can be visited.
Atlantis of the North and ice-cold escape
There are many legends about the mysterious island of Vineta, which is said to have been a magnificent and wealthy merchant city that sunk into the sea. Although about 50,000 artefacts have been found deep in the sea and a map from the 16th century depicts the island, researchers have not been able to discover it and prove its actual existence.
Once a separate body of water in pre-historic times, the Baltic Sea has only minimal tide and a very low salt content, and can completely freeze during extremely cold winters, a fortunate fact for adventurous travelers. In the winter of 1946/47 with temperatures of minus 37 degrees Celsius hundreds made their way on a perilous journey across the frozen sea with covered wagons and horses, carts and partially on foot to flee hunger and the Soviet invasion. In 1962 again a group of East Germans survived a dramatic escape, two of them on bicycles, nearly frozen stiff, but to safely arrive on Falster Island in Denmark on Christmas Day.
Last house before Denmark and a tea pot
Rostock, another former member of the Hanseatic League is the largest city in the state with a population of 208,000 inhabitants. It lies along the Warnow River and is famed for its university opened in 1419. It has a botanical garden with an Arboretum (tree garden) and a stone garden section.
The Gothic Marienkirche in the Altstadt has an astronomical clock from the 15th century. The area around the old docks has become a popular tourist entertainment area with pubs, bars and restaurants, and cruises around the harbor or out to the Baltic Sea are fun activities. The large pedestrian zone along typical northern red brick buildings and new shopping malls invite you to discovery tours even during rainy weather.
You can take a direct train to the sea town of Warnemünde at the mouth of the river. The popular town invites you to its 14-kilometer-long beach, ideal for wind surfers and kite fans. Numerous cozy vacation apartments in old fisher houses, fish restaurants and its famous lighthouse with a round building with cafés, nicknamed the “Teepott” encourage you to stay longer. There is a plaque at the old pilot station, reminding visitors of the storm flood 1872, which wiped away most of the town, reading “last house before Denmark.” The town has also become a popular stop for large cruise ships on their way to other Baltic destinations.
Let’s go east
Our journey will lead us further south to the Free State of Sachsen, directly along the border to Poland in the east and the Czech Republic to the south. Dresden is the capital with 554,600 inhabitants, home to the State Parliament and Michael Kretschmer of the Christian Democratic Party as Minister President since 2017.
Sachsen is a land of castles and fortresses, many built during the Middle Ages. Dresden along the Elbe River is famous for its restoration of historic buildings destroyed during World War II. The most prominent one is the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) that was completely rebuilt at a cost of 130 million Euros, about 100 million thereof from private donations. The church in Baroque style was reopened in 2005 after a twelve-year construction period.
Rollin’ down the river
Other attractions include the “Zwinger,” a palace with gardens and a fine porcelain collection, inspired by the palace in Versailles. The “Grünes Gewölbe” (Green Vault) contains the largest treasure collection in Europe. The world-famous Semper Oper was flooded during the severe Elbe Flood in 2002 and there are several palaces to visit. Dresden has had a fleet of steamboats with the oldest ship “Meissen” put into operation in 1885, inspired by Proud Mary on the Mississippi River. You can enjoy a relaxing cruise past Dresden’s skyline with the “Golden Angel” atop the Academy of Arts building, pass under the “Blaues Wunder,” a steel bridge over the river built in 1883 and painted in blue, passing by parks and marshlands up to Palace Pillnitz with royal gardens. Over 2.3 million tourists visit Dresden annually, including many Americans, outnumbering the visitors to Berlin in 2019.
A dual city
Prior to World War II the western part of Poland belonged to Germany including the provinces of Ostpreussen (East Prussia), Pommern (Pomerania), Nieder- and Oberschlesien (Lower and Upper Silesia) and about two million people were displaced from their homeland after the Soviet invasion. Shortly after its foundation, the East government acknowledged the new Oder-Neisse-Line as the final German-Polish border in the “Görlitzer Abkommen” July 6, 1950, with a length of 640 kilometers.
The small city of Görlitz became situated in two countries, but 1998 the two parts of the city declared themselves a “European City” and has since served as a prime example of how two nations can overcome boundaries. The dual city Görlitz-Zgorzelec is very picturesque with historical buildings, a market square and promenade along the Neisse River.
The “Sächsische Schweiz” with its “Elbsandsteingebirge” is a low mountain range just north of the Czech Republic. One special point of interest is the rock formation “Bastei” where a 76-meter-long bridge was built for a panoramic view of the landscape. The area is also popular for hiking or for trips to the Czech Republic.
Witajce do Budyšina
The small city of Bautzen plays a tri-fold historic role, for one it is famous for its towers and Middle Age city center and a brand of hot mustard that has been produced there for centuries. The city and surrounding Lausitz Region is also home to the cultural group of Sorbs, a West Slavic ethnic group that still maintains its own language. Road signs and cultural buildings are depicted in German and Sorbian with about 200,000 speakers that might welcome you in their language Witajce.
Last, but not least, prison Bautzen I, also known as the “yellow misery” and Bautzen II, of the Stasi (state security administration) was used to imprison political critics during the National Socialistic regime, Soviet occupation and during the East German era. Up to 7,000 inmates were imprisoned at one time under inhuman conditions starting 1946 and precise records of how many prisoners died there have been lost through time. The historic buildings are now a museum and memorial site.
Monotonous gray to peaceful protest
Our last stop in Sachsen is in the largest city of Leipzig with 500,000 inhabitants. Even during the East German era, the city was a remarkable business center and rather crowded with typical gray and monotonous panel buildings.
Many of the historical buildings were so heavily damaged during the war that they couldn’t be rebuilt, but the city hall in Renaissance style with its historic museum is located at the Market Square in the city center and composer Johann Sebastian Bach is buried in the Gothic St. Thomas Church.
The colossal Monument to the Battle of the Nations with a height of 91 meters is the most prominent landmark in Leipzig. Connewitz is a swinging and colorful city section resembling bustling Berlin in the 1920’s with diverse cultural events, is popular among students, with theaters, restaurants, cafes and concert halls as well as art courses, workshops and alternative performances.
The Nikolai Church was the meeting place for the peaceful Monday demonstrations in East Germany, eventually bringing about the fall of the East German regime in 1989. Once a typical East German gray industrial city, Leipzig has returned to its old splendor and is well worth a visit.
500 miles from home
Frankfurt/Oder is a picturesque mid-size city in the State of Brandenburg along the Oder River. It has a historical city center and was first mentioned as Vrankenforde when it received city rights in 1253. The city holds a few surprises, such as being awarded the “City of the Future Award” in 2016/17 and has developed into a bustling business hub in the last three decades. The distance from Kaiserslautern to Frankfurt/Oder is almost exactly 800 kilometers (500 miles), making it the furthest point away from home in the Kaiserslautern Military Community on mainland Germany.
Located in Brandenburg the Spreewald is a German biosphere southeast of Berlin with 300 kilometers of navigable waterways, fed by numerous side arms and shallow canals of the Spree River. It is also one of the most relaxing areas in Germany with a nostalgic atmosphere that will draw you back into a whimsical fairytale landscape of the 19th century.
A boat ride in a flat bottom “Kahn” where the captain steers the vessel with a punt (a long wooden pole) through the dreamy forest along tiny villages with wooden houses. The Sorbs that settled there in the mid 1850’s will tell tales of their simple lives and sell large pickles, a specialty of the region as whole fruits, in soup or as jam, along the way. Ready for a break from your busy schedule, the Spreewald is the place to be to absorb quiet and solitude. A museum at Castle Lübben has a historical display and a train ride on the Spreewaldbahn, an old steam train, may top off your spa-cation.
The State of Brandenburg has an area of 29,500 square kilometers and 2.5 million inhabitants, and completely encircles the City of Berlin. The capital is the romantic city of Potsdam with prestigious palaces and was also location of the Potsdam Conference in 1945, which defined Germany’s history for the following 45 years. To keep you in suspense, we’ll continue our tour of the rest of Brandenburg next month, slowly closing in on our final destination.