When we say we want to see the world, that’s hardly an exaggeration, and when there’s a place that we are forbidden to see, we want to go there even more. Cuba is still on that list, but we have finally caught a glimpse of what used to be East Germany. We have vivid memories from 1979, when we took the train through the GDR (East Germany) to Berlin, stopping along the way for a frightening passport examination from the officials from the East. We wandered around East Berlin on foot, amazed and appalled by the fact that so little had been repaired since World War II. Many neighborhoods were still in ruins with tall trees growing out of the rubble. When we found a restaurant and I asked for a menu, the waitress gave me a dirty look and sneered, “Why do you need a menu? We are only serving one thing.” We went to a museum where they had kept one of every item, locally produced since the war ended. Display cases full of irons, old fashioned radios, binoculars, etc. were not the high art we were used to seeing in museums in the West. We mailed home post cards that were tissue paper thin; they never arrived.
After Germany was unified, the DDR sent copious quantities of cash to their poor Eastern neighbors to rebuild and get their half of the country up to Western standards. As you might imagine the Easterners had mixed emotions of gratitude and resentment. Our visit today gave us some hints of what has been accomplished since 1990. Our guide was a college student who had to rely on observations her parents and grandparents had made about the Cold War days to answer many of our questions. From her perspective Germany is one country and that’s as it should be.
As we traveled through the countryside to Schwerin, her home town, we passed bright yellow rape (canola) fields, dotted with wind turbines and solar panels. She said one day last June they were able to produce all the power they needed without using any petroleum products. Clean energy is clearly a priority for the Northern Europeans and it appears that they are much farther along in reaching this goal than we are. Rental gardens are popular here. City folk have a plot of land for growing fruits and vegetables and can stay overnight in their garden sheds.
Schwerin is the capital of the province and it was decided to restore the ducal castle there, which accommodates government activities as well as giving tourists something to ooh and ah about. The GDR (East Germany) did not value or perhaps could not afford to repair and maintain such buildings after the war. The castle had been used as a school for small children and had been much abused before restoration began. The exterior of the castle and grounds were magnificent. We approached by boat from Lake Schwerin and it was a fairy tale castle in the bright sunshine. Spring flowers bloomed in the gardens and as the guide talked the shutters were clicking. The tour inside a few of the 600 rooms was impressive too, but obviously little that was original was still there. All the room had parquet floors; each with a different pattern.
We drove around the town in an open air tram and were impressed once again by how German everything looked. By that I mean buildings were well maintained, streets were clean, roads were clearly marked, everything worked properly. The guide pointed out some of the Soviet era apartment buildings which had been repainted in more cheerful colors than the Soviet era gray.
Our time in Rostock was brief, but we stopped at the cathedral, which was in fairly good shape, although there was lots of scaffolding inside as they worked to make it better. The church houses a two story astrological clock built in 1472 that still tells the time, month, year, various holidays, phases of the moon, etc. etc. They had packed bricks around it to save it during the war, when 70% of Rostock was bombed The pipe organ was also impressive - all 5,800 pipes of it. Some of the pipes were melted down during the war, but this too had been restored.
As we drove past the river the guide remembered how closely guarded it used to be since it could have been used as a means to escape the country. She remembered that her grandparents were finally able to leave once they retired, since the GDR was happy to let them go and not have to pay their pensions. Her father had been an Olympic caliber athlete in sailing. Sports success was highly valued in the GDR and he was able to travel at times, but was never allowed to take the family along to insure his return. The only crumbling building we saw today was an old sports training center. Once the Wall fell, people had more important things to do than win Olympic medals.
The ship docked in Wärnemunde, which has returned to its former role as a beach resort. The sand there was as nice as any you would find in Florida and we saw many sail boats taking advantage of the warm sunshine. Tour boats offering harbor tours and sailings to Rostock were plentiful. The board walk area had nice shops filled with souvenirs, clothing, and beachy stuff. Small boats tied up opposite the stores sold fish sandwiches and smoked fish. And of course, the locals were drinking beer as they dined al afresco. It looked like a great family vacation spot.
Many of our fellow passengers spent the day traveling to Berlin by train. The trip was three hours each way. We want to visit Berlin again, but would have felt frustrated by the lack of time to do so. If we had not been on a tour, it would have been easy to take the train to Rostock and wander around there. A usual there was much more to see and do in the area than one day would allow. But the day here left us with the impression that eastern Germany has come a long way with the financial support of their western brothers.