Everyone knows the Brandenburg Gate, that iconic symbol of Berlin, known in German as Das Brandenburger Tor. You can see a detail of it on the front page of this blog. But it wasn’t until I started looking more deeply at the names of some of the subway stops on Berlin’s astonishing public transportation system that the nickel finally dropped. Hallesche Tor, Schlesisches Tor, Kottbusser Tor, Frankfurter Tor, and Oranienburger Tor. What was the deal with all these Tors that today are….just grubby uBahn stations smelling of doner kebaps?
Well, of course, the word “tor” (which means gate) implies a wall, standard in medieval cities, and then the name of the gate…indicates the city that could be reached if one were only to walk through the Tor and… just keep walking, often for quite a while. Hallesche for the city of Halle to the southwest, Schlesisches for region of Silesia to the east, Kottbusser for the city of Kottbus (now Cottbus) to the southeast, Frankfurter for Frankfurt Oder, directly east, Oranienburger for Oranienburg to the north….and therefore ergo ipso facto Brandenburger for…the city of Brandenburg to the west, now the name of a state (Land) and the new local airport as well.
Long warm days and lower virus rates have, of course, put me in the mood to ramble, so one bright Saturday recently I took my very first train ride in a year and a half and meandered down to Brandenburg an der Havel. Wikipedia satisfied my initial curiosity by confirming old (established in 950 or so), lots of crazy history, good architecture, and, at 70,000 souls or so, easy to manage in an afternoon.
The initial opinion wasn’t great – the main train station pulls in across from a health center and a rehab facility so ugly that only their mothers could love them. I tried not to turn right around and head straight back, but before long a helpful little set of signs appeared that seemed to indicate better sights ahead:
And indeed the yellow brick road brought me over the first little branch of Brandenburg’s complicated waterway system and into a part of town that looked more promising. Brandenburg is actually three rather distinct parts: Neustadt (the first bit I came to; “neu” meaning from 1186); the Altstadt, only a few years older, and the Dominsel (Cathedral Island). The division comes from the course of the Havel River and its smaller cousins that run through the city.
My first stop was the State Museum of Archeology, no shock to most of you, which is cunningly located in the medieval abbey of St. Pauli, brilliantly repurposed. As is my want, I dashed through thousands of years of human history, pausing only briefly at the fascinating exhibits about the arrival of the Slavs into this region between the Elbe and Oder Rivers around the seventh century (which had been vacated by the local Germanic tribes a bit earlier, no one knows why). I’ve mentioned this before, and now I am happy I can show you a map that clears up all the confusion, clarifying where all the churches and forts came to be:
Clear? Good. Moving along, here’s a shot of what was apparently the unique circular building style used for defense of the various tribes in the region. Photographic evidence suggests that here are still many of these lying spread across the local landscapes, buried under a bit of earth, that are still yet to be explored:
But the clock was ticking and I had to leave the momentos of the past for the pleasures of the moment. I found my way to the Hauptstrasse in hopes of finding signs of life, and was pleased to see a little local color and conviviality on a beautiful afternoon:
I was fascinated to see some civic classical adornment of what must have been the headquarters of the main utility provider in town for a while. The three figures are titled “Light,” “Power” (or energy) and “Heat.”
A little further down along the Strasse, I saw a type of shop I have never seen before – that of an accordion maker and repairer. Since I am currently espoused to a craftsman, I appreciated this sight perhaps more than I would have some years ago. You can’t see much except the little red guy in the center and the erstwhile photog, but believe me, accordion makers and repairmen aren’t just everywhere:
Much of the city seemed quite deserted to me. This is a pattern in many of the formerly East German cities within a two-hour radius of Berlin – after the unification, local industries were determined to be not up to snuff economically and environmentally and simply closed down. Thousands lost jobs and many relocated. These lovely little cities with long noble histories have been trying for decades to redefine themselves, some more successfully than others. But a street like this one below reminded me more of Hungary or Slovakia than a short ride outside of Berlin:
I crossed another bridge, this time the Havel itself, and found myself in the Altstadt.
Before we go any further, though, I have to fill you in on the bare facts. Brandenburg was founded in the 10th century when a local Slavic settlement was conquered. Control of the city went back and forth for a few centuries, often being held by a Scythian or a Pole until finally one of the Wends (another Slavic tribe) converted to Christianity and thus was granted the city. In the 14th century Brandenburg joined the Hanseatic League; during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the city lost so much power that Potsdam became the new capital of the region. In the 19th century a lot of industrial manufacturing entered the region due to its water accessibility; there was a most distressing concentration camp here during the Second World War where the Nazis experimented with various forms of evilness. (Look it up if you have to.) That’s in in a nutshell.
My first stop was the Altstädtsches Rathaus mit Roland, the Oldtown City Hall with Roland. Roland, a loyal vassel of Charlemagne, hadn’t always stood here, he had originally graced the city hall in the new town from about the year 1402 or so. But his former home became a military parade ground and Roland was in the way, as it were, so he was moved to his current location in 1716.
Nearby, another rather curious figure:
This is one of the (locally) famous “Ausgewilderte Waldmöpse,” or “Wild Forest Pugs,” apparently a beloved motif. I’m told there are 20 or so of them about the town (think dwarves in Wroclaw and dragons in Krakow). I only glimpsed this one; perhaps they are a bit timid with strangers…
My next stop was the St. Gotthardtkirke, a beautiful Gothic pile which, along with St. Katharinen and the Cathedral, are the main churches in town. You’ve seen plenty of churches if you’ve been following along with me, so I’ll just add some more personal notes. When I entered the church, off to the left-hand side I saw a lovely little room for personal reflection. I was absolutely charmed and sat for a few moments before adding my own candle to the basin:
I entered the sanctuary and had a bit of a tour around, but of course was eventually drawn to the tower. My dear T knows I have never met a tower I didn’t love, and this one was no different. The first sight was a bit daunting, but I didn’t let it stop me; these steps clearly having been improved over the centuries with some well-placed concrete and a most sturdy rope:
…and of course after some zillions of steps I was rewarded by a perfect June panorama:
And then as I hastened to see the Cathedral Island, I thought I was clever to catch this departing shot of St. Gotthardt….
…but of course was chagrined to see that others had had precisely the same idea. Here from 1921:
The cathedral was, no surprise, another big old lovely Gothic pile in an absolutely gorgeous setting which no picture could quite capture. You have to imagine a triangle with the front of the cathedral as one leg, a set of several buildings which are now a hotel and a fantastic restaurant (I had the zanderfilet with potatoes and cucumbers, thank you) as the second leg and a third set of buildings completing the triangle with a lush grassy patch in the middle. The cathedral chimed a small carillon of multiple bells while I was eating my lunch and I thought I might just be called to the angels at that moment.
But now it was time to head back to catch the train. Just a couple shots to share how important the Havel has and is to the life and livelihood of the city. As I made my way back through the Neustadt to the train station, I passed some fish smokers plying their trade (eat in or take away) along the waterfront:
And finally, I’ll share a shot of how many of us only dream of spending our weekends:
So Brandenburg…a city with a long and fascinating history, a bit of a fall from grace after 1990, and now clearly trying to rebrand itself as a destination with something to offer almost everyone. I’m adding this to my growing list of places to explore again; here’s hoping the good times keep rolling and we all get to have some adventures for a while.