Going places: River Cruising on CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princesse: Magdeburg, Berlin, Potsdam

Going places: River Cruising on CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princesse: Magdeburg, Berlin, Potsdam

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I must confess to never having heard of Magdeburg before we are taken by bus from our ship, the MS Elbe Princesse, on the morning of Day 7 of our CroisiEurope river cruise, but, as in the case with the best travel experiences, it turns out to be marvelous to discover. With a history that spans 1,200 years, Magdeburg is one of the oldest in Germany.

Our tour starts in the Market Square, renowned for its architecture and a City Hall with bronze doors that relate the city’s history in 14 panels. Our guide also points out the golden “Magdeburg Horseman,” which dates from 1240, making it one of the oldest statues of a man on horseback.

After visiting so many churches, the St. Mauritius and St. Katherine Cathedral is an absolute surprise – and not because of lavish gilded decoration (it is fairly plain inside) but because of what it contains. Built from 1209-1520, it was the first cathedral to be built in the Gothic style in Germany, it is the largest church in East Germany, and its towers the highest. It was destroyed twice – in 1631 during the Thirty Years War, and in World War II, when 90 percent of Magdeburg’s buildings were bombed. And oh, yes, the church for some reason was used as a horse stable by the French during Napoleonic War.

We see where Germany’s famous son and Holy Roman Emperor, Otto the Great, and his wife are interred inside the cathedral.

But what is immediately clear is the revolutionary spirit at the heart of this place – and Magdeburg.

Here we see a wooden chest with locks that was used to collect Indulgences – a symbol of its transition to a Protestant church. Indeed Magdeburg’s conversion to the Protestant faith was one of Martin Luther’s greatest victories. It is more impressive having just come from Luther’s House in Wittenberg the day before.

A memorial in front of St. John’s Church erected by the renowned sculptor Emil Hundrieser in 1886 serves as a reminder of Luther’s influence on this historic city. Martin Luther attended boarding school in Magdeburg when he was 13; he returned to the city on June 26, 1524 to give a sermon at nearby St. John’s Church (which you can visit) about “true and false righteousness” that was so powerful, almost every church in Magdeburg converted to Protestantism in a matter of days. From this point onward, Magdeburg became a leader in the Reformation. Our guide suggests that Magdeburg was fairly liberal for its time and its law was adopted in other places.

The cathedral is adorned with gorgeous sculptures and wood carvings that strike me as unusual. For one, I notice the statue of St. Morris, a black saint from Nimibia who was officer in Roman army, who became Christian and refused to take part in pagan ceremony.

To my eye, the Church is ecumenical – it has Hebrew and Greek letters, doors from Greece that seem to depict Dionysus, and I see a fund-raising brochure from the congregation which is helping raise money to replace the synagogue destroyed by the Nazis (the cornerstone has just been laid). Our guide informs us there were 3000 Jews here before the Holocaust; today there are 600.)

We see a beautiful World War I memorial which dates from 1929. When the Nazis came, they had to remove it. The statue was returned to the artist’s family and then returned to church in 1955.

We also visit the Unser Lieben Frauen monastery. The oldest building in Magdeburg, it was constructed in two phases – the east section and nave were built in the second half of the 11th century; the western section between 1129 and 1160. Today, there is a sculpture park that was created in 1989 and is the venue for concerts.

But most remarkable is the Green Citadel of Magdeburg, an apartment building that is literally a work of art and (amazingly) also a model for new urban design.

I can’t take my eyes off of it. We wander around this fascinating and magnificent structure, so colorful, whimsical. It exudes happiness and optimism, a Dr. Seuss-like quality and playful spirit. It is literally green – greenery grows from the roof, down the walls – none of which have straight angles. It is an “ensemble’ of buildings taking up a full square block, an amalgam of different architectural periods.

The Green Citadel was designed by architect and artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna , he adopted Friedensreich, meaning “Peace, Freedom” and Hundertwasser, meaning “100 Waters”), who died in 2000.

The Catholic Church underwrote the cost of building the building (27.1 million Euros; it’s now owned by a Swiss investor). It contains 55 rental apartments (the rental fee is based on the square meter, 10-12E/sq meter, which is cheap), a 200-seat theater, parking garage, day care center, and 41-room Art Hotel (that’s what it’s called).

You walk into this breathtakingly beautiful courtyard and there are bird houses of all different shapes (possibly a Guinness record); within the courtyard are cafes and delightful shops (I can’t resist). The tower is 32 meters high, constructed as a spiral – a symbol of life – with a walkway all the way up to the top.

That evening, as we sail to Berlin, our final port, we have a gala dinner, and it really is: cream of cauliflower soup; foie gras; veal; cheese in puffed pastry, accompanied by special wines selected by the chef, and for dessert, Baked Alaska flaming with Grand Marnier, dramatically served. All the cuisine has been so flavorful, rich but not too rich, with gorgeous presentations.

Before dinner, we have asked for a tour of the kitchen, and they have complied – so we get to walk through: it is remarkably unbusy, unhectic, uncluttered considering they are serving something like five courses for about 80 people. In the evening, we also are invited to tour the wheelhouse (I am told there is no auto pilot, which makes me think it is easier to “fly” to the international space station than to navigate the river because of the changing depth, hazards, currents.

Berlin, a Cultural Capital Again

Berlin is a surprise. The last time I was here, which was just after the fall of the Wall, it seemed dark, grey. Berliners were literally chipping away at the Berlin Wall, selling the graffitied pieces (the first act of Capitalism).

Now it is bright, bustling and building. And an interesting amalgam of how Germany’s various historical époques, even the Soviet era, have been integrated in the reconstructed city after World War II.

What is most interesting to me, especially as we stop at the Brandenburg Gate, is how Nazism seems to have been ripped out from the roots, like weeds from a garden.
There is still some evidence of Soviet control, especially as we go through what would have been East Berlin (later, at Potsdam, we will learn the backstory of how Berlin was divided).

The Elbe Princesse is docked in a lovely neighborhood park in one of the city’s 12 districts. We have a bus-tour today, which I am grateful for because the city is really vast and I only have one day here, but it is soon obvious, you need to spend at least two or three days.

Our guide, Sylvia, gives us a bit of history as we travel from district to district, neighborhood to neighborhood.

We drive around the Victory Column – Hitler had it moved in the 1930s as part of his plan to make Berlin the capital of the World, Germania. To cement his dictatorship, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag, and blamed the opposition as an excuse to exert martial law.

We get out to walk around, stopping first at the new memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust. Out of 2.5 million Sinti & Roma, only 5000 survived (the German word for gypsy, Zigeuner, means trash and is forbidden).

Very close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag – the Parliament Building. People are lined up to tour the building, and can go up to a modernized glass dome.

The Brandenburg Gate, which dates from 1791, was part of the original wall around Old Town, and is the only one of 18 historical gates still remaining. “It survived 300 years, 2 world wars, 2 dictatorships, 1 wall.”

In 1806, Napoleon arrived in Berlin after defeating Prussians, entering through center of gate. He promptly “expropriated” the sculpture on top of the gate.

For 20 years, the Gate was in a no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, and could not be visited. Then, in November 1989, the wall came down.

All the buildings that flank the Gate were built after 1989, Today, the US Embassy and across from the embassy, a Holocaust memorial that opened in 2005.

In the Museum Island complex we see where there are still holes from bullets and artillery fire in the Roman columns are the city’s most important museums (which were in the Soviet zone, so that the Allies had to build comparable museums): the Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Neues Museum (New Museum) the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery). The collections in these buildings encompass over 6,000 years of art and cultural history.

Sylvia tells us that because all the city’s important museums wound up in the Soviet zone, the Allies built comparable institutions in their quarter.

We pass the magnificent Berlin Cathedral, which dates back to the 15th century.

As we pass the Royal Library, Sylvia relates that on May 10 1933, Nazis entered Royal Library, stripped the shelves, and burned the books in the square. “It’s important to keep people stupid to impose dictatorship,” she remarks. I mutter something about a Tennessee legislator who, when asked what they should do about banned books, said, “They should burn them, I guess,” to which one of my traveling companions from Munich recoiled in horror. (Max Planck and Albert Einstein gave lectures here, Sylvia notes.)

We go by Alexanderplatz, which was a market in the Middle Ages. (I spot “Stop Wars” as graffiti painted on a nearby building.)

We drive down an avenue that leads toward Frankfurt and the border with Poland. After WWII, Stalin renamed it for himself, but when Stalin died, it was renamed Karl Marx Allee (a German Jew and the ideological founder of Socialism).

The mark of East Germany’s time as part of the Soviet bloc is very clear when we arrive at a long, long wall – Sylvia said that the “first generation wall” was built in less than 24 hours. “Germans went to sleep on the night of August 12 and woke up on August 13 to find a 43 km wall built in middle of night, to separate east from west.”

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany, 118 artists from 21 countries were invited to paint murals along a 1316-meter long stretch of the wall – the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. It officially opened as the open-air East Side Gallery on September 28, 1990, and a year later, was made a protected memorial.

Sylvia points us to the mural that is very possibly the most famous: “The Kiss” by Russian painter Dimitri Vrubel in 1990, It depicts Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time, and Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, based on a photograph taken in 1979, on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GDR. “The photographer got two years in prison.”

Sylvia also points out Berlin’s pride and joy, the Berlin Television Tower, built in the 1960s. At 368m, it is the tallest building in Berlin. (You can go to the top for a 360° panoramic view of the city.)

Potsdam, UNESCO World Heritage City

We are returned to the Princesse Elbe for lunch and then set out again by bus to Potsdam – famous as the place where the Allies decided Germany’s fate, split Europe, Germany and Berlin into sections, and launched the Cold War.

Potsdam, about a 45 minute drive from where we are in Berlin, is one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, and a UNESCO Heritage site.

We stop at Glienicke Bridge, known as the “Bridge of Spies”. Built in 1907, it was used as an exchange point between the Soviets and the Allies. In 1961, during the Cold War, no civilians were allowed on the bridge, only military, diplomats. To distinguish between the American and German Democratic Republic sides, you can see the dark green versus light green colors. The first exchange came in 1962: Francis Powers, who was taken prisoner in 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over Ukraine and sentenced to die, was exchanged for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy. (The 2015 Tom Hanks thriller, “Bridge of Spies” depicting the events was actually shot here – they closed the bridge for a week).

We stop at Cecilienhof Palace, the place where the Potsdam Conference took place in 1945, and are able to walk around the grounds. The palace was built in 1917 by Crown Prince Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, who would have been next emperor if Germany had won World War I. It hardly looks like a palace – he built it in Tudor style of a country manor to honor his grandmother. Today it is a hotel and museum.

What I hadn’t known before is that Harry Truman, who had just become president after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, got a phone call while here, ‘The baby is born,” code for the atom bomb was ready. He gave the order from here to bomb Hiroshima, seemingly as casually as that.

The Potsdam conference also lacked another major leader, Winston Churchill. In his place, a new Prime Minister. Clement Attlee. Stalin took advantage of them both.

Sylvia relates the back-story of how Stalin snuckered Truman and Atlee: on the last morning, Stalin drew a line in red pen through Germany and basically, said, “That’s mine.” “Potsdam set up the Cold War, a proxy war,” she says.

We next go to Sanssouci, Frederick II (Frederick the Great)’s fabulous palace. (We wander the outside, but do not have time to go into it).

Sanssouci Palace is like a mini-Versailles, with stunning formal gardens. The gardens were Frederick’s passion, and he built them even before the palace. It was the first royal park ever to be open to the public, and for free. (Versailles Palace was built first then garden, but was solely for royal use.)

Frederick loved this place – it was his private refuge and he even banned his wife from visiting. He wanted to be buried at Sanssouci and had a crypt built, but his nephew buried him elsewhere; then, 200 years later, Frederick was reburied here, as he wanted, with his 11 dogs. We notice that people leave potatoes at the gravesite. “The Seven Years War was under his administration. Potato, brought from the Indian countries of America, was a fast solution to hunger.”

Potsdam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, became the residence for Prussia’ royal family, spawning many fabulous buildings and palaces, making Potsdam one of the most-visited cities in Germany and deserves a full day visit (you can get to Potsdam by train from Berlin).

Our tours of Berlin and Potsdam have been a very good introduction, but I would have liked to spend another two days in Berlin and a full day in Potsdam. But I am doing what many American travelers to Europe are doing this year and doubling up on trips from my bucket list. So the next morning, I get myself to the Berlin railway station, heading to Bruges. for my BoatBikeTours bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam by bike and boat!

Contact CroisiEurope, 800 768 7232, [email protected], www.CroisiEuropeRiverCruises.com

Photo: Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, our guide, Sylvia, holds up a photo showing Berliners celebrating on the Berlin Wall that separated East and West and put the historic Brandenburg Gate into No Man’s Land © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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