Big City Tales

A Trio of Sparkling German Gems

March 30, 2018
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For a country that found itself on the wrong side of history and internally divided along political lines as East and West for a good portion of the 20th century, Germany has experienced a major rebound in recent decades. Since being reunified after the end of the Cold War, the world definitely no longer feels ‘chilly’ about Deutschland and interest in the country’s major cities has heated up. After years of restoration, areas that were heavily damaged by Allied attacks during World War II have been returned to their pre-war shining and sumptuous splendor. This blog explores a trio of sparkling German gems: Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich.

Berlin

As the longtime capital of Germany, Berlin is a city steeped in history, politics and culture. It is widely known for its many world-class universities, museums, orchestras and sporting venues that tantalize all the senses. The city is also home to famous national landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Berlin Cathedral, the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. Other notable sites are Alexanderplatz and the Holocaust Memorial.

Brandenburg Gate – Located at the end of the famous Unter den Linden boulevard that runs east-west through the centre of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was erected as a symbol of peace in the late 1700s. The gate features five passages that were originally assigned designated users. The central passage was intended for the royals, the inner adjacent passages were for the aristocracy, and the outer two passages were meant for commoners. The gate is topped with an elaborate bronze quadriga crowned in victory. The four-horse chariot is driven by the Goddess of Victory who is shown raising a triumphant laurel wreath that is decorated with an iron cross and eagle.

Reichstag – Home of the German parliament since 1894, the Reichstag’s most striking feature is the glass dome that was constructed after the reunification of Germany in 1990. The dome is open to the public and it offers a view of the interior plenary hall, as well as fantastic exterior views of the surrounding grounds and the broader city.

Berlin Cathedral – As one of the non-museum buildings that is situated on Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral dates back to the early 1900s and is the largest church in the city. The cathedral was intended to be the Protestant rival of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and was thus ornately decorated in the Baroque style complete with marble columns, stained glass windows, and sculpted stone sarcophagi. The basement crypt contains the remains of Frederick William, the Great Elector, as well as other royal family members.

Berlin Wall – Following the end of World War II, Germany was first divided into four quadrants each represented by one of the winning Allied countries: Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. While Berlin was situated in the Soviet Union’s quadrant, it was also split into four quadrants. A power struggle ensued in the city and in 1948 the Soviets initiated an attempt at full control. The annexation effort ultimately failed but was the precursor for the establishment of the Soviet-led German Democratic Republic (known as East Germany) and the amalgamation of the other three quadrants into the Federal Republic of Germany (known as West Germany). As living conditions and economic prospects were far better in post-war West Germany, the Soviets decided to install a barrier to prevent East Germans from fleeing. Initially, barbed wire served the purpose but was eventually replaced in 1961 by a wall nearly 4 metres high that was guarded by soldiers who were ordered to shoot and kill anyone trying to escape. The Berlin Wall stood for nearly 30 years until the fall of Communism in 1989. Today, only remnants of the wall remain with the East Side Gallery being one of the most famous sections still standing. The open-air gallery features 106 paintings created by local artists.

Checkpoint Charlie – After the erection of the Berlin Wall by the Soviets, U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered that three checkpoints be built along the wall to allow the free movement of diplomats, Allied forces and visiting foreigners between West and East Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie became the most famous of the three (the others being Checkpoint Alpha and Checkpoint Bravo) and was notorious for being the location of a tank stand-off between the Soviets and Americans. The checkpoint was removed in 1990 near the completion of Germany’s reunification but a replica of the booth and its sign was installed and is close to a museum dedicated to the history of the Berlin Wall and associated aspects such as escape attempts and the checkpoints.

Alexanderplatz – Originally called the Ox Market, this major square was renamed the  Alexanderplatz after a visit by Russian Tsar Alexander I in 1805. Over the next century, the square evolved from a shopping district into a transportation hub with both a railway station and subway station being built. After World War II, Alexanderplatz ended up in Soviet territory and the area became the focal point of East Berlin where Socialist architecture could be prominently displayed. The largely concrete buildings and structures in the Alexanderplatz embody the simple and plain designs of the Soviet style. Two of the most prominent attractions are the Fernsehturm TV Tower and the Weltzeituhr (World Time Clock).

Holocaust Memorial – To mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the fall of the Nazi regime, the city of Berlin dedicated the Holocaust Memorial to the memory of the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered under orders by Hitler and his forces. The memorial covers 19,000 square metres and includes 2,711 unmarked concrete slabs. The slabs are all five-sided and are of different sizes ranging from just above the ground to high in the sky. Stone pathways separate the slabs and were installed in a wave-like pattern intended to create a sense of instability and disorientation reminiscent of the general chaos and malaise that Hitler’s Nazi movement inflicted on Jewish society.

Frankfurt

Given that Frankfurt is the major financial centre in Germany (and Europe, for that matter), the city has a definite ‘Wall Street’ feel to it complete with a Manhattan-like skyline. Yet, for all its glitzy concrete and glass skyscrapers and its bustling commerce district that welcomes thousands of business travellers every year, Frankfurt also has an old world, medieval vibe that greatly appeals to history- and culture-seeking buffs. As the city is divided by the River Main; it is formally known as ‘Frankfurt am Main‘ and no matter which side of the river bank visitors land on, this German gem serves up a good time with its many impressive amenities and attractions. But, first some words about arriving via Frankfurt’s superb airport and central train station that set the stage for wonders to come.

Frankfurt Airport – With four runways and two terminals, Frankfurt Airport is one of the busiest in Europe in terms of both total flights and total passenger traffic. It is the hub for Lufthansa and Condor airlines, and provides convenient railway connections for regional and long distance destinations. Flying into Frankfurt Airport is a treat for the eyes as it is surrounded by the dense and lush Frankfurt City Forest. Once on the ground, the airport’s interior is easy to navigate and is also very clean; the city’s major historical and business landmarks are now just a short commute away.

Frankfurt Central Station – Along with being the busiest railway station in Frankfurt, the Deutsche Bahn railway company considers Central Station to be the most important transportation hub in all of Germany. Volume of passengers notwithstanding, the station is also a beautiful work of architecture that is decorated inside with Neo-Renaissance and neoclassical elements. The exterior facade features a large clock with two carved statues representing Day and Night on either side. On the roof is a large statue of the mythological Greek Titan, Atlas, shown holding the world on his shoulders, supported by two symbolic figures representing Iron and Steam.

Romer and Romerberg – Frankfurt’s city hall and most important public square is comprised of a complex of nine houses that date back to the early 1400s. The Romer is the middle building of a set of three with matching facades and it sits directly in front of the Romerberg open plaza and opposite of Old St. Nicholas Church, a medieval building noteworthy for its 51 bells and tall, green spire.

St. Paul’s Church – Considered to be a national historic monument, St. Paul’s is a Protestant church and was also the site where the first democratically elected German parliament briefly met between May 1848 and May 1849. This revolutionary period was ultimately quashed by the Prussian Empire as it did not want to lose control of coveted territory. Nonetheless, the Frankfurt Parliament marked a pivotal point in Germany’s political development and the constitution created at the time would be drawn upon again in the next century.

Central Business District – Known as Bankenviertel and Mainhattan, this area is home to many of Germany’s largest banks and tallest skyscrapers.  Deutsche Bank’s Twin Towers is the company’s headquarters and the two buildings have been referred to as ‘Debit’ and ‘Credit’. International financial firms such as Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse and Bank of China also have branch offices located in the district.

European Central Bank – Frankfurt is the headquarter of the European Central Bank (ECB) that administers financial policies for the Eurozone member countries utilizing the euro as their sole legal currency. The ECB’s main office building opened in 2015 and consists of two towers (one 45 storeys high and one 43 storeys high) that are joined by a common atrium area.

Munich

Every fall since 1810, beer lovers and carnival enthusiasts alike have descended in droves to the city of Munich to experience the gluttony and fun of the annual Oktoberfest folk festival. For a place that takes its name from the strict Benedictine order that once ran a monastery on the site that became known as the Old Town of Munich, the city’s early Catholic roots may seem incongruous with its modern ‘party town’ image but the dichotomy seems to work. Visitors to Munich can experience aspects of both its pious and humble beginnings to its rise as the raucous and ever-beating heart of Bavaria.

Marienplatz – During the Middle Ages, Marienplatz (Mary’s Square) was the main gathering place for citizens to take part in tournaments and shop at markets. A town hall building was constructed in the 1300s and a central Marian column was erected in the 1600s to mark the end of Swedish occupation. Old Town Hall was eventually replaced by New Town Hall, which features a Glockenspiel display clock with 43 bells and 32 life-sized figures that act out two historical stories dating back to the 16th century.

Schleissheim Palace – German Baroque architecture is finely displayed in the Schleissheim Palace, which was the summer home of the royal family members of the House of Wittelsbach. Comprised of three individual buildings, the New Palace is the largest and grandest being over 300 metres in length and features elaborate interior decorations and an illustrious exterior garden and park area.

Maximilianeum – Home to the Landtag of Bavaria (the region’s representative assembly), the Maximilianeum is a palatial building that was the brainchild of King Maximilian II in the late 1850s. The building took nearly 20 years to complete and sits at the eastern end of the Maximilianstrasse, one of Munich’s royal avenues. Its ornate facade is decorated with arches, columns, mosaics and niches filled with busts.

Frauenkirche – With its onion dome twin towers that are clearly visible from many parts of Munich, the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) is an important landmark and one of the city’s symbols. The staircase in the south tower is open to anyone willing to walk up and enjoy a view of the city and mountains in the distance.

Englischer Garten – The English Garden is one of the world’s largest urban parks that stretches from Munich’s city centre all the way to its northeast city limits. The garden’s informal landscape is reminiscent of the style popularized by the English in the late 1700s through to the early 1800s. The Monopteros is a Greek-style stone temple that sits atop a 15 metre high foundation surrounded by a hill. There are 10 Ionic columns that support a copper covered dome. Other garden attractions include a Japanese Teahouse, a Chinese Tower, and the Schönfeldwiese (beautiful field meadow), which is notorious for its nude sunbathers that have been allowed to bare all in public since the 1960s.

Theresienwiese – As the official grounds of the annual Oktoberfest celebrations, Theresienwiese (Theresa’s meadows) is 420,000 square metres of open space located south west of the city centre. During Oktoberfest, the grounds are turned into an amusement park and beer garden complete with roller coaster, carousel, chair swing and other rides. Millions of visitors partake of copious amounts of locally-brewed beer and the wearing of traditional Bavarian costumes such as Dirndl for the ladies and Lederhosen for the men is highly encouraged.

Olympiapark – Constructed for the 1972 Summer Olympics, Olympiapark consisted of four parts: Olympic Area that housed the main sports facilities, Olympic Village where the athletes resided, Olympia-Pressestadt that hosted the world’s media, and Olympic Park which consisted of a lake and mountain. Olympiapark is still utilized today for athletic, cultural, social and religious events. The Olympiaturm (Olympic Tower) stands 291 metres tall and has an observation deck, Rock and Roll Museum, and a revolving restaurant. The tower is also used for television and radio broadcasting.

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From Destruction to Reconstruction in Dresden

February 12, 2018
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The year was 1945. World War II was raging across the globe. In the European Theatre, the Allied Forces were on the offensive and gaining ground against their dreaded Nazi foe. Boasting strong fire power from the air, the British Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force unleashed their collective might on strategic targets.

As the capital city of the German state of Saxony, Dresden was considered to be a transportation, communication and general war effort hub that warranted a significant and sustained bombing campaign. Following eight raids spread over three months (February to April), the Allied Forces declared a decisive victory but at what cost? The vast destruction of important landmarks in the city’s cultural centre would draw the ire of critics in the post-war era resulting in an intensive reconstruction effort.

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Out of the ruins of war, Dresden would eventually return to its former beauty. Yes, in some areas the city centre still shows the lingering aftermath of soot stained exteriors that hearken back to the darkest days of World War II, but slowly and surely Dresden’s grandest structures have been rebuilt and fully restored to the brighter days of their pre-war glory.

The Zwinger

Located in the historic heart of Dresden, the Zwinger Palace was originally constructed as the orangery, exhibition gallery and festival arena for the ruling Kings of Saxony.  The palace is Dresden’s most famous landmark and the Crown Gate is its most impressive exterior feature. The series of statues in the gate’s nitches depict the four seasons.

Inside the palace, a series of pavilions and galleries showcase some of the finest European artists, notably the Old Masters Gallery where Raphael’s larger than life Sistine Madonna is on display. In addition to paintings, the Zwinger houses an impressive porcelain collection, as well as antique weapons and scientific instruments.

Given the historical and cultural value of the palace, the Zwinger was one of the first buildings to be restored following the Allied bombing raids. Parts of the complex were re-opened in 1951 and full public access followed in 1963.

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Semper Opera House / Theaterplatz

Prior to World War II, the Semper Opera House had already undergone two rebuilds: one the result of a neo-Renaissance “facelift” completed in 1841; the other the result of a catastrophic fire in 1869. The post-fire rebuild was completed in 1878 and revealed a new High Renaissance look. Following the Allied bombings in 1945, it would take 40 years to complete its third reconstruction. When the Semper Opera House reopened its doors in February 1985, the occasion was marked with a performance of the last opera played before the bombing campaign began.

The Semper Opera House is located in the Theaterplatz, a large open square that is also bordered by the Zwinger Palace and the Hofkirche Catholic Cathedral. At the center of the Theaterplatz stands a bronze equestrian statue of King John, Saxon ruler from 1854 until 1873. This statue was created by Johannes Schilling, a German sculptor who was also responsible for the chariot statue on top of the opera house.

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Dresden Cathedral (Hofkirche)

While Germany is the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation movement, Catholicism was the chosen religion of the Saxon royal family and a ‘battle of the churches’ in the 1700s produced two gems. The Hofkirche was built in an effort to create balance between the earlier constructed Frauenkirche, home of Dresden’s Protestant faithful.

Commissioned by Augustus III and completed in 1751, the Hofkirche was intended to be the largest church in all of Saxony and its grand design included a copper onion dome, Corinthian columns and a series of historical and biblical statues that look out over the city.

The Hofkirche is one of Dresden’s most beautiful buildings and has the added distinction of being the final resting place of Augustus the Strong’s heart.

Although badly damaged during WWII, the church wasn’t restored until the mid-1980s. Following the re-unification of Germany further restoration occurred, including the rebuilding of a bridge leading to the royal castle.

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Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche)

With its massive dome and exquisite interior, when the Frauenkirche opened its doors in 1743 it quickly gained renown around the world as an iconic symbol of Dresden.

At 95 metres in height and having a dome 23.5 metres in diameter, to this day the impressive Protestant church dominates the city centre landscape. That the dome became known as the ‘stone bell’ is not surprising considering its sheer mass and double shell construction for the inner and outer dome.

Fittingly, a reverent and stoic statue of Martin Luther, author of the Ninety-five Theses and a key figure in the Protestant Reformation, stands in the courtyard outside of the church beckoning true believers to draw nigh and enter in.

During the bombings in 1945, the Frauenkirche at first appeared to withstand the Allied onslaught but the sandstone eventually gave way and the building collapsed. Despite an immediate effort by church members to gather funds and reconstruct the Frauenkirche, the post-war situation in Germany stalled the initiative and wouldn’t be revisited until after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the early 1990s.

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“Florence on the Elbe”

Following the city’s mass destruction during World War II, Dresden was literally reduced to a pile of rubble.  Thanks to decades of intensive labour, the beauty of the city has  emerged from the ashes and it is once again deserving of its nickname “Florence on the Elbe.”

One of the best vantage points to take in the essence of Dresden’s splendor is along the Bruhl Terrace, often referred to as the “Balcony of Europe” owing to its gorgeous promenade and spectacular river views.

The Royal Art Academy is one of the most impressive landmarks along the terrace and is noteworthy for its neo-Renaissance design along with the towering glass dome crowned by a gilded gold statue of Nike, goddess of victory.

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