On the express line from Berlin to Prague
Ben Koschalka jumps off the train to explore
the often overlooked eastern German regions
of Thuringia and Saxony...
Updated: October 13th, 2005
Listen to the backpacker at Berlin Zoo station or believe many a guide book and you'd be forgiven for thinking there's nothing else worth seeing in eastern Germany.
Cross the wasteland of 20% unemployment, drug-cheat athletes and mass neo-Nazism, next stop funky sexy Prague.
Or: you could at least get off that Prague train a couple of hours earlier and give Dresden a try. If you're not at least pleasantly surprised, or more likely staggered by the beauty of the city that used to be known as the Florence of the North, you'll be in the minority.
Dresden's cultural treasures were famously and tragically all but destroyed by the February 1945 firebombing and again endangered in recent years by the flood of the century, but every time I go there it seems that there are more jewels to admire.
2006 promises even greater things, as the city celebrates eight centuries of existence. The view of the restored Semper Opera House, palatial museum and gallery complex named the Zwinger, and the Bruhl Terrace along the bank of the Elbe is stunning, especially when illuminated in the evening.
Scaling the skyline, rebuilt painstakingly brick-by-brick from its own rubble and finally open again, is Dresden's symbol and once again its crowning glory, the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady.
Tear yourself away and cross the river and you'll find an entirely different city, home to countless pubs, trendy shops and doner kebab outlets.
Stray into the suburbs and you might stumble across an exquisite palace, such as Pillnitz or Moritzburg, or even the world's oldest suspension railway.
Dresden remains a well-kept secret to many, yet its fame is also widespread. On an arctic December Sunday the Striezelmarkt, now over 570 years old and Germany's oldest Christmas market, was overflowing with people quaffing gluhwein and snapping up kitsch. At the building site where the city's castle is being unearthed from the ruins many Japanese were to be seen, lured by the porcelain in nearby Meissen and an eye for a city worth visiting.
Similar in size and age, just over an hour away by train and very different in spirit is Leipzig. This was where much dissent came from in 1989 and is a progressive place, of less obvious historical note than its neighbour but with a cavernous shopping mall in its train station, impressive new sporting developments and the experience of an audacious bid for the 2012 Olympics. It also features reputedly two of Europe's biggest: the Honky-Tonk pub and live music festival (the debauchery takes place every May) and the Moritzbastei student club.
Too much fun? South-west of here you'll find many towns boasting beautiful architecture and impressive culture. In intellectual Weimar you can visit the houses of literary giants Goethe and Schiller, or there is the Martin Luther trail, of which the highlight is the well-preserved Wartburg castle near Eisenach, his refuge as he translated the New Testament out of Latin for the first time in modern history.
Eastern Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, is still struggling economically, and still off the beaten track. This is obvious. There is a lot of mistrust between its citizens, - still known, often disparagingly, as Ossi-s (from Ostdeutschland) - and the Wessi-s on the other side of the former border. You may see skinheads - I even found myself living with one, but she was kind enough not to hate me for being a foreigner - and you certainly will come across a few mullets.
Many still yearn for the good old days when they had their allotted niche and stable job, hence the popularity of films like Goodbye Lenin, and at some stage a GDR Ostalgie (nostalgia for the east) theme park is likely to be built.
But eastern Germany is a varied landscape with much to offer beside its cities and unique history. A rail trip from Dresden into the Sachsische Schweiz, or Saxon Switzerland, especially at autumn time, is astonishing. You can go skiing there too, or at one of a number of other winter sport resorts. If you've been to Eisenach you're ideally placed to take on Germany's most celebrated and oldest hiking trail, the 168-kilometre Rennsteig, and in summer why not bare all, as many East Germans still merrily do, at one of thousands of lakes or even in the Baltic sea.
History and culture, entertainment and relaxation - Dresden and eastern Germany have enough of all of these to more than justify getting off that train.
© Ben Koschalka, Nordhausen, March 2003 / Krakow, October 2005Ben Koschalka has worked and studied in eastern Germany
Almost all the budget airlines featured in the German Low Cost Airlines Guide serve Berlin. Many of them fly to Berlin Schönefeld airport to the south of the German capital, which is also, conveniently, the only major station on the southbound trunk line from Berlin to Dresden.
Fewer low cost airlines serve Saxony and no discount carriers at all fly to Thuringia.
Of the airlines which do fly to Saxony, germanwings operates a domestic route to Leipzig Halle from Cologne Bonn in western Germany and also flies to Dresden from Berlin Schönefeld, Cologne Bonn and Stuttgart - though if you're at Berlin Schönefeld, you'd surely be better off taking the train the short overland distance to Dresden.
Air Berlin also flies to both Dresden and Leipzig Halle from Nuremberg in Germany and from Paris CDG, Vienna, Budapest, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome Fiumicino, Milan and numerous other Mediterranean airports. The carrier operates additional connections to Leipzig Halle from Munich and Stuttgart.
dba, by contrast, flies to Dresden from Munich in southern Germany, Nice in France, Rome Fiumicino in Italy and from both Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece.
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