runningtheberlinwall

Editors

I can and do write travel pieces with a light tone. But this year it’s the places with history that are gripping me most, as we look back at two decades of post-Iron Curtain history. But 2009 is awash with anniversaries. Other areas I have travelled to, and which have a date hook, include:

Weimar (eastern Germany)

Nietzsche came to this university town to die and Goethe tolerated Schiller in its student-filled streets. Its name became synonymous with the interwar democracy that ultimately imploded, paving the way for Hitler’s rise. Schiller was born 250 years ago, while it’s 90 years since the Weimar Republic was founded and Walter Gropius formed the local Bauhaus movement. My visit coincided with one of the annual Klezmer festivals. Only a few miles from the gates of the Buchenwald Camp museum, the cream of the world’s Yiddish/Roma artists gather in this arty town of museums and colleges to celebrate an esoteric genre which so lost many of its exponents in the war.

Gdansk (Poland)

While most eyes will be on Berlin this November, ask anyone in Gdansk and they will tell you that the Poles started undermining the system long before ’89. Following in the steps of the 1970 Szczecin confrontation, the shipyards of northern Poland saw the birth of a groundbreaking Eastern Bloc movement in the early 80s – Solidarity. Workers, intellectuals and Catholic priests joined forces as Stalin’s ox started to dislodge its communist saddle. But many will be unaware that 70 years ago this September, a few kilometres away from the carefully reconstructed Flemish-style buildings of the old centre, the first shots of WW2 were fired on a lonely finger of land jutting out from Gdansk. From heroes to villains, the former city of Danzig has played a key role in 20th Century history.

Leipzig (eastern Germany)

Winter 1989 saw a tipping point reached in Berlin, and world leaders will commemorate that on 9th November as they symbolically knock down individually-decorated dominoes to celebrate “Die Mauerfall”. But it was in the autumn of that year in Bach’s former stomping ground of Leipzig that the movement for Die Wende (“the change”) started to gain momentum. A small collection of travel-permit refusniks grew and grew until thousands filled the streets in ‘singing demonstrations’, eventually daring to approach the dreaded Stasi building which is now preserved as a major museum. With its EU-funded city centre, an alternative ‘left’ quarter and its left behind outskirts, Leipzig is like a tree whose concentric rings tell its history. From Stasi bunkers to leftfield bars and the latest watersports, Leipzig is well worth a weekend for the history-loving tourist.

Ukraine

Pre-recession, Ukraine was shaping up to be the next big thing. Five years after the Orange Revolution, the future for tourism seemed bright. Beyond the EU, it’s out of the Euro-zone and offers a frisson of Eastern European intrigue at communist-era prices. From the beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture of western-looking L’viv to a terrifying tour of Chernobyl; the churches of Kiev; the history of Yalta and the beaches of Odessa; it offers a wealth of opportunities for those not scared off by cyrillic. But with the recession seeing flight cancellations, and fear over Russian passport distribution in the Crimea, the future of this 2012 European Football Championship destination looks much less certain than its Polish co-host’s. (NB I made the very interesting bus crossing from Poland, along with several smuggling housewives and some large still-boxed domestic appliances).

Normandy

We’ve seen the films and watched the documentaries. But, standing in a 10-feet bomb crater and staring at the twisted steel of a bombed-out bunker, being on a Normandy beach really makes one appreciate the magnitude of Operation Overlord. 65 years after the largest amphibious landing in history, the museums along the coastline do a great job of conveying the complexity and the effort that went into “The Longest Day”. On the beach at Arromanches, looking past the ruined Mulberry Harbours towards England, it’s easy to imagine the thousands of ships strewn across the Channel; one can’t help but feel humbled by the thought of all those who never got past the sand. At a preserved German battery, guns intact, a middle-aged American silently shakes his head as he finally sees the shoreline his mother assaulted as an army nurse. At last he comprehends just what it meant to be involved in Churchill’s “end of the beginning”.

Tribute paid, it’s time to head inland for Calvados and crepes. Would it be flippant to ponder the irony that 1,000 years ago the invasion traffic was coming in the other direction? Certainly it would be courting controversy to suggest that perhaps we had to liberate the locals, to look after our own? After all – thanks to Guillaume le Conquerant – nous sommes tous Normandes, non?

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