Prague to Berlin

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Prague to Berlin

Crossing the Vltava  This river, Vltava in Czech and Moldau in German, flows north from Prague, and joins the River Elbe about 12 miles east of here. (Elbe is "Labe" in Czech.) We'll see the Elbe itself before too long — once before leaving Czechoslovakia, and once again in Dresden (where it flows through the center of the city).

Approaching Litomerice  This area is known as the "garden of Bohemia" for its abundant produce. This includes apricot and cherry orchards, which thrive on well-watered slopes, and vineyards, in which a transplanted Rhineland grape grows. As the road we're on turns a bend, we'll catch our first glimpse of Litomerice and the River Elbe.

Theresienstadt, to our right, is connected to Litomerice by a long bridge over the Elbe. This is the site of an infamous Nazi concentration camp, thought to have been one of the most savage. (The Czech name is Terezin.) This place has always been a prison of one sort or another (built in 1780). During World War I, it has the distinction of holding as prisoners the murderers of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand, whose assassination touched off World War I. In 1939, after the Germans had taken over all of Czechoslovakia, the area became a ghetto into which Jews were herded. Shortly afterwards, the ghetto became a concentration camp to which Jewish and other prisoners were brought from elsewhere in Europe, many from Germany. After the war, the spot became a National Cemetery, marked by a large white cross.

Litomerice, across the Elbe from us, is a very old town, going back to the very origins of Bohemia (9th century). In 1227, the farming town received a royal charter granting it a municipal government. Its prosperity, like that of many European cities, was based on trade moving down the Elbe. Litomerice also had the advantage of being on the Prague-to-Dresden road, giving it commercial contacts with countries far away. Litomerice also benefitted from the decision of Emperor Charles IV (Bohemia's greatest ruler, 14th century) to develop vine growing in the region. During the period of Hussite wars (16th century), most of the townsfolk became fervent Protestants. One burgher wanted to proclaim his Hussite allegiances in unmistakable terms, so he built a house with a roof in the shape of a chalice. (The Hussites believed in communion in both kinds, i.e. giving wine as well as a wafer, and it became a sort of symbol of their convictions.) This house, called "Pod Bani" ("Under the Chalice"), is a major attraction of the town. Many other fine merchant houses are preserved in Litomerice.

Litomerice to Teplice  We're entering a major coal-producing area of Czechoslovakia. Remember that this is a highly industrial country, and depends for its steel-making industry and its electricity on coal. Brown coal production is concentrated here at the base of the (still distant) Ore Mountains, aptly named.

Casanova: About 10 miles to the west is the town of Duchocov, known for its coal, but even more for an Italian poet named Giovanni Casanova, who spent his last years here as a librarian working in the local castle. He died in 1798. Many of Casanova's personal effects are preserved in the castle, including his wig and pistol. After a life of adventure and many love affairs, he settled down here under noble patronage to write his memoirs and the utopian novel Isocameron. A fragment of his describing the amorous exploits of a Spanish nobleman was found, and on it Mozart based his opera Don Giovanni.

Teplice  This town is the site of the oldest thermal spa in Czechoslovakia. Legend claims that the mineral springs were discovered when a herd of pigs stumbled over and fell into them on August 29, 762! Of course, any event that far back in history cannot be known for certain, but the fact remains that throughout the Middle Ages all sorts of ailing people came here to try the cure. Queen Judith, wife of King Vladislav II of Bohemia, founded a convent here about 1160, and lies buried in it. The town became important in history during the Napoleonic wars, when the Holy Alliance between the kings of Russia, Prussia, and Austria had its headquarters here. At the time, neither Czechoslovakia nor Poland existed, and Teplice was roughly the spot where the domains of Russia, Prussia, and Austria formed a junction.

The spas: The curative effects of the mineral waters were known by the Romans and the ancient Celts; Roman soldiers came here to cure their rheumatism or simply to rest after campaigns. One of the hot springs recently celebrated its 1200th anniversary (what precious metal would one use for a jubilee that great?). Over the years, various tales have been told about strange goings-on at the mineral springs. E.g. during the great Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, it is said that the mineral springs stopped flowing for a few minutes — as if to mourn that far-away tragedy. In 1879, it is said, the mineral waters simply "ran out" of their underground springs and flooded some nearby mines, leaving the springs themselves completely dry. Excavations had to be made to re-"discover" the source of the springs again. The waters are as popular today as they were in the past. The water is radioactive (reaching 130 Mach), with an average temperature of 109 Degrees F. Over 750,000 gallons flow from the springs a day. The waters are recommended for victims of rheumatism, gout, arthritis, neuralgia, and heart ailments.

In the background are the magnificent Ore Mountains, a scenic ornament to the town.

(COURIER: Not far away is the East German border, after which you might begin your introduction to Germany, concentrating on the eastern half of this once-divided country.)

Saxony  We're traveling in the old Kingdom of Saxony, which was long a separate country. Before 1871, Germany was divided into many kingdoms, duchies, and independent city-states like Hamburg. Saxony was one of them, its capital being Dresden and its major industrial center being Leipzig. This area was settled millennia ago by the Saxon peoples, warlike tribes who pushed back the original Slavic inhabitants. (Saxony = Sachsen)

Saxony's role in German history has been mainly artistic. All the arts have flourished, but especially painting and music. Bach, Wagner, Weber, Schumann, Richard Strauss, and Handel were musicians who lived or studied in Saxony, most of them in Leipzig. The philosopher Leibniz and the dramatist Lessing were also from Saxony. Modern expressionist painting originated in Saxony just before and after World War I.

Landscape: The River Elbe cuts through Saxony, heading north to the North Sea. Gentle hills are on either side. Geographically, Saxony is a transition area between the high mountains to the south (e.g. Bavarian Alps) and the flat plains of northern Germany. The landscape remains peaceful in spite of the sprouting of industry in modern times. In the 19th century, people joked that Saxony was "...a long canal bordered in either side by smoky chimneys." But parks and gardens have blotted out the chimneys, and as you can see the land still looks rural.

Ahead a few miles, and not that far from the Czech border (19 miles), is the old capital of Saxony, Dresden.

Introduction to Dresden  Population today: 500,000. Dresden is 19 miles from the Czech border, and 100 miles from Berlin. It is the third largest city in Eastern Germany (after East Berlin and Leipzig). The major attractions are parks, gardens, art museums, and the surrounding Erzgebirge hills.

Origins: During the Dark Ages, this was an area of tribal migrations. The earliest settlers were Slavs from the east, who had pushed the Huns to the south, into Italy. The Slavs stayed for several centuries until the Saxon tribes pushed the Slavs back east. In the 13th century, the Saxons founded the village on the River Elbe, on the site of a former Slav village. This earliest river settlement is now the Altstadt section of Dresden. This village became a fortified trading center, guarding an important crossing of the River Elbe.

Medieval prosperity: Five main trading routes converged in Dresden, guaranteeing its commercial success. The Kings of Bohemia, not far away, envied this wealth and occupied Dresden for a time. But the Saxons regained their independence, and from the 16th century to 1871 (the birth of the German Empire), Dresden was the Saxon capital. Its history was not peaceful, in spite of commercial wealth. During the religious wars of the 17th century, the city and towns around it were ravaged by fighting. The reason: Swedish Protestants from the north and the Imperial German (Catholic) army from the south met in Saxony; one side after another occupied the towns.

Dresden China: The most famous craft product of the city. It actually comes from the town of Meissen, 12 miles away. Dresden porcelain was invented in 1708 by an alchemist from Meissen named Johann Friedrich Bottger. Bottger, like most alchemists, was trying to find a magic way of converting ordinary metals (like mercury) into gold. The Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, commissioned Bottger to find a magic recipe. Bottger dug for some metals in the hills around Meissen, which contain a type of clay called kaolin. The name "kaolin" comes from the Chinese word meaning "high hill." The Chinese had used it for making porcelain for centuries, but this was not known at the time. (Kaolin is feldspar which has decomposed; it's commonly used today for coating glossy paper.) After working with kaolin clay, Bottger discovered that it could be used to produce shiny porcelain like that used in Chinese and Japanese vases. The Elector Augustus, enthusiastic about this find, forgot all about gold and had a porcelain factory built in Meissen, with Bottger in charge. Bottger developed the fine art of porcelain making, including glazing techniques and elaborate methods of decorating the porcelain with gold and silver. His Meissen factory flourished, operating from 1719 to 1870 under the patronage of the King of Saxony. It became famous throughout Europe, and its products, though made in Meissen, came to be called "Dresden China." Porcelain figurines, clocks, vases, urns, plates, and candelabra from Dresden decorated the palaces of Europe, and many wealthy private homes. The porcelain is still produced in Meissen.

19th-century industry: The population around Dresden is dense; hence, when farmers began leaving their land and living in the city, a huge labor force was created. Because of a lack of raw materials around Dresden (except kaolin for porcelain), Dresden developed no heavy industry (steel, etc., which requires abundant coal); it specialized in light, precision industry like camera manufacturing, electronics, optics. In the 19th century, one of the biggest local industries was cigarette making. In 1872, one of Germany's greatest banks, the Dresdner Bank, was founded. The bank chain now exists in West Germany only, and is not connected with Dresden.

Arts: Industry created wealth, and with it the city sponsored opera, music, and painting. The Hoftheater (Court Theater) was one of Europe's most famous operas: Weber and Wagner were among its directors. Architecture and city planning were generously sponsored, and extravagant public buildings went up. Dresden's architectural beauty earned it the title, "Florence of the North." The Zwinger Palace is the most famous sample of this wealth that survived the war.

World War II  As Allied bombings of German cities increased, the Germans started to hide many of Dresden's art treasures in underground caves and mines outside of town. Then came the terrible Allied bombing of Dresden, undertaken in reprisal against German bombings of British cities, and not for any military purpose (no heavy industry in Dresden). The destruction was so severe that most of the city's classic landmarks were lost, including the old houses of the Altstadt (which is why the "Old City" looks like the newest part today). The Russians seized most of the hidden art works on entering the city in 1945. They returned about 750 of them to the city in 1956.

Dresden today: Many old buildings have been restored. Among the most popular landmarks for visitors: the Baroque buildings like the Zwinger Palace (it contains Raphael's Sistine Madonna), Opera House, Cathedral, and National Gallery. The city boasts over 20 museums.

(COURIER: If you're proceeding directly to Berlin, ignore the following notes. Use the time to talk generally about Germany, and then give your introduction to Berlin. If you're going on to Leipzig, shorten your commentary on Dresden.)

Introduction to Leipzig  The second largest city in East Germany: population of 580,000. At the center of a major industrial area of East Germany, and always a busy manufacturing city. Known today mainly for its giant trade fairs during which the Eastern bloc countries display their latest products, and many Western firms display as well.

Origins: The city lies at the confluence of three rivers, in a lowland area long called the "Leipzig Bay," since it resembles a bay surrounded on all sides by hills. During the Dark Ages (ca. 900) a Slavic settlement stood here, called Liptzk (from lipa - lime tree). After Saxon tribes pushed the Slavs back, a commercial city arose from the old Slavic village. Duke Henry the Fowler built a castle on this frontier against the Slavic tribes.

Medieval trade: The city then became the possession of the Margraves of Meissen, who were responsible for its commercial success. In 1170, Margrave Otto the Rich founded the trade fairs, held every spring and autumn. Woodcarvings were prominent, but the major product was (and is) fur. Fur processing in Leipzig was the world's greatest until the 1930's, when London and St. Louis eclipsed Leipzig.

Wars: Religious wars between Protestants and Catholics brought much destruction to this part of Germany. The struggle, in a sense, began in Leipzig with the famous debate between Martin Luther and Johann Eck (a prominent pro-papacy scholar); the debate took place in the old Leipzig castle. During the Thirty Years War, and again during the Seven Years War, Leipzig was occupied by the Swedes, who stayed until 1650. Later, during the Napoleonic wars, the "Battle of the Nations" was fought nearby in 1813, in which the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians defeated Napoleon.

The University of Leipzig: Leipzig's university was one of Germany's greatest, and played a major role in the intellectual development of Germany. Originally, German students from Leipzig went to Prague to study at its famous university. But during the Hussite wars, the Czechs tended to identify Protestantism with Czech nationalism, and much hostility broke out between German and Czech students at the university. The Germans returned to Leipzig and founded their own university in 1409, modelled on the University of Prague, but teaching Catholic doctrine. Goethe, Wagner, and the philosopher Leibniz were famous alumni.

Book publishing: Before World War II, Leipzig was the center of German book publishing. By 1825, there were 200 printing works in the city, and by the turn of the 20th century, over 1,000. The Deutsche Bucherei (German Library) became the biggest in Germany, with a copy of every book published deposited there. It was customary to celebrate the signing of publishing contracts in the Ackerlein Keller (located in the market square).

Music: An old tradition in Leipzig. The famed Gewandhaus Orchestra was founded in 1781. the boys choir of St. Thomas Church was once directed by Johann Sebastian Bach, who played the church organ and composed many of his works while at the church. Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813. Felix Mendelssohn established a music conservatory in the city in 1843. Impressed by the city's lively artistic life, Goethe called Leipzig "little Paris." Since 1966, there has been an International Bach Festival here every year.

Other activities: The first major German railroad was built between Leipzig and Dresden in 1839. In fact, Leipzig still has Europe's largest railroad station (26 platforms). Book publishing continues, and the city is a center for printing playing cards (7 million packs a year exported). Fur processing and auctioning continues, mainly East German mink and fox. Wild animals are bred and exported in the zoo, one of Germany's oldest; among the animals raised: lions, bears, hyenas, and Siberian tigers.

World War II and today: The city was one quarter destroyed by bombing: less than Dresden, but still heavy. Not too much of Old Leipzig is left, except for the Renaissance Town Hall and some Baroque public buildings. A new Opera House has been built in the re-named Karl-Marx-Platz. There is a huge new sports stadium.

(COURIER: No major towns lie directly on the route to Berlin, but some historic spots are nearby, and you may want to mention them in passing.)

Halle (to the west, far off the Autobahn). A Hanseatic trading town. The birthplace of George Frederick Handel, who went off to England when the Elector of Hanover became George I of England.

Dessau (off the Autobahn to the west). The famous Bauhaus school of modern architecture, founded in Weimar in 1919 by Walter Gropius, shifted its center here in 1925. Out of this movement came the painters Paul Klee and Kandinsky.

Wittenberg (off the Autobahn to the east). The spiritual birthplace of German Reformation. Here Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the wooden door of the castle church on October 31, 1517, an event that sparked the Reformation. The original doors were destroyed in an Austrian bombardment in 1760, but Luther's text was engraved on the new bronze doors that took their place. Luther and his partner Melanchthon are buried inside the church.

Potsdam (far off the Autobahn). This suburb is to Berlin what Versailles is to Paris: the site of a famous palace built by a great king, in this case by Frederick the Great. The palace is Sans Souci, built in conscious imitation of Versailles. One other landmark is the Cecilienhof, a hotel where the Potsdam Agreement was signed on August 2, 1945, by Stalin, Attlee, and Truman, fixing the zones of Allied occupation. A young man by the name of John F. Kennedy was one of the 50 reporters present. The place is now a historic memorial to World War II.

(COURIER: Start your introduction to Berlin.)


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