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7 reasons why everyone should visit Berlin and eastern Germany

The Wall came down and Germany was reunified in 1990. And yet many tourists continue to flock to the traditional tourist regions in western Germany such as the Rhine, the Black Forest and Bavaria. Perceptions of places tend to be 50 years out of date. When I say I'm from Manchester, people say 'I've heard it is a grimy industrial city', failing to realise all the changes that have taken place. The same is true of Berlin and eastern Germany. Here are seven reasons to forget the chocolate boxes and cuckoo clocks and experience a remarkable part of the world.

Reason number one: Berlin and Potsdam

You cannot set foot in Germany without visiting the historic capital city of Berlin, up till recently, a city divided. the western sectors an island of democracy inside the Soviet Bloc. Throughout the 20th century Berlin was at the centre of momentous events, though it only rose to world prominence in the 19th. Berlin is now and has always been 'eine Reise wert' - worth a journey - for many reasons, not jus because of its world-class architectural attractions in the historic centre, formerly part of the mis-named German Democratic Republic, but many others too numerous to mention. Berlin is not a pretty city - it bears the scars of wartime destruction, the eastern area is a permanent reminder of Communist rule. But it is a city with an astounding range of things on offer. And what's more, Berlin has a similar land area to London but only 3 million inhabitants instead of London's 8 million. There are many square miles of parks and lakes within the city boundaries and the city has a relaxed feel. No exobitant parking rates and congestion charge here. According to my calculations, the cost of living is a third of that of London - more about this below below. Berlin is an incredibly favourable place for tourists, especially those from the UK. In every sense, you simply cannot afford to miss it.

Reason number two: Dresden and the Elbe

You cannot go to Germany and miss out on the experience of visiting Dresden, with its stunningly reconstructed Altstadt or old town, crowned by the breathtaking Frauenkirche, an 18th century church destroyed in 1945 and painstakingly rebuilt from a pile of rubble. The Frauenkirche is a miracle to behold, a symbol of rebirth and victory over war and political tyranny. The old Dresden was destroyed by the terrible raids carried out by British and American bombers on February 6th 1945, but in its essential character, the old city, as painted by Canaletto and other painters, is reborn, and the reconstruction will continue for many years. Dresden is a world-class tourist destination, now visited by people from all over the world - but still not as many as ought to be going there, in my opinion. It still seems to be perceived as being off the main tourist track, but this is changing. Dresden also has the River Elbe with its beautiful grassy banks, recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site (unless a controversial bridge is built, in which case it may be struck off the list). The nearby Elbsandstein mountains are a landscape like no other on Earth. Dresden deserves to be at the very top of the list of places to visit in Germany.

Reason number three: Outstanding value for money

The cost of living in Berlin and the east of Germany is remarkably low in comparison to other parts of Europe, especially economic hotspots such as London and Paris. The reason for this is that the industrial economy of the east collapsed following the effects of decades of Communist misrule. On reunification, industries disappeared overnight and have not been replaced. A once mighty economy has been laid low. Now many people from the east have to move to western Germany to make a career. Eastern Germany has become a little like Ireland used to be in the past, a place of emigration. That's bad news for Ossis, but good news for tourists, as prices are low. Berlin is an antidote to overheated, overpopulated and overpriced London with its punitive congestion charge and often astronomical restaurant prices and hotel rates. There is no congestion charge in Berlin, and you can park in the centre for 2 euros an hour, in comparison to 8 pounds an hour in London. Public Transport is vastly superior to London and far cheaper. That's true of the whole of the east and the wider Germany. Your pounds, converted into euros, will take you a long, long way in Berlin and eastern Germany. It can be cheaper for a UK resident to fly to Berlin and stay in a four star hotel there than it is to take the train to London and stay in a bed and breakfast.

Reason number four: The people are friendly

Generally speaking the people in the east are a friendly lot - maybe not so much in Berlin, as it's a big city - but certainly in the more provincial regions, people are welcoming. Those over a certain age don't always speak very good English - that's because the main foreign language of the GDR was Russian, but that can be a good opportunity to practice your German, if you know any - I suggest you learn some! They are generally courteous, good natured and welcoming. In Colditz, British visitors will find a particularly warm welcome. It's not surprising, since visitors from Western Europe were barred from freely visiting the East for over four decades. As in wartime, living in adversity - as the Ossis did for so many years - can bring out the best in people. They were never spoiled by the Wirtschaftswunder or economic miracle in the West. They continue to face economic challenges. They are very happy for people from the English speaking world to visit their regions and see the remarkable things on offer.

Reason number five: The memory of Communist rule

The east is different from other parts of Germany because of its recent history. It's often hard to believe that this area was sealed off from Western Germany and western Europe for all those years. Places such as Leipzig and Dresden seemed more strange and inaccessible as cities in the far corners of the Soviet Union. People experienced hardships and frustrations we in the West find difficult to imagine. But life there wasn't all bad, and many people have fond memories of life in the GDR. Those experiences and individual stories are fascinating. Just chat to an Ossi and before long you will hear some remarkable tales. You can go to many museums and memorials that tell the shocking truth about the reality of Communist rule. This should be a warning to everyone about the dangers of extremist ideologies, and yet many people continue to ignore the past, and will go on to repeat the mistakes of history in the future. People in western Europe often take their high standard of living and political freedoms for granted. A visit to the East will show what might have happened, if the course of history had been different.

Reason number six: This is the old, forgotten heart of Germany

Berlin and the east have many of the most important assets of historic Germany. It was often said that the Soviets kept the lions share of Berlin's historic heritage for themselves in 'Berlin-Mitte', the central district which lay behind the wall. And there are many cities and regions associated with giants of German literature and music, particularly in the south of the former GDR. The town of Weimar is a legend of German culture. Leipzig has connections with art, culture and literature going back to the middle ages. Dresden was called the 'Venice of the North'. The area now called 'Mitteldeutschland' or central Germany comprises the federal states of Sachsen-Anhalt, Sachsen and Thüringen is called this name as it was once the geographical centre of Germany, before the loss of the Ostgebiete or eastern territories after 1945. One major reason to visit the east is the fact that many ancient towns have been better preserved than those in the West. Due to the economic stagnation of Communist rule, there was never any money to carry out restoration. Many older buildings fell down or were destroyed, but others were preserved unchanged, as it a time warp. Many late 19th century buildings are now being renovated for the first time since they were built. Ancient monuments and architectural landmarks have been restored and rebuilt, making them look much as they did when they were first built. Sadly others are being demolished and permanently lost, but that's another story.

Reason number seven: This is the newest and most modern part of Germany

Officially the terms 'former GDR' and 'east' are frowned upon in government circles. The official name for the region is 'die neuen Bundesländer' or the new federal states. Five new states came into being in 1990 in addition to the 'old' ones in the west, founded in 1949. The new federal states are new in many other respects too. Buildings, motorways, city centres, stations, railways, facades, have all been rebuilt or renovated, making the east often look pristine, while the old west Germany looks tired and run down. It's true there are many derelict factory buildings and other remnants of the old east as well, but those can be fascinating to look at as well. The east is currently a potent an remarkable mix of old and new, but over time, that quality will become more and more blurred.

For these and many other reasons I strongly recommend anyone to go and see Berlin and eastern Germany. Leave the chocolate box, gateau and cuckoo clocks for another visit. Go and see a different and more real side of Germany and Europe while it is still the way it is.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-09-01

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