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  • Writer's pictureHiker Tom

Europe: Part 6

Blown Away by Art and Nature


As I travelled eastwards towards the German capital I was both excited and intrigued. Excited because I had constantly been reassured by everyone I had asked previously that “Berlin is so cool, you’ll love it!”; intrigued because beyond that phrase and others similar to it, nobody had ever really explained to me why that was so – hence I honestly had no idea what to expect. Upon arrival at the bus station I found that I was still six miles away from my hostel in the city centre, but I was within walking distance of what turned out to be a pleasant and unanticipated surprise, Charlottenburg. Being a 17th century German palace, I was certainly aware of Charlottenburg’s presence, but had not been planning to visit it due to its distance from the centre, however, as luck would have it that was where my bus had arrived, and I soon found myself strolling through the palace gardens on a hot and sunny afternoon. My winter coat was off and my sunglasses were on. Beams of sunlight shimmered through the tall green pines of the garden. Wandering down secluded paths uncovered hidden sculptures and classically styled altars. At the canal-side a beautifully pristine reflection of the colourful opposite bank dove deep below the water’s surface, and all the while Berlin’s largest palace sat like a watchful giant in the background. While I had not been sure what to expect from the city, this quaint and relaxing jaunt in the sun had definitely not been it. It had been a surprise, and perhaps because of that it ended up being one of my favourite moments in Berlin.


Charlottenburg Palace


The next morning, being the history buff that I am, the city’s Museum Island enticed me out of my bed and I was soon on my way. Museum Island is comprised of four main museums: The Pergamum Museum, The Neues Museum, The Alte Gallery, and the Bode Museum. Only the day before I had learned that the one thing I had been most excited about seeing there – the supposedly mind-blowing Pergamum Altar – has been closed from the public until 2023 and I was still disappointed about that on my visit to the Pergamum Museum. However, the remaining exhibits are still fascinating, and I would urge anyone in a similar situation to mine not to be phased by the closure of the Pergamum Altar, because anyone with an interest in Near-Eastern history will marvel at the excavation of the (still colourised) Ishtar Gate. Meanwhile, the exhibit that effected me most poignantly was the “Collection of Islamic Art” (or, more accurately, the collection of art from the Islamic world) which housed some stunningly ornate prayer rugs, Mihrabs, old versions of the Qur’an, and a variety of treasures. This is an area that I am relatively uninformed about, thus the exhibition offered an enlightening insight into Islamic culture, and one that I am grateful for. The other museums on the island had less to offer me than the Pergamum Museum did, but they are definitely all worth a visit!


An Islamic Mihrab


That day I also paid visit to some of Berlin’s biggest tourist attractions, including Alexanderplatz, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Holocaust memorial. I found that Berlin is a classic example of old-meets-new; everywhere it appeared that the modern city was blending with its older foundations, but not erasing them. Because of this, as I walked through the city I found the presence of history in my mind almost unavoidable, and at times glaringly obvious. It was harrowing, but at the same time unimaginable, to think what such a beautiful place had once been at the centre of, and that led to a somewhat philosophical and retrospective afternoon on my part. This theme was to continue into the evening, too, as I encountered what was by far my biggest and unanticipated highlight of Berlin: The East Side Gallery.


A Section of the Berlin Wall/East Side Gallery


What was once a stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall has now been converted into a canvas for professional graffiti art, and it packs an impactful punch! At approximately one kilometre in length, the gallery is home to a variety of murals ranging from intricate landscapes to simple and meaningful pieces. Standing out from the crowd are works such as an enormous close-up of two elderly men embracing in a passionate kiss, a Star of David over the backdrop of the LGBTQ rainbow flag, and a portrait of a faceless black woman beside the caption “How’s God? She’s Black!”. On the other side of the wall sprawling crowds of people were sitting beneath the setting sun on the banks of the river Spree, they were drinking, smoking and generally having a good time, and there was an unmistakable air of togetherness in the scene. In the past I have always appreciated the talent of art, but have seldom grasped its purpose; this was not the case, however, with the East Side Gallery. What was once a glum emblem of division and global tension has been transformed into an icon of unity and liberalism. It is a centre for socialising that made me feel as though I myself was an intrinsic part of the artists’ work, both receiving its visual message and, by virtue of standing there happily on the river bank, disseminating that message too, and it is testament to the people of Berlin for achieving such a powerful statement.


My next destination was the Saxon capitol of Dresden, and all I knew about it (a vague memory from my year ten history class, thanks Mr Spindler!) was that it was the sight of one of the largest and most devastating bombings of WWII pre-Hiroshima, and for a long time the morality of that bombing has been a topic of contention in modern European history. I am no expert on modern history, but some quick research found that current estimates for the fatality rates of the bombings range from 35,000 to a staggering 135,000 civilians, and most of the city was destroyed. I was quite shocked, then, to discover how successfully the city’s major buildings have been rebuilt like a jigsaw puzzle, and as far as pure architectural style goes, it was definitely my favourite city centre in Germany. There is a spontaneous curvature to the buildings that, combined with the blackened hue of the stones (which is not, as I had first thought, a result of scorch marks from the bombing) make it feel like the setting of a grim gothic novel.


The main reason, however, for my stay in Dresden was not the city itself, but the ease-of-access that it gave to the Sächsische Schweiz national park not far to the south. On my first morning in Dresden my alarm went off at six, I was on a train by seven, and by half past I was hiking; the sun had only just risen and the air on my skin was still refreshingly cool. The park itself is comprised of sandstone rock formations covered in all manner of trees. Hiking through the forest the ground was covered in auburn leaves and to my right the sandstone rock dropped sharply away to a valley below. By nine I had arrived at my destination, the Basteibrücke, and all of a sudden the early morning was worth it. Basteibrucke is an old settlement atop of three towering rocks. Today, the only surviving aspect of the settlement is the bridge that joins the three rocks together. I was the first person to arrive and for a short time the only one, too. In front of me the three pillars of the earth rose sharply from the ground below, the old stone bridge intersected them upon its grand arches, and far beyond a rocky mountain rose out of the mist that had submerged upon the forested park. I felt like I was in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.


Basteibrücke emerges from the mist


By the time I had stopped gawping at the bridge it was ten, and I still had a whole day of hiking ahead of me. I had my sights set on a waterfall that I had read about, so set off in the pursuit of that. Upon the way I came across a path that meandered steeply off to the right, and as I followed with my eyes where it was heading my gut instinct told me that the end was pretty spectacular. Owing to the park’s exceptional signposting of hiking trails, accompanied by the map that I had bought from the train station, I felt comfortable knowing that I would not get lost, so I headed up the path. By this point the day was starting to get hot; in my winter coat sweat was dripping repeatedly from my forehead and my chest and back were soaked through, but I made the steep climb steadily until eventually I faced a problem. The path I was following (and it was a genuine, signposted hikers’ trail) crossed from one towering rock to another. The distance between the two was perhaps a foot in length, but below was a drop of at least ten metres. At this point I felt conflicted emotions. On the one hand, I felt stupid for even hesitating - crossing the gap required no more effort than an ordinary, but well placed, footstep. On the other hand, the path the other side was not entirely even, and the back of my mind was adamant that one slip could result in a broken leg; in short, not for the first time on this trip I was scared. If I had been with another person then I doubt any of this would have even happened, but alone it seemed like a much more daunting decision. I deliberated for a long time whether to make the crossing, and at one point even turned to descend back down the way that I had come, only to ridicule myself and turn around again. Eventually, I made the crossing with ease whilst trying not to look down, and round the very next corner came a clearing in the trees which was utterly breathtaking. As soon as I saw where I had gotten to, every positive feeling I have ever felt about hiking came surging to the top of my mind. My clothes were sodden and my body ached, but the sense of achievement in me was overwhelming. The decision to take that path had brought with it a sense of liberation. I felt like the only person for miles around, the air that I breathed couldn’t have tasted fresher, and my brain slowed down to a fraction of its usual jittery self. I sat on that sandstone haven for what seemed like an age, and while I know that perhaps I shouldn’t use this word so lightly, at that time, and in that place, I felt perfect.


Mile upon mile of Nature:

 

📚Read: Europe - Part 7 📚

📚Head back to: Europe - Part 1 📚

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