30 August 2007
*SIGH* 10,040 km later we find ourselves once again where we started from, and this time it’s sad to say that Freda’s odometer will not be ticking forward for us anymore. We are almost finished our European leg of our journey; we have a plane to catch on Monday to Greece where we have two weeks to wander. The next couple of days will be spent clearing Freda out and giving her a good cleaning, then putting ‘er up for sale.
On to some good news…we got our Russian visas! It was a bit up in the air as the process is pretty tricky – most people use an agent for this – but we managed to secure them ourselves so the plan is still intact. Now we have to deal with getting our China and Mongolia visas.
As for how we’ve kept ourselves busy for the last couple of weeks in the van…we headed north into what was formerly East Germany. Our first bit of exploring was in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region, a mountainous area rich in ore, hence the name. Most of the towns here were established by mining and the region does a good job of keeping its traditions and heritage alive. We stopped in Schneeberg, Yvonne’s childhood hometown, which we also visited last year. We took our time a little more and actually visited the museum that showed off some old mining artifacts and several miniature models of varying scenes: down in the mines, a town parade, nativity scenes. Many of these were also mechanical and when turned on they lit up while trains and horse carriages moved across the scene, miners struck the earth with their pick axes, a nosy old man stuck his head out a house window.
The tiny town of Seiffen was up next; it was their crafting of wooden toys that put them on the world map. When their mines dried up lots of miners turned to wood crafting to make a buck, so they have a rich history in toy making, going back some 300 years. We also visited their museum here which displayed all sorts of fantastic things, the stuff that childhood (and collectors’) dreams are made of – pyramides, smoking men, nutcrackers, games, winter scenes, music boxes – if you came to our place over Christmas you would have seen some samples. It is obvious in the details and the craftiness that they really poured a lot into their handmade toys. There are tons of shops here selling genuine goods, in fact, that’s all they sell here. We also spent some time perusing and buying some items to add to our collection.
Then it was on to Meissen, a town known for the world famous “Meissen porcelain” (or, “Dresden china”) which they have been producing for around 300 years. Just like when they started, everything is still hand-crafted, right down to the little symbol (crossed swords) that goes on the bottom to mark its authenticity. We checked out the museum and were given a tour on how they do it, then had access to view thousands of items behind glass cases. Very impressive – and expensive, to say the least!
Our main destination on this little tour in eastern Germany was Dresden (where we used our valuable Starwood points to book a hotel for two nights – a nice break from camping!) which we loved. We both agreed that this place is one of our favourite cities in Germany (I said it was my fav, better than Berlin, but Yvonne thinks otherwise). It’s a diverse city, with a beautiful historic old town full of Baroque buildings and churches (built of sandstone which is now blackened by pollution, giving it a unique and ancient look) and the Elbe River cutting the city in half. Not only did the citizens of Dresden have to deal with the entire city being leveled by a saturation bombing by the Americans and British in 1945, but just five years ago the Elbe flooded and ruined the town once again – but they fully recovered.
Other than wandering the streets, eating sausages and drinking beer, we also took time to go to a DDR museum which chronicled East German times in the era 1949-89. For Yvonne, who grew up in East Germany during part of this time, it was a walk down memory lane. Although it didn’t mean anything personal to me, it was still very interesting to see how behind the times they were under Communist rule. We also wandered around in the “real” Dresden, or at least that was our impression of it. On the other side of the river from the old town, and behind the “new town” are streets on which not many tourists venture. Some of them reminded us of Main Street in Vancouver, full of trendy coffee shops, pipe-smoking houses, and bars giving off the faint sounds of house music.
The last couple of days with Freda were spent in the Swiss Saxony region, near the border of the Czech Republic. We found out it was given this name by two Swiss art students in the 1700s who explored the area and remarked how much it looked like home. We spent two days hiking in the vast forests and looking at the very strange and unique rock formations. All over the place are these massive gray-black sandstone rocks that jut out of the earth through the trees, like zombie hands bursting through a grave. The National Park has done such a great job with the network of trails; every path so well-maintained and clearly marked it’s impossible to get lost (we had no compass or map). They made a lot of the terrain accessible to the average hiker, whereas otherwise access would be the privilege of only experienced rock climbers.
To accomplish this they used a myriad of devices to help us along: wooden planks, metal rails, twelve inch wide steps that climbed through miniature gaps in the rocks, steep steel ladders, and winding staircases. It was like a massive obstacle course, the only things missing were the rope swings and monkey bars! It was the most bizarre hiking we’ve ever done. Near Kurort Rathen (another pretty river-side town) we visited the Bastei, a huge formation of these alien-looking rocks, high atop the village. Back in the medieval ages, a fortress was built into the rocks. You had to use your imagination a bit since no more actual buildings are up, but the rock formations show where things used to be (and a model replication also helped!).
The people and scenery in “East Germany” are noticably different than in the west. For one thing, they don’t seem to have embraced fashion as much – socks and sandals are a popular choice, as is daisy dukes and no shirt for middle-aged men! Yuck. But that aside, they seemed to be happier and friendlier (those with jobs at least – unemployment is still rife) and the food is much cheaper (and usually better). There doesn’t seem to be a sense that they are exploiting the tourists as much as in the west. Even in high-touristed areas, prices are almost the same as places off the beaten track, and the quality is great. Go to the tourists traps in other big European cities and you pay through the nose for a meal that tastes like it came out of a box. Of course, it must be said that they are less than twenty years removed from Communism, so who knows what it will be like in another decade.