This past weekend, we explored Germany a bit more. This time, we stayed closer to our home in Hamburg by exploring the Lüneburger Heide. This is a very flat area south of Hamburg with lots of farms, forests, and heath. The Heide is known as a great place for hiking and biking, but we stayed in a car this time, seeing much of its history and several of its cute towns.
Our first stop, and largely the inspiration for renting a car and seeing the Heide, was the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen. I went to Auschwitz in 1997, and I was expecting something similar. However, the actual grounds of the camp are very different than at Auschwitz. At Auschwitz, many of the original brick buildings and some of the original wooden barracks are still standing, and they generally maintained the grounds and the fences. So, there one can really get a feeling of what the camp looked like. At Bergen-Belsen, they burned and demolished all the buildings shortly after the war to prevent disease, and then they let nature take back over. So, for much of the grounds, it feels no different than walking through forest with 60 years of growth. While the 23-minute film showed horrific images and video taken by the liberating Brits, the grounds themselves convey the message much less.
Of course, parts of the grounds are powerful, with memorials to Jewish, Polish, Soviet, and other victims, and with large mounds marked with signs saying “5000 people rest here.” Also, there’s an ongoing effort that has school groups excavate some of the ruins of the barracks, reclaiming the memorial from the forest. Additionally, they have started a new information center/museum, so I expect that a trip to Bergen-Belsen in a few years would convey the horror more completely than a trip does today.
After Bergen-Belsen, the rest of the weekend had much less emotional heft.
Our next stop was the town of Celle. Celle is an old ducal seat with a nice castle and lots of cute half-timbered houses. Many of the houses have inspirational messages painted on them, like “Work! No chatting, talking, or gossiping!” or “With Gentle Hands, God Giveth and God Taketh Away.” The most memorable part of the city was probably my dinner: the local specialty Roher Roulade, a half-pound of thinly-cut raw beef rolled with mustard and onions. It was tasty, but I smelled of onions until the next morning.
The next morning, we decided to hit a bunch of small towns in the area on the way back to Hamburg. First up was Gifhorn. We knew nothing about Gifhorn except a free tourist map had suggested it. Nothing seemed unusual as we approached the city, driving through asparagus farms. However, we turned a corner and were visually assaulted with a collection of international windmills and an authentic wooden Russian Orthodox church. We were very confused. We got out of the car and walked around the windmills, trying to figure out how to get to them and why they were there. Finally, we figured it out: Gifhorn is home to the International Wind- and Watermill Museum. Why such an open-air museum also housed a Russian Orthodox church, we never figured out. We decided we had spent enough time completely walking around the museum, so we didn’t bother to pay the 7€ apiece, and we continued on.
Next, we went to Uelzen. There wasn’t much worth visiting there except for the train station. Apparently, they let the Austrian architect Hundertwasser completely redecorate the train station, and he did his typical crazy job with it. Every straight line was turned into a curve. Red brick was replaced with colored tile. Columns were changed into colorful flowerpots. Essentially, it looks like a train station designed by Dr. Seuss, with environmentally friendly touches here and there. Fun, but silly.
After Uelzen, we decided to see how East German cities compare to what we’d already seen. We weren’t far from the border, so we went to Salzwedel. By all rights, Salzwedel shouldn’t be that different from Celle (or Lüneburg, which I’ll describe later), but the influence of Communism was pervasive. Both cities have brick German Gothic churches, but Lüneburg’s is well-maintained and Salzwedel’s needs millions of Euros to renovate. Both cities have many cute half-timbered houses, but Salzwedel’s are dingy, sometimes falling apart, and in need of paint. If the border had been placed fifteen miles differently, Salzwedel today would have a thriving tourism trade. Because of the fifty years of economic stagnation, it instead has a long way to catch up.
In its favor, it does have Baumkuchen (tree cakes), perhaps the tastiest pastries I’ve had in Germany.
Finally, we headed to Lüneburg, the capital of the region. Lüneburg is another impossibly-cute old Hanseatic city with half-timbered houses, an impressive town hall, and lots of restaurants. One of the most interesting aspects of the town is how many of the buildings are tipping over. There are old salt mines under the city, and enough salt was mined that some blocks have sunk several feet over the centuries. In some cases, the front of the top floor of one building will be a few feet behind its neighbor. It’s a strange effect. Unfortunately, none of our pictures showing the tilting buildings really turned out.
So, it was a busy weekend seeing some of the nearby cities. We had scary dinners and tasty treats. We saw reminders of the glory of the Hanseatic days and reminders of the economic waste of Communism. We saw beautiful churches and the horrors of the Holocaust. All of that in less than a tank of gas. Europe is amazing.