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Beyond Berlin- Wörlitzerpark, Oranienbaum, Dessau and Tropical Islands

More Beyond the Blue Book reports to share, this time from the much-less visited Bundesländer of Brandenburg and Sachsen-Anhalt. I spent the weekend in Berlin and had the opportunity to check out some of these other locations. Berlin gets covered well enough elsewhere, and this wasn't my first time in the city, so I won't go to deeply into it. It was my first time driving a car into town, though, and for such a large metropolis, I was surprised how easy it was to drive through.

For a first stop after Berlin, I decided to check out one of Europe's largest indoor waterparks, the gigantic Tropical Islands resort. The complex sits on an old Soviet airbase, inside what was designed to be an airship hangar. The company that built the structure went bankrupts, leaving the state of Brandenburg with this huge giant white elephant isolated in the middle of the vast but sparsely populated Spreewald. How to use a giant airship hangar could probably hold the Lousiana Superdome several times over? Build a water park, of course! Hence, Tropical Islands. It contains two large lagoons, each with an artificial beach, an indoor rainforest, at least 3 restaurants, several bars, shops, a couple of waterslides, a large kiddie area, and a Textilfrei sauna area for mommy and daddy (and more mature kids). You can stay in the adjacent hotel, or in one of the themed lodges inside the dome (we chose the quieter hotel). I wouldn't be surprised at all if some Disney Imagineers had a hand in designing this place. It really reminded me of Adventureland from Disney World, and showed a similar level of decorative detail.

I enjoyed my stay. The sauna area was a little smaller than I was expecting (compared to, for example, Therme Erding's huge sauna and thermal bath area). The food was surprisingly good, and this is the only time in my life where I can probably say I had to defend my breakfast against a peacock. Probably a great getaway for families with kids. If you're traveling as a family between Berlin and Dresden, it might make a good stopover. I can't imagine it's easy to reach without a car, though, because it really is in the middle of nowhere, as you might expect for a former Soviet air base. (cont.)

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Onto the Dessau region. I'm fascinated by all the various little independent principalities that once covered Germany and their various capitals. I find it amazing that even the smallest and most insignificant insisted on building elaborate palaces and adorning their capitals with all sort of royal splendour out of proportion to their size or influence. So, I took the opportunity to check out Dessau and it's environs, being the capital of the old Duchy of Anhalt (now amalgamated with territory from the former Prussian province of Saxony into Sachsen-Anhalt).

First Wörlitzer Park, a UNESCO World Heiritage site. The park sits on the edge of the small but very attractive village of Wörlitz, just outside of Dessau. I forget exactly which ruler or Anhalt commissioned it, but it was meant to be the first English-style garden in the German-speaking world, in contrast to the dominant French and Italian styles of the time. It consists of a series of paths that surround several lakes and canals, with various fanciful structures placed throughout. Such as, an artificial volcano, various Greek-style temples, man-made caves, a small neoclassical Schloss, an interesting neo-Gothic church from before the style became prominant, a falconry shaped like a castle, and various other structures. I would describe it as kind of like a larger neoclassical version of Tom Sawyer's Island from Disney World. Meaning, there's something to explore and discover around almost every corner. As you would expect for a village that ended up hosting a country retreat for the ruling Duke, the village of Wörlitz is also worth of quick look. As typical of a well-known tourist attraction (for Germany, at least), there are no lack of establishments to provide you with a meal, beer or ice cream. I had a delicious smoked trout in dill sauce for lunch, which I was told is a local specialty (even though I'ved had smoked trout elsewhere in Germany). For a beautiful day in June, I was far from the only visitor, but the park was anything but crowed. So, lest the thread entitled "Can popular sights survive the endlessly increasing number of travellers..." convince you that all of Europe is drowning in shoulder-to-shoulder tourists, rest assured that you can find plenty of worthy stop-overs between that aren't (yet) mobbed.

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In my research of the area, I thought Schloss Oranienbaum was connected to Wörlitzerpark, but it's actually in a separate village a few kilometers away. It was also built as some kind of country retreat for some member of the royal house of Anhalt, but I forget the details. This Schloss also contains a smaller garden, and as the name implies, an Orangery (special building aristocrats to grow citrus fruits). And as always happens when royalty decides to build a palace nearby, the adjacent village benefits from the building boom. Overall, though, Oranienbaum isn't as well maintained as Wörlitz. I guess the old DDR could only afford the upkeep of one Anhalt-associated royal park. Many of the buildings could use a new coat of paint, and some formerly grand structures in the village were kind of delapidated.

The Dessau region has sevearl more features I wanted to check out, including yet more royal Schloss-and-garden complexes (how many did the rulers of a small duchy need?), a UNESCO biosphere, a zoo built around a neoclassical mausoleum and the original Bauhaus school of Walter Gropious, but I didn't have the time. A brief foray into Dessau would have to suffice. The big question... was the city hard hit during the war or was it relatively spared? This is a very important question, because in the west, they usually made a pretty good attempt to restore at least some sense of the former glory of their various royal capitals, whereas the communists only rebuilt stuff if it meant they could shake down foreign tourists for hard currency. Alas, restoring Dessau to it's former duccal splendour was not a priority of the DDR. Most of the city is unadorned Plattenbau. A very clean city, yes (moreso than Berlin), but only a handful of prominent historical buildings remain.

My advice- the city of Dessau is skippable, but if you're headed between Berlin and Bavaria (or Berlin and Leipzig), Wörlitzerpark merits a few hours of your time.

Finally, a traffic report. For the second time in the past few weeks, I've been stuck in a horrendous stau along A9 near Leipzig. The problem only occurs in the southbound direction, where road construction reduces traffic from three lanes to one in a few hundred meters. If you're planning on driving in this direction this summer, you may want to consider a long detour from Delitzsch to Bitterfeld to the Leipzig-Halle airport. What should have taken about 30 minutes to drive lasted nearly 3 hours.

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One final observation about Berlin. On this visit, I made a more concerted attempt to compare the former west and east German enclaves of the city. Even 25 years after the workers' paradise created by the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands collapsed, the difference between the two sides is still palpable. For example, I took a walk down Stalinst Karl Marx Allee in the early afternoon. This broad boulevard, meant to showcase the glories of government central planning, felt oddly dead, even in the middle of the day. Many of the shop spaces were vacant, and foot traffic was minimal. Most of the few eateries I encountered were branches of various national chains. Although some of the Plattenbauten on the side streets seem to have been refurbished and "cheered up" as much as you can with these generally soulless monstrosities, a few looked derelict and abandonned. Now, contrast that with the area around Kürfurstdamm in west Berlin. Heavy foot traffic. Every available business space appears to be filled. Housing units dating from the German Empire period to modern times. The restaurant chains are there, but so were plenty of independent establishments. In short, vitality!, versus the sleepier feel of Karl-Marx-Allee. Modern Germany in a nutshell? Perhaps.

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Thanks for the great report, Tom.

((I thought you might say that the park had a theatre organ in it)) before I read the piece and jokes aside I'm glad I did.

Never had a sauna in a soviet hanger before. One for the list...

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12040 posts

To be completely accurate, the hangar was built by a private company after the Soviets left. So the sauna experience was not like sitting in a concrete gulag. More like Disney's Jungle Cruise.

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12887 posts

Totally agree with your assessement that 25 years after the Wende or, if one prefers nach der Wiedervereinigung, in Berlin one can sense a distinct feel in both former sections of the city. That feel is clear and unmistakeable. True, that in the east are areas also teeming with people and traffic. I was there at the end of April, went to Berlin Alexanderplatz one day for the purpose of having lunch, hadn't seen that place in four years. Surprisingy, Alexanderplatz was packed, people everywhere, esp young people. True, in the west Kurfürstendamm and that area along with Kantstrasse, Budapesterstrasse, Hardenbergstrasse are also very busy, teeming with tourists too. Cross over the east Friedrichstrasse is also crowded, from Unter den Linden to Check-point Charlie.

Re: overrun with shoulder to shoulder tourists. Not by a long shot in Germany, esp by Americans. Lots of places in Germany in the north, east and center are just the destination of German tourists. You see that in tour groups on foot made up of Germans with the tour conducted in German. If there happens to be foreign tourists around, the chances are they are going to be Russian.

Yes, Sachsen-Anhalt is interesting. A good report, as always.