Witches and Saxons

On Thursday morning I woke up missing New York so hard my stomach hurt. It was snowing on the East Coast, and well above freezing in Berlin, and I caught a photo of Washington Square go by on my newsfeed and turned over and buried my face in my pillow and thought, I gotta do something about this.

“Get out of Berlin,” advised a friend of mine, who moved from NYC to Sweden a few years ago. “Grab a bus out of town and get drunk in Leipzig or Hamburg or Dresden. When you come back home to Berlin, you’ll be surprised how much more home it’ll feel.”

So I bought a Deutsche Bahn ticket to Thale, Saxony-Anhalt, and took off at 6:30 AM on Saturday morning.

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Thale was advertised to me as a fairy-tale setting, the kind of place that the Brothers Grimm had wandered all over. There’s a flat space on the top of the mountain called the Hexentanzplatz where Dark Ages-era pagans had done rituals, and a supposed hoofprint where a princess escaping from a giant jumped her horse over an enormous gorge.

What I didn’t realize – though I should have – was that it’s also a small town in the former German Democratic Republic. So it’s not the equivalent of Salem, Massachusetts so much as the equivalent of an old automobile town in northern Michigan – or a ghost town in eastern California.

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That reads “WE PRODUCE”. This is an abandoned GDR factory – I peered inside a little, but of course all the windows and doors were boarded up. There were a few more by the train tracks, all with smashed windows and broken-down walls, all clearly untouched since the 1980s.

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At about a quarter to noon I started my hike up the mountain, which was really lovely – quite steep, and a little slippery in some places, but mostly just in a way that made it interesting. The trees were mostly oak; I found acorns scattered all over, and moss growing everywhere. It’s exactly the kind of forest you’d find in an illustration of Hansel and Gretel – which makes sense, because of course that story is set in Germany!

The story of this particular mountain is that once the princess Brunhilde was attempting to escape a giant, Prince Bodo, who wanted to marry her against her will. She fled on her white stallion, but he pursued her, and finally she came to the edge of a cliff. Her horse leapt across the cliff and safely reached the other side; Bodo tried to follow, but fell into the gorge below, and gave his name to the river: the Bode. The hoofprint of Brunhilde’s stallion – or so they say – can still be seen on the stone today.

There were some absolutely beautiful views of Thale from the Hexentanzplatz, the flat space at the top of the mountain. The hike hadn’t been very long – a little less than two miles – but steep enough that I was very ready for a tray of pommes frites and a beer.

Hexentanzplatz itself was extremely tourist-trap, so I sat by the big metal statue of the Devil and enjoyed my food. Then I wandered over to see what else there was on the mountaintop, and received a pleasant surprise: a sign pointing me to Sachsenwall, or a Saxon wall.

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The wall is more than 1,500 years old, and made of granite stones. It’s survived the Franks, Charlemagne, innumerable European wars, Naziism, Communism, and the daily wind and weather of a millennium and a half.

I sat on it and ate a sandwich.

Around 3:30, as the temperature steadily dropped and the wind picked up, I decided to head back down to the valley. My train was set to leave at sunset, my phone was out of power, and I had in my backpack a binder full of German homework, a P.G. Wodehouse omnibus, and 10 euro in coins. I decided to wander around town.

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The GDR Museum was closed, which is what I get for being in small-town Germany on a Saturday night. (Monday through Friday? Open until 8. The night before everyone gets up for church in the morning? Closes at 4 PM.) They did have an old East German police bus parked outside it, though, so I took a look.

It was only after this that I started to look more closely at the buildings around me. I was in the residential part of town, now, where people lived and worked and tried to ignore tourists like me, and I started noticing just how small every window looked. How few actual houses there were, and how many large, square brick buildings with one household comprising one or two of those little lit-up windows. That I was, in fact, wandering up and down Karl-Marx-Straße.

I live and go to class in East Berlin, and so I definitely see buildings from that era all around. But reunification with West Berlin meant something very different from reunification with West Germany, and there’s a stark contrast between pushing together one side of Dorotheenstraße with the other, and connecting the people of Thale with the prosperity of Hamburg. The legacy of the GDR is more immediate in Thale, more stark. I started to understand for the first time what people had been telling me when they said Berlin was a bubble.

My train pulled away from Thale at 6:15 and into Berlin at 9:45. I don’t know if Berlin felt more like home, exactly, but it was good to see the signs directing me to the U-Bahn and my dorm, with a hot shower and pasta waiting for me. It was good to take a day for myself, good to get out in nature, and good to – if only for a little while – leave Berlin. And Thale certainly gave me something to think about, in the coming weeks and months.

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