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Göerlitz (Germany)

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City: Göerlitz / Country Region: Saxony / Country: Germany / World Region: Europe

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      27.04.2005 19:18
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      Göerlitz (Germany)

      Göerlitz is the main centre of Lower Silesian Upper Lusatia, or, to the less geographically motivated among you, it lies slap-bang on the border between Germany and Poland, just an inch or so north of the border with the Czech Republic (that'll be on a 1:10,000 scale map, of course). In fact, the Polish town of Zgorzelec is but a short stroll across the River Neisse (via the bridge - much drier). These towns were once united.

      This town has a wealth of history, which I'm going to whizz through as fast as cheetah on sulfate.
      The first mention of Görlitz was in 1071, but it wasn't until the 13th century that there was anything resembling a town here. After an initial period of prosperity, mainly because of its strategic position on two trade routes, the town declined after the Thirty years War - I think it supported the wrong side. There then followed a period of very little development before some substantial growth during the 19th century due to industrialization. Surprisingly, considering its location, the town suffered very little damage during WWII, and the town was divided in two when the border between Poland and Germany was redrawn along the River Neisse.
      Since re-unification, a lot of work has been done to restore Görlitz to some of its former glory and it's awaiting approval for its application for the old town to be declared a UNESCO World heritage Site.

      We visited on a Sunday morning which was probably a pretty good time to do so as the roads were quiet and, apart from a few like-minded tourists, we had the place to ourselves. Having said that, as the day wore on, the town became increasingly busier and by lunch time it was quite a detailed enterprise trying to find a table somewhere - chairs you couldn't give away, but tables?...

      Being a Sunday, the more modern, commercial centre of town was deathly quiet (apart from the incessant pealing of church bells), so we quickly found our way to the Obermarkt and parked the car. Most of the shops here seemed to specialize in antiques and a few were open. One of the streets leading off this square is Brüderstrasse, and this is where you'll find the tourist office. It's not a large building, but it has everything you need and the small staff were very helpful and laid-back. Suitably equipped with a nice, 3-D map, we ventured on.

      Brüderstrasse is probably the main shopping street in the old town, although it's not somewhere you'd go for Groceries or a pair of trainers. No - arts-n-crafts, souvenirs, and all manner of weird and wonderful things are on offer along this street. It's definitely aimed at tourists, and the fact that almost every single shop was open testifies to this.

      Perhaps the most photogenic and atmospheric part of the old town is where Brüderstrasse meets Untermarkt. This is where you'll find the Schönhof. This dates from 1526 and is the oldest secular renaissance building in germany, according to the guide books. It's a magnificent specimen of renaissance architecture in vibrant ochre and subdued grey, with an arched arcade on the ground level. It's home to the Silesian museum which features both the Polish and German history of this area.

      On the opposite corner is the Rathaus which occupies several buildings, the oldest dating back to the 13th century. It's another corker of a building in salmon-pink but for me the best part of it has to be the winding staircase. The intricately carved decoration is an absolute treasure and it's not hard to imagine proclamations being declared from the small balcony at the side of the door.

      I could go on forever describing some of the architectural gems that greet you on every corner (don't panic, I won't)- some of the restoration work is magnificent and very sympathetic. Certainly, around the Obermarkt, Brüderstrasse and Untermarkt, and the streets in the immediate surroundings, everything looks clean and fresh and almost as though it was newly built. The various colours of the different buildings only adds to the effect, and as you'd expect from architecture of this period, the embellishments and ornamentation of the facades is spectacular. Add to this the profusion of elaborate sundials on many of the buildings, and there's always something to catch the eye.

      You don't have to go far, however, to find plenty of buildings that haven't yet been brought back to their former splendour. Varying shades of grey, crumbling masonry, and derelict shop-fronts hint at how the town looked during the communist era. I think this actually adds to the character - there's nothing worse than an overly restored town-scape. Göerlitz still feels like a real town and not a movie-set.

      We took a stroll down past the Renthaus, which dates back to the 12th century, and along the banks of the river. It's not exactly manicured parkland, but still provides a pleasant green oasis. What's interesting as you walk along, is to look to the right and see the expertly restored ancient buildings sympathetically mingling with the contemporary apartment blocks - then glance across the river to your left and see the dilapidated state of the town on the Polish side. I suppose the inhabitants have been looking wistfully across to the German side for the last 10 years or so wishing away the time until they could join the EU.
      To be fair, there's quite a bit of reconstruction on the Polish side now - it's just that they've got quite a bit of catching up to do.

      We couldn't very well come this far and not take a Sunday morning stroll into Poland...as you do. Most, if not all, of the bridges were destroyed by the retreating nazis in 1945, but thankfully new ones have been built, and are continuing to be built. Walking across and into Poland couldn't have been easier. Although there are border controls, no-one wanted to see our passports, and rather than the stern, suspicious glares from UK customs, we were ushered through with a smile and a nod. It's a sad state of affairs when moving between Germany and Poland is such a pleasant experience compared to returning to the UK as a British citizen when you are quite often subjected to all sorts of ridiculous interrogation.

      Unfortunately, being Sunday, Zgorzelec was closed for the day. Maybe it's generally like a ghost town, but I couldn't help thinking that they were missing an opportunity. By the time we crossed over, there were literally throngs of tourists doing the same thing. Fat wallets bulging with euros, traveller's cheques and plastic, there was nothing to spend your cash on. OK, not strictly true. There were a couple of grocery stores open and a video rental shop or two, but that was it. No cafes, no bars, no restaurants. Oh well.
      Zgorzelec was like a different world. Granted, it had its own charm - in a run-down, post-industrial, washed-out fashion, but it was nowhere near as pretty as Göerlitz...it wasn't much prettier than Airdrie! It had more of an industrial, work-a-day town compared to its neighbour.

      Still, it was an experience, and since there was nowhere to spend any money, a very inexpensive one.

      Back to Germany...

      We returned to the Untermarkt for some lunch and, although there are a multitude of bars, cafes and restaurants (you're not in Poland now), they are quite low-key. in Göerlitz the town squares aren't completely given over to pavement cafes.
      Anyway, we eventually settled for a bite to eat at a place that occupied the building of the former town pharmacy. The Ratsapotheke is still adorned in the style of a 16th century dispensary (albeit one with hordes of people happily munching away). Very nice it was too.

      A point of interest next door to the Ratsapotheke is the Flüsterbogen (Whisperin Arch). This is a portal from the 15th century that is characterized by strange acoustics...hence the name. It really is quite surreal. Nowadays this houses a courtyard of craft shops and cafes.

      Suitably fed and watered, we finished our time in Göerlitz and headed back to our hotel. Of course, we didn't head straight back. Oh no. We went via the Czech Republic...as you do.
      But that's another story...



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