Thursday, September 27, 2007

Logbook: Emden, Germany

Emden1My train ride on Tuesday was about as easy as it gets: A couple of hours out of Amsterdam we made a brief stop at the German border town of Bad Bentheim and took on a German immigration team whom I never saw onboard. A little later we stopped at a junction town called Rheine where I made a fast and easy connection to a train which dropped me off in the lovely little port city of Emden two hours later. An easy, flat, ten minute walk later, I checked into the "perfect" -- small, clean, quiet and inexpensive -- hotel where I had made previous arrangements. After dumping my gear, I took a very brief stroll around the town square, got a cup of coffee and started reminding myself of the little bit of German I know. In "just another day on The Voyage" I had traveled from the big, noisy, busy, multi-lingual capital of the Netherlands to a small, quiet, peaceful, pretty-much-Deutsch-only seaside town of northern Germany. I have to admit I was pretty happy about it because I instantly liked Emden -- my Mom was right! -- and sensed it would be a nice place to hang out for a couple of days. I felt myself decompressing, so I had an early dinner and called it a day.

The weather on Wednesday was dark, cold and rainy. Although I was eager to explore Emden, I was quite happy to stay in my little room most of the day. I made a few forays out for coffee, meals and chores -- including getting my onward train ticket at the station -- but mostly it was a good day to catch up with myself, spend some time online and generally take it easy. Yesterday was a beautiful day and I really made a lot out of it. After breakfast -- which, in these parts, consists of bread, meat and cheese -- I found a town map and started out on my own, impromptu, self-guided walking tour. While Emden hasn't got a lot in "tourist" terms, what it has is very, very interesting.

Emden2The most important thing to keep in mind about Emden is that it was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII. Situated on the North Sea coast, Emden was an important port city located directly on the flight path from England to pretty much anywhere in Germany. Thus, it was both a "target of first opportunity" for Allied bombers on their way over and a "target of last chance" on their way back. During the war, Emden was actually bombed a total of almost a hundred times -- an average of twice a month and sometimes as often as twice a week. As a result of this total destruction, practically everything in the city has been built in the past sixty year, giving it a very "modern" feeling for a European city. The mostly brick and mortar "modern" aspects aren't all that interesting, but there are a number of "old" or "mixed" period structures that are fascinating.

Emden3One of the most amazing is the almost completely destroyed old church -- visible far-right, middle distance in the photo above -- that has been rebuilt into a library. Saving and using what they could of the original, bomb-damaged walls of the church, the structure was built up with new brick and given a new roof. As you can see in the photo to the right, the difference between old and new is not overly obvious or emphasized, but once you realize what had been done you start seeing how extraordinary it is. Around the back of the building, a modern steel and glass addition has been well integrated into the "church" part. The inside is simply stunning with several floors of book shelves surrounding a central lobby that is open all the way up to the massive wood-beamed roof. The net result is one of the most interesting buildings I have ever seen.

Emden4Prominently visible in the B&W photo above -- behind the church -- is an intact, cube shaped structure that now houses one of Emden's most rewarding sites: The Bunker Museum. To protect the citizens of Emden from bombing, a total of 35 large, heavily reinforced concrete air-raid bunkers were built, some of which could hold over a thousand people. I mentioned above that Emden was "actually" bombed almost a hundred times, and here I will add that due to its location -- with virtually every bombing operation flying overhead -- the city endured more than a thousand air-raid alerts. That averages five times per week -- with a high of five per day -- that citizens had to leave their homes and workplaces to enter the bunkers for hours, sometimes days, at a time. The museum offers an excellent video that shows Emden's war experience as well as many rooms full of all kinds of displays that describe various aspects of the war, politics, civil experience and life in the bunkers. I spent an excellent two hours there and would happily go back some time. (Note: Of the 35 original bunkers, 32 are claimed to still be standing today. A few of them are still obvious like the one you see here, but most of them have been converted into storage facilities, rock band practice rooms, commercial buildings and condos. They have been modified or camouflaged in such a way as to make them less obvious and in some cases very difficult to spot. I will include photos of some of them that I was able to find in the Photo Log.)

Other noteworthy sites in Emden include an authentic lighthouse ship, a unique 4-gate lock where two canals intersect, a park/path complex that follows the layout of the city's ancient ramparts plus various museums, memorials, cemeteries and the like. Nearby there is also a large VW automobile assembly plant, indicative of the regions major economic activity. I had an excellent day tour and could easily see myself spending more time in that lovely little city at some point in the future. For now, it is onward and upward on The Voyage as I take the train to Copenhagen for a couple of days on my way further north!

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