Norm and Ruth Schmidt
A travelogue of our drive through ancestral
a riverboat cruise up the Elbe River from Berlin to Prague
June 11 to July 2, 2001
Part 1 - The planning and the drive
My wife and I have been doing genealogy research for over ten years. All our ancestors came from various areas throughout Germany. “You know,” we said, “we can fly to Germany and visit all those towns and areas our ancestors came from. We can rent a car and drive. Our time will be our own. We can come and go, as we want. Stop where we want. Stay as long as we want.” And so, our planning began. This meant driving though most of Germany. From the southwestern area around Lörrach, to the areas around Stuttgart, to the far eastern parts near Zittau, and to the northeastern areas of Rostock. “That’s a lot of driving,” we were told, “and you don’t even speak German.” We were also told that the Germans in the former East Germany aren’t all that friendly and certainly don’t speak English, Russian maybe, but not English. With that kind of “encouragement” we began to plan in earnest.
Then in a travel brochure, we saw a riverboat cruise from Berlin to Prague up the Elbe River. This would go through eastern Germany, stopping at Wittenberg, where Luther started the Reformation. We had to take that. Of course this now meant the ‘visit’ would be extended to three weeks.
Time to go see Judy Rogers at Falmouth Travel. “No problem,” said Judy. “You figure out where you want to drive, I’ll find you the air and the car rental, and away you go.” Minor problem. We wanted to fly into Stuttgart, rent the car there and drop the car off in Berlin, meet the cruise ship there and fly back from Prague. Again, Judy says, “No problem.” Within days the arrangements were made and I began to consult the internet trying to come up with an itinerary for our driving around Germany. www.mapQuest.com is wonderful! Not only does it give you the roads to take, but also how much time it will take, and how many miles it is. Driving from one town to another worked out almost exactly as MapQuest showed.
While “surfing the net” I checked out an AOL (America Online) German website trying to get a “handle” on lodging and restaurants, and asked if anyone knew where the boat we were to go on was to be docked. The only address Uniworld gave for the m.s. Victor Hugo was, “near the foot of the Dischinger Bridge in Spandau.” This I felt was a little vague. I received an answer from a man named Cornelius. He lived about five minutes from the bridge and knew exactly where the boat would be docked. Not only that, but he would be willing to show us around Berlin! After several e-mails back and forth between Cornelius and me, it was decided that we would meet a day early and he would show us around The City. Believe me, I checked Cornelius out before agreeing to meet with him. (More about Cornelius later.) Also over the internet, I typed in the name of a German town we thought we would visit, (such as: www.stuttgart.de) checked out their homepage and asked for tourist information to be mailed to us. We received several packets from various towns and cities. Most were in German but a few were in English as well. Now the planning and the arrangements were basically complete.
On June 11th we flew to Stuttgart via British
Airways, with a stopover in Heathrow, arriving in Stuttgart around noon Tuesday. We did our rental through Avis
and ended up with a VW Golf stationwagon, even though we had reserved an Opel Astra. The upgrade was appreciated
and the VW was a very pleasant car to drive.
From Stuttgart we drove down through the Black Forest, staying overnight in Schönau.
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Driving along the winding roads through the forest was beautiful. The next day we drove on and visited the areas around Lörrach, located on the Swiss/French/German borders. This is the area Ruth’s side of the family comes from, the Schindlers. Finding the small towns of Steinen and Rötteln were fairly easy.
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Finding Tumringen was a bit more difficult. We got lost in Lörrach and ended up turning around just over the border in Switzerland. With luck, and directions from a man we stopped, we were within a couple of streets of the old section of Tumringen.
Leaving the Lörrach area, we drove to Lahr and had a delightful visit with the Junker family. We had met them on another of our vacations on the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec. They were the perfect hosts. Not only did they wine and dine and put us up for the night, but drove us to the 900-year old town of Gengenbach. A very beautiful old German walled city. A big “Thank you” goes to Gerhard, Angelika, and their daughter Katrin.
The following day we headed for the little towns near Vaihingen, not too far from Stuttgart. Towns such as: Sersheim, Horrheim, Hohenhaslach
and Kleinglattbach. It was Kleinglattbach where both our great grandfathers had come from, and where my great grandfather Jacob Baumeister helped remodel the little church there.
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It was at that church, while we were looking around, that a typical “little old lady” came with the key to the church and invited us inside. “Herein! Herein!” she kept saying. Not only inside, but up into the belfry to help wind the bell-ringing mechanism used to ring the bell on the hour. What a delightful surprise! And, the poor woman was so upset because she could not speak or understand English. She could only understand that our “Gross Vaters” came from that town and worshipped in that church.
There were tears in her eyes when we left.
From the Vaihingen area we drove all the way up to Vacha and Oberzella, former East German towns in Thüringen, southwest of Einsingen. Nearby we visited “Point Alpha” a military observation area with a tower that overlooked the East German border. Today it is a museum, but the “no mans” land can still be seen.
In Vacha we stopped at the Rathaus and at the information counter asked directions to Oberzella and Gospenroda. English was not their second language, but they did their best and showed us on maps how to get to where we wanted to go. Oberzella was easy to find, but Gospenroda ... after a couple of tries and traveling on some very back roads, asking directions from friendly people who knew no English, we finally found the little town out in the middle of nowhere.
From there we made our way, detouring around road repair, to Duderstadt, just east of Göttingen, a beautiful old city with many half-timbered buildings.
After finding a “Zimmer” for the night, we drove to Westeroda (really now part of Duderstadt) and then returned to the center of Duderstadt and had huge ice cream sundaes for our “dinner.”
Later we had a beer and wine at the “Bitburger Ratskeller” (Hogan’s Heroes fame?). We were amazed that by 7 p.m. the city center was all but deserted in a tourist town like this.
The next morning after the usual German breakfast of wurst, cheese, a boiled egg, bread, with a big slab of butter, and coffee, we passed back through Westeroda on our way to Eisenach. Again the sky was cloudy and we encountered a few light showers along the way. Just as we reached the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, we had a very hard thunderstorm, causing us to wait in our car in the parking lot for about 45 minutes. When the rain had stopped we began our climb up to the castle. Climb, climb, climb.
At the top was a small restaurant where we indulged in plum and apple Küchen. The tour guide in the castle was excellent and the castle is magnificent. We learned there were many years of neglect and a lot of restoration at different periods of time thoughout its history, and it would have been one of the last places the Pope would look for Luther. We got to see Luther’s little room where he spent much time translating the New Testament into everyday German.
Must admit, it was much easier going back down from the castle than climbing up. From there we drove into Eisenach and toured “Luther House” which today is also a museum for the arts. That evening we found a “Zimmer Frei” in Gämstadt, between Eisenach and Erfurt, 70 DM ($35) including breakfast.
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For supper we drove just around the corner to an “Eis Cafe” and had “Toast Hawaii”; bacon (ham) and cheese between two slices of toast with a slice of pineapple with melted cheese on top. We washed it down with a beer.
The next morning, Sunday, we drove into Erfurt and first visited the “Dom” and “Severi Kirche”, two huge cathedrals side by side. We went inside the Dom that had a service in progress, but stayed only briefly. Both cathedrals were full to overflowing. Driving in Erfurt was the worst. Construction and road repairs and one-way streets everywhere. I even drove the wrong way on a one-way street. We managed to find the Augustiner church and monastery where Luther once studied, but could not find a place to park. Although we had scheduled a full day for sightseeing in Erfurt, the congestion, traffic and the threat of showers were just too much. We drove out and once again found the autobahn.
Along the way, and since we had the time, we did a bit of backtracking and drove to Buchenwald, where over 56,000 people died from torture or starvation by the Nazis. Our arrival was greeted by light rain. We ducked into a small cafeteria on the grounds and had a salad and dessert, while waiting for the rain to let up. When it did, we found that to see the former concentration camp would require a lot of walking, something we were not anxious to do after climbing around Wartburg the day before. In reality, there isn’t very much to be seen or learned at the camp. Much had been destroyed and only a small fraction of the camp is viewable. There is a museum on the road in, but it appeared to be closed. We believe it’s something the Germans are not wanting to become a big tourist attraction.
As we continued on the autobahn towards Dresden we ran into a torrential downpour. The rain was so heavy that even on the autobahn nearly all the traffic stayed in the right lane and drove about 60 kph (40 mph). For the autobahn that’s SLOW! We did come upon an accident, probably caused by someone coming on to the highway and not realizing how wet the road surface was, hydroplaned into other cars. It looked to be 6 or 7 cars involved and it had just happened moments before we arrived. Overall I thought the German drivers were very good. It was along this area that we first notice groups of large three-bladed windmills. Sometimes as many as nine together. We learned later that in the eastern sections of Germany, they produce about 5% of the electricity.
We skirted Dresden and drove south toward “Sächsische Schweiz”, the Saxon Switzerland National Park. We found a Gasthof at a little out-of-the-way place, a town named Wachau. Our room was on the third floor, but it had a restaurant on the premises, which was good, since it was raining, and who knows where another restaurant might be.
The following morning after breakfast, we drove into the “Sächsische Schweiz”. The weather was not too good. A mix of clouds, light rain and some occasional sunshine. We knew we would be back here, as it was part of the riverboat land tour that we would be taking the following week. We crossed over the Elbe River and stopped at Bad Schandau, then drove around on some secondary roads, quite near the Czech boarder. At Oppach we saw the first road sign for Zittau.
Zittau is a small city, its importance being that it’s located right at the borders of Germany, Poland, and The Czech Republic.
Since the Schmidt family originally came from a little village just 2 or 3 miles east, we would have loved to see the area. Today, the area where the town of Giessmannsdorf once stood, is slowly filling with water, as it was located where there is an exhausted open-pit coal mine. The border was as close as we could get.
Unfortunately, Avis does not allow their rental cars to go into any East European country, which includes Poland and the Czech Republic. We drove all around Zittau trying to find a hill from which we could take a picture looking over the border. No such luck. We did get to a walking path through an unguarded border crossing and I was tempted to walk a ways. The little town of Ullersdorf , now named Oldrichov, CR (where my great grandmother came from) and Oberullersdorf, now renamed Kopaczow, in Poland, where they where married, should still be there, and they should have been just around the corner on the walking path. We met some hikers who said, “Go ahead, no one will stop you,” but I “chickened out”. Besides Ruth would have had to wait in the car, as she couldn’t walk that far. From Zittau we drove north along the Neisse River, the border between Germany and Poland. At about Hirschfelde we could see the huge Turów Power Plant across the river in Poland.
It was the coal mines that fueled this plant. As we drove further it started to rain again and that night we stopped in or near Niesky, where we found a nice Gasthof. We had dinner at their charming restaurant. Norm having Sauerbraten, red cabbage and Kartoffel Kläse. Ruth settled for a bowl of cream of broccoli soup and a “Klein” salad. We shared an apple Kuchen. The bill for the room, dinner and breakfast came to 88 DM ($44).
The next morning, Tuesday, June 19th, we headed for Rostock, a city on the northwest coast of Germany. The weather was gray and chilly. We’d seen a lot of cloudy, and showery weather since we left Lahr. At Cottbus we left the highway and drove through the city. Very interesting architecture and it’s a good-sized city. It even had both a McDonald’s and a Burger King. By late morning we were on the autobahn ring around Berlin. We were expecting a lot of traffic, but it was surprisingly light. Somewhere on the autobahn around Berlin we stopped for gas and a light snack. We estimate that gas in Germany cost a little less than $4.00 a gallon. At this gas station/rest stop we used the German version of an ATM and got some German Marks. As we left the station and headed north the weather seemed to be improving.
At Güstrow we left the autobahn on Rt. 104 and headed for the town of Warin.
It turned out to be a bustling little place on the Grosser Wariner See (large Wariner lake) with a lot of road repair and building restoration. (Where in Eastern Germany isn’t this true?) Many of the streets are cobblestone. Which made driving a bit bumpy. The large old “Kirchengemeinde” (Evangelish-Lutheran church) originally built in 1233 was just such a restoration project. It very much needed it.
The neglect of churches by the GDR for the last forty years was very evident throughout eastern Germany. That evening we stayed at the Pension & Restaurant “PIC”. Our total bill for the room, dinner and breakfast came to 162 DM ($81).
In the morning we headed north using a secondary road toward the town of Wismar. Again, along the way we saw many modern windmills, sometimes as many as a dozen in one area, and fields of poppies. Just outside Wismar we spotted a Wal-Mart Supercenter. It was the first we had seen anywhere in Germany. BeforeWismar we picked up Rt. 105 towards Rostock, stopping at the little town of Kröpelin. The most dominant scenic feature seemed to be a “Dutch” windmill on a hill overlooking the town.
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On the outskirts of Rostock, we left Rt. 105 and drove towards Warnemünde, an old fishing, ferry port, and tourist town. We drove around the wharf area three times on one-way streets before we found a parking place. As elsewhere in Germany, we needed a parking ticket, obtained from a vending machine at the side of the road, that gets left on the dashboard while you’re gone. The price: 2 DM per hour. We had our lunch at an outdoor cafe facing the canal; “Soljanka” (a type of sausage soup) bread and coffee. We shared an apple strudel. Across the canal was the train station with very quiet running trains pulling in and out regularly. We could only catch a glimpse of one of the large ferryboats leaving behind the buildings and trees as we were having lunch.
We made a wrong turn coming out of Warnemünde and ended up going through an area with many thatched roof houses, past a big “Hydro Plant” and through Bad Doberan with its very rough cobblestone streets and well-kept houses. Once back on Rt. 105 we passed through the city of Rostock and headed for Bad Sülze.
Bad Sülze is a small town and we expected to find a small church. Instead we found a rather large brick one.
At the Rathaus we obtained a map and set off to find the cemetery. The stones looked new, many with “goldleaf” looking engravings, something we found very popular in Germany. There did not seem to be an old section and even when asking people, they either didn’t understand or indicated there was no “old” section. We did find a couple of recent gravestones bearing the name Lewerenz. That night we stayed at the “Carmina Hotel”. A bit more expensive but we had room number 1 right next to the lobby and quite near the restaurant. Room with breakfast came to 120 DM. ($60).
In the morning we drove to Stralsund, which like Rostock is an old Hanseatic harbor town.
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There we saw the St. Nickoli church, built in 1276, and like most historic buildings in eastern Germany, was under reconstruction. It seems everything in Stralsund was under reconstruction. The buildings on the wharf were in sad shape. Maintenance must have been an unknown word to the GDR. We saw another church that had been converted into The Jakobi Theater and it looked like the production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was being presented.
We realized we had gained a day on our originally planned itinerary, so we decided we would go to Rügen, an island on the East Sea. The weather, however, did not look promising, and we did run into occasional showers. Rügen is primarily a farming area with various tourist spots along its coast. When we reached Kap Arkona, what we thought would be “the end” of the island, it turned out to be “The” tourist stop.
We had wondered where all the tour buses we had seen were going. Now we knew. We just turned around and didn’t stay at Kap Arkona very long. At about 4 p.m. we caught the little ferry at Wittower for a 5 minute ride, then headed for Schaprode and found the Pension “Trent” to stay for the night. That night it rained.
The next morning we were not sure what we would do. We were still ahead of our schedule and it was raining. We headed south and stopped at Greifswald which had a charming “Platz’, or town square.
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Later we stopped at a rest area for gas and cold drinks. We saw a lot of poppies along the way. At Neubrandenburg the weather was a mix of drizzle alternating with sunshine. We stopped at a Deutsche Bank to use the ATM only it would not take our debit card. It would only accept their debit card. The woman in the bank assured us that in the city center there would be other banks. Even if we could have found other banks, parking was not to be had. Later we found an ARAL gas station and were able to get cash from the ATM there.
At about Ravensbrück we spotted a sign for a hotel and pulled off the highway. It was a pretty little hotel but the price of 145 DM seemed rather high for a night’s sleep. We drove on and turned off at Gransee and found a Bauernhof Pension.
After we rang the bell out on the fence, the owner came out and showed us the room, and we accepted. Then he went out and opened a large gate so I could park the car within the farmyard. He had horses and chickens, and there may have been other animals out back that we didn’t see. We had dinner and breakfast there.
The following morning we drove into Gransee and tried to buy a telephone card so that we could call Cornelius and let him know we were on our way. After we tried a couple of places, including an electronics store, where they thought we wanted to buy a “handy”, or what we call a cell phone. We gave up and drove on down towards Spandau and Berlin.
At Falkensee, not far from Spandau, we found a Pension. We needed a room for two nights. The only accommodations they could give us were a room on the third floor the first night, and a room on the first floor for the second night. We took their offer.
When we asked the owner about a phone card, he dialed the number on his phone and let me talk to Cornelius.
Thus began the “Berlin, Cornelius, Riverboat
cruise” part of our trip.
Part 2 -Cornelius and Berlin