BUGA- The German Garden and Horticulture Show 2011: Koblenz

(Written as a co-column with sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles)

A Cathedral in the midst of flowers and flora

People take pride in gardening, a pastime where they plant whatever they want, make their houses and apartments attractive enough for others to admire and envy, and present their prized product at various competitions at the local, state, and even national level, be it at a local festival or a county or state fair. Gardening provides people with a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, meet new people and be creative, no matter how.

In Germany, this is especially noticeable despite the close quarters residents have to endure. While private property in Germany may be a quarter of the size of that of the US on average and the majority of the population live in apartments and duplexes, the people there treat gardening like it is sacred, and experiment with various plants and vegetation even if they originate from places far away. And when it comes to an event like the German Garden and Horticulture Show (a.k.a. BUGA), people flock there to see the finest plants and vegetation from all over the world.

Founded in 1951, the event takes place every two years and serves as a trio function. The first is to encourage cities and regions to spruce up their land and cityscapes and make it attractive for people visiting or wanting to live there. The second is to provide additional income for the tourism industry and encourage the areas to use it to improve areas for people to see. And lastly, environmentally speaking, it provides people with an opportunity to showcase how the host cities/regions make their landscapes more energy efficient and environmentally safe. An example of how these theories come into practice is the 2007 BUGA in Gera and Ronneburg in eastern Thuringia, where the former lead mine near the latter host town was converted to a large park with lots of vegetation for people to enjoy. The city of Gera reshaped itself from a run-down former Communist town into one that presented a classic example of how history and modernization harmonize with each other with renovated ornamental buildings, former East German buildings being reused for recreational purposes and a revamped infrastructure which featured two new train stations and several new bridges along the White Elster River, including the Textima Suspension Bridge at Hofwiesen Park Park and the Dragon’s Tail Bridge near Ronneburg.

For the city of Koblenz, this year’s BUGA is a special one for the community of over 106,000 inhabitants. Established between 18 and 10 BC,  the city is home to the German Corner (Deutsches Eck), where the Rhein and the Mosel Rivers meet. This is the site where the city center was created by the Teutonic Order in 1218, and the statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. was created in 1897 and reestablished again in 1993 after he was knocked off his horse during World War II.  There is the old town with many churches and buildings dating back to the Renaissance- almost all of which have been restored and are livelier than ever before. The Ehrenbreitstein castle, located on the east end of the Rhein opposite the city provides tourists with awesome views of the city and the deep river valley, known as the main corridor for shipping traffic between the Alps in northern Switzerland and the mouth at the North Sea near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The newly restored castle with its large gardens is one of the largest castles to be seen along the mega-river.  All three of these areas were the venue of the flower and horticultural exhibits with the Ehrenbreitstein and the old town hosting multicultural events held almost every day between April and the weekend of 16 October.  Koblenz is the first city in Rheinland-Palatinate to host the 30th biannual event, even though it is the third largest city in the state behind Trier and Mainz (the state’s capital).

Yet if one is not interested in the large garden display with observation deck at Ehrenbreitstein, the flower garden at Deutsche Eck or some of the culture events occurring in the city center, there is plenty to do and see while in Koblenz. Take for instance the tour of the castles  along the Rhein and Mosel Rivers, for example. One can take a 2-3 hour boat trip to see the likes of the Marksburg and Stolzenfels along the Rhein and the Thurant and Metternich  along the Mosel while at the same time, enjoy a typical Rheinland-Palatinate meal and a Königsberger beer, locally brewed at the company just outside the city. This is one of the things that one must do; especially when the weather is schizophrenic like it was during the visit recently. And while there may be some people who want to crash the party while intoxicated, like it was the case during the boat tour, the trip with the wild breeze hollowing through the Rhein is worth every minute of the trip, together with a little bit of brain food on the history of the region.

Doing some comparison between this year’s BUGA and that of 2007 in Gera and Ronneburg, one can see stark contrasts with regards to the city and landscapes and the way the government on the local level worked to bring the BUGA to their venues.  Gera and Ronneburg for the most part was built from the ground up with some places being rebuilt to look more attractive for the tourists.  The park near Ronneburg used to be the site of the former lead mining facility which emitted harmful fumes in the air and whose chemicals seeped into the ground water, causing pollution never before imagined, and cutting short the lives of thousands of workers and those living in surrounding areas by up to 30% because of various forms of cancer and other respiratory diseases. It took more than 15 years and hundreds of millions of Euros to clean up the facility and convert the area into a place of recreation not only for the BUGA but afterwards. This included turning areas that were altered through strip-mining into artificial valleys filled with plants and wildlife, which support the creek going past the former site and into Ronneburg. Three bridges were constructed in and around the areas, two of which span the newly built valley including the Dragon’s Tail Pedestrian Bridge, one of the longest in the state of Thuringia.

With this year’s BUGA, it represents a mirror reflection to the one in 2007 as the infrastructure and the architecture of Koblenz has already been provided. It is more of the question of making a name for itself and bringing out the best in the city and its heritage.  Up to 500 million Euros (or $710 million) was spent sprucing up the city center and Ehrenbreitstein Castle by renovating the buildings, redesigning the streets to make it more pedestrian friendly and in cases, like the castle on the hill of the Rhine, rebuild in many places so that the guests can ooh and aah at the city and the river valley from up above. There was little need to renovate the train station, like in Gera and Ronneburg, and there was no need to build new bridges as the existing ones serve traffic over the Rhine and Mosel, including the Balduin Bridge, a stone arch bridge over the Mosel that has been in service since the 14th Century.  As a bonus, a cable car line runs from the Deutsche Eck directly over the Rhine and up to Ehrenbreitstein.  As a finish product of all the renovating that was done to the city, one will be amazed at the beauty the city has to offer, not only on the outside but also on the inside. While one will find the likes of the Residential Palace, the Church of our Lady and the city center of Münzplatz inspiring on the outside, one will feel like walking into the city’s past and seeing what the city was like in the Renaissance Age, even though much of the city was in fact severely damaged and destroyed in many parts during World War II.

When the 2011 BUGA ends during the weekend of October 14-16,  all the newly renovated places will become the care of the local government, whose responsibility will be to upkeep them and prevent them from becoming something similar to the prairie flower “Hour of Fame.” This means that the places that have been newly established from the old or constructed from scratch must be maintained in order to prevent negligence and vandalism. The difficult part about this task is the financing for the maintenance of these places. This is one problem that Gera and Ronneburg have with the park with the Dragon’s Tail Bridge, as attempts to sell it to private groups have failed up to now due to lack of funds and interest from the tourist. The future of the place at the moment is in doubt.  What the city of Koblenz must avoid is following a path similar to what happened as a result of the “BUGA-Hangover-Effect.” The difference between the two venues is clear and works to Koblenz’s advantage quite well. Tourism is well-established in the city thanks to its heritage and its proximity to the Rhine and Mosel Rivers and the places that are offered within spitting distance of the city. Also helpful to the city is the fact that events like the Christmas Market (which takes place from 18 November to 22 December this year) will draw in more tourists and revenue, which means more flexibility in terms of keeping the places clean and looking like they were during the BUGA.  This is something that is still being worked on in Gera and Ronneburg, as the venues are looking for ways out of two problems that they have at the moment- reshaping the city and landscapes and population loss as many people are emigrating away from the region for better job prospects. Both of these have resulted in the loss of revenue that is badly needed.

While Koblenz will be left to run its course, the next two BUGAs in Germany will be in the northern parts of the country. In 2013 the event will take place in Hamburg. It will be the fourth time the city hosts the event (the last one being in 1973 ), but the city of 1.5 million inhabitants- the second  largest city and  city-state in the country- is transforming itself both architecturally as well as infrastructurally, from an industrial port to one which holds character regarding its heritage as well as one that is working on becoming a carbon neutral city, like Copenhagen. Already the International Building Expo has been working on reshaping the cityscape of the city center known as Hafen City and its southern suburb of Wilhelmsburg, with the goal of having the area ready to take on many garden-lovers and environmentalists in two-years’ time. After that event, it moves southeast to the Havel region in the state of Brandenburg in 2015. That region is rich with forests and lakes, and with Berlin and Potsdam located nearby, people will have more than what they bargained for with this year’s BUGA in Koblenz.

There are many ways to look at the BUGA this year and how Koblenz has benefitted from it. Given its location and its heritage, the city benefitted from the surge of tourists and revenue, which can be used for future projects. The city has already taken advantage of the event by showcasing its finest plants and flowers, while presenting the treasures of the city- the old town (with its churches and the Residential Palace, the Deutsche Eck, and the Ehrenbreitstein Castle to those who want to see it. And for those like yours truly and the people who accompanied me on the trip, the incentive is there to see the region again, while at the same time, see if Hamburg and the Havel region can copy the successes displayed by this year’s BUGA in Koblenz. We will have to see when travelling to the next one.

FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACTS:

  1. While at Ehrenbreitstein Castle, there was a showcase on forests in Germany and the facts are rather interesting to note. Despite being just a tad bit bigger than Thuringia and smaller than Hesse, Rheinland-Palatinate is tied with Hesse with the largest percentage of forests existing in the state with 42%. Bavaria comes in third with 36% and Thuringia with 23%. Schleswig-Holstein is last with only 10%, which also ranks it second to last if one includes the three city-states (Bremen has only 5%).
  2. Interesting Facts about Koblenz’s places of interest- The Ehrenbreitstein was first built in 1000 AD, extended while under the control of the Archbishops of Trier 20 years later, destroyed by the French in 1801 after a long siege, and rebuilt massively using its original foundations in 1816-32. Much of the castle was rebuilt after World War II which includes three new additions, one of which houses an eatery. Apart from the beautiful courtyard, the castle today holds two museums (Rhein and the state) and hosts numerous events both inside as well as outside at the amphitheater.

 

Just south of the city there is the Stolzenfels Castle, which was built in the 13th Century. Napoleon I donated the ruins to the city in 1802, which then gave it to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1823. It was rebuilt under his control from 1836 to 1842. Much of the castle was rebuilt using the design from the one built in the 13th Century but was destroyed during Napoleon’s siege of the city in 1801.

 

The Residential Palace overlooking the Rhein was the last building that was contructed before the French Revolution, as it was built for the last Prince-Elector of Trier from 1777 to 1786. It was completely destroyed during World War II but was rebuilt from scratch in 1951. Most of the public offices are now housed here today. Distinctive of the palace is the beautiful court facing the city (was filled with flowers and a beautiful pool) and the promenade facing the river to the east, where a statue of Josef Görres (1776-1823), a prominent Koblenzer overlooks the river. Görres was an elementary school teacher, writer for the city’s newspaper, and a philosopher.

A Link to Koblenz’s bridges and its association with the BUGA 2011 can be found here: http://thebridgehunter.areavoices.com/2011/10/28/buga-the-german-garden-and-horticulture-show-2011-koblenz-and-the-citys-bridges/

Photo gallery:

Ready, Set, Water!

 

Koblenz Old Town

 

Löhrstrasse Shopping Corridor

 

Münzplatz at night

 

"Die Tafel" Long Table at the front gardens of the Residential Palace

 

Pool at the Residential Palace

 

Residential Palace

 

Flowers at the Residential Palace

 

Pool of flowers at the front court of the Residential Palace

 

St. Kantor Basilica

 

Statue of Josef Görre at the Residential Palace

 

Stolzenfels Castle

 

Marksburg Castle at Braubach

 

Colorful array of flowers at Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

Colorful array of flowers at Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

Cactus exhibit at Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

Tomato display at the greenhouse at Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

Overview of Koblenz from Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

Liebfrauenkirche from Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

The outer walls of Ehrenbreitstein Castle

 

The old and new sides of Ehrenbreitstein Castle: This was the amphitheater where outdoor events took place

 

Ehrenbreitstein Castle looking east

 

Newly built section of Ehrenbreitstein: Here is where the state museum, food court, and tourist information center are located

 

Deutsche Eck (German Corner): Where the Mosel (above) and the Rhein (below) meet

 

Close-up on a marigould at the west entrance to the Residential Palace

 


 

The Pope’s Visit from the Columnist’s Point of View- live in Erfurt:

The flag of the Vatican hanging outside the window of a townhouse near Augustiner Kloster


There is a book that was released a few years ago entitled “1000 Places to visit before you die”, providing the reader with the top 1000 places that people should see in their lifetimes; among them include the Galapagos, Great Barrier Reef, the Alps, and of course cities like New York, Cairo, Rome and the Vatican.

Perhaps they should release a book on 1000 things you must do before you die sometime in their lifetime.

Each of us has a “To Do” List containing at least 200 things that we should do in our lifetime, whether it is bungee jumping, meeting an important statesman or even accomplishing feats not known to man. Nine out of ten of us- myself included- have the encounter with the Pope on our list.

Consider that mission completed.

Friday the 23rd of September, which naturally coincided with the first day of autumn, was the day Pope Benedikt XVI came to Thuringia, and everyone in the city of Erfurt, as well as Leinefelde and Etzelbach were busying themselves for his arrival,  which included special deals on Benedikt merchandise, such as Benedictus beer, traditional Thuringian specialties, and even chocolate products bearing the Pope’s name. Sections of the autobahn A-38 were blocked off to provide buses with parking opportunities for the vesper service in Etzelbach. Even sections of Erfurt’s beloved city center, including Domplatz (where the cathedral is located) was barricaded to prepare for mass services the following morning. This included a corridor between the Airport and Augustiner Kloster, located north of Krämerbrücke, where policemen and women from all over the country were lining up to escort the Pope and his constituents to their destination.

Friday was supposed to be the day to take care of some university-related errands in Erfurt, but given the high security and restrictions in traffic because of sections being blocked off, it had to be put off to another time. But it did provide me with an opportunity to see and get some pics of the Pope himself, as he was scheduled to meet the cardinals and other important church officials at the Augustiner Kloster.  It would be a one of a kind event, something to share with the rest of the family.

It was 10:30 in the morning at Erfurt Central Railway Station, people were going about their business, selling their goods and getting to their destination by train. All was normal with the exception of policemen patrolling the platform to ensure that there was no trouble.  While no one really showed it, there was a chill of excitement in the air. The Pope was coming and everyone wanted to make sure that his stay was a memorable one. After all, the region he was visiting was predominately Lutheran even though well over half of the population was either agnostic or atheist.  It was his plan to embrace the population in hopes that peace and prosperity dominated politics and products.

Domplatz fenced off
Behind the scenes at Domplatz: Preparing for Saturday morning mass

 

Arriving at Domplatz at 10:45, it was clear that everybody was gearing up for the Pope’s arrival. Already the pedestrian zone in front of the cathedral was fenced off in preparation for the holy mass service, scheduled for the next day at 9:00. Bleachers were already lined up and the speakers were being established so that all of Erfurt could listen to him that morning. The Pope was scheduled to land at the airport and be escorted by caravan to Augustiner Kloster, but given his seal tight schedule and the fact he was flying from Berlin, he was at least a half hour behind schedule when he arrived at the airport. But still, the city had to keep to the schedule and cored off the route at 11:00am, forcing street cars and traffic to make a wide detour around the city center. When an important figure, like the Pope, shows up in a city like Erfurt, it is not a good idea to go either by car or by public transport. If anything, the bike is the most viable option, given the city’s infrastructural landscape. But it was not a problem, as I had my bike with me, an eastern German brand Diamant black city bike going by the name of Galloping Gertie, and it was not a problem getting around, let alone parking it near the cathedral to attend the event. By the time the corridor was sealed off, I was on the north end, and like many others- journalists, photographers and innocent bystanders alike, it was more of a waiting game until the Pope’s caravan showed up.

The Pope's Motorcade at Domplatz

11:45am- the Pope arrives. Five cars and a van, escorted by police motor cycles and Germany’s version of the Secret Service.  It was obvious when the Pope was going to pass through when two different sets of squad vehicles passed through- the first were motorcycles to provide a signal to the police lining up that the route was no longer to be crossed. Five minutes later, three cars pass to provide a signal that the Pope and his caravan was coming.  Then came the caravan- a dozen police motorcycles followed by five black cars and a van- the Pope was in the fourth car and was waving at the crowd. Cameras were firing off photos like the paparazzi following a celebrity. It was no wonder why the Pope’s car was driving as fast as possible. While it was possible to see him waving, it was next to impossible to get a clear shot at him. The fortunate part of the whole deal was that I was able to photograph his car and film his motorcade passing by at the same time- a feat that can only be accomplished by an expert photographer/ journalist (barring any bragging rights with this statement).  After passing through down the sealed off corridor, I made my way back to the bike, which was parked on the other side of the corridor and it took over 45 minutes to get to as lines of police officers ensured that no one crossed until the Pope left the city center, which would not be before 2:00pm. The walk was worth it as I had a chance to meet those who wanted to see the Pope but were barricaded so far away that it was impossible to do.  Although I did eventually get to my bike, which was parked on the southeast end of the fenced off Domplatz, I found it nearly impossible to maneuver around the city center given the high security and masses of people roaming around the streets. But it did provide me with an opportunity to do two things:

Benedikt XVI mugs at a store near Fischmarkt
  1. Check out the small booths that sprouted up in the city center.  With the Pope’s visit came many opportunities to sell knickknacks bearing the seal of the Pope on there- whether they were beer mugs (which I have more than enough in my china hutch), T-shirts with a sheep on there with the Pope’s name in vein (I have plenty of those in my stock, including a couple I picked up during my USA visit) to Benedictus Beer with the Pope’s name on it (I’ll prefer my Flensburger beer,  thank you.) And while the Pope had already mentioned to a crowd in Berlin a night earlier that modernization and consumption was poisonous to today’s society, it seems that many people did not listen to him and decided to make that easy dollar in an attempt to show that they appreciate his visit. This definitely spoils the meaning of his visit, which is to listen to him and take something valuable from his sermon with him. I sometimes wonder if everyone will listen and not just the few, who like me do not fancy things that clutter up our space in our lives…. Eventually I did take a souvenir home with me- a box of Canadian chocolates (of course, with the Pope’s seal on it), courtesy of a candy-export company in western Thuringia. Unlike the American counterpart, this sortiment tasted creamier and more like fudge, which was mouth-watering for someone with a sweet tooth.  For me, it is more appropriate to try something new than to take something back to show to everyone that he/she was there.

 

Around the corner at the pharmacy near Augustiner Kloster (where the two police officers were standing)
  1. Find another pocket for some photo opportunities for the Pope’s trip back to the airport for his trip to Etzelbach for his evening vesper. While the police had formed a line to provide a corridor for his trip to and from Augustiner, it did not necessarily mean that it was impossible to get some closer shots of him. People living in apartments above the corridor were probably the biggest winners as far as seeing him live is concerned, while those who were on those narrow side streets right up to the barricade came in a close second. I was one of those who benefitted from the latter as I found another spot which was closer than the one I had to put up with on the north end of Domplatz.  Despite the fact that he was behind schedule, we were treated with an even longer motorcade at around 1:45pm, as he and at least a dozen cardinals and bishops were enroute back to the airport to catch a helicopter flight to Etzelbach for a vesper that evening. There, the Pope was in a limousine bearing the white and gold flag of the Vatican City, the smallest city-state in the world with only 1,000 people. Unlike the route to Augustiner, he rolled down his window and waved at a huge crowd as the limo was mastering the sharp corners in slow motion. Sadly however, my poor Pentax had to keel over and expire due to low batteries, but it did not matter. Seeing the person up that close (at the most about 50 meters) and smiling to a crowd brought my day, as well as those who wanted to see him for the first (and perhaps last time for many).  I don’t know if anyone I knew had come that close, including a friend and former classmate of mine, who went to the Pope’s sermon in Colorado in 1993 (Pope John Paul II led the Church at that time).  But it was one that is worth remembering and justifying marking off my list of things to do before leaving this planet.

There is one caveat that I do regret and that is meeting him eye to eye. Despite his sermon in Erfurt, where he favored tradition over modernization,  peace over materialism and greed, and harmony over inequality, if there was an opportunity to ask him one question, it would be this: How do you see society in general, from your point of view and that of God’s, and what would you do to change it? It is a general question, but one that requires a lot of thought which goes beyond whatever sermon he has given to date and beyond the scandals that he and the Church has endured over the past two years. While chances of that ever happening are a million to one, maybe when reading this article, he might consider at least answering it when doing his next sermon.

FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACTS:

  1. As many as 160,000 people attended the masses of the Pope in Germany including 30,000 in Erfurt, 65,000 in Berlin and 25,000 in Freiburg im Breisgau. Most striking is the fact that in the eastern part of the country, around 60% of the population is not religious at all; especially in Berlin and parts of central and eastern Thuringia. And the statistics can be clearly indicated through a poll conducted by the eastern Thuringian newspaper, OTZ (based in Erfurt) where over 61% of the population were indifferent about the Pope’s visit and only 17% were happy that he came.
  2. The visit did not come without incident. In Berlin, the Pope was confronted by thousands of people demanding a solution to the problem of sexual abuse in the church. Since the scandal broke out in Bavaria two years ago, the Pope has come under fire for not handling the issue properly although many pastors and bishops have resigned amid scandals both there as well as elsewhere in the country and beyond.  In Erfurt, a man opened fire at a group of officers while attempting to break through the barriers. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the shooter who fired four volleys was apprehended.
  3. While security was tight, the police should be commended for handling the visit in a professional manner, which includes helping guests find their way to their destinations, answering questions about the visit and at times escorting people across the sealed off corridors to help them get to their destinations. This was evident in the photos taken below during the Pope’s trip through Erfurt.

 

FLENSBURG FILES’ LINKS TO THE POPE’S VISIT AND PHOTOS CAN BE FOUND HERE:

Links (Note- sublinks available here as well):

http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/papstbesuch/papstbesuch120.html

 

http://www.otz.de/web/zgt/suche/detail/-/specific/Erfurter-Domplatz-zum-Papstbesuch-im-Zeitraffer-1022102618

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15403923,00.html

 

Photos of the event taken by the columnist on 23 September 2011:

Police lining up at the front of the motorcade at Domplatz

 

Pope's plane arriving at Erfurt Airport

 

Pope spectators waiting for his arrival at Domplatz (taken in front of the barricade)

 

Directions to Augustinerkloster (due east from Domplatz)

 

Police helping visitors find their way to their destinations

 

Berlin Elections 2011: Turning Point in German Politics

The German-named “Superwahljahr 2011” (Super Elections of 2011- if one wants a rough translation) reached its climax on Sunday, as half of the 2.5 inhabitants of the city-state and Germany’s capital of Berlin went to the polls and voted to keep Klaus Wowereit (Social Democrat- SPD) in power as the mayor. His toughest challenge now is to find a new coalition partner that will help govern the city. His party’s coalition partner, the left-wing Linke Party was unable to obtain enough votes to continue the Red-Coalition and therefore, the Social Democrats have the option of having the Greens as a partner to form the common Red-Green coalition, which can be found in states like Rheinland Palatinate, Bremen  and Baden-Wurttemberg (the third state of which brought the state’s first Green prime minister to power). The other option would be to join the Christian Democrats (CDU) to form the Grand Coalition which has dominated the political scene in Germany in states like Mecklenburg Pommerania, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt. Talks began Monday and speculation points to the Red-Green coalition although some issues have to be resolved first in order to ensure that continuity and transparency exists. One of the issues on the table is the extension of the city-autobahn 110 through the southern and easter end of Berlin’s city center The Greens are against the proposal, the SPD are for it.
As for the voting results, the SPD remained a powerful party with 28.5% of the votes, followed by the CDU with 23.4%, the Greens with 17.6%, the Linke with 11.7%, the Pirates Party, a newcomer to the elections with 8.9% and the FDP with 1.8%. The new make-up in the Berlin city senate will consist of 47 seats for the SPD, 39 for the CDU, 29 for the Greens, 19 for the Linke, and 15 for the Pirates.  A pair of notes to point out from the Berlin elections:

 

The end of the FDP?
After recording five losses in a row and losing its presence in the state parliament of Saxony-Anhalt, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Pommerania, Rheinland-Palatinate and Baden-Wurttemberg, the liberal democrats once again failed to reach the 5% hurdle to stay in parliament in Berlin. As a consequence, talks are underway in the German government and within the FDP regarding the party’s future. The party has been marred with scandals this past year (including that involving plagiarism), and the miserable results have led to the resignation of Guido Westerwelle as the head of the party in May. While Philip Röseler, currently Minister of Finance has taken over his place, he has come under fierce fire from his counterparts of the CDU for the party’s lack of direction and the resulting poor performance. With the FDP losing influence, it could spell doom for the Dream Coalition of the CDU-FDP under the direction of Chancellor Angela, who may have to consider early elections in order to find a more suitable coalition partner to lead the country. German elections will take place in 2013 unless early elections push it up to next year, the second time in 7 years that has happened.  Should that be the case and the losses continue to mount, the FDP may disappear from the political landscape within five years, and with it, its campaign for free markets and less regulations.

What is the Pirate Party?
Founded in 2005 and headed by Sebastian Nerz, the Pirate Party has raised some eyebrows among Germans, after it made the 5% hurdle and will make its debut in Berlin’s city parliament. The Pirate Party is the most independent of the common parties serving the country for its campaign platform is simple but down to earth; especially for the younger generations born after 1975. Most of the themes covered during the elections are those that were not discussed thoroughly among the common parties (the main ones dominating the German political landscape). This includes unlimited access to public transportation in Berlin, loosening up of copyright regulations, free internet access for all, improving basic rights among Berliners, and more importantly, reforming the government so that they are transparent and there are no loose ends in the regulations.  These topics have been a major agenda for the party for they feel that they have not been discussed in detail by the government. This is especially true with basic rights, as Nerz mentioned in an interview that some of the laws requiring surveillance and reducing the rights of citizens were not thought through thoroughly nor discussed with the public. Whether the party will be successful or not depends on how Nerz and company will push through their agenda when they enter the city hall for the first time. They have five years to show their true colors and perhaps win the hearts and minds of those who never thought they would take that step.

FLENSBURG FILES FAST FACT:  There are 29 countries that have their own Pirate Party. In Germany alone, apart from having one serving the country, two state pirate parties serve the states of Hesse and Bavaria. In the United States, while there is no official party serving the country, there are two state Pirate parties that exist in Massachusetts and Florida. An international Pirate Party was founded in Brussels, Belgium last year.

 

Links:

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15399521,00.html

http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,15397392,00.html

http://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/nerz102.html

http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/wahlberlin102_zc-885afaa7_zs-5d851339.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirate_Parties_International#Pirate_Party_movement_worldwide

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Democratic_Party_%28Germany%29

Flensburg Files News Flyer- 17 September 2011

Some wild and unexpected events have occurred in the past couple days will raise your eyebrows as the Flensburg Files presents you with its batch of News Flyers. While some are not surprising as the events have been plastered on the international level (but in short blips), others-especially in Thuringia and Schleswig-Holstein reveal examples of what is yet to come on a larger scale. So without further ado…..

Danish Parliamentary Building in Copenhagen- photo taken in August 2011

Denmark goes left and has first female prime minister
After 10 years of conservative rule under Lars Rasmussen, the Danish population on Thursday went to the polls and elected the Social Democrats back into power. And with that a first in Danish history- a female prime minister by the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt will be appointed to lead the country.  Despite a razor-thin margin of victory, the center-left party will gain 89 seats in parliament and construct a coalition with the Social Liberal Party, in light of Rasmussen’s concession to defeat and resulting resignation (which he submitted to Queen Margaret the following day).  Rasmussen’s leadership during his ten years included attempts of putting a cap on immigration in the country. Yet he was a target of many controversies including implementing stricter border controls with neighboring Germany and Sweden, prompting the governments to protest the country’s policies and the European Union to threaten the country with sanctions. That combined with the increased unemployment and its first deficit in response to the economic crisis played a considerable role in the population’s decision for a change, which they hope to achieve with the 44-year old social democrat. Her plans will include easing border controls, which will breathe a sigh of relief for people living in the border towns of Malmø and Flensburg, which not only have large pockets of Danish living there, but rely on Denmark for commerce and trade.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danish_parliamentary_election,_2011

 

 

Erfurt Cathedral: Site of the Holy Mass on 24 September- Photo taken in March 2011

Pope Benedikt XVI to visit Germany
Stores are offering deals in connection with his visit, security is being beefed up in many places and people in town are talking about it. Pope Benedikt XVI will tour Germany next weekend, and the country is opening its arms to greet the former German bishop who once was known as  Joesph Ratzinger. The three day visit will include stops in the capital of Berlin, followed by Erfurt and in the end Freiburg im Breisgau. In Berlin, he will meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Christian Wulff, which will be followed by mass at the Olympic Stadium. After the visit, he spends two days in Thuringia, which includes the visit to St. Marien Church and the Erfurter Dom Cathedral- both in Erfurt and a vesper in Etzelbach, located southwest of the Thuringian capital. His final stop in Lahr and Freiburg in Baden-Wurttemberg will include meeting former Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the judges of the federal supreme court of Karlsruhe  and will feature a youth vigil on the evening of the 25th before his trip back to Rome.  The Flensburg Files will feature highlights of the visit which will take place from 22-25 September. Stay tuned.
Link: http://www.papst-in-deutschland.de/programm/; http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/article1456122/Freude-in-Berlin-ueber-Papst-Besuch-2011.html
Thuringian Airports in Trouble- Airlines pull out.
Despite using the airport as a platform for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, the Erfurt Airport is finding itself in serious trouble, as Cirrus Airline announced that beginning in March 2012, there will be no more service to Munich. Earlier this year, AirBerlin, which had provided services to Berlin and Nuremberg decided to pull out for the aforementioned reasons. The problems however go beyond the airport, which has been serving the Thuringian capital since 1992. In Altenburg, located 1.5 hours south of Leipzig and only 30 minutes east of nearby Gera in eastern Thuringia, its airport lost its only state connection to the UK, when Ryanair this past March cut its services to London-Stanstedt.  The problems with the two airports are twofold. First, both airports have problems attracting passengers because of its proximity to its nearest competitors, Nuremberg, Magdeburg and Leipzig-Halle. Despite modernizing its airport in 1994, Erfurt has yet to reach its maximum capacity as only an average of 500,000 passengers visit the airport each year.  The airport in Altenburg, which once was a military base serving the former East Germany, was a main attraction for tourists coming from the UK and points north and west thanks to Ryanair. Secondly (which is not a surprise to many), the state is reigning in on subsidies for both airports as it recently passed its austerity bill for the next two years, which would trim millions in state aid, across the board.  This was one of the main reasons why Cirrus is pulling the plug on its services between Erfurt and Munich. With major airlines pulling out, Thuringia is finding itself in a very difficult situation attracting passengers to to area and may have to rely on the private sector to keep the airports running if it ever wants to stay competitive with its aforementioned counterparts, let alone the railway companies also  serving passengers in the state- mainly Die Bahn . Apart from Leipzig-Halle, Magdeburg and Nuremberg, which are by train 1, 2, and 4 hours from Erfurt respectively, with international flights no longer available in Thuringia, one will have to travel to either Frankfurt/Main or Berlin (Tegel), each located 3 hours by train. The one with the most to lose is Altenburg because of its location to Leipzig. While it could still serve local services to some of the nearest cities in the eastern part of the country, it may not be able to compete with its counterpart from Erfurt, and unless other airlines offer services to this small airport, one could see the facility fold in the next months or years.  It may take a year to a year and a half to find out how the austerity package combined with the recent pull-outs will have an impact on not only the two airports but Thuringia in general, and that will take more than Pope Benedikt XVI’s visit to Erfurt to resuscitate the region.

Link: http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/flughafen136.html ; http://www.mdr.de/thueringen/mitte-west-thueringen/hintergrundflughafen100.html; http://blog.leipzig-zeitgeist.de/2011/02/01/regional-flight-services-withdrawn-from-altenburg/

 

Museumberg on the hill on Flensburg's west side: Possible candidate for cuts- photo taken in April 2011

Flensburg’s Cultural Scene Under the Knife
The city of Flensburg prides itself not only on its multicultural diversity (partly because of the Danish minority living there) but also its fine arts, as it has two libraries, two orchestras, the state theater, and many others. Thanks to the austerity package passed by the state parliament in nearby Kiel, which would provide savings of up to 6 million Euros, cuts and mergers are now foremost on the minds of many Flensburgers, as the cultural scene will receive less funding from the state.  Examples of how cuts will affect the cultural scene include: merging the city library with the Danish library, having only one orchestra (both have had 231 events attracting over 34,000 visitors this year) and cutting fine arts programs, whose contracts run out in 2012. While no plans have been etched in stone, there have been protests against such measures and it is unknown how these cuts will affect the city in general. But represents a classic example of what is being seen throughout all of Germany, as the federal and state governments are tightening their belts for leaner times ahead.

Link: http://www.shz.de/artikel/article//spar-keule-kreist-ueber-der-kulturszene.html?cHash=b4bc9fd19d&no_cache=1&sword_list[0]=kultur&sword_list[1]=flensburg

More Trains and More Space, Please!

A busy and chaotic scene at Hamburg Central Station. Taken on 31 July on the busiest day of the summer season as many people took to the highways and tracks to head to their vacation destination.

 

Here is a sight that I hope that I will never see again: An ICE train departing Hamburg enroute to Copenhagen becomes overcrowded the second the doors open. You try and find a seat you had reserved at a train station in Jena three weeks before, only to find that it is occupied by a mother with two children. It is not a problem considering the fact that the announcer informed the people waiting at the platform that reservations made on the train were considered null and void. That would make a world of sense if learned that all schools in Germany were out for the summer and that  every family with their dog or cat would hit the road or track for their destinations to the Alps, Turkey, or parts of Scandanavia. However the situation becomes unbearable when people are standing side by side in the aisle and on the seats and too close together, resembling a typical ride on the Tokyo subway. To relieve the congestion, the conductor of the train forces the people to take the Regional Express train to Lübeck, which is also the stop on the ICE. It makes sense for only a short time, but does not alleviate the problem when you see a person who makes his spot in one of the closets next to the Bord Restaurant, sitting on top of his luggage. When asked whether he comfortable in that very narrow encasement, he replies with “At least I can sit.”
There are two pet peeves I have with the German Railways (Die Bahn). The first is its customer unfriendliness, especially when it comes to parents with children (please see my article on Single and Business Bahn). Others would disagree with me and say that trains arriving late would be their pet peeve. In a way I would agree if I was one of those commuters going to work at the university as an English lecturer and had an early morning class at 8:30 in the morning, meaning I have to be off to work at 7:00 in the morning in order to make it on time. However, a delay may work as a blessing if there is something very important to do for work before a certain deadline.
There is the other pet peeve which both the Germans and I would have a fun time talking about and that is overcrowded trains. No matter where you go, which train you use (ICE, InterCity or Regional Services), what time of year you travel by train, or what you have for luggage or people travelling with you, Die Bahn has a chronic problem with overcrowding trains. And no matter how hard they try to alleviate the problem, it seems that the problem has worsened within the last five to ten years because of the preference for trains over automobiles- and this goes beyond the increasing price for gas and compulsory automobile inspections taken annually.
If we look at the train demographics for a second, we can see two main north-south arteries (Munich to Berlin and Basel to Hamburg via Frankfurt (Main), three east-west arteries (Dresden to Frankfurt (Main), Berlin to Cologne via Magdeburg and Dusseldorf and Passau/Vienna to Basel via Munich, Ulm and Stuttgart), plus numerous important blood vessels going to key cities, like Cologne from Frankfurt, Copenhagen/Flensburg from Hamburg, Rostock from Berlin and Kaiserslautern/Saarbrücken from Frankfurt(Main).  If a major shortcoming was to take place, such as a storm shutting down the stretch, a train stalling due to a malfunctioning airconditioner, or even a delay of 20 minutes due to overcrowding because of people getting on or off the train (all of which have occurred countless times), then the situation is like a person having a massive heart attack with minutes away from keeling over and expiring if help is not sought in blitzschnell speed. When that happens, pretty much everyone suffers, regardless of whether a passenger misses a flight to Africa, or misses an important meeting with clients and his job is therefore on the line, or if he misses an exam for one of the subjects at the university and he fails the course.  If one lives in Germany as long as I have (twelve years come September 2011), then he/she will have been late at least twice a month- one of which would have consequences as far as meeting deadlines and making appointments are concerned.
The hardest hit areas are the stretches starting in Munich heading north: one heads to Hamburg via Nuremberg, Würzburg, Frankfurt (Main), Göttingen and Hannover; the other heads to Berlin via Nuremberg, Jena and Leipzig. Barring the landscape the two lines have to go through (in particular the latter stretch as it has to go through mountains between Nuremberg and Jena), when boarding the train- in particular the InterCity and ICE, it is always full and despite reservations head of time, there is no guarantee one can sit down in his reserved seat unless he is as aggressive as Happy Gilmore. And when the seat is reserved, then one has to deal with a lack of space as his passenger sitting next to him also needs space to breathe.  The worst is when having luggage and one has no choice but to place them either on the steps or in five different areas of the train. This has occurred with me many times when travelling along this stretch heading to Flensburg and recently to Copenhagen to catch my flight to the USA. If you count the other persons who are travelling with you and are really agitated at the overcrowding, then you can be sure of some potential fireworks going off right there….
Fortunately, measures are being taken to ensure that travelling by train is easier. First and foremost, new tracks are being laid so that one set is designated for ICE service and the other for regional train service. This was done with a stretch between Freiburg (Breisgau) and Karlsruhe and has alleviated the overcrowding a bit. On the Frankfurt-Hamburg route, some stretches are being built north of Göttingen as well as in the metro areas of Hannover and south of Hamburg even as this article is being written.  Another is constructing newer, faster stretches so that passengers can reach their destination quicker and more comfortably. While that has worked on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route between Göttingen and Würzburg, this is being done with the new route between Berlin and Munich, detouring through Ilmenau, Erfurt and Halle (Saale) enroute to Leipzig.  However one has to take into consideration such projects should not be done at the expense of sacrificing original routes, as is the plan by Die Bahn with the new route being constructed- after 2017 no ICEs will pass through Jena and its neighbor to the north, Naumburg (Saale).  Instead both routes should be open and the two types of services (InterCity and ICE) should take turns using the two routes, while respecting the other available services at the same time. This has been done in Hesse with the routes connecting Frankfurt and Cologne as well as the stretch between Mannheim and Karlsruhe. For the stretch between Frankfurt and Cologne, there are two routes one can take: the ICE route via Limburg and Montabaur  and the InterCity/ICE route via Coblence. For the other, one can go straight to Karlsruhe from Mannheim or take the route through Heidelberg and Heilbronn with ICE. Why should it not work for the two stretches going through the state of Thuringia? It would be a win-win situation for Die Bahn as well as the cities of Erfurt and Jena.
This brings me up to two suggestions that are worth considering to ensure more efficiency and less hassles for passengers. Apart from building new stretches and ensuring that the old ones maintain their services to the customers, one should consider utilizing stretches that are less travelled and used by regional services. There one could add some long-distance services to the routes to ensure that passengers have the same satisfaction in service as the ones travelling along the heavily travelled routes. The other is building more trains and reinventing/ reusing types of trains for use on the least travelled routes. While Die Bahn is working on building more InterCity trains to replace the ones that have serving passengers for 20-30 years, the success of the ICE-diesel trains connecting Hamburg and Denmark via Lübeck and Flensburg should force the German train concern to reconsider the idea after they discontinued the service between Dresden and Nuremberg via Bayreuth in 2003. While that stretch is rife for the reintroduction in the ICE-diesel, the stretches between Chemnitz and Göttingen via Gera, Jena, and Mühlhausen and between Cottbus and Berlin are examples of many where the ICE diesel trains could benefit the people in those areas.
The overcrowding of trains and the sometimes overutilization of the routes is a sign that more and more people are using the trains and leaving the cars at home. It is understandable because of the high gas prices combined with the taxes and annual compulsory inspections that have to be paid. Therefore Die Bahn has to react accordingly to accommodate the increasing numbers, even if it means having to put more trains on the existing routes and build new ones so that one will not have to deal with the pet peeve of overcrowding and being forced to stand for long stretches. More trains and better service is better, even if trains come more often and have to keep to a slower speed limit. Passengers will understand and plan accordingly. It is better than finding a place to sit for three hours  at any cost, which was the case with the passenger who sat on his suitcase in the small closet on the ICE to Copenhagen.