Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia Trip
by John Fuhring
In 1993, just a couple of years after the fall of the once mighty Soviet Union, my sister Mary Ann, some of her friends and I went on a bus tour through parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. This was not a luxury tour, but turned out to be about the most interesting and educational trip I've ever taken. Even after all these years, I am still amazed at the places and things we were privileged to see.
This account of my trip will be brief and not as detailed as it should be because the trip occurred before the age of the digital camera and because I didn't take notes or keep a diary. Without a large collection of digital photos or notes, it is really hard to remember very much and to later write about it, but I've done the best I can.
Now, this is the way I saw things all those many years ago and I may not have understood what I was seeing all that accurately. Keep in mind that the things I saw were from a time nearly 20 years ago and I'm sure a whole lot has changed since then. I'm no professional traveler and only pretend to know anything, so my impressions and pronouncements should be taken with much skepticism. Still, this is my account of things as I saw them and if you want a better and more up to date account, you will just have to sign up for one of these bus trips and go yourself. If this story has any worth at all, it is to inspire you to take such a trip.
Walking around Berlin before the bus arrived
The official tour began in London and would not be stopping in the fascinating city of Berlin except to stay overnight. Since my sister, her friends and I had already seen London and wanted to see Berlin, we decided that we would fly directly to Berlin a few days early and catch the bus when it arrived. We arranged to stay in a very pleasant little hotel on a little street called Ohmstrasse (named after the famous electrical scientist, Ohm) right in the heart of Berlin. From our little hotel we set out to explore the sights and museums of fascinating city of Berlin. To say the least, it was time well spent and it was a stroke of genius for my sister to have planned it that way.
Let me start by telling about the first museum we visited. It was (and I assume still is) located in that section of the city that was once called East Berlin. In the old archeology books I read as as kid, this museum used to be called the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum. In the late 1800s, the Kaiser was eager to show the world how cultured the German people were so archaeologists were sent out to fill the museum. They collected the most wonderful artifacts from the earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia, Mycenae, Troy and classical Greece. Today the old Kaiser Wilhelm is called the Pergamon Museum, but most of the stuff I remember reading about is still there (except what was looted by the Red Army). As a kid I loved archeology and I spent many an hour looking at photos of the artifacts from the old Kaiser Wilhelm, but I never figured I'd ever get to visit that place in person or actually see those things.
The museum complex included some really large stone buildings and the outside walls clearly showed the scars of the bombing and shelling that occurred during WW II when the Red Army fought their way into the city. The museum is located on the grounds of Humboldt University in the cultural heart of old Imperial Berlin. It is near such other sites as the State Opera House, the Tomb of Germany's Unknown Soldier, the National Library, the Reichstag and is an easy walk to the Brandenburg Gate.
Inside the Pergamon I found many of the things that I had read about since I was old enough to have an interest in archeology and ancient history. Artifacts in that museum went back to the very dawn of Western Civilization and upon which our culture was built. One such example is the original law text, the famous Code of Hammurabi.
In the basement of this huge building I found the complete and original brick work that made up the grand entrance to the ancient city of Babylon: the famous ‘Ishtar Gate.’ This ancient structure was removed from the ruins of the city of Babylon by German archaeologists and taken to Germany over 125 years ago. The colors of glazed tiles were still vibrant after all these centuries.
On the top floor this huge building, archaeologists had reconstructed the entire acropolis removed from the ancient Ionian city of Pergamon (today located on the Turkish coast of Asia Minor and hence the name of the museum). Centuries ago the marble carvings that adorned the ancient ruins of this small acropolis were dismantled and thrown into a ditch by an Islamic culture that had little understanding or liking for the artwork of the "pagan" Greeks. To them this artwork was nothing more than the "graven images" forbidden by their Koran. Sadly, most of the carvings were damaged, and some was missing altogether, but it was still a most spectacular and beautiful thing to see.
After leaving the Pergamon, we wandered around Berlin, saw what was left of the infamous Berlin Wall (not much at all). We visited the infamous "Checkpoint Charlie" and its associated Cold War museum, the Brandenburg Gate and some beautiful mansions. I quickly discovered that Berlin is the place to go to see museums and have wonderful walks. Berlin and London are such wonderful places to walk because there is so much to see and enjoy and you don't want to miss anything by whizzing by any of it in a car.
That evening we had a nice dinner and spent a very comfortable night at the little hotel. Next morning we had breakfast and went out for more sightseeing with no plan or guide. In the words of the Immortal Bard: "if ignorance be bliss, tis foolish to be wise." It was so much fun not knowing what to expect and to be delighted with chance discoveries.
Wandering about a couple of miles from our little hotel, I found a beautiful little palace called the Charlottenberg Palace with a mausoleum on the grounds. I remember how impressed I was with the fancy cobblestone work on the drive in front of the palace and how I watched expert workmen making minor repairs to it. I also noticed that the lawns were turning brown because of a severe drought. Berliners just never have to artificially water lawns, so there were no sprinklers or hoses to water the lawns with.
Across the street from the Palace I saw that there was another museum complex so I wandered over there and walked in. Not knowing what to expect, I was amazed to find that this museum contained ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman artifacts of the finest quality. I had always heard that Etruscan artifacts are very rare, so I was impressed at how much was on display there. In addition to those, there was the finest display of Ancient Egyptian artifacts I have ever seen (up until then). Wandering about in there, I was stunned to accidentally discover the most beautiful work of art I ever hope to see. Without realizing it, I walked into a room that contained the original Bust of Nefertiti (the wife of the famous Pharaoh Ikhnaton who tried and failed to introduce monotheism to ancient Egypt).
Bust of Nefertiti
The room was dark and on entering all I saw was this tall crystal case bathed from above in pure white light, but without any glare. When I approach the case I could hardly believe what I was seeing, but yes, it was the Bust of Nefertiti and more beautiful than I had ever imagined. My first impression was that I was only one in the room and it is only until later that I became aware that the exhibit is completely surrounded by guards who are out of sight in the dark back of the room. When I first became aware of the guards, I stepped back from the case and looked at one of them. He nodded as if to say "it is OK for you to look" so I stepped back up and resumed looking. The guards were big men, but were quite friendly and I did not feel intimidated by their presence. I was able to walk right up to the crystal case and look as long and as closely as I wished. I have no idea what things are like today and I wonder if people are able to encounter this wonderful object as I did. After all, the world has changed very much for the worst since those innocent days.
In my further ramblings through Berlin, I found and visited another museum that had exhibit after exhibit of the most elaborate and beautiful ancient silver objects dating from Roman times. This silver was in the form of bowls, cups, plates, tableware and coins and they were from Roman hordes hidden from invading Germanic tribes and lost for almost two millennium. Obviously their owners had been killed and their treasures never claimed. Even after hundreds and hundreds of years, most of the coins looked new and there coins from the time of every Roman Emperor with the likeness of each emperor stamped on them. The coins were cleverly displayed so that the entire history of Imperial Rome could be traced from emperor to emperor in sequence.
I can't remember if it was this silver museum or another museum, but I came across something I had never seen or heard of before. I was not prepared for what I saw. It was a display of Egyptian mummy cases bearing the likeness of the deceased. The coffins dated from the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history (323 to 30 BC).
You probably know that Ptolemaios was a Greek general and part of Alexander the Great's Army. When Alex died, his generals divided up his empire and Ptolemaios got Egypt. By the way, Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies and after her death (I think she got bit in the asp by something) Egypt was ruled (or rather brutally exploited) by Rome for its farm products. The Ptolemaic kings were thoroughly Greek, spoke Greek and introduced Greek culture and fashions to Egypt, but the older Egyptian culture only superficially blended those fashions into its much older Pharonic culture.
The dead of this period were still mummified and placed in mummy cases as in ancient times, but on the outside of the cases - instead of the typical stylized Egyptian art - a beautiful and very poignant portrait of the dead person was painted. These paintings were done very much in Greek style with the men and women dressed in Greek attire. If you have ever seen a Greek Orthodox Icon with large soulful eyes, you know what I am talking about. The images on these cases were mostly of young men and women who had died two millennia ago, but they looked back on me with an extreme pathos that evoked a sadness in me and linked me to those people in a most powerful way. Hard to describe what I felt, but it certainly wasn't joy.
Portraits painted on coffins
The ones I saw were much finer than these
Obviously life in ancient Egypt was not "solitary, poore, nasty or brutish" but it must have been short, very short in those days
Before leaving the topic of Berlin I want to say something about the acres and acres that are devoted to the beautiful and elaborate "garden cottages" there. These are small plots of land one after another that you can stroll past on gravel walkways. Each one contains a tiny little "cottage" just big enough for a person or two to sleep in and surrounding each cottage is the most beautiful garden of flowers and ornamental plants. It is such an idealized world and so beautiful with each plot and each cottage outdoing the ones next to it in beauty and clever design. I just wish I would have taken pictures, but I will tell you that I was absolutely delighted by what I saw. From what I could get out of people, I believe that these cottages are where people in Berlin retreat to on weekends and holidays instead of taking overseas or trips out of town. When I got home, I wanted so much to see something like those plots of land here in my town, but I knew that it takes a special culture that would create such a thing and I'd never see it happen here.
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