Life in Germany: Part 5, Schwerin Palace

The ongoing adventures of an AU student studying abroad. See issues 1340, 1342, 1343 and 1346 in the Voice archives, or search for “Life in Germany” to read the beginning of this story.

The train travels eastward from the centre of Hamburg, through its suburbs, through forests, and then eventually into agricultural lands. By this time, many of the buildings along the rails appear abandoned, and even some of the train stations look as if they have been neglected and unused for many years. Yet, the train stops in each town. At every stop, a handful of passengers get onto the train and a handful get off. One woman stepping off the train carries a bright blue purse with the letters DDR on it. Before November 1989, this area had been part of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), otherwise known as East Germany.

The train eventually pulls into the main station at Schwerin. Not only is it the capital of the German state, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, but it also boasts a palace surrounded by a lake — a setting that draws tourist revenue. Furthermore, its proximity to the west makes it accessible for the more affluent western Germans to visit. As a result, this small city has some economic advantages not shared by other former DDR cities.

On this particular Saturday, it is Schwerin’s Christmas market that draws visitors to the city. They make their way from the main train station, over cobbled streets, past old buildings that are either fully restored, or in need of repair. Eventually, the tourists arrive at the centre of town on the edge of a lake. Here, colourful rides draw children and parents, while vendors sell Christmas decorations, candles, and souvenirs of Schwerin. The sun is low in the late November sky, the air is cold, and almost everyone warms his or her hands around the cups of hot mulled red wine sold along the street. It is only noon, but many of the visitors to the market are already drinking their mulled wine with an extra shot of rum.

Within a short walk from the lake is Schwerin’s old town, which once was a cattle market, but today offers Christmas goods to shoppers. Nearby a choir sings a mix of traditional German Christmas carols and American-style Gospel music sung in English. A smell of sweet baking hangs in the air. Kiosks sell roasted almonds and hazelnuts. Another cup of the sweet and spicy red wine helps to take the edge off the cold, and perhaps adds to the carnival atmosphere.

Many of these visitors to Schwerin will go to see the palace and perhaps take a tour of the interior. The palace’s location on an island gives it a fairy-tale setting. It is said that the palace even has a resident ghost. It dates from the 16th century, but was expanded in the 19th. The additions were provided with central heating, a modern innovation at the time. Another innovation was the use of papier-mâché as decoration in the palace’s interior. The papier-mâché was formed and painted to look like carved wood, and according to one guide, was actually more expensive than woodwork, but was used instead because it was considered to be very modern.

The palace was once a ducal residence, but under communism from 1945 to 1989, its maintenance was of course not a priority. At that time, some of its rooms, with inlaid floors and classically decorated walls, were used as school classrooms. Presently, the palace is undergoing repairs, and several sections are covered with tarps and scaffolding. Still, the guide takes visitors through the palace’s grand rooms of Schwerin’s palace. The last tour of the day ends around sunset.

Though it is getting dark, the Christmas market on the lake is still crowded. And around the lake, you can still find evidence of the city’s communist past. On one side of the lake is August-Bebel-Strasse. He was a long-time elected member of the German parliament and member of the German Socialist Party, the SPD, during the German Imperial Period. As he supported workers’ rights and the rights of women, the communist regime seized on his legacy as an exemplar of communist values.
On the other side of the lake, runs Karl-Marx-Strasse, named of course for the writer of the Communist Manifesto. Ironically, it appears that some of the most expensive residential properties in Schwerin are located on Karl-Marx-Strasse and August-Bebel-Strasse, overlooking the lake.

Walking once more towards the train station, one can see in the distance, the lights of the Christmas market that reflect off the water. Into the cold night, the crowds continue to mix in the streets. And, even as some tourists depart, others are still arriving at the train station.

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