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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Fifteen: Karlovy Vary to Dresden

Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's only 16 miles to the German border, through foothills which rise to become a small range, the Krusné Hory, 'Ore', mountains. Most of the mineral wealth has been exhausted now and Jáchymov, the last Czech town before the border, once a valued source of uranium, looks a little down at heel.

The transitory nature of border towns, their listlessness and decay, is depressingly similar the world over. As we drive up the last hill out of the Czech Republic, houses are dilapidated, roofs missing here and there, everything could do with a coat of paint. Some of the houses are scarcely disguised brothels with scrawled signs offering 'Erotic Car Wash' and 'Streep Club'.

At the top of the pass the mountains change their name to the Erzgebirge and the country changes its name to Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Eighteen years ago the name at this border would have read 'Deutsche Demokratische Republik', German Democratic Republic or GDR, the eastern part of Germany that fell under Soviet influence after the war and whose leaders declared an independent state in 1949.

In 1961 the Cold War, that era of institutionalised mistrust between Russia and the West which lasted for most of my lifetime, turned distinctly chillier as East German troops and engineers erected a barrier along their borders. It remained in place until young Germans took sledgehammers to it during the extraordinary events of November 1989 when the GDR, quite suddenly, imploded.

The German side of the border is neat and tidy. We're in what they call Saxon Switzerland, a landscape of Alpine forest, meadows, ski-lifts and tight-packed villages with steep-gabled roofs nestling in the valleys. Gradually this gives way to a spread of rolling uplands covered with a mixture of conifer plantations and fields of glaring yellow rapeseed in the midst of which wind turbines whirl around, looking like lines of giant Mercedes stars.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Fifteen: Karlovy Vary to Dresden
  • Country/sea: Czech Republic
  • Place: Jáchymov
  • Book page no: 268

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