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Travel Award winner Charlie relishes German adventure

Charlie Harrison and Frau Christmann point at an exhibit in a museum in Leipzig

Charlie Harrison, former Head Boy and one of the co-winners of the Albert Johnston Travel Award, had a great experience as he visited the cities of Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden during a tour of Germany.

Charlie has a love of visiting new places and was inspired to apply after reading about the adventures of previous winners. He thought long and hard about his entry and planned an itinerary that would give him the opportunity to deepen his keen interest in the DDR and East Germany, an enthusiasm inspired by his German A-level teachers, through travelling to that area of the now reunified Germany.

He created a PowerPoint presentation describing his proposed trip including information about what he wanted to do in each destination and detailed costings. He was “elated” that his entry was chosen as one of the winners, stating that it was a “very nerve-wracking but rewarding experience as it tested my public speaking skills.”

The first part of his journey took him to Berlin where he stayed in a sociable hostel and made some new friends. Having visited the city once previously, some of the landmarks such as the Brandenburg Gate and the TV Tower were familiar and it whetted his appetite to learn more. Charlie said: “My first museum visit was to the modern German Historical Museum which was hosting an exhibition about how history could have turned out differently, through the lens of multiple events from the 20th century, including the construction of the Berlin Wall and German Reunification.” He ended the day by taking in the sunset over the beautiful Spree River.

Day two started off with a visit to the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, a former prison used until 1989 by the German secret police (Stasi) to persecute political enemies. Charlie remarked: “I found the different punishments used by the Stasi very interesting as they greatly varied in harshness.” In the afternoon he did a tour of the Berlin underworld (Berliner Unterwelten), seeing how citizens tried to escape East Germany through abandoned underground train stations and even sewers!

The next stage of the trip saw him take a two-hour train to Leipzig. The city had been very important during the separation of Germany as it housed the Stasi headquarters at Runde Ecke. Charlie said: “I visited Runde Ecke as well as the N’Ostalgie Museum which portrayed the daily lives of East German citizens. This was in great contrast from the usual portrayal of the DDR as a miserable and repressive place, as many citizens lived happily under the regime. Leipzig was also fascinating as it played a huge role in the history of music and literature, being home to composers such as Bach and Wagner and writers such as Goethe.”

Charlie was pleased to catch up with SGS Teacher Frau Christmann, who acted as a local tour guide, as she was in the area visiting family.

The final destination was Dresden, another two-hour train journey away. Dresden was heavily bombed during World War II and many of its key historic buildings were rebuilt in their original style. Charlie commented: “I was very excited about visiting Dresden as I didn’t know much about it before I went. I saw many beautiful reconstructed old buildings, such as the Frauenkirche Cathedral and the Opera House. Dresden’s historical importance also piqued my interest. It was known as the Tal der Ahnungslose (valley of the clueless) due to its very eastern location meaning it couldn’t access western TV at all. Another highlight of my trip was cycling along the Elbe River Valley. The scenery was beautiful and it was a great way of escaping the city for a while.”

Looking back on this trip, Charlie concluded: “Overall, the Albert Johnston Award was a great experience! As it was my first time travelling solo, I had to problem solve and become very independent, and I also had to get used to eating in restaurants on my own. My interest in the topic of East Germany and the Cold War is greater than ever and I am excited to study it in more depth at university.”

Frau Christmann added: “I had the privilege of showing Charlie around my hometown of Leipzig and visiting key DDR sites such as the Nikolai Church where the Monday Demonstrations in 1989 started, which led to the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

“I was so impressed by how well Charlie applied what he had learnt about the DDR in class to the exhibits in the (N)Ostalgie Museum and the Forum of Contemporary History and by how fluent his German was when conversing with me and other German museum visitors.”