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East or West, which is best?

Görlitz, a town in Germany’s eastern corner, hasn’t fully recovered from reunification.

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent reunification of Germany, there is still a striking difference between the western side of the country and the east.

I’ve just made consecutive trips, one to Görlitz, right over the far eastern corner, where Germany bumps up against Poland and the Czech Republic. And one to the Rhine/Main region, the heart of the busiest, most commercially-thrusting district of Germany. And what a contrast; the former rural, rustic, comparatively empty, occasionally derelict. The latter a heaving, bustling, rat-race – with traffic jams and overcrowded trains.

It was the Görlitz trip that was the more interesting. The train journey across from Dresden was largely rural, although it had clearly once been far less so; trackside factories and freight yards had virtually disappeared under new undergrowth. There seemed to be a lot of Schrebergärten, those glorified garden kingdoms where everyone has his own little country cottage cum garden shed.

The train itself was short, whilst the stations had clearly been built for something far larger. At Görlitz it barely occupied a third of platform 11 – and platforms 1 to 10 were empty. Outside, the town’s main street – Berlinerstrasse – looked like a Sunday morning, although it was a Wednesday afternoon. The population here has shrunk from 90,000 before reunification, to 56,000 today, and the elderly had that resting facial expression that exudes disapproval, one that can be all too common in Germany. It wasn’t until I’d been in the town a day or so that I began to meet the younger, more thrusting citizens who were making things happen, and they were mainly outsiders, from other parts of Germany.

Görlitz is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is beautifully preserved and restored, with some 4,000 listed buildings in Gothic and Renaissance style, which has made it a mecca for film directors (the Book Thief and Grand Budapest Hotel about to be released). And secondly it incorporates the Polish town of Zgorzelec on the other side of the river, into one ‘Europstadt’. Before the war, of course, this was all one place, in the province of Silesia, but the border was moved.

Interestingly, the outlook on life on either side is rather different. The German mayor has acknowledged that Görlitz has had a very difficult last 25 years; the Polish mayor says it has been a boom time for his burgeoning town, benefiting from the proximity of a far richer neighbour.

So it is all a matter of perspective. Certainly wages are less in Görlitz – 25 percent less than the German average – but so are prices; I struggled to find a main dish for more than €10 in the restaurants, and the market was full of Poles, selling economy fruit and vegetables.

All in all it was a fascinating place to visit, although maybe not such an easy place to live.

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