Category Archives: Cathedrals

Berlin, Alexanderplatz and German Style

Alexanderplatz postcard

I had considered visiting Berlin several times over the last ten years, there are nearly always cheap flights available but for some reason I have never made it there.  I had often come very close to booking flights but then somewhere more appealing has nicked in ahead of the German capital at the last minute and I have made alternative plans.  Berlin would always have to wait.

This time I had no excuse not to go because I was invited to a gentlemen’s weekend away (ok, a stag party) so together with my brother Richard a party of boys several years younger than me, I left East Midlands Airport early one morning and two hours later was drinking beer at Schoenefeld Flughafen.

My travelling companions…

Berlin Beer

The remainder of the first day was mostly spent drinking beer the details of which I won’t bore you with but on the second day while the boys went off to do boy’s stuff Richard and I planned a walking tour of the city.  The third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m).

We were staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz so our tour began right there.  Not the most thrilling place in the World I have to say, a large concrete public square and transport hub that was once a main square of the ex German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

The place is vast and soulless, a sprawling mass of functional concrete, glass and steel.  It is completely without charm or anything remotely pleasing to the eye.  I have to take into consideration of course that only seventy-five years ago Berlin was practically a wasteland courtesy of the Soviet Red Army but there seems to have been a collective agreement in Germany not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive.

A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…

Alexanderplatz derelict flats

I contrast this with the reconstruction work in other European countries.  In Poland for example it seems to me have made a much better job of putting things back together in the major cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw.  But for me France stands out in the matter of restoration as they took time and imagination to rebuild their ruined infrastructure.  Even earlier, after the siege of Paris in 1871 they built a grand city to replace the ruins of the Prussian bombardment and post 1945 they rebuilt towns and cities with style.  St Malo in Brittany stands out for me as a perfect example.

Trains, trams and cars all busily converge at Alexanderplatz and people hurry through past the homeless people in their temporary cardboard homes underneath a concrete railway bridge decorated with graffiti, there are no pavement bars and cafés because it simply isn’t an pleasing place to stop or linger.  It is stripped bare of vivacity, a cheerless place that lacks any sparkle, a rather dreary place to live I imagine.

Alexanderplatz World Clock

For anyone that does want to loiter there is the World Clock that tells the current time in nearly one hundred and fifty major cities from around the world and which in 2015 the German government declared to be a historical and culturally significant monument.  Really?  It isn’t the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye that’s for sure and Alexanderplatz is neither an elegant Spanish plaza or a cultured Italian piazza.

In the centre of Alexanderplatz I concede there is one very impressive structure, the Fernsehturm, a television tower, which at three hundred and seventy metres high is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest in the European Union two metres shorter than the Torreta de Guardamar in Spain and half a metre shorter than the Riga Radio and TV Tower in Latvia.  Once a symbol of Communist power it has now been adopted as a trademark of the unified city and enjoys National Monument status.

Alexanderplatz Tower

We found a busy restaurant and had an excellent breakfast even though we had to pay for the tea and coffee on top of the food bill and then without regret we slipped out of Alexanderplatz heading south.

Soon after we came across the Red Town Hall, a brutal building built in a style representing Teutonic muscle, German authority and Prussian power.  It was badly damaged during the Second World War but was quickly restored to original plans soon after by the East German regime.  I didn’t care for it I have to say.

At this point we were still in what was East Berlin and our plan, such as we had one was to make our way to what was once Check Point Charlie, where east met west and then cross to what was West Berlin and make our way steadily west towards the Reichstag building and the Tiergarten.

I hoped that Berlin might improve as we went along, after all it has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just one less than London, one more than Rome (surprising) and two more than Paris which has only one.

Welcome to Berlin

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Travels in Spain, The Historical Centre of Valencia

Valencia Town Hall

Regardless of the size of any Spanish city the historical centre is generally small and easily managed on foot and Valencia is no exception confined as it is within a circle that was once the old medieval city walls.

Our excellent accommodation was close to the central squares adjacent to the Cathedral and to the central market which was one of my favourite places.  Every morning I volunteered for breakfast shopping duties and made an early morning visit joining lines of Valencians going about their daily business, some vigorous, some dawdling, some urgent and energetic some reluctant and lethargic.

On the very edge of the centre is another market, a very fine building with a colourful Gaudi-inspired façade which is an example of Modernista Valencian Art Nouveau architecture of the time and has since been declared a national monument.

Valencia 008

It was once a real market but these days it has been gentrified and gone up-market and instead of stalls of fish and vegetables it is home to expensive cafés, restaurants and shops, the smell of the sea and the soil has been replaced by barista and croissant but it is a good place to visit all the same.

Not a great deal of the original city walls remain in place, just a pile of gnarled stone here and there but there are two restored gate houses that El Cid would surely have recognised even today and I chose one of them to pay the very reasonable admission fee of €1and climbed to the top where there were good views over the whole of the city.

Valencia 08

One of the things that I especially liked about Valencia was the general level of cleanliness with tidy streets and a thankful lack of graffiti, I know some people consider it to be a form of expressionism but in my opinion it is almost always a punishable crime.  I do however like good urban art and on almost every street corner there was something worthwhile to see, always well done and tasteful.  (The three worst places that I have been for graffiti by the way are Bologna, Lisbon and Ljubljana).

Valencia 05

Finally we visited the Bull Ring which I know a lot of people won’t agree with as being something worthwhile.  I used to think that I would like to see a Bullfight but not anymore.  Not because I disagree with it in principle but simply because as a spectacle it wouldn’t appeal to me.  That is because I am not Spanish and it is not part of my culture and tradition.

“Nothing expresses the masculine quality of this country better than the bull-fight, that lurid and often tawdry gladiatorial ritual, which generally repels the northerner in the theory, but often makes his blood race in the act.”  – Jan Morris. ‘Spain’

Valencia 07

There are many calls from outside Spain (and within as well) to ban the sport but that would be doing away with a pagan tradition that stretches back to the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and once it has gone that link will disappear forever.

“I do not consider bullfighting a sport, it is an art, a science, a ritual more spiritual than physical”   Patricia McCormick – America’s first professional female bullfighter

The informative little museum explained that in a bullfight six bulls are killed in an event and this involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes.  If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the president of the fight that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail.  Personally I would rather have a bottle of champagne or a cheque!

Every year, approximately two hundred and fifty thousand bulls are killed in bullfights. Opponents condemn it as a cruel blood sport, supporters defend it as a cultural event and point out that animal cruelty exists elsewhere in horse racing, rodeos or any form of hunting with guns which are all forms of sport that are stoically defended by those who take part.

Personally I would include the cruel and pointless sport of fishing in that list because to my way of thinking there is nothing more barbaric than catching a poor creature just going peacefully about its daily business with a hook and line and dragging it from its environment in a most stressful way and watch it lying there on the bank of a river gasping for breath.

All in all, I remain firmly on the fence in the matter of Bullfighting. I think we should first address the issue of man’s inhumanity to man.

Valencia 01

Travels in Spain, Valencia and The City of Arts and Sciences

On the second day of our visit to Valencia we did the same as the second day on the previous occasion that we visited – walked to the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias and then to the beach.

It was more or less the same sort of day and you can read about it here.

Here are some new pictures – click on an image to view the Gallery..

The next time I visit Valencia I am going to go inside the exhibition halls, but today the weather was just too good to be indoors.

Travels in Spain, A Door in Valencia Three Ways

door 3 ways 1

door 3 ways 2

Valencia 03

Travels in Spain, Valencia Old Town

Two years ago I visited the Spanish city of Valencia.  I liked it, I liked it a lot and said that I would like to return quite quickly so this year I did just that.

Here are some new pictures.  Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

I did mostly the same things so instead of repeating myself you can find my previous post about Valencia here.

Cornwall, St Michael’s Mount

St Michaels Mount 01

“In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the south-western coast of Cornwall which was modelled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.” – Wikipedia

Everyone knows that driving in Cornwall can be a tedious and frustrating affair.  I knew it but didn’t expect it so early in the year as the month of April (even though it was school Easter holiday week).

Today we were driving thirty miles west to the village of Marazion and St. Michaels Mount.  A simple enough matter anyone might think.  Entrance to the castle is restricted by the tide because visitors have to walk across a causeway that becomes submerged twice a day so timing is somewhat critical.  I studied the tide tables and set a departure time which would give us plenty of time to get there for the opening of the causeway and a couple of hours wandering about at the site.

First of all we drove to the town of St Austell which is not a very appealing place I have to say.  It was once the centre of the entire World china clay production and most people will have an item of porcelain in their homes which came from this area but the quarries are all closed down now.  It is estimated that there are fifty years of clay reserves left in the ground but the owners find it more economical to concentrate on operations in Brazil.

Away from the dramatic coast line Cornwall is not an attractive place.  Pause for sharp intake of breath from readers.  Concrete not stone, render not brick.  The rural landscape is rather dull and the towns are depressing, grey and ugly.  Places look better in the sunshine of course but in Cornwall the sun has to try a lot harder than some other places.  I am reminded of the joke, “There was an earthquake in Cornwall last night, it did a million pounds worth of improvements to Cambourne”.  St Austell is surrounded by white peaks of spoil from the quarries but even the optimistic description of the Cornish Alps cannot really hope to make them any more appealing.

Cornish Alps St Austell

North of St Austell we finally reached the A30 and I foolishly looked forward to straight forward effortless motoring for the final twenty miles.  How wrong I was.  The A30 must be one of the worst roads in England.  You cruise along nicely for a couple of miles on a dual carriageway and then every five miles or so the traffic grinds to a standstill at a roundabout and then everyone creeps forwards at increments of about two feet every ten minutes.

The traffic was frequently at a standstill and according to my calculations the tide was coming in at St Michaels Mount and I could feel my normal calm demeanour rapidly evaporating.  I cursed myself for not allowing more time for the journey.

We finally arrived at Marazion and being late for the tide and the foot crossing it was so busy that we had to use an overflow car park which involved an additional fifteen minute hike to the causeway and then inevitably everyone wanted to go to the toilets which added another ten minutes or so and my frustration entered the red zone as I could see our tidal window of opportunity quickly ebbing away.

St Michaels Mount 04

Eventually we made the windswept crossing to the castle but we only had a couple of hours now before we would have to return or be cut off by the tide and have to stay there for eight hours or so.

I was keen to see St Michael’s Mount because a couple of years ago I had visited its counterpart in France.  Mont St Michel is a lot bigger and although a magnificent spectacle is disappointingly commercialised so I didn’t know quite what to expect.  It turned out to be quite different without the tacky tourist shops and cheap food outlets which have spoilt the French island castle but really I wouldn’t expect that sort of thing from the National Trust.

Interestingly, despite the tat Mont St Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but St Michael’s Mount is not.  How unfair.

It is one of the iconic landmarks of Cornwall and today it was rather too busy for my liking with thousands of people swarming across the causeway and then making their way to the very top of the rock and visiting the interior.  Inside was hot and cramped so we turned back after the first room and skipped the visit preferring instead to sit outside on the rocks and wait while the family completed the tortuous route through the castle.

From the top we could see the tide beginning to advance so it was time to make our way down and cross back to the mainland before the causeway would be completely submerged.

Despite the crowds this is a place well worth a visit and I enjoyed our short time on the rock with its attractive harbour, medieval cobbles and stone built houses where real people still live.  As it happened there was no real need to rush off because there was a ferry boat service that would have taken us back for only a small charge.

St Michaels Mount 03

Just by way of comparison this is Mont St Michel in Brittany in France…

Mont St Michel France

Cornwall, Value For Money with the National Trust

NT 01

With the weather much improved, the sun shining and the temperature rapidly rising we could now begin to make plans for the rest of the week with a whole lot more confidence.

We are all members of the National Trust so one of our plans was to take full advantage of this and see how many places we could visit without spending a penny on admission.  The annual cost of a joint membership is £120 and I have discovered before that it is quite easy to get all of that back in only a few days.

First of all we visited nearby Lanhydrock, an aristocratic Victorian country house, an upstairs/downstairs sort of place with a succession of perfectly preserved rooms and exhibits.  I especially liked looking around the kitchens and the food preparation areas probably because in the social hierarchy of the time that is where we would most likely have found ourselves.

NT 02

It was a busy place and I was surprised to learn that it is the tenth most visited National Trust property in the UK.  First, by the way, is the overrated Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

We spent an enjoyable afternoon at Lanhydrock exploring the house, a walk in the garden and an Easter Egg hunt for the children.  Without National Trust membership the cost of admission would have been a whopping £53.75 for all of us.

Next up was Trerice close to Newquay, an Elizabethan manor house that was once the home of the powerful Arundell family where little it seems has changed since it was built in 1573.

NT 04

It has a nice garden and some interesting rooms and a hands-on dressing up in Tudor clothes rack for the children.  This is a good feature of the National Trust, they know children are going to be bored out of their minds in the house and gardens so they lay on several distractions.  Mine bypassed the clothes and went immediately for the medieval armour helmets.  The poor man on duty nearly had a fit when he saw my three trying them on for size and almost dropping them on the stone floor.  William’s chosen helmet was almost as heavy as he is. The man was greatly relieved when we put them down again and moved on and so was I because I wasn’t looking forward to explaining the damage to the Board of the National Trust.

NT 05

Outside in what was once the farmyard there was a barn with more children’s activities, egg painting, brass rubbing and more dressing up.  I left the children to it whilst I explored the gardens and the old orchard outside.  I especially enjoyed this visit.

NT 09

Total saving on admission price at Trerice was £47.25 and after only two visits we were almost in credit on our membership fee.

On another day we visited St. Michael’s Mount at Marazion but I am saving that for a full post later because it was an especially good day out.  Total saving on admission prices £56.00.  I was feeling really good about all of this.

On the return journey from the island retreat we stopped over at the country house of Godolphin, once home to the family of the same name who were once the richest landowners in the whole county with an immense and obscene amount of wealth based on exploitation of minerals and mining.

It is a pleasant little house and garden but the house it seems is rarely fully open because it is let out as a holiday home by the National Trust.  It wasn’t open when we visited but the children enjoyed the gardens and the activities that were laid on for them,

I thought that the place was overpriced and our total saving on admission price was £31.50.

On the final day in Cornwall we visited Tintagel.  We wanted to visit the castle (English Heritage, not NT and prepared to pay) but it was closed so instead we went to the National Trust Old Post Office which quite frankly was a bit of a let-down and I would have been very annoyed indeed if we had paid the full adult admission charge of a combined £9 for just a couple of rooms and a tiny garden.

NT 08

Adding all of that together that was a total of £197.50 in saved admission charges on the day but of course to keep things in perspective I have to say that if we hadn’t been members then we certainly wouldn’t have gone to all of them!

Within the last year we have visited other places as well…

Hadrian’s Wall and Seaton Delavell in Northumberland (total saving £32.40) and Oxborough Hall, Sutton Hoo and Ickworth House in East Anglia (total saving£59.20) so overall I think membership has provided value for money and I shall be happy to renew without any grumbles when it is due for renewal in June.