Category Archives: Europe

Postcard From Île de Ré, France

Ile de Re Postcard

“The French cannot get the hang of queueing.  They try and try but it is beyond them… you see orderly lines waiting at bus stops, but as soon as the bus arrives the line disintegrates into something like a fire drill at a lunatic asylum….” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Today we planned to take a bus ride to Saint Martin-de-Ré on the Ile de Ré that was about an hour’s journey away, so, knowing that the French are the World’s worst queue jumpers we arrived at the bus station in good time to find the departure point and stand with sharpened elbows at the front of the line.  There was no line of course, just a disorderly crowd of people that was steadily getting larger and more excitable as we waited for the bus.

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Postcard From Pula, Croatia

Pula Croatia 1

I have visited the city of Pula twice, the first time in 2007 and then again in 2011.

Here are some pictures…

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Thursday Doors, The Greek Islands (2008)

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favourite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Entrance Tickets – Castel St’Elmo in Naples

Naples Castell St Elmo

Admission to the once mighty fortress was free (which is always a bonus) so we climbed to the top and enjoyed views of Vesuvius on one side and the waterfront of Naples on the other.  On the down side we had to pay to go inside the Museum.  Let me say however , no one should miss visiting Naples, it was once part of the Grand Tour of Europe and surely it should be again.  Just my opinion.

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Berlin, Sausage and Michelin Stars

Berlin Towers

It was close to lunchtime now so we set out to find somewhere suitable to eat and made our way from the Wall to Potsdamer Platz, the modern centre of new Berlin but I found it too modern for my tastes, with glitzy buildings made of glass and steel, expensive shopping malls and restaurants with menu prices way above my modest budget.

We were looking for a simple pavement bar with a lunch time menu but found it surprisingly difficult to find one.  I imagined Berlin to be overflowing with pavement bars serving steins of foaming beer and inexpensive hearty meals but this was not the case.

Eventually we found somewhere, ordered beer and scrutinised the menu.  It has to be said that the Germans eat a lot of rubbish food!  Ninety percent of the menu consisted of various forms of sausage and unless you want sauerkraut then vegetables are completely absent.

Thanks to Wiki here for an explanation of sauerkraut – “finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria. It has a distinctive sour flavor, acid formed when the bacteria ferment the sugars in the cabbage leaves”

That puts it on my list of things I don’t want to eat alongside liver, snails and tripe.

I Love Sausage Berlin

By way of comparison Berlin has no Michelin three star restaurants, London fares little better with only two but Paris has ten.  There is an explanation for this, Michelin is France based and has been described this way by the Guardian newspaper – “… the guide’s principal purpose is as a tool of Gallic cultural imperialism“.  I am not absolutely sure why I mention this, I have never once dined in a Michelin three star restaurant.

We took our time ordering food because any German menu conceals possibilities of unpleasant surprises and the threat of ordering and receiving something quite unexpected – almost as dangerous as trying to cross the Berlin Wall. So we stuck to sausage.  Kim had a trio and I had meat balls which are really just sausage in a ball rather than its traditional long form.  I had sauerkraut and Kim had chips.  We shared our meals on a 50/50 basis.  We ate all of the chips but left a lot of the sauerkraut.

From Potsdamer Platz we walked through the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’, which is a controversial structure in terms of both concept and design – controversial mostly because no one really understands it.

The monument is composed of two thousand seven hundred and eleven rectangular concrete blocks laid out in a grid formation.  No explanations, no names and no dedications, a sort of graveyard full of stones without inscriptions.  I suppose it might be conceived as a memorial to lost people.

According to the architect the blocks are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly once orderly system that momentarily lost touch with human reason.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Several people have had a shot at trying to provide a more definitive explanation but I find none of them absolutely convincing. Personally I found the memorial rather bizarre and difficult to comprehend but I suppose it is a memorial to a period in history that is impossible to comprehend.  Perhaps then that is exactly the point of it, we look at it and wonder ‘how on earth did that happen?’

Several of the blocks are cracking open.  Concrete Cancer.  Appropriate I thought that the memorial should only be ultimately temporary – just like Nazi Germany.

To my mind a completely pointless memorial and a waste of valuable commercial urban space, much better to erect a vertical column and rent off the land and send the profits to the families who suffered because of the Holocaust.

From the Memorial it was just a short stroll to the Brandenburg Gate which is without doubt the most iconic symbol of Berlin.  I found it a rather underwhelming, I was expecting something like the the Arc de Triomphe in Paris (the largest in Europe, correct me if I am wrong) but I have to say that at only half the height it is nowhere near as impressive.  So we walked a while along the Unter den Linden, a wide leafy boulevard in Summer and one of the most famous streets in Berlin, in December Christmas lights replace the blossom and after a drink at a pavement café we returned to the gate passing the uneasy neighbours of the Russian and the American Embassy buildings.

On the walk back to Alexanderplatz we wandered through Museum Island, across a wide open park flanked with Museums and the City Cathedral.  Museum Island is another UNESCO World Heritage Sites but it was getting late so we didn’t have time to go inside any of the buildings and it was at this time that I thought to myself that I was so glad that I had returned to Berlin for a second visit and thought that surely I would have to return for a third.

I was born in 1954, less than ten years after World War Two had ended and grew up on stories about evil Germans.  Later that evening Kim tripped and badly sprained her ankle.  Back at the hotel staff and guests were kind and did everything they could to help.  I wondered why we had ever been in conflict with these people?  What a dreadful thirty years in European history!

Berlin Brandenburg Gate

Thursday Doors, The Greek island of Symi

Symi 006

From the harbour we walked further up the Kali Strata towards the upper town of Ano Symi passing on the way dozens of abandoned once grand mansions that were built over a hundred years ago when Symi’s sponge fishing and ship building industries were both thriving but which fell into decline in the first half of the twentieth century when both suffered serious economic failure.

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Other houses were damaged during the Second-World-War during the German occupation and empty shells stand adjacent to some, like the Pantheon, that have been restored.  Rules on restoration are very strict and this together with difficulties of access for modern vehicles (the only viable means of transporting building materials is by expensive donkey train) means that the cost of a restoration is often prohibitive and for this reason the whole process of regeneration is likely to take some considerable time.

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Berlin, The Wall

Berlin Spies

“Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht, East Berlin, June 15th 1961

For me, for everyone I suppose, some places can have a real impact when we visit them.  They leave an impression.  The Berlin Wall was one such place. History hangs in the air, so thick you can almost touch it, almost feel it, almost smell it. Other places that I have visited that have had similar impact for me are Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland and Clairière de l’Armistice at Compiegne in Northern France.

Checkpoint Charlie was an obvious place to visit and every other visitor to Berlin agreed with us because this is probably the most visited attraction in the city.  It is the most famous of the fourteen previously controlled crossing points between East and West Berlin, between the Allied and the Soviet Sectors.

Today I walked along a section of the wall, I ran my fingers across its harsh, hostile, concrete surface, I read the conflicting messages of anger and hope that it been scrawled across it, I was stunned by just how grotesquely ugly it was, I remembered all of the things that frightened me about the wall when I was a young boy.

Today as tourists we have our picture taken against a souvenir section of the wall, we smiled for the camera, fifty years ago people died trying to get across it and escape to the west, they didn’t smile.  I thought about that as this picture taken.

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The Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989.  In the German Democratic Republic it was an offence to leave the country without permission. The border guards were duty bound at all time “to arrest or eliminate border violators”. The border regime was based on barriers and border guards at regular intervals and above all on the permitted use of firearms. The border guards who successfully stopped escapes were rewarded with a decoration and a bonus.

There is no checkpoint there anymore of course just a reconstruction and men in menacing uniforms providing a photo opportunity.  It amused me that the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep out the west but at the site today is one of the most aggressive symbols of western capitalism – a McDonalds restaurant.  Walter Ulbricht is probably still spinning in his grave!

Checkpoint Charlie

I was seven years old when the German Democratic Republic began building the wall and it was barely out of the news headlines throughout the 1960s; subjugated people trying to escape, the unlucky ones being gunned down in cold blood, the menacing stare of the border guards, the impenetrable and secretive Soviet Empire.  Berlin was where East and West stood toe to toe, where the West stood firm against further Soviet expansion in Europe and where the East tried to annex the whole of Berlin by starving out the West.

Donald Trump would have been proud of a wall like this.

If World War Two and the Nazis fashioned our vision of Germany and the Germans then the Wall was something that shaped our opinions of the post war East and the Soviet domination and I spent my childhood with a morbid fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  This was the golden age of espionage and spies, John John le Carré and Ian Fleming.

For me this was the best moment of all in Berlin, around the site are informative displays and photographs which made me stop and think.  I was born within ten years of the end of the most appalling and destructive war in Europe, in the World, and grew up seeing the Germans as natural foes.  I soaked up my Dad’s stories of the War and read the Victor comic. When England won the Football World Cup in 1966 it was a champagne moment to beat West Germany and even in the 1970s I still carried with me my irrational dislike for sun-bed thieving Germans when on holiday in Europe.

I was forty-five when the wall came down, Germany was reunited and Europe gave a collective sigh of relief.

Charlottenburg 05

So, for the first fifty years or so of my life it would simply never have crossed my radar to visit Germany until in 2007 when cheap Ryanair flights to Friedrichshafen and Lake Constance persuaded me that I should go there and give it a chance and it turned out to be a personal pivotal moment when I discovered Germany to be relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted.

Close by to Checkpoint Charlie is one of the last remaining sections of the wall that remains intact and another series of information boards chronicling the years through the time of the Weimer Republic, the rise of Nazism, the War and the Wall.  I had imagined that this period of history might be somewhat suppressed in Berlin, it is after all nothing to be proud of. But this is not so.  It makes no excuses or apologies but sets out the history in a matter-of-fact and sensitive way.  I was impressed.

Berlin Trabant