Category Archives: Germany

Snow in the Black Forest, Germany

When I was a boy my parents had an LP record by a man called Bert Kaempfert.  He was a German band leader who was quite popular in the 1960s.

Well, they liked it!

One particular tune that I can remember distinctly was a jaunty little melody called ‘A walk in the Black Forest’…

Black Forest Snow 02
Black Forest Snow 03
Black Forest Snow 06

Read The Full Story…

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

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

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.

20191210_155051

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

Berlin, Statues and The Greatest German

Berlin Reichstag

“Where some states have an army, the Prussian Army has a state.”  – Voltaire

After a few stops we left the train and walked through the Tiergarten.  This was once a Royal hunting forest but was cut down for firewood during the immediate post war period when fuel was in short supply and has now been replanted as a very fine public park.

Late afternoon and it was beginning to get dark.  The park is nice but a bit edgy with little gangs of dangerous looking men and we witnessed at least two dodgy transactions – drugs we imagined.  To be on the safe side we stayed on the well lit footpaths and didn’t risk the shadows of the woodland tracks.

Berlin was once the capital city of Prussia and then Germany after 1871.

Prussia had become a modern European State in 1701 and for the next one hundred and seventy years was at war with someone or another for a total of ninety years, or over half of its existence.  Not surprisingly Prussia was seen as a militaristic threat to the stability of Europe and so was abolished by the victorious allies in 1947.  This wasn’t especially difficult, two years earlier the Russian offensive in the Battle of Berlin had demolished and removed almost all Prussian heritage.  East Prussia was absorbed into a redefined Poland and the remainder became East Germany.

As a consequence Berlin has little history.  The entire city by necessity is modern, it has only been rebuilt over the last seventy-five years so is quite contemporary and lacks charm.  There are no grand palaces, cathedrals, stately homes or castles because they have all been swept away.  Even the trams are brand-spanking new.  A lot of central and eastern European cities continue to preserve fifty year old vehicles but not so in Berlin.

Berlin Brandenburg Gate

It is as though Germany doesn’t want to recognise its short and unhappy existence which after all has included a belligerent monarchy, an economic crisis, a failed republic and a totalitarian dictator.

Not really surprising then that Germany looks mostly to the future.  In 2003 in a television poll  German viewers bypassed Otto Von Bismarck (voting for Adolf Hitler was not allowed) and voted post-war Chancellor Konrad Adenauer as the greatest German of all time. Hands up anyone who has heard of Konrad Adenauer?  It would be like voting Theresa May as the Greatest Briton. I mention this now just as a comparison, if you think Adenauer is an odd choice, in a similar poll in the USA they voted Ronald Reagan the Greatest American!

Back to Germany – Reformation monk Martin Luther came second, with communist philosopher Karl Marx third.

Another feature that I noticed that makes Berlin stand out against other grand European cities is that it has very few statues; it is that history thing again, Berlin can’t very well have statues of Kaiser Wilhelm II or Adolf Hitler because they were both responsible for unleashing hell in Europe. I understand that there is a statue of the greatest German, Konrad Adenauer but this is some way out of the city centre on the edge of Charlottenburg and we didn’t get to see it.  It seems that they are not so proud of him either.

Berlin Column of Victory

Midway along the Tiergarten we did eventually come across a famous monument, the Berlin Victory Column, commissioned in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War and later dedicated also to victory in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.  Prussia did like going to war it seems. It is indeed a grand column that soars into the sky and at the very top stands a golden statue of the Roman God Victory.

Even though it was getting mid Winter late and the light was fading we paid the entrance fee and climbed the two hundred and thirty steps to the top and were rewarded with good views from the observation deck.

Nearby we found a statue of a man that I was expecting to find – Otto Von Bismarck, the architect of modern Germany who was responsible for the creation of the country in 1871 following the defeat of France in a short-sharp war – the sort of quick victory Germany expected again in 1914.  The sort of victory, it has to be said, that Great Britain also anticipated.  A grand statue but not on prominent display but instead tucked discreetly inside a corner of the Tiergarten adjacent to the Victory Column.

Berlin Otto Von Bismarck

In the USA there are Towns and cities called Bismarck in Arkansas, Illinois, Michegan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota (The State Capital*) and West Virginia.  As far as I am aware there are no towns or cities called Adenauer.

I would have really  expected Bismarck to have been voted the ‘Greatest German’ but it seems that for many he is too closely associated with establishing a Teutonic military regime based on Prussian aggression which led directly to two European villains, two World Wars and the biggest battleship ever in the German Navy and the largest in any European fleet in World-War-Two.

What a beast…

Battleship Bismarck

After walking the entire length of the Tiergarten we returned by a different path and made our way back to Alexanderplatz where we finished our ten mike walk (a distance we hadn’t really anticipated at breakfast) with a well earned beer and a glass of wine close to our hotel.

Berlin Hoff Hause

* Bismarck was named after the Prussian statesman in an attempt to attract German investors to the Northern Pacific Railroad, for which Bismarck served as terminus. While the bid for investors was unsuccessful, Otto sent the railroad an autographed note of acknowledgement.

Berlin, A Picture Tour of Charlottenburg

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Return to Berlin, East and West

Alexanderplatz postcard

I visited Berlin six months ago and came away disappointed.  After a short period of reflection I came to the conclusion that this was an unfair assessment, I was on a stag party weekend and it is difficult to fully appreciate a city when you only see it through the bottom of a beer glass!

Berlin is the third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m) and it began to dawn on me that I needed to go back to see to see if I had misjudged it, 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 so a visit in December to the Christmas markets together with cheap airline flights seemed to be a very good opportunity.

We travelled with friends and I arranged travel and accommodation in exactly the same places and in that way I was able to be the perfect travel guide. We arrived at Schönefeld Airport late morning and took a swift connecting train to the city centre.

Berlin Christmas 01

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).

When you first see Alexanderplatz it is like being punched in the face.  It is grey and stark, bleak and austere.  Teutonic blood and iron meets communist brutalism and the area retains a socialist appearance.  Trains, trams and cars all busily converge here 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 a pleasing place to stop or linger.  It is stripped bare of vivacity, it is cheerless and lacks any sparkle. A rather dreary place to live I imagine.

The square 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 as they advanced from the east and the south and the north and the Western Allies turned a blind eye.

There seems to have been a collective agreement in East Berlin not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive.  A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…

Berlin Alexanderplatz Flats

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.

Berlin Alexanderplatz World Clock

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.

We took a train and Christine kept asking were we in the (previous) east or the (previous) west and I told her that I would let her know when we crossed over, somewhere near to the Reichstag building we made the transition.

Ten minutes later we were in Charlottenburg which before 1989 and reunification was the tourist centre of West Berlin, but it was quickly replaced in its status by the old centre, formally in the east which was restored to its former glory.  Charlottenburg in what was once the British sector retreated into relative obscurity.

Berlin UNESCO

From the railway station we walked for a while through residential streets in one of which is an element of one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, The modernist housing estates of the Weimer Republic (1919-33) which compared favourably to the communist housing estates of the east.

The difference from Alexanderplatz is enormous because this part of the city was not destroyed in the Soviet bombardment of Berlin and it retains an air of elegance and history and the only Royal Palace that remains in the city.

It was closed today but we walked around the extensive gardens and there was a Christmas market where we gasped at the prices and bought nothing more than a bratwurst sausage before making our way back to the railway station and returning to the east via the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate.

Charlottenburg 01

Corfu and the Achilleion Palace

Achilleion 04

In the afternoon we visited the Achilleion at Gastouri, squeezed in between Perama and Benitses.  It is a museum now but was once a summer Palace built in 1890 by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was a curious woman obsessed with the classical Homeric hero Achilles and with all things beautiful (including herself by all accounts).

The Palace with the neoclassical Greek statues that surround it is a monument to platonic romanticism and escapism and is filled with paintings and statues of the tragic hero Achilles, both in the main hall and in the gardens, depicting heroic struggles scenes of the Trojan War.

The dazzling white Palace has a wedding cake like appearance and the beautiful Imperial gardens on the hill look over the surrounding green hill crests and valleys and the azure blue Ionian Sea.

I had visited before of course and this was the Palace in 1984…

006

The centre piece of the gardens is a marble statue on a high pedestal of the mortally wounded Achilles stripped of body armour and heroic bravado and wearing only a simple cloth and an elaborate Greek hoplite helmet.  This statue was fashioned by German sculptor Ernst Gustav Herter and the hero is  without rank or status and seems notably human though tragic as he is forever trying despairingly to pull the poisoned arrow shot by Paris from his unfortunate heel.

His classically depicted face is full of pain and he gazes skyward as if to seek help from Olympus.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology when Achilles was a baby it was foretold that he would die young. To prevent this his mother Thetis took him to the River Styx which was said to offer powers of invulnerability and dipped his whole body into the water, however, as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river and was therefore tragically vulnerable.  I have always thought of this to be rather careless.

Dying Achilles

Oddly today there was no arrow on the statue, it seems to have been removed, maybe stolen or perhaps for preservation and repairs, it was certainly there in 1984…

Achilles 1984

and in the souvenir tile that I bought several years later, on the island of Santorini if I remember correctly…

Achilles

In contrast to the painful death of Achilles at the great staircase in the main hall is a giant painting of the triumphant warrior full of pride.  Dressed in full royal military regalia and erect on his racing chariot he pulls the lifeless body of Hector of Troy in front of the stunned crowd watching helplessly from inside the walls of the City.

The Achilleion must have been an idyllic holiday home but in 1898 at the age of sixty the Empress was assassinated when she was stabbed by an anarchist whilst walking in a park in Geneva, Switzerland.  After her death the palace was sold to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II who also liked to take summer holidays on Corfu and later, after World-War One it was acquired by the Greek State who converted it into a museum.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria

It is a beautiful place with grand sweeping gardens befitting royal ownership and we enjoyed the visit and even went back later to see the sunset from the Kaiser’s chair which is an area at the highest point in the gardens where Wilhelm would go in the evening to enjoy the end of the day.

On the way out we passed Kaiser’s Bridge which is just two stumps of brickwork now but was originally built for the Kaiser so that he could leave his yacht and walk to his palace without crossing the road. How self-indulgent was that?  The road can hardly have been busy or dangerous in 1900!

Two stumps of brickwork now because in 1942 it was ironically blown up by the occupying German troops because it was too low for their tanks to pass below.

Kaiser's Bridge

And so we returned to Kalami and our short holiday was over, we packed our bags and cleaned the apartment, I always like to clean an apartment in case we get a bad reputation as untidy guests and then inevitably we returned to the same beach side taverna for a final meal.  It had been a very good week, beaches, sunshine, long walks, a boat ride and a lot of history.  Corfu remains one of my favourite places in Greece and all of Europe.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…