The wall comes down again: East Side Gallery, Berlin

031I was dismayed to see this picture last week – the longest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is to be partially dismantled to make way for an access road to new luxury apartments. The Wall has been beautifully painted by various artists and is known as the East Side Gallery – I wrote about our visit on our Berlin holiday last year, which we really enjoyed. The image above links to another Telegraph photo, and the full gallery includes an artist’s impression of the proposed new apartment block. According to the accompanying story, about 300 protestors prevented all but a small section being taken away, and Demotix has a photo-story of thousands protesting on Sunday. As of yesterday, it seems that the process has been put on hold and the Mayor has said that he will try to ensure the structure is preserved. I hope he succeeds – I’m all for progress and regeneration where appropriate, but this is a unique piece of history that should be preserved.

PS 11/3/12 – since I wrote last week, there have been further developments, including the setting up of a petition and support from David Hasselhof no less. If you want to sign the petition, all the information is on andBerlin’s blog.

2012: the best bits

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It’s been a funny old year. After working in the same place for two decades, I’ve now left two jobs within a few months of each other, experiencing both the sadness of closing down a much-loved library and the exhaustion of commuting to Edinburgh every day for a temporary contract at the Scottish Agricultural College. While I was there, SAC changed its name and I rather liked its new slogan, shown above. As 2013 dawns I’m not sure what the future will bring so I will hold to the idea of “pastures new”.

Travel

When I wrote last year’s review this blog had only been going since the summer: in 2012, all my holidays and days out have been lovingly preserved on it, so I’m not going to go over them all again here. I’ll cut straight to my best trip of 2012: Berlin. It was our second visit, and I think you always feel more relaxed when you already know a city and can mix familiar experiences with new ones. The hotel we picked, Circus, was excellent and in an area with lots of interesting cafés and restaurants, but the highlight, and the real reason we went, was seeing Leonard Cohen. The city was amazing, he was amazing – I won’t bore you any further because it’s all in my Berlin posts.

Glasgow restaurants

I don’t blog about restaurants in my home city as I go along, but I include a roundup in my annual review. Last year I had eaten in 35 different ones; this year that has gone up to 40. As before, my favourite cuisines turned out to be Italian (8 restaurants, 15 total visits), Indian (8/13) and Oriental (mainly Chinese but including Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese – also 8/13). The reason, apart from delicious food obviously, is that these three always offer me good vegetarian choices. Many other restaurants just have one or two dishes available and / or the chefs think that vegetarian = bland. The most fashionable dish at the moment seems to be risotto – some are very good, but if I never eat another one I won’t be sorry.

Can I choose a favourite restaurant? Not easy, but I’ll try. Of the Italians, the one I visited most (4 times) was last year’s favourite, Amarone which this year won two Glasgow Restaurant Awards. However, I discovered, thanks to a friend’s birthday celebration, Celino’s on Alexandra Parade. It’s a tiny restaurant and deli with great food, a great atmosphere and very friendly staff. I’m going to make it my Italian of 2012.

For Indian, I’m torn as usual, because there are so many good ones to choose from. I’ve had a blog post on the Great Glasgow Curry simmering in my head for a while, but it has never made it onto the page – yet. One I have already written about is KoolBa, which I reviewed a couple of years ago for Taste of Glasgow. It’s still one of my favourites, and I’ve been there 3 times this year, but, like my Italian, my Indian of 2013 is also a new discovery for me. Charcoals on Renfield Street was first recommended by a visitor to Glasgow, and I couldn’t believe I had missed it for so long. (The website is down at the moment so I’ve linked to its 5pm.co page.) It’s quite small and unprepossessing looking from the outside, but the food is very good and nothing is too much trouble for the staff. Charcoals was Best in Glasgow at this year’s Scottish Curry Awards, so I’m not alone in my opinion.

Finally, Chinese food. Strangely, I haven’t been to last year’s favourite, Dragon-I, at all. The most visited (4 times, including Hogmanay) was our local, Amber on Byres Road, which is a serviceable Cantonese restaurant – and doesn’t seem to have a website. This sort of place is being overtaken by a wave of more sophisticated restaurants, of which Dragon-I was a forerunner and my new favourite is the latest addition. Annoyingly, the website for Lychee Oriental is also inaccessible at the moment so I’ve again used a 5pm.co entry. I am writing this on my tablet, and all attempts at searching for the restaurant reach a trial site for mobiles with no way through to the proper site – why not guys? Still I won’t hold it against them. The food, the presentation and the staff are all lovely. Lychee Oriental won Best Newcomer at the Glasgow Restaurant Awards and was voted the Greatest Little Place in Glasgow on Facebook. It’s also my best Chinese and best overall Glasgow restaurant of 2012. Ta da!

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Culture

This is one area that my commute really affected in the latter part of the year. I was getting home too late to go to anything mid-week and I didn’t have the energy to plan for the weekend. We still managed 16 music events from classical to – oh well, I could go on with a list, but you know I’m not going to get past Leonard Cohen don’t you? He would be my gig of the year, any year. I’m surprised, though, at how little theatre we saw – which probably explains the lack of visits to Dragon-I too, because it’s right opposite the Theatre Royal. There was one outstanding dramatic event – Alan Cumming’s (almost) one-man version of Macbeth, set in a psychiatric unit with all the characters channelled through one patient. It was an awesome feat of memory, the best portrayal of vulnerability I have ever seen on stage and such a nuanced performance that it was never in doubt which character was being represented. If it wasn’t for Leonard, Alan Cumming would definitely be my cultural icon of the year, but he’s a close-run second.

2013

As I said at the beginning, my job has ended and I’m looking for pastures new. Perhaps I will have more time for travelling and blogging? I would like to use this blog for its original purpose, to write up holidays of the past as a record for myself, and maybe I should consider expanding its scope to cover restaurant reviews and similar? I enjoy writing and now have four blogs (the other three are all library or book-related in some way). Although there were good reasons at the time for starting them all individually, this is now too many. I’ve also diversified into Pinterest and Storify so I really need to simplify my online presence. I’ve made a start by gathering them all together at flavors.me but more needs to be done. So my resolutions for the year are:

Keep active and find useful things to do, whether paid or voluntary.
Keep writing in the hope of improving, and organising the presentation of that writing better.
Keep travelling and enjoying myself!

Happy New Year.

Berlin: Leonard Cohen at the Waldbühne 05/09/12

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So – the triumphant culmination of our holiday! Not that we didn’t love Berlin in its own right, but this is what it was really all about: the Leonard Cohen concert. If Leonard won’t come to us, then we just have to go to him – though you never know, he might appear yet. In 2008, we saw him in Dublin, then a few months later he came to Glasgow’s Armadillo. A girl can live in hope.

The venue, shown above, was the Waldbühne. This outdoor amphitheatre was originally built as part of the 1936 Olympics, and it’s enormous, seating about 22000. You go in at the top and look down 30m – fortunately we were in the first tier and quite central so got a really good view. The weather was also kind to us – it had been damp in the morning but stayed dry in the evening and it wasn’t too chilly, though the benches were rather hard and cold to sit on. Still, what’s a little discomfort when watching your musical hero?

Leonard, of course, was amazing. It’s hard to believe he’s almost 78 as he runs, or even skips, on and off the stage, and provides us with three and a half hours of entertainment. Even then, had it not been for the 11pm curfew, I’m sure he would have gone on longer – I’ve seen the set-lists for other concerts and we definitely missed a few songs.

Highlights? Well, the old songs always get a good reception. I follow the blog written by guitar technician Leif Bodnarchuk and, according to his tour diary for the Berlin concert, we became the leaders in the sing-along to So long Marianne stakes. One of the new songs, Going home, also got a rousing reception, perhaps because he name checks himself in it “I love to speak with Leonard” – well, I’m sure we’d all love to speak with Leonard, but can’t agree with his estimation of himself as “a lazy bastard living in a suit”. Leif thinks he was taken aback by the extended applause for a new song, so perhaps that was uniquely Berlin too. But the best thing of all, of course, is First we take Manhattan, then we take BERLIN! The audience participation would have taken the roof off, if there had been one. (Note to self: try to see Leonard in Manhattan and find out how it compares.)

This is a travel blog, not a music blog, so I should point out the general ease of getting to and from the concert. I thought it would take hours to climb the stairs and get back to the S-Bahn because of the throngs of people, but within 30 minutes of the concert ending we were on a train. Tired but happy.

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Page three of John’s Berlin Photo Journal has all the photos he took during the concert and I’ve pinned various reviews, pictures and videos to my Leonard Cohen Pinterest board. As well as Leif’s blog linked to above, there’s a photoblog from the tour Notes from the Road by JJ Carenza III. DrHGuy aka 1heckofaguy aka Allan Showalter ALWAYS knows where to find the best videos, and I’ve discovered Arelene Dick, another legendary Cohen fan, has created Pinterest boards for every concert.

Berlin: Unterwelten & East Side Gallery

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Our last full day in Berlin dawned grey and damp, so we decided to take one of the tours from Berliner Unterwelten E.V. (Society for the Exploration and Documentation of Subterranean Architecture). These cover potential nuclear bunkers from the Cold War, tunnels used to breach the Wall and, in our case, a Second World War shelter located behind a U-bahn station. Conditions were horrific, with people staying down there for up to 5 days at a time during air-raids in which 80% of the city centre was destroyed. This is worth remembering as you wander around Berlin – much of what you see, including Schloss Charlottenburg which we visited earlier in the week, is fake, a post-war reconstruction.

The Unterwelten organisation relies entirely on tourists’ fees to fund its activities, which are not just concerned with conservation, they do humanitarian work too. For example, many of the “Ostarbeiter”, labourers imported from the East, had very difficult lives when they returned to, say, the Soviet Union, because they were regarded as having collaborated with the Nazis, even though they were enslaved. More recently, however, compensation has been offered and the society has unearthed records which have enabled people to establish their entitlement by proving they were forced to work for German firms.

By the time we emerged, blinking, 90 minutes later, the weather had perked up so we headed across town to the East Side Gallery. This is a surviving stretch of Wall which has been turned into an open-air art gallery:

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One of the most famous images is Brezhnev locking lips with Honecker with the inscription “God help me survive this deadly love.”

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More pictures of the gallery (p4) and all our Berlin adventures are available on John’s Berlin Photo Journal.

As for us – we went off for a late lunch / early dinner. We had a concert to go to!

Berlin: Alexanderplatz to the Reichstag

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One of the first German words I remember learning, strangely, is Fernsehturm (TV tower) because the one in Berlin had just opened in 1969 when I started learning the language at school. It dominates the skyline from all directions, East and West, which was no doubt the original intention (and, unsurprisingly, after reunification it was found to contain a lot more than just TV equipment.) It’s in Alexanderplatz just a couple of stops on the U-Bahn from our hotel, and a big transport interchange so that most journeys we made passed through it. On Tuesday, we decided to get off there and walk up to the Reichstag – when we visited Berlin in 2004, we did this walk in reverse so it was interesting to see the changes.

First, we took the lift 203m up to the viewing platform of the Fernsehturm. This involved quite a bit of queuing, but was worth it for the panoramic views. Unfortunately, the pictures look as if the weather was slightly hazy, but actually it’s just that they were taken through very dirty glass! Here, for example, is the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall – so called because of the colour, not the politics). The picture also shows one of the main changes in this area – a huge building site. Around here, and all the way up Unter den Linden, the streets are being dug up for an extension to the U-Bahn system.

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(For some great pictures of the Fernsehturm and surrounding area at sunset, see this post from andBerlin.)

Working our way west we passed the statue of Marx and Engels:

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This really puzzled me, because I remembered the statue being in a vast, open cobbled area so I was pleased to check our 2004 photos and discover I hadn’t lost my memory – it was, but the area has now been landscaped and the statue moved to a less conspicuous position where it faces in the opposite direction. Here it is in 2004:

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The rather hideous 1970s building behind is the former Palast der Republik which housed the GDR’s parliament. This is now an empty space being used, temporarily, for an exhibition about Berlin’s 775th birthday:

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However, the plan is to rebuild the Berliner Schloss, the old Imperial Palace, which previously stood on the same site, at least as far as reproducing the exterior. Opposite, the Berliner Dom (Cathedral) has not changed so the area will return to its early-20th century appearance. This seems a very unadventurous idea, though one which would probably be enthusiastically approved of by our very own Prince Charles.

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Unter den Linden was not looking photogenic because of the underground works, so the next point worth a picture was the Brandenburg Gate:

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Not far beyond the Gate is the Reichstag with its Norman Foster glass dome (just visible from this angle). Inside, a ramp spirals up to a viewing deck – we did this last time, so didn’t repeat it but it is well worth a visit.

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The Reichstag is right next to the River Spree where a row of plaques, such as the ones below, commemorate those who were killed trying to swim across to the West.

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In the other direction from the Brandenburg Gate is the Holocaust Memorial. This was still a building site when we were here before, so it was interesting to see it completed. Above ground is a sombre series of 2711 grey blocks of varying heights which create strange alleyways.

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There’s also an information centre below which is as harrowing as you might expect – you could hear a pin drop as people walked round it in silence. At the end, terminals offered links to the Yad Vashem database of Holocaust victims and the database of all commemoration sites to the murdered Jews of Europe which are projects I didn’t know about, and very worthwhile.

After this, we were exhausted and emotionally wrung out so went off for a drink before returning to the hotel. A simple stroll up a city street had thrown up so many tragic sites, whether related to the Holocaust or the Cold War era. It’s to Germany’s credit, though, that it confronts its past head-on in this way.

Berlin: Wannsee Villa

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To the west of the city (but still within its boundaries) lies Grünewald, an area of forests and lakes. The trees are all very young though, because about 70% were cut down after the war for badly needed fuel. It’s not the only reminder of those tragic times: the reason we came here was to visit the Wannsee Villa. Overlooking the lake, this house is where the notorious conference took place in 1942 at which the decision was made to pursue “The Final Solution” for the Jews. The whole history of the Holocaust is laid out in detail – it’s particularly chilling when it focuses on individuals whose photographs they show at the beginning and whose fate you can then trace. The room where the conference is held is kept much as it was, with documents from the meeting on the table, and biographies of the participants are displayed on the wall – certainly, many were later executed as war criminals, but what shocked me that was several lived on into the 1980s with seeming impunity.

This was not a visit you could enjoy, yet life goes on. Right next door is this quirky lion statue and a lovely little lakeside restaurant, Seehaase, where we enjoyed lunch and a beer. That’s Berlin.

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Berlin: Schloss Charlottenburg

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Originally built in 1695-1713 for the Prussian Queen, Sophie Charlotte, and expanded by Frederick the Great in 1740-1742, this very pretty palace and gardens can eat up a whole day. You do end up with a feeling of excess though, seeing rooms like this…..

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…..and possessions beyond the means of most people on the planet.

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When it all gets a bit too much, retreat to the cafe in the Kleine Orangerie for lunch and beer. John took loads of photographs – if you want to see any more they are in his Berlin Photo Journal.

Berlin: Scheunerviertel & the Circus Hotel

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Photo courtesy of Circus Hotel website

The Circus Hotel is number one on Tripadvisor for Berlin, and we certainly agree that it’s a great place to stay. Very central, in the East side of the city, and right next door to an U-bahn station, the location couldn’t be better. It’s also owned independently so has a lot more character than your average chain hotel. The partners started out with a hostel in the late 90s, added this hotel in 2008 and last year opened an apartment block for longer stays or larger groups, so business appears to be flourishing. The room above is not ours, but it’s almost exactly the same – everything is bright, modern and clean, including the staff! They are young, friendly, helpful and knowledgeable and speak excellent English when my school German runs out (quite quickly). The organic breakfast buffet (8 Euros extra) is excellent, there’s a lovely courtyard suitable for the drinking of beer, see below, and we also had dinner on “Gin and jazz” night – it’s not often we choose to eat in a hotel restaurant.

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So after that paean of praise, on to the wider area. Scheunenviertel means “Barn Quarter”, as it was where the animals were kept when the area was outside the city limits. Since the fall of the Wall, it has become a bustling area of studios, galleries and cafes, but you are never far from a tragic part of history because it used to be a centre of Jewish life with all that implies. The hotel building itself belonged to a family called Fabisch (now the name of its restaurant) who were forced to sell their clothing store during the Nazi regime. Some family members emigrated, but others were deported and murdered in Theriesenstadt. There are constant reminders of these times:

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Koppenplatz Memorial to the Jews of the neighbourhood who were deported to the concentration camps.

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New Synagogue – we visited the interesting (and sad) exhibitions inside on a previous visit to Berlin.

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Monument by the Jewish cemetery – this was the collection point for the Jewish population before being taken to the camps.

However, there are also plenty of more cheerful sights, especially if you keep your eyes upwards.

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Very elaborate (former) Post Office building.

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One of the courtyards in the Hackescher Markt. The Barras it isn’t!

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I think this translates as “Craft Union”, but it’s now galleries.

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This pretty facade was above shop fronts.

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One of the few remaining squats in the centre of Berlin. I think I prefer where we are staying!