Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Potsdam (For Real This Time)

After not being able to get to Potsdam on the Sunday, I made another attempt on Monday. It was still pretty frustrating, but this time I took the regional train, and, eventually, did make it there.

The German city-state of Berlin is surrounded by a state called Brandenburg, the capital of which is Potsdam. Potsdam is a town chock full of old buildings, especially in Frederick the Great's Sanssouci Park which houses a number of palaces. (I don't know what's going on with that name, but it doesn't sound German.)

Stepping out of the station, I was struck by the sense of dignified antiquity, as I found myself facing Potsdam's erotic movie theatre. Really? That's what you want visitors to see first?

I had some people to meet back in Berlin, so I didn't have a huge amount of time. Here's what I did see:

Sanssouci Palace

The Chinese Pavillion - Needs More Gold

Our flat has a similar moss problem, only on the inside.

The Town Hall (Rathaus)

My high school was very similar to this, only with slightly more 1950's prefab buildings that the army had no further use for. If you look closely, you can see Professor McGonagall heading in the front door.

The Dutch Quarter

Potsdam has a celebrated Dutch Quarter dating from the early 18th century. During the Cold War, the town was in East Germany, and building improvements were focused on Berlin. Consequently, the Dutch Quarter became extremely run down. After reunification, efforts were made to repair the area, and it is now very smart.

I found that in Berlin almost everyone spoke English, even though I was trying to speak German (somehow they could tell I wasn't local). In East German Potsdam, I struck a lot more people who didn't.

Town Gate

I must say that Potsdam and Sanssouci were very pretty in the Autumn. The park grounds are vast and very well maintained, and I'd like to go back there again some time.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Damn Trains and Potsdam

Since I had such a brief amount of time in Berlin, I had devised a pretty intricate schedule. Saturday was for getting there, going to the museum island, and seeing the giant puppets. Sunday was going to be a day trip out of the city to Potsdam.

But I simply couldn't work out how to get there. I took the S-Bahn to several stations and spent ages waiting around for trains that never came. Hours passed, and the day began to dissolve away. At one point, in frustration, I shouted "You rat bastard!" at a train timetable, only to find a guy was leaning right over my shoulder to read the schedule. He didn't see too upset by it.

It turns out the wheels have come off the S-Bahn (um, literally). A whole bunch of the lines were shut down in July because the wheels on the trains are cracking and the Potsdam line is one of them. Workers have to replace 4800 brake cylinders on the trains. This has put quite a dent in that effective-German-rail myth.

I didn't learn this until later, though. As far as I knew, I was just the dumbo who couldn't work out how to get somewhere on a train. So instead I juggled the schedule and detoured to Monday's location: Charlottenburg. Charlottenburg is a former palace of the Hohenzollern dynasty, dating from the late 17th century when it was built by Frederick I of Prussia and Queen Sophia Charlotte (after whom it is named). The interior is impressive, but photos are banned.

I had a rotten time trying to get pictures in the grounds that weren't over- or under-exposed. The pitch black sky really confused my camera.

One of the Many Museums in the Area


Upon finishing the tour, I bought a snack at a bakery. They really do some good snacks in Germany. This thing had about 7 layers of chocolate, and then had a chocolate coating, and was about the size of a toaster. It was so large and rich that I got the shakes after eating it.

In fact, everything I ate that day was great. For lunch I had a Turkish falafel. I've missed them - English kebabs are terrible. For dinner I had a goulash in a German theme pub playing bad oompah music. It was outstanding (the goulash, not the music). I've been trying to replicate it since I got home, but I haven't got the richness right. Maybe I need to add cream or something.

In that pub, I sat facing a small square of cloth stuck to the wall. It was from when Christo wrapped the Reichstag in cloth.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Recovery Position

Wikipedia will tell you that the recovery position involves lying someone on their side with one arm stretched out and blah blah blah. The true recovery position is sitting on our couch on a Sunday afternoon with 2 Panadol and the TV on low volume. And maybe, if I'm feeling adventurous, mending some clothes that need sewing up. I was clubbing in London last night.

I meant to go clubbing in Berlin too. I can't think of anything that sounds cooler than that. I would use the sentence "This reminds me of the time I went clubbing in Berlin" in every conversation for the rest of my life.

The Saturday I arrived in Berlin, I had left for the airport at about 3am, and had been walking fairly constantly since then, so by evening I was in no state to go out. Instead, I watched half of "The Empire Strikes Back" in German and then went to sleep about 10pm. Interestingly, Darth Vader is LESS menacing in German than in English. That's quite a testimony to James Earl Jones' voice.

So, I didn't get to do my German clubbing. But I did go out the following nights and took some long exposure shots around the city.

Französischer Dom

Berliner Dom (I)

Berliner Dom and TV Tower

Museuminsel Down the Spree River

A Shop in Alexanderplatz

Brandenburg Gate

Restaurant at Hackescher Markt (near my Hotel)


TV Tower and Marienkirche

Our Flat Needs a Life-sized LED Palm Tree

Memorial for the First Book Burning (Empty Book Shelves)

"Hey, this post reminds me of the time I went clubbing in Clapham". Nah, it just doesn't sound as cool.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Give it a Berl in Europe (II)

The pattern for my recent trips has been overwhelming numbers of people. But Berlin in Autumn should be fairly quiet, right? Whoops, no, I accidentally picked Reunification weekend and Berlin was in party mode. I read afterwards that Al Qaeda had threatened to attack the festivities, so somehow word of this event had reached the caves of Afghanistan while I was still completely oblivious.

This weekend it was 19 years since the Wall came down. They were celebrating by walking 2 massive marionettes (a man and a little girl) across the city over a period of 4 days. On Saturday afternoon after I left the Pergamon Museum I decided to go and see the puppets. Unfortunately, half a million other people had had the same idea.

Didn't I see all of you at an airshow recently?

The crowds were assembled on one of the main streets - the Strasse des 17 Juni - and the police had put up barricades to stop anyone else from joining the throng. But the Strasse runs through a wooded area on both sides (Tiergarten), so after climbing through a security fence and a short thrash through some shrubs I was in the crowd.

I wasn't even that close to the puppets. They had made their way from opposite sides of the city to the Brandenburg Gate. I got to watch them meet up on a big screen. The man took off the helmet of his diving suit (?), and then the little girl floated up through the air into his arms, and the crowd all clapped. I have absolutely no idea what that was about. Whenever I see Germans celebrating unity, I feel the desire to steal a motorbike and do a jump over a barbed wire fence and away. Don't know what that means.

So that was that, and ... wait, do you really think I'd give up just like that? Oh ye, of little faith. Sunday morning I got up early and made my way to Brandenburg Gate. It turns out my elbows are about the height of the average German's crotch, so I fought my way through the crowd, leaving a trail of hunched and angry Teutons in my wake.

The Puppeteers

The Little Girl, on a Boat, on a Truck

The Man is 15m Tall

Both Puppets in Front of the Gate

It was pretty damn cool. I visited our software vendor later in the week, and asked them what it was all about and they said they didn't have a clue. So it wasn't just me.

Someone in the crowd handed me a pamphlet advertising a free concert for organ donation. Sure, they promise a free concert and then you wake up the next morning in a bath full of ice with a lung missing. I'm not falling for that one. Again.

Here's a YouTube video. I saw the bit with the helmet coming off:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Give it a Berl in Europe (I)

My work has been pestering me to use up more of my leave: Aww, do I have to?

So, I went to Berlin for 4 days. Saturday, I had an early flight and had to leave home about 3am. I made it into the city towards midday.

The New Synagog

What's the name of that place where souls go to wait? Perg... perga...? Oh, yeah, the queue outside the Pergamon Museum. I don't know if my soul was cleansed, but it got a good wash in the drizzle.

In the middle of Berlin is Museuminsel (Museum Island), which has 5 great museums in a small area. In their Empire days the Germans, like the British, did a pretty good job looting some stonking ancient artifacts from the rest of the world. It takes some serious balls to steal one of the wonders of the world. The most special items at the Pergamon Museum are:

The Pergamon Altar (2200 years old)

The Market Gate of Miletus (1900 years old)

The Ishtar Gate (2500 years old)

The Ishtar Gate was the best. It's from Babylon, made of glazed blue bricks, and has a matching walled road that leads up to it. By the way, did you know that the US military used the site of Babylon in Iraq as a base, and a helicopter knocked down some of the remaining ruins?

I sat on the Pergamon Altar and was told off, so I wandered into the next room and leant against the Miletus Gate and was told off again. So New Zealanders aren't allowed there any more, but you should've gone because it was really cool.

As dusk was falling, I headed north to Humboldthain. Hidden in a park there is a WWII bomb shelter, built to hold 18,000 people and to be largely indestructable, which explains why it is still there: It withstood serveral attempts to blow it up after the war. The large platforms on top held heavy anti-aircraft guns, and small guns were lower down.

To get there, I had to walk through a heavily wooded park in the gloom and then climb up a small hill through the trees. It was desserted and fairly creepy. But it did offer a good view out over the city.