Sunday, 25 September 2011

Volkspark Friedrichshain - Freddy's Grove

Berlin's oldest public park, and third largest, is the Volkspark Friedrichshain. You can read all about it on the net, or better still visit it on a sunny Sunday afternoon like we did today. Here are a few photos to give you a feel for it (click for bigger).

The park was created to commemorate the centenary of  the accession of Friedrich II (der Große) to the Prussian throne. 

The park has a large memorial to the Polish soldiers who died in WWII, and to the German anti-fascist resistance movement. Conceived and built during DDR times, the monument now seems to be mostly a skateboard park and place to practice graffiti. Oh, and for throwing trainers tied together at (look closely). 

Japanese Peace Bell. A memorial to the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Sure, Milton Keynes has its concrete cows too. But are they on the roof of a snack-bar, eh?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
No, it is the memorial to the German members of the International Brigades that fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Insel Rügen Experience

Last week we had a holiday on the enchanting island of Rügen. You can see my holiday snaps here -photos of Rügen (give it a moment to load, and then remember to click for bigger - same as with photos on this page).

Rügen is an island (with small satellite islands) just off the North Germany coast in the Baltic (Ostsee), and has an outline like a Rorschach test.

It is made up of chalk cliffs, joining spits of land with long beaches and sand-dunes, and lush green forests and farmland. It really is a spellbinding mixture of all the best bits of Cornwall, Anglesey, Brighton, and Beachy Head, though all on a smaller, more intimate, scale. I don't know why it hasn't been picked up by British holidaymakers, because it is everything you remember from childhood days by the sea and without the present-day UK reality of a wave of chip cartons, drunkenness, amusement arcades, and seedy discount shops. In fact, we didn't overhear a single English-speaking voice the whole week. Though on the other hand there wasn't the mix of folk from all countries of the world that makes e.g. Berlin so vibrant. We only saw one Turkish kebab Imbiss all week (in Putbus) and they didn't even do falafel. If you like smoked fish or matjes herring though, you were in fish heaven. Rügen is like a smörgåsbord; a buffet of small nibbles full of variety linked by a theme of the sea. Enough of the simile - we're vegetarians after all.

We hired a car for the week so that we could take our cat Cassie on holiday with us. Things didn't get off to a good start as we reversed into a car in the Herz Rental car-park, but we soon got the hang of driving on the right side of the road.

Kunstof Salsitz, Lohme, Insel Rügen
We stayed the week in an apartment at the Kunsthof Salsitz at Lohme on the edge of Nationalpark Jasmund. They didn't mind us holidaying with our cat, and indeed had one of their own. Cassie was quite impressed too, though we didn't dare let her out until later in the week. The last time she had been in a car she had ended up a thousand kilometres away in Germany so on the whole she was pretty cool about it.

The Kunsthof ('art courtyard') was most individual; it was adjoined and owned by a sculptor/artist and the apartment was appropriately quirkily designed with a crazy-marble floor and artwork on the walls. The grounds too were laid out with interesting sculptures around every corner:

One of the sculptures in the garden of the Kunsthof Salsitz, Lohme, Rügen
The Kunsthof Salsitz proved to be a great choice, ideally located for rambling along the cliff-tops and beaches and only a short walk into the village of Lohme with its small harbour and spectacular sunsets.

Sunset over Lohme harbour

Sunset over Lohme harbour II
Around the coasts of Rügen there are numerous large granite boulders in the sea or on the beach. These are called 'der Findling' in German (plural 'Findlinge'), which is also the word for 'foundling' as in 'an abandoned child'. This is appropriate because what they are, are boulders that have been carried away from their native rockbeds by glaciers, then just left behind when the glacier changes course because of an obstacle (such as the cliffs of Jasmund peninsular). Lohme has the fifth largest Findling on Rügen, and it is named the Shwanenstein or 'Swan Stone'. The reason for its name is this: Children are told a fairytale that the babies of Lohme are brought to their parents by the stork in Summer, and the swan in Winter. Up until that time they are hidden in the Schwanenstein and emerge from a crack down its side. Of course. We were also rather sceptical that there would be any swans on the Ostsee - do they live on salt-water? During the week we were proved totally wrong.

der Schwanenstein
Probably the best walk from Lohme is East along the 'Überuferweg' (upper coastal path) through the forest, with tantalising glimpses of the sea, to the Königsstuhl, a famous protruding cliff of brilliant white chalk.

We set out from Lohme along the path at 7am on the Sunday morning. The guide book hinted that in high Summer this walk would be like joining a very long queue of other searchers after the Königsstul, but this early in the morning in September we didn't see another soul.

A seat to rest on along the Überuferweg
It would be a marvellous view from here  ...
if it wasn't for the trees in the way
When we arrived at the summit of the Königsstuhl we found that to get to it you had to enter the Jasmund National Park Visitors' Centre, or the 'Erlebniswelt Kreideküste' as it is called. This translates as the 'Chalk-Coast World of Experience', and admission was 6€. Luckily it wasn't open yet and we just wandered in and stood on top of the Königsstuhl viewing area. We missed out on all the interactive exhibitions and cinema that the Erlebniswelt offered, but frankly anything that has the word 'experience' in its title puts me off; if you want to experience something then actually go up to it and see the real thing, not through some hi-tech, virtual reality interface. Well, maybe the centre is amazing and a good place to visit if it is pouring down with rain, and at least it isn't a theme park like the tacky Land's End Experience in Cornwall is (or was - it might not be there anymore. Hopefully).

On the top of the Königsstuhl
At night, as a spectacle for visitors, they used to set fire to balls of brushwood
 and roll them down the side of that cliff opposite. You had to make your own
entertainment in those days.
Anyway, even standing on the viewing platform you can't really experience the Königsstuhl. It is like coming out of the woods and finding that you are stood on top of the Eiffel tower - great views, but what does the tower actually look like? Well, for that you need to find the steps down to the beach below, starting in the NE corner of the visitor centre car-park. They are free to go down, but be warned that there are over 400 wooden steps and walkways zig-zagging down a forested ravine. OK for going down, but a killer if you want to climb back up. Thankfully we didn't want to retrace our steps, and continued the rest of our coastal walk at sea-level around the Jasmund peninsular to Sassnitz.

The name 'Königsstuhl' means 'the chair of kings', and the legend is that to prove themselves worthy of kingship over the tribes of Rügen, candidates had to climb the cliff from the beach to the very top. Well, here is the view from the beach of the Königsstuhl:

Der Königsstuhl from the beach
Not only is it a sheer 118m in height, but that white stuff is pure chalk that crumbles away when you try and get a hand-hold. It would be like climbing something the length of a football field that was made of slightly wet flour.

Der Königsstuhl from further down the beach
The walk around the peninsula is totally stunning. You go around one headland to discover an amazing view of white cliffs present itself, then go around that headland and discover an even more beautiful vista, and then the next, and then the next, each more breathtaking than the last. It really did bring a tear to our eyes, the views were that gorgeous. The sea itself was unbelievable, with the chalk making the waves an incredible milky turquoise.

The chalk cliffs of Jasmund Peninsular, Rügen

Chalky, milky sea around Jasmund Peninsular
More chalky Jasmund cliffs
Further chalk cliffs on the Kriedefelsen coast
Yes, more chalk cliffs.
We couldn't get enough of seeing them, they are gob-smackingly amazing.

The beach walk was relatively easy, with just the occasional tree-fall or chalk-slide blocking the way. And here's a fashion tip for goths and heavy metal fans - don't take a walk along this beach dressed in black unless you are going for the look of the Fields of the Nephilim riding into town after crossing the Nevada Rad-lands. Let me point out again that eveywhere is made of crumbly, powdery, very white chalk.

Tree fall on Jasmund beach
One thing though, at least you don't need to keep an eye out for the tide cutting you off; the tides in the Baltic are hardly noticeable. Unnoticeable also were the other people: I believe we have visited the shores of remote lochs high in the middle of the Skye Cullin Mountains that were busier. You can well understand why this coast caught the imagination of the great German Romantik painter Caspar David Friedrich.

Eventually we came to signs of people again, and the lovely harbour-town of  Sassnitz where we had a cooling Bier and a meal beside the harbour.

Sassnitz Old Town
Sea-front at Sassnitz
Sassnitz Harbour
More of our Rügen holiday coming soon!

Shiver Me Timbers!

Spotted at Lohme, Insel Rügen, near where we were staying on holiday.

Pirate car

'Pirat' is of course German for pirate. I cannot confirm if there was a parrot on the dashboard, but it was parked outside the Hotel Pirat. Naturally.

Pfaueninsel - Peacock Island

Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) is a lovely place to spend a Sunday afternoon, though we visited it on rather a dull and rainy day. It is in south-west of Berlin, and we got to it via a ride in a vintage bus from Wannsee station and then a ferry over to the island in the river Havel.

Here are a few of my photos of the day.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Schloss Meseberg - The Magic Castle

On a cycle from Gransee to Neuruppin we came across a small, immaculately kept village attached to a large, bright white, Baroque château about 70km north of Berlin. This is Schloss Meseberg, built in 1739 by the old Prussic noble family of  Wartensleben. It came as something of a surprise after the long bike-ride through thick forests from Gransee, and gave us another surprise when we found out what its use is today.

Entrance driveway to Schloss Meseburg, Brandeburg.
In the small but ancient church there is an enormous painting from 1588 showing Ludwig von der Gröben, his wife (born Anna von Oppen), along with their seventeen children (13 boys and 4 girls).

Family portrait of the Von der Gröben's at prayer in Meseberg church.
There are also gravestones and memorials in the nave to other notable von der Gröben's. You can tell them by the eagle's claw on the left of the shield. They were part of the nobility of Mark Brandenburg, and later Prussia and the German Empire, and indeed their descendants are amongst us today. Rather than generals or  diplomats though, they are e.g. sports commentators and soap stars. Their connection to Schloss Meseberg is that the count Wartensleben who built it had gained the manor by marrying Dorothea von der Gröben who was heiress to this little packet of land.

Monument to one of the Von Gröben's.
I come to know this because the Schloss and its history was written down by Theodor Fontane in his 19th century blockbuster travelogue 'Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg' ('Rambling through Mark Brandenburg'). Fontane also describes the Schloss as being 'Wie ein Zauberschloß' - trans: 'like a magic castle'.

The Schloss was later owned by the family Lessing, founders of the Vossiche Zeitung, one of the first Berliner newspapers in the eighteenth century and a liberal publication at the forefront of the German Enlightenment. Indeed, the family included the important Enlightenment poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

Another view of Schloss Meseberg
After 1945 the Schloss was seized by the DDR and put to use to house, amongst other things, a kindergarten, a grocers, and the mayor's office.

After Germany's reunification the by now rather run-down and dilapidated ruins were bought by the Messerschmitt Foundation (yes, that Messerchnmitt. The one who designed and built the fighter planes) and restored at a cost of 25 million €. Since 2004 the Schloss has been leased out by the Messerschmitt Foundation to the Federal German Government at a peppercorn rent of 1€ per year over 20 years. The Government has since been using it as a guest house for important international visitors - its first guest was French President Jacques Chirac on 26th Jan 2007 - but there didn't seemed to be anyone staying when we were there.

Front door at Schloss Meseberg
The Schloss and its landscaped gardens are set beside the small, serpentine Huwenowsee sitting in a picturesque ravine. The slopes from the road down to the lake are terraced with grapevines. Delicious though they looked, we didn't lean over and pick a handful of Angela Merkel's grapes though. I don't think she would have been too pleased, and you can be sure the entire grounds are peppered with security cameras.

Grapevines by Schloss Meseberg.