Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Berlin by Wheelchair

A family visitor came to stay with us this Christmas who needs a bit of help to get around and so we hired a wheelchair for her for the week.

This was quite easy to arrange. We registered at this website Rollstuhlverleih in Berlin and easily found a wheelchair hire company called Rolli King Berlin

Wheelchair hire for a week cost just 25€ + 5€ for final cleaning costs, and a refundable 100€ deposit. The wheelchair they provided was solid without being too heavy to push, and after a bit of practice easy to use and fold up when not in use.

You could also try the Berlin Red Cross, the Deutsches Rotes Kreuz.

We found getting around Berlin a bit of a hassle. S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations in particular do not always have a lift between platform and street-level, and where they do, they are sometimes out of order.

There are also a paucity of drop-kerbs at road-crossings. With a wheelchair, even the smallest kerb height can be a problem to negotiate, especially if you also have an eye on the grüne Ampelmännchen (green man on Berlin pedestrian crossings) turning red on a busy road. And Berlin cobbled streets and pavements might look quaint, but they are bone-shakers for the wheelchair user.

On the plus side, there are usually concessionary prices for wheelchair users at most tourist attractions such as museums and galleries, and the designated wheelchair pusher can often be allowed in free.

All-in-all we were glad that we had hired a wheelchair for our visitor for the week; we got to places that she just couldn't have managed on her own. Even to the top of the Reichstagskuppel - Mensch, that is one steep and dizzying ramp! But I think I would find it very difficult to be a permanent wheelchair user in Berlin and have to rely on one to get around.

Action is needed! More drop-kerbs are needed! More wheelchair ramps are needed! Even the Berliner Dom doesn't have a ramp up its steep stone steps, and you have to call for a service lift around the side to gain access (that's if the staff hear you ringing the buzzer - they didn't when we went to a concert Christmas Day). Information about 'Barrierefreiheit' (accessibility for all) can be found here.

Here is a photo from the archives of the wonderful Simba, giving my Father-in-law's wheelchair a test!

Simbi in a wheelchair

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas Day Concert at the Berliner Dom

For the evening on Christmas Day we treated our Mothers to a Weihnachtskonzert at the Berliner Dom (cathedral) given by the Berlin Brass Quintett.

The bright, pure notes of brass instruments playing short pieces by Bach, Händel, Kreisler u.a. in such an acoustically resonant setting was the perfect, refreshing, palate-cleansing finish to a day of excessive, enjoyable feasting.

Weihnachtskonzert in the Berliner Dom
(taken on a mobile phone, so apologies for quality!)
Though the concert was spiritually uplifting, the audience sounded like they had come straight from a TB Hospital, myself included; I discovered that the acoustics of the Dom magnified the blast of me blowing my nose as well as they do a brass trumpet. The poor young Mädchen on the pew in front of me nearly fell off her pew and erupted into a fit of giggles.

However, we were not impressed by the Berliner Dom's facilities for wheel-chair users. After waiting ten minutes in the rain at the wheel-chair lift entrance round the side of the cathedral for someone to answer the buzzer, we managed to get the wheelchair and its occupant up the steep steps to the main entrance by ourselves. When we complained to the guy collecting tickets at the door, he said 'well, you've made it up anyway, so that's okay'. Mmm, not okay really. Neither was the fact that the staff only reluctantly eventually unlocked the disabled toilets, and their manner was abrupt bordering on the rude when they took us in the lift back down again at the end of the concert. But to be fair, we hadn't phoned in advance to let them know a wheelchair user was attending the concert, and they did explain that they were short-staffed on Christmas Day. With all the Christmas cheer around, we couldn't really complain too much.

Despite the staccato of coughs from the audience, and the hiccup over disabled access, we all agreed that the concert was a prefect ending to Christmas Day. Even the coffee from Dunkin Donuts (the only place open for refreshments by the Brandenburg Gate - excepting the Adlon Hotel) tasted really good. Frohe Weihnachten!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Festung Küstrin - the Lost Fortress

Kostrzyn nad Odrą is a large town on the river Oder, some 85km (52 miles) due East of Berlin, just over the Polish border. It is a thriving, expanding and modern town, and it is hard to believe that at this spot some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II occurred. But there are still traces of 'Fortress Küstrin' to be discovered, as we found out one Sunday as we traveled by train to Kostrzy and explored the ruined Altstadt.

Kostrzyn nad Odrą is a border town, as evidenced by the large Polish market there (Polenmarkt) where you can buy goods with lower taxes and duty than in Germany (tobacco, alcohol, petrol) in Euro as well as in złoty. Poland doesn't have Sunday trading restrictions either, so as you can imagine the Polenmarkt is a popular destination on Sundays for German drivers and coach parties.

Küstrin Altstadt is just beside the empty Polish border control buildings and north of the Polish market. This border crossing, and the bridge over the Oder, were re-opened in 1992. On December 21st 2007 the passport checks stopped, when Poland became part of the Schengen Zone. Looks like they are keeping the buildings maintained just in case the situation should change ...

The Altstadt was built entirely inside a fortress, surrounded by high walls, bastions, cavaliers, and a moat connecting the Oder and the Warta rivers. Fortress Küstrin was entered by three gates (the Berliner Tor in the North, beside the Polish border control pictured above, the Zorndorf Gate in the East, and the Kietz Gate in the South, beside the Polenmarkt, pictured below.

Kietz Gate, Festung Küstin
This gate, the moat, and the fortified walls have been recently restored and are reminiscent of the Spandau Zitadelle.

Once inside the fortress walls though, the Altstadt has been left for nature to reclaim.

Berliner Straße, Küstrin
It is like wandering around the ruins of Pompeii. Though a lot greener and a lot colder. And with no plaster casts from the lava dust of people caught up by a volcano. Okay, maybe not such a good analogy then. But there is the same sense of a whole town that suffered some devastating event that destroyed a way of life and was abandoned. It is hard to imagine now that here for example was a busy market place lined with shops and hotels:
Küstrin Market Place
It is so melancholy here wandering down streets overgrown with grass, spotting what were once front-door steps into residences and shops.

What occurred here? you wonder. Why was it never rebuilt?

The answer can be guessed if you look at a map and imagine the Soviet Red Army advancing on Berlin from the East in the last stages of World War II. Küstrin straddled Reichstrasse 1, the main road that ran East-West across Nazi Germany from Aachen on the Belgian border to Königsberg (now Kalingrad), capital of East Prussia. It is also the main road across the river Oder, and leads up the Seelow Heights to Berlin (in fact becoming what is now Karl-Marx-Allee). By March 1945 the advancing Soviet army had established bridgeheads just North and South of Küstrin but needed to take out the Küstrin Corridor in-between which was defended by Wehrmacht troops.

There were military blunders on both sides, leading to a sixty-day siege of fortress Küstrin during which the Altstadt and the German troops isolated from their main Wehrmacht formations were pounded relentlessly by heavy artillery and missiles from 'Stalins Organ-pipes'. Hitler had ordered the German forces of Küstrin, which included a hastily assembled Volkssturm of women, old men, and children of the Hitler Youth, to fight to the last bullet. This they did, with no surrender, and at appaling cost to human life. By the time that the Küstrin garrison was finally overcome by the Soviet troops on 27th March 1945, about 5,000 Germans had been killed, with 9,000 wounded and 6,000 captured. An additional 5,000 Russians were killed and 15,000 wounded.

After the war, any remaining Germans living in the ruins of their former homes were expelled and the border between Poland and Germany closed. The Poles who were relocated to the area had no desire to rebuild the town of their former, brutal enemy, and so Festung Küstrin was abandoned to Nature, and Kostrzyn nad Odrą grew up beside the ruins.

Nowadays there are signs of a renewed interest in the history of the place, and no doubt in the tourist potential of younger generation Germans curious about the town their East Prussian grand-parents once lived. Signposts showing former street-names and information boards and a small museum have been built, and some of the former fortifications have been renovated back to rather-too-pristine condition.

So far these renovations haven't taken too much away from the melancholy of the site. There is a whole philosophical and moral debate to be had about whether it is better to dispel the haunting ghosts of a tragic past rather than wallow in morbidity, but for the time being Küstrin Altstadt is a moving memento mori of past glories reduced to rubble.

Here are a few images:

The fortress of Küstrin was first mentioned in a deed of 1232 when it was feudally owned by the Knights Templar, but it was rebuilt as the residence of the Hohenzollern Margraves by Markgraf Johann von Brandenburg-Küstrin, as commemorated by this modern memorial.

Nearby are the remains of the Schloss where Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse), King in Prussia, was imprisoned in his youth by his father Frederick William I after trying to flee Prussia with the aid of his 'good friend' Hans Hermann von Katte. The young Frederick was locked in a tower in the Schloss and ordered by his father to watch the execution of von Katte from his prison window. After that traumatic event, his father made him stay on at Küstrin to learn the skills of rural and city administration, and to be fair he must have learned well and went on to be a successful and well respected King.

Now all that remains of the Schloss are a the foundations of walls and a few marble steps and floor tiles.

The excavations revealing the drain arrangements of the Schloss look nothing less than an archaeological dig at a Roman villa.

Berliner Tor

Friday, 6 December 2013

Orkantief Xaver

Northern Europe is in the grips of Orkantief (area of intense low pressure) Xaver, and though we are thankfully not one of the unfortunate people who are flooded out, without electricity, or on their guard against falling trees, it has brought blizzard conditions to our garden.

Here are a few photos as the snow moves in:

Deutsche Bahn Goes Digital - online tickets

For a while now, Deutsche Bahn railways have been offering the facility to buy tickets for your entire journey on-line on the DB website. That's not just for the big red and white trains, but also for the S-Bahn and regional trains. And that is a good thing. But you always had to print your ticket out and take it with you, which was a pain.

But not any more!

We travelled from Basdorf to the Sächsische Schweiz and back lwith a virtual ticket stored on my Beloved's tablet computer; the ticket controllers just scanned the bar-code off of the screen, and after checking the credit card details matched up, that was that. This included local Dresden regional trains as well (though here they didn't have the facility to scan, they just inspected the screen).

Well done Deutsche Bahn! (and it is not often I get to say that). Also well done that all the trains were on time for a change!

Berliner Hauptbahnhof

Bird's Eye Berlin - Lustgarten from the Humboldt Box

We are being battered by the snows and winds of Orkantief Xaver at the moment, so I am not venturing out today!

Instead, here are some bird's eye shots of the Lustgarten that I took from the top of the Humboldt Box back in June this year.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Bedtime at Beelitz

Today we did a bit of urbex at Beelitz-Heilstätten, a former sanatorium SW of Berlin and now pretty much abandoned. This is one place I wouldn't want to spend a night!

Probably more photos to follow, when I get around to it.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Return to The Bastei

For my Beloved's birthday we returned to the Bastei in der Sächsischen Schweiz. Here are some photos of our ramble around the amazing sandstone cliffs. As you can see, it got snowy later on!