Saturday, 29 March 2014

Heron at the Botanischer Garten

Today was a lovely Spring day and we visited the Botanischer Garten in Berlin to enjoy the sights and smells of the new flowers.

We also spotted this gorgeous heron by the lake there, just shooting the breeze, and having a peer down into the waters now and then in case a carp or a frog was swimming by unaware.

It must be an idyllic place for a heron to live, especially at this time of year when your lake is surrounded by blossom. Though the heron is more probably just interested in the fish.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Stolpe Castle and the Grützpott Saga

Cycling SE from Angermünde in Uckermark, Brandenburg, you might come across, as we did, a large heavily-built tower on a ridge looking over the Oder flood-plain to the Polish border. This is the keep of Stolpe castle, which was originally built in the late twelfth century by Danes.

Danes? Yes, this land was once owned by the Duchy of Pomerania to the north, which owed fealty to the king of Denmark. In fact the tower's lower layers (just before the brick) are constructed from lower Jurassic Höör sandstone imported from southern Sweden.

The castle was pretty much burnt down in 1445 when Elector of Brandenburg Friedrich II conquered the Duke of Pomerania, but the keep survived and rubble from the rest of the castle was piled up around it and protected it from the ravages of time.

It was restored around 1920 and though it took three shells from the Red Army in 1945 it wasn't significantly damaged. It took reunification before any further restoration, which was carried out from 2006 to Easter 2008 when it was opened for the first time to the public.

Note that that is the red and white flag of Brandenburg flying from the top, not an upside down red and white Polish flag.

An interesting feature of the keep is that the 'front door' is so high up. Visitors today have to climb a metal spiral staircase to get inside. The keep of a castle is the main residential space for the king or lord, so it was certainly secure from attack, as long as the besiegers didn't bring a tall ladder with them.

Looking down the spiral staircase
The area below the entrance was actually a large dungeon, said to be one of the most secure dungeons in Germany.

Visitors today can peer down a hole into the dungeon below. There is a guide who will turn the light on for you to see better. The prospect of ever being stuck down there in the dark is terrifying. Food (or worse) would be flung down at you, and the only way out would be if someone lowered a rope down for you.

Looking down into the dungeon
Inside the tower there are information boards about the history (in German) and a small display of mediaeval armour and weaponry.
Mediaeval must-have fashion
The best part of a visit to the tower though, is the view it affords over the canals and the Oder to the hills of Poland beyond.

By the way, these photos are from the archives, and a cycle we did from Angermünde to Schwedt back in September 2011, so don't go wondering why the gorse is out.

Oh yes, I promised you in the title a retelling of the Grützpott Saga. The Stolper-Turm is colloqually known as the Grützpott, and this is the legend of how it got its name:

According to the saga, many centuries ago there lived in the castle a robber baron by the name of Tiloff. He particularly targeted merchants who were travelling through his territory. One day he spied a merchant from Silesia who had a very large money-pouch (in German, eine Geldkatze, or money cat). When the merchant rode through Stope forest the knight Tiloff fell upon him with a drawn sword. But the merchant had a gun, loaded with a silver button from his wife's dress. The button hit the knight in the heart, and he fell down dead from his horse. His squire fled horrified back to the castle.

The villagers soon got to hear of the death of the hated Tiloff, and banded together to destroy the despised castle. They soon took over the castle, but not the dungeon tower. The defenders of the tower threw all sorts of things down onto the attackers. When they had nothing left, they threw down their lunch, a pot-full of 'Grützbrei' (a porridge of groats, or grits if you are southern USA). The slop of hot porridge landed on the helmet of the blacksmith from the village of Stolpe, who was standing on thr top rung of a ladder at the door at the time. He was totally enraged and with a cry of 'Den Grützpott war'n wi bald utschüren' (something like, the porridge pot is going to be soon stoked up - i.e. like you stoke up a fire under a pot in the kitchen) he struck the door fiercely with an iron bar and smashed it to pieces and gained entry.That was the end of the robber's nest. The walls of the castle were pulled down, but the thick tower, the Grützpott, was allowed to stand as a reminder.

So there you go!

From Stolpe we followed the canal running parallel with the Oder on a very pleasant cycle, eventually meeting up with the Oder-Neiße cycle path.

Barge sedately bringing goods out of Poland
Oder-Neße Radweg
And so to the wide river Oder itself ...

... and the Polish border.

Lebenshaltungskosten - The Cost of Living in Germany

I am posting a receipt I got today at the local Rewe supermarket (click for bigger). Not because there is anything wrong with it, but because when we were looking to move to Germany we were curious about how much the cost of living would be. If there is anybody out there with a similar curiosity, then this might be of use. Also, it might be interesting if you are reading this in five years time to know how prices have changed.

The items are:
1x pack of filter coffee 500g
3.59 €
1x bag of large potatoes 2.5kg
2.49 €
1.5 litre carton of organic low-fat milk
1.05 €
1x pack of grated emmental cheese 200g
1.32 €
1x loaf of wholegrain toast bread 500g
1.09 €
1x bag of organic 45% fat mozzarella 125g
1.19 €
1x bag of organic bread flour 1kg
1.19 €
1x carton of 3.8% fat organic natural yoghurt 500g
0.99 €
1x bottle of olive oil 750 ml
2.99 €
1x carton of six organic free-range eggs
1.39 €
350g of cherry tomatoes on the vine
1.99 €
19.04 €
That comes to about 15 British pounds sterling at the current exchange rate.

I also got a 2 € refund for returning 8 plastic drinks bottles.

Right then, now I am off to make a pizza for dinner!

Laibach - The Whistleblowers

Laibach aren't a German band, they are Slovenian and formerly Yugoslavian when formed in 1980. They do write some songs in German though, and - rather controversially to say the least - their name is what Slovenia's capital Ljubljana was called during German occupation.

But my excuse for posting their latest video is because we are going to see them at the Volksbühne, Berlin, next week (7th April). Also, just because it is such a catchy song and imaginative video.

The addictive whistling double-time tune is a generic, ultimately meaningless, marching song that could be adopted to any nationalistic youth organisation. It reminds me that in East Germany the FDJ (freie deutsche jugend) often appropriated the tunes of the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend & the Bund Deutscher Mädel), just rewriting the lyrics. In fact, I could imagine a young me marching to this when in the Boys Brigade on Sunday parade!

The video was filmed using a LOMO Soviet camera lens, which gives it its dated feel and extreme wide angle. It was directed by Norwegian artist Morten Traavik and was shot in Riga, Latvia. It is typical Laibach weirdness, with a touch of Leni Riefenstahl (who filmed the 1936 Berlin Olympics) about it.

Looking forward to more Slovenian madness next week: 'Our mission is blessed, and we never fall.'

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Waidmanns Heil

If you go wandering around the Brandenburg countryside you are sure to notice that in almost every field, and also deep in the forests, there are many wooden structures that vary from a simple look-out platform to almost a shed on stilts.

What can they be for? Are they used by farmer's overlookers making sure the peasants in the fields are gathering all the crops in that they can? Or put there as hides for bird-watchers? Or are they look-out posts for checking if the Russians are advancing? Or just to get some height in these usually flat landscapes and get the relief of an elevated perspective?

In fact they are used by huntsmen (sometimes huntswomen) who are employed (sort of) by the state to keep down the numbers of foxes, deer, rabbits, wild boar, and other 'undesirable' wildlife from over-running the crops and village gardens.

In German they are called a Hochsitz, or high-seat, and also Jägersitz where ein Jäger is a huntsman (and yes, that potent liquer Jägermeister means 'master humtsman').

The way it works is, licensed hunters (usually as part of a Jägerverein or hunting club) pay thousands of euro to lease a hunting area for nine years. As a term of the lease, the hunters must match a quota set by the state for the number of deer, foxes, rabbits etc. to kill each hunting season. They can do this individually, or raise a 'Waidmanns Heil' on their Jagdhorn (hunting horn) and call in the assistance of other hunters.

To obtain a hunting licence, hunters must undergo a year of courses where they train how to shoot guns with a licensed mentor and study agricultural and forestry legislation and wildlife conservation policies.Then they must finish it off by passing a hard four-hour exam.

The exam includes a written and an oral test as well as a shooting test. The main areas covered are:
  • Knowledge of different species of game 
  • Basic animal biology 
  • Game damage prevention
  • Farming and forestry 
  • Firearms laws and techniques 
  • Hygienic inspection and treatment of game 
  • Determination of game meat for human consumption 
  • Wildlife, nature and landscape conservation laws
In Germany, there are 350,000 recorded hunters from a population of almost 90 million.

I don't know how to feel about them. I have seen the damage that wild boar can cause and you certainly wouldn't want them in your garden, and I am always thinking about our cat Tosca who might have been killed by a fox. And at least the animals are despatched by professional huntsmen (and women) with a clean rifle shot rather than being hunted across fields and dales by strangely attired toffs on horse-back and ending up ripped apart by beagles. But when you see a herd of deer from the train, or hares leaping around the fields, it feels wrong that we are killing healthy animals because they don't fit in with our lifestyle.

According to the newspaper today (the Berliner-Zeitung, BZ, or Bay-Zett - about the equivalent of the UK's Daily Mirror newspaper, but I'm not proud; it is easy to read) during the hunting season 2012-2013 last year, Berliner huntsmen despatched:
  • 54 Waschbären (raccoons!)
  • 1,500 Wildschweine (wild boars)
  • 400 Rehe (roe deer)
  • 150 Füchse (foxes)
  • and 870 Wildkaninchen (wild bunnies)
That is quite a lot of wild-life shot. And it is the numbers for Berlin alone, not Berlin-Brandenburg.

The BZ notes that over 131,000 € were recouped by the Berlin Forestry Service selling off some of the kill as game meat. I assume that didn't include the raccoons.

My gut instinct is to get on my own 'high-chair' about the wrongs of killing such wonderful creatures - for fox sake ban hunting! as our car-sticker used to say, which was a slight embarrassment telling the Police when our car was stolen and we had to describe it - but maybe you think I am being sentimental. Whatever, die Hochsitze are for sure an intrinsic part of the landscape and characterize the Brandenburg countryside.

Hochsitz in a field in Teltow-Fläming
Taken May 2015
By the way, the Hochsitze are property of the hunters. Indeed, even the owners of the land might not have much say about where they can be located. So, don't think anyone will mind if you use them for a picnic; you might be shown off by a licensed hunter with a gun!

P.S.If you came to this page expecting the Rammstein song or video, then sorry for hi-jacking you. I think you need this link instead!

Sunday, 23 March 2014


The Dammtor, Jüterbog
Jüterbog is a historic town dating back to at least 1007, which still retains some of its mediaeval town walls and three town gates. It is situated about 65km/40 miles SE of Berlin in the Teltow-Fläming region of Brandenburg. It is only 45 minutes away from Berlin by Regional Express, and is worth a visit both for itself and as a starting point for getting onto the extensive (175km long) Fläming-Skate bike and inline skating track.

We have visited here twice now, both as part of a biking tour, and most recently last Friday when we cycled along the Fläming-Skate to Baruth (about 60km in all). Which is why avid readers will notice that my last few blog posts have been about the Jüterbog region; that and because this weekend has been wet and grey and we are now stuck in the house with our computers and a load of photos!

When I see its name written down, my brain immediately scans it as 'Jitterbug', and I end up getting the awful Wham! song as an earworm. Damn you George Michael for that! Actually it is pronounced more like 'Yooter-bok'. There are quite a few guesses at where the name derives from, the most fanciful being that a woman named Jutta was the first to enter through the Neumarkttor (New Market Gate) with her billy goat - Ziegenbock in German. Hence Jutta - bock. Whatever the truth in that (very little I suspect) it has resulted in the official coat of arms of Jüterbog becoming a rampant black goat with golden horns and hooves. Also now there is a wooden statue of the legendary Jutta with her goat beside the Neumarkttor:

Neumarkttor, Jüterbog
With woman and goat.
If you think that story deserves a pinch of salt, then check out the nearby Eierturm or 'egg tower':
This is so-named because the plan was to fight off bandits trying to get into the town by chucking eggs at them from here over the town wall.

Neumarkttor is the Eastern gate into the Altstadt. There are two others; the northerly one being the Zinnaer Tor, and so called because it leads to Kloster Zinna (worth a bike out to in itself).

Zinnaer Tor
Zinnaer Tor
From the inside the Altstadt

Zinnaer Tor
Zinnaer Tor
From outside the town walls
You can just make out a 'Jüterbog cudgel' left of the arch.
More impressive is the Western Gate into Jüterbog, the Dammtor (formerly the Frauentor, which is why the road leading up to it from the North is called am Frauentor):

Dammtor, showing the inner courtyard
Inside the Dammtor looking out

Outside the Dammtor (and the Altstadt) looking in
The Dammtor has an inner and outer gate (as did the other two gates at one time). The idea was you drove your cart through the first fortified gate into the inner courtyard. Here town guards would inspect your goods for taxation purposes. You would then pay the taxes on the produce you are probably bringing in to sell at market, and only then would you be let through the second gate and into the town itself. Or, the crenelated walls on either side would suddenly bristle with soldiers pointing arrows at you whilst Robin Hood escaped from under the tarpaulin on your cart and jumped with one bound over the town walls. I might be getting fact and fiction mixed up here.

Just inside the Dammtor is the Dammtorturm (on the left. I can't work out what the one on the right is called):

Dammtorturm, looking towards Jüterbog town centre
Close-up of the Dammtorturm
Dammtorturm, looking towards the Dammtor itself.
That looks like a nice Fachwerkhaus (half-timbered house) on the left there ...

Oh yes, very good. It is actually called das Knoblauchhaus (garlic house) and is a restaurant and cafe. Like every other interesting place to eat on this day (a Friday in April), it was closed. It stands on a square that was once the site of the Heilig-Geist-Kapelle (Holy Ghost Chapel), which is something you often find: a church-run hospital to look after pilgrims and the sick just inside the town walls by the main entrance. There is nothing there now of it though, but an information board shows a mediaeval skeleton that was excavated in the square, probably a pilgrim who didn't make it.

What is in the Heilig-Geist-Platz is a Luthereiche - or Luther oak - planted in 1883 to commemorate the 400th birthday of the great protestant reformer Martin Luther.

Luther Oak
From here you can get a view into the town centre with the strangely bridged twin towers of the Kirche St. Nikolai (St Nicholas' Church). Looks like it is green-bin day today too.

Jüterbog Pferdstraße
Can't see many horses though.
Before we move off into the heart of town, just to mention that outside the town walls here you come across the Liebfrauenkirche (church of Our Lady) and a graveyard to soldiers of the Soviet Red Army who liberated Jüterbog in April 1940. More photos of them on my earlier blog post.

Die Liebfrauenkirche
With some fine forsythia in bloom

Part of the Soviet cemetary
The town centre is dominated by a large town square and an imposing backsteingotik Rathaus:

West-side of the Rathaus

Roland Statue on the Marketplace
There are always Roland statues on German free-town marketplaces.
There is quite a bit of this backsteingotik style of architecture, where bricks are used to imitate the Gothic style more usually constructed out of stone, here in Jüterbog (I won't kid you and say it is anything like, say Lübeck for example):

For sake of completeness, I should add that just North of the Marktplatz is the former Franciscan monastery church or Mönchenkirche, but this building has seen a lot of damage and from 1970 worship was stopped and it was used as a warehouse instead. It was rebuilt (almost from scratch it looks like) in the 1980's, and since 1985 it has been a library and events centre.

die Mönchenkirche
 A much more interesting church is the Nikolaikirche. It has been around since maybe 1221 in one form or another, and is notable for its peculiar twin tower complex with bridge between, and the painted ceiling buttresses and magnificent pipe-organ of the interior.

Here I shall leave you with some photos of it:

Western entrance
Detail of statue of St Nicholas over the Western entrance
Looking up above the Western entrance
Exterior wall plaque
Decorated interior buttresses
Looking up to the organ
Mediaeval side-chapel
Detail of side-chapel ceiling.
The Four Apostels,
Organ viewed from first-storey balcony
That lovely pipe-organ again.
Nikolaikirche viewed from the South
Memorial to the victims of the First World War

First World War memorial
The massive eastern transcept
Close-up of those crazy towers and bridge
Summary time: Jüterbog is certainly an interesting place to visit, and as it is so close to Berlin there can be no excuses not to. Mind you, Jüterbog does feel like it is still clawing its way back out of East German Soviet occupation. Its army base was greatly enlarged during the Nazi era, when three surrounding villages were razed to make way for barracks and training areas. The Red Army took them over and it remained an important garrison town, with up to 40,000 Soviet soldiers garrisoned here (four times larger than the civilian population at the time). Though relations between the Jüter-burghers and the army could become strained (sometimes shells from the nearby firing ranges would hail down on the town), you can't help but feel that the locals are still thinking ruefully back to the day in 1991 when the Soviet army returned to Russia. But there are definite signs of renovation and development, particularly with new shops and restaurants around the Rathaus and Marktplatz. And if looking at mediaeval remains is not your thing, don't forget it has easy access to the Fläming-Skate long-distance routes, so get your skates on and go!