Friday, 15 May 2015

Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

Coal-fired power stations shouldn't look beautiful. They should be photographed with billowing sulphurous smoke and dark thunderous clouds, with lightning bolts and a storm of acid rain. But on a sunny Spring day, the Jähnschwalde power station can't quite pull the satanic role off.

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

This area NE of Cottbus, known as Teichland, is a joy to cycle around. Just watch out for midges and mosquitoes! It is hard to realise that these lakes are flooded open-cast mines.

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

Shouldn't that sign say 'Kraftwerk Autobahn' though, not Straße? (German musical joke there)

photos of  Kraftwerk Jähnschwalde by Andie Gilmour

High Up With the Slavic Gods

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Cycling around the Teichland  NE of Cottbus we unexpectedly came to a steep hill. This was unexpected because Brandenburg is everywhere else as flat as a pancake. That makes for great and easy cycling, but it does get a bit boring not being able to get some perspective on the landscape. This hill was so steep that we even had to change down to first gear. Oh, and get off and push half-way up.

The hill turned out to be a visitor attraction called Erlebnispark Teichland, a kind of theme park with exciting things such as a mini-golf, bungee trampoline, wooden roller-coaster, and a labyrinth. What it is doing here I have no idea, though I suspect it was created by Vattenfall (the owners of the nearby massive brown-coal mining operations and Jänschwalde power station) to 'beautify' what they had previously made into an open-cast mine and slag-heap.

We weren't very interested in bungee trampolining, but our eyes were caught by a tall, white tower on the top of the hill, beside a strange collection of brown statues signed as a Slawischer Götterhain (grove of Slavic gods. Or 'Slavonic' gods as the as-usual-misspelled English translation had it).

The tower was an Aussichtsturm (look-out tower) and we found that entrance to it was 2€ per person, with coins put into a turnstile. A warning here though: the tower is 50 metres high and has 272 steps. There is no lift so you are buggered if you happen to be disabled or not very fit. This despite there being a disabled parking bay outside the tower.

The Aussichtsturm does have quite spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, albeit that most of what you can see are acres and acres of forest and large terra-formed fields. It isn't too far from the Polish border, so I imagine that some of what you are seeing is Poland.

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

From the tower you get a good idea of the shape of the 'Slavic Grove':

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

You also get a good view into the labyrinth, and there is an urge to shout down directions for the people wandering around it!

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

The Grove of Slavic Gods is a peculiar affair. As works of art they are not at all impressive, and if there is any spirit of the old gods and goddesses inhabiting the place, I think they would be rather offended. The deities on show are rather a mish-mash of gods and folklore too. It's rather as if a Chinese theme-park had put up plastic statues of the Madonna, Jesus on a crucifix, Robin Hood, The Morrighan, and Micky Mouse inside a small-scale concrete Stonehenge. What's it for? I don't know. The Slavs were almost eradicated by German tribes here centuries ago, and the ones who clung on, the Sorbians, are devoutly Christian. Anyway, it made for an amusing break before we cycled on into the Lausitz countryside and thence for a train back to Berlin.

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Teichland by Andie Gilmour

Coal Mining in Cottbus

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord is the name of a vast brown coal (lignite) open-cast mine NE of Cottbus in the Lausitz region of eastern Germany. It has been in operation since 1981 and has an output of between 4 and 7 million tonnes of lignite per year. It is winding down operations and is due to close at the end of this year (2015). Then it will be landscaped and flooded to make an enormous lake, due to be completed in 2030.

The area is environmentally nightmarish, with enormous mining machines digging into the ground and turning the countryside into a moonscape of barren sand. Hopefully this scar will eventually heal over, and nature return in all its vivid variety, but for now it is a desert with precious few plants managing to cling on to life here.

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Tagebau Cottbus-Nord by Andie Gilmour

Hemlock - Achtung! Sehr sehr giftig!

A sunny Springtime and an ideal time for us to get on our bikes and explore Brandenburg. We had an enjoyable 43 km cycle around Cottbus SE of Berlin and the artificial lakes around Peitz (the so-called Teichland). There might be another post about that journey, but for the moment I want to reflect on how beautiful and yet how dangerous the flora of the countryside is. In particular, the banks of the lakes were festooned in young green plants displaying frothy white umbels of flowers.

They evoke a warming feeling that Spring has at last arrived, and yet how many people wandering or cycling past them know what plant these are?

These joyful flowers actually belong to the deadly hemlock plant (conium maculatum), one of Europe's most poisonous plants. You may recall that the Greek philosopher Socrates was condemned to death by drinking a deconcotion of hemlock root, a deadly meal called 'Devil's porridge'. It is a plant associated with witchcraft, Hecate, and evil. In Shakespeare's Macbeth it is referred to as the insane root (Banquo, after he and Macbeth met the three witches for the first time: 'Have we bitten on the insane root?).

In German hemlock is called Gefleckter Schierling (spotted hemlock, due to the purple-spotted stems on mature plants), and colloquially as Giftpetersilie and Krottenpetersilie (poisonous and rotten parsley respectively, due to the similarity of the leaves to that culinary herb), Mäuseschierling and Stinkender Schierling (mice and fetid hemlock, due to its smell), and most pertinently Tollkerbel and Tollkraut (mad chervil and mad herb - toll might be an adjective used to mean 'amazing', but its past use is as 'insane' or 'stunning').

So, the moral is to enjoy the countryside by all means, but don't mess with the flora or it may mess with you - permanently!

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A 'Secret' Cafe in the Sony Center

The Sony Center on Potsdamer Platz is an amazing space. Besides being a great place to chill out and admire Helmut Jahn's circus tent-like roof, it also houses one of the best cinemas in Berlin for original language films (mostly English) at the Cine Star. Add to that the awesome Imax 3D screen and the extremely interesting Museum für Film und Fernsehen, then you have a great film-fantastic day out. That's especially if you go on a Thursday when the Museum is free from 4pm to 8pm. If you like Lego or trying out the latest Sony devices then you might feel like you are in heaven.

Disappointingly though, the food and drink on offer is not cheap. Here is a tolle Tipp for you then. Shhh, don't tell everyone, but there is a cafe on the ninth floor that not only has the most fantastic views of the Sony Center but is perfect for popping up to for a light lunch or afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

The cafe is called PS-ZWO and is primarily for the use of students and lecturers at the DFFB (the German film and Television Academy), but it is open to the public too. Get to it by taking the lift as if you were going to the entrance of the Museum für Film und Fernsehen, but go all the way up to the top floor. Prices are cheap enough, especially for the location, though don't expect anything too fancy.

You didn't read about it here. You didn't see these photos I took from the cafe balcony. And for goodness' sake behalt es für dich! (Keep schtum!). We don't want all the tourists crowding the place do we?

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Perkeo, the small man of Heidelberg with a big thirst

As you wander around Heidelberg, it is possible that you may keep seeing references to a chap named 'Perkeo'. If you visit Heidelberg Castle and the Großes Fass, or Great Heidelberg Tun (the largest wine barrel in the world!), you will even see a carved wooden figure of this diminutive chap.

But who was 'Perkeo', and why does his name keep cropping up in Heidelberg as, for example, the name of a restaurant?

It seems that 'Perkeo' was a real person, born in 1702 in Salorno in South Tyrol, Italy, and originally worked there as a Knopfmacher or button-maker. He possibly had dwarfism, or at least legend has it that he measured just 3ft 6". Through his ready wit and heroic drinking ability he came to the attention of Charles III Philip, Elector Palatine, who took him back to Heidelberg Castle and appointed him court jester.

Perkeo's real name was Clemens Pankert (or other sources say Giovanni Clementi). He acquired his nickname because whenever he was offered a drink, he would say in Italian 'perché no?' meaning 'why not?' As catch-phrases go, that probably got a bit tiring after a while.

According to Victor Hugo, writing in 1840 after a visit to Heidelberg Castle, Perkeo got through fifteen double-bottles of Rhine wine each and every day. Even for the time, when wine was healthier to drink than water, and also had less alcoholic content than now, that is a lot! It is possible that actually he suffered from ADH deficiency due to diabetes insipidus, which caused him to have a great thirst. He is said to have never been ill until into his eighties, when his doctor advised him to cut down on the wine. According to folklore, a few days after drinking his first taste of water, he died!

Prince Philip put Perkeo in charge of the Great Heidelberg Tun, which is a vast barrel used to collect taxes paid in wine to the Elector. It was obviously a big joke in those days to have the smallest fellow with the biggest thirst look after the largest wine barrel in the world. Depictions of Perkeo show him with an enormous key attached to his waist, which gave access to the barrel room.

There are many tales about Perkeo, about his wit and pranks, and that is why he has stayed in popular memory amongst the folk of Heidelberg. So now you know!

School-boy Humour Corner

Road-name sign in Heidelberg.

Pronounced 'fart gasser'; a 'Fahrt' is a drive or journey, say in a car, and a 'Gasse' is an alleyway. So not at all funny really.

Berliner Bär in Heidelberg

Whilst we were exploring Heidelberg, Berliner Teddy-Bär was going on his own Stadtrundfahrt (sightseeing tour) of Heidelbärg. Here he has posted some of his selfies.

This one is of Teddy on the old Karl-Theodor-Brücke (Charles Teddy Bridge):

In the background, half-way up the hillside is the Philosophenweg (Philosophers' footpath) which gives wonderful view back to the old town and castle.

Not that Teddy could possibly have walked on that, as the path up to it was closed due to building work and had barriers across it.

Hmm, or maybe he did?

Back on the bridge again, he poses with the bridge baboon sculpture, just like all the other tourists were doing.

Teddy then went up to Heidelberg Castle for a look around.

Oh noes! Teddy has been up to his tricks, photo-bombing other people's photos in front of one of the enormous wine casks at Heidelberg Castle.

Ted tells me he thinks it is funny that everyone has their photo taken in front of what they think is the largest wine-cask in the world, then they go around the corner and see the real largest wine-cask! This wine barrel can hold 220,000 liters (58,124 gallons) of wine, and has a dance floor built on top of it.

Berliner Teddy isn't so interested in wine, but he does like Gummibärchen (jelly bears). here he is looking in the window of the Bären Treff (bears' hang-out).

See anything you like Ted? He nods enthusiastically. Sicher!

Monday, 4 May 2015

Ich Hab' Mein Herz In Heidelberg Verloren!

Heidelberg viewed from the Philosophenweg, taken by Andie Gilmour

Heidelberg is an old university town and one-time seat of the Electoral Palatinate of the Holy Roman Empire. It is situated way over the other side of Germany from Berlin, in Baden-Württemberg, and straddles the River Neckar which is a tributary of the Rhine.

River traffic on the River Neckar at Heidelberg, taken by Andie Gilmour

Heidelberg is certainly not a feasible day-trip destination from Berlin, being about 650km SW of the German capital. It took us about seven hours to get there, and that was by using the fast ICE trains, changing at Hannover and Frankfurt (Main). But, if you really really wanted to visit, as we did, then it is worth the trip over a long weekend.

The main attraction is probably the ruined castle, once the residence of the Prince Electors, which stands high above the Altstadt.

Heidelberg Castle, taken by Andie Gilmour

The castle is a bit of a mish-mash of styles, from naive mediaeval gothic through to a strange renaissance proto-neo-classicism. The castle has been bashed around a bit over the years, notably during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and then the Nine Years War (1688-1697), until finally being abandoned by Prince-Elector and Count of Bavaria Karl Theodor in 1777 when he moved his court and the Palatinate seat all the way to distant Munich. It was left as a source of re-recyclable building material for the house-builders of Heidelberg and so began its slow decline into a romantic ruin.

Visitors can take a funicular up to the castle from the town centre, and wander around the ruins (now partially restored) and go on a guided tour. There is not an awful lot see on the tour to be honest, but the guide we had was entertaining and informative about the history of the castle. Also, it was raining at the time we were there, so it was good to get inside.

Courtyard in Heidelberg Castle, taken by Andie Gilmour

From a British perspective, we were interested to find out about Elizabeth Stuart, eldest daughter of James VI of Scotland (James I of England) and grand-daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots. It was Elizabeth Stuart who Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plotters planned to put on the throne as a catholic queen after blowing up her father. She was married to a protestant in the end, to Frederick V, Count Palatine of the Rhine, on Valentine's day 1613 in the royal chapel at Whitehall Palace, London. It seems that going against the trend for royal marriages, they actually loved each other. John Donne wrote a poem to commemorate the 'union of Thames and Rhine', Epithalamion, in which the couple were likened to two phoenixes 'Whose love and courage never shall decline / But make the whole year through, thy day, O Valentine.' Elizabeth couldn't speak German though, and Frederick had only rudimentary English, and it is speculated that they must have conversed together in French.

Comical sculpture at the entrance to Heidelberg Castle, taken by Andie Gilmour

The married couple departed England with a large English entourage to live a luxurious lifestyle in Heidelberg Castle. Six years later in November 1619 they were crowned King and Queen of Bohemia in a coup attempt to gain protestant supremacy in the Holy Roman Empire. This led to the defenestration of Prague and the beginning of the terrible Thirty Years War, and after just over a year the catholic Emperor Ferdinand III expelled Elizabeth and Frederick from Bohemia and his forces seized the Palatinate and Heidelberg castle. For their short-lived reign, Elizabeth and Frederick were afterwards called the Winter Queen and Winter King, though probably not to their faces.

So began a life of exile for the couple in The Hague, where Elizabeth's beauty and courage earned her the epithet 'The Queen of Hearts' amongst protestants. Anyhows, her beloved Frederick died in 1632, and her son Charles Louis regained Heidelberg and the Palatinate in 1648, but Elizabeth remained in Holland. She returned to England at last in 1661 after her nephew Charles II had been restored to the throne (her brother had been the executed Charles I), and died the following year in London. She was buried in Westminster Abbey.

After Heidelberg Castle had crumbled into a ruin in the 19th Century, it began to draw the interest of Romantik artists and writers. JMW Turner for example came here and sketched and painted the castle and town. Here is a link to the Sothebys catalogue for 'Heidelburg with a Rainbow' painted by Turner c.1841. It was sold for $4.5 million in 2013.

Mark Twain also visited here in 1878, and you can read about his entertaining account here in 'A Tramp Abroad'.

The current-day restoration programme may be making the castle more tourist friendly, but it is losing a lot of its romantic atmosphere.

The funicular railway (Bergbahn) continues up from the castle to the Königstuhl 567.8m above the river below. Alternatively you can take bus number 39 there from Bismarckplatz in Heidelberg town centre, which takes longer but follows an interesting steep winding road past the Atomic Physics centres and stellar observatories of Heidelberg university, Or you can go up on the bus and down on the funicular as we did. Whatever, the views from the Königstuhl are stunning, and there are lots of nature trails around the peak and back down into Heidelberg.

Heidelberger Bergbahn at the Königstuhl, taken by Andie Gilmour

Way-stone at the Königstuhl, Heidelberg, taken by Andie Gilmour

Unusual sculpture on the nature trails around the Königstuhl, taken by Andie Gilmour

 Back down in Heidelberg again, the Altstadt itself provides compelling exploration, starting at the magnificent bridge with its towers and statues.

The hardest sculpture to photograph is of a baboon, hard to photograph because every tourist is directed there by the tour guides to put their head inside and wear it as a mask. There has been a monkey sculpture on the bridge since way back when, on a tower at the other end of the bridge, now demolished.

Baboon sculpture, Heidelberg, taken by Andie Gilmour

This sculpture dates to 1979 and quotes a poem by Martin Zeiller in 1623 about the original monkey.

"Was tust Du mich hier angaffen, 
hast Du nicht gesehen den alten Affen? 
Zu Heidelberg, da schaue hin und her, 
da findest Du wohl meines gleichen mehr."

Translated, it means something like:

"What you gaping at me like that?
Haven't you seen the old monkey?
Look around you mate at Heidelberg
There you'll probably find more just like me."

To which a nearby gift-shop provides the answer:

'Fuck off' car plate, Heidelberg, by Andie Gilmour

There aren't many monkeys around Heidelberg, but there are certainly a lot of tourists, and other gift-shops to provide for their souvenir needs.

Heidelberg is a wonderful small town. It is perfect for a whistle-stop tour of Europe as a distillation of German culture, though risking becoming a caricature of lederhosen, dirndl's, cuckoo-clocks, Bratwurst and beer taverns. Our own brief weekend stay served us an appetiser for returning for a full course of rambles around the surrounding hills, excursions to other towns in the region, and sight-seeing along the Rhine valley. Heidelberg might be small-town compared to Berlin, but it has a romantic charm that Berlin's brashness lacks.

Farewell then Heidelberg, and as I have touched the fingers of the bridge baboon I will surely return (according to the tour guides).

Heidelberg by night, taken by Andie Gilmour

Postscript: The title of this post comes from a popular German song composed in 1925 (and a 1952 West German romantic musical directed by Ernst Neubach). It translates as 'I have lost my heart in Heidelberg'.  You can watch it sung here actually in Heidelberg if you want, but I really don't recommend it! No, really really really don't click!