Category Archives: latest-posts

Karl Marx Allee

Karl Marx Allee

A walk along Karl Marx Allee may not be everybody’s idea of a morning or afternoon out in Berlin, but if the old communist GDR ideology fascinates you as much as it does me, then try and find a gap in your itinerary to come and take a look at this grand East German boulevard.

Stretching almost 2 kilometres from Alexanderplatz to Frankfurter Tor, Karl Marx Allee is 89m (292ft) wide with 8 storey apartment buildings built in the socialist realist style lining both sides of the avenue: It never took on this appearance of course until the road found itself inside the Soviet sector after the end of World War II.

From the 1780s onwards, the road was called the Große Frankfurter Straße and connected Berlin to Frankfurt on the Oder, but on 3rd February 1945 a heavy Soviet air raid reduced it to rubble.

In December 1949 the road was renamed Stalinallee in honour of the incumbent Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and two years later a 16ft high bronze statue of him was added to the landscape – but there were bigger plans ahead.

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The Stasi Headquarters

House 1

The Stasi Headquarters

The Ministerium für staatssicherheit, or Stasi for short, was the GDR Ministry of State Security. It operated from 1950 until 1989 with the headquarters located in the Lichtenberg district of Berlin. Its main purpose was to ensure that the population adhered to the strict Marxist-Leninist ideology of the GDR, and in most cases, they conformed – outwardly at least. For those who didn’t there were various methods of making sure that they did.

The blocks of offices connected to the Stasi in Lichtenberg employed around 7,000 people, and the man at the helm for much of this time was Erich Mielke who presided over the organisation from 1957 to 1987.

His headquarters at Ruschestrasse 103 was built in 1960, and if you’re as inquisitive as me, then you might want to come and take a look at where the East German equivalent of the Russian KGB operated from.

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Bernauer Strasse and the Berlin Wall Memorial

Bernauer Strasse and the Berlin Wall Memorial

Anyone interested in finding out what life was like living with the Berlin Wall should come to Bernauer Strasse. The street was right on the dividing line between East and West and is now part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, an open-air exhibition (if that’s the right word) which includes a Memorial, Reconciliation Church, Documentation Centre and 80 metres of the Wall.

Before the end of World War II, the whole length of Bernauer Strasse, was the border line between the districts of Wedding and Mitte, and consequently when the city was carved up by the victors at the end of the war, the street became part of the border between East and West Berlin.

Although Wedding found itself in the Western French sector and Mitte in the Eastern Soviet sector, there was no physical barrier between the two, and people were free to travel anywhere within the city. There was however, a vast difference between how people lived in their respective sectors. The Western side of the city was not only more affluent, but it also had luxury shops, restaurants and entertainment venues for people to spend their money in – and East Berliners wanted to spend what cash they had in West Berlin; and as time went on, a steady trickle of people started to leave East Berlin for a better life across the border.

The 1945 Potsdam Agreement had left Berlin wholly located within the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and once people were in West Berlin, they could then travel out of the city – and out of the Eastern Bloc. The trickle of people from East to West turned into a flood and by 1961 it was reckoned that more than 3 million East Germans had left the GDR via Berlin.

To stop this hemorrhaging of people to the West, the GDR authorities decided to build a physical barrier, a barrier which over time became more and more difficult to penetrate – and there was no better example of how the Berlin Wall divided the city than Bernauer Strasse.

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East Side Gallery and Oberbaum Bridge

East Side Gallery and Oberbaum Bridge

The section of the Berlin Wall that still remains between the Oberbaum Bridge and the Ostbahnhof on Muhlenstrasse is the longest open air art gallery in the world. In German it’s called the Kunstmeile, which in English translates as Art Mile.

The East-West border along here during the Cold War was the River Spree and this segment of the wall on the Eastern side was never subjected to the graffiti that was associated with the Western side. As if to make amends, when the wall came down this section was preserved and handed over as a blank canvas to artists from around the world to create this unique wall of art. Over a hundred murals were painted by artists from twenty-one different countries; some had political statements, some were artistic, and some were just mind-bending offerings.

These paintings were originally done in 1990, but by the time I first saw them back in 2003 they were well past their sell-by date and the area was a bit different to what it is now. In 2009 the artists were invited back to re-paint their originals. One of the iconic images was Dmitri Vrubel’s painting My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love, a painting of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, locked in a fraternal kiss. The picture below shows how it appeared in 2013.

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The Judisches Museum

The Judisches Museum

This museum, designed by the world famous Polish-American architect, Daniel Libeskind, is a mixture of both old and new. Entry is through the former Collegienhaus, a fine Baroque building which dates back to 1733-1735, but I suspect most people are anxious to see Libeskind’s modern addition.

Anybody who is familiar with his work won’t be disappointed. He challenges traditional architectural form with titanium-zinc and concrete designs that will also challenge your mind as to whether it fits in with the subject matter of the museum. Whatever you think of his ideas they are undeniably different. Like any so-called great artists of the modern era, his interpretation of what he wanted to portray has been worked out in his own mind and it’s no good me trying to explain it all. Some of his ideas I could understand, but others were pretty well lost on me.

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House of the Wannsee Conference

House of the Wannsee Conference

On 27th January 1945 Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, and each year since 2005 the date has been commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This blog is dedicated to the memory of all those who died during this inhuman period of European history.

The Holocaust is largely remembered for the genocide of 6 million Jews, but there were also an estimated 11 million others including Slavs (mainly Poles and Russians), Roma, political and religious dissidents, homosexuals and the ‘incurably sick’.

My inquiring mind into why Europe descended into so much chaos during the 20th century has led me to some dark places – and here’s another one – but unlike Auschwitz, there are no gas chambers or mass graves here; in fact, this lovely villa perched on the shores of the Großer Wannsee, couldn’t be more different.

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Hitler’s Olympics

Hitler's Olympics

For someone who didn’t even like sport, it might seem somewhat surprising that Adolf Hitler was able to stage one of the most successful, albeit controversial, games in Olympic history; they were so successful in fact, that the format has been followed in much the same way ever since.

The background to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in many ways goes back to WWI, and the Langemarck Hall at the Olympic Stadium is a telling reminder of how Hitler had never forgotten his time in the trenches.

Langemarck was a WWI battlefield in Belgian Flanders and somewhere I visited several years ago. The war cemetery there holds 44,000 German soldiers including many inexperienced young men.

When the stadium, and the Langemarck Hall, was constructed in 1936, Hitler was known to turn to a few confidants to proclaim that there would be “Revenge for Langemarck”.

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The Siegessaule

The Siegesaulle

In the middle of The Tiergarten at Grosser Stern, stands the Siegessaule, or Victory Column, and if you’ve got €3 – and the energy – it’s possible to climb the 285 steps to the viewing gallery that sits just under Victoria, the Roman goddess of Victory.

The monument was designed by Johann Heinrich Strack, and the 8.3m golden statue on top of the column was added by Friedrich Drake and represents both the Goddess of Victory and Borussia, the Latin name for Prussia. Her face is supposedly based on Drake’s daughter and known as the Goldelse (Golden Else), or roughly translated as ‘Golden Lizzie’.

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The Tiergarten

Schloss Bellevue

The Tiergarten

The official German name for the park known as The Tiergarten is Grosser Tiergarten, which helps to distinguish it from the district of the same name.

This huge park in central Berlin covers an area of some 520 acres roughly enclosed by the River Spree on its northern edge to the Tiergarten Strasse in the south, and from the Brandenburg Gate in the east to the zoo in the west.

The Strasse des 17 Juni runs through the centre of the park from east to west, and where it meets the Großer Stern (Great Star) the Siegessaule (Victory Column) stands sentinel over the whole park around it.

Only Templehofer Park (the former Templehof Airport) and the English Garden in Munich are larger so it’s best not to underestimate its size before deciding on where to go.

The name Grosser Tiergarten literally means ‘Large Game Park’ and gives a clue to its original use.

In the 16th century the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm, turned this marshy ground into a hunting enclosure, but during the 17th and 18th centuries the area was gradually turned into more formal pleasure grounds for the people of Berlin – wide avenues were constructed, trees planted, and monuments erected.

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The Kollhoff Tower

View from the Panoramapunkt

The Kollhoff Tower

Kollhoff Tower stands at Potsdamer Platz 1, opposite the Sony Center and is named after its architect, Hans Kollhoff.

In contrast to the other glass and steel structures in the square, the building is constructed out of peat-fired bricks with a design more reminiscent of a New York skyscraper. It soars 100 metres up into the Berlin sky and was completed in 1999.

Mainly built with office space in mind, I don’t suppose too many people will be overly enthusiastic about these statistics, but it might interest people more if I say that the fastest elevator in Europe catapults you up to the 24th floor in just 20 seconds where there is an open-air viewing platform with some of the best views in Berlin.

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The Sony Center

The Sony Center

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the redevelopment of Potsdamer Platz must have been an architect’s dream. The square was divided up into four separate areas which were to be redeveloped by four different developers, one of which was the area now occupied by the Sony Center.

During the ‘Golden Twenties’, the site was occupied by ‘The Esplanade’, one of Berlin’s most prestigious hotels. Frequented by film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo, the hotel was even used by Kaiser Wilhelm II who entertained guests in one of the hotel’s magnificent halls.

90% of the hotel was destroyed by allied bombing raids in the winter of 1944/45, with the Kaisersaal (as the hall became known) and the breakfast room the only rooms to survive. After restoration of what was left, it once again fell into disrepair following the building of the adjacent Berlin Wall.

After the Wall came down, what remained was listed as a historical monument, which created a problem for the architects of the new Sony Center. The outcome was that the Kaisersaal was moved 75 metres and incorporated into the new design behind a glass wall, and the breakfast room was dismantled piece by piece and re-created for the new Café Josty, the original being a popular Potsdamer Platz meeting place for artists in the early 20th century.

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The Fernsehturm

The Fernsehturm (TV Tower)

 

At 368m, Berlin’s TV Tower is the tallest structure in Germany, so there’s no excuse for not seeing it.

There’s an enclosed viewing platform at 203 m, and fortunately you don’t have to climb up the 986 steps because one of the two lifts will whisk you up there in just 40 seconds.

It’s a good job the lifts are quick because they’re not very big and waiting times can be considerable.

Almost 1.2m visitors a year pay to come for a panoramic view of Berlin and if you don’t mind paying an extra premium you can have a fast track entry. Better still if you can get here for the 09.00 opening you won’t need to pay the extra and you won’t have to wait long either.

The prime reason for building the TV Tower wasn’t to give tourists a grandstand view of Berlin of course, but to provide radio and television transmissions, and also no doubt, to make a political statement that the GDR was capable of building structures every bit as impressive as those across the wall could – and in this instance, in my opinion, they were right.

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Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Berlin’s protestant cathedral was only forty years old when it was bombed by the allies in 1944, and it wasn’t completely restored until 2002. It’s never even had a Bishop’s chair – or even a Bishop – and yet it should be on every visitor’s list of things to see in Berlin.

Situated in the oldest part of the city opposite the Lustgarten, this neo-renaissance building was built by the young Emperor Wilhelm II as his private church to compliment his family’s city palace across the road. It immediately had its critics when the building’s religious significance appeared to take second place to the importance of the Emperor and the Hohenzollern dynasty, but somehow, it’s this connection with the German Empire that makes it especially interesting.

From the outside it almost looks as though the intention was to create a church on the lines of St. Peter’s in Rome but being a protestant church, I suppose it was more likely to have been influenced by somewhere like St. Paul’s in London.

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Federal Row – The Bundestag

The Federal Chancellery Building

Federal Row - The Bundestag

 

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent re-unification of Germany in 1990, an opportunity arose to bring the Federal government back to where it belonged in Central Berlin.

I don’t suppose it took much deliberation as to where to locate the new parliament. The Reichstag may have been battered and bruised from the events of the 20th century, but it was still standing, and the wasteland that was left surrounding it created a blank canvas for developers who could no doubt envisage a new dawn for a new Germany in the new millennium.

Politics isn’t an exciting subject for many people, but rarely has politics been boring in Germany, and if you venture into this part of the city, which is more than possible, then it’s worth knowing a bit about what you’re looking at.

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The Reichstag

The Reichstag

 

One of Berlin’s most famous landmarks is the Reichstag.

This iconic building has helped the German Bundestag become the most visited parliament in the world, partly because of its architecture, partly because of its accessibility, but mainly because of its history.

Kaiser Wilhelm II laid the final stone of this neoclassical building in 1894 and it has continued to play a pivotal role in German history ever since. Initially the parliament was really that in name only and the Kaiser was the man who dictated the terms, but in November 1918 Phillip Scheidemann announced from a window here at the Reichstag that the country was now to become a republic and the Weimar Republic was formed.

The republic was just fourteen years old when the Nazis came to power and the dubious Reichstag fire of 1933 helped change the course of history. The events that followed are obviously well documented elsewhere, but as World War II came to its final moments, one of the most memorable images of the conflict show the victorious Russian army raising the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag. Even today it’s still possible to see bullet holes if you care to look for them.

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The Plantin Moretus Museum

The Plantin Moretus Museum

Antwerp may be famous for its diamonds but this museum really is a gem. The Plantin Moretus Museum is about a successful family printing and publishing business, and having been involved in printing all my working life, I was duty bound to go and check out what was so special about a man who has a typeface named after him.

The museum, which is located at Vrijdagmarkt (Friday Market), was the former home and workplace of Christophe Plantin, a Frenchman who arrived here in 1576. On his death in 1589 he passed the business down to his son-in-law, Jan Moretus, and it remained in the same family until 1876 when everything was sold lock, stock, and barrel to the city of Antwerp: A year later it was opened up as a museum.

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The Port of Antwerp and its Historical Significance

The Port of Antwerp and its Historical Significance

If you read my post, From the Railway Station to the Grote Markt, you could be forgiven for thinking that Antwerp’s involvement in the world’s diamond trade is where most of its wealth comes from, but as important as the business is, the real prosperity has always depended on its port.

The River Scheldt, on which the port lies is not so well known as the Rhine or the Meuse perhaps, but that’s probably more to do with how far it travels in comparison, rather than anything else. From its source near Gouy in Northern France, it runs for 350 kilometres (220 miles) and enters the North Sea near Vissingen (Flushing) in The Netherlands. On its journey, it runs through Belgium and crosses over the Dutch border near Antwerp. The strategic importance of both the river and the city of Antwerp has had a profound effect on the fortunes of, not just the city itself, but also the Low Countries in general.

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Antwerp – From the Railway Station to the Grote Markt

Antwerp - From the Railway Station to the Grote Markt

In my previous post about Fawlty Towers and the Gleneagles Hotel I mentioned that I met a couple of friends from Belgium at the Fawlty Towers evening. Kirsty lived, and still does, in Tongeren, and although we had often communicated through the Virtual Tourist (VT) website that we both belonged to, we had never met in real life, not until, that is, we both went to a VT meeting in Belgium’s second city, Antwerp.

As much as I would love to describe this fabulous weekend in detail, this post is about Antwerp, rather than the people I hung out with, many of whom are still very good friends, I’m pleased to say.

I flew from Bristol to Amsterdam and then caught a train across the border into Belgium and arrived at the impressive Antwerp Centraal railway station, which annoyingly, from the point of view of taking pictures, had a Big Wheel stuck right in front of it.

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A Winter’s Day in Annecy

A Winter's Day in Annecy

Annecy is an impossibly picturesque city in the Haute-Savoie department of France. It’s the sort of place tourists flock to all year round, but especially so during the summer months. Even so, the weather was kind to us when we were here on a cold, but bright winter’s day at the end of 2012

Some places are just meant for wandering around, without any set path or in-depth historical account – and Annecy is one of them, which is why this post is just a selection of photos I took that day. I hope you enjoy looking at Annecy as much as I did.

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Grenoble – Capital of the Alps

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Before coming to Grenoble I was somewhat surprised to learn that it’s often referred to as the ‘Capital of the Alps’: After all, the Alps run for 750 miles between France and Slovenia, and Grenoble is at the extreme western edge of the mountain range – and as far as I’m concerned, is not actually even in the Alps.

I thought that maybe somewhere like Innsbruck would have a better claim to the title, so I looked it up and can you guess what I found? Yep! That’s right, Innsbruck is also called the capital of the Alps.

I’ll leave it to the powers that be to decide which they think is the best candidate for the title, but if nothing else, it did focus my mind a bit more on how the city of Grenoble sees itself.

There’s no doubt that its location in south-eastern France, where the Rivers Isère and Drac meet, would have been a natural place to build a settlement, and from its humble Gallic beginnings in 43 BC, Grenoble has grown into a fair-sized city.

The official population is around the 160,000 mark, but if you include the sprawling suburbs of the metro area that stretch up through the valleys either side of the Chartreuse Massif, the population is nearer to 700,000.

 

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