City of bicycles

It is a pleasure to arrive in a city which is as full of bicycle as Muenster. Part of the reason is that there are a large population of students. Another reason is that it is a compact town, and a car would be overkill inside the town. We loved this “Bicycle Station” just outside the railway station: a place where you can park your bike when you take a train. Such a contrast with immense parking lots outside railway stations, as some countries have. Of course, the underground lot was full. That told us more about how successfully the city has weaned people away from driving. The city takes great pride in the fact that bicycle traffic in the city is larger than cars by quite a margin.

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Written in the blood

Fanciful analogies between cities and animals often talk of roads as the arteries of a city. The metaphor is deep enough that if I wrote about an arterial road, you would read on without pausing. So, when I see a plaque set into a path in the center of Dortmund, I could think of it as what’s in the blood of the city. And clearly, as you can see in the featured photo, Dortmund has football in its blood. No matter which records get broken, Timo Koneitzka’s achievement will remain unmatched, because, as the plaque says, he scored the first goal ever in the Bundesliga.

We were in Dortmund on a Saturday to meet The Family’s family and friends. The moment we set foot there, we realized by the number of people in yellow jerseys and high spirits, that the other thing which is in the blood of Dortmund (or, at least, of Dortmunders) is beer. It was the day of a Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund, Timo Konietzka’s club, and Bayern Muenchen. Munich is, of course, the giant amongst German clubs, as you can see if you look at the records of the Bundesliga. But Dortmund is no pushover. It is reputed to be just behind Munich in terms of the money it raises, and is one of the most successful clubs in the Liga.

Hopeful vendors stood around selling scarves of the two clubs. While Achim explained the Bundesliga standings (Dortmund’s eternal rival, Schalke 04, stands well above in this year’s league tables) to The Family, I wondered whether there are reversible scarves. No. Club loyalties are too deep. In a little open square with a fair, I found the Dortmund supporters clustered around tables in a pub (photo above). Across the square, another pub was awash in the red of Munich supporters. There is no fraternizing.

Other information is also carried in the blood. A few days before, we’d met someone who went to university in Luebeck. While talking to her about the city, we’d also talked a little bit about the Hanseatic League. My memory of the Hansa was that it included trading towns along the south coast of the Baltic sea: Luebeck, Rostock, Bremen, Hamburg, Gdansk. I didn’t think of Dortmund, Cologne and Osnabrueck as part of the Hansa. When I looked it up later I was flabbergasted by the reach of this medieval trading alliance, both in time (from the 12th century to the 17th) and in geography (from the Baltic inland to Cologne and Berlin). Dortmund turned out to play an important role as a regional capital of the League in the 15th century. Plaques set in roads and pavements are nice ways of reminding people of the history of a city.

Autumn’s eating

I’d thought that our trip to Germany would be a quiet one, where we would largely stay at home, read, go for long walks in forests turning to gold. We did this for about a week before we began to travel extensively. My plans of cooking with seasonal produce came to nothing. I passed a farmer’s markets once, and looked longingly at the pumpkins, mushrooms and ginger. A mushroom stock is a nice thing to use with a pumpkin, tomato and ginger soup. I had it planned out in my mind. But because I was going to travel for the next four days, I just took the featured photo instead of buying the produce.

Eventually my closest brushes with seasonal food came in some restaurants. I searched for a place which would serve goose, though the beginning of November was too early for it. The first two courses gave us goose, quail and duck. Game is also seasonal food. The main course of roast duck with potato dumplings, baked apple, and red cabbage with pears was a typical Westphalian dish, with a balance of sweet and salt. That night the temperature had dropped to about two degrees, so this hearty food was delightful.

The dessert was another very local and seasonal creation: gingerbread creme brulee with a pumpkin seed parfait. The nutty parfait was wonderful with the candied orange peels that you can see in the photo above. I’d never had a gingerbread creme brulee before. It was quite a surprise. It was a big meal, but one I was happy to have tasted.

The Northern Style

When you walk into a church in northern Germany, one of the most striking things about it is likely to be the absence of large paintings or mosaics. I don’t know whether this is a result of the bombing raids in the late stages of World War II. Certainly the absence of old stained glass windows is due to this. Instead of the golden mosaics and paintings of southern Europe, here you find incredible altarpieces. We saw one in St. Petri’s church in Dortmund which is called the Golden Wonder of Westphalia (featured photo). It seems that it was delivered in 1521 to Franciscan monks from a workshop in Antwerp. This was brought to St. Petri in 1809, sent away during the war, and brought back in 1954. I saw it in its completely open state, with wonderful wooden pieces in the panels showing the life of Jesus.

More common are little figures like the ones you see above, beautifully carved, unpainted but polished (click on one to go to a slide-show). I loved that piece showing Luke, with the ox looking on as he reads his book. Apart from the reredos and these carvings there is little decoration in the church. It was completely restored in 1981, and it has been bare every time I’ve peeped in over the years.

The most beautiful square in Berlin

When you read tourist guides to Berlin they tell you that Gendamenmarkt is the most beautiful square in Berlin. The reason, as we gathered, is that it is flanked by two churches with beautiful domes. What you see in the featured photo is the one called the French church. This apparently belonged to the Calvinist French called the Huguenots, some of whom found refuge in Prussia from persecution under Louis XIV of France. The statue in the foreground is that of the German polymath Friedrich von Schiller. The church was built in 1701, the square built in 1773, and the statue erected in 1871. The companion German church, which was undergoing restoration on the day I was there, was built at the same time as the French church. The main difference between the two was the language the service was held in. The Huguenots used French, whereas the Calvinists and Lutherans across the square had their service in German.

The statue of Schiller stands in front of the concert house. When the former National Theatre was destroyed in a fire in 1817, it was replaced by this building. It’s not very often that you find the statue of a lioness in front of a building, but this had gender balance: with a lion and a lioness guarding the steps. I was able to trace discussions of gender equality in the Prussian parliament to 1902, but maybe these guardian statues tell us that there was discussion of this issue outside the Landtag before that.

We walked around the square. It was destroyed in the war and rebuilt by the 1970s. I followed The Family in window shopping, until we came to a chocolate shop on Charlottenstrasse, just behind the square. I think I was the first through the door! It is a great relief to have a box of good chocolates with you on a day when you intend to walk across a city. As soon as we stepped out of the shop we saw that the clear skies of the morning had given way to threatening clouds. I stood in an archway on the street and took the photo of the other side of the French church which you can see in the photo above.

There was a lot of activity on the roof. I’d never seen anyone trying to replace roof tiles on such a steep slope. We watched the activity for a while, without figuring out whether two people walking across ladders was some kind of safety measure. I’d checked the weather in the morning and it had promised a sunny day. As soon as we left the arcade from where we’d watched the work, it began to rain. It was just two blocks till Unter den Linden, but we were pretty damp by the time we turned the corner and walked into a cafe! So much for weather predictions.

The Reichstag building on a gray day

In the final summer of the last millennium, I was in Berlin and decided to go visit the Reichstag building. One did not need an appointment or security clearance for this at that time. I walked around Norman Foster’s dome and peered down into the debating chamber of the Bundestag. This time around, I’d left it till too late to make the appointment, so The Family and I did not get to go up to the dome. On the cold and rainy afternoon of our last day in Berlin we walked up to this famous building.

As we walked around it we reminded ourselves of the history of this building. The original parliament building dated from the 1890s, and was abandoned after a fire in 1933. The fire was blamed on a Dutch communist, Van der Lubbe, who was found in the neighbourhood. We recalled bits and pieces of the controversy around it. Although the Nazi court sentenced Van der Lubbe to death by beheading (while finding four co-defendants not guilty), there were claims even then that the fire had actually been set by the Nazis. It has been claimed many times that a single person working alone would not have had time to set such a large fire. Goering’s name was associated with the fire multiple times but this was never proved. Historians remain divided over the incident.

What is well-documented is that Hitler used this incident as an excuse to get the then-president, Paul von Hindenberg, to pass a decree which allowed opponents of the Nazi party to be imprisoned (by suspending the right called Habeas Corpus), and to censor and suppress publications which criticized the Nazis (and also allowing the government to examine personal mails). The fire happened 6 days before the German parliamentary election of 1933. So before the election already Hitler arrested many members of the Communist Party, Social Democrats and the right-wing Catholic Center Party. Nazi organizations including the SS and Brownshirts were sworn in as auxiliary police to monitor the elections. We did not remember at that time that the Nazi party still got less than a majority of votes.

A little memorial outside the Reichstag building is devoted to the 92 parliamentarians who were arrested and murdered by the Nazi party. The rain was like a fog which had condensed into drops just large enough to fall. This dreary weather seemed like the right time to remember when large scale political murders enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power and shut down German democracy. The memorial consists of uneven iron plates, about knee-high, on which the names of the murdered parliamentarians are etched along with their party, the prison or concentration camp where each was interred, and the date of their death.

We knew that the parliament never reconvened in this building, but still forget it when we see photos of Soviet soldiers posing in front of it. The restoration work in the 1990s was seen in Germany as the final end to the war. In a sense then, the war which started in 1914 ended in 1989. At least two empires were destroyed during this period, two more arose during it and vanished again in this 75 years long war. Several countries were devastated. Some thought briefly that the end of the war was the end of history.

We walked out on the muddy path that leads to the modern building which houses the offices of the parliament. Signs pointing in that direction said Paul Loebe House. This has the offices of the Bundestag. The inevitable question has a simple answer. The German parliament was called the Reichstag in the 1890s. It is now called the Bundestag. The parliament still debates in the old Reichstag building, but all the offices are in the modern buildings here and across the Spree which seem deliberately low-key.

Free city, Berlin

Our first night in Berlin was cold, wet and blustery. As we walked past St. Mary’s Church towards the Spree, gusts of wind would shake us as we tried to take photos. We’d been warned of a storm, and we later heard that the railways had closed down their service. It was windy enough, but we’ve seen worse because our lives are now marked by extremes of weather. The city hall had closed for the night, but it was nicely lit up. The Family got the featured photo, which shows it looking as red as its name, Red City Hall or Rotes Rathaus, promises. We never saw it looking so red later. We walked around it, and were impressed by the fact that it covered a whole block. But then, Berlin is a free city: its city council is its government. So the mayor’s office, here in the City Hall, is also the seat of Berlin’s government. We later found that the building dates from 1869, and was rebuilt to its original plan in 1956.

The next day we walked past a building where a notice said that the legislature of Berlin sits (photo above). This puzzled us enough that we looked at the government of Berlin as soon as possible after this. The first surprise was that Berlin remained under four power occupation from 1946 right until October 1990! Unified Germany has its seat of government in unified Berlin, although the city itself has its own legislature and executive. The city’s legislature sits in this building: Prussia’s house of representatives from 1899 to 1934 (when the house was dissolved). I didn’t even know about this building although it is extremely close to Potsdamer Platz. When we passed this building we had no idea that it had been used to house the Council of Ministers of East Germany before being given over to Stasi. We also learned too late about the murals and art collection inside. If you do go in, let me know whether you enjoyed it, and whether you recommend that we visit it the next time we are in Berlin.

A well-rounded church

Just behind Bebelplatz and looking on to it is a small church which I’d never entered before. The foundation stone of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral was laid in 1737 on land donated by Frederick the great. It has the distinction of being the first Catholic church built in Prussia after the reformation. We hesitated a bit: did we want to walk on, or go in here? The cold nudged us to make up our mind: in was better than out.

Every round and domed building in Europe reminds me of the Pantheon. The pediment certainly speaks of a neo-classical design. When I stepped back, a guess based on the unaided eye indicated that the imaginary sphere made by continuing the dome downwards would touch the floor. This is the proportion of the Pantheon. The story is that Frederick the great made a sketch of the church, and von Knobelsdorf designed it following this, immediately after he’d designed the Opera next to it.

I took a closer look at the relief work in the pediment on my way in (photo above). If that is not baroque then I will eat the grapes the cherubs are playing with. I don’t know the legend of the Silesian saint Hedwig well enough to tell whether the relief involves her life. Inside the church one can read a little bit about the history of the structure. I was not surprised to learn that the church had been destroyed by bombing in 1943. The story of its restoration in 1963, when it stood in the former East Germany, by a collaboration between architects and artists from East and West Germany was a complete surprise. As much as when I’d first heard that the bishop of Berlin, whose seat this was, denounced the murders and vandalism of Kristallnacht. Predictably, he was hauled off to Dachau.

We sat inside for a while and listened to part of an organ concert. The church has great acoustics. The organ, built by Klais of Bonn, was installed in 1978. This was a replacement of the organ which was destroyed in the bombing. Apparently there are almost 5000 organ pipes, made of wood, copper and tin. The sonorous notes followed us as we went back out into the cold.

Far Kreutzberg

The Family turns out to be a natural-born hipster. While I was busy photographing street art, or admiring architectural points subtle enough to hit you in the face, she took a photo or two which turn out to capture the essence of night-life around Berlin. This happened over and over again, but most noticeably in the far eastern part of Kreutzberg near Oberbaumbruecke. In John le Carre’s cold war trilogy where the spy-masters Smiley and Karla face off, this bridge is the setting where Karla crosses finally to the West. I had a mad moment of imagination when I thought I would search for the gold cigarette lighter given to Smiley by his wife, which Karla stole in Delhi and dropped on the bridge as he crossed it. Instead, I took a few shots of the restored 19th century Gothic bridge (featured photo), as The Family examined what turned out to be one of Berlin’s hot spots: the Watergate club (photo below).

Most people come this far east in Kreutzberg for the many clubs which have sprung up in this area in the last decade. We were too early to start looking for a few sips of beer and music to dance by, but going by past experience, if it had been the right time, then she would have been able to either talk her way in for both of us, or found a different place. By all accounts, the area comes alive around midnight. We didn’t wait so long.

We had come here on a search for one of Berlin’s iconic murals, the one called Backjump by BLU. We stood on the bridge and admired the mural. The light was fading, and it was clear that our photo-walk through Berlin was almost over for the day. The gloomy double-decker Oberbaum bridge was made in that anachronistic Gothic style which we now think of as Harry-Potter-architecture. It was built at the end of the 19th century to take the increased traffic of that time as well as the then-new U-bahn. It was blown up in the last days of the war as a futile defensive measure against the advancing Red Army, and rebuilt in 1994. There was incredibly wild street art at the foot of the bridge (panels above). They were hard to photograph in the narrow space and in bad light.

Under the railway bridge at Schlesisches Tor, Berlin

As we walked back, I was intrigued by a gathering of people under the U-bahn line near the Schlesichser Tor station (photo above). A quick look told me that the kiosk is called Burgermeister, and its main offering is absolutely clear: burgers. This is another of the legendary places around here. I was torn, but decided to give it a miss, thinking of a bigger dinner later. This was a mistake because our dinner experience that night turned out not to be good. But that is another story which ended with The Family’s hipster radar leading her into one of Berlin’s hotspots of street art.

Grunge, Germany

Germany is not just shining BMWs and Mercedes screaming down Autobahns. There are broken down, unloved areas. Areas which we would mostly not photograph. These are things which a tourist’s eye would slide over, unseeing. Or there are things which are pushed out to places where people would not have to look at all the time. I love looking at such grunge. What a country does not love sometimes tells us as much as what it does.

I see lots of photos of sunlight on cracked plaster or weathered wood from southern Europe, but little of these dreary but atmospheric places in Germany. I wonder whether there is a new genre waiting to become a meme. Click on the mosaic above to get to an annotated slide show.