Berlin: ich liebe dich

When I grow up, I want to be a tour guide in Berlin. I want to share my passion for this place with others and be part of their discovery of its magic.

Four visits in, and it’s still interesting, heartbreaking, and enjoyable to be here amongst the history, the action, and the atmosphere that make this capital unique.

The Reichstag Building

Berlin is a city of contrasts. The Reichstag Building, finished in 1894, wears its glass dome proudly like a finely milled hat. Added over 100 years later, the modern structure is strikingly different to the old stone building, yet works with it in perfect harmony, as if to say: I remain what I was, and I am something new. 

The relationship between old and new is a recurring theme in Germany’s capital. Partly because many of the old buildings are nowhere near as old as they look having been rebuilt or restored following the destruction during the Second World War. I first came to Berlin a decade ago, and one absolute constant is cranes and construction.  

Vibrant and buzzing,  much of Berlin is alive with coffee shops, bars, restaurants and all the usual humdrum associated with a seat of government. All this sits against the modern history that is alive on every street and every corner leaving even the most inattentive visitor aware of the dark days Berlin has seen in the last century.

Steel reinforcements and plaque denoting the Berlin Wall on Bernauerstaße

And all this contrast works. Berlin has its squares and parks with their grand buildings,  expensive restaurants, and concert houses; and it has its noisy, graffiti-covered streets full of quirky shops, cafes, and bars selling food from the world over.

Kreuzberg: hipsters and hangouts galore

And in contrast:

Gendarmenmarkt

The pull to Berlin is two fold. There is always the feeling that something is happening. There is a youth and a vibrance about this city. From bands to industry, stuff is going places and that place is forwards. Then there is the stream of reminders of how it was. Torn apart by dictatorship, torn to pieces by war, and torn in half by a wall, Berlin captures and ignites a passion for the past.

Remarkably perhaps, this musuem-like preservation of parts of the city avoids feeling dusty or relic like. Maybe it’s because life just goes on around it, or because so much of it is open air. It’s there to be passed with little thought whilst being present and confronting for reflection. Just today, I’ve crossed the double – cobble stone line marking the Berlin Wall’s course countless times. When I was born that would have been a complex and difficult task, if not impossible for some.

And that’s where the magic lies. In 30 years, this city has changed remarkably. Today, a section of the East Side Gallery is given over to a photo display about the horrendous tragedies and stories from Syria. Looking at the photos of ruins, injured children, and families divided in a place that has experienced tragedy, injury and division gave me hope that today’s conflicts might be resolved yet.

The Nazi past and the deeply horrific nature of the Holocaust are remembered and recognised consistently too. The stories of victims and perpetrators is neither hidden nor washed over, but openly acknowledged in memorials and information for us all, stark reminders of how awful the world can be, held up to help us all be more tolerant, more peaceful.

Berlin, then, captures me because it provokes a spectrum emotions. It educates and inspires. Yet it has an energy and a modernity that I’ve never found anywhere else. It has the ability to remember the past and build the future in perfect balance.

And, you know what, it’s also a damn cool place to hang out.

The East Side Gallery

A Spanish Triptych, Part 3 – Jerez de la Frontera with a glance at Cádiz

As lazy as it might be to quote someone else in a personal reflection, it’s hard not to be drawn back to The Lonely Planet’s description of Jerez as Andalusia. (The Lonely Planet, Andalucía, 8th ed., 2016) If what they claim is true, then thanks to four days in the area, Andalusia is a place I like a lot.

As the presence of casks around the city centre advertise,  Jerez is the city of sherry. There’s plenty of opportunities to visit the Bodegas and to sample the various types of fortified wines and Jerez is proud of its Sherry tradition. But if a tipple isnt your thing,  Jerez has other charms to offer.

For one thing, it is pretty. The centre is largely pedestrianised with plenty of shopping and cafes. There are a handful of charming squares populated by Tapas bars, the level of busyness seemingly determined by which are showing the football. They all offer a similar and wide selection of dishes, everything from Spanish omelette to pig’s cheek, allowing you to be as traditional and adventurous as you’d like.

Alongside the food, the rhythm of the city is what I can only presume makes Jerez so typically Andalucian. The morning sun, hot but bearable, sees the streets teaming with people. The atmosphere is friendly,  welcoming and relaxed. The place feels alive. Then, after late lunches,  the crowds disperse almost as if a sign undetected by the tourists sends them all off at once. The siesta is no misplaced stereotype; the harsh afternoon sun drives all the life from the street, giving the place a ghost town atmosphere. 

Then, as the sun and the temperature go down, the noise and the chatter bubble up again as shutters reopen and the squares and patios fill up. Jerez comes back out to play, refreshed and revived from a few hours out of the sun.

You won’t feel inundated with things to do in Jerez, but with a sherry tour, a nosey around the cathedral and a visit to the Alcázar, you needn’t be bored. (Not as grand as Seville’s Alcázar, Jerez’s is still beautiful and provides more information and context as you wander around.)

The Alcázar from the fortifications

In Jerez, it seems you get a lot more hotel for your money than in nearby Cádiz, whilst still being able to reach the peninsular in half an hour by train. (Providing of course you don’t get off two stations – and two kilometres – too soon..!) Thus, Jerez makes a perfect base, being well connected, cheaper and well worth a visit in its own right. 

Cádiz has it all: beaches, ruins, grand squares, narrow streets, sea air, and, not to be underestimated in summer, breeze. The city’s museum might be understated, but the relics illustrate the long and full history of a city inhabited for over 3000 years. It has the makings of a long holiday destination and a thoroughly enjoyable day trip.

Càdiz

A day in Cádiz is just time to scratch the surface, but it’s clearly a diamond of a place. Yet, back in Jerez, it’s still easy to feel like you’ve found a gem. It’s a lived in city, a place where you can see how Andalucians go about their days. It’s life at a perfect pace – lively and social, welcoming and buzzing, with respect for everyone’s need to shuffle away for an hour or two every day to escape the bright lights  – all set against a lovely backdrop.

Cathedral, Jerez

A Spanish Triptych, Part Two – Seville 

Seville: a place so full of things to admire that it feels impossible to take a picture that does justice to its beauty. Yet you snap away regardless, trying to capture the charm and magic of this Andalucian city. Every turn, and there are many of them, brings into view beautiful architecture and quirky streets that, basking in the August sun, beg to be photographed.

The Plaza de España

There’s substance behind theses postcard scenes, too. The Alcázar, or palace, feels like a trick. Its walls, almost resembling a castle from a playmobile set, give no clue to the size or beauty that exist inside the walls. Once inside, the cool corridors, exquisitely tiled walls and picturesque courtyards (resembling a Game of Thrones set) are a wonder. 

It’s a place to spend hours, just sitting and admiring the original Moorish architecture, the lush gardens and fountains.

The gardens at the Alcázar

Seville’s cathedral steals the show in terms of landmark, because, with a minaret that stands more than a 100 metres tall, you can’t miss it. As limited as my personal interest in religious painting and iconography is, the grand scale of the building, the intricate details and the architecture are a marvel. 


The entrance fee, paid after a queue in very hot sun (Seville tip number one: do not go in August!),  includes access to the tower (The Giralda),  the minaret of the mosque that stood on the site before the Cathedral. It’s well worth the 9 Euros to stride up the ramp (no stairs until the last few metres) to the top for the view with which you are rewarded.

A taste of the Cathedral

From high above Seville, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a city without streets, forgiven for presuming it was a network of rooftops and that no car could possibly navigate the seemingly street-less city below.

From the top of the Cathedral

But the streets themselves are part of Seville’s magic; at times narrow enough for either a car or a pedestrian, they leave you enjoying being lost, as you delight in thinking you’re back where you started only to realise the seemingly familiar street is as unique as the one before. 
Seville is a tourist’s city: sites, beauty, an abundance of tapas restaurants, ice cream vendors and bars, as well as horse and carriage rides available at every major area mean you’re never stuck for something to do. 

However, across the Isabel II bridge is the neighbourhood of Triana. This feels like a place where people live. Its atmosphere reminded me of a much warmer, tiled and whitewashed version of a market town. Practical shops interspersed with pretty clothes shops, locals putting the world to rights over coffee, and people going about their business all give the area a lived in feeling. A trip along the river also affords a good view of the pretty houses and businesses away from Seville’s tourist hot spots.

Triana from the Guadalquivir River

Seville’s past is tied up in Moorish and Islamic history, followed by Christian occupation and this makes it fresh and interesting. It is touristic, sure, but with good reason. It is a place to visit and forget about the rest of the world. A place to get lost in, to relax in and to enjoy.

A Spanish Triptych, Part One – Madrid

Reemerging from the clouds low enough to see Spain take shape, the first thing that strikes you is the colour. The Earth is brown, almost rusted in places with spots so yellow, they glow. The green, what there is of it, is muted and partched as if desperately clinging to its last supply of chlorophyll.

Minutes later, wheels down in the capital’s airport, scenery is forgotten as the practical tasks of retrieving luggage from what may be the world’s shortest conveyer belt and navigating to Madrid city centre – easy thanks to a good public transport network- take over. Then, with hotel found and baggage deposited, it’s time to start discovering. 

It’s refreshing to come to a city without expectations or much prior knowledge. Madrid isn’t a European capital that gets as much press as its nearby rivals, and I was keen to find out why.

With a desire to wonder and wander, it was immediately curious how quickly the volume changes in Madrid. One minute, you’re very much in a major city surrounded by traffic, hustle and bustle, people, and, well, noise; but it takes seemingly seconds and two streets of left or right turns before you find yourself on shopless streets with only the echo of your own feet for company. It’s not unnerving or unpleasant, it’s just unusual.

Madrid feels like it is a city of many personalities. It’s both royal and political, with grand residences and government buildings proudly flying the red and yellow flag. Then there’s a romantic side,  where quaint, narrow streets, that remain cool and shaded thanks to the six or seven storey buildings flanking each side, open onto glorious Plazas primed for eating and drinking, meeting and dating. For those needing urban escape, there are green spaces and parks for walking, jogging and cooling off from the burning sun.

For all this,  I can see why Madrid doesn’t rank as highly amongst other European cities in the fame stakes. It’s not as regal as London, not as romantic as Paris or Prague, nor is it as historical or political as Berlin. But it does feel lived in; even it’s central neighbours feel like areas where local people go about their lives. 

And there are some great things to do. Some of my highlights include: 

1. The Reina Sofia Museum – with its cool, shaded interior and huge floors of white gallery space,  there is so much modern art to enjoy. The highlights include Picasso’s Guernica, but with works by Dali and Miro as well as a wealth of other arists, it’s a bargain at 8 Euros a ticket.

2. El Retiro Park

A wonderful green space with wide avenues, sculptured gardens, a boating lake and cafes, this oasis is a short walk from the city centre.

3. Plaza Santa Ana

This medium – sized Plaza is perfect for eating and drinking as well as watching the world go by. Lined with mainly Tapas places but some Italian restaurants and bars, there’s a lively but relaxed atmosphere all overlooked by some beautiful buildings.

It takes more than three days to know a place, obviously, but as a starting point in a short holiday to enjoy and learn a bit about Spain, Madrid has done a fine job. It might not make my top ten list of personal favourite cities, but Madrid is welcoming, different, with sights to see and some fabulous sights to visit (admittedly the Naval Museum is probably only for hardcore ship enthusiasts like the one I married). Most importantly it left me wanting to know more about Spain, its history and its politics. 

So, with this in mind, having navigated the main station with its enormous indoor jungle,  security check point and train boarding system akin to an airport gate, I’m on the train to Seville, wondering what more I’ll learn about Spain and whether or not I’ll give Madrid another taste one day.


 

On the Neckarwiese

The peacocks prance in too short shorts while the muscle men gleam in tight vests.

The joggers sweat,  their steps an uneven backdrop competing with indesiferable chatter.

Lovers cuddle, not quite subtly enough, on blankets and under trees, ignoring the rest of the world.

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Boat tours glide past, their guests sipping drinks and taking in the swarm of people on picnic blankets, each group its own space claimed for the day,  each group believing they have the perfect spot.

Circles get wider,  bigger, louder as friends and friends of friends gather creating complex Venn diagrams of connection, no one sure who knows whom. Introductions are made as couples and their colleagues, friends, neighbours and visitors meet to pass some time, to enjoy the tranquility with hundreds of others.

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And parents push prams and dads carry tired-legged little ones on shoulders.

Cyclist cling their bells at idle strollers who wander aimlessly, taking up too much of the path.

And no one minds at all. It’s easy and it’s carefree. It’s a public holiday and the sun is shining. Under the castle’s watchful gaze, we sit and we sun. We chat and we snooze. We be.
Because today, being is the only thing we need do.

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On the Neckarweise

The peacocks prance in too short shorts while the muscle men gleam in tight vests.

The joggers sweat,  their steps an uneven backdrop competing with indesiferable chatter.

Lovers cuddle, not quite subtly enough, on blankets and under trees, ignoring the rest of the world.

image

Boat tours glide past, their guests sipping drinks and taking in the swarm of people on picnic blankets, each group its own space claimed for the day,  each group believing they have the perfect spot.

Circles get wider,  bigger, louder as friends and friends of friends gather creating complex Venn diagrams of connection, no one sure who knows whom. Introductions are made as couples and their colleagues, friends, neighbours and visitors meet to pass some time, to enjoy the tranquility with hundreds of others.

image

And parents push prams and dads carry tired-legged little ones on shoulders.

Cyclist cling their bells at idle strollers who wander aimlessly, taking up too much of the path.

And no one minds at all. It’s easy and it’s carefree. It’s a public holiday and the sun is shining. Under the castle’s watchful gaze, we sit and we sun. We chat and we snooze. We be.
Because today, being is the only thing we need do.

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The Things You Can’t Count

One sofa
Two planes
Three beds
Four homes
Five friends (plus 4 more, plus a sister and a brother in law)
Six nights
Seven, several cuppas
Seven, several cakes
Eight trains
Maybe nine trains
A lot of trains
Ten, countless reasons to be grateful
Catching up and hanging out with
Loved ones, good friends, old friends
Hugs and games
Tea and cake
Yes and countless reasons to be grateful.

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