Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Word from the Wise

From Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's, The Little Prince
From Miguel de Cervantes', Don Quixote

While walking to the Jewish Museum of Berlin, off the Oranienburg Strasse metro stop, I came across a unique attraction leading to the museum. Looking down, I noticed little plaques with flags of EU nations on the pavement. I don't recall the name of this pedestrian mall, but 2 of these plaques stood out.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for the Little Prince from where came, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye." Saint-Exupery happens to be a favourite author from my teen years. The title of this blog is from one of his books which I wrote about in my first post Where do I start.

Don Quixote
is probably better known than its author, Miguel de Cervantes. From that book came this passage, "Traveling and sojourning among various people makes men wise." which I borrowed to put in my profile.

The walkway featured the most memorable and profound saying of an author, hero or statesmen of each country. At each step, one picks up a bit of wisdom along the way.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Berlin Extreme Makeover

Checkpoint Charlie

Mural along the Wall

Potsdamer Platz Bahnhof

Brandenberg Tor

Government Complex

Reichstag

Reichstag Dome

It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down. With the euphoria of reunification came massive redevelopment along the wall and the eastern part of the city.

My West German friends from southern Germany weren't pleased with the money spent on reconstructing the city. However, as a tourist, I begged to disagree. At least, the money went into something more productive, resurrecting a grand European city and attracting hordes of tourists than on silly stuff, like a war.

In the 1990's, Berlin was the world's largest construction site. The government centre next to the Reichstag is the most prominent of the new sites. On Potsdamer Platz, a whole city quarter was built from scratch. East Berlin streets were gentrified, historical sites, museums, palaces were spruced up. However, on the east side I discovered there were still pockets of the old, dull, regimented East Berlin.

My visit in June 2007 started at the humongous steel and glass Berlin Banhof. The train terminal is a delightful attraction on its own, like a giant mall on 5 levels, expanded with additional lines and tunnels right after reunification. From the bus bay across the station, I took a bus to take me to an apartment hotel somewhere in the Mitte (central district) according to Berlin Tourism.

The building was indeed in the Mitte, but step onto the street, it was in another quarter. I got off the wrong stop, and took an hour walking up and down Chausseestrasse looking for the place.

A few decaying, utilitarian housing blocks, '50s vintage subway station and trains were tell tale signs I was on the East side. There was no restaurant within several square blocks. The closest, convenience store was 150 metres from the apartment, tucked away on a side street, opened for a few hours only (almost by appointment I thought). A proper grocery was 2 metro stops away.

The lady manager was stern and totally unfriendly. She had a knack for pointing a curled finger at guests to get their attention. Attitudes seemed slow to change on the East side.

The main attraction of the Berlin Wall era is, of course, Checkpoint Charlie at the end of Friederichstrasse. The former border crossing is now a slightly tacky shrine crawling with tourists and souvenir hawkers. Cafe Adler, a museum, a mural on one corner, little memorials on a street corner, bits and pieces of the grafitti laden wall tell a poignant story of a divided past.

Going back on Friedrichstrasse along gentrified shops and buildings, I came to Unter den Linden and Brandenberg Tor, the remaining city gate from the 18th century. The gate symbolized the division of Berlin during the cold war with the wall cutting right in front of the gate. A short walk from Brandenberg Tor is the Reichstag, often featured in war movies with Russian soldiers storming the building in the last days of Nazi Germany.

On top of the new home of the German parliament sits a striking, egg shaped glass dome. Inside, a spiral walkway winds its way to the top like a cloud. The dome is in quite contrast with the massive granite structure it sits on which makes it more interesting.

Beside the Reichstag is the massive futuristic government complex stretching along the river Spree. The glass and steel complex symbolically sits on either (west and east) side of the river. It is the least non-government looking and most people friendly government centres I've ever seen. Promenades, cafes, numerous pedestrian bridges, parks, outdoor galleries on sections of the old wall, are mixed in with the office structures. One wonders how government business gets done in such a kick back environment.

My West German friends had every right to feel miffed about the cost of the reconstruction. Berlin's extreme makeover looks like the government didn't spare a penny.

A link to Berlin Tourism: Visit Berlin

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Mighty Elbe

Hamburg Harbour

St. Pauli Fischmarkt from the boat

Downtown view from the Alster

Rathaus off Jungfernstieg

Downtown Canal

A Square off Reeperbahn

Germany's largest and busiest port is actually inland. Hamburg sits on the banks of the river Elbe, at least 50 km from the coast. However, along the tributaries and channels of the Elbe are the containers, cranes and ships of one of the world's busiest port. What made Hamburg is primarily due to this mighty river harbour sans salty sea air.

Hamburg was a founding city of the Hanseatic League, the trade alliance in northern Europe from the 12th to the 17th century. It was fitting that the first place I should see in summer 2007 was this great harbour. From Landungsbrucken, I took a boat cruise that gave me a wide angle view of Europe's 2nd largest container port, the harbour front in downtown Hamburg to the villas of Altona. On the return, the cruise took a sweep of the future called Hafencity, Europe's largest urban redevelopment on the site once part of the free port.

Twenty minutes walk from Landungsbrucken is the Jungfernstieg where one takes a boat cruise on the Alster. This inner city lake is not really a lake but another tributary of the river Elbe. The cruise reveals the charming and genteel side of Hamburg with villas, elegant buildings, and lush greenery (it was June after all) on the banks of the "lake." The downtown core around the Rathaus (City Hall) and Jungfernstieg, features side streets with canals, cafes and high end boutique shops.

(I found hand knitten woolen naval sweaters at very affordable price, at Ernst Brendle on Grosse Johannistrasse, and had the best penne parmigiana at a cafe on the Esplanade.)

What is a port city and metropolis without the seedy and the quaint? St. Pauli has been known for decades as the adult entertainment district where the Beatles started on their road to fame. Reeperbahn is the notorious street in St. Pauli, with wall to wall sex shops, bars, clubs and strip joints. I gathered from a friend who once worked in Hamburg, the area can be quite rough once the night gets going. From the Reeperbahn, a little square leads to the harbour, with more bars (catering to merchant seamen primarily) and even a Museum of Sex!

St. George further away from the harbour is the quaint district. The HB (Hamburg Main Train Station) features two entrances, one leading out to the shops on Monckeberg St., toward the Rathaus and the harbour. The other entrance leads out to St. George catering to the less upmarket. The neighbourhood is an eclectic collection of people, shops, hotels, restaurants and what nots and includes the gay district. Colourful is the word.

Inspite of its pedestrian name and the notoriety associated with being a port city, Hamburg is a very charming, genteel and picturesque city. However, even in summer, grey overcast skies can be the normal weather.