Monday, 10 November 2014

Ich bin ein Berliner

Having gone to bed around midnight, my good intentions to set out at first light don’t seem like such a good idea. After several presses of the snooze button I finally make it to breakfast around 8 and take my time eating while I plan my attack on the city. I have made a wish list of places to visit and had planned to plot my own route around them, but in the end I opt for the Insider’s walking tour that includes most of them. It leaves at 10.30 from Hackescher Markt, a couple of km from the hotel, and on the way I find myself by chance at Checkpoint Charlie. Since the road is still cordoned off after the celebrations and, presumably, the tourists who attended are still sleeping off their hangovers, it’s quiet and easy to access. The adjacent Macdonalds seems symbolic of times changed.

I pay my 12 Euros and join the tour which is led by an energetic Irishman known as JJ. He is straight out of central casting in the role of preppy academic, but with the kind of enthusiasm that carries you along. Around twenty of us set off on a tour that begins with Museum Island where he cheerfully scores the 5 museums for both general interest and that of specialist scholars. They are all closed on Mondays, so I don’t need to feel guilty about admiring them only from the outside.
Here, too, is the magnificent Berlin Cathedral, renovated after WW2 bomb damage by the communists because it offered the opportunity to invite donations which brought in three times what the work actually cost. On the adjacent side of the Lustgarten is the site of the Royal Palace, which having been demolished earlier and replaced by a communist-era municipal building is now being replaced again, this time with a facsimile of the original at a cost of 1 billion euros.

Crossing the adjacent bridge with its statues depicting the life of a soldier – ending, predictably enough, in the arms of an angel – we head along Unter Den Linden where many of Berlin’s most iconic buildings are located. We begin with the Neue Wache, a building that has had several incarnations but is now a memorial to all those who have lost their lives through war or tyranny. I am quite unprepared for the beauty of this simple sculpture, entitled “bereaved mother” which sits on a dark cobbled floor in a bare room. A mother cradles her fully grown child illuminated by a skylight that’s open to the elements, creating an image of such stark beauty that it moved me to tears. I normally find war memorials too thrusting and overbearing, massive monolithic columns that seem too triumphant to represent the human tragedy of war. This simple memorial, with its inclusive inscription, is much more poignant.

Emerging, blinking, into the street, we move to the next building – Humboldt University, alma mater of such luminaries as Max Planck and the brothers Grimm. The university occupies both sides of the road, and we cross to the library where we begin to explore the inhumanity that has been heaped on the people of Berlin – first by the Nazis and then by the communists. The square here, Bebel Platz, is where a bonfire was made of the books the Nazis considered incompatible with their ideology. A prescient plaque set in the cobbles warns that the culture that burns books will progress to burning people. On the other side of the square a memorial to the book burning offers a window in the ground through which empty bookshelves can be seen.

We progress to Gendarmerie Markt which is being prepared to host a Christmas market. I approve of the fact that it won’t open until December, but the barriers and portaloos don’t really give us the best experience of reputedly one of Berlin’s most picturesque quarters. We pause briefly at Fassbender and Rausch, an artisan chocolate shop which has chocolate replicas of Berlin’s famous buildings in its window, and then stop for lunch. The afternoon begins with an explanation of the partition of Berlin and its implications, assisted by some chalk pavement art from JJ.

We return to Checkpoint Charlie, now put in context by the explanation of Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo, but much busier than earlier and with traffic now flowing. JJ explains that nothing here is genuine except for the symbolic images of soldiers – American one side and Russian the other – both of which depict actual soldiers. The sentry box and signs warning that you are leaving the sector are reproductions erected for tourists. We walk round the corner and pause where the line of the former wall is marked by a double row of cobblestones, as it is for its entire length. I can hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in this divided city.

One of the most iconic symbols of eastern Europe is the Trabant, which is amply celebrated at Trabi World. Not only a museum, it also offers Trabant safaris of the city and these days the vehicles are resplendent with flamboyant paint jobs. Around the next corner we finally arrive at the wall, or at least a segment of it. It looks fairly insubstantial, barely 2 metres high and not very thick – indeed, in places the cement has crumbled away to show the metal reinforcement rods and, in some cases, daylight. But it wasn’t so much the wall – or, more accurately, the pair of walls - that divided the city, it was the no-man’s land between them and the guards that fired upon anybody who dared to cross it. Sand on the ground ensured that everybody left a trace, even if they managed to cross unseen.

The portion of wall that remains is next to the quintessentially communist Ministry of Ministries, part of which formerly served as the Luftwaffe HQ and gained a reputation for having been part of a “no bomb” pact with the RAF on account of the fact that it was left intact when much of the city was destroyed. Actually the reason is more prosaic – its central position made it an excellent navigation aid for approaching bombers. At the far end, beneath a colonnade, is a large mural depicting the communist ideal and, chillingly, set into the square in front of it a monument exactly the same size to the workers who dared to stand up to the communists and were massacred.

The mood of the tour becomes progressively darker as we visit the site of the Nazi HQ – now a Chinese restaurant - and, behind it, stand on the ground above the bunker where Hitler finally committed suicide. The site is now overlooked by apartments which were offered to those the state wanted to reward so despite the site’s history they are considered prestigious. From here it is only a few steps to the Holocaust Memorial, which occupies a whole block and consists of over a thousand stone monoliths of various heights but all with the same footprint. Its sheer scale makes it imposing and it has an eerie ambience but it feels cold and impersonal compared to the stark humanity of Neue Wache.
Our final stop on the tour is the Brandenburg Gate and I realise with a shock that it’s just around the corner – I must have walked along the side of the Holocaust Memorial on my first night here. Access to the Gate is still limited by the AV rigs, but just opposite is the Adlon hotel where the infamous Michael Jackson baby dangling incident occurred. After JJ signs off, I walk to the Reichstag, the government building topped by a giant glass dome that is symbolic of the new transparency of the post-communist government.
Stopping briefly for a gluhwein – it’s pretty chilly – I walk into the Tiergarten intending to take a scenic route back to the end of Ebertstrasse which leads down to my hotel. It turns out that the barriers from the 25th anniversary celebrations are still in place but that sends me on a diversion that passes some statues and memorials. Particularly touching is the memorial to the homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis, a single glossy black block, similar to the holocaust memorial’s monoliths but with a window through which you can glimpse the looped film of two men embracing.

My final sight today is the Topography of Terror, the site of the former Gestapo HQ where a museum displays frank explanations of the horrors inflicted by the nazis. It’s too depressing to stay long, and I’m unsettled to realise that only a small park separates it from my hotel. I take a short cut on leaving and walk across a courtyard where something surreal and alarming happens. As I walk past a metal grille in the ground, I hear a noise that sounds like a person beneath rapping against metal as if to get my attention. I’m too freaked out to stop, but afterwards I can’t work out if it was genuinely somebody below or part of the exhibit.
Back at the hotel, I sit in the bar for a while to use the wifi, then go out to the Italian restaurant at the end of the road for dinner. The food’s great but the service is offhand and I’m amazed to find they don’t take credit cards – that’s the last of my euros, then. And the end of my time as a tourist. Tomorrow I will attend an eco-label conference and then fly home. It has been a brief but fascinating insight into a city scarred yet unbowed by its turbulent past.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Berlin: Arrival

You gotta love Pret. The guy in front of me didn’t stay around for his change. The guy behind the counter gives it to me to drop in the Pret Foundation box. My flight is bumpy and the crayfish and rocket salad not enough to distract me, but we land safely and I’m greeted by a text from Simon telling me that the balloons that traced the Berlin Wall’s route through the city for the 25th anniversary celebrations have already been released. Having not had the time to visit the poppies at the Tower of London I had hoped to overfly them on the ascent, but was unlucky. Having found out after I booked my non-flexible flight that I would arrive on the 25th anniversary of the downfall of the Berlin Wall I was due to arrive just as the celebrations finished. The illuminated balloons seemed to me a perfect symbol and I am sorry to have missed them.

I had planned to take the bus to the city but opt instead for a taxi to save time. It was only after we set off that I noticed the driver smells strongly of alcohol, but his driving is no more hair-raising than other German taxi drivers. The approach to the city involves extensive underground tunnels some of which have been closed, presumably to divert traffic away from the celebrations. This causes some huffing on the part of the driver but he finds a route to the hotel and I arrive around 10pm. Stopping only to drop off my bags and change into trainers, I set off for the Brandenburg Gate.

It’s quickly apparent that the celebrations are over, not least because of the number of people coming towards me carrying the stands on which the balloons had been mounted – some wheeling them on bicycles or pushchairs, others carrying them. As I travel north from Potsdamer Platz the crowds swell and it becomes difficult to make progress against them. I am struck by how quiet they are – given the amount of empty bottles and cans and plastic cups on the ground I imagine significant amounts of alcohol have been consumed.

Reaching the side of the Brandenburg Gate I weave my way through the trucks waiting for the last people to leave so that they can enter the area and begin to take away the event equipment. I work my way round to the front of the gate for my first proper view of this iconic building. There’s a fairly large area cordoned off in front with sound and lighting rigs inside, so it’s hardly up close and personal, but I still feel the sense of a place where history was made.

Returning to the back of the gate (based on the orientation of the chariot on the top), it feels like the end of a festival. Stragglers are lurking but mostly the people have left and the ground is strewn with their detritus. The road stretching back into Tiergarten park is lined with food and drink stalls and the road between them is liberally scattered with plastic cups. Somebody has a lot of clearing up to do. I find a mobile merchandise stall and buy some 25th anniversary souvenirs in case I can’t find them later (as it happens, I don’t), then head back to the hotel. As I leave the venue, the truck sent to pick up the balloon stands is racing to get to them before the revellers do. I hope the revellers win – I imagine they will be valued memorabilia, and I can’t imagine them having any other use.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Butterflies and bugs

We leave at 10 for Aberystwith with two planned stops on the way. First we go to the Centre for Alternative Technology. Its declared mission is to inspire, educate and inform on lower impact ways of living. To be honest, I’m disappointed. The exhibits are interesting but it’s all too homespun and unkempt. I’d like it to have a little more polish, that way it would have a chance of engaging the mainstream. As it is, only those who already embrace low-impact living would respond to it.

The next stop is the Magic of Life Butterfly Farm, which is run by an old school friend of Simon’s. Neil welcomes us warmly and refuses to let us pay the entry fee. He starts by introducing us to some of his bugs, including rhinoceros beetles, stick insects (more like branch insects in some cases!), mantises and tarantulas.

We’re amazed to find out that the enormous moths sitting quietly on a block of wood on the desk, that we thought were replicas, are actually real live moths. Then we go through to the butterfly house, and Neil explains about the origin of the different species and their habits.

Some of them are really tame, and quite happily move on to a proferred finger, others are more skittish. There are some spectacular species – one looks like an owl, another like a dead leaf – at least on the outside, the inside of the wings are brightly coloured. There are pots of sugar water that you can dip your finger in to attract the butterflies, or you can use the sprigs of buddleia that are provided.
We spend much longer here than planned – Neil is easy to get along with and so knowledgeable about the butterflies and bugs, so we chat for ages. We leave with three atlas moth caterpillars – the atlas moth is the huge one we mistook for a model on the way in – and a plan to meet later for a drink in Aberystwith.

Our hotel is right on the seafront, and although there’s a cold wind it’s a beautiful evening. We have dinner and then go out to meet Neil. The bar we choose doesn’t allow children after 10pm so we return to the hotel for a final drink, and then turn in. I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves breaking on the beach. We leave tomorrow morning.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Sea day

Today we have declared a sea day, which means we stay on site. The weather forecast was not promising but it’s sunny and warm and I manage to get Alex out of bed and down to the pool. He goes in the water while I sit and read the autobiography of Clough Williams-Ellis who founded Portmeirion. Alex persuades me into the water, which seems colder today than last time, but I soon return to my sunlounger. As we leave the pool Simon comes down to meet us. I’ve realised that there’s a route from the corner of the pool area to the viewpoint adjacent to the Gate House, and we walk back that way.

Lunch is whatever we can find in the fridge – we’re eating out tonight so apart from tomorrow’s breakfast this is the last meal in the cottage. Then we go back out to try and walk out onto the estuary. It’s pretty time-sensitive – it’s recommended to leave the estuary at least two hours before high tide – but at low tide it appears to be possible to walk right out to the island.

The tide is going out but we can’t see a way across yet. Instead, we walk around the peninsula and explore the beaches we find on the way. I head for an impressive beached tree, only to find two enormous Portuguese man o’war jellyfish beached nearby.

We make it almost to Portmadog but there’s a deep channel that means we can go no further. There are warnings of quicksand posted along the beaches and in places we sink to above our ankles, which deters us from venturing too far from the firm sand. As we walk back along the shoreline the water is noticeably lower and we think again about going further out into the estuary. But there still seem to be deep areas and we’re not certain enough of our way ahead.

Arriving back at the hotel we notice people out on the sandbar in the estuary. It’s still not clear how they got there, but another person sets off from near White Horses and wades across. It seems quite shallow but at one point he seems to be up to his chest. It seems quite a risky prospect and in the end we decide to stay put – actually, the sand bar is quite featureless and wouldn’t compare with the rock formations we saw walking along the shoreline. There were even sections of pure white marble sandwiched between the rocks.
We have to pack now, ready to vacate tomorrow morning. Then we stroll down to the hotel for dinner, stopping on the way to record the 7pm chimes of the clock which plays the Welsh National Anthem. The water is even lower now, and as we sit on the terrace with pre-dinner drinks the clouds are reflected in what’s left of the water – it’s stunningly beautiful.

The food is excellent. After dinner we head back to the Gate House for cheese and a final drink. It will be a wrench to leave this place.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The place with the longest name

Today we go to Anglesey, where we will meet up with Jonathan and co again. We arrive via the new bridge, designed by Robert Stephenson, but we want to see the old one. We find a viewpoint where it’s possible to see both bridges, as well as a fish-trap in the middle of the Menai Strait.

We walk down to the river for a better view, then double back to Llanfair PG – as the place with the longest name is called for short. Alex has been wanting to come here for ages, and has worn his T-shirt from the name of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano specially. We buy one from Llanfair PG, naturally. The railway station still operates, but the station house has been bought by a retailer and it has become a shopping destination.

Next stop is Beaumaris, where we have another castle to explore. This one becomes my favourite. It has plenty of round towers and double skinned walls full of tricky little passages. We enjoy exploring those for a while, then look for somewhere to have lunch before meeting Jonathan. The smart hotel on the seafront has just finished serving lunch and we end up in a pub called the George and Dragon.

 It starts raining as we leave, so I go back to the car for jackets while Simon and Alex skim stones from the beach. We’re meeting Jonathan on the jetty to go crabbing, and he soon phones us to say they are there. They’ve kindly bought Alex a crab line so we get stuck in. It’s easy enough to catch crabs, using a string bag full of bacon, but it’s harder to land them – it’s a long way up from the sea to the jetty and they drop off on the way. We manage to catch an impressive number of crabs between us, and Alex is particularly proud of catching the largest crab, who he dubs The Beast.
Alex, Cerys and Rhianon take the crabs to the beach after to release them and watch them race to the water, but they just sit there in a clump. The children pick them up one by one and nudge them in the right direction. We’re keen for them to reach the water before the gulls get them.

Next stop is the Red Boat ice cream parlour where Jonathan buys ice creams for everybody (except Simon, who doesn’t like it) – Alex chooses Ferrero Rocher and I choose strawberry, marscapone and balsamic. They’re excellent. Then we say our goodbyes and return to our respective holiday homes. The weather has been changeable all day but it’s a lovely evening and I go out to find the viewpoint from which our picture was painted. I find it, at a gazebo near the top of the wild place. This is our last evening eating in, and we have the rest of the chilli Simon made earlier in the week, then a game of crib before bed.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Castles and Cousins

Today began somewhat surreally with four men dressed in identical red tabards jogging down the path beneath our cottage with a photographer in tow. No explanation was forthcoming. Our destination this morning is Harlech, just a short drive away – or it should be. The toll bridge is closed and diversions are in place to the next bridge up which adds considerably to our journey.

Arriving in Harlech we are lucky to find a space in the car park. We explore the castle, which is on a rocky outcrop that used to be on the coast but is now someway inland although still exposed to the wind which is out in force. The walks along the top of the castle wall are too blustery to enjoy so we confine ourselves to the inside of the castle and its defensive wall. It’s not a large castle but considered important by Unesco, which has declared it a World Heritage site.
Leaving the castle we explore some of the surrounding streets which drop steeply down to the level of the new coastline. There are great views of the castle from below and some pretty cottages, one of which enjoys both a stunning view of the castle and a graveyard in its garden. We buy some cheese for dinner – Simon’s cousin Jonathan and his wife and children are coming to dinner, as well as Jonathan’s mum and dad. Returning to the car we realise that the traffic in the direction we need to go is stationary and everybody is turning round. We decide to follow them and find a route that skirts the bottom of the castle and avoids the blockage.

We make a brief stop at Portmadog to see The Cob, which was built to enable land to be reclaimed. We are fortunate that a steam train is in the station when we arrive – the line runs along The Cob and then down the high street in the strangest level crossing I have seen. We are searching for proper Caerphilly cheese, which we finally find in a little deli, then we stop at Tesco for the ingredients for tonight’s dinner. We have 9 to cater for, in a cottage designed for 5, and given the cooking equipment on hand we’ve decided to make a chicken and leek pie – there’s a huge rectangular Portmeirion dish we can use.

We have a couple of hours before our guests arrive so we go for a walk in the part of Portmeirion known as The Wild Place. We follow the paths along the coast as far as the lighthouse and then inland through the woods, taking in the Dog Cemetary and the Ghost Garden as well as the Chinese Lake. Alex is most impressed by the enormous ferns that are taller than him, and many of the trees that are spectactularly twisted and misshapen. On the way back we stop at the gallery and Alex and I both admire a picture of the village with the island and mountains in the background. Simon says we should have bought it, so we go back and get it.

Jonathan and co arrive about 6 and we have a walk in the village before dinner. We manage to find just enough chairs for everybody, by re-purposing a towel rail with attached seat from the bathroom. The evening goes well; Jonathan and Alison’s two girls are delightful and chat very confidently. They are on holiday in Caernarfon, so it’s great to have the opportunity to meet up with them.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Aberdaron and Caernarfon

We were planning an early start today but managed to sleep in and didn’t get away till nearly lunchtime. First stop was Aberdaron, the end of the north west peninsula by Bardsea Island. The weather is looking unsettled but by the time we arrive the clouds have cleared, although the wind is cold. The car park is full and there’s literally nowhere else to park; we drive on a little and find a lay-by but can’t park without blocking others in. From there, we have a great view of the car park from here and notice a couple of cars leaving, so we drive down and manage to get a space.

It’s a pleasant beach with a small river running through it but the graveyard behind it is a bit offputting. The biting wind means there are few people and those there are nestle beneath windbreaks or huddle below the overhang of the hotel where we have lunch. While we’re eating the clouds gather and our walk on the beach doesn’t last long, although Alex insists on taking off his t-shirt because we’re on a beach.

We set off for Caernarfon but my interest is piqued by signs for the whispering sands and we turn off to find them. We end up at Porthor Beach, which is much more sheltered than Aberdaron and quite beautiful. There are fabulous rock pools at one end and a long crescent of sand, although we don’t manage to make it whistle. Alex enjoys exploring the rock pools and trying to find a sea anemone with its tentacles out.
We push on to Caernarfon which turns out to have the most spectacular castle. It’s well-preserved and has several towers intact as well as the entire outer fa├žade. We spend a couple of hours exploring and Alex amuses us by providing an idiosyncratic guided tour. It’s close to closing time so there are few other visitors, and they have to let us out though a small door in the huge gates when we leave.

Returning to Portmeirion we spend a little time exploring the areas that are only open to residents, then cook dinner, light a fire and settle down to watch Twelve Monkeys. Given the current Ebola outbreak, it seems scarily appropriate.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Llandudno and Conwy

We awake to a grey day and can see people passing below the gate house with raincoats and umbrellas, although the rain is light and drizzly. We decide to go out anyway, and leave shortly before lunch for Llandudno, one of the iconic Welsh seaside resorts and arrive in blustery rain. We take a brief look at the pier – the longest in Wales – and then find a restaurant on the seafront for lunch. It’s a good vantage point from which to watch people’s umbrellas blowing inside out as they try to avoid the horizontal rain. It’s not a great day to be by the seaside, so after a brief shopping expedition we set off for Conwy to see the castle.

It’s still raining when we arrive, but stops as we explore the castle which occupies an imposing spot controlling the river crossing. The town was fully walled and much of the wall remains standing. The castle’s towers are also fairly intact so we enjoy some splendid views of the town and the harbour. We walk a portion of the town walls and then go to look at some of the other buildings, including the smallest house in the UK. On the way we stop for an ice cream – a hugely frustrating experience as the guy behind the counter was incapable of fulfilling the simple task of selling us one. By this time the heavens have opened again so we head back to the car.
Driving back we stop briefly at Betws-y-coed, a busy little town doing a booming trade in outdoor wear and hiking equipment. I like the buildings here, all made from the local granite which makes them seem an integral part of the landscape. Then back to the Gate House to light a fire and get ready for dinner. The sunset tonight is stunning.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


It’s a beautiful day, and we have marvellous views from the Gate House across the estuary. We’ve checked the weather forecast and this is probably the best day we’ll have to we’ve booked tickets on the train up to the summit of Snowdon. I’m up first, and spend some time reading the autobiography of the architect of Portmeirion on our terrace. I still have my pyjamas on which confuses one of the early visitors who spots me. After a leisurely breakfast Simon drives to Snowdon – the roads are narrow and winding and have glorious views. We pick up our tickets and retire to the Royal Victoria hotel for lunch. The car park is full but there is only one other table occupied in the bar where we have an adequate lunch. Many of the other guests are there for a wedding.
The trip up to Snowdon is quite spectacular. The single carriage is pushed up the mountain by the engine along a narrow gauge railway. The landscape is stunning and travelling at 5mph you have time to take it in. We’re amused by the sheep doing “extreme grazing” on precipitous slopes with apparent indifference. There are streams and waterfalls, dramatic rock formations and, as we get higher, distant views of the coastline.

At the top we emerge onto the cold and windy summit and make our way to the peak. The wind makes it hard to stand upright but the views are incredible. There are a few clouds but visibility is pretty good. We only have half an hour to enjoy the views before the board the train for the return trip. It’s an hour by train and two by foot – there are many walkers and I think I would have enjoyed walking down.

We make a supermarket stop on the way back to Portmeirion where the clouds look quite threatening. The weather forecast says that we’ll have rain and high winds due to the tail end of hurricane Bertha. Alex is keen to swim and Simon says he’ll cook dinner while we go to the pool. On the way we pass guests arriving for a wedding that’s being held in Portmeirion’s “town hall”. The pool is outdoor but heated – Alex says it’s pretty warm but I’m not sure he’s a reliable witness. We have to register at the hotel before using it and they tell us it’s closing in 10 minutes at 8pm. That’s fine by me! As we swim it begins to rain. We arrive back at the Gate House quite bedraggled. Alex and I have baths while Simon cooks dinner and while we eat the wedding party has its firework display – unfortunately right at the peak of a heavy rain shower. The beginning of the tail end of Bertha? Simon has decided to prepare tomorrow’s dinner tonight so we’re up pretty late as he puts the finishing touches to the chilli. We don’t really have a plan for tomorrow, the weather will probably decide.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Portmeirion - arrival

We leave after lunch for the drive to Portmeirion, which with a clear run could take as little as four and a half hours. On the M40 warnings appear of long delays on the M6, so we take a detour to avoid it and manage to keep moving, albeit not always at the maximum speed allowed. As we near our destination we disturb an eagle feeding on some roadkill. We finally roll into Portmeirion at around 7, some five and a half hours after leaving Reading.

Simon and I have both been here before, just for day trips, but it’s a first for Alex. We’re staying in the Gate House, one of the first buildings you encounter as you walk down into the village. It sits above an archway through which visitors walk, but the front door is tucked away to the right. We offload our luggage and go for a walk through the village before dinner.

I love it here. The architecture is quite bonkers, but everywhere you look there’s something beautiful to see. It’s a lovely evening and the day visitors have left, so we encounter very few people. We walk all the way down to the hotel by the beach and then make our way back up to the castle for dinner.

The weather is mild enough for drinks outside, before we move inside for dinner. The food is quirky – my sun-dried tomato tartlet starter comes with goats cheese ice-cream - but excellent.