A Travellerspoint blog

February 2015

Bourdeaux - la première partie

sunny 8 °C

The plan was breakfast in Brussels, lunch in Paris and dinner in Bourdeaux. Unfortunately, it didn't work so well: I had to get up so early to catch the train, I didn't feel like eating. I did have a nice break of about four hours between trains in Paris, and enjoyed a very traditional French lunch of andouillette (a sausage with a very coarse, basically lumpy grain), mash and a large glass of bourdeaux (in anticipation of my destination) in a typical cafe opposite the Gare du Nord.
Changing stations was easy enough, just a quick trip on the subway and an interminable walk though tunnels and up and down stairs, to catch the TGV south. I remember when these things came in - they were quite the marvel, I think that only the Japanese bullet train would beat them. I remember being on one in the late 1980's and thinking it was as fast as an aeroplane, and kind of had the sealed in feeling of one. Now, many other countries have caught up, so they should perhaps rebrand as le train de la vitesse assez moyen (or TVAM - sounds alright). My particular train was going nowhere fast - we had a halt, then there were some announcements, nothing in English and finally a conductor came through but he couldn,t or wouldn't speak English. Luckily the woman beside me translated: the train ahead had hit a car: three hour delay. It took most of that time just to get a beer from the cafe onboard. So I had no dinner, unless some chocolate out of the vending machine at my hotel counts. The mention of a French hotel probably conjures up images - cobbled streets, quaint cafes, boulangeries, maybe even some music. Hah! I stayed my first night in the Formule 1, which was on the wrong side of the river: a few wine warehouses were the closest to the cafe scene I saw, and they weren't glamourous.
The price had tempted me to stay there for the week, but thankfully I found a cool place on Airbnb in an apartment above the Place du Parlement - a Square created in 1760 which has never actually housed a Parliament, but gained its name some time after the Revolution to honour the Bourdeaux Parliament which sat from 1462 - 1790.
My lodgings were in the one building which was not cleaned when the city recently polished up the majority of the buildings. At night, when there'd been a bit of rain, the Square was very atmospheric.
It was a brilliant place to stay - the people (a mother and daughter) were nice, there was a great cafe on the ground floor called Karl where I went every morning for breakfast before going up to spend the morning working. The coffee they made was a bit crazy - definitely not a Wellington cappucino.
Every side of the square featured restaurants, and I spent half an hour one day watching a couple of blokes removing the furniture from one of the houses. It was a third floor house, and everything came out the window and down a portable funicular. I had my first dinner just down in the next square - a brilliant entrecote washed down with some of the local product. Bourdeaux is, of course, a bit of a foodies paradise, and I ate enormously well every night - fusion Asian one night, great Indian another and more local foods like the magret de canard (they make lots of foie gras around here, so ducks are plentiful).
The Garonne River was about two blocks away, and my place was in behind the customshouse (now a museum) and bourse.
large_IMG_0576.jpgLe Musée national des douanes

Le Musée national des douanes



This is one of the little connecting streets, and the kind of bus they run through these narrow streets
I bet that no-one who hasn't been here knows what the next couple of photos are (but the game is given away in the third, if you squint):
That is the High Court - the wee pods are courthouses! Makes our Supreme Court look very normal. I wish I had gone in and taken a good look around, but the security at the entrance kind of put me off.

Being in Bourdeaux, I thought that apart from drinking the stuff, I should explore the history as well and went to the Musée du Vin et du Négoce - a wine museum set up in the cellars of a wine merchant. I have to say - it was lame, just a few static displays, although it did include some tastings and a bit of a talk about the local wine production and marketing systems. This was done one-to-one as I tasted the wine, which was nice, but I wish the person doing the talk actually knew something - she was a student from an island off the coast of Africa, in Bourdeaux for a few weeks and with a rehearsed speech.
Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

Entrance to Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux

large_IMG_0684.jpgNegotiant's records

Negotiant's records

Cooper's tools

Cooper's tools

Cooper's art

Cooper's art

One of the things that amused me about Bourdeaux (and I imagine they are elsewhere in France) was the variety of vending machines - not quite up there with Japan, but still it is unusual enough to have machines which vend inkjet cartridges and e-smoking apparatus.

Posted by NZBarry 15:51 Archived in France Comments (0)

Brussels is boring. Yeah, right!

sunny 8 °C

Looking at my tickets from Berlin to Brussels, there was one small scary element: I had a train to Amsterdam, then a bit of a wait for a train to Rotterdam and then 2 minutes until the train to Brussels. I'd already been on a train that was 12 minutes late, so convinced myself I'd not be seeing Brussels that night. Luckily that part of the journey was on an open ticket, so I was able to leave Amsterdam much earlier than expected, have a beer and shitty microwaved pasta for lunch in Rotterdam and carry on. I was a bit bemused by the local trains in Holland - absolutely full in second class, and first class, half a carriage (of a two carriage train), absolutely empty. Sorry, I tell a lie. I stuck my bags in there, so they traveled first class in splendid isolation.

I was in Brussels in the late '80's on a weekend bus trip from London. I remember walking for miles but I'm pretty sure of two things: I never saw then what I saw this time, and I didn't find the area I walked through last time. Odd, really, since this time round I was right in the very centre of the city - missed it completely somehow before - and I had a great time. I never once went looking for a library, or even left the central couple of blocks except to walk out to the railway station to pick up a ticket. On the way out there, I found a hotel I should really have stayed at.

Nah, not really. I was very happy at the one I chose, because it was right in the centre, up a small alley so away from the hubbub. I went for all of the cliches of a visit to Brussels: frites, chocolate, waffles, beer, carbonnade à la flamande, and moules mariniere. They weren't hard to find - I think I'd seen them multiple times before I was a block from the train station. I was a bit disappointed to see that most of the waffles were pre-cooked and re-heated but eventually found the real deal.
I ate the mountain of moules moules mariniere without thinking to take a photo, sorry. Same with the various beers. As for the frites, I didn't really get the queue at Fritland - funnily enough it doesn't even rate in a study by the Telegraph of the best fritkots in Brussels, or the one in the New York Times. I did entertain the idea of trying them, but the queue put me off, and I found a great place right next door to my hotel, no queue, no wait. Next day I did even better, I was plonked in a bar testing the beer, and they fried up some frites in the basement for me. The bar maid in that bar amused me: at one point she dressed as if she was heading off on an arctic expedition: gloves, big hat, furry coat. She was only outside for a minute, setting candles on the four outside tables.

It is probably a good thing I was only there for a weekend, as every meal I had, they included frites. I felt sorry for the fritkot in the last photo - it was just around the corner from Fritland and decidedly lonely.
Of course, there are other food sources in Brussels - like cake, sausages, champagne, coffee, rotisserie goatsheads
In another bar, I watched a wee drama unfold. I'd noticed this woman standing on the opposite street corner, and I don't know why, thought she was waiting for business. After a while, however, it became evident she was waiting for someone - every ten minutes or so she'd ring someone, I am pretty sure it was the same person, as she was clearly wanting to know how long the person was going to be, then she'd be reassured and put her phone away. I dawdled over my drink as long as I could to see if this wee drama was resolved, but it was getting late and I needed to eat so I just don't know - I hope there was a happy ending.

It didn't seem to matter what time I ventured out, the streets were abuzz with people, and entertainment during the day
I had a wander through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a covered shopping arcade built in the 1840's in place of what was a sordid area. It has posh shops, a chocolate cafe, a tavern and so on but there was one display in particular which caught my eye.

I think, for me, the most impressive sight was Grand-Place = the original market place which houses the Town Hall, the Brussels museum and various gilded Guild buildings.
It was impressive during the day but at night - wow! I don't know if it happens year round or it was a Christmas thing (huh - now I do know, it happens between late November and early January), but there was a magnificent sound and light show - predominantly classical music played very loudly (I heard it clearly from my hotel) and thousands of coloured LEDS to light up the buildings. Quite a lot of photos, but I couldn't decide which ones to cut.

Posted by NZBarry 17:07 Archived in Belgium Comments (0)


overcast 1 °C

My last five nights in Berlin, I moved out to the East of Mitte, to another really good hostel, East Seven. It was really sociable, and had a happy hour on beer (these two things couldn't possibly be connected), so I'd come in at about 10:00 and settle in with a delicious black lager. One evening I got talking to a mother and daughter- they were probably ten years either side of my age, from the south west of Germany. I'm not exactly sure what I did to provoke it, but when they went off to bed, the mother said she'd never met anyone like me (in a good way, I'm sure!). Another evening, I was most entertained by a young fellow, from somewhere in the North of England, who worked in an office for (I think) a local authority, and he hated his job so much he'd rather die than go back to it, but he was devastatingly funny about why he hated his job - a combination of Microsoft Word and the inanity he had to deal with from others. One big regret was that I wasn't staying just a bit longer - the hostel would provide food and accommodation for people willing to cook dinner for other residents - a Canadian girl was quite keen to do it, and somehow she picked on me to sort out her menu. Quite randomly, a bloke reckoned I look like Karl Marx- now that I've seen some pictures, it might take a little work but I've not far to go.
I'd start each morning with a coffee and pain au raisin at the Impala cafe, just down the street - the decor was sort of concrete 1970's industrial lunchroom, the chairs were a bit like the metal legged chairs from my school, but the coffee was good and the staff were fun: I made the mistake of asking for my pain au raisin in German - I don't speak German, but stumbled through a reading on the label. It was a mistake because every morning after that, they wouldn't give me one unless I asked for it in German. Then I'd walk through a different way to the library, such as past all the very impressive museums on Museum Island, or the shopping streets, or quieter residential streets which would have cool looking bars and cafes and second hand shops crammed full of stuff which I'd wish I had time to indulge myself in.
It was even worse on the way home, when they were open. Each morning, I'd wander off to do some work - I tried the American library (it was funded by the Americans to help Germany get back on its feet after the war) first, because it is huge, but turned out to only occupy the ground floor and have no wifi. I also paid 12 Euro for the privilege of using the State Library, which was very quiet and very white and futuristic but I couldn't get their wifi to work. Then I learned about Humboldt University , which was founded in the early 19th century - given its location and age, I thought the library would be quite special, and it was, but not in the way I expected. It is a monolithic concrete building which opened in 2009. The interior is really well designed, I thought. Each floor is made of three parts - the third running along each wall has books and a staircase, and the central third is a quiet study space, but it is tiered, a bit like the seating in a stadium. The photo will explain it much better than I can.
I think I would enjoy an extended break in Berlin, I felt quite at home here - the only bad experience I had was in a Japanese restaurant near the Humboldt, where they had a very strange interpretation of the dish I asked for but, even worse, neither of the staff I dealt with said a word to me. The most excellent coffee shop next door, Pure Origins, made up for the lack of service.

A few years ago, I read DBC Pierre's wonderful satire on the excesses of modern life, Lights Out in Wonderland. About half of it is set in the former Tempelhof airport where, according to the Guardian review

the novel blossoms into a sort of insane, rococo wedding planner for a tumultuous and orgiastic banquet in the bowels of Nazi-built Tempelhof airport – all organised by Gabriel and Laxalt; they will cater for bankers whose Lear jets taxi to the very gates of Tempelhof and into a double bluff.

It made me curiously nostalgic for an airport I'd never seen and would never be able to fly into, so when I learned that you can take tours through the airport, I jumped at the chance. There has been an airport on the site since the 1920's, before then it was a public park, and the runway area has been returned to being a public park. The building of the main terminal did not start until 1934, as a symbol of the might and glory of Hitler's "world capital", Germania. That being the case, it had to be pretty special, and although it was never completely finished, there was a kind of stark grandeur to the place. It was an odd experience being in a deserted airport, and a building which is among the 20 biggest in the world, but I'm so glad I did it. The tour started underneath the airport, where the baggage goes in and up escalators to passengers in the main concourse, then, despite the cold and threatening rain, we spent a fair amount of time outside, on the apron. One of the great things about Tempelhof is that the planes just rolled up to the back door, where it was covered, so passengers had no distance to walk - no need for an airbridge. This approach was one of the reasons the place closed - modern aircraft don't fit.
The aeroplane in the picture was one used in the early days of the Berlin airlift - the Russians had blockaded Berlin in an effort to gain exclusive control, but under an earlier agreement had left open three 20-mile wide air corridors providing access to the city which not even they would go back on. The estimate was that 3500 tonnes of supplies were needed. Every day. The DC3 could carry 3.5 tonnes, the C-54 had a payload of 10 tonnes, and eventually took over as the only aircraft used. Conditions were problematic - for one runway, the planes had to fly between two apartment buildings and for the the other, fly over an apartment building and then drop sharply. The Russians did not play nicely. And yet the airlift was a success - on one day, as a special effort, they flew in 12,941 tonnes of supplies, mainly coal. In fifteen months, there were 277, 569 flights and 2.3 million tonnes supplied - shared between Tempelhof and Gatow. Our tour was enlivened by having a man on it who flew about 380 of these missions - I'm pretty sure he said it is first time back, aged 92.

Time to go inside, to the main concourse. The original grand vision had required this to be very high, but the need to get it operational meant that a false floor was built by the Americans cutting the height in half, and the pillars had to be marble and just so- almost more palace than functional airport.
The upper half has never been put to use and was never finished off. The top floor was to be a vast open air restaurant, from which the people could watch various spectacles. Again, this was not finished - the Americans adapted it to their use by building a bowling alley (subsequently removed) and basketball court. I can't remember who did it, but the picture represents the variety of life at Tempelhof during the airlift.
I do remember who did the next pictures - during the war, before Tempelhof was liberated by the Russians, part of the basement housed workers, essentially prisoners, who were required to work at the airport, and this is how they kept their spirits up.
The Russians were there for just a couple of months, but they did a thorough job of removing anything they wanted. Down in a another part of the basement, there was a bunker for filing important documents and, more significantly archival films. It was locked up pretty securely, so the Russians thought they'd found a treasure trove so, determined to gain entry, used explosives. Guess what happens when films are exposed to explosions? A mighty fire raged through the bunker and everything was lost.

The day was wet and a bit foggy and it was near the evening, so my photos of the outside are a bit dim:

Posted by NZBarry 16:02 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Berlin: City of Contrasts

overcast 1 °C

Somehow I failed to mention the early start I was forced to have on my first morning in Berlin. I was woken from a sound sleep at about 5:30 by the presence of two policemen in the room. One of the guys had his laptop stolen, from behind three locked doors, so naturally the most logical possibility was that one of us in the room had taken it. So we all had our stuff examined fairly thoroughly - it didn't seem to trouble the cops that bags smaller than laptops could not hold a laptop - they still got searched. I was a bit concerned about my own laptop - I hadn't left it out like the fellow who lost his, but was still relieved to find it.

I'd have been very happy to spend my whole week in Berlin at the Grand Hostel, even with that incident, but in the interests of seeing different bits had booked a night in a hotel in the very poshest part of Berlin, Charlottenberg, which is out to the West. The main street through this area, Kurfürstendamm, is Berlin's answer to the Champs-Élysées: block after block of high-end brand shopping, venerable hotels like the Kempinski, exotic car dealerships and the largest department store in Europe, the KaDeWe. Kurfürstendamm itself has had a checkered history as it had been where many Jewish businesses were established, and then it took numerous hits during the war. I read somewhere that when the Wall was (accidentally, it turns out) opened, Kurfürstendamm was one of the main thoroughfares used by those coming from the East. It wasn't until I was in Berlin that I ever heard about the accidental opening: the Government planned to open it, but hadn't quite decided when. Some minion was put on TV to announce the plan and when he was asked what the time frame was, he shuffled through his papers, mumbled a bit and announced "now"! Guards on a couple of the gates packed up and went home and the wall was history.

Although I was staying in a posh area, I couldn't really justify the cost of the Kempinski or any of the other nice hotels in the area - I found a cheap room in the Pensione Hotel Funk, on a side street, opposite the grandly named Berlin Literaturhaus, which turned out to be a cafe, not a fancy library. I'm not saying that my room was small, but I had to rent a separate room for my luggage. It was a pleasant enough place to stay, and I liked the honesty system with the beer - it was kept in the fridge with a notepad beside it for guests to indicate their purchases. The outside looked like this
I wandered the streets, found a stationery shop that actually sells writing paper (impossible to find in any of the Scandinavian cities, even in Office-Max type stores): I resisted the temptation to buy any pens, but was not so resistant to ink and made the first of a couple of visits to KaDeWe (where the pens were somehow more tempting, and besides, I'd just bought ink - surely something was needed to put it in). The top floor is entirely given over to food and drink and was awash with people, so I had a quick beer and departed. It was quite dark, so my one photo of Kurfürstendamm is not very revealing.
I was near the Tiergarten, the second biggest urban garden or park in Germany, so popped over in the morning to check it out - pretty wintry, with more trees than actual garden. It is bisected by roads which intersect at the Victory Column, which marks the 19th century Prussian victories that created a unified Germany. It is 67 metres high, above which sits "Golden Lizzie" (Goldelse) although it is actually Victoria, the Roman Goddess of Victory, not the British monarch. All the way round the base, various friezes depict some of the battles. There was a nice wee restaurant in the park, very busy, where I had a hearty sausage and bean stew to keep me going.
Every time I walked past the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, it puzzled me, as I could see that it was obviously broken (it took quite a beating during the war, and really it is just the spire left), but seemed to still be in use. Someone I spoke to said that when they built a new church around it, there were plans to pull down the spire, but the congregation and the general public wants it kept the way it is, as a way of respecting the Kaiser. It is right in the middle of a bunch of new buildings so I could not get far away enough to get a decent photo. I was amused by the juxtaposition with a nearby building in a completely different style.
Berlin has many things for the tourist to see and do, and there was no way I could have seen them all had I wanted to, but I found two things that I really wanted to see. One was these rather innocuous buildings
During the war, the top one was used as a kitchen and canteen, the second was purpose built a little bit later - they are Berlin-Hohenschönhausen prison. After the war, the Russians had control of this part of Berlin and, obviously, needed somewhere they could house and deal with political prisoners. So the basement of the top building was converted to small, bare concrete cells - no window, no real access to air, a single small light that would be turned on at random times to create the idea it was day-time, no bedding, no toilet - which would house dozens of people. They called it the U-Boot, or submarine. The Russians were pretty indiscriminate as to who they'd imprison and where they'd put them - so there were old people, young people, men, women, people of all political stripes all housed in the same room. The average time people spent here was 6 months, but one fellow was here for 28 months. The youngest was 4 years old; one girl of 14 was put in because, being a teenager, she thought it would be funny to put lipstick on a photo of a man - who turned out to be Stalin. She had no idea. They were all tried before a court, but the court was in Russia, while they stayed in the submarine and had no idea what was happening. A common charge seems to have been endangering world peace. A lot of work as been done to find these people and ask about their experiences - obviously horrible, but the surprising thing was the way they'd group, despite their differences. There was no subtlety to the way they were treated, or interrogated/beaten to get the "truth" out of them. There is probably no need for a photo of a small, square concrete cell.
The Soviets used this from 1946 - 1951, when the East German authorities took over and built the lower building. Their strategy was completely different - the inside didn't look worse than many hostels I've stayed in, and they abandoned all forms of physical abuse as counter-productive as the results produced could not be trusted as the truth.
The inmates were questioned in somewhat normal looking offices - hundreds of them - and a psychological approach was used, mainly based on rewards - promises of nice things for family members for co-operation, for example. It remained a prison until after the Wall came down - the last inmates were released three weeks later, and no-one told them. The surrounding housing was all occupied by friendlies - prison guards, employees of the secret service, soldiers and so on - and the whole place was off the map completely, just didn't exist. People were brought in in vehicles like this one
Some of the guards still live in the neighbourhood, as do some of the former inmates - so they encounter each other in the streets. Some of the guards go on the tours through Berlin-Hohenschönhausen and have a rather different view of matters. I read of one blogger who went through, a young woman from Russia was on the same tour and couldn't accept what she was being told.

All in all, while there was very little to see, apart from the masses of offices still as they were left and a few cells still set up in the modern version of the prison, I was very glad to have done this. For something just a little different, that evening I went to the KaDeWe for a good look round. It was much quieter than my earlier visit, so I was able to sit down for a meal - I'll just finish with some photos - nothing needs to be said, really, except that the lamb chops I had for dinner were from New Zealand.

Posted by NZBarry 16:29 Archived in Germany Comments (2)

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