Tune in Tokyo

Feels weird to be opening my blog and realizing I haven’t written a single thing here since I was last travelling. Life has been pottering along, work, home, school, puppies, short domestic trips to Hobart and Canberra etc … <insert some variation of domestic bliss here>. But here we are back on the road, or rather back in the air, and I feel compelled to write something so I can look back on these memories of busy and heady travel when I’m old and stuck in a nursing home and unable to go anywhere under my own steam.

This year, Mr K and I are celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary… it’s rather a weird thing to be celebrating really. It’s not like we did any special to achieve it or at any point thought we wouldn’t make it. Time marches inexorably forward so it was really just a matter of ‘time’, I suppose (Did you like that one Mr K? That was for you.).

We had always planned to be spending our 20th anniversary in France, wandering the streets of Paris, tootling around the countryside in a tiny silly car (a la Absolutely Fabulous), surrounded by vineyards and chateau, eating too much cheese (as if there is such a thing!?) and testing out my dodgy highschool French – ‘Ou est la plume da ma tante?’ … However, one thing led to another and work being always tricky when you’re self employed, we decided we could only really spare two to three weeks away and there’s no way I would put myself through the agony of a long haul flight to Europe for such a short trip – which is how we ended up watching Notre Dame in flames from our hotel room in Asakusa, Tokyo, rather possibly being there in person. It’s a weird thing to watch a historical event like this unfolding and realizing that sticking to your original plan or making a different decision, or perhaps a slight change in schedule might have seen you in the middle of something like this. It’s like the massive explosion that happened in Tianjin the day after we left the area or the military coup that occurred in Turkey the day before Aunty Mary was due to fly there. A day either way and who knows…

 

So Japan it is. I had seen a nice deal on a cruise and QFF points for the relatively short flights, and here we are. The Plan – arrive in Tokyo two nights before our cruise departure, spend one very chill day in Tokyo doing nothing but looking for cherry blossoms and Pokemon, sake and sashimi (roughly in that order!), then make our way to the beautiful Diamond Princess in Yokohama for a short 8 night cruise before spending a week in Osaka, then some time in a traditional ryokan/onsen before coming home with a few days downtime before heading off to May Crown.

Our transit day was delightfully uneventful, we even had a spare seat and a bit of extra room on the flight on the way here. I learned a very important lesson – embroidering on a plane during turbulence is… well, it’s rather stupid. I must have stabbed myself at least half a dozen times, but persevered because there was nothing else to do.

We arrived at Narita around 1830 and then did our usual not-fun dance at Terminal 2 trying to figure out the train to get us to Asakusa. The trains in Japan are phenomenal; fast, clean, efficient, regular, easy to navigate… all except for trips from the airport. There are three different options to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo. The Narita Express for which you need two different tickets, only one of which is purchasable from a machine, the Skyliner for which you need only one ticket also purchasable from a machine, or you can take a JR line train on your Suica card which can also be topped up from a machine – but, (hint for new players!) all these machine service options only take cash! So it’s always a bit of a cluster to figure out which option is going to suit you best depending on where in the city you need to go and which option is going to be quickest based on your potential departure time and kinda annoying that you end up dropping a pile of currency the moment you get to country. This is my third time in Japan so I’m ready for this one now… it’s going to be a cluster no matter how good you think your planning and timing is, so just let the chaos flow over you is my advice. If you get to the city in an hour or so without dropping $300 for a taxi, you’re doing great.

We made it to Asakusa just after 8pm, stepped out from the train and were greeted by a lovely clear evening with a slight chill and our first sight of a famous cherry blossom tree under a warm street light, and the smells from a nearby curry restaurant. I immediately smiled and felt this was going to be a great trip.

We checked into our hotel, admired the view and how spacious the room was (for Tokyo), before heading out for a wander for a late dinner. We found a quaint little restaurant (not a noodle bar, not a sashimi restaurant, not a teppanyaki grill?) that served various soups, stews, grills and general Japanese fabulousness. Enjoyed a lovely meal of yakitori and broiled eel washed down with a nice junmai sake before heading back to the hotel to decompress after our transit day.

The following morning, in accordance with The Plan, we skipped breakfast and took a train to the traditional Japanese gardens in Shinjuku in search of cherry blossoms. We strolled among the gardens for a few hours admiring the gorgeous trees, with their plentiful blossoms in tones of white to deep pink. Hundreds of locals were in the gardens with their picnic blankets enjoying small hanami parties – which is a tradition of sitting under the trees and eating a small meal while watching the petals float down from the blossoms. I can totally see the appeal for these workers in their business attire, or the somberly dressed grandmothers grouped together with their tea and rice cakes… outside the gardens is surrounded by skyscrapers, retail hell and screeching trains, but here under the trees is a serene tranquillity and an unusual sort of gentility just pausing for a moment to enjoy some good company, share a drink and soak in the beauty of the cherry blossoms. It must be doubly wonderful to be outdoors under the cherry blossom trees if you had just had a few months of very cold, possibly snowy winter weather. Everything about the gardens was just gorgeous, and we whiled away a few hours here, just gently strolling the paths and remarking on the beauty of the flowers.

After this, we popped down to Tokyo Station to check out the new Pokemon Centre. On our last trip, we went to the Pokemon Megastore in Sunshine Plaza, but this place has only just opened and has a crazy overpriced Pokemon Café and everything. But we just wanted to have a sticky beak and see if there was any cool stuff here we could take home. The shop, as anticipated, was full of merchandise of all different Pokemon of varying degrees of utility – the Japanese seem to love confectionery and cookies in over-packaged Pokemon themed tins and boxes, there was heaps of it! And of course, loads of plush, which takes me back to my Disney Store days and I had to resist the habitual urge to start tidying the Pikachus. We picked up a few knickknacks but found nothing particular to take home before heading back to Asakusa .

 

 

Detective Pikachu comes out a few days after we leave Osaka – but Mr K is still hoping to find an advanced session in English or something.

It was around 4pm when we got back to Asakusa and decided to have a short wander around the markets. We stopped at a sake cellar for some tastings and bought some nice sake to take on the ship with us, and popped into a restaurant near the hotel for a bit of a snack – sake tasting after skipping breakfast and lunch was maybe not so wise. Some sashimi and some more sake later, we went back to the hotel to make use of the footbath for a while as the sun set. The hotel has a public bath available for use – for ladies from 10am to 8pm and for men from 8:30pm until 1am. Nudity is compulsory. I would have enjoyed popping up for a soak, but given that the timings are somewhat inconvenient and Mr K and I could not go together we opted for the open air footbath on the rooftop. For some reason, nuding it up with strangers in Japan feels weird compared to stripping off in Iceland, which I had no problem with??? No idea why… I’ll have to think on that one.

After a relaxing hour or so with very red and very shrivelled feet, we went back down for a bit of a rest before heading out to dinner. We had decided to find a good sashimi restaurant that served the famous fugu and research told us there was a place not far from where we were staying in Asakusa that has not had ‘a fugu casualty’ in over 75 years, which was comforting until we did the math and realized the restaurant had been there for over 90 years! J The staff were so friendly and polite and helpful and neither of them spoke a lick of English! Our server had a small translator that she spoke into to welcome us and try to help us through the predominantly Japanese menu, and between that and Google Translate, we managed to order dinner and make pleasantries.

Our meal consisted of a fugu jelly appetizer, a large sashimi platter to share which had mackerel, two different tunas, mackerel and kingfish, octopus, prawns and of course, some fugu, followed by some deep fried fugu and all washed down with delicious Kiku-Masamune sake (from one of the breweries I am looking forward to visiting near Osaka). The meal was delicious – I would highly recommend this tucked out of the way, little suburban restaurant if you happen to be in Asakusa. Unsurprisingly after an afternoon of sake and sake with a sake motif, I slept very well!

The next morning we had nothing on the agenda but to transit to the ship via Ueno Station to trade in our vouchers for JR passes for use after the cruise. We only had to get ourselves about an hour from Tokyo to Yokohama to board onto our ship, so we decided to go find the new Hokusai Museum for the morning. We packed up and checked so we could take our time at the museum and trotted over the river to Sumida.

 

The Hokusai Museum is brand new and was only opened in October last year, so we were really keen to see it. Entrance was only 700Y so I wasn’t really hopeful that it was be an extensive collection – and I was right. We saw more Hokusai works at the NGV exhibition last year. So it was a little disappointing in that regard, but there was an enormous collection of his sketch books which were very interesting and they have on display the famous 7m long lost Sumidagawa Ryogan Keshiki Zukan landscape scroll that was hidden in some private collection in France somewhere for nearly 100 years before surfacing at auction in 2008. The scroll was created in 1890 and was believed to have been taken to France and sold to a private collector in 1913. The piece is simply stunning and details the river that runs through this area of Tokyo… we could make out the bridges that we crossed to get to the museum, and the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and roughly where our hotel is located! It ends, as all good things should, in the pleasure house district which is lavishly detailed. No photographs were allowed in the museum so I have pilfered some common license images from Wikipedia.

and of course…
*I wonder how many times that damned Wave has been posted to this blog…

After the museum, we made our way back to the hotel to collect our luggage and onto the trains. We had quite a long delay switching our vouchers for JR rail passes – there is something about the Japanese love affair with paperwork, like actual paperwork with hard copies of everything and officiously stamping everything, that makes transactions like these take much longer than you would think they should in this day and age. But we eventually got our rail passes and stopped for a quick lunch before boarding a train to Yokohama.

Much quicker than anticipated, we were in Yokohama, bundled into a taxi and at the Oshimbashi cruise terminal boarding the Diamond Princess. This is my third time on this ship and she is as lovely as I remember. Our muster drill took much longer than it should, but once that was done, we found went to watch the traditional breaking of the sake barrel and then settled ourselves into the Skywalkers Lounge with a Mai Tai and watching the sunset over Yokohama as we sailed away.

Charlottenburg Palace and East Side Gallery

Slow start this morning, because of course with the transit home looming ahead of us tomorrow I am starting to feel like I have a head cold.  Boo-hiss!  There’s no good time to get crook when you’re travelling, but right before being in transit for 40 hrs or more, isn’t it.

Yesterday was supposed to be 5°C with a ‘feels like 0°-1°C with the windchill factor, and I was not ready for it at all and went out with insufficient layers (never fear, fixed it with a credit card), and today, I was ready for it and went out with all the clothing and extras in the bag, only to find it had increased stupidly in temperature overnight to a balmy 17°-19°C and I found myself completely overdressed and looking for a bathroom to rip off my merino layer asap.  Can’t win.

We headed out to Charlottenburg Palace today via a quick stop through Checkpoint Charlie to get to our train.  Slightly fewer tourists here today than Sunday but still the badly garbed actors and the McDonald’s.   Train stations in Berlin are nowhere near as deep as London, New York or Kiev and definitely not as pretty as Moscow or St Petersburg – but some of them make a striking statement. At the Checkpoint Charlie end: And copies of golden mosaics representing historical rulers of Saxony, Prussia and who knows where else, at the other end.I haven’t managed to photograph many Berlin Bears – whenever we see them, there is usually someone standing with it for ten minutes or more waiting to get that perfect selfie, so we have mostly just passed by them.
Charlottenburg Palace was originally built at the end of the 17th century and then expanded on enormously following century.  It is done is extravagant baroque and rococo styles as of course was fitting for the woman who commissioned it, Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich I who was Elector of Brandenburg at the time. Friedrich crowned himself as King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701 having two years earlier appointed Johann Friedrich von Eosander to be his royal architect on the extension project.  von Eosander spent a great deal of time in Italy and France studying places like Versailles, and I think that influence is fairly evident. When the royal architect returned in 1702 he put into place his plans to extend the palace to have two large wings and a courtyard in the front and to also extend the entire length of the main building as well.  Poor Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, long before it was finished and Friedrich named the palace, ‘Charlottenburg’ in her memory. Mind you, that’s him up there on that horse right out front of the place… not her.
The Orangerie off to the left side of the palace. The dressing room to the ‘Mecklenburg Apartment’ which comprises of three rooms that were used to receive relatives from the House of Mecklenburg.  The relief images above the doors are all original as are the parquetry floors, the fireplace and wooden panelling. The Old Gallery – this was considerably damaged in 1943, so the oak panelling, the paintings are all copies.  There is a pair of these candlesticks, but they are in vitrines so far apart that it’s nearly impossible to photograph the pair together.  They were made for King Frederick William I from the Silver Buffet at the Berlin Palace. The candlesticks were entirely cast in solid silver and are the last items remaining of the Prussian royal palaces’ silver fitting.  W/  Friedrich placed extensive commisions with the south German master goldsmiths of Auber (more than any other German Price) and his orders for jus three years from 1730 to 1733 included 85 silver objects with a total weight of over 8 tonnes.  Only six works have survived including these two (of ten) candlesticks.  All the other works were melted down in the mid 1700s and early 1800s. They’re enormous – all monograms and Prussian eagles. The aptly named, Mirror Panelled Bed Chamber was part of Sophie’s original five room apartments.  The mirrors were to reflect the lavish gardens outside. This section of the Palace too, was badly damanged in WWII and has been recreated to be a fair approximation of what was here earlier. One of Sophie’s antechambers. Cupid and Psyche are kinda evident everywhere. The Long Oval Hall was an entrance and recption area before the palace was extended, after which it became one of Sophie’s private rooms, it has exceptional views out to the gardens.  But again was severly damaged in WWII so has been recreated. As we moved through the Palace we noticed quite a few chinoiserie ceramics.  There seemed to be quite a lot of them for a palace of this style/age… little did we know. The Long Oval overlooked the formal gardens. After Sophie’s death, Frederick used her second antechamber as a small audience chamber. The tapestries were added in 1740 by his grandson, however, all in here was also damaged so is copied or reconstructed. One of the placards I read in here said all the fireplaces had been deliberately built to have consoles for displaying porcelain.

Another audience chamber, also demonstrating their particular fondness for ceramics. And a third audience chamber… there was little to indicate whether all these audience chambers served different purposes or were for people of varying levels of acquaintance (well nothing I saw in English anyway).  However, this room indicated that it was for private audiences with intimate members of the family and the King and his guest would have chairs of equal size.  It also had the most amazing ceiling that is painted on canvas and survived the war, so it is the original art. and more porcelain of course. Which then led into ‘the Porcelain Cabinet’“The Porcelain Cabinet is the magnificent highlight of the 140m long flight of rooms on the palace’s garden side.  However, when Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, the construction works were by no means finished and were not in fact completed until 1706.  The walls have been designed in a way that shows the porcelain and figural motifs off to their best advantage. The ceiling murals painted in 1706 by Anthonie Coxie, are allegorical images glorifying the rise of the Prussian royal dynasty.  The Cabinet was heavily damaged in 1943 and restored in 1967.” My how our sensibilities of what is ‘beautiful’ has changed. Next to the Porcelain Cabinet is the Royal Chapel – lavishly gilded and heavily ornamented. With its own miniature pipe organ. Portrait gallery on the way out. You exit through a servants entrance cleverly hidden under the stairs.  The tour is supposed to continue on through the upper apartments, but there is a rope telling us it is closed.  This is most likely due to the fact that it is October and they don’t want to staff the entire Palace for the winter, so we missed out on another 140m of lavish apartments upstairs. The weather had turned ‘moody’ while we were inside. One for Leofric that I saw in the gift shop.  🙂  We walked around the back of the palace to see the formal gardens, but without an elevated viewpoint – it’s difficult to see the impressive design.

After a stroll around the gardens, we decided to stop into a Russian restaurant that is right across the street called, Samowar – it is one of the best 100 restaurants (our of over 9000) so we thought it would be a good bet.  If you’re ever here, you should visit… they do what looks like an amazing Sunday buffet, and I imagine making a reservation would be necessary.

Calf’s liver with red cabbage, onions and mashed potato: Wild boar sausage with pierogi :
Last Russian honey cake until we go back to Russia or maybe do trans-Siberianan rail trip.  😛

After lunch, we did some masterful navigating of Berlin’s bus and train systems to go see the East Side Gallery.  The East Side Gallery is an open-air art gallery which consists of a series of large murals that have been painted directly onto a remnant of the Berlin Wall.   The paintings on Mühlenstraße started in 1990 and is over 1.3kms long making it the largest open-air art gallery in the world. There has been a lot of grafitti put on the artworks over the years, and some piece have been restored, but there is controversy over this with many artists refusing to re-do their artworks. Today, it seems most of the art works are being left alone and not being grafitted, but there are areas of the wall where it seems grafitti is encouraged, as this is a living used space. I love this:  Moscow…walls; China… walls; Everywhere… no walls (with kangaroo!);, Berlin… walls. This section of wall is all grafitti… the big stenciled work is not an official piece. So we thought this was a good place to leave a small mark. I know it looks all peacefu and orderly – but of course, it wasn’t. And it was about this time that our beautiful day with it’s 17C higher in temp then yesterday started to literally rain on our parade.  So we hightailed it to the nearest train station and head back to the hotel. And so ends our last day in Europe… for tomorrow we fly from Berlin to London to Singapore to Brisbane and all things going to plan, we arrive two days from now.

It’s been a blast!

Berlin! I’m going nowhere near Berlin.

We had an uneventful, even boring, train ride from Gdansk to Berlin and arrived a little earlier than we were able to check into our hotel, so we went for a wander nearby.   Literally around the corner from where we are staying is the famous Checkpoint Charlie.
Checkpoint Charlie or what was really just, “Checkpoint C”, was what the Western Allies took to calling the most well known Berlin Wall crossing between East and West Berlin throughout the entire period of the Cold War (1947–1991). For any young whipper-snappers who can’t remember why the Berlin Wall existed here’s a TL;DR didn’t study history version:

In the early ’50s, the Soviet had control of the entire Eastern Bloc of Europe including Eastern Germany, however people were emigrating through the German borders into western occupied areas pretty easily, especially through the city sector borders between East and West Berlin which was very accessible and it was stupidly controlled by four different occupying powers – leading to a left hand rarely knew what the right hand was doing situation.  So… they closed the border entirely in 1952 and installed a barbed-wire fence and checkpoint access areas.  But even so, some 3.5 million Eastern Germans left over the following decade, which was nearly 20% of the East German population.

The biggest problem with that was that the people fleeing tended to be young educated professional types which meant that the economy of Eastern Germany started to flail with all their engineers, doctors, teachers, lawyers etc., buggering off.  To stop the brain drain the Soviets erected a permanent concrete wall with a tall steel-mesh fence running along a “death strip” (yeah, nice name hey) which was covered with mines, and had large areas of freshly ploughed earth, to slow down what were no longer ’emigrants’ but ‘escapees’ so plenty of people got caught or shot trying to escape the Soviets, there was a famous standoff of over 100 US and Soviet tanks here because some American Diplomat wanted to go to the opera and they didn’t think the border guards had a right to check his papers… and all sorts of nasty shit went down over the four decades or so that the Wall stood.  The Wall eventually came down on November 9, 1989 (I can still remember watching all the partying on the news), but Checkpoint Charlie stayed in place until the official reunification of Germany in October 1990. Today’s it’s a tourist location and nothing else – complete with a McDonald’s – and no barbed-wire anywhere… and that will be the shortest and potentially most inaccurate TL;DR of the Berlin Wall you’ll ever read.

Even at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon with temperatures barely hitting 3C the area is crawling with tourists trying to get their photo with the paid actors who are dressed up like the military police here.  It’s a place that represents a fairly dark chapter in Berlin’s history, but it feels like people have forgotten why they come here.

You can buy chunks of Wall here – they sell it by the pound and it is all certified as genuine by the Berlin Wall Museum.  What are they going to do when they run out?

Around the corner from Checkpoint Charlie is the Deutsches Currywurst Museum, which opened in 2009, roughly 60 years after the invention of currywurst.  Currywurst was apparently invented in 1949 by a Berliner, Herta Heuwer, and the local curry sausages have reached iconic, cult-like status in Berlin, rapidly becoming a staple in the German diet.  I kinda love that the Japanese took curry that they encountered through the British who found it in India and made it their own Japanese thing, and the Germans appear to have done something similar. Curry is awesome – the museum, however, is thinly veiled excuse to sell currywurst… which pretty much sells itself anyway. By now, we could access the hotel and went back and went splat.  We have a huge room with a separate powder room, two TVs and a living room, which means I obviously booked something way more swish than intended. You never can tell by the photos online.  So be it.  Slept like a dead thing and had a great breakfast at the hotel before heading out via the underground towards Alexanderplatz to start some serious touristing for the day… the only downside to our plan:  it’s fucking MONDAY and nothing in Europe opens on MONDAY. Below is the Volksbühne which means, the “People’s Theatre” which was built in the early 1900s and was designed to promote accessible theatrical productions at prices that were affordable to the everyday worker – it is now considered to be Berlin’s most iconic theatre, complete with its integrated Franz Metzner sculpture out front.  Like most of Berlin it was heavily damaged during WWII, but as far as I can find out – it never burned down, which is quite unusual around here. Close to Alexanderplatz is the Fernsehturm Berlin television tower.  It was built in 1965-69 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government and was meant to be a symbol of Communist power in Berlin. Today it has mainly become just an iconic symbol of the city (much like the Eiffel Tower is of Paris) and it can be seen from nearly everywhere in the central city. The ‘Toothpick’ or ‘Telespargel’ (TV-asparagus) as people often call it, is 368m making it the tallest structure in Germany. Alexanderplatz is a large public square and transport hub and is mostly known for locating movies in Berlin – ie: you wouldn’t know that Jason Bourne or James Bond is actually in Berlin if they didn’t end up here at some point. Interesting factoid – it was originally a cattle market outside the old Berlin city fortifications and was named Alexanderplatz because the Russian Emperor Alexander I visited here in 1805. Very Berlinesque fountain… This mosaic (below) is Europe’s largest work of art (by area) and wraps around the entire Haus des Lehrers building.  Comprising of over 800,000 individual tiles, the mosaic building is just off the Alexanderplatz and was designed by Hermann Henselmann who with Walter Womacka designed and created the enormous work.  It measures 7m high and wraps 125m around the building. The whole thing was created between 1962 and 1964 in cooperation with the collaboration of many other artists. Naturally, being created under the Soviet government in the ’60s, the design is total propaganda, it is supposed to depict the ideal image of a peaceful, modern socialist state. Nearby is one of Berlin’s most photographed pieces of political street art on the currently empty former Haus der Statistik (House of Statistics) is painted in letters three-stories high, “STOP WARS”.  Very simple, yet effective. The 16 tonnes of Urania World Clock is also located Alexanderplatz (Jason Bourne was here too!) Built in 1969, the Urania World Clock tells time in 148 major world cities. We then walked not far to the Rotes Rathaus, which is the Red City Hall building, where the governing mayor and the Senate of Berlin are located.  It’s quite the landmark with its red clinker bricks and relief sculputres.

The Rathaus was built between 1861 and 1869 in a high Italian Renasisance style and modelled on a Town Hall in Toruń, Poland, designed by someone named, Hermann Friedrich Waesemann. Before Waesermann designed this town hall  that covers an entire city block, there were several smaller buildings here that were used for the city’s administration, some of them dated to the medieval period… makes you want to dig the whole place up and see what’s under it.  Something tells me the authorities wouldn’t approve.

Like most of Berlin, the Rathaus was heavily damaged by bombing in WWII and was then rebuilt to the original plans, which took five years from 1951 to 1956.  Across the road from the Rathaus is Berlin’s Neptune Fountain (seems to be a thing).  This one was built in 1891, designed by Reinhold Begas. The statue depicts the God, Neptune surrounded by four women who represent the four main rivers of Prussia at the time: the Elbe River (the figure holding fruits and ears of corn), the Rhine River (figure with fishnet and grapes), the Vistula (figure holding wooden blocks, symbols of forestry), and Oder River (represented by the figure with the goats and animal skins).  There is lots of alligators and turtles and lobsters in among the fountain, yale found it very impressive, but I thought it was nothing compared to My Fountain in Rome.  😉 

Down the road from the Neptune Fountain is the Berlin Cathedral or the ‘Berliner Dom’ which is the local name for the Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church of Berlin. Why these churches need names that are a mile long is beyond me.  Anyway the church is located on Museum Island named aptly because it is where all the museums are (MONDAY!).  The church that is currently here was completed in 1905 and is a major work of historical architecture from the “Kaiserzefit” (German Empire). The Berlin Cathedral has never been a ‘proper’ cathedral as it was never the seat of a bishop… sure looks like a cathedral though. The inside is remarkable, my photographs do not capture how lavish it is with all its gilded carving, intricate mosaics and shiny marble. The church on this site has a long history dating back to the mid 15th century.  But at the time this version of the church was built, there was no separation between the Protestant church and state of Prussia, so Wilhelm II (who was in charge) also acted as the Supreme Governor of the Evangelical State Church of Prussia, and dictated that the state would pay for the entire construction cost of around 11,5 million Marks. With the building being 114m long, 73m wide and a whopping 116m tall, it was much larger than any of the earlier church buildings and was attempting to be a Protestant version of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The pipe organ, built by Wilhelm Sauer, has over 7000 pipes was fully restored during 1970s reconstruction. Like most things here, it was seriously damaged during WWII and restoration works didn’t start seriously until about 1975.  The Soviet government decided to simplify the building’s original design and in doing so they wanted to demolish the entire northern wing, the section called the ‘Denkmalskirche’, or the Memorial Church. Many compared this chapel to the Medici Chapel, and it had somehow managed to survive the bombings during the war completely intact – however, the Soviet communist government wanted it gone for ideological reasons by the communist government given it was effectively a hall of honour for the Hohenzollern dynasty. So the sneaky bastards put the whole church under scaffolding for the restoration and then literally used detonation charges to destroy this undamaged chapel at the church’s rear. The communist government also removal of many of the iconic crosses as they could during the restoration process.  So the restoration was only set to cost about 50,000 marks, but because the government decided to demolish a huge part of the church, the cost of the demolition works was way more than the actual restoration and it ended up costing closer to 800,000 marks. Royal tombs… There is a small museum full of models, sketches and pieces of the original mosaics etc. yale for scale by a piece of a column…  The crypts beneath the church.

Across the river from the Church is the  Altes Museum or Old Museum which is a great name for an archaeological museum – it was built on Museum Island in Berlin and only recently restored in 2010/11.  It has cool stuff in it like Greek urns, helms and paintings from old masters and all sorts of shit… but MONDAY!
Don’t know if we will have time to double back tomorrow.  We will see. Some sculptures on the Schloss Bridge near Museum Island. A little further down the Bundesstraße 2 which goes straight through the middle of the city is the Neue Wache, or New Guardhouse, memorial.  It is the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship”.  Built in 1816 the Neue Wache was designed by the architects Schinkel and Sachs in the German-Greek Revival style. Originally built as a guardhouse for the troops of the Prussian crown prince, it has been used as a war memorial since 1931.   The Käthe Kollwitz sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, sculpture is the only thing housed inside as a monument to Unknown Soldiers. Next stop was the Berlin State Opera or the ‘Staatsoper Unter den Linden’, presumably the same opera house which, inconveniently located, caused the tank standoff at Checkpoint Charlie given that from 1949 to 1990 it housed the state opera of East Germany.  It is the permanent home of the ‘Staatsoper Unter den Linden’ opera company.  Humboldt University… Beside the opera house is the Bebelplatz public square which is bound by the Opera House, the Humboldt University, and St Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral. Today, the Bebelplatz is most famous for it being the site of the Nazi book burnings that occurred here on the 10th May 1933. The burnings were initiated and hosted by the nationalist German Student Association… seriously, the students were burning the books.  They started collecting books on the 6th Mary and dragged the contents of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft library into the square before they invited Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to come and give a speech before setting fire to the books. Also in attendance were members of the Nazi Students’ League, the Sturmabteilung (“brownshirts”), the SS, and members of Hitler Youth groups. They burned around 20,000 books.  🙁  Monument to Reiterstandbild König Friedrich II von Preußen, or Fredrick the Great. Berlin’s Microsoft offices.
In the foyer of Mercedes Benz in Berlin… a tiny mirror-balled Smart Car. No idea why. Saw this ad for an internet plan and nearly cried… #fraudband #nbn #auspol We stopped and had some lunch at a great cafe called, Nante-Eck for some typical stodgy German fare – there was soup and sausages and mustards, flammkuchen and yale sized beer!
Crayfish bisque for meCharlottenburg mixed sausage platter for yale. And some creme fraice, onion and bacon flammkuchen to share.  Delicious.

After lunch we were making our way to the Brandenburg Gate only to find the entire place crawling with police – LOTS of police. And road closures.  Seems the G20 Investment Summit is in town and the only people who didn’t know it was us because we’ve been unable to read newspapers for the last five weeks and who knows what day it is anymore?! The Brandenburg Gate is an 18th-century neoclassical monument built by the Prussian king Frederick William II after the (somewhat temporary) successful restoration of state order during the early Batavian Revolution. Victory gates for the win!  Build ’em while you can. After the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon used the Brandenburg Gate for an enormous chest beating triumphal procession, and apparently, he took the Quadriga (the four horse statue) from the top of the gates and sent them to Paris.  After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and the Prussian occupation of Paris by General Ernst von Pfuel, the Quadriga was returned to Berlin (probably with very poor grace) and it was redesigned by Karl Friedrich Schinkel who added the goddess, Victoria, and gave her a Prussian eagle and an Iron Cross on her lance within a wreath of oak leaves. When the Nazis ascended to power, they too used the gate as a symbol of party power. Following Germany’s surrender and the end of the war, the governments of East and West Berlin restored it in a joint effort. The bullet holes were patched but were still visible. Today, the space leading up to the gate is used for public gatherings and even concerts (somewhat like the Washington Mall) as it can fit up to a million people. The gates looked really impressive but was hard to get a photo without the police presence in the way.

More cops on the roofs of surrounding buildings! The other side of the gate – minus cops. Not far from the Brandenburg Gates is the famous Reichstag Building, which was constructed to house the ‘Imperial Diet of the German Empire’ – which is an interesting way to describe the houses of parliament.  It was opened in 1894 and parliament was housed there until 1933 when it was severely damaged during an arson attack.  After WWII the building fell into disrepair.

About half a kilometre or so away is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is also known as the Holocaust Memorial.  It was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer, Buro Happold in remembrance of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The memorial covers a 19,000 square-metre space that is filled with 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”, arranged in a grid pattern on an undulating ground. The stelae are 2.3m in length, and 1m in width, but they vary in height from only 0.2m to a towering 4.7m high. They are organized in long rows, 54 of them lie north-south, and 87 lie east-west at right angles but set slightly askew.
According to Eisenman’s project text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. Some people interpret the memorial to resemble a graveyard, though the creators say that was not the main aim. The deeper you descend into the memorial, the more you lose visual contact with the outside world. You start to feel hidden from other people, you walk quietly alone, the stelae are smooth and cold and sound echoes through the stones.  You will occasionally catch glimpses of people moving through the stelae in the distance but you feel ostracised and separate from them.  It is easy to lose your fellow travellers as you wander deeper into the memorial, and it is apparently designed to evoke a sense of loss and separation as you can no longer see your companions – a feeling that would have been so desperate among the Jewish community during the Holocaust.

Beneath the memorial is a “Place of Information” museum that holds the names of roughly three million Jewish Holocaust victims.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit the museum because it is Monday, but the memorial itself is a very moving place to visit.

There are signs at various entry points to the memorial advising visitors of appropriate behaviour here – unfortunately, people seem to be too disconnected from the horrors that this memorial is designed to remind us of.  While we were visiting there were children playing hide and seek among the stelae, there were tourists posing for selfies on top of the stelae and other jumping from stone to stone for mid-air action shots.  It was sad to see such disrespectful behaviour in what should be a place of thoughtful reflection.

It’s not just today though, it’s apparently a long-standing problem at this site:

Artist Shames Disrespectful Holocaust Memorial Tourists Using Photoshop

After our visit to the memorial, we head back to the hotel. It is just too cold and miserable to want to be out of an evening. Thank goodness for ciders and Lieferando.de  😀

 

NOTE:  If you think Berlin is looking lovely this time of year – you’d be wrong.  It was cold, allegedly 5-7C (feels like 0-1C with the windchill), and overcast, and the photos above are the result of careful composition.  I’ve been deliberately cutting all the crap out of my viewfinder all day.  Berlin feels like a really UGLY city, full of grime, litter, graffiti, traffic and building obstructions and … especially after having just come from the fairytale-like medieval city of Gdansk.

To demonstrate what I mean, I have included a handful of ‘not so carefully composed’ street scenes.

Gdańsk / Danzig

Our hotel is only one street back from the centre of the Old Town, so I when I got up this morning I decided to take a quick walk into the Long Market before breakfast to take some photos of the famous street before all the tourists were up.  It was probably about 08:30 so not that early… but it worked.  There was no one around. The Long Market was established in about the 13th century as a merchant road that led to a large marketplace away from the river, and it became the city’s main thoroughfare. It also became known as the Royal Route in the 15th to 16th centuries because it served as the precessional road for visiting Polish royalty – the monarchs would visit the city and be entertained in the tenement houses along the road, and during the various feasts the city council have fireworks displays here. The most prominent and of course, wealthy, citizens of the Royal City of Gdańsk lived along this route.
After breakfast, we struck out to explore properly.  Refreshingly most of the Old Town is laid out in a grid so instead of winding through confusing little streets, you could stroll down nice straight cobblestoned streets that would also allow you to (mostly) get far enough back to photograph the architectural gates that seemed to be at the end of most roads in the area.All the drainage down pipes have these fantastical stone dragons and gargoyles spitting water into the street – and for a short arse like me, most of them are at shoulder or head height, so they seem like they’d be a bit hazardous in really wet weather!
The decorative details on all the buildings is just overwhelming, everywhere you look is something new and interesting whether it some stonework, wrought ironwork, frescos, tiles or sculpture… it’s a veritable feast for the eyes.
This is known to be the oldest surviving original building in Gdańsk, knowing as Gotyk House which was built in 1453.The tennement houses are lovely…
… I want one!  Red please.  🙂 

We were making our way to St. Mary’s Church which is more formally know as (wait for it, ahem,) the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or even cooler in Polish: the Bazylika Mariacka Wniebowzięcia Najświętszej Maryi Panny w Gdańsku!  How’s that for a mouthful.  St Mary’s is Roman Catholic that saw it’s construction begin in either 1379 or 1343, they’re not sure.  It is considered to be one of the top three largest brick chuches in the entire world with a volume of somewhere around 185,000m3 and 190,000m3 (no idea why they measure churches for volume but there it is … the other two are the San Petronio Basilica in Bologna at 258,000 m3 (better add that to my list) and  Munich’s Frauenkirche which I have a sneaky suspicion we saw back in ’95 and it is roughly the same size as this St Mary’s.

Between 1536 and 1572 the church was used for both Roman Catholic masses and Lutheran services right up until 1945, when Danzig became Polish Gdańsk. It seems the church is mostly known this unusual arrangement, and for its enormous size – it is 105.5m long, 66m and can fit roughly 25,000 people inside. Inside the church is surprisingly stark (like the Frauenkirche in Munich), which was confusing when I first walked in and said to yale, ‘I thought this was a catholic church but it looks kinda Lutheran in here.’, and was again confused when I saw a confessional a bit later… but the dual denomination situation described above kinda explains that I guess. The enormous baptismal font is unusually placed almost right inside the door – about 50m from the nave. We saw this fancy commercial votive candle system – copyrighted in Ireland… sometimes I think we forget that big churches are more run as big business these days. Anyway, St. Mary’s is a triple-aisled hall church with a triple-aisled transept – which basically means that the main nave and the two adjacent transepts are of roughly similar length, height and width. The building is an excellent example of late Gothic architecture.  In the late 1500s to early 1600s the church was rebuilt and enlarged somewhat with the final footprint of the church not being achieved until over 150 years since the initial construction had started. There are so many different donation boxes in this church – all different sizes, and marked to all different causes/saints/purposes. Embroidered banner: ‘God, Honour and Homeland’.  No idea what period, but I want to say, late 19th or 20th centuries, just because this place isn’t climate controlled and the goldwork isn’t that tarnished.

The Pulpit is pretty impressive – another later period addition from 1762. Apparently designed by Johann Heinrich Meissner and the oil paintings decorating it were done by Isaac van den Block.

To the left of the pulpit you can find the Rajnold Chapel, where there is a 19th century replica of Hans Memling’s famous triptych, “The Last Judgement”. The original is kept in the town’s National Museum – it was painted between 1467 and 1471.and the painting itself has quite a cool history.  It was commissioned by Angelo Tani, an agent of the Medici at Bruges, but the painting was captured at sea by Paul Beneke, a privateer from Danzig.  Apparently it took a lengthy lawsuit against the Danzig Hanseatic League to see it returned to Italy.  Eventually it somehow made its way back to St Mary’s, but of course was then moved to the National Museum for preservation. The central panel shows Jesus sitting in judgment, while St Michael is weighing souls and sending the damned to Hell, while the saved are being guided to heaven by St Peter and angels.

I can’t find any information on this artwork at all… but here is your little bit o’ medieval weirdness for the day: This rather incongruous memorial was to remember the 96 victims of a plane crash in Smolensk on 10th April 2011.  Lech Kaczyński, the fourth President of the Republic of Poland, was on the Polish Air Force Tu-154 when it crashed outside of Smolensk, as was his wife, First Lady and Economic Minister for Poland at the time. Directly opposite this very modern memorial is an enormous medieval astronomical clock.  Standing 14m tall, it is said to have been constructed by Hans Düringer between 1464 and 1470. Like every other monumental medeival astronomical clock, it is said that Düringer had his eyes put out after he made it so he could not make another – which begs the question:  why would a medieval master clockmaker accept such a commission if ultimately he was going to be blinded to stop him from replicating his work?!  Dunno… urban myths alive and well in the middle ages. The clock has some pretty complex dials that show time, date, phases of the moon, the position of the moon and sun in relation to the zodiac signs, and the calendar of saints.  Another unlabelled, anonymous fresco/sculpture.

The original high altar was created in 1511–1517 by Michael of Augsburg is currently undergoing restoration, right here in the church. They have the space, so why not I guess. You can see the altar all pulled apart, and restorers were working on it while we were visiting. From the altar looking back down the nave – it really is an enromous church.I think this is a representation of the ten commandments from 1485… there is supposed to be a piece here of that nature, though the artist is unknown. Organ – no real church is complete without one. More medieval paintings with no information or attribution  🙁  Photographing these paintings in this evironment is worse than in a musuem under glass – the camera just can’t handle the brightness ration from the stark white walls and the glare forming from them on the surface of the canvasses is almost impossible to avoid. This is me… looking at all these cool paintings and then not being able to find any information on them whatsoever.

After we left the quiet enormousness of St Mary’s we went for a walk down the Long Lane which runs parallel to the Long Market and ends at the Gdańsk Great Armory.

The Great Armory in Gdańsk or The Arsenal is the most decorative secular mannerist building in the town.  Towards the end of the 16th century, a growing military threat from Sweden prompted the Gdańsk burghers and merchants to prepare for war. Given there was a lack of suitable warehousing for war equipment they designed this purpose-built arsenal building.  To build the arsenal, the burghers hired the most eminent architect of the era, Antony van Obberghen, because a warehouse can’t just be a warehouse, right? And work on the armoury began in 1602 to 1605.  It was made of small red Dutch bricks with sandstone decorations and covered in rich gilding.  It actually looks like four separate tenement houses (especially from above) but it actually one building. Directly outside the armoury, the entire street is largely taken over by amber shops and by souvenir shops. You can face in any direction in this town and see amber for sale.

Over onto the end of the Long Market now, you can see the Golden Gate which is one of the most notable tourist attractions of the city and is located at one end of the Royal Route (the Green Gate is at the other river end). 

The Golden Gate was built in 1612–14 to replace an old 13th-century gothic gate, which formed part of the old city fortifications.  Both sides of the gate have figures symbolizing the qualities of an ideal citizen. They were designed in 1648 by Jeremias Falck and then reconstructed in 1878 due to the originals being damaged by weathering and oxidising over time.

On the west side these qualities are: (in Latin, of course)  On the west side of the gate, the listed qualities are (in Latin of course):
Pax (Peace)
Libertas (Freedom)
Fortuna (Wealth)
and Fama (Fame)

On the East (Long Lane) side of the gate, they have listed:
Concordia (Agreement)
Iustitia (Justice),
Pietas (Piety)
and Prudentia (Prudence).

There are just too many very fancy and impressive buildings in the Long Market.  I can’t describe them all, but have included many photographs to show how stunning this town is. The older High Gate which is attached to the Golden Gate is a Renaissance city gate now at the main vehicular entrance to the Old Town. 

Directly opposite the High Gate and the Golden Gate is the Prison Tower. It was established as part of the medieval fortifications, and the foundations of the Prison Tower are from the beginning of the 14th century. The Tower has a long-tower with a pointed arch and a rectangular courtyard.  These were built at various stages between 1379-1382 and 1416-1418. Henryk Hetzel was the architect and he allegedly erected the highest level a “donkey back”, but I can’t see it.  Michał Enkinger later came along and topped the Tower with a tent roof which burned down in 1577 during the siege of Gdańsk by Stefan Batory’s army (long story omitted here). For over two centuries, from 1604 to 1858, this was the largest prison in Europe. Records show no known successful escape attempts, so we can guess it was a pretty effective one at that.  Also located in the Prison Tower were Torture Chambers and the hangman’s headquarters which look like a small renaissance palace.

Today, the Prison Tower contains a Torture Museum (pass) and an Amber Museum (also pass), so we had a look around the medieval building but didn’t visit inside.

The Brama Wyżynnai gate is another gate built in 1588 gate and at one time was the main entrance to the city. It features many symbols of Gdansk, but also of Prussia & Poland. After this we went through the Golden Gate and back into the Long Market to marvel at the beautiful tennement buildings. The Gdańsk Main Town Hall is a historic building located in the middle of the Long Market and it is considered to be one of the best the Gothic-Renaissance style historic buildings in the city.  It is built at the intersection of the Long Lane and Long Market, and currently houses the History Museum of the City of Gdańsk and a weird modern art exhibition of Kazakhstani photographers?!   So many of these beautiful tenement houses have a long and distinguished history all of their own – for example, this red building below is called, the Schumann House. It was designed and built for a man named, Hans Conert the Younger, by an unknown architect in around 1560. The building was known as the King’s House as the top of the house has a sculpture of Zeus. Now, it houses a Tourist Information Centre… but my point is, every one of these buildings has a history.It’s nearly midday and the tourists are finally up and about – I am very glad I came out earlier and took some photos of the empty streets. Neptune’s Fountain – is an iconic fountain of Gdańsk.  It was  constructed by a local Mayor, Bartłomiej Schachmann in 1549 and is located outside a building called Artus Court because there was a natural well here. The fountain was proposed and approved in 1549 but didn’t ‘open’ until 1633 due to a series of construction delays – the Artus Court building was being renovated, there were problems with the water system, and then the terribly inconvenient Thirty Years’ War. 

The fountain was renovated in 1927, the fountain was renovated but got badly damaged during World War II, so they moved it to Parchów, and didn’t return it to its place until July 1957. It was renovated again in 1988, and again in September 2011 and April 2012… seems these things are pretty high maintenance. At the other end of the Long Market – the back of the Green Gate. So many beautiful buildings!  It’s simply overwhelming… so many beautiful facades to look at and so many wonderfully detailed frontages.
The Green Gate is on the river end of the Long Market and marks the start of the Royal Route.

The Green Gate was apparently inspired by the Antwerp City Hall building and was built in 1568-71 as a residence for the Polish Monarchy. It was commissioned from the master architect, Regnier (or Reiner van Amsterdam), and bring some Flemish architectural influence to Gdańsk.

More tenement buildings lining the river to either side of the Green Gate.Across the river is Granary Island – we popped over there very briefly, but it seemed full of modern hotels, a ferris wheel (called the Amber Sky of course) and several bars that appeared to largely cater to American tourists (Jack Lives Here). So we made our way along the waterfront and back into the Old Town to meander through more back streets. The seemingly modest, Royal Chapel. The famous Gdansk treadwheel crane – originally built in 1366, the crane was operated by men in the treadwheel to hoist heavy weights onto ships.

Right beside the riverside and the Treadwheel Crane is the Gdansk Archeological Museum.  We had a nice visit in the museum, though there were absolutely zero plaques in English telling us what we were looking at.  So I’m guessing your educated guesses are as good as mine on these artefacts. This was marked – it’s a 10th century viking longboat most likely used for trading and not so much for the war and the pillaging bit. The most noteable thing about the Gdansk Archeological Museum is how much of their collection was so completely lost during World War II.  The Museum apparently had a remarkable collection of artefacts and now it is a hodge podge of what remains.

After a wonderful day out exploring the city, we decided to look for one of Gdansk’s finest dining establishments – with some leftover Zloty, we thought we’d find somewhere really nice… and with fingers crossed, we might even find some friendly service too!  We ended up at ‘Chef, Food & Friends’ and because we have a very early start tomorrow, we went out for a 7pm dinner (read: an unusually early meal time on the Continent) so we had the restaurant entirely to ourselves.

Wines and lager ordered, we then took a moment to drool over the menu.

I had the Beef Tartare with Black Truffles, and it was really good. A lighter on the vinegar than you might expect, but lovely citrus and onion flavours with just the right hint of truffle. yale splashed out and ordered the Fried Foie Gras which was served with a beetroot sponge and truffle mousse – the sponge was light and fluffy as to be souffle-like, and the foie gras was rich and in a really meaty flavoursome sauce. For a main, I ordered the Pork Tenderloin that came wrapped in bacon was served with pearl buckwheat and caramelised red onion jam. Fabulous! And becaue yale is a bottomless pit, he ordered two mains, Greased “Russian” dumplings with curd cheese filling served with bacon sprinkles and sour cream (the Polish love their sour cream!).  These were very tasty also but a bit stodgy for my liking.And he also had the Guinea Fowl breast served with truffle potatoes and a vegetable ratatouille… which was also really really good. After this, we had to decline dessert – as the portions were much larger than you normally encounter in high-end restaurants.  But our waiter was having none of that, said we can’t end our meal there and he brought us some complimentary freezing cold, cherry vodka liqueurs to try. This stuff is amazing -Lubelska Wisniowka Cherry Vodka – I’m not normally one for cherry flavoured anything, but served freezing cold, it certainly warmed the cockles quicker than anything I’ve ever tried.  Only 30% alcohol, I could have had two more.

I would certainly recommend this amazing restaurant, Chef Food & Friends – the food was divine, the prices were very reasonable, our meal including alcohol was just over AUD$100 (not looking forward to paying for meals in Euros again), and it was the first time we encountered service staff that seemed friendly and helpful too.

All up we had a great day out in Gdańsk and I would love to come back as there is so much more to see – so many museums we either couldn’t see (Sunday) or didn’t have time to see.  I nearly forgot to mention just how completely annihilated Gdańsk was during World War II… it suffered so badly as to look nothing like its current beautiful self.  It is a testament to the will and perseverance of the people here, that they have taken the decades necessary to rebuild the city to reflect its previous glory, and not just bulldoze the lot and build parking lots.  I feel so thankful that there were obviously people here who survived the war and cared enough about their cultural heritage to rebuild rather than reinvent.

I <3 Gdańsk!

Wolfsschanze – Hitler’s Bunker

Today we were leaving Riga and doing a very Australian road trip in Eastern Europe… that is to say, we were covering about 750kms. Which is not so unusual if you’re in Australia, but is like, long-haul-trucker-crossing-at-least-three-countries, distance if you’re in Europe.  We left Riga around 06:30 and it was pitch black and freezing cold and the streets were eerily quiet.

When the sun finally rise the landscape was beautiful.  Getting off the highway is both a blessing and a curse though. The scenery dramatically improves in what appears to be a direct correlation with how drastically the road conditions deteriorate.  Can’t have beautiful scenery and good roads it seems.  🙂  My high-speed landscape photography hasn’t improved any – but I do insist on doing it!

I think I blinked and missed the Latvia border… Oh, well. Goodbye Lithuania and welcome to Poland! Here, have a disused border building, some indecipherable signage and an immediately discernible downgrade in road quality.   Thankfully, we got to keep the pretty landscapes.

To break up our trip we had decided we would stop just after midday at the Wolf’s Lair. In German known as the ‘Wolfsschanze’.  Basically, this was Hitler’s primary military headquarters on the Eastern Front for nearly three years of World War II.

The drive into the complex is skirted by dense forest, far from major roads and urban areas. Much of the forest surrounding the compound was heavily peppered in landmines during the war, as a defence against ground attacks.  Would have been so pretty and yet so dangerous…Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair complex is enormous – at roughly 6.5 kmit was built by June 1941 to house the nearly 2,000 people who would come to live and work in the compound.  Among the workers were twenty women who were Hitler’s official food tasters, like Margot Wölk. Margot was from a German family, born and raised in Berlin, married a man named Karl who was in the Germany army and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive. She ended up fleeing to Eastern Prussia when their home in Berlin was bombed and basically had no one to look out for her and found herself rounded up by the local mayor for duty as a food taster to Adolf Hitler?! Her story is remarkable if you read a bit further into it.  Hitler’s intelligence sources were informing him that the British were planning an assassination attempt by food poisoning which fed Hitler’s perfectly just fear that people were trying to assassinate him, hence the food tasting team.

(Wilczy Szaniec – Polish for Wolf’s Lair) RSD Command Centre – Reichssicherheitsdienst, a Nazi SS security command post that was responsible for all aspects of security for the complex.
Security was arranged in three concentric circles around the compound:

Security Zone 3 is the first zone encountered when entering the complex. It was the heavily fortified outer security zone which surrounded the two inner areas. It was defended by landmines I already mentioned and by the Führer Begleit Brigade (FBB), a special armoured security unit from Wehrmacht which was used to man multiple guard houses, watchtowers, and entry and exit checkpoints at the three entrance points.

Security Zone 2 was the next concentric circle in from the outer zone.  It housed many lesser Reich Ministers such as Fritz Todt, Albert Speer, and Joachim von Ribbentrop. This zone also had quarters for the various other personnel that lived and worked in the Wolf’s Lair, as well as barracks and amenities for the officers of the RSD.

Security Zone 1 was the inner circle or ‘heart’ of the Wolf’s Lair.  It was encircled by steel fencing and guarded by the Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) SS specialists. Inside this zone was Hitler’s Bunker and ten other camouflaged bunkers. Each bunker was constructed from steel-reinforced concrete that was over 2m thick.  The bunkers in this area were for Hitler’s inner circle – including such infamous bastards as Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann,  Wilhelm Keitel, and others.   Nearly all the bunkers seem to have basement air raid shelters or armament storage underneath them. Inside the bunkers were a maze of corridors, conference rooms, workspaces and shelters.
The Wolf’s Lair has several monuments and memorials that have been created to commemorate the people who were associated with this place in WWII, particularly those who did the difficult work of destroying it and making the surrounding areas safe from landmines. Bunker 6 held a conference room that was the site of the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt that was organized by a group of civilians, in cohorts with some acting and retired Wehrmacht officers whose goal was to kill Hitler, end the war, and establish a new Germany government. Staff officer Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was the primary assassin and he carried a briefcase into what was a daily conference meeting. He was supposed to place it a few feet from where Hitler would hold his meeting, but unfortunately, on the day the attempt was to be made, the meeting location was changed to a different building due to refurbishment happening in the Führer’s Bunker *and* it was rescheduled to be earlier than usual – so the attempt was unsuccessful.  The bomb went off as timed, and the interior of the Bunker 6 was destroyed, four people were killed, but Hitler sustained only slight injuries.

Before the bomb detonated, Colonel Stauffenberg and his co-conspirator, Lieutenant Werner von Haeften, had already left Wolf’s Lair to return to Berlin.  They managed to pass through several of the security zones and after only a short delay at the RSD guard post just outside Zone 1, they were allowed to leave the site by car.  News arrived in Berlin fairly quickly of the assassination attempt, and of Hitler’s survival.  Poor Colonel Von Stauffenberg, his Lieutenant, and several co-conspirators were arrested and shot that same evening outside the Bendlerblock in Berlin.

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring surveying the conference room that was destroyed by the suitcase bomb left by Claus von Stauffenberg on 20 July 1944

It struck me at Auschwitz-Birkenau and now again at Wolfsschanze just the sheer size and scope of the military industrial complex that was deployed by the Germans during World War II.  It has been as eye-opening as the first time I went to Gallipoli – I had learned about the ANZACS and the Gallipoli military disaster during my formal education and had continued to study and gain knowledge o this topic throughout my entire life. But until I found myself looking down on ANZAC Cove and looking at the topography that the ANZAC diggers were attempting to overcome, the enormity and impossibility of it all did not really become a tangible and concrete concept in my mind.
Likewise, having grown up in the ’70s and having been taught WWII history and continuing to learn more and more about the Holocaust over the years – the displacement and deportation of millions of people throughout Europe, the slave labour and abuses of the concentration camps, and of course the details of the truly horrific attempt to completely exterminate the European Jewish population in death camps – these things too have been academic concepts in my mind without concrete frame of reference to anchor them to.

Now… having seen the enormity and scale of the just a portion of German military operation during WWII (and this has literally just been a small peek at what the Nazis had put in place), it has completely eclipsed my expectations and I am finding it difficult to verbalise just how monstrously immense the scale of their endeavour was, and the ruthless efficiency with which they appear to have attempted to deploy it.   It’s… shocking. Truly shocking.  I don’t know how something I have known about my entire life can be shocking.  But it is.   Bunker 8 was a Guest Bunker and Air Raid Shelter. This enormous slab of concrete weighing who knows how many tonnes, looks like it is precariously balanced on just a few decaying bricks… It’s not difficult to find a sombre beauty in the decay at Pripyat. Likewise, it is not difficult to find incredible textures, decaying walls and moss-covered walls at Wolf’s Lair that are similarly beautiful in their own way.

Bunker 11: Headquarters of Johann Rattenhuber, who was the Chief of the SS and head of Hitler’s security department.  Also, fun fact – his headquarters doubled as the Post Office.  The bunkers were split wide open by explosives when the Red Army reached Eastern Prussia during the Baltic Offensive of 1944. Hitler left Wolf’s Lair for the last time on 20 November 1944 as the Soviet armies advanced.  The Red Army took the site without firing a shot two days later, on the 22nd of November.  Shortly after, directives were issued to destroy the complex and the demolition took place some months later in January 1945.  Literally tonnes of explosives were used.  Each bunker requiring approximately 8,000 kg of TNT to blast through the reinforced concrete. Given that most of these buildings have large portions still intact, even that amount of explosive was only enough to partially destroy these enormous reinforced bunkers.

After that, efforts were started to clear each of the Wolf Lair’s security zones of the landmines that had been left behind.  It took over a decade to clear more than 54,000 mines that had been scattered around the complex and in the security zones and wasn’t given the ‘all clear’ until 1955.

Bunker 13 – Hitler’s personal air raid shelter and bunker.

Each day, Hitler would take a walk alone with his dog at 09:00 in the morning before looking at the mail (which came by air or by train). At 12:00 he would have a situation briefing, which was normally held in Wilhelm Keitel’s or Alfred Jodl’s bunkers. These meetings would usually run for about two hours, after which he would have lunch at 14:00 in the dining hall. Witnesses recall that Hitler was a man of routine and habits and he invariably sat in the same chair, always between Alfred Jodl and Otto Dietrich.  Wilhelm Keitel, Martin Bormann, and Hermann Göring’s personal adjutant, General Karl Bodenschatz would sit opposite him.

After lunch, Hitler would work on non-military matters and in the late afternoon, coffee would be served around 17:00 before a second military briefing with Alfred Jodl at 18:00. Dinner each day would start at 19:30 and could last up to two hours (I can’t stop thinking about the twenty women who were ‘kept’ here as his food tasters!), after which they would often watch films in the cinema. Yes, one of these big bunker style buildings was a cinema – I guess they needed somewhere to watch all those Leni Riefenstahl propaganda films (they also had a gambling hall/casino here in one as well).  Hitler would usually retire to his private quarters where he ‘gave monologues’ to his closest acquaintance, including the two female secretaries who travelled with him to the Wolf’s Lair.  Sometimes Hitler and his entourage would listen to gramophone records after dinner – Beethoven, Wagner or other operas – in what sounds like a very civilized and precise way to go about your day… but in among the seemingly orderly lives that these people lived, here, among in these bunkers, decisions were made that effectively signed the death warrants of millions of people across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe as it was here the ‘Final Solution’ was developed and implemented.

Looking inside what was Bunker 13 from the rear.

Building 12 – Radio and Telex Buildings Bunker 20 – Martin Bormann’s personal air raid shelter for him and his staff. Bormann was Hitler’s personal secretary. Bunker 16 was a building to house generators to provide power for the complex. Hermann Goering’s Bunker:Walking under the ruins of Goering’s destroyed Bunker. It is cold, damp, and there is lots of thick rebar sticking out at all angles.  Over our heads is a massive – just indescribably, massive and heavy – concrete slab over two metres thick.  There are ‘no entrance’ signs everywhere but plenty of evidence that visitors have been walking through these spaces frequently.

The concrete walls were indeed well thicker than 2-5m…  yale for scale. I had read that this place is not so great to visit in the summer – partly because of the crowds (though it apparently only sees 200,000 visitors a year, which is not that many compared to say, the five million plus visitors that see the Sistine Chapel each year), but also because of the foliage.  In summer all the trees are still covered in their leaves, which obscure the size and shapes of the enormous bunkers.  This was quite deliberate, Hitler was paranoid about the likelihood of an air bombing raid so the thick tree cover in the middle of the forest was designed to camouflage the entire complex.  No major air offensive ever occurred here and it could be because the Western Allies were unaware of the Wolf’s Lair location entirely or were just unaware of its strategic importance – they have never disclosed whether they knew about it or not. The Soviet Red Army was certainly unaware of the complex’s location and scale when they discovered it during their advance towards Germany in late 1944.  So anyway, from the leaf litter which is well over 20cm deep everywhere, I can imagine that in summer you would find it hard to make out the size, scale and even proximity of these buildings to each other, in the summertime. Hermann Goering’s House Ventilation shaft. Recreated checkpoint – there were only three entrances to the complex, and each one had a checkpoint at security zone. As we drove away from the Wolf’s Lair and my speed landscape photography attempted and failed to capture the forest, I couldn’t help but think that this area was once full of 54,000 landmines.  Blurred and chaotic seems to work in this instance. The roads became noticeable worse as we were heading through tiny little villages making out way back to the major highways on our way to Gdansk.  We were hurtling along doing an average of 90kmph on some of the shittiest single lane back roads ever – I was literally holding my boobs some of the way, because I didn’t know I was going to need a sports bra to go for a drive in the countryside!  Mind you, the crap conditions of the road doesn’t slow the locals down one bit – they were overtaking us at alarming breakneck speeds. Honestly – we were doing just over 90kmph when this video was taken…

Eventually, we made our way back to the highway and then had to figure out how to get our car into the centre of Gdansk’s predominantly pedestrianised Old Town where our accommodation, the Aparthotel Neptun, is located. It was a little bit tricksy – you can approach the Old Town from many sides by car, but you can’t drive through the middle of it, so if your stupid GPS sends you to the wrong side and then suggests you drive the 100m to your hotel, right through the middle of people taking an evening stroll down the Long Market, you really need to back out and then fight your way around to try and enter from a different direction.  We only got pulled over by Police, once, so we thought we did okay.We checked in (nice hotel, actually) and then went straight back out again to find some dinner, as lunch was a dodgy service station hotdog many hours and several hundred kilometres ago.  We wandered the Long Market and ended up at a restaurant called the ‘Latający Holender’ where we were met with some of the best food, but worst customer service in Poland… which is saying something really because between here, Krakow, and Warsaw, I don’t think we have met any hospitality or retail staff who were in any way welcoming, hospitable or even a little bit friendly.  It’s kinda to be expected I guess – end of the tourist season, god knows I’d be over the bloody tourists too… but take heed waitpeople – winter is coming, and then we will see who is missing the tourists, their foreign currencies and their tipping habits!

What was I saying?  Dinner.  Right. It was quite good actually and dining out now we are back in Poland, is cheap, cheap, cheap!  I rarely used to photograph food for my blog, but then I found myself saying, ‘What was that thing we tried in Buenos Aires at that restaurant after we went to the place…?’  So now I am making more of an effort – so I can hunt down recipes back home for things we liked too.

After a bit of pfaffing around with tables, ‘Sit wherever you like’… we then take a seat and then it felt like the server was rolling his eyes at us and a ‘Why are they sitting there?’ type attitude ensued..?!  We then waited for nearly ten minutes for menus … about halfway through what seemed an interminably long wait for a menu I said, ‘I think they are hoping we will give up and leave, but they have underestimated my current mood!’  We then waited again for ages to get drinks… part of this sense of waiting stemmed from watching the servers all gathering not far from our table and seemingly hanging out and chatting with each other instead of filling drink orders and seating customers, etc?!  I dunno, the disdain was coming off them in waves – but hopefully not just in our direction.  😛

I ordered for an appetiser – Tiger prawns cooked in butter, onion, chili, fresh parsley, white wine and served with garlic bread… it was pretty fabulous.and yale ordered the Goulash soup – which was rather more watery and somewhat oilier than he had hoped. So that one was a bit hit and miss.For a main, I ordered the Grilled salmon with roasted potatoes, green asparagus, butter sauce and caviar.  Again, lovely though I usually prefer my salmon slightly more medium.
And yale seemed to commit some sort of unwritten ordering faux pas by having the audacity to order two dishes (he’s a big guy, he gets hungry), of Meat Dumplings, stuffed with beef and pork meat, smoked bacon, onion, arugula, and tomatoes.  And a main dish called, Desk of Polish Sausage, comprising of a selection of Polish sausage served with bread, pickled cucumber, mustard and horseradish. Well didn’t the little man have a ‘Two dinners? How could you? Wait, how will I serve them?’ moment over that.  Like I said, weird service.  Great food. A few happy ciders later and we didn’t much care either way for the server’s attitude anyway.  Dinner was nice, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you like being treated like an inconvenience by the staff.  😛

What a long, long day.  Tomorrow – Gdansk!