The faces of Berlin

In between leaving Sweden and arriving in Australia, we spent 3 weeks crossing Europe. Our journey lead us through familiar places like Paris, stunningly beautiful areas in Switzerland and Provence and a last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. Before sinking into the sun and warmth of southern France and Northern Italy however, we visiting a city more marked by history than most others we’ve seen, and absolutely unlike any other: Berlin.

What do you think of when you picture Berlin? The Wall? Checkpoint Charlie? The alternative scene? The crumbling Reichstag with a flag waving from the ruins? These aspects can all be found, in fact it can be difficult to avoid the ambulance chaser view of history, gawking at the scars and horrors that are left on show, for the benefit of locals and visitors. At least that was the impression I got as we spent our days on the streets, and I’ll get into some of those literal scars later.
Much of our first impression was formed by the place we stayed, and the neighbourhood we were based. The lovely, high ceilinged and artistically decorated apartment in Neukölln (breakfast included!) was an example of the two-faced feeling of Berlin. The creaky stairs, moulded cornices and antique furniture seemed to be from a pre-War world, but the graffiti, hipsters and constant feeling of newness and change told a different story. We didn’t spend much time in Neukölln, but it seemed as though gentrifiction was well under way, the formerly lawless borough sheddding gangs for hipster cafes and bars.

From the trendy outskirts of the city, it was an easy metro ride to the centre, and a short walk down Unter den Linden to one of the symbols of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate, sitting between banks and embassies, is the only remnant of the old monuments in the square that it dominates. Under the eyes of the foreign embassies and behind the endless selfying crowds it’s still tall and imposing, the quadriga with the goddess of Peace posing defiantly on top. Displays showed the wreckage after the War, with only the Gate standing and in photos from later years it peeped over the top of the Wall, part of a no man’s land. Either because of what it is or what it symbolises, it’s become enmeshed in the history of the city. Which also makes it a great place to start free tours.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

We joined one of these on our second day, following a former tourist turned local like ducklings around the city. After a history of the Gate, we were taken to the Michael Jackson Baby Dangling Hotel (do a quick google if you’ve forgotten this sadly historic moment), and then continued the theme of tragedy, triumph and contemplation. We went to the carpark that now stands over the bunker where Hitler died, past a former Third Reich ministry building turned Gestapo headquarters and now tax office, graffiti strewn remnants of the Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a large area full of concrete pylons, the ground sloping down as they grow taller, and you feel as though you are lost in a forest of concrete, while at the same time able to see a way out.

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Within the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The guide prompted a surprisingly serious discussion for a free tour, which seemed to me a part of the weight that Germany has carried for all these years. The tour ended at Bebelplatz, somewhere that I have had in my mind to visit for as long as I’ve known about it. It was where 20,000 books were burned in May 1933, and for me is always associated with the Heinrich Heine quote,

“That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”

Under the square is a memorial, a room of empty bookshelves to symbolise those destroyed that day, as fitting a memorial to the death of ideas as I can think of.

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

A memorial to the Nazi book burning

The tour also opened our eyes to signs of history that had been before us the whole time. At every street crossing, the shape of the green/amber/red men differed depending on what side of the wall the crossing had been on while the Wall had stood. Politics aside, I think the one of the East side looked more fun. The dividing line and occasionally remnants of the Wall also became more obvious, appearing as a brick line running across streets and through pavements, so easy to miss that it was hard to imagine the size and disruption it caused.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

No doubt there were other signs, but these were the only ones I saw that showed where the city had been divided not so many years ago.

As so much of the city had been destroyed in the War, there are many areas that have an almost sterile feeling, a newness that seemed strange in such an old place where people were trying to look ahead rather than backwards. One place where this was not the case was the Museum island, where we went as soon as possible. I’d been looking forward to seeing the Pergamon Altar for a while, but due to renovations it was closed. As we walked around the island we saw why renovations might be needed. Along one column lined walkway, round holes had been chipped out of the stone, and on the wall behind, similar holes dotted the wall, with clear spaces in the shadows of the columns. Elsewhere holes covered entire huge walls and columns had been replaced with new stone. Even in this place war had come, perhaps not surprising when you think of the buildings in terms of survival and defense rather than refuges for antiques and history.

Inside I noticed that plaster and paint had given way to brick and stone in patches, and frescoes were partly destroyed. I asked a guard why this was, and he matter of factly told me that the museum had stood open to the elements for many years, without a roof, so snow and rain had cracked and peeled at the beautiful paintings and fine decorations.

What's left of Baldur

What’s left of Baldur

Rather than replicate how it had looked, the museum now stands as its own exhibit, an example of the destruction of war.

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

Signs of destruction ancient and modern

While the bombs had been falling and the War was drawing closer, many of the most treasured artifacts were hidden away while others were taken by the victors. Some of those that haven’t returned are the pieces found by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of Troy, and are apparently still being held in Russia. What does remain includes the famous jewelry modeled by his wife, which is just as stunning as the old photos showed. There was some irony in the fact that the pieces now listed as stolen by Soviets were originally stolen from Turkey, but maybe not that the people at the museum enjoy.

The big diadem

The big diadem

Elsewhere there were mysterious Celtic golden hats, an exhibition about beards, heaps of wonderful ancient Greek and Roman stuff and one particular item from Egypt. You will have seen her, even if you don’t know her name. There is no picture here because photography was not allowed in her private room where, apart from a model for the vision impaired that you can touch, she stands alone. Even after more than 3000 years, Nefertiti is serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Even with only one eye, she seems supremely confident to stare down the millennia to come as she has stared down the last 3, hopefully without losing a single perfect line or blemish that gives her so much personality.
It’s fair to say I’m a little bit in love with her, but who can blame me.

We visited another museum the next day, this one looking forward rather than back at the losses of the past. The Berlin Technology Museum is wonderful, and we spent hours poking and exploring, and being far too amused by the section about jewelry production (Schmuckproduktion).
On our last day, rather than spend time in museums and galleries, we went for a long walk in Tiergarten, a huge area of forest just outside the Brandenburg gate. It was filled with joggers, picnickers, people walking their dogs and intricate gardens, following a maze of paths that twist around the forest.

Peace in Tiergarten

Peace in Tiergarten

In the centre, in the middle of a roundabout that lines up with the Gate, is the Victory Column, built to commemorate a Prussian victory in the 1860s.

The Victory Column

The Victory Column

The gold statue of Victory still stands, and the bronze reliefs that had been removed in 1945 have been restored. They are riddled with bullet holes and shell damage, the horseback soldiers missing arms, heads and legs, and the grieving or celebrating women with holes in their heads, in a sort of parody of war. It was comical, if it was not for the deaths that would have taken place there.

A war damaged soldier

A war damaged soldier

Elsewhere in Tiergarten is a statue of a queen, standing on a platform amid well tended gardens. Nearby is a photo of the same place in the 1940s. The statue is there, looking down, but the ground around her is a morass of mud and scraps of trees, a wasteland that standing amid the trees and peace of today seems impossible. Only 60 or so years stand between us, but if not for the shrapnel pits in the base of the statue, it would seem a different world.

A queen in Tiergarten

A queen in Tiergarten

This was the impression that I left Berlin with, a city that acknowledges and bears its history, both awful and proud and is looking to the future. Which seems to be a good way to live.

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First taste of Malta

The landscape of Malta is similar to Spain from the air; yellow and brown, with golden-cream coloured towns and patches of dark green that looked shrubby even from the air. As we descended the buildings became a mix of balconied Italian houses with Qatar-esque arches in the same shade of warm gold limestone. Cacti and eucalyptus trees filled in gaps, making the mix of familiar and foreign even stronger. As we bussed to the apartment where we would be staying, we caught glimpses of a calm blue sea and heavily populated bays awash with yachts. After missing our stop we caught another bus back and then found ourselves navigating around a dusty construction site to the apartment, where our hosts were cheerfully waving in welcome. After that we were very enthused about relaxing and washing off the muck of air travel and construction site, and so devoted some time to that.

Malta from above

Malta from above

Have you noticed that you never feel clean after a journey on a plane? Conspiracy nonsense aside, there’s something strange about passing through vast and then cramped sterile areas and feeling as though you’re carrying an inch of gunk on your skin. Rarely is a shower more welcome, and so it was for me on that first evening.

Outside the apartment, across the construction site, lay a very shallow bay, walled and bisected into large square pools. These, we learnt later, were 16th century salt pans which have fallen into disuse, though a small chapel still stands in the centre, blessing the quiet, salty water.
As there was no way over the salt pans we went around, again venturing into a construction site, which wasn’t very secure. Not enough to keep out two cautious tourists and various locals at least. I would like to point out that if there had been footpaths we would have happily used them, but there weren’t, so we didn’t. We passed through a ‘no trespassing’ into a park, past an incongruous memorial to JFK and bit by bit got closer to the living part of the area.
Terraced roads overlooked the bay, which deepened and filled with boats, and as we strode along families enjoyed their dinner in the sun, or cleaned out the motors of boats. We soon enjoyed our own dinner, pizza and local wine in a boathouse restaurant as the sun set on the other side of the island.

The further around the peninsula of Qawra that we went, the thicker the crowds of tourists became. Many were middle aged and Italian, strolling along with grandkids or in groups enjoying their holidays. It would be later before we started to see more of the younger crowds, and began to hear more snippets of English. At the tip of the penninsula, below street level and facing the sea, is Cafe Del Mar. We never got around to visiting, but even at 8pm it seemed to me to embody the sort of place that people imagine when thinking of Mediterranean islands in summer. A perfectly clear and calm pool, umbrellas and white deck lounges, with bars scattered among them prepping for the night ahead, and electronic music pumping away.

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

Cafe Del Mar in the evening

The hours passed and we walked further, stopping to listen to a charity gig opposing human-trafficking and stare at the horse drawn carriages trotting past. We ended up in St Paul’s Bay with a bottle of red and a sense of really being on holiday in a place that seemed stranger and more surprising with each passing moment.

The capital of Malta is Valletta, formerly the base for the Knights of St John, and was where we headed for our first full day. A bus took us through labyrinthine streets and stone walled garden plots and deposited us at the gates of the city. And they were certainly city gates, tall and imposing and flanked by deep moats. Inside my first impression was of modernity, the sharp edged building to the right and the touristy mall to the left not fitting with the image of ancient fortress. As we soon discovered, this was because the original buildings that had stood there had been destroyed during WWII. In fact a majority of the buildings on the islands had been bombed to dust by the German airforce, leaving the way open for new styles and architecture. As well as a lot of rubble, which seems to have been converted into the precarious stone walls that divide the islands. Despite this, most of the houses were built in what I think of as the old, Italian style, with tall narrow town-houses fronted by elaborate balconies.

Matching balconies

Matching balconies

Much of Valletta was made of these, the straight and hilly streets shadowed by brightly painted or scuffed, wooden or metal balconies in many styles. It being Sunday many shops were closed, but we managed to find the tourist office, which was mysteriously empty. When there were so many tourists around, why were none of them in here booking tours and asking the same questions over and over? The answer would become clear to us in time, but at this point we just grabbed some pamphlets, were vaguely helped by the receptionist when she glanced up from her phone, and then headed back out into the sunlight.

Inside St John's Co-Cathedral

Inside St John’s Co-Cathedral

Our first attraction in this ancient city was almost on a whim, as we passed craft stalls and then turned to peer into St John’s Co-Cathedral. Why not go in, we thought. As I was wearing shorts (actual shortish shorts, for the first time in over a year. Truly summer had come!) I had to wrap a cloth around my legs, which turned out to be handy for clipping things on as we explored. As the tourist book said, it was elaborate, the walls decorated richly in gold and silver and bright colours, the floor covered with the tombstones of knights done in multi-coloured marble, each one individual.

Tombstones of long-dead knights

Tombstones of long-dead knights

I admired the chapels, each unique and elaborate, and soaked in the two paintings by Caravaggio that hang in the Cathedral. On one wall is a painting of an aged St Jerome writing in a dark room, and facing it across a large room is The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This second one of the most arresting, with the play of colour and drama and use of chiaroscuro clear enough even for untrained me to appreciate.

Out in the sunlight we sought and found a bar which offered tapas and the local beer for €6, and settled in. It is one of the first types of beer that I have ever liked, and so I was in no rush to move on with our day, snacking on local delicacies and watching the tourists and locals pass us by.

Tapas and beer

Tapas and beer

A circle completed

On the second full day of our Norway holiday, things didn’t go according to plan. In the most wonderful way.

Lillehammer

We caught an early train to Lillehammer, hoping for snow and the chance to ski, or in my case probably fall over repeatedly and hilariously. As the train wound out of Oslo we could see patches of snow and ice crusted lakes, the white growing as we went further north. On our arrival however the chances of skiing were limited, so we set out to explore the town while we thought about what to do. The first stop was the Maihaugen Museum, an collection of buildings from various times in Norwegian history, and a short, if icy, walk from the train station.

I should mention at this point that visiting Lillehammer was not only motivated by the prospect of skiing. Since I was small my mum told me about her father and his family growing up in the town and her own visits to the family farm, then the Winter Olympics in 1994 and her last visit to tie up affairs after her father died there. If I was going to have the opportunity to visit a town with family ties, I had to go.

Farm houses in Maihaugen

Walking up the icy paths I wondered whether my own family had walked in the same places, and seen the same buildings and gazed around at the snow covered hills. Maihaugen was open and free to enter in winter so we explored the old rural section, a collection of buildings from the 1700s, including a quite grand stave church and farmsteads. The lake in the centre was frozen over and in the quiet I could almost imagine it was a living town waiting for the cold to end. When we headed back to the main building to plan our next stop I managed to get a bit of wifi and found a message from my mum asking if I’d contacted her cousin who lived in the town. So I sent off an email with my phone number in case I was out of range, thinking it was a longshot but it couldn’t hurt to try. My mum had also asked if I was able to visit the church where her father is buried, which turned out to be half an hours walk from the town centre. Still pondering what to do, we headed to the Olympic centre to hopefully get a bite to eat and perhaps try some tobogganing.

Stave church dragon

On our arrival we discovered a Christian Youth group have commandeered the centre, and that the lack of snow made tobogganing and any other outside winter sport impossible. I then got a phone call from my mum’s cousin. Yes, she was in town and yes she would like to meet us. In fact, once we were finished exploring the centre and having a snack she could come and pick us up. Which was how I ended up standing in a small town in Norway being hugged by family I’d never met, after not having seen any family for about 4 months.

She took us to the huge ski jump, and location of the opening and closing ceremonies, where the torch still stands unlit and a few mad people try running up the stairs on either side. The thought of standing at the top and letting gravity take over were pretty terrifying, even from the safety of flat ground below.

The ski jump, with mysterious red lines

We then went to the church, where the yard was covered in snow. My grandfather’s grave and that of his brother and my great-grandparents had been cleared on the 24th, as part of a Norwegian tradition, so to make out the names we only needed to brush aside some snow and leaves. Lichen covers quite a lot of the stone which had been brought from the family farm, but his name is legible. I’d only met him once that I could remember, but he was my grandfather and more importantly my mother’s dad, and it felt as thought somehow a circle was being closed, stretching from Norway, to Australia and back again.
We then climbed back into her car to visit more family.

My grandfather

At this point I should mention that the terms for family relationships in Australia have left me unprepared to find a word for my mum’s cousin, not to mention her children and their children. In Swedish I’d guess she’d be my morfarbrordotter, but somehow aunt feels more accurate and less of a mouthful. We settled on third cousins for her children, and fourth for her grandchild, who was the most adorable tractor-loving wispily-blonde haired toddler I’ve met. I met him at my aunt’s house in the arms of my uncle-in-law, who warmly welcomed us in. Their house smelt of pine and spices, and was extremely cosy. We were shown their christmas tree and seated in the kitchen, where we were given cups of tea and settled in to get to know each other. As Jul was so recent, they were still burning a festive mix of herbs, including frankincense, and a dish full of traditional Jul cakes, biscuits and wafers was brought out for us. We also got to taste Norwegian brown cheese, which I heartily recommend, and which I happened to buy this evening. In time my third cousins joined us, with one of their girlfriends, and we chatted and ate and drank and watched the littlest family member, which was a show in itself. After a few hours of this, we looked up train times and were offered a tour of Lillehammer before the train arrived. Amid more hugs, and promises of skiing lessons from their family cabin in the forest, we left.

The tour was the best kind, from someone who knew and loved the town and knew the alleys that lead to old bridges and schools were generations of my family went. I also found out more about my family, and what life is like in Norway. Most of all though, I learnt how welcoming family can be and found a place where I can almost feel the footsteps of my ancestors.

Back in Oslo we spent our last half day walking along the water front in the surprising sunlight, visiting Akershus in daylight and in the fortress the Norwegian Resistance museum. In there I learnt that I knew very little about Norway’s fate in WWII, and stories I have been told about my grandfather and other family became clearer, though no less tragic.

With time running out on our Norwegian holiday we headed to the bus station, and boarded for the not-too-long drive. Back in Göteborg I felt some of the usual feeling of homecoming, but a part of me also wished it could have stayed in a little Norwegian town north of Oslo.

Ice melting in Maihaugen

I am aware that in my last update I mentioned that there would be fireworks, but as is my wont the word count on this post went over so Nytt År will have to be saved for next week. Oops.