The Dunedin of the North

Not surprisingly, following last night’s extravaganza, we had a slow start this morning. We woke up to a sun-filled room. Mugs of tea and breakfast at home, making the most of our welcome basket – eggs and toast with homemade marmalade.

Our AirBnB is so comfortable and homely that we could have spent the morning in – reading and chatting.

We had plenty of walking ahead of us, so eventually we made a start!

Walking all the way up Leith Walk, taking in antique shops, galleries and shops selling Scottish handmade things. We’re both in love with the stunning architecture here and kept prodding each other whenever we came across a gem. We’ve been chatting about the architecture of Edinburgh a lot since we got here yesterday – how preserved it is and the sense of history emanating from it. We’re guessing that the major difference with London is due to how much London was bombed during the Second World War. Edinburgh reminds us of Newcastle – big imposing buildings, with many details.

And obviously, we compared what we saw with Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the South. The man in charge of the building of Dunedin was instructed to follow the characteristics of Edinburgh, complete with street names. The main difference I could see between the two towns was the amount of sunshine we had yesterday!

After the obligatory flat white stop (excellent coffees from Artisan Roast), we walked to Greyfriars Kirkyard. The graveyard surrounding Greyfriars Kirk is incredibly photogenic. Located in the middle of the old town, it is also famous for being the resting place of Greyfriars Bobby, a little dog that guarded its former master’s grave in the graveyard for 14 years.

From there, we walked to St Giles Cathedral. The cathedral has stunning stained glass windows. We also wanted to check the carved angel playing the bagpipes but sadly the Thistle Chapel was closed and the helpful man at the front desk wasn’t sure when it would open.

We made time for the Shackleton photography exhibition at the National Library of Scotland. The images on display were taken from Frank Hurley’s negatives and they give a real inside into what life was like for these brave men stranded for months and months in the ice.

For a little while after that we walked up and down Royal Mile, and popped in and out of many of the closes – narrow alleys – leading off the Royal Mile.

Royal Mile itself was very busy with tourists. The shops seem to be selling either toot, woollen goods or whisky.

At 2pm, we met our friend outside the National Museum of Scotland and had a great lunch at Tower. We then went up to the roof terrace for spectacular views of the Edinburgh skyline, and especially the castle.

What followed was quite special. We spent approximately 40 minutes in the museum. We had two things on our list to check out – the Lewis Chessmen and the ‘light-filled atrium of the Grand Gallery’. But what made the experience so good was the special tour our friend gave us – insider knowledge! From bringing the Lewis Chessmen to life to pointing out the other highlights of the gallery – Dolly the Sheep; the oldest locomotive ever; some amazing Alexander McQueen shoes (emulating goat hooves) to a Mantua dress, and a Lego replica of the Museum. And finally, a personal introduction to the Galloway Hoard – ‘the richest collection of rare and unique Viking-age objects ever found in Britain.’ The Museum is currently fundraising to save the Galloway Hoard for the nation. And that’s a good cause.

Our friend had one more treat for us – the Dovecot Studios, just a few minutes away from the National Museum of Scotland. This incredible fine art tapestry studio is located in a renovated Victorian pool building. You can view the works in progress from a gallery. That was quite special, and I particularly enjoyed the Daughters of Penelope exhibition, and especially the works of Caroline Dear, made of grass from the Isle of Sky.

We walked home – via Grassmarket and the Scottish Parliament. A glass of white wine and some olives… and it was time to set off again.

We walked down to Leith shore. At The Ship on the Shore, we enjoyed terrific cocktails. We were tempted by the Mars bar martini…. No, not really. Andy settled for a Glenmorangie-based cocktail and I had a superb margarita.

Our table at Martin Wishart, just a few minutes walk from The Ship on the Shore, was booked for 8pm. We opted for the vegetarian eight course tasting menu, with the matching flight of wine. As the courses followed each other, we oohed and aahed, and sometimes meh-ed. The food always demanding a strong reaction.

We walked home, and settled in the lounge to talk the day over with a small glass of Bunnahabhain 12 year old.

Another late one!

Sunshine on Leith

13:00. Train from Kings Cross to Edinburgh. It was pouring with rain in London when we rushed across the square from the tube exit to the station. Florence took a diversion via the Crosstown sourdough doughnuts stall; I’d declined the offer but she got me a peanut butter and blackberry jam one anyway so I couldn’t say no.

We were comfortably settled in our seats by the time we sped past the Emirates stadium. I hadn’t appreciated before how it’s designed to look impressive from the train. Counter-intuitively, the weather improves as we head north and by the team we stop at Peterborough the sun is shining.

I watched Trainspotting on the journey to get in the mood for our destination. We’d treated ourselves to first class so there was a regular trolley of food and drinks to help ourselves from.

The skies were very dramatic over the Northumberland coast. Showers of rain and a rainbow over the sea off Holy Island. Berwick looks a pleasant town; we made a note to look into a weekend there.

We arrived right on time at 17:21. Due to roadworks in the Princes Street area, the buses are diverted but we’re soon on a bus down Leith Walk towards our AirBnB.

It hasn’t always been like this but Leith Walk is now full of trendy bars, cafes and delis. We’re met outside the apartment by the owner. On the pavement, a few well-lubricated colourful characters are getting into their afternoon singing. The apartment is on the third floor of an old tenement. Climbing the stairs the impressions aren’t good but inside it’s lovely. The sun fills one side through the big windows. There are views over Leith, Arthur’s seat, distant hills. The décor is great too and Florence made plenty of notes of ideas to use.

We’ve both been to Edinburgh a number of times before so we knew what to expect but immediately we both enjoyed being back here and we’re planning what we could do next time if we had longer.

Leith has been a settlement for about 1000 years. Originally a separate town from the city of Edinburgh, over time the two have merged together. The docks have always played a large part in the towns history, along with related industries like ship-building, whaling and fishing. Roses Lime cordial was produced here as a way for sailors to get vitamin C.

There’s a welcome hamper with some wine and olives so we take full advantage of that before heading out for the evening. We’d arranged to meet a friend we haven’t seen for ages but who now lives here in a cocktail bar near the flat. On the way we stop to photograph a doorway, a local gentlemen is passing with his bag of Tenants for the evening, he roars at us about blocking the pavement, this was unexpected, I jumped about three feet in the air; he left me shaken but continued harmlessly muttering to himself.

Nobles is a big old Victorian pub with a maritime feel to the decor, its now a buzzing upmarket eating and drinking place. we had a couple of house favourite cocktails then took a cab up to the old town. David Bann is reputed to be one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the city. Its unusual for us to have so much choice. The items with a V on the end mean vegan in this case! The place is packed. A good Friday night atmosphere. The food was good without being outstanding but worth supporting anyway.

We finished the evening at the Whiski Rooms off the Royal Mile; we shared a flight of four Islay malts, starting with a mild sweetish one and building up to a crescendo with a Laphroaig. I’ve never tried adding a drop water but it significantly changed the smell and flavour of each one so it’s definitely worth experimenting with.

With that, we were done and took a cab home.

Another Town, Another Train

Stockholm has a remarkable metro system. It feels like the stations have been hewn out of solid rock, which they probably have, but the tunnels are left bare stone everywhere, painted in lots of colours and designs.

We took our usual bus and  train towards the city but changed onto the metro at the first interchange. Our tickets were valid for a 75 minute journey so we hopped on and off of trains and tried to see all of each station in the few minutes between them. We made it to the end of the line a couple of minutes over time but you don’t need to show a ticket to get out of the station so we were okay.

Stockholm has an ABBA museum – unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit – but there are posters for it everywhere. Each one has the name of a song on it so you spend most of your time walking round with an ABBA song in your head without really knowing why.

We walked across a couple of bridges – it’s hard not to – and headed for Moderna Museet. This gallery has an extensive collection of 20th and 21st Century Art from  Sweden, Scandinavia and beyond. It also has a good cafe and restaurant so we started with Fika – coffee and buns of course. Refreshed and ready for art we headed for the galleries. There is an overwhelming amount to see; each room has a broad theme but the works within them range from sculptures to paintings to designer houseware.

After a few hours we needed more refreshments. The restaurant had some good cheese sandwiches – no buns this time. We went back to see a few favourite works again then exited via the gift shop.

We retraced our steps back towards the main station and onto the train for the airport. Time for one last Fika, we shared the bun this time!

We enjoyed Stockholm a lot but it’s a small city and I think we’ve seen a lot of it; but if Radiohead play there again…

Stockholm as locals

Saturday 10 June 2017

I can’t remember the last time we got up so late on a Saturday morning. For us. It was after 9am. We slept well in our little cabin. That was an unexpected bonus about us staying away from the city centre.

The other benefit was that when Andy went off to his gig on Friday night, I walked around the lake – taking in the wildlife, enjoying the nature and exchanging greetings with locals – walkers, joggers and families taking a stroll. At one end of the lake, I came across many families sitting on the grass. Children running around; grown-ups chatting with a glass of wine or beer in hands; picnic tables laden with home cook dishes… A whole community coming together. I carried on. The path less trodden. I half expected to find a body in the overgrown grasses near a pond; I think I watch too many Nordic Noir series! I sat on the pontoon for a while and watched the birds, the ducklings and brave swimmers (wearing wetsuits).

Breakfast was simple. Slices of rye bread we got from Fabrique yesterday with butter.

We started our day with a walk to the pontoon. Perched on a bench, we listened to the birds, and relaxed by the water. If we lived there, we’d come in the morning with mugs of coffee.

We got the bus to Brommasplan station, and the metro to town. It’s about thirty minutes door to door.

Flat whites? Oh yes, and very good they were too. Johan & Nystrom is a popular place and the outdoor terrace was busy, but we managed to find a couple of empty seats, next to the knitting ladies.

This is a less touristy area somehow. It has a great neighbourhood feel with plenty of cafes, restaurants and independent shops. This was a surprise to us both as we had dismissed the area the previous day. Just goes to show why exploring further, beyond main thoroughfares, is always worth it!

Lunch was a delicious smashed avocado and black sesame seeds over sourdough at Petrus Bakery. Simple and tasty.

From there, we walked along the waterfront to Fotografiska – the world’s largest photography museum. Each floor had an exhibition, with background information and short films. We enjoyed taking our time, stopping by the images that grabbed us, sitting down to watch the films. The exciting news is that we’ve subsequently found out that Fotografiska will be opening a gallery in London in 2018.

The café, on the top floor, has great views over the old town, We sat for a while with a drink and a cinnamon bun, watching the view and chatting over the various exhibits. Andy’s mind was buzzing with creative ideas.

We spent a couple of happy hours walking around the old town. First following a self-guided walk and then wandering around, walking down side streets which took our fancy. The area is full of old colourful buildings and architectural details. Very graphic. We stopped by the Royal Palace just in time to see the end of the changing of the guards.

Walking away from the palace, we found Rag and Bone, the statue strategically placed to be near the Parliament and the Royal Palace to highlight the discrepancies between the rich and the poor.

Back to Södermalm island. We made our way to Laveau’s Little Quarter for cocktails. The ‘craft‘ cocktails were excellent. It looked to be a trendy place. We were there early and it was still very quiet.

We couldn’t resist popping into the cheese shop opposite. We purchased a lump of Svensk Wrangebacksost Eko cheese to take back to the cabin.

Our feet were full of walking and it was time to head home.

Back at the cabin, we listened to a podcast about Stockholm and Swedish traditions and history. Andy made a start on dinner – a simple salad. And of course, our Swedish cheese and rye bread to follow.


Friday 9 June 2017

Very early start, the taxi arrived to take us to Heathrow at 4:30. The driver had the election news on the radio; a fascinating morning to be up early.  The sun was coming up over the river as we drove past Battersea Power Station. We were quickly through security and into Pret for breakfast.

Stockholm airport is of course very efficient and within a few minutes of leaving the plane we were on the platform waiting for the express to Central Station. It’s a 30 minute journey into the city. We were staying out of the city centre so we left our bags in a locker and went to explore.

The city is built on a number of islands; there is water everywhere. It’s a short walk from the station to the bridge to Gamla Stan Island. This island holds the oldest parts of the city. The majority of the buildings are old and ornate, painted in warm reds, oranges and yellows. We planned to explore this area on the next day so headed across the island and onto the larger Södermalm island. This island is home to residential and shopping streets and a number of highly recommended bun shops and cafes.  Our first stop was Fabrique bakery, this chain has a number of outlets in the city as well as one in Hoxton. The Swedish concept of Fika involves coffee, usually accompanied with buns, pastries or pie, traditionally this would be cinnamon buns – who are we to argue with tradition.

Next stop was Coffice coffee shop, recommended but a bit disappointing.

Lunch was a treat. Herman’s has a large buffet with many hot and cold vegetarian dishes. The garden rambles along the edge of the island with great views back over the old town. The food was very tasty, lots of variety of colours and flavours.

We walked back through the old town to retrieve our bags and get a metro and bus out to our AirBnB. We’d chosen somewhere about half an hour from the city centre; it felt much more. Behind the house there’s a Nature reserve with a large lake in the centre. This has a path right round that was well used by walkers, joggers and cyclists.

Not surprisingly the apartment looks like something from an IKEA brochure, but everything was comfortable and worked well.

No need for dinner after our large lunch so after a bit of a walk around the lake, I headed back into town for the reason we were here – Radiohead at the Ericcson Globe.  The globe is the largest spherical building in the world, as well as being an event venue, it forms the centre of a huge model of the solar system.  Each body is to scale and, the Earth (65cm diameter) is at the Natural History Museum 7.6km away. Jupiter (7.3m diameter) is at the airport 40km away and Pluto (12cm diameter) is 300km to the north.

We’d seen a surprisingly large number of French people around the city centre earlier, the sign outside a bar explained why – Sweden v France in a world cup qualifying game close to our apartment – Sweden won 2-1 with a controversial 93rd minute winner.

I’d been looking forward to the gig for a long, long time and although expectations were high, it exceeded them all.

Every Breath You Take

All too soon it was our last morning in Berlin.

We continued our exploration of the East, taking a metro, a train and a bus to Hohenschönhause Prison. The prison was the main Stasi centre for internment, interrogation and research into surveillance methods. It used to be a factory away from the city centre; it had road and rail links. The area was left completely blank on maps of the city at the time; no one knew it was there.

We arrived around 10:00. We had a bit of time to look round the courtyard before our guided tour – in English – began at 10:30. Our guide was a historian who had studied human rights and became interested in what had happened in the prison. She was extremely knowledgeable and informative.

We began with a short film that explained a bit of background to the prison. The tour proper began with the oldest parts – here the cells were very basic; below ground level and the only light was from small windows at the top of the walls, which had frosted glass bricks so nothing could be seen. The basement had a couple of cells that were no more than cupboards where a person could just stand up. People were put in there for days. There were also water torture cells, the same as we’d seen used by the KGB in the Baltic Republics a few years ago. A prisoner would be left to stand in ice-cold water in a freezing, damp cell for days on end. As the DDR became more paranoid, the number of prisoners grew, the level of surveillance and the amount of interrogation increased. The newer cellblocks were a little more pleasant, but not much. We saw a delivery lorry, marked as a bakery delivery but used to carry prisoners. Those inside couldn’t see out, long circuitous routes would be taken to ensure no one knew where they were taken. There was a hospital on the site, prisoners would be driven there from their cells, taking an hour long drive around the city so they thought they were elsewhere.

As well as the usual catalogue of physical tortures, the Stasi put a lot of effort into perfecting techniques to unsettle prisoners mentally. Favourites included choosing a room with décor as close as possible to that in the home of the prisoner (same wallpaper) and offering the prisoner a drink and ensuring that their favourite brand was on hand without asking them what that was… just to show that they knew a lot about you. Even the layout of the interrogation rooms was carefully considered. The interrogator would always have their back to the window and sit higher than the prisoner. The prisoner could see a little of the outside world to remind them what they were missing. Furniture was always angled diagonally to unsettle the prisoner. They were forced to sit on their hands – this allowed a good sweat sample to be collected from their chairs which could be used as a scent for dogs in the case of escapes. When the prison finally closed in 1991, a lot of files were opened to the public. You could find out who had denounced you to the Stasi. The guide asked us if we would have wanted to know. ‘Consider’, she said, ‘that one woman found out it was her husband – and divorced him immediately’. A young man was betrayed by his late father who would never be able to explain himself.

After a fascinating couple of hours, the tour finished with the guide reminding us that although the prison closed 25 years ago, there are still many places in the world where similar activities – and worse – are still going on and that we shouldn’t forget that.

The ‘reunion’ of Germany was seen as a very important political and social priority. The former East is still much poorer than the West. Billions of Euros are spent every year in trying to close this gap. Despite all the changes since 1989, there is nostalgia among some people – particularly the older generation – for the DDR, known as Ostalgie. The reasons include ideology, nationalism and a lost sense of social status and stability.

Our final destination was the Russian War Memorial in Treptower Park in the south east of the city. We retraced our steps to the bus and train, carrying on a few stops further to the south of the river.

Russian war memorials are never subtle but this one is larger than most. There are three in the city; this one commemorates 7,000 of the 80,000 Soviet troops that died in the Battle of Berlin. The entrance is through two huge dark marble portals. Beyond this, two lines of stone panels depict scenes of Soviet servicemen, peasants, heroes and leaders. At the end, there is a massive statue of a soldier on top of a small mound overlooking the whole site. He holds a sword and a German child, at his feet is a broken Swastika. It was a grey morning, a few people wandered around, some Russian, had they lost relatives here? Maybe just interested in their country’s history.

Against the clock, we hurried back to the apartment to collect our bags.

The journey home was quick and easy. The change in time zone and flying to City airport got us home at a good time – we’ll be doing this again, soon.

We could be heroes

Saturday 24 June 2017

I don’t think we saw or heard anyone else the whole time we were in the flat. Which was a little un-nerving. Maybe I’ve read too many cold war books. Which reminds me, if you haven’t read Stasiland yet, you should. The book and its author received a frosty reception in what was East Germany in 2004. I digress. But only a little. Things would have happened in this building where we were staying. Listening devices would have been planted in some of the flats.

We left the flat just in time to board the tram towards Mitte and especially Distrikt Coffee. We got there right on opening time (there was a queue!) and got a great breakfast (which for me may have involved a poached egg and avocado) and great coffee. The interior was trendy in a cool relaxed way and the staff was friendly.

Fortified, we walked through the atmospheric Friedhof Sophien II cemetery to the Berlin Wall Memorial. There, at Bernauer Strasse, we found a complete section of the wall still intact – with the no man’s land and one of the three remaining watchtowers. This is where the wall was first erected. In what used to be East Germany, apartment blocks were right against the wall, and early on people used to escape to West Germany through the windows. Some of these buildings were later condemned and demolished. The outdoor exhibition shows some of the successful escapes. It also tells of unsuccessful ones. People who saved their lives; people who saved others; people who took risks. The stakes were high; soldiers were under orders to shoot escapees.

The museum has more stories, some echoed the stories we’d read about the previous days. Some people had made some very difficult decisions – either informing on their friends and neighbours or helped bust escape networks.

Sure, it’s easy to be judgmental now. What would we have done in similar circumstances?

It cannot be as simple as heroes and villains.

I spent a few minutes listening to some of the audio recordings – people who had been interrogated by the Stasi; soldiers who had been told to keep guard along the wall to protect the East from the West (but soon realised that the danger was most likely internal).

There were some more uplifting stories too. Families meeting across the wall when originally the wall was just a small partition, showing off newborns or just waving to each other. Families torn apart, yet trying to keep some sense of normality.

I remember stories from my childhood. Bear with me on this one. My maternal grandmother’s brother was married to a woman. He died. She remarried. She died. Her husband remarried a younger polish woman who had escape Poland just before or just after the iron curtain. She had made the ultimate sacrifice; she’d left her family behind. Over the years, she exchanged many letters with her family – she had no doubt that her letters were censored as the ones she got from her loved ones were heavily censored. A few times, she asked for special permission to go and visit her relatives. Each request was refused. My memory is hazy here, but I think one of her later attempts was successful. She was beyond joy. My maternal grandmother kept in touch with her and her husband and this is how I know that her marriage was a happy one. She led a contented life in France. She and her husband had adopted two siblings. I remember she taught me how to pluck a chicken amongst other things.

These thoughts were circling in my head the whole time we were at the Berlin Wall Memorial. That was intense.

With mixed feelings, and some relief, we made for our next destination. Walking around Mitte was a welcome treat: the architecture is lovely and it has many cool bars, restaurants and boutique shops. Lunch at The Klub Kitchen was followed by a browse in Paper and Tea and a shop selling wrapping paper and stationery goods (a dream!). We picked up some tasty cinnamon buns from Zet fur Brot (another queue!) and returned to our sightseeing.

First on the list was one of the Alexanderplatz’s most well-known sights, the World Time Clock. Constructed in 1969, it weighs 16 tons and is 10 metres tall. The revolving cylinder has 24 time zones with the names of major cities in each zone. And, you can see the current time in each zone. I loved it.

A short walk away, we visited St Marienkirche. Only a small portion of the famous dance macabre fresco was visible, as the western portico is undergoing renovation. Very little is known about it. It’s suggested that local citizens commissioned it and that it aimed to ‘demonstrate the transience of life on earth’.

Not far from the St Marienkirche, we found larger-than-life statues of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of the Communist Manifesto. Another reminder that Berlin was one of the capitals of the communist world.

We took a bus to our next stop, the Room of Silence near the Brandenburg Gate. The room is located in the gate’s northern wing and it offers visitors a place to meditate, reflect and ponder in what is one of Berlin’s most touristy monuments.

We walked as close to the Reichstag as we could – big flags on display, including a huge European one. We hadn’t booked (free) tickets to enter so we made do with the monument to the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag.

Our next memorial was the memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism. Centered around a pond, it is quite understated yet peaceful.

Not memorialed out just yet, we made for the Holocaust Memorial which commemorates the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It is akin to a giant field of stelae. It contains 2,711 sarcophagus-like concrete slabs, which vary in height on undulating ground. It is stunning and poignant… as long as you ignore the kids and young tourists playing hide and seek (seriously, sometimes I don’t get people!).

There was a lot to absorb and discuss, and we did that over a craft beer at Kaschk back in Mitte (all pale ale). The décor is cool, as in Scandi-it-looks-like-you’re-in-a-homemade-shed cool. During the day, they serve coffee and baked goods there.

And then we thought we’d go back to Hops & Barley because the beer is really nice there! We sat outside, and shared our table with friendly locals. Every time a new drink was purchased, a merry round of ‘prost’ rang around.

Just for one day…

Friday 23 June 2017

Quick breakfast in our apartment… going back to an old theme – breakfast tacos with scrambled eggs and avocado.

After breakfast, we headed for one of the things I’m looking forward to most in Berlin, a tour of the Hansa recording studios where David Bowie recorded Heroes.

We took a train to Potsdamer Platz metro station, with just enough time for a very nice flat white from ‘The Coffee Shop’. I managed to order in German, at least until she asked whether we wanted it to go.

The building housing the studio used to be a tradesman guild hall and dance hall. It somehow survived the wartime bombardment that flattened almost everything in the surrounding area. When David Bowie was there in 1977, the Wall was visible at the end of the street from the studio control room, inspiring the lyrics about producer Tony Visconti’s affair with a backing singer.

And the guns shot above our heads,
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

The tour started outside with the history of the building. We then went inside to the large room on the first floor where among others, Bowie, U2, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, R.E.M. and Depeche Mode have recorded. The tour was biased towards Depeche Mode because of the concert the previous night but we still got to hear a bit of Heroes in the room where it was created which was an emotional moment for me.

After the main room, we visited the more modern control room on the top floor which was added after Bowie was here but was used a number of times by Depeche Mode. Hearing some of the music through the studio desk at high volume was quite an experience. We also got to play a few notes on a piano used by Bowie and DM.

Our guide, Thilo, from Berlin Music Tours was very knowledgable about the studios, their history and all the bands that played there. He grew up in East Berlin and saw Depeche Mode when he was 14 when they were one of the rare western bands allowed to play in the East of the city.

After the studios we walked to the WestBerlin Cafe for lunch. Very tasty sandwiches and salads, coffee and juices and lots of books and magazines to read.

Berlin is obviously full of recent history and our next few hours were devoted to two of the major aspects of it.

Checkpoint Charlie was one of the main crossing points between East and West Berlin. On the American side, there’s a small wooden sentry hut and some sandbags – you can have your photo taken with a fake GI. On the Eastern side, there were observation towers, two sections of wall and a 50m strip – snipers alley – between them. A small exhibition explains the significance of the checkpoint and tells the story of attempted crossings, successful and otherwise. Here in October 1961, the East and West came about as close to war as ever happened, both sides had tanks pointing at each other down Friedrichstrasse, fortunately neither side really wanted it and found a way to back down.

A few hundred yards down the street, a long section of the wall remains in place but here an earlier episode of the city’s history is documented. The area housed the majority of the Third Reich government ministries, The ‘Topography of Terror’ exhibition explains the Nazis rise to power, their ways of controlling and suppressing the population and their ultimate defeat. The enormity of what happened is too large to convey in one exhibition but it does a good job of giving an overview of major events. One image of particular interest showed how the Nazis had used the 1936 Olympics for propaganda purposes; it was taken in the stadium we had been in the previous evening, apart from a new roof it remains almost as it was then.

We walked along the side of Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry building (a minimal 1940s construction) and up towards Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate. The city is very good at explaining the history everywhere and doesn’t shy away from the worst of it. We passed the location of the Nazi Reichstag opposite which was Hitler’s bunker where he shot himself in 1945. Traces of the bunker remained for a long time after the war but it has now been completely obliterated. Unter den Linden is one of the main arteries of the city, a broad multi-lane street with large grand building along its length. At the western end is the Brandenberg gate completed in 1791. The gate was just inside the Russian sector, the wall passed right behind it.

Paris Platz, immediately to the east of the gate was largely destroyed by allied bombing during World War Two. It has recently been rebuilt and is home to the French and US Embassies, a luxury hotel and a Starbucks.

We took a bus and metro back to our apartment for a quick shower before dinner. It seems that everywhere we want go in Berlin – in any direction – is about 30 minutes away.

We took a metro back to the Kreuzberg area and walked through Checkpoint Charlie again to our restaurant. Tim Raue trained at Noma which is a good enough recommendation for us. His restaurant is one of the best in the city. We chose the 6 course vegetarian tasting menu with a few German wines to help us along the way. The food was very very good – lots of interesting colours, flavours and textures, all beautifully cooked. My highlight was a desert of smoked banana, one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

After an enjoyable three hours we walked back into the former Soviet sector and took a thirty minute metro ride home.

Where’s the revolution?

Finding that bit of the Berlin wall in Tirana makes for the perfect transition to our recent Berlin weekend break.

Our Berlin stories.

Thursday 22 June 2017

We left home fairly early and made our way to London City Airport – destination Berlin.

Flying from City was on Andy’s list. It is our nearest airport and it seems ridiculous that we never make use of it. Especially when you can be in a place like Berlin in no time (we were in the air for an hour and twenty minutes).

I guess we just needed an excuse!

We landed at Tegel and got the bus TXL to the terminus, Alexander Platz. From there, we got the metro U5 towards Hönow and got off at Frankfurter Tor.

Our airBnB apartment was located minutes from the station, in Friedrichshain. The views from the windows are exceptional, looking out towards the towers of Frankfurter Tor (formerly Stalin-Allee & Karl-Marx Allee). It doesn’t get any more East Germany than this.

The building of the apartment is a historical monument. It was built in the 50s together with the avenue Karl-Marx Allee (in the past called “Stalin Allee”). In the GDR it was a very significant and monumental avenue. The building has a special glamor of spy movies of the Cold War.” (From our host).

We dropped our bags and headed out to lunch.

The neighbourhood’s friendly and just on the right side of trendy. After a tasty lunch at Aunt Benny (a lovely place with delicious coffee, minimalistic interior and friendly service), we shopped for supplies and made our way back home.

And then it rained. Heavy rain.

So we staggered our journey back to the flat, taking regular shelter in doorways. We had checked the weather forecast so often leading up to the weekend, and rain hadn’t really been part of the agenda. Oh well.

Waiting for the rain to ease up, we finalised our itinerary for the forthcoming days. And ventured out again mid-afternoon.

We started with a walk along ‘Karl-Marx Allee’. This boulevard is allegedly 89 metres wide and two kilometres long (we’re not convinced). The style is over the top socialist classicism. The buildings are impressive.

From there, we headed towards the Spree River where we walked along the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall (1.5 kms). And it’s incredible what memory does to you. Straight away, footage from 9 November 1989 came to mind. These were incredible scenes. History in the making, and here we were… at the wall.

The East Side Gallery – as that stretch of the wall is known – is an open-air gallery. Over 100 artists from all over the world were invited to paint a section of it. The most famous section of it all is probably “The kiss of death” with Brezhnev and Honecker kissing.

We walked across the Oberbaumbrücke – the bridge connects Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, two districts formerly divided by the wall. Architecturally, it’s an old interesting bridge, made a lot more interesting for serving as a pedestrian crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. We spent ten minutes or so walking about what was West Berlin, and retreated to the East.

Walking back towards our apartment, we stopped at Hops and Barley for a swift pint of incredible craft beer. ‘We’re coming back here, right?’, asked Andy. Oh yes. Definitely.

Dinner was a quick affair at Il Ritrovo – dead cool waiters and tasty pizzas – before our next date with history.

We made our way to the Olympiastadion, about 40 minutes away. This is very much a modern stadium now; one of the world’s top entertainment venue. But there is some murky history there.

Walking past the Olympic rings, we went in and took our seats (thankfully covered). The sky darkened. There was lightening in the sky followed by thunder. Rain fell hard.

It didn’t matter much… because when Depeche Mode are on stage, little else matters.

Now, I would happily have brought the day to an end here, but Andy asked me to expand on the concert… so here goes. The set was pretty much the same as the one we had on London a few weeks ago with just one different song. The crowd was mental, the way Depeche Mode fans are pretty much everywhere in the world apart from the UK. And consequently, the band had fun.

We got away from the stadium quickly considering how many people were about, and got a couple of metros back home. A few people in our carriage were very soggy. Soaked through. Yet everyone was buzzing.

Protecting the interests of the people

We left Ohrid at 9:30am and crossed the border within an hour. That flight from Luton is most appealing. I can see us coming back to Ohrid – taking our time exploring the back streets and the churches, taking another boat ride…

On the other side, it’s bunkermania – bunker after bunker litter the landscape and a heavy military presence. Other than that, the differences are subtle. Village life in Macedonia is not very different from village life in Albania. Failed businesses; abandoned factories; houses in ruins and many war memorials. And in the middle of all that, huge mansions under construction – from the diaspora and the mafia.

The road twisted and turned as we climbed and then descended offering us a panoramic view.

The coffee break was most welcome; macchiato of course. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel castle. Immediately, a few of us were drawn to a playful kitten – having the time of its life with a dry leaf. A woman working there brought us two more kittens and we oohed and aahed.

Back on the road, we drove through a valley. The riverbed was mostly dry. We passed vineyards. And of course, more bunkers.

We arrived back in Tirana around 1pm. We popped to the local bakery for some cheese byrek, got our clothes ready for tomorrow, packed our bags and jumped into a taxi to Bunk’Art. We arrived at the site through a 500m single track tunnel carved out of the hillside.

This was the top bunker, for the elite. The space is unbelievable. From private rooms for Hoxha and his top advisers, to a massive assembly room, a bufe, a filter room (to clean the air), a decontamination room. It felt like an underground city. What gets you after a while is how cool it is down there (the temperature is a constant 16c) and the lack of light. The exhibits varied between dry informative (facts, which may mean nothing if you don’t have at least some background to what this was all about and who was who) and fascinating video footage of Hoxha’s funeral and images of the Skanderberg square packed with people for Stalin’s funeral.

With the feeling of only having a few hours to go, we spent just over an hour there and got a taxi to take us to our next destination.

En route, we stopped at the Resurrection Cathedral. This time, we had the place all to ourselves. I was surprised at how Moorish it looked inside, architecturally.

Opposite the cathedral is the House of Leaves, Tirana’s very own museum of secret surveillance. Originally, the building was a medical clinic. It became the headquarters of the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation and then the Sigurimi (Albania’s Communist-era version of the KGB). The equipment on show was both impressive and chilling.The building was used both a listening post and place of torture. The paranoia of the government at the time is incomprehensible – creating ‘enemies’ of the state, spying on people and ensuring that nothing was beyond the reach of the State. One of the roles of Communist propaganda was about cultivating the cult of the leader.

When the right thing to do would have been to walk back to the hotel to get ready for dinner, we opted to take a walk in the opposite direction.

Fortune favours the brave.

Walking toward Mother Theresa’s square (which surprisingly doesn’t have a statue of her), we came across a few more bunkers, and… a piece of the Berlin wall. This really tied the whole trip together. Our trip to Berlin a few weeks ago (the notes of which will be coming here soon) and all we did and learnt there fitted so well with so much of what happened to this part of the Balkans.

We walked back go to the hotel, along streets we’re now very familiar with and were lucky to notice that the doors of the Pyramid were opened so we popped our heads in (they have an exhibition on urbanisation). Tirana’s grows on you, very subtly. The sun was out, people were starting to fill the public spaces.

I had read about a restaurant and very much wanted to try it for dinner – new Albania cuisine. I asked Ivan if he knew anything about it, and the next thing I know, he’d booked a table for the whole group. So, at 7pm, we got taxis there (it’s about an hour walk from the hotel).

Part of the Slow Food movement, Mullixhiu wouldn’t look out of place in trendy parts of London. We were welcomed from the taxis by one of the staff, who informed us that the name of the restaurant came from the flour mills they have on sight (which they use to make their own bread0. We got baskets of fresh bread and a fresh cherry juice whilst we perused the menu. We shared a fresh salad (courgette and plums with a vinaigrette), a saffron risotto and pasta with mushroom. These dishes were incredibly tasty (all made from local ingredients). Washed down with a pitcher of house red. The place was packed (trendy Tirana crowd), and when the bill came, we sat in silence and disbelief. It was just under £20 for both of us.

We left the rest of the group (off to explore the bars of Blloku) and got a taxi back to the hotel. We have a taxi to the airport at 2am!

Initially, we both had reservations about this trip. We still have such strong memories of Big Trip. Had we made a mistake? Would we like it? Would we be underwhelmed?

It took us a couple of days to get into it.

Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia are fascinating countries with deeply rooted history as well as recent history, and a profound dislike for some of their neighbours.

This relatively undiscovered part of the world worked its magic – from the Ottoman times to its recent turbulent history, from the weather to the delicious food, the wine and the raki and some of its unexpected craziness. Whilst Kosovo may not be for everyone yet – tourism there is still very raw – Albania and definitively Macedonia are appealing destinations.

I still can’t understand why we never hear about Macedonia; I mean… ask yourself, what did you know about the country 10 days ago?

We were lucky to have enlightened and fun travelling companions. This also very much made the trip.