Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburg Tor) in Berlin, Germany
Berlin is a place with a challenging history. Located in Germany‘s eastern side, the city of Berlin was part of the state of East Germany for decades before the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin itself was a divided city: half in the East and half in the West. Families divided right down the middle. Lives, jobs, families, loyalties – it didn’t matter. East stayed in the East, and the West in the West. (In the end of course, it was better luck to be living in West Berlin.) But that all changed November 9th, 1989 (still scarily recent…) – the day the Berlin Wall fell. Citizens on both sides reportedly climbed atop the Wall in celebration. The Brandenburg Tor is possibly the most iconic monument in Berlin. Built in the 18th century by Prussian King Frederick William II, the Neoclassical style, topped with bronze statue of noble horses, was chosen for this ‘victory’ gate. The Brandenburg Tor stands on Pariser Platz – the same place as the old city gate that once marked the entrance to Brandenburg an der Havel town, ancient capital of the pre-Germany state of Brandenburg. Used by the Prussians, the Nazis and the East Germans as a symbol of the city’s power, the Brandenburg Gate was partially destroyed in WWII. On August 13th, 1961, the structure became part of the Berlin Wall, and its original use as a gate was re-instated (one of eight points for crossing the Wall). Nearly impossible to traverse by East Germans, the gate remained a symbol of power – but in a negative sense, sparking protests, demonstrations and eventually celebrations the day the wall fell. Today, it reminds Berliners and visitors alike of the power of standing together.
Neuschwanstein Castle Cloaked in Forest and Mist, Germany
Rising romantically out of the mist is the majestic white turrets of Neuschwanstein Castle. Somewhat reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm, of all of Germany‘s fairy tale castles, Neuschwanstein Castles wins gold for fairytale extravagance. In fact, the castle, built 1869-86 (though never completed) is generally credited with inspiring Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, California! Commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria and dedicated to composer Richard Wagner, the magical Neuschwanstein Castle is located a stone’s throw from the far more demure Hohenschwangau Castle, ancestral home to the royal family (though not good enough for ambitious Ludwig’s refined and ostentatious tastes). Instead, Ludwig required a more flamboyant residence in which to flex his power (not unlike the popes of the Avignon Papacy and their enormous palace). The completed rooms in Neuschwanstein are all elaborately carved, lavishly furnished and thoroughly gilded – and the swan motif giving the castle its name is everywhere. There are long, bejewelled corridors, dizzyingly vast courtyards and high flying turrets. Best of all, there’s even a mysterious grotto based on a German myth… inside the castle (not a joke…)! The grotto even once had a waterfall and rainbow-maker. The white turrets of this German fairytale castle are cloaked in thick mist and dark, silent forests crossed with forlorn paths (reminiscent of the Black Forest), making it easy to imagine a Disney princess or two locked in a tower, tasting a poisoned apple, losing a magical slipper or pricking her dainty finger on a spinning wheel here at Neuschwanstein. Though most German castles seem straight out of a fairytale (see Hohenzollern for another example), Neuschwanstein is certainly queen of all. Tip: due to the castle’s enormous popularity, visit off-season and go for a morning visit. Be sure to visit the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle, the royal grounds as well as the path that leads to the Marion Bridge for the famous view of the castle across the gorge! Keep in mind that sadly, there’s a strictly enforced no photography rule inside the castle…a shame, for the castle’s interior seems something that could only exist in Beauty and the Beast’s castle.
In solidarity with the Germans after last night’s attack, I present you with a piece of the Berlin Wall, an item that, while in the beginning represented intolerance, fear and division, today represents love, hope, and tolerance. The East Side Gallery, as mentioned before, is the largest open-air art gallery in the world, and the pieces that remain are there to make sure that we never forget or make the same mistakes again. While this world is unfortunately becoming smaller, more exclusive and more prejudiced, there is still hope that the vision that inspired the East Side Gallery and other similar works of art in Germany and throughout the world, will continue to spread their message. Tourism only works if people are willing to understand and learn about other cultures and traditions. In an ideal world, this would mean letting the best traits from cultures influence each other, and eliminating the worst, least-tolerant traits. As the Wall suggests, dividing each other – whether by a physical barrier or by a cultural one – is an answer doomed to fail. Instead, the Berlin Wall suggests that understanding, hope and acceptance is the way to move forward in this modern era, for both tourism and all other manners of international interactions.
Perhaps one of the saddest monuments on Earth commemorating events that even 70 or so years later are hard to digest as reality, these were very difficult photos to post. And yet, even the saddest places can still hold a certain beauty; even the places that have evoked massive amounts of human suffering can be worth visiting for what the evoke inside us (two examples are this war memorial in Scotland or this Polish resistance sculpture in Wroclaw. See here another interpretation of this Memorial). In central Berlin – once the most divided city in the world – there is a square filled with large, grey granite boxes of varying heights built into the uneven ground. Walking amongst the oppressive grey ‘hallways’ along a path that rises and falls beneath your feet is a powerful though somber experience. Your chest may tighten, your eyes may water, your heart may flutter – but as difficult as it may be, visiting this memorial is important to do. In order to avoid repeating history’s worst mistakes, we must take care to remember the past, and to learn from our past mistakes. We must open our hearts to other cultures and ways of life. We must choose peace and integration over violence and exclusion. The message shared with us via Berlin’s tragic memorial resonates today as the world becomes more divided, nations become more nationalistic, fear has become a true malady, and exclusion is the name of the game. Instead of further division, we should instead work to understand each other, incorporating the best characteristics from each culture to better our current world and make the world a more colourful place, one person at a time.
Don’t be put off by the long name! Hohenschwangau (meaning ‘High Swan Palace’) is an impressive castle in southern Germany, near the Austrian border. Though you may not recognise its name, you will most certainly have heard of (or seen a photo of) its magnificent next-door-neighbour, Neuschwanstein Castle (famous for inspiring Disney’s creation of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disney World, FL). In many ways, Hohenschwangau, while less jaw-dropping than its excessive neighbour, is much more authentic. Built in the 19th century by the Bavarian kings, it served as the childhood residence of the famous Ludwig II (the very same king who built the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein), and it is much more reserved in decor, riches, and style. There has been a fortress on the spot since the 12th century, which underwent many changes during its several hundred years of existence. Because of invasions from Austria, it was plundered in 1743, and due to hard times, the land was eventually sold in 1820, only to be bought back by the the next generation of Bavarian kings, Prince Maximilian II, who discovered some ruins while on a tour of his land. So inspired was he by the beauty and family history of the crumbling ruins that he spent the next 20 years bringing splendour and life back to Hohenschwangau. Of course, it was only inhabited for about a generation, as Ludwig built his own castle nearby, the celebrated Neuschwanstein, though that castle was never finished. Today, the two castles preside together over the valley and land that was so important to the old Bavarian kings.
Sometimes, a landmark or monument becomes so iconic, so heavily associated with a city that any reminder of one automatically reminds you of the other: Paris/Eiffel Tower; NYC/The Statue of Liberty; Rome/Colosseum; London/Big Ben; Moscow/Kremlin. Berlin and its Wall belong on such a list. The Berlin Wall, erected by East Germany’s German Democratic Republic in 1961, divided the city in half, cutting off one from the other…until 1989 when it famously fell (though entire demolition did not occur until 1990). Imagine, for a moment, that your city–wherever it may be–was suddenly cut in half by a gigantic wall. Families are separated. Friendships are partitioned. Jobs are lost. Travel is stunted. Freedom is killed. 3.5 million manage to escape to the West before the Wall goes up, but the rest are left behind. Yet, despite all the horrors of WWII, the crash of the Iron Curtain, and the hardships that continued to befall the residents of the Eastern Bloc during the following decades, the East Berliners persisted. And when the Wall finally fell, instead of showing anger and pain, they celebrated life and freedom. They used the largest stretch (1.3 km) as a giant canvas, with 105 different paintings and graffiti depicted on the east side (i.e. the East Side Gallery). Despite the fact that the art changes the original appearance of the Wall, it is a magical display of freedom, democracy, movement and choice celebrated by millions every year from all corners of the globe.
Some cities are beautiful, some aren’t…right? This seems like a clear-cut (black and white!) concept, but it’s not necessarily true. Some cities are simply beautiful (like Venice or Prague or Tallinn). Some are outwardly beautiful but have negative qualities that become transparent when you dig a little deeper, taking away from their beauty (like Barcelona as a result of the pickpockets). Some, though, just don’t seem beautiful on the surface. Instead, one must put in a little work to search for the city’s beauty. But when you do find it, why, eureka! You are heavily rewarded. This is true for many rebuilt Central and Eastern European cities (like Warsaw, Kiev or Berlin). It’s also true for this little-known German city, Stuttgart. If you’re a Porsche fan, you may know it as Porsche’s hometown (still hosting a museum). Or if you’re a castle buff (like me), you may know it as the closest city to the fantasty-esque castle, Hohenzollern. While both of these places have their merits, Stuttgart has more to offer. It’s not overly touristy. It’s small, easy to discover on foot. And while much was destroyed by war (and not always beautifully rebuilt), Stuttgart offers a look into the real Germany, far away from the crowded, touristy streets of Berlin or Munich. This is where you’ll find out how the Germans live, eat, breathe. This is where you can shop without fear of getting the tourist treatment. Then of course, there’s all the beautiful architecture that managed to survive (or at least, managed to get rebuilt following the original). The lacework on this gazebo overlooking the Neue Schloss (New Palace) is particularly eye-catching. As it was almost completely destroyed and later rebuilt in the original Baroque style, the palace is certainly an amazing feat; it makes one appreciate humanity and its dedication to history! You may have to put a little more effort into falling in love with this place…but hopefully, it’ll be worth it!
The sky is dark and cloudy, but what else would you expect it to be on a chilly winter’s day at a rural German castle? Could you honestly picture it any other way? German castles are known for their fairy-tale turrets paired with dark forests and remote hilltops, and it’s not hard to imagine yourself as a would-be prince or princess in a Grimm’s brothers tale. Hohenzollern Castle is no different. Silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky not far from Stuttgart, the castle rises above the trees, beckoning travelers to climb its hillside and enter its thick walls. First constructed in the 11th century, Hohenzollern Castle barely survived a 10-month siege in the 1400’s, later serving as a refuge during the Thirty Year’s War. In the 18th century, like so many other castles of this era, Hohenzollern fell into ruins, becoming little more than vague inspiration for little-known artists and poets. In the mid-1800s, William IV of Prussia reconstructed the castle in the Gothic Revival style, basing his designs on the magnificent chateaus of the Loire Valley in France; today, only the chapel is originally medieval. And yet, as you climb the mountain, modern society slips through your fingers. By the time you arrive at the top of the castle towers to enjoy the view of the countryside, you realise that you’ve gone back in time by a few hundred years to a time when castles were a defense system, kings and queens wrote the law of the land, and armies still invaded on horseback.
It’s hard to put the words “Munich” and “quiet” in the same sentence. Usually, the name “Munich” brings to mind Oktoberfest, beer, drinking, and drunkards. It’s hard to imagine one visiting Munich any other time of year–or for any other purpose. Yet, those who do venture into the capital of Bavaria outside the Oktoberfest period will be pleasantly surprised. The city is beautiful, charming, and historic. In fact, the city is teeming with history, both good and bad. Take any one of the free walking tours available, and it seems as if every corner has a story behind it. From the monks that founded Munich, to the king who fled in the face of the formidable Swedish army (who later returned after the army was defeated, bearing the gift of the golden Mary now in the main plaza as way poor way of saying ‘sorry’), to the Crystal Night (the night when window after window of Jewish homes and stores were smashed), to the Holocaust and the Gestapo and the horrors that followed. In the central cathedral, you’ll find a footprint on the ground which common legend says is the Devil’s footprint after he was tricked by the church-builders; on the other side of the old town, you’ll find a church that was rebuilt halfway authentic, and halfway in concrete, with clocks painted on every side of the bell-tower (why one would need eight clocks, no one really knows anymore). Sure, the beer in Munich is fantastic, and be sure to visit a beer-hall while in town. But…just remember, there’s more to Munich than the Hofbrauhaus and the Augustiner breweries!
Many think that this building is a church. Many also think that the New Town Hall is actually the old one due to its Gothic (revival) style – but in both cases, the onlooker would be wrong. This is, in fact, Munich’s Old Town Hall, located on Marienplatz. And old it is! First records show it existed in the 1390’s (while the New Town Hall was only constructed in the 1800’s, though most believe it is from the Middle Ages due to its Gothic design). See those arches at the bottom (mostly hidden by the crowd)? They are actually tunnels, cut into the original building to make way for pedestrian and vehicle passageways, which unfortunately have altered the original floor-plan. Most people think of Munich only in conjunction with Oktoberfest, which is a shame – Munich is an amazing city with far more to see than just the Hofbrauhaus! Though of course, a pint here or there only adds to the city’s character…
One of the most loaded (and iconic) places to visit in Europe is what remains of the Berlin Wall. For so many years, the Wall separated families, friends, co-workers, neighbours. Citizens of the same town were suddenly divided; the Wall literally split the city in half. And then, abruptly and very literally, the Wall fell. On the monumental day of November 9, 1989, the wall that had symbolised so much pain and caused so many horrors quite suddenly came crumbling down. The Berlin Wall had become nothing more than a few remaining sections of concrete, now worthless – little more than bygone symbols of pain and terror. But then something amazing happened. The city of Berlin invited artists from around the world to decorate the once-imposing wall. Each of the 106 paintings of the East Side Gallery carries a message – a message of freedom, of solidarity, of strength, of love, of patriotism, of humanity. They worked together to turn something negative – a symbol of all that was contrary to freedom and happiness – into something positive, a work of art celebrating a new era of Berlin, of Germany, of Europe. This painting by Sardinian-born artist Fulvio Pinna, “Ode to Joy,” was created to promote and recognise the new-found freedom of the now-reunited Berlin and, like the other 105 paintings, sends a powerful message to its millions of viewers.
“Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning two times? Once when I was in the field, just tending my German castle!” Yes that’s right; this magnificently ruined castle has had the unlucky honour of being struck by lightning not once but twice – rending it reminiscent of Benjamin Button’s friend in the film of the same name (although he was struck seven times…). The first bolt struck the schloss in 1537 – and then the second bolt thundered out of the sky in 1764. In fact, the second lightning strike actually destroyed most of the sections rebuilt after the first strike burned them down. Welcome to Heidelberg Castle, one of the most important Renaissance ruins still gracing the hills of Europe. And better yet, this year marks the Castle’s 800th birthday! It seems to be aging well despite all, don’t you agree? Though watch out, they say bad luck strikes in threes…
Many new Porsche owners (the ones with lots of extraneous cash) dream of watching their new cars roll out the factory doors. For those that don’t have enough cash stashed away to afford a fancy a new Porsche, a visit to the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart is almost as good (okay maybe not…but still a fun experience!). After arriving at Porscheplatz, one comes face-to-face with the the shiny, futuristic Porsche Museum, dedicated to telling the story of Porsche, starting with Ferdinand Porsche (nee 1875) who founded Porsche in 1931. In the beginning, the company only built cars for other companies – such as early Volkswagens. During WWII, Ferdinand was arrested, and his son Ferry decided to start building his own cars – creating what would become the 356 and commonly regarded as the ‘first’ Porsche model. As the years went by, Porsche produced more and more cars, including many which won awards and races such as the famed Le Mans 24-hour race – and today, Porsche is currently the world’s largest race car manufacturer. Porsche has produced models such as the famous 911, the Speedster, the Spyder, the Boxster, the Carrera GT, as well as many many others, and is now a world-famous name brand in both luxury and racing cars. So being able to visit Porsche HQ in Stuttgart is an amazing opportunity!
What comes to everybody’s mind when you encounter the word “Dresden”? It’s bombing, of course. Sadly, this controversial bombing killed 25,000 people, levelling the city centre to piles of rumble. And then after the war, it was hidden behind the Iron Curtain, left to be rebuilt during the East German Communist era…which wasn’t exactly known for its beautiful architecture. However, much of the old town has been restored, showing the resilience of the people, much like their neighbours over in Warsaw (who suffered similar fates, except their town was rebuilt by the Soviets, which is a far worse fate), and other parts of Poland and Eastern Europe obliterated by the war. The Dresdner Frauenkirche was one of the main buildings to be reconstructed. Not formally a cathedral, this building only dates back to the 18th century. Dresden was flattened in mid-February 1945 when the RAF and the USAAF dropped more than 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city, leaving it as nothing more than a heap of rubble with thousands dead. The church managed to survive two days of attack, but it could not withstand the intense heat from the blasts, and eventually collapsed. It would remain in ruins for the following 45 years. Happily, by 2005, the Frauenkirche‘s reconstruction was completed and the church was more beautiful than ever! If I remember correctly, then the black bricks represent the original stones used.
Infinity is a curious thing; good or bad or some combination of both, depending on how you interpret it. I never really understood infinity. How could one thing stand still and unwavering enough to ever be rendered infinite? Nothing, in effect, is infinite. Everything changes—as it should. Change is not a thing to be feared. Yet, people have always been afraid of change, and for millennium, people have tried – and failed – to arrest this change, something we could all take a lesson from. Standing here in the Holocaust Memorial in the heart of Berlin, lost amongst rows and rows of daunting grey stone slabs of varying heights, the feeling is overwhelming. Here is the drastic evidence of one of the most awful resistances to change. You don’t need a history lesson; millions died because one man wanted to erase certain groups of people, and in the end, he was stopped, and life went on, at the same time, finite and infinite. And life will continue to go on and on, introducing new challenges and new ideas and new characters. I just hope that the cycle that many consider infinite isn’t so. I just hope that so-called infinity is malleable and changeable, because as these mournful, scary grey slabs remind us, life is never infinite.
As I visited Heidelberg long before I knew anything about taking pictures – or frankly cared about the fine art of photography – I have few photos worth sharing. My main photo of the castle is terrible quality, which is sad because the castle was pretty photogenic. This photo is almost halfway decent, and since Heidelberg is a place worth visiting, I’ll post it. This is the Alte Brücke, or the Old Bridge, on a rainy German morning. Crossing the Neckar River, it is a beautiful stone bridge dating back to 1788. In fact, Heidelberg is a beautiful university town filled with students, bikes, and photogenic streets. Whether you want to visit an ancient castle, drink fine German beer or walk in the nearby dark and sombre woods, this city has it all.
Do I even have to tell you that this in the infamous Brandenburg Gate, once located between the free West Germany and the Communist-controlled East Germany? I hope not. You don’t have to visit Berlin to recognize this impressive and iconic structure. The gate was rebuilt in the late 18th century as a Neolithic triumphal arch (though nothing like other triumphal arches), and it’s located in Pariser Platz, at the end of Unter den Linton street. During the partition, the gate was inaccessible and surrounded by barbed wire. Soviet-controlled East Germany, which existed from 1949-1990, separated not only family and friends, but also sections of the same city and the same country. Considering the economically-advanced state of modern Germany, it’s strange to think that the Brandenburg Gate was once inaccessible to all but a privileged few less than 25 years ago. In 1989, a peaceful revolution in the GDR (German Democratic Company) brought down the Berlin Wall, opening borders, and allowing the emergence of a reformed government committed to freedom.
Travel to any main European city and you’re likely to see a bridge full of locks scribbled with names. Most ‘Love Padlocks’ started to appear in the early 2000’s. One myth about the origin of love padlocks dates back to Serbia at the turn of the century. Nada, a schoolmistress, was separated by war from her fiancé, who later fell in love with someone else, leaving Nada alone and devastated. She never got over the heartbreak, and died young. Girls in her village wrote their names intertwined with their lovers’ names on locks and affixed them to the Most Ljubavi (a local bridge) to avoid the same fate. Somehow, the tradition made it all the way around Europe, locked onto bridges big and small, famous and obscure, iron, wood and steel. These particular padlocks here are attached to a small, little-known bridge on Friedrichstraße which goes over the River Spree – a stone’s throw away from Berlin’s infamous Brandenburg Gate.
Yes, this is the infamous Berlin Wall that was torn down on November 9th, 1989 after communism fell. Over a kilometre long, the East Side Gallery is an international memorial to freedom and has over 100 paintings. Some people even argue that this is the largest open-air gallery on display. The above painting is just one of them, a piece without a title by the Russian-born artist Gamil Gimajew, that is an explosion of colours, words, swirls and hidden faces. The paintings on this wall, created in 1990, represent freedom, hope, and a better future. Twenty years later, this so far seems to be true for Germany! If nothing else, walking along the East Side Gallery is an amazing way to experience both art and German culture without paying an entrance fee.