Homeward Bound

Wednesday, 13th May, 2015

This will be the last instalment of the blog as we have just left Paris and in 10 hours and 40 minutes will be in Hong Kong.  Our aircraft is a Boeing 777-300ER.  Although I checked in 24 hours before I couldn’t change our allocated seats as the plane was full.  The only problem with them is that we have a window and middle seat so it is a bit harder to get up and walk around.  Still we have a very nice view of the neat champagne vineyards below us near Reims. 

Back to yesterday morning.  Instead of using public transport we had the luxury of a taxi.  


John smiled sweetly at the female  Air France flight attendant as we checked in and managed to get us two seats together as we had been allocated seats two rows apart.  The new seats were just behind Business which only took up two rows.  An hour and a half later we were in Paris.


Arriving at Terminal 2 we walked for ages and finally caught a shuttle train to Terminal 3.  Another long walk and we were out of the building and rolling the luggage past a number of airport hotels.  I had chosen CitizenM as it had good reviews and sounded a bit quirky and interesting.

The building is a rectangular block six storeys high with a large mural at the front of people walking, carrying smart phones and drinks.  



There are six CitizenM hotels around the world now including Amsterdam, London and New York.  The difference between a CitizenM and other hotels is that they are “smart”, the common areas are immensely comfortable with objects d’art lining the floor to ceiling bookshelves, the bedrooms are small but space is used cleverly as in a caravan.  



The bed is wonderful, so huge it can be slept in across or down.  The only problem is one person gets to climb over the other if they want to get up in the night.  A Samsung tablet controls the lighting, blinds and shades and TV.  


I had fun changing the bathroom lights from green to red to blue to yellow while John was in the shower, much to his surprise.

Meals are a very casual affair.  There are a number of casserole dishes with meat dishes, rice, potato and ratatouille.  Dessert was in little preserving jars in a fridge.  A bottle of red can be picked up from the counter. The tables are scattered near windows, bookshelves, lounge areas.  There is a bank of iMac computers in one area.  I thought the whole place was fabulous and felt very much at home.  The staff were very friendly.


We went for a walk around the building which is only eleven months old.  The landscaping is still unfinished as the area is obviously being further developed. What a great place for a one night stopover!

Now to review the holiday.  People usually say to me after a holiday, “What was the best part?

John said that the bike rides (Versailles and Berlin) were the best things we did.  We picked up a lot of information, met lots of people and covered a large distance in minimal time.  I agree and would recommend taking a bike tour whenever possible.  Even if you are a bit nervous on a bike in an unknown area  (that includes me) there is a definite high which is only achieved when you are in control of your means of locomotion.

John really enjoyed the World War 1 Battlefields.  I was not sure I would but it turned out to be a great experience.  Reading “Birdsong” at the same time really made history come alive. Also our guide was really into how the men and women of WWI coped with the stress and horror of battle  rather than simply outlining the facts.

The day trips we did from St Remy were amazing and varied.  We both loved the Pont du Gard.  To think it has been there for two thousand years and is still standing is mind boggling. Le Baux was incredible, just like the ruined castles of childhood imagination.  The perched villages of Gordes and Roissillon were picture postcard perfect in the Luberon and our 18th Century house in  St Remy seemed to belong to another time.

We loved the airy apartment in Nice with its view of the mountains and the eclectic architecture surrounding us.  Here we met up with friends from Australia and experienced Cannes and Monaco preparing for the Film Festival and the Grand Prix.  Even St Jeannet, with its quirky “Frog’s House” could not dampen our spirits as the only serious rain of the holiday  fell on a day when all the shops were shut.  The next day dawned bright and beautiful for our rendezvous with our friends from Sydney.

Then of course there was Berlin.  We had a wonderful time there and found it clean, easy to navigate and full of history.  Looking back at our holiday I have realised that the highlights have not been in Art Galleries or Museums but actually visiting the places where things happened and learning the details of these events from passionate people who have made it their life’s work to share their knowledge with others. In Berlin, the Reichstag Building tour brought to life the Battle of Berlin, the Templehof Airport recreated the 1948 airlift which kept West Berlin alive and of course the remains of The Wall have so many stories to tell. I have just downloaded Ian McEwan’s “The Innocent” to read on the flight.  It is about a young Englishman’s experience in Berlin in the Cold War and is written by one of my favourite authors.

Monet came alive through visiting his garden, Matisse through looking at the same views he painted of the ocean through an open window.  And of course Van Gogh with his marvellous works created in St Remy.  Even the Picasso in our Nice apartment changed both our views on modern art.

Then there was the food.  By eating in our apartments most of the time we could afford to splurge on memorable meals and bring back ideas to try at home.

People are asking, “Where to next?”

We have no plans.  We will go home, enjoy our house and our family and when the time comes, we will know.


Fat Tire Bike Tours

Monday, 11th May, 2015

As it is our last day in Berlin we wanted to something different and fun, like a Segway or Bike Tour, or maybe just hire a bike and ride.

First of all John was keen to find Hitler’s bunker. It was a short walk from our apartment and was marked by a sign indicating its size and shape and a short history of the last days of the Third Reich.  Behind the sign is an ordinary car park.  No trace of the bunker was allowed to be seen although its remains are below ground, filled with gravel.



We also walked through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  It was designed by a New Yorker and never fails to create controversy.  What does it mean?  I thought the various heights might represent the number of people lost in each family, John thought they symbolised tombs and another theory we heard is that the various heights represent the length of life of an individual.  The trees might represent the survivors who continued to grow and flourish.


We then caught the train to Alexanderplatz.  The Fat Tire Bike Tours are based here and they also have Segways.  As we had never ridden on a Segway we thought it might be fun, but all the tours were booked out.  However there was a city bike tour leaving in half an hour which lasted for five hours.  I was a bit apprehensive as to me the words “city” and “bike” do not go together.  Still I hoped that there were enough bike tracks to keep us away from cars.



Because there were 34 people starting the tour we were divided into two groups.  Our leader was Jules, from Sydney.  Berlin is a very flat city so bike riding is easy.  There are pedestrians to avoid and cars to squeeze between but fortunately everyone seems used to bikes and there was no “road rage”.  We came across a few barriers to our path as Vladimer Putin was visiting today.  It is 70 years since the end of the war in Germany so Angela Merkels and Putin have an uneasy alliance in this respect.  The Soviet War Memorial was covered with flowers as 2,500 Russian troops are buried here. 81,000 Russians died altogether in the Battle of Berlin.


One of the highlights of the ride was the Tiergarten Park which is over 200 hectares and used to be a hunting ground in the days of monarchs.  We arrived at a delightful beer garden where John and I  shared a large glass of beer and a schnitzel.  We also rode around Museum Island, which we had not been able to fit into this trip. We had a sombre stop at Bebelplatz where Hitler ordered the burning of all books which did not agree with his philosophy or which were written by Jews, Communists, Homosexuals or other “unGerman” people. 



Although we had visited many of the sites in the last three days it was interesting to revisit them and hear some new explanations.  It was a shock to find a Cold War Watchtower still standing in a suburban street.  The Brandenburg Gate was roped off for the Putin visit so just as well we had been there plenty of times before.


We planned to eat in tonight and “eat out the fridge”.  Our favourite at home meal has been chicken baked in the oven with jacket potatoes and some steamed greens.  We will be sorry to leave our lovely apartment with its fascinating view of a construction site.  John stood at the window for ages tonight watching all the workers come down from their cranes and various parts of the building.  Each day the building has grown taller and we will be sorry to miss its completion.



A German Mother’s Day

Sunday, 10th May, 2015

Today was the coldest day we have experienced in the five weeks we have been in Europe.  It was supposed to be 6 degrees to 15 degrees but I don’t think it reached the maximum.  There was a very cold wind so we went out rugged up with coats and scarves.

In Lonely Planet I read about Gedenstatte Berliner Mauer which is a free Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum on Bernauer Strasse.  It sounded really interesting so I gave John the job of getting us there.  As we have free public transport anywhere in the city with our Welcome Pass it is just a matter of consulting the maps.  First a train to Alexanderplatz and then another to Bernauer Strasse.   We stepped out into freezing cold (right not freezing, but close enough – Europeans laugh when Australians say that).


We followed the line of the wall through what was once No Man’s Land.  There were many stories of successes and failures trying to escape from East to West Germany.  The tunnels dug below the ground were marked with pavers on the surface.  One was named 57 because that’s how many people escaped through it.  There were pictures of people, young and old, hanging from windows, ready to jump into the waiting fireman’s nets below.

A church had been blown up by the Communists in the ’80s.  Now the outline of the building can be seen on the ground and the bells are housed in a low rectangular box like structure which enables them to be rung regularly.


As a brief respite from the cold we took shelter in the East West Coffee Shop where we had drinkable cappuccinos. Back into the wind and we could see a building with a lookout at the top.  This was the Museum. We climbed up and looked over a re-creation of No Man’s Land.



The museum was warm and interesting with large information boards telling more stories of miraculous escapes.  A video was showing of the lead up to the reunification of Germany and especially Berlin.  The joy on the faces of the people as they surged through the gates was indescribable. 

Our return journey was from Nordbahnhof Station which had been a “Ghost Station”.  When Berlin was divided by the wall some stations on the East were locked up and trains from the West passed through them and went back into the West.  

We were due at the Reichstag Building at 1.00 o’clock. We arrived early so grabbed some lunch nearby before being let into the building.  


Our names were marked off a list and we were told to wait twenty minutes.  Around our necks we wore tags which indicated we were English speaking.  Our guide appeared and so began our tour.  He explained how the building had been opened in 1894.  In 1933 there was a huge fire.  A Communist was blamed for it which gave Hitler an excuse to remove all Communists from parliament and increase his powers.  It is thought that Nazis may have actually set the fire in order to shift the blame to the Communists and effectively remove the opposition.  The Soviets were delighted to fly their red flag over the building in 1945.  In 1951 the wall was built right next to the Reichstag Building but as the building was on the Western side it was restored and used for exhibitions and meeting rooms for parliamentary groups.  Then of course came 1990 when the first Bundestag elected by the whole of Germany had its first meeting in the Reichstag Building. The seat of the German Parliament moved from Bonn back to Berlin.

Now, although the  building had been restored in the early ’70s and it had had its interior gutted and refitted it was decided it just wasn’t good enough.   A competition was held to reconstruct the building.  All the ’70s stuff was removed and the modern version, designed by Sir Norman Foster, was built.  Instead of trying to cover up its original design, Foster has exposed the stone walls but because much of it had been removed he has built new versions of the old, using new materials and design.  



To crown it all is the glass dome with a spiral walkway to the viewing platform.  Glass mirrors reflect light down into the parliamentary sitting area and shades shield and follow the sun.  It truly is a remarkable building.

We saw the remains of a tunnel which used to connect the Reichstag with another building.  Maybe the Nazis used this tunnel to access the building and set the fire.  It seems no one will ever know for sure. Foster found some walls covered in graffiti which had been screened in the ’70s.  It was written by Russian soldiers from May to August 1945 and basically says, “I was here” and similar inane phrases. He decided to keep them, covering them with a protective coating. 



Once the guided tour had finished we were taken to the top of the building and given headsets before setting off up the spiral ramp in the dome.  All the landmarks we could see were described.  Some we recognised and some are still to be explored.



As it was Mothers’ Day and my children are far away we decided to have dinner in the Alto Restaurant under our apartment.  John tried the Currywurst while I went with the Chicken and bush tomatoes.  Carina and Cameron sent email messages wishing me a happy day.  I can’t think of a better way to spend Mothers’ Day than visit a Berlin Wall Museum and Germany’s Parliament House, unless it is to be with my children and grandchildren.


Candy Bombers at Templehoff

Saturday, 9th May, 2015

The day dawned bright and sunny.  What happened to that weather forecast?  As there is an indoor pool in our apartment we decided to start the day with a swim to get in practice for aqua jogging at home.  The pool is made of stainless steel with a non skid floor and only about waist deep but we got a bit of exercise and enjoyed the hot spa at the end.



Deciding which attractions to visit was difficult but we rang the Templehoff airfield and found there was an English speaking tour at 3 o’clock so booked in for that.  The morning was now free so we decided to go back to Checkpoint Charlie and visit one of the museums there. The Mauermuseum calls itself the first museum of non violent protest and not only deals with the Berlin Wall but also violence and its consequences in other parts of the world.


At first it was daunting.  There were hundreds of pieces of text and photos dealing with many aspects of life in Berlin before and after the wall went up.  I found the stories of escape the most interesting. There were also genuine examples of hot air balloons, escape cars, chairlifts and a small submarine on display.

The building became the “Haus am Checkpoint Charlie” in 1963 and was an island of freedom right next to the border.  Through a window at the front of the building you can see the recreation of Checkpoint Charlie where tourists stand beside men dressed in American uniforms to have their photos taken. 


 It was here escape helpers could observe all movements of the border crossing and did everything they could to help and support escapees.  We read the story of Peter Fechter who was shot trying to cross the border and bled to death in No Man’s Land.   


There was a home built aeroplane with a Trabant engine and a motorbike fuel tank.  In it a man and his little boy flew to safety and freedom.  A nifty invention was two suitcases, side by side, placed on the luggage rack of a train with a tall woman stretched out full length inside the two of them.  There was a metal box which looked like part of a piece of machinery and required a two step system to open.  Imagine the distress of those inside when it failed to unlock!  Fortunately after two hours they were finally able to escape.

  After all this we were in desperate need of a coffee fix.  We tried a cafe called Einsteins, recommended by friends.  They did a good Flat White although it was in a larger than usual cup.  Much restored we checked out another free display but felt mentally drained after the Mauermuseum.

While we were having lunch in our room some people came to clean the stove.  The roasting pan hasn’t arrived yet, however.  The internet is weird.  I can download emails and check Facebook.  I can even upload  my blog.  Safari doesn’t work and we can’t download the newspapers.  I checked at the desk and this problem is being experienced by everyone in the hotel.

At 2 o’clock we left for Flughaven Templehof.  It was about six stops on the underground.  When we arrived we were amazed at the size of the buildings.  


We expected there would be maybe two or four others in the group but there were about 30.  The guide spoke quite softly so we had to stand right next to her to hear what she said.  Although it is no longer used as  an airport Templehof had a landing strip in the early 1900s.  In the 1930s it was Hitler’s dream to turn it into a state of the art airport. It is huge.  To that we can attest as we climbed up six flights of stairs to the top.



Strangely enough the buildings are currently being used for weddings (there was one while we were there), sporting events, exhibitions and by companies renting space for various purposes.  The lack of space for a decent runway precludes its use as an airport ever again.  An eerie experience was going into the bowels of the building to the air raid shelters.  Bright murals had been painted on the walls to comfort the children in this scary place.  


When the Americans moved in after the war was over they converted the ballroom to a basketball court and added a bowling alley.

At one stage during the Cold War the Soviets tried to cut West Berlin off from the world and starve out the residents.  An airlift of hundreds of planes brought in food for the people of the city.  The planes became known as Candy Bombers because one pilot dropped sweets to the children below.  This became standard practice as it was good for PR.


One of the Candy Bombers


Our guide for the tour

The trains seemed to be running frequently so we had no trouble getting back to our stop at Stadmitte.  On the way home we found an excellent food store so bought marinated chicken and vegetables for our dinner.  The baking dish still hasn’t arrived but I made do with some glass casserole dishes and we had an enjoyable meal in our room, catching up on news on TV.  Australia got a mention with a thwarted terrorist attack in Melbourne.


Curry at the Wall

Friday, 8th May, 2015

The internet is back on.  I can access it from our room which I am supposed to pay for so am not sure if I will be presented with a bill.  Hope not.

John took charge of our itinerary for this morning so I just let myself be taken.  He wanted to follow the old Berlin Wall.  After a few false starts we found some remains of the wall.  Where it had been demolished there was a brick line crossing roads, following paths and even going under buildings. 


John found a sign he recognised and was intrigued to find that Currywurst was invented after WW2 when a local resident used curry powder and Worcestershire sauce from army rations to create a new dish.  We have yet to taste it.


 Here is some of the actual wall.


When we reached Potzdamer Plaza we spotted a coffee shop selling Flat Whites.  We ordered two with a carrot muffin.  Imagine my surprise when the flat whites arrived in glasses.  I said to the barista, “are you sure these aren’t Lattes?”  But he glared at me and said, “They are Flat Whites”.  They tasted quite good and had plenty of kick. The surrounding area has been rebuilt since the wall came down and is architecturally stunning.



The remains of a hotel preserved behind glass. 

John was trying to find the hotel he had stayed in in 1967.  It was in Unter den Linden and was brand new back then.  It had been the best accommodation they had enjoyed on their coach trip in the Eastern Bloc.  We think that it is now a souvenir shop below and who knows what up above.  In the shop we bought a model of a Trabant.  They are very popular in a nostalgic sort if way and you can do tag along trips driving one if you so desire.



At the Brandenburg Gate there was display of decaying horses.  Fortunately they were sculptures and not the real thing.  I climbed to the top of a purpose built tower to take a photo and video of the scene.  We were both impressed by the number of buildings still bearing the marks of bombing and shelling.  



The large empty blocks  still remaining are a legacy of WW2 and yet it was so long ago!  There is huge conflict between developers and conservationists as to the fate of these empty parcels of land.


We passed a shop selling delicacies so bought prawns in dressing, asparagus salad and crusty bread.  It made a very good lunch.

There are so many options available for a tourist in a Berlin.  I decided to buy two Berlin Welcome cards for 72 hours at 26.70 euros each.  This entitles you to a number of discounts and free transport so we set about trying to get our money’s worth.  The first thing we had to do was go to a train station and validate the card.  This sets the time limit of 72 hours in motion.  We then thought a boat cruise of the River Spree would be a pleasant change from walking.  Finding a boat at this stage of the afternoon was not easy but we approached a Reederei Riedel boat pulling into a jetty.  We were told it had started a two hour trip and had one and a half hours to go.  We were given a 4 euro discount on a fare of 15 euros which we were happy with as he said the Welcome Card didn’t apply on an abbreviated trip.  



We sat in the bow drinking beer and wine watching the combination of old and new, war ravaged and rebuilt slide past.  The bridges were so low we ducked, even though the boat’s flag pole was higher than us.  


We ended up in Charlottenburg which is quite a way from home.  The boat man said to catch a bus which we did, waving our Welcome Cards as we boarded.  At the Zoo we jumped off as we were heading out of our way.  We missed a train by five seconds so tried the buses again.  Apparently there is a train strike on although there are still trains running.  The buses were delayed and overcrowded because of the strike.  We tried a 200 bus heading for AlexanderStrasse.  More and more people crammed on board and it became very hot.  We were glad to get off and walk another 500 metres to home.  Hurray, the internet was on.  We showered and arrived for dinner at the Alto Restaurant and Bar in the same building as the Adina Apartments.

Did I tell you the whole building has an Australian theme?  Maybe Adina started in Australia?  Anyway John had chicken with bush tomatoes which he was most enthusiastic about.  It is asparagus month in Germany so a lot of dishes feature the white, sun deprived version of this vegetable.  I think I prefer the green but my veal schnitzel with white asparagus and baby potatoes was delicious.  To makes things even better our Welcome Card gave us a 25% discount.  I am determined to recoup our investment.

The weather forecast for tomorrow is not so good so if it rains I hope we can still do what we planned.


Guten Tag

Thursday, 7th May, 2015

As I sit in front of an English speaking TV set watching the results of the Election in Britain it appears the Conservatives are ahead but how the minor parties get any support  without preferential voting is beyond me.  The only problem with our Adina Apartment in Berlin is that the WiFi has gone down and won’t be fixed until tomorrow.  When it is working it is free in the foyer but not in our rooms.  That is the first time we have not had free internet.  It must be the Australian influence.

Everything went according to plan this morning.  The train to the airport was 10 euros each as opposed to 59 euros for a shuttle.  We used self check in where we were issued with a boarding pass and an ID strip for the bag.  The bag was automatically weighed after we scanned the ID strip.  Mine was up to 18 kg which is 2kg below the limit.  There were hardly any humans involved in the check in procedure, only a couple of people there to help anyone in trouble.

All flights should be as short as Paris to Berlin.  It took one and a half hours and allowed time for a juice and a biscuit, a quick read and we were down.  For 2.70 euros we caught a bus and then the metro to the nearest station to our hotel.  It was then about 500 metres to the Adina Apartments.  There appears to be a massive apartment block construction in  Krausenstrasse (our street).  There are six huge cranes and many workmen but fortunately it is quiet at night.  When we were allocated our room we were surprised to find we had been upgraded from a studio to a one bedroom apartment.  Even if it overlooked a construction site I wasn’t complaining.  It is very spacious, especially after our tiny room at the Mercure last night.  



We are about a hundred metres, on the Eastern side of where the wall used to be and not far from Checkpoint Charlie.


A short wander down the street unearthed a Super Markt.  Before tackling the shopping we had a late lunch at an Italian restaurant where we enjoyed delicious pasta.  I promise, no more food photos.

As we had been awake half the night waiting for the alarm to go off we had a sleep and then cooked a simple meal for the evening.  I tried to bake some frozen fish in the oven but there was no baking tray and it had a layer of grease and  oil on the bottom which started to smoke.  So far this is my only complaint about the apartment but I will let them know, that’s for sure.


Down Under Berlin Bear with Australian Aboriginal art design at Adina.


Our room is third floor with a small balcony facing the new construction.


Au Revoir Provence, Bonjour Paris

Here we are back in Paris.  This time we are on the Left Bank, in the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne.  We had an early start this morning with the alarm going off at 5.40 am.  We were awake, however, and showered by then.  Saying a fond farewell to the Baquis Apartment we wheeled our suitcases to the station.  As we had plenty of time to kill we had coffee and a croissant as well as buying food for the train.  There were no steps to descend to get to the platform so getting on the train was easy.  We were on the top level with a luggage rack opposite but the only downfall was that our seats faced backwards.  John moved to another seat until more people boarded at Toulon and he had to return.  The scenery was interesting and varied. The only problem was the train travelling at 300 km per hour.  By the time my video camera was ready to take, the scenery had long since passed.  The most exciting view was of the Pont du Gard basking in the sunshine, but it flew by very fast.  The weather changed from cloudy to sunny to cloudy, to pouring rain and to sunny again.  We basically crossed France in five hours.




Once at Gare de Lyon we lined up for a taxi which took us to the Mercure in Notre Dame.  The room is small but has everything we need.  Originally this was to be our last night.  Tomorrow we would have flown home to Australia.  Then we added on five nights in Berlin, so the plan is to catch a train from St Michel to Charles De Gaul Airport.  We bought the tickets this afternoon and worked out the best way to get to the station.  There are a number of entrances, including one with a lift but we decided to use the stairs as that entrance is much closer.  I decided as I get older my luggage will have to decrease in size.  I brought too many clothes this trip as there are some that I have barely worn.

We then took a long, long walk in search of a hotel we stayed in back in 2004.  We didn’t find it and John now thinks it may have been in the Marais.  As we were both parched we sat outside in a cafe/bar and drank wine and beer.  John has been relatively calm about the smokers but sitting outside comes with  the obligatory wafting smoke.  Sitting, watching passers by on the banks of the Seine is a pleasant way to pass the time.  There must have been a lot of rain recently as the a Seine was muddy and had flooded in several areas.  



On the way back we passed through a very touristy area full of eateries.  There were touts outside every door trying to entice us in.  Back in our room John looked out the window and saw a restaurant called Le Bistro du Perigord. I looked it up on trip advisor and it was 40 out of 3000 plus restaurants.  The reviews were good and it was a whole five minutes walk away.  It was wonderful.  Very French, with photographs covering the walls reminiscent of an earlier time ( the 70s).  The three course meal for 28 euros was perfect.  Escargot, duck for me and steak for John and yummy desserts with espresso coffee.  Another winner.