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Is Paris burning?

sunny 32 °C

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Posted by piepers 15:05 Archived in France Tagged paris eiffel tour le st notre dame marais rodin germain-des-pres Comments (0)

Amsterdam - a wonderful town

sunny 26 °C

You have to love the fast trains of Europe. They get you where you want to in a hurry, but smoothly, quietly, and with a gentle, lulling motion that always sends me into a daydreamy half-doze. Cologne was interesting to see, but after the cathedral climb and a solitary pilgrimage to the Shokalade Museum while M rested, I felt like I had seen enough. I slowly drank what was probably the richest, smoothest hot chocolate drink while I watched the huge container barges surging up and down the blue waters of the Rhine.

Departing from Cologne Hauptbahnhof at a reasonable hour - so glad I made train bookings so long ago that I could pick and choose departure times - we easily found the right platform for the ICE train which apart from its livery seemed identical to the fast trains of France and Holland.

By early afternoon we were sliding in to Centraal Station, Amsterdam, and the layout was much the same as on our last visit in 2006, enabling us to find our way quickly. Although I had hoped to stay in accommodation in an old canal house, it was not to be as all such options appeared to be booked out bar the more unsavoury looking hostels. I had chosen to book a room at the Casa 400 hotel, a metro ride south of the city, and close to Amstel Station. It was only when we reached it (thanks, passing lady who led us through the under-road passage to find the place) that I realised the 400 referred to how many rooms there are. An absolutely huge hotel, quite new, clean and well organised. We settled into a room on the seventh floor with a great view out over the houses and parks of the suburb of Amstel. The beds were half way between rigorous and spartan, so firm that it took a few sleeps to adjust for we softies.

We were getting desperate to wash some clothes, as the weather in Europe has been so hot and still that we seemed to be constantly damp with perspiration. I legged it up an extremely narrow staircase to a hostel reception desk to enquire as to where a laundry might be, and was informed that one could be found just a couple of hundred metres away. There, our smelly bag of dirty washing was taken in hand, and returned to us the following morning neatly folded and thoroughly cleaned. Everywhere in Amsterdam, apart from the grotty aspects of the innermost, narrow labyrinth of little streets and laneways, there is a sense of order and hygiene that helps you feel welcome and safe.

The trashy souvenir shops, the head shops selling everything from magic mushrooms to space cakes to individual seeds of cannabis varieties with names like Widow Maker at up to 9 euros each are still there, and plying a busy trade mainly to young folk from England, the States, France and Germany, who flock in to revel in the freedom of the city. The wonderful thing about the city is the patient acceptance most of the locals display to whatever it is that others want to look like, do, or hook up with. This was evident when I went in search of the Pieper Cafe that I had found on the internet. I looked up the address and it didn't look like too far. As we headed in the direction the street numbers indicated, we found we were getting closer and closer to a loud hubbub being made by a very large crowd. Turned out we were walking through the largest Gay Pride Parade ever held in Amsterdam, with floats filled with happy dancers including full uniformed police, soldiers, airmen and so on, all boogieing away to extremely loud dance music. Kylie Minogue is still big in this town. As soon as you passed by one float, another would come along down the canal with another colourfully arrayed group. Outfit of the day goes to two bearded gentlemen who looked about 40 years old, who were holding hands on the sidelines wearing matching pink plaid skirts, kind of Braveheart gone seriously astray.

Then, at the epicenter of all the action, we at last reached the Pieper Cafe. Miriam thought we wouldn't be able to get in the door among the press of the crowd, however I braved the doorway and found it not too crowded after all. This particular establishment has been in operation at this location since about 1685. It's not a Coffee Shop or that type of cafe. As a review posted on the net noted, "This is an institution devoted to the serious drinker." The low ceilings and ancient panelled walls, together with the gorgeous stained glass windows, give it a feel like an early Van Gogh painting; you expect a peasant mother to start peeling potatoes in front of you at any moment. But there is not much pretension here: the beer is served in clear plastic glasses stating in plain text on the side "Pieper Cafe". Mr Pieper, the proprietor, was grey-haired and looked exhausted from the swirling crowds that were milling around the cafe, getting denser by the moment. I decided it was not an opportune time to have a chat with my namesake, even though Miriam noted that the two young men serving at the bar had the family dimples. A little more research showed that the Pieper name is not only found in Germany but in northern Holland too, and can generally be an occupation based surname linked to military service playing the pipes, or a pepper merchant. I went back the next day but the cafe was closed, as it was Monday. Then I found there was yet another Piepers Cafe in Amsterdam, with more of a young person's marketing spiel, all dance and play oriented. Didn't get to see that one, but have 'friended' it on Facebook just for a lark.

After a couple of days rediscovering the historic center, we decided to visit Anne Frank house, a place we both wanted to see on our last European adventure but had not due to time constraints. Coincidentally, it is in the same street, Prinsengracht, as the old style drinking place Pieper Cafe about a kilometre away on the other side of the road. Anne Frank house is a totally moving experience, giving the visitor the opportunity to enter and walk through the actual rooms where the family and their few companions hid for more than two years before being ratted on by an unknown person. Apart from Mr Frank, no other family members survived their subsequent incarceration in the Nazi death camps. It's distressing to see how the young Anne did her best to decorate the walls of the tiny room she had to share with a grumpy older man, thanks to her father obtaining a pot of glue and a brush, enabling her to stick her collection of postcards and magazine pictures of movie stars on the walls. For me the most heart wrenching point is after you have left the last of the tiny rooms in the annexe. You come to an enlargement of Otto Frank, the father, taken in 1960; he stands alone in a photograph taken in the house from which the Nazis dragged his family away, with an expression of pain so deep and irresolvable, a man who has lost everything of value in his life. Outside, as if to slap down the 'ideals' of Nazism, the queue gets longer, as people from all races wait patiently together to spend an hour or so pondering the horror of the war, Americans, Italians, Chinese, Africans, West Indians, Japanese, all respectful and humbled by being here.

On following days we found our appetite for the 'cultural sites' waning. I didn't have enough emotional energy to go back to the Van Gogh museum that affected me so much last time we were here. Instead, we simply began to relax into the Amsterdam lifestyle, wandering in Vondelpark and other public spaces, which despite often being very well patronised provide a respite from the busy streets. We began to explore the areas close to our hotel, which had a waterway close to it filled with water lilies in flower and lots of bird life, whose antics were fun to watch. Further afield we discovered that the parkland visible from our room had a large area devoted to what appeared to be garden lots with little sheds, some quite elaborate, where people would come, garden, relax, and then go home to presumably a more urban dwelling. The gardens around these were absolutely beautiful, again complemented by little canals right around the area. Beyond these harmonious gardens, tied together with consistent border plantings so nothing clashed, there were broader park lands where families enjoyed the sunshine and the fresh air.

Just to counter that, I was leading Miriam on a walk in the city to photograph the Oude Kerk (Old Church) dating back to the 1500's, and as we walked around it found ourselves passing by a series of windows in which a range of semi-clad ladies were trying to attract the patronage of passers-by. We had by accident found our way to the street known as The Wall. This was all so much like a John Irving novel that Miriam was intrigued by the scene and it was just about the highlight of the Amsterdam visit for her.

By now we had found how to live well on not so much income, eating delicious muesli out of plastic cups with plastic cutlery gleaned from the railway equivalent of 7-11 shops, and were finding it a pretty economical city compared to Berlin and Cologne. We decided that we might even call back here on our way to the UK. We shall see... All in all, we again found the people of the Netherlands welcoming, positive, and good to be around. It's a wonderful city now, not just for its rich history.

Posted by piepers 09:54 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

The Cathedral of Cologne

sunny 28 °C

We stirred ourselves into action bright and early the next day, and left the close, humid atmosphere of the Cologne Hilton behind. With its narrow, curtain-strangled window brilliantly designed to halt the progress of any breeze into the room, and an air non-conditioner wheezing warmish air only, our room provided a fitful sleep that left us blinking in the bright German sunshine.

It's always fun to see how McDonalds manifests in different lands. In Cologne, it seemed the majority of staff were middle-aged men with significant weight issues. Like, work here for twenty years and you too can look like this. But, in McDonalds Cologne you can buy a vegie burger that is actually not bad at all. Hope they bring them to the land down under. In any case, Maccas is always a good source for a coffee and a few spare napkins and plastic spoons to help survive the hotel room wilderness. Anyway, on to the cathedral, passing the ancient Roman gate to the city, offering a pagan balance to the domination of the church.

Doesn't matter where you are in Cologne central. The cathedral is there with you.
It looms over you, over everything in sight, and if it is out to impress with it stature, its lofty ambition, its vertical powerdrive towards the heavens - well, it does. I've seen the mighty spire of Salisbury, and the noble grace of Notre Dame, but Cologne is a work by man in search of god that is almost godlike in its achievement.

Inside, midday prayers are about to start, and the tourist throng clusters inside the entrance, quietly working their i-phones, Nikons , Samsungs, a Canon or two as well, all creating their own tiny electronic icons of the cathedral's image to take away with them.
The soaring gothic arches stood on tall yet relatively slender supports compared to the massive weight they must bear. The curvature of the ceiling so far distant above ,like looking at the curvature of earth from space.

Outside, the human statues give over their space to the reggae buskers, while a group of Russian singers reel off a spirited performance. No holy relics available today, but plenty of mediocre talents offering their CDs for sale. A small group of punkish folk gather on one corner of the cathedral forecourt to drink and break the occasional bottle with the sound of splintering glass cutting through the hubbub of the crowds.

I decide to climb the spire, while M prefers to observe the people in the cathedral square.

To reach the beginning of the climb, you go down some steps and through a rounded passageway cut through the foundations of the cathedral. These are about seven metres thick, and comprise a tough amalgam of older Roman recycled building rubble combined with chunks of what looks to be basalt, all glued together with mortar. For a few euros I join the ascendants as the climb begins. In total, 553 or so steps ( I confess I lost count when I became puffed out at about 290!) take you up a tightly winding spiral staircase at first, reaching the belfry where four huge bells hang, each as big as a delivery van. Large electric motors are attached that perform the striking action. At fifteen minutes past the hour, just one of the bells was rung a couple of times, with an astounding pure ding that surely dislodged a little earwax.

The path of the ascendant winds right around the belfry and continues upward through another staircase until reaching the ultimate viewing spot at about 97 metres above the ground. The wind howls through the gaps in the masonry and the many narrow gothic windows. Looking out, the view extends out over the whole of Cologne, and the sprawl of a modern city with its industries, bridges and roads reaches out to the horizon in all directions. And from here you still look upward to the heavens, as the narrowing spire meets at the point immediately above you. A majestic, wondrous construction, the work of some 650 or years of many generations. And so still. Unlike being in a modern skyscraper, that flexes slightly in the wind. this thing just sits, immovable, a still point immune to the cacaphony of the hustlers in the square below.

Posted by piepers 13:18 Archived in Germany Tagged cathedral cologne Comments (0)

Auf Weidersehn, Berlin

sunny 30 °C


Time to unpack and repack the suitcases until everything fits again and hit the road. After a whole week in Berlin we were beginning to become acclimatised. As my mother would have said if she were still living, it started bringing out the German in me. This familiarity did not extend to moving with grace around the metro system, which comprises seemingly endless trains that rush into the stations every couple of minutes, but involve changing to different lines frequently, with many MC Escher style stairways and escalators to turn you every which way until you are likely to take the wrong train and wind up somewhere quite unexpected.

Taxis are made for such times. Hailing one, we were soon safely at the Hauptbahnhof, the main Berlin station, where the fast trains to get the hell out in a hurry come and go. Imagine Southern Cross station enlarged and spread vertically over about four levels, with a roof that doesn't leak, and you will have some idea. We killed a few minutes looking at a huge, shiny sculpture of an iron horse that conveyed well the relentless power of the locomotive. Soon, and dead on the appointed time, our fast train to Cologne slid into the station.

The train gradually picked up speed as we gazed at the grandeur of Berlin for perhaps the last time. We felt that it was a place we could be comfortable, the people charming and friendly, and if there were more time to absorb it, a wealth of fine museums and architecture worthy of a closer look.

Out into the rural areas, the land surprisingly flat, stretching out to the horizon with many windmills cranking out electricity in a gentle breeze.
The route of the train took us first north-west to Hamburg, passing through Westphalia, where my great great great grandmother was born, her father a shipowner in Hamburg. On a passing glance at 250 kilometers per hour, it seemed like a pretty good place to leave for more undulating pastures. Then the train turned south- west, and headed towards Cologne.

The train rolls into Cologne and the very first thing you see is a large 4711 eau de Cologne neon sign mounted high up at one end of the station. Even before you leave the station, the looming presence of Cologne cathedral leans down on you, facing the station directly, ready to receive an endless stream of pilgrims, devotees, and tourists with cameras. Taking a walk down to the Rhine, dodging pedicabs and cyclists and human statues, it quickly became apparent that Cologne is basically a two industry place. You're either in the church business or on the eau de Cologne. I especially liked the mannequin in the scent shop window that was entirely covered in the 4711 logo, like the gold painted model in Goldfinger. But man cannot live on 4711 alone: we needed tea bags, milk, and drinkable water. After running the gauntlet of Rhine-fronting restaurants and scrambling over tram tracks and construction works, Miriam overheard a tip on where the elusive supermarket was to be found, and at last we could retire to our hotel room and rest. The Cathedral was agreed to be top of the list for checking out in the morning.

Posted by piepers 13:41 Archived in Germany Tagged cologne Comments (0)

Notes from Berlin (Wannsee and Pfaueninsel)

sunny 28 °C

Tuesday, having had our fill of the historic smorgasbord of central and west Berlin, I took note of our genial Pension host, Christian, when he suggested we might like to head back in the same direction as Potsdam, but not quite so far. So, armed with our 6.8 euro public transport tickets for the day, we again combined a bus and train trip, with another bus trip at the far end, reaching the waterside town of Wannsee.
Here the bus left us at a landing where various boats plied in all directions on a picturesque waterway.

3 euros to the ferryman and we were conveyed across a narrow splash of water to Pfaueninsel, or Peacock Island.

This little gem comprises about ninety hectares of cultivated as well as original landscapes, and was a playground for one of the Frederick's who kept a mistress here. There's a fairy-tale confection of a 'castle', built from long oak planks painted to resemble stone. Inside, the decor remains impressive, with fine parquetry floors. Not open today, but why worry when at every turn of the winding paths a new intriguing building appears, follies built to resemble crumbling Roman ruins, temples to dead lovers, a thatched dairy with the original cow stalls intact, but protected from lightning by an impressive hookup of cables running a half metre above the roof.

Meadows dotted with cows pass by as we wander further, rose gardens, untidy with the drooping heads of roses casting their last scented breath to the late afternoon air. We have completed almost the whole circuit of the island, and have met the resident peacocks who strut around as insolently as the Nazi top brass who also made whoopee here on Peacock Island, which became a bit of an R & R spot for them.

A clearing in the middle of the island held a food van where one young man worked hard to keep the bratwurst turning on the grill while juggling coffees with the other hand. I sampled a boulette, a type of fast food based on an old Hugenot recipe brought to Germany by religious refugees centuries ago. It's a kind of patty with some minced meat, some onion, and lots of some kind of cereal binder, served in a bread roll with access to an army-sized ketchup pump. Not bad, not bad at all.

After a very pleasant final day of exploring the capital and its beautiful green swards, we returned to Hotel Pension-Bregenz to pack our gear for our journey to Cologne tomorrow.

Posted by piepers 13:38 Archived in Germany Tagged berlin pfaueninsel wannsee Comments (0)

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