A Travellerspoint blog

August 2013

Istanbul

Photos of Turkey

“I-stan-bul … Con-stan-tin-ople! I-stan-bul … Con-stan-tin-ople!” The city of two names, two continents, two millennia of history and perhaps the best tune ever recorded was my last destination in the Muslim world (although I suppose Pauline Hanson would contend that I will find Australian suburbia to be alarmingly different when I return home). Not that the religious identity of Istanbul is entirely apparent. The culture and fashion of the city is Western to the core and only smatterings of women wear the chorda or other forms of conservative attire. Istanbul’s appearance is distinctly Southern European, except mosques instead of churches dominate the skyline. Despite a population of over fifteen million people and the consequent crowds in its central areas, the busyness in Istanbul is relatively “ordered” (in contrast to Cairo); which surely indicates that the city is developed. “Constantinople” reflects this inherent European character and is thus the more appropriate name for this sprawling metropolis. “Istanbul” conveys falsely that the city is an exotic destination with a Middle Eastern atmosphere, located at the juncture of where the East meets the West. Whoever advertises the city to tourists stubbornly refuses to recognise that the latter point is obsolete, as Jerusalem holds that coveted status (with Istanbul now firmly in the West). Nevertheless, Istanbul boasts remarkable architecture, history and culture, which makes it undoubtedly one of the most fascinating cities… in Europe.

The people of Istanbul reputedly claim that their city is the “greatest in the world”. This egotistical assertion is perhaps justifiable considering it was arguably the most important city in the Europe-Near East region for over a thousand years. Constantinople was founded in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine to serve as the new capital of the Roman Empire (the “New Rome”). As the empire collapsed and classical knowledge disappeared in the West, Constantinople remained the centre of the surviving East Roman (Byzantine) Empire. The Byzantine Empire was the most powerful state in Europe until the rise of the Carolingian dynasty in France the ninth century. Even then, Constantinople continued to be the economic and cultural centre of Europe until the late Middle Ages. The Conquest of 1453 by the Ottoman Turks finally destroyed the last vestiges of the Roman Empire (nearly a thousand years after the fall of Rome). However, this outcome did not deplete Constantinople’s significance as it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the strongest imperial entity in Europe until the seventeenth century. The city’s status deteriorated as the empire fragmented and eventually collapsed. With the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the capital was relocated to Ankara away from the perceived imperial decadence of Istanbul. Nevertheless, Istanbul is still the largest city and economic capital of Turkey.

Istanbul is renowned for its idiosyncratic geographical anomaly of straddling two continents (perhaps the same people that advertise the city to tourists invented the fictitious concept of Europe and Asia being separate continents). However, the constituent areas of interest are situated on the European side, so I did not bother to cross the Bosphorus and visit Asia (especially since I had just spent two weeks in Anatolia anyway). Istanbul’s historic zone in Europe is separated by the Golden Horde, which is a body of water that protrudes perpendicularly from the Bosphorus into the continent for several kilometres. South of the mouth of Golden Horde is the Sultanahmet district, where the imperial palaces and old city walls were situated during both Byzantine and Ottoman eras. On the opposite banks of the Golden Horde is another historical neighbourhood, Galata. Up the slopes behind Galata is the cosmopolitan centre of modern Istanbul and Taksim Square. The inexpensive ferry cruises along the Bosphorus are an outstanding way to appreciate the layout and especially the scale of Istanbul. The scenery away from the central areas was rather similar to Sydney Harbour, with green suburbs full of luxurious mansions.

Vestiges of Rome’s imperial history are found throughout the Italian capital, so I anticipated similar circumstances in Istanbul. I was surprised to discover relatively few remnants of the Byzantine epoch, although two outstanding structures survive that testify to the advancement of Byzantine engineering. The Hagia Sophia was constructed in the sixth century and was considered to be the greatest church in Christendom until the Conquest in 1453, when it was converted into a mosque. Ataturk aptly decided to secularise the complex and transformed it into a museum in the 1930s. Despite its initial purpose as the centrepiece church of Eastern Orthodoxy, the building externally has the appearance of a (aesthetically unrefined) mosque, partly because of the minarets but also because the dome looks vaguely similar to the domes of Ottoman mosques. Within the Hagia Sophia, levels are structurally supported by classical columns and the walls are covered in exquisite golden mosaics. The remarkable dome appears to be ethereally floating above the cavernous space of the interior. It was the last major dome constructed in Europe for nearly 900 years. The Basilica Cistern was another glorious edifice from the Byzantine era. The Cistern is a peaceful oasis located below the busy Sultanahmet streets. The above surface is supported by over three hundred symmetrically arranged columns and some of them consist of decorative motifs including depictions of medusa. When I visited, there was clear water at two feet in depth above paved ground and bizarrely massive carp also.

The Ottoman heritage of Istanbul is more prominent, especially in the Sultanahmet district. I visited the imperial residence of the Ottoman dynasty, Topkapi Palace, which occupies a point overlooking the Golden Horde, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmaris. The complex consists of several grandiose courtyards and terraces with views of the surrounding waters. The palace exhibits the quintessential Ottoman architectural motif, with buildings and arcades featuring a series of shallow (geometrically inaccurate) domes. The harem is the palace’s signature area, where the sultans’ wives and concubines lived, schemed, bitched, murdered and generally conspired to deteriorate the Empire’s strength. The walls of the halls are opulently decorated and completely covered with Iznik tiles that are usually blue and white. The Grand Bazaar was established by the revered sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century as a covered marketplace where commerce could be conducted without weather interferences. The layout is surprisingly easy to navigate and the complex actually feels more like a modern shopping mall than a Middle Eastern bazaar. Throughout the Sultanahmet district are medersas, cemeteries (with attached teahouses) and fortifications that allude to the Ottoman era.

The plethora of beautiful mosques throughout the city is the most appealing aspect of Istanbul. The waterfront along the Golden Horde provides an intoxicating view of the hills of Sultanahmet that are dotted with serene mosques. Since Istanbul was not conquered by Muslim rulers until 1453, the city’s mosques are relatively new. Consequently, the architecture of Ottoman mosques in Istanbul contrasts substantially with the mosques I visited in the Arab world. I visited the Blue Mosque, the Suliyemaniye Mosque, the Yeni Mosque and several others, though since they were quite similar I will clump discussion about them together. Mosques in North Africa generally consist of a strict rectangular layout that is dominated by a courtyard preceding the prayer hall. While the rectangular configuration is maintained in Ottoman designs, the prayer halls are instead located at the centre of the complex; which thus reduces the size and significance of the constituent courtyard. Ottoman mosques feature identical and slender minarets in each corner of the complex, whereas in North Africa the mosques often have one monolithic minaret or a variety of styles. The prayer halls are monumentalised externally (prayer halls in the Arab world are quite austere externally) and usually feature one huge dome and several smaller domes. The colossal dome at the centre of an Ottoman mosque creates a vast space inside. The interior surfaces are covered in blue and white tiles, the floors are carpeted and ornate lanterns light already bright spaces. Inside an Ottoman mosque, the ground is of uniform height and the design is not intended to glorify a particular area, like an altar is in a Christian church. The space thus conveys equality between worshippers and those that lead the prayer. The prayer halls of mosques were relaxing places to rest, contemplate and observe.

The central and cosmopolitan areas of modern Istanbul are located on the northern side of the Golden Horde. The Galata district is immediately opposite Sultanahmet and it has a distinctly Southern European appearance and aura. Colourful and partly dilapidated apartment buildings lead up to the iconic Galata tower; a medieval structure located on the highpoint in the area. The main thoroughfare in Istanbul, Istiklal Avenue, begins near Galata Tower and winds along the ridge of Beyoglu district to Taksim Square. The pedestrianized road is permanently packed with Turks and tourists and trendy restaurant and bar areas sprout from Istiklal Avenue. I stayed in Beyoglu for two nights and thought this was the liveliest and most interesting district in Istanbul (Sultanahmet is a soulless tourist zone).

I completed the Australian pilgrimage to the Gallipoli Peninsula on an expensive day-tour from Istanbul (I decided it was morally unacceptable to worry about the cost), which is approximately five hours away. It was necessary to have a tour guide explaining the stories of each battlefield and area of interest; otherwise it would be very difficult to appreciate the significance of each site. We visited “Brighton Beach”, which was the intended landing destination for the ANZACs and is now an idyllic holiday destination in modern Turkey. The beach is strewn with bunkers that were built during World War Two in case of an attack (Turkey was a neutral nation for most of the war). The landscape further up the coast was exactly as I expected: peeble beaches, turquoise water, rocky hills and relatively arid land except for the pine cover. We stopped at many Australian, Kiwi and Turkish cemeteries and it was harrowing to see long repetitive rows of the same gravestone typology. We visited ANZAC cove and the surprisingly small and unassuming area where the dawn service is conducted (just a lawn paddock beside the coast).

Istanbul was hardly an explosive gastronomic destination. After a brief interlude in the South East of Turkey, I returned to a city of mediocre Turkish restaurants. Fortunately though, Istanbul boasts a vibrant street-food scene which is how I obtained most of my sustenance. I enjoyed the flaky and oily tubular filo pastries known as boreks (different to the boreks available at the Vic Market) which are filled with sheep’s cheese. Underneath Galata Bridge and along the Galata waterfront are dozens of seafood restaurants and small grill eateries. I visited the area on multiple occasions and had a flavoursome mackerel sandwich (ubiquitously popular) and a plate of fried sardines and watercress. I sampled the delicious spicy lentil soup known as Chorba, which is found on menus throughout the country. I ate a fantastic pastry that was similar to churros and soaked in honey with pistachio shavings. One of Istanbul’s highlights is to wander through the chaotic and colourful Spice Market, located near Galata Bridge. The market is brimming with various incarnations of Turkish delight, many of which feature nuts, nougat or fruit within. I indulged in these charming delicacies many times.

Since most of the metropolitan area straddles the European continent, Istanbul is eligible for “Liam’s favourite cities in Europe” ranking system. Istanbul boasts some outstanding architectural wonders and magnificent coastal views courtesy of its unique geography. The beautiful Ottoman mosques are the city’s best attribute and distinguish Istanbul from other European cities. Istanbul is consequently deserving of a high ranking. However, the city does not compare visually to Paris or Florence, the monuments are less abundant than in Rome, the culture is not as electric as Barcelona, its remarkable history is poorly portrayed (unlike Berlin) and it cannot compete overall with London.

1. Rome
2. Paris
3. London
4. Barcelona
5. Florence
6. Berlin
7. Istanbul
8. Munich
9. Porto
10. Amsterdam
11. Prague
12. Venice
13. Vienna
14. Lisbon
15. Copenhagen
16. Turin
17. Granada
18. Seville
19. Lyon
20. Madrid
21. Naples
22. Brussels
23. Palermo

Coincidentally, my visit to Istanbul transpired three weeks prior to the 125th IOC session where the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be determined. Many of you will be aware that I am manically obsessed with all things Olympic, including the bidding processes to stage the Games. Circumstances this year have obviously precluded me from following the race as intensely as usual, but I am still interested in the outcome especially since I have now visited each of the candidate cities (Tokyo, Madrid and Istanbul). Tokyo is my preference to host, but my fundamental hope is simply for Madrid to be unsuccessful. I think Madrid is the least appealing major city in Western Europe and it would be an abhorrent decision by the IOC to return the Games to a relatively insignificant country with only six editions since their first. Istanbul represents an exciting new frontier for the Olympic movement as it would potentially be the first Muslim-majority city to host an Olympics. Istanbul is certainly capable of staging the Games and is a worthy candidate as one of the world’s greatest cities. However, the economic disparity and repression of the Kurdish community in the South-East of Turkey compels me not to support the Istanbul 2020 campaign. Tokyo is the biggest city on the planet with over 35 million residents, yet the insatiable technological advancement of the Japanese capital has established the megalopolis as a highly efficient and ordered urban environment free of chaotic crowds. It’s a phenomenal place to experience, a city of cities, and after a sufficient gap of 56 years since the previous Tokyo Olympics, it is an appropriate destination for the 2020 Games. Tokyo is also compatible with Australian television audiences.
So with September upon us (happy birthday Liam),

Go Tokyo!

Go Rudd!

And GO HAWKS!!!!!

Liam

Photos of Turkey

Posted by Liamps 14:08 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

South-East Turkey

Turkey photos

For some reason I wasn’t able to “click” with Turkey during my first ten days in the country. Sure, the natural attractions I visited in the western parts of the country were phenomenal to see (Mediterranean coast, Pamukkale, Cappadocia), but I was not intrigued by the culture of the towns. I travelled to Turkey eagerly expecting to return to a Middle Eastern society, but disappointingly stayed in European-like towns tailored specifically for tourists. This dramatically changed when I travelled to the South-East. Cappadocia is roughly located in the centre of Anatolia, but it is the extreme Eastern frontier of the mass tourist zone. By crossing this boundary and entering the South-East of Turkey, the foreigner drops the stymied classification of “tourist” and becomes a genuine “traveller”. Not because the foreigner recklessly ignores the warnings (about safety and interest) Turks make about the South-East, but because the foreigner has the fortitude to recognise the fictitious nature of governmental propaganda about the region. The “traveller” discovers a region rich in history, beautiful architecture, excellent food and friendly and curious people. The Turks are notoriously a racist bunch and stigmatize (and repress) the Kurds and Arabs. The Kurds and Arabs are the constituent ethnic groups that populate the South-East, which is thus why this region is so scorned. I’m eternally pleased to have ignored “why would you want to go there?” exclamations by Turks as thoroughly enjoyed this tourist free and distinctly Middle-Eastern region.

The ancient and religiously significant city of Sanliurfa was my first destination in South-East Turkey. The biblical name of Urfa was adjusted in the 1980s to mean “glorious Urfa”. When I mentioned I was visiting the city, several Turks in the west of the country commented to me, “Urfa… hmmm… there’s not much to see there”. Evidently they had never visited Urfa or were too prejudicial to appreciate its glory. The Old Town of Urfa is quintessentially Middle Eastern, with narrow and winding streets, old and crumbling buildings and small mosques dotted through the urban fabric. The bazaars of Urfa are sprawling, chaotic and brimming with products for the locals (instead of tourist trash like in Marrakech or Tunis, which is more fascinating for the “traveller”). At the centre of the city is a beautiful park surrounded by splendid mosques built centuries before the Ottoman era (and are thus architecturally distinct to mosques typically found in the west of the country). The park’s constituent attraction is the Pool of the Sacred Fish, where Muslims feed the supposedly holy fish for good-luck. Muslims believe that Abraham (born in Urfa (apparently)) was thrown into the fire by Nimrod there. The ruin of a citadel built during antiquity is located on a peak that overlooks the park and provides sweeping views of the city. I stayed at a brilliant hostel which occupied a historic building with a courtyard, which was pleasant to escape to in the forty degree afternoons.

I joined a tour operated by the hostel to Mt Nemrut and the surrounding area. Our whimsical sixty-four year-old driver was reputedly a former wrestler (despite his current frailty) and repeatedly encouraged us to say “Thank-you driver! Thank-you driver!” World Heritage-listed Mt Nemrut is located in an isolated and mountainous area of Central Anatolia. Over two thousand years ago, a local king ordered the construction of immense statues depicting deities on eastern and western terraces of the mountain. The creation was influenced artistically by Greek and Persian civilisations. The statues’ heads have since been separated from their bodies but they nevertheless survive almost unblemished. The peak of Mt Nemrut is an artificially formed pile of rubble, where it is hypothesized members of the royal family are buried. The rubble was not be visually stimulating, but I was staggered by how the formation could be built two millennia ago in such a remote and inaccessible location. En route back to Urfa, we passed glorious mountainous scenery, river floodplains and (reconstructed) Roman bridges. We stopped at the Euphrates River to swim, but discovered that the water was icy cold despite the blistering conditions. Probably the most memorable incident of the day occurred when visited the massive infrastructure project of the Ataturk Dam. The know-it-all American archaeologist on the tour replied to my question of “When was this built?” (i.e. what decade?), with perhaps the stupidest serious answer that I have ever heard uttered: “by the Romans”.

Harran is supposedly one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, although there are innumerable towns in the Middle East that make such a claim. I visited Harran on a daytrip from Urfa with an uncle and nephew pair from Washington State, who were travelling around the globe in a westerly direction (without flights). I opted for politeness by refraining to point out that their description of “circumnavigating” the globe was incorrect, since they were not crossing the equator. We were amazed to pass areas of heavy irrigation on the road to Harran, considering the scorching hot and apparently arid climate. The kindly American uncle was quite enthusiastic to be visiting the biblical town of Harran because it was the birthplace of Abraham or Job or Rachel or someone or some story of that ilk. We saw the archaeological ruins of Harran that were situated on a mound overlooking the surrounding plains. I was most impressed by the colossal ruins of a seventh century mosque as the 33m tall minaret and monumental arched entrance still survive. Throughout (relatively) modern Harran are mud-brick buildings with beehive shaped roofs that were constructed in the last two hundred years.

Diyarbakir is the largest Kurdish city in Turkey and is thus also the centre of Kurdish political activism. Possibly due to its turbulent history and stigmatised reputation for petty crimes, few tourists visit this intriguing city. I travelled to Diyarbakir with a German couple (Julian and Rose) and a Norwegian (Martin) who were all bound for Iran. We found the central area of Diyarbakir to be substantially more developed and liberal than anticipated. The main boulevard is reminiscent architecturally of Europe, a vibrant café culture exists and few people wear conservative attire. The historical areas of Diyarbakir are notable for the structural usage of black basalt stone that give the city a unique and dark appearance. We explored the narrow alleys of the Old Town and discovered beautiful mosques and several historic Armenian Orthodox churches. The city was formerly home to a large Armenian population, from which the deputy mayor always came from. The horrific genocide of Armenians in Anatolia during World War One decimated the community and left the churches abandoned. In the past three decades however, the churches have been reoccupied and restored. The interiors are quite beguiling and different to typical Western churches, particularly because of the black basalt. We walked along the colossal basalt city walls and suddenly entered an area of evident poverty. The buildings were dilapidated or collapsing, there were piles of rubbish everywhere and it felt like a potentially unsavoury neighbourhood. This was rather harrowing to see considering its proximity to the aforementioned main street. The Kurdish people in Diyarbakir were incredibly friendly, eager to talk to us and were passionate about their Kurdish identity.

The quaint town of Mardin was unfortunately my last destination in the Middle East for the trip (I heard that ignorant sigh of relief Mum). The aesthetical Old Town straddles the slopes of a small mountain and overlooks the apparent endlessness of the Mesopotamian plains. The layout of Mardin is defined by the main thoroughfare, Cumhariyet Caddesi, which runs along the mountainside at a uniform height. Bazaars and residential areas spread either uphill or downhill from Cumhariyet Caddesi. Structures in Mardin are composed of light orange-coloured rock and consequently the town is visually contrasting to Diyarbakir. Mardin boasts a litany of beautiful old buildings including mosques, mansions and medersas; and there is no monumental architecture to dominate the harmonic scenery. A crumbling fortress occupies the peak above Mardin, but is currently within a military base. The inexplicable absence of cheap accommodation compelled Norwegian Martin (who I was still travelling with) and I to stay at a boutique hotel in a restored historic building, which boasted mesmerising panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes’ interminable flatness.

The food in South-East Turkey was sensational and shamed the mediocre fare available in the western parts of the country. As I toured around the region, I eagerly gorged on fresh fruits including figs, watermelons and honey melons. I also developed an obsession for sirmit, which are rings of crunchy bread (probably not the correct phrase) that are coated in sesame seeds. The outstanding guesthouse I stayed at in Sanliurfa expanded upon the typical Turkish breakfast of egg, tomato, cucumber, sheep cheese (like feta), olives and yoghurt by providing fried cheese scrolls (like spring rolls with feta)and a buttery egg and pepper dish that was served in a pan. The wretched fluffy white bread was conspicuously absent in favour of a type of flat bread baked during the day. Countless varieties of kebabs are ubiquitously available throughout Turkey, but I thought the quality, cost and size was substantially better in the South-East. In the bazaars of Sanliurfa, spicy mixtures of mincemeat, tomatoes and onions are cooked on vast hotplates and served in pita bread (known inventively as the Urfa kebab). I sampled chicken kebab (chicken skewers), spicy beef kebab (beef skewers) and “vegetarian” kebab (skewer of eggplant chunks and mincemeat) at the bustling tiny grill-houses of the Sanliurfa bazaar. Accompanying the meat and flat bread were plates of onion, grilled green peppers (usually mild but some were astronomically hot), parsley, mint, lemons and finely-chopped tomato salad with pomegranate molasses. The four of us in Diyarbakir ate at a fantastic secluded courtyard-restaurant, where our meals where they generously provided piles of complimentary sides. I had Adana kebabs, which are spicy mincemeat mixtures grilled on skewers, and a drink of Aryan that was superb because it was freshly churned. I had an amazing dish in Mardin that I have tragically forgotten the name and have limited idea of what it was. It was loosely similar to a Chinese dumpling, but with bread-like encasing and Middle-Eastern flavoured filling. I gleefully indulged in ultra-sweet Middle Eastern pastries, including exceptional pistachio baklava, kunafa and a walnut “thing”. Since juice is so cheap in Turkey and with the weather usually exceeding 35 degrees in the South-East, I was regularly drinking one litre cartons; pomegranate and apricot were my favourite flavours.

The South-East of Turkey satisfied my desire to sample Middle Eastern culture for one last occasion on this trip. The Turkish government and populace in the west of the country appear to have successfully engineered a fictitious portrayal of the South-East as a dangerous region that holds minimal interest for foreign tourists. While this unfortunately constrains economic development for the Kurdish and Arabic residents, it does mean that visitors enjoy a relative isolated and fascinating region undisturbed by mass tourism.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Turkey photos

Posted by Liamps 13:37 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Cappadocia

Photos of Turkey

There are few sights as extraordinary as Uluru, but the bizarre scenery of Cappadocia certainly deserves to be considered alongside it. Cappadocia is a region in central Anatolia (Asian Turkey) that is famed for the “fairy-chimney” rock formations that cover the landscape. I was unable to gauge exactly why they have been given that moniker, although I suppose it is appropriate terminology since they do look rather fanciful. The approach to Cappadocia is through a monotonous and austere landscape, so it was quite unbelievable to round a hill and suddenly be confronted with the sight of tens of thousands of these whimsical landmarks. The region consists of small mountains that provide spectacular panoramas of the setting and many valleys that are brimming with the fairy-chimneys. Many of the rock formations have had caves carved into them by settlers in the region across thousands of years. This further enhances the mystical appearance of the landscape as it looks like a naturalistic and empty city where elves or dwarves may have lived (reading The Hobbit at the time probably influenced that impression).

Goreme is where the tourists stay and despite the purpose of its existence, it is still a rather charming town. Goreme is located at the terminus of several valleys and is thus surrounded by cliffs with unusual shapes. Fairy-chimney rock formations are scattered throughout Goreme and many are used as residences or for business purposes. Sean notified me of a medical theory that suggests there could be a correlation between sleeping in these caves and obtaining a particular type of cancer (due to exposure of a substance in the rock). Interestingly, Sean said that when he stayed in one of the cave hotels nearly a decade ago (and years before this theory), he felt sickly and had an urgent feeling to leave. Fortunately, I was not inhibited by such qualms as I stayed in a detached building with a pool I lounged around regularly [often I write sentences that make me laugh but wonder whether other people are laughing too…]. Numerous tours and activities can be arranged from Goreme, but I was sufficiently satisfied to explore the surrounding countryside for four days as there are (dangerously) countless of paths ambling through the fascinating landscape.

The Goreme Open-Air Museum appears to be an unremarkable area filled with yet more fairy-chimneys. But hidden within at least a dozen of the chimneys are Byzantine churches. They were created as early as the second century by Christians escaping persecution; but I do not profess to know who the persecutors were because I can’t actually remember! I suspect the Romans would be the correct answer, but I don’t understand why they would be called “Byzantine” churches then. Anywho (is that not a word? I always thought of “anywho” as a slightly pompous alternative to “anyhow”, but Word is saying its not permitted), the exterior of the churches are not indicative of the internal usage as they appear to be regular fairy-chimneys with holes in the walls (as if that’s a regular image). However, inside several of the churches are vividly coloured frescoes that cover the walls and were created nearly nineteen hundred years ago. They exhibit astonishing detail and the survival of the colouring is incredible.

While the churches were awesome to see, it was the beguiling natural landscape of Cappadocia that I was most encapsulated by. The most impressive scenery I saw was from hiking to Uchisar and back through Pigeon Valley, which was my favourite experience in Cappadocia. At the back of Goreme town, I walked along a path which curved around the monolithic fairy chimneys and gradually ascended the valley slopes. The landscape seemed to be barren and dry, yet I passed sub-plots of agriculture growing fruit trees and grape vines. The path disappeared on the chalk white slopes, which forced me to scramble up a steep section to reach a wide ridge the main road runs along. This afforded unbelievable views of Goreme and the surrounding mountains. I followed the main road to the town of Uchisar, which features the characteristic “castle” hewn into the rock of the highest point in the area. At the summit I was able to compare the flat monotony of the landscape on one side with the tens of thousands of surreal rock formations on the other. The trail from Uchisar to Goreme through Pigeon Valley should take theoretically less than eighty minutes. However, the infinite of trails crisscrossing one another in the valley are supplemented only by one sign at each endpoint. Consequently, I was required to guess which paths to take and regularly found myself at precarious edges. Despite the difficulties, it was nice to hike through a secluded area so close to a major tourist town. Pigeon Valley is named for the thousands of pigeon holes carved into the fairy-chimneys. It is filled with these rock formations, huge trees and yellow grasses. After dwelling on scenes from 127 hours and realizing that walking through thick dry grass was not such a wonderful idea since there are probably snakes in Anatolia, I successfully made it back to Goreme.

I met Carmine from Adelaide on my third day in Cappadocia. We walked along the highway to the small town of Cavusin, where we found another castle hewn from the rock. My interest in exploring the tunnels and caves of the castle waned earlier than Carmine’s, so I went for tea at an empty café. After five minutes, I saw a squad of old men gradually creeping toward me on the road. They sat on the seats arranged to overlook the road (the neighbourhood watch) and we briefly conversed without a common language. They managed to understand that I’m from Australia, while I was able to decipher they were from the town we were sitting in. After these demonstrations of extreme intelligence, Carmine returned and continued on toward another open-air museum. En route, we accidentally entered a “secret garden” where the caretaker treated us to fresh lemonade for free. The open-air museum featured fairy-chimneys with old churches, a mosque, workshops and houses carved from them, but no elaborate frescoes.

Turkish bread and dip are integral components of Liam Stevens’ diet in Melbourne. Hopefully you can appreciate my abject horror then when I discovered that both are rather difficult to obtain in Turkey. In three weeks, I ate proper Turkish bread only once at an upmarket tourist restaurant in Goreme, where it was freshly baked and delicious. At restaurants, customers are unfortunately served massive baskets of cheap white bread. The bountiful lists of dips on menus at Turkish restaurants in Australia were conspicuously absent from menus in Turkey, with only the most boring option of cacik available (yoghurt with cucumber, lacks the zing of tzatziki). In Goreme, I sampled the Cappadocian specialty of stew cooked in a clay-pot. I concluded that the dish’s popularity must stem purely from the theatrical performance of cracking the pot to serve, because the stew itself was rather flavourless. I had an insipid chicken kebab which consisted of a stingy portion of meat, paper-like bread, few fillings and no sauce; which is evidently the standard composition in Turkey. Please withhold your sympathetic thoughts however because there were several culinary delights in Cappadocia. I had a delicious mezze plate of marinated eggplant, potato salad, cacik, beans and marinated sheep’s cheese. Another favourite was zucchini stuffed with rice and mincemeat, which was served with tomato sauce and yoghurt. The best dishes I ate though were in non-tourist bakeries in the small towns I hiked to from Goreme. On both occasions I enjoyed fantastic serves of pide. Pide is similar to very flat Turkish bread with topping (mine featured mincemeat, tomato, peppers and chilli) which is baked in a wood-fired oven and eaten with fresh parsley and lemon juice.

Cappadocia epitomized my increasing realization that there are Australians everywhere, everywhere and absolutely everywhere. Unfathomably, the majority (i.e. more than 50%) of tourists in Cappadocia seemed to be from Down Under; and yet this was during the European and North American holiday seasons. While this represented an abnormally large number, I have nevertheless found that the nationality encountered most frequently on the road has been Australian. There are more Australian travellers than American travellers, if we exclude destinations like Paris, Rome and Venice. More Australians than Canadians. More Australians than French. More than Germans, more than Brazilians, more than Kiwis (thank goodness). How is this possible? No hold on a moment, stop gawking on about how Australians are such wonderful travellers and exclaiming how amazing it is to find Australians everywhere and anywhere, and seriously ponder how this is possible. Pondered yet? No doubt if you have completed that exercise faithfully, you will have reached the conclusion that it is quite literally impossible for a nation of 23 million. Thus this can only mean there has been a massive government conspiracy, for whatever reason, and the population censuses have been factually falsified. Our population is perhaps closer to 100 million and Melbourne and Sydney probably have 40 million residents each rather than 4 million. I am aware that this does not correlate to the published proportion of Australians living in the nation’s only two cities of notoriety, but since foreigners (in developing countries) ALWAYS ask Australians “Melbourne or Sydney?”, surely that implies that all travellers they meet and thus a very large proportion of Australians come from Melbourne or Sydney. We never realise that the published census results are way off the mark because at least three-quarters of the population are overseas at any given moment. So now we know. Most readers of this blog live in the biggest city on the planet.

The landscapes of Cappadocia are incredibly unique and its difficult to comprehend that such rock formations could exist naturally. While I was writing this entry, I thought that it was rather futile to provide a worded description because you really need to peruse through the photo section (and comment admiringly about my photographic skills with a scratched camera lens) to understand the scenery. Cappadocia was an unforgettable area to visit and the definite highlight of Turkey.

That’s all for now,

Liam

I happened to read my first proper entry of the trip today (Cape Town) and was mortified by the language. I was also envious of how I managed to limit it to 1000 words.

Photos of Turkey

Posted by Liamps 13:24 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Turkish Mediterranean Coast

Turkey photos.

In the spirit of Mark Latham saying a repulsive comment for the umpteenth time (unfortunately travelling on the other side of the planet has failed to deter my attentiveness to the farcical circus that is an Australian federal election), I am making a pledge to bring my blog entries up-to-date for the umpteenth time. Consequently, I will attempt to write this entry in a jiffy; although we probably have differing interpretations about what duration constitutes the term “a jiffy”. Nevertheless, this goal will be achieved by adopting a strategy of uncomfortably short and direct sentences, without bombastic expositions of emotive and ultimately frivolous language. Ulm was the concluding destination of my third European sojourn this year. I flew from Stuttgart in Southern Germany to Antalya in Southern Turkey. Readers may or may not have hypothesised accurately that this initiated travel sequence Turkey. Antalya guidebook description conveyed boringness. Therefore, travel continued immediately after flight to Olympos. Arrival at 7:00am at “backpacker-haven”. Imperial visit lasted for two days. Journey continued along Mediterranean Coast to Fethiye [Lonely Planet asserts said coast among most beautiful on Earth. Justifiable claim]. Two nights. Yearning for cultural experience culminated in premature departure from region. Readers should withdraw their inevitable disapproval of this format and imagine if politicians spoke like this. Vote 1 Stevens in 2013: The leader who cuts the crap.

Olympos is a beach hamlet that exists purely for independent travellers. It is located in a valley off the main highway from Antalya, which establishes the charade of its isolationism. The unblemished landscape of the area consists of arid and rocky mountains that are draped in verdant pine trees (quit your judgemental commentary, I am aware that that could be interpreted as an oxymoron). The structural composition of Olympos is just a dirt road and dozens of essentially identical pensions. Each pension features a plethora of wooden bungalows and tree-houses that are inexpensive to sleep in, and shaded outdoor dining and chill-out areas at the front. Visitors must pay an entrance fee to access the beach (I was equally outraged Peter), although the four hundred metre route from the village to the beach does pass through Ancient Lycian ruins. Since Olympos is situated within a protected area, there are no large-scale developments and the beachfront is completely naturalistic. The pine-covered valleys terminate at the pebble-stone beach and the pristine blue water of the Mediterranean. There were no detectable currents in the water when I was there, which made it exceptionally easy to swim through. While the beach was usually quite crowded, I was able to escape the hordes by swimming around the rocky coves and exploring the secluded bays. Olympos occupied a beautiful setting and the seawater was very pleasant, but ultimately I was not in the mood to chillax so I needed to move on.

I caught a bus that traversed the winding road along the Mediterranean coast to Fethiye. The scenery of the coastal drive was phenomenal, with orange-hued mountains dramatically descending into the impossibly turquoise sea. After passing magnificent stretches of beaches for six hours, I was tremendously disappointed to discover their absence in Fethiye. The town at least boasted pleasant marinas and beautiful views over the expansive Fethiye Bay, though these were poor substitutions for an accessible beach since I had dreamt of swimming throughout the oppressively humid bus journey. Nevertheless, I opted not to collapse into despair and instead explored Fethiye. The town was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake during the twentieth century, so it understandably lacks architectural treasures. However, the ancient ruins on the slopes above Fethiye did survive, which creates a spectacular background to the modern town. The harbour is packed with wooden Turkish yachts and lined with numerous restaurants and bars. The constituent industry of Fethiye is tourism and there are an abundance of lamentable British package tourists, yet the charm of the area has not been extinguished.

There was a fantastic communal atmosphere at the small (and rather dingy) hostel I stayed at in Fethiye. On my first night, we celebrated Kiwi Julie’s birthday with chocolate gateaux and vodka, although I was obviously teetotaling. I met Australian Carmine from Adelaide there and his trip will be substantially longer than mine. He introduced me to backgammon which I had never actually played; but needless to say I immediately mastered the game. He also gave me The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared , which was the first book I have completed since VCE that was not from the epic series of A Song of Fire and Ice. As the title suggests, the book is about a centenarian’s escape from a retirement home and his mysterious disappearance. It also explores the extraordinary episodes throughout his life in which he randomly encountered virtually all the major political figures of the twentieth century despite being politically ambivalent himself. I have no desire to transform this blog into a book-review forum and I do not profess to be a literary expert, but I thought it was absolutely hilarious. So someone at home better read it now!

As you may have deduced, the town of Fethiye was not particularly (or at all) interesting so I was compelled to join an all-day cruise of Fethiye Bay with Carmine. The voyage was on one of the aforementioned Turkish wooden yachts and was an inexpensive and brilliant method to see part of this coastal area. The yacht sailed passed the jagged coves of the bay and moored at several islands, each for nearly an hour, where we were able to swim and jump from the boat. The mesmerising blue water was incredibly clear although there were scant few fish to see. It was a very enjoyable day, aside from encountering a wretched package tourist British woman who thought she and her husband were entitled to prime seats and mattresses on the deck. Fortunately there was a happy ending though, as a Korean girl spilt beer on one mattress, Carmine accidentally fell asleep on the other and a Latino woman sat directly beside her and started fagging away. All of which made her appear grievously irritated, which renewed my faith in karma.

Turkey has been among the most disappointing countries I have visited this year from a culinary perspective. Turkish restaurants in Melbourne produce substantially better cuisine than the fare available in Turkey, while the delicious doner kebabs ubiquitously found throughout Europe are sorely missed also. I found that quality dishes were still available at upmarket restaurants, but for Australian prices which are not exactly conducive to a backpacker’s budget. I was however tempted to attend one of these establishments and enjoyed one of the best dips I have ever tasted. It was a creamy eggplant dip that was smothered in slightly burnt butter; an ingenious addition. I also had Iskender kebab, which consists of doner kebab covered in tomato-based sauce, yoghurt and burnt butter and usually served on a sizzling plate. Dinner was included at the pension I stayed at in Olympos, but most of the dishes were fairly standard since it was a buffet. The highlights were roasted vegetables mixed with yoghurt and pilaf rice (the Turks certainly know how to cook delicious rice). On the boat cruise, I indulged in piles of Turkey’s wonderful variety of potato salad, which is flavoured with Middle Eastern spices and parsley instead of a wet sauce. I sampled the celebrated but ultimately overrated Turkish pancakes known as gozleme. Old women can be seen everywhere (in tourist areas) cooking these thin pancakes on large circular hotplates that they fill with white cheese and parsley. Aryan is the national drink in Turkey and consists of just yoghurt and water and the container variety is only palatable when eaten with spicy food.

Turkey’s Mediterranean coast is excessively beautiful and it was obviously fantastic to have the opportunity to swim in mid-thirties weather. But I was unable to “click” with the region and didn’t feel like I was experiencing an “exotic” culture. Perhaps I travelled through the region with unreasonable expectations that it would be similar to the Middle East and instead found it developed and quite European, with too many undesirable British package tourists.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Actually, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that there is more!

Between visiting the Turkish Mediterranean coast and the extraordinary landscapes of Cappadocia, I travelled to the inland site of Pamukkale, with its ethereal travertines and ancient ruins. While Pamukkale is undisputedly a phenomenal attraction to see, it does not qualify for an individual blog entry. It also has minimal correlation with the above topic and the next entry; which is why it is stuck in limbo with a description here.

The natural site of Pamukkale is located around four hours from the Mediterranean coast. It is famous for the remarkable white travertines that occupy the lower slope of a mountain. From the dusty tourist village, visitors ascend terraces of carbonate minerals without shoes. Spring water flows over the surfaces and forms exquisite flat pools of turquoise pool. The beguiling scenery almost looks Antarctic and aesthetically contradicts the barren Anatolian plains it overlooks. Above the travertines are the ruins of an ancient Roman town, Hierapolis, as the hot springs have been used as a spa since the second century BC. I visited another ancient Roman ancient city near Pamukkale, Aphrodisias. Aside from an exceptionally well-preserved stadium, it was rather disappointing. I cannot be bothered going (evidenced by the sacrileges usage of that abysmally plain word) into details about this topic so peruse the photos instead.

Turkey photos.

Posted by Liamps 12:42 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Ulm

Germany photos

“Ulm?! ... Umm…. What’s that?” was probably your response to the title; unless of course you’re German, in which case you may have questioned, “Ulm?! ... Umm…. Why would you go there?” Ulm is not one of Germany’s most celebrated tourist destinations and its admittedly less captivating than the alpha cities of the continent. So the simple reason why I stayed in Ulm longer than all but three cities in Europe was because of my opportunistic acceptance of free accommodation. Oh no, my lamentable penchant for publishing blunt statements has come to fruition and now ya’ll have assumed that I’m a selfish and discourteous skunk. Please postpone further judgement though because I was only dabbling with humour, however unsuccessful that may have been. Obviously seeing Liam McGuiness and his girlfriend Abbey was the constituent reason for my visitation, while the procurement of a bed without cost was merely a superfluous bonus. For those who may not be aware, Liam McG was the Best Man at Brother Sean and Amber’s wedding; the event best remembered for the performance of The Speech. For unexplainable reasons, the wedding seemed to have instigated Liam McG’s relocation to Southern Germany and he has worked for the University of Ulm ever since. A mysterious coincidence in late 2012 in Melbourne (which they wrongfully contended was more “psychic” than my enigma codes story- message me for details of the latter) preceded the initiation of Liam McG and Abbey’s relationship. Abbey bravely moved to Ulm this year and they now live in a brilliantly situated apartment in the Old Town. This was my base for five highly enjoyable days, off the conventional tourist trail.

Prior to my arrival in Ulm, Sean and I independently warned Liam McG that I was fashioning a new appearance; an unkempt version of Peter Stevens (I was informed that Sean immaturely used more colourful language to describe me. However, I wasn’t offended because I understand his jealousy: who wouldn’t prefer to look like a Wookie than ET?). Liam McG was unable to contain his shock or feign approval, while Abbey graciously hid her disgust. They seized upon my insinuations that the hair had become rather bothersome and by the end of the first day, Abbey had eliminated most of it. The following morning, the beard disappeared too. Within twelve hours, I regressed from a dominant male lion to a cub once more.

After the introductory formalities were concluded, Liam and Abbey provided a complimentary tour of their quaint home town. Ulm is a small city of 100,000 and is located on the Danube River in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in Southern Germany. Ulm seems to be a typical and relatively unassuming Central European town, with the exception of the gargantuan Gothic church at its epicentre. The Ulm Munster boasts the world’s tallest church steeple (fourth tallest pre-twentieth century structure), which completely diminishes the surrounding cityscape into insignificance. The Munster looks vaguely similar to the Empire State Building when viewed from the entrance side. The church can clearly be seen as you approach Ulm and it serves as a convenient reference point for the infinitesimal number of tourists that venture there. Surprisingly for such an inconspicuous town, I found the Ulm Munster to be one of the most impressive buildings I have seen this year and thoroughly enjoyed walking past it each day. The three of us ascended the 768 steps to the top of the steeple all for the first time (I thought it was a touch lazy that Liam had yet to even enter the church, after living within five minutes of it for nearly two years) and were rewarded with spectacular views of Ulm and the countryside. I completed the challenge rather casually in a new record time of 35.61 seconds, which Sean will endeavour unsuccessfully to beat when he visits Ulm in September (his level of competitiveness is rather unhealthy). To refresh ourselves after the exercise, we went swimming in the clean water of the beautiful Danube River. I remained flabbergasted that bathing in rivers through German cities is a normal occurrence and wondered whether such a possibility could ever transpire in Melbourne. In the evening, we went to a local brewery where I was introduced to the sensational German beverage concoction of beer mixed with banana nectar. I cannot articulate to you how remarkably delicious this was (the froth was like the froth of a banana smoothie). For dinner, I had a traditional Schwabian soup with ravioli (sensational) and meat loaf with peppercorns and spaetzle (equally sensational). Don’t fall off your chair just because I’ve unusually mentioned food before the penultimate paragraph.

While Liam McG and Abbey partook in the menial tasks that people often assume when living a normal existence, I was left to discover the idiosyncrasies of Ulm. The Old Town concentrically surrounds the Ulm Munster on the Baden-Wurttemberg side of the Danube River (scorned New Ulm occupies the Bavarian side, which is where Sean will be banished to). Most of the buildings are half-timbered structures that exhibit a variety of light colours juxtaposing the black or dark brown of the exposed timber. The roofs are generally made from terracotta, are high and slant steeply. A huge area of central Ulm has been pedestrianized which has helped to establish a lively atmosphere in the summertime. Munster Square is the heart of the city and features a farmer’s market on Wednesday morning, which is mentionable only for the fact that I bought an extraordinary paprika-wurst from there. The Fisherman’s Quarter is a picturesque district located beside the river where many couples have their wedding photos taken. The traditional half-timbered houses are wildly crooked and interspersed by canals of fast flowing water. The water is so clear that fish can easily be seen from the quaint bridges, which I thought was quite a beguiling sight since it is in a residential area.

Ulm is conveniently situated to facilitate intriguing daytrips to the countryside of Southern Germany. I caught the two hour train from Ulm to Oberstdorf and spent a pleasant day hiking in the Bavarian Alps. On the train, I was surprised to find that most passengers either brought mountain bikes or hiking gear with them. When we arrived in Obertsdorf, I was shocked to see that everyone in the town appeared to be ready for a big adventure in the great outdoors. I thought this was rather surreal because I had never encountered such an experience in Australia. Oberstdorf is a beautiful alpine village situated within a wide valley. The village consists of half-timbered houses that are large and crooked and feature thatched roofs and colourful flower boxes. I’ll limit architectural descriptions to that however, to prevent losing Sean Stevens’ attention (apparently unnecessary details are only acceptable if the discussions are medical-related). Since there were dozens of well-marked trails leading from the village into the mountains, I randomly selected one that ensured my return to Oberstdorf on the same day. I gradually ascended a gentle slope and hiked through a patchwork of coniferous forests and emerald green fields. I passed crystal-clear streams and waterfalls and indulged in the purity of the alpine water. Wildlife spotting was not overly inspiring, but I did at least notice several gigantic Seans I mean slugs with different forms and colourations to the varieties Down Under (see photos). The views of the countryside and snow-capped mountains in Switzerland were quite breathtaking. It was a refreshing day to escape the urban environment; the only disappointment was that my peach crumble crumbled in my backpack (fear not though, for I still eat obliterated food items. It was Sean who always sided with Mum in the heated family debates about whether a broken dried biscuit tastes worse than a whole one. I supported Peter’s pragmatic argument that it has no effect).

On another excursion from Ulm, I visited the vast freshwater body of Lake Constance that forms part of the border between Germany, Switzerland and Austria. I caught the train to the Bavarian town of Lindau, which occupies a small island in the lake. Lindau features an immaculately preserved Old Town, with cobblestone streets, colourful half-timbered houses and two opulent baroque churches. The small port is the most appealing area in Lindau and the entrance is characterised by a lighthouse on one side and a statue of the Bavarian lion on the other. The awe-inspiring Swiss Alps can be viewed across the deep blue waters of Lake Constance. I also visited the lakeside town of Friedrichshafen, though it was less attractive than Lindau. I swam in the pleasant water there but I was paranoid that my belongings would be stolen so I promptly departed.

While in Ulm, I may have exposed my unfortunate tendency to boast about my superhuman eating abilities. Consequently, Liam McG and Abbey were keen to test such assertions and perhaps humiliate me in the process. On my final night in Ulm, we went to a humble pub famed for its enormous schnitzel meals. The pub is frequented by locals that order the schnitzel meals with the intention of eating the unfinishable half for lunch the next day. Liam McG and Abbey yearned to see someone complete the standard schnitzel meal; but since this was a challenge, I was required to complete the “large” version. The pair smugly conveyed inherent doubts about my prospects as we awaited the schnitzel plates. Indeed, I was rather startled by the sinful quantity of food presented before me: a relatively thick schnitzel (for Central Europe) that spread across an abnormally large dinner plate with twin mountains of spaetzle and salad. While the pair continuously mocked my supposedly inevitable downfall, I instituted my “game-face” and systematically removed the content of my plate. First to go was the least tasty component of the meal, the salad; an old parmagiana eating rule. Then I rotated between hacking away at the schnitzel of identified meat and excavating the mountain of spaetzle. Liam McG and Abbey pathetically failed to complete their “standard” schnitzel meals and proceeded to bemoan ad nauseum about their fullness. This gradually subdued from their growing astonishment at my machine-like performance, although Liam McG commented that my consumption was making him queasy. Needless to say, I accomplished the challenge without any hesitations and downed three randlers along the way. Sean will naturally use the lame excuse of vegetarianism to swindle himself out of the challenge as he is obviously too weak to complete the meal (“Peter” is not in his name).

I had a wonderful time visiting the tourist-free city of Ulm and enjoyed sampling the German countryside. Liam McG and Abbey were brilliant hosts and I should thank them for tolerating my antics throughout my stay and this blog entry. Liam McG and Abbey kindly implied I was their new favourite Stevens, which was much appreciated. I deduced that they harbour no enthusiasm about Sean’s arrival in September.

That’s all for now,

Liam

P.S. No need to cry Sean, it was only a joke.

Germany photos

Posted by Liamps 14:50 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Munich

photos

I am becoming increasingly convinced that for the duration of the 26th and the 27th of June, I must have been completely blacked out and dreamt about a fantastical city that couldn’t possibly exist in the modern world. How could there seriously be a city where everyone everywhere at any time drinks beer? Hoe could a crystal-clear river suitable for swimming flow through a metropolis of two million people? How could the historical royal palace have columns and ornamentation merely painted onto the walls, as if it were graffiti? How could the tra ditional breakfast consist of just sausages and beer? Isn’t that what the Bavarians eat for lunch and dinner too? Oh, different sausages and different beers for each occasion... Nude sunbathing acceptable in public parks? Lederhosen worn by (supposedly) normal people? All the waitresses are middle-aged women? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, readers! I would never dare to be ageist, sexist or whatever else that observation may incorrectly imply. You have to admit, it is rather unique) Punnets of fresh raspberries sold in tourist zones for one euro? ONE EURO?! No, this bizarre concoction of nonsensical idiosyncrasies must have developed in dreamland. But for the purpose of this entry and my mental stability we shall assume that Munich does actually exist and that my experiences did actually eventuate, however unlikely.

Müncheners are an overtly patriotic bunch; though not for their German nationality but for their Bavarian heritage. Bavaria was established as a duchy in the sixth century and is one of the oldest existing states in Europe. It evolved to become a kingdom and among the largest and most influential regions within the German lands. The Kingdom of Bavaria was controversially incorporated into the German Empire in 1871, denying the region its independence. This promulated pride in a Bavarian identity, particularly because the historically Catholic state was dominated by the Protestant Prussians. Today in the capital of Munich, the blue and white colours of Bavaria are ubiquitously sighted on flags, restaurant décor, uniforms and other paraphernalia. Since this is an extremely contrasting experience to Berlin, travelling to Munich (from Vienna) did not feel like we were returning to Germany but were entering an entirely new country. Obviously to honour their heritage, the quintessential Bavarian custom of drinking beer is religiously practiced at any opportunity by the locals (and visitors).

The central area of Munich has the appearance of a quaint Old Town. However, the lamentable endeavours of the Nazi Party (founded in the city) unfortunately conspired against the survival of the Old Town as it was blown to smithereens by Americans and British bombers in the Second World War. Perhaps the solitary respectable policy initiated by the Nazis was the accumulation of photography of Munich to assist in the reconstruction of the city after the war (which they assumed to win). This evidence consequently allowed for minuscule details to be considered in the reconstruction. There was a cannon ball fired at a church by an Austrian army centuries ago that became lodged in the building’s side wall, but it fell off during the 1940s. After analysing the collected photographs, they were able to re-plant the cannon ball in the correct location after the war. One of the few buildings not to have been destroyed during the war was the Gothic Revival Neues Rathaus, because the bombers required a landmark to determine where the centre of Munich was.

Marienplatz is the centre of Munich and from there stems the city’s primary shopping boulevards and market district. These areas (in summer at least) are brimming with fruit stands selling cheap cherries, apricots, raspberries and strawberries. Munich Frauenkirsche is the city’s cathedral and was constructed five hundred years ago in red-brick late-Gothic architecture, although without elaborate ornamentation. The central area of Munich features numerous buildings with high sloping roofs and wooden and colourful façades; characteristic of this region. The Residenz of the Bavarian rulers was completely destroyed during the war and has been gradually rebuilt ever since. This is why (like many other buildings) the columns and ornamentation has temporarily been painted onto the walls as restoration continues. Some boulevards in Munich are dominated by Renaissance palazzos, bizarrely making the city appear oddly Italian in those areas. Munich is a wonderfully green city as deciduous trees with vast emerald canopies line every street.

The most appealing areas in Munich are the vast Englischer Garten and the nearby Isar River. The Englischer Garten is the largest municipal park in the world and consists of open fields, dense woods, small glades and numerous recreation facilities. Summer is a brilliant time to be in Munich as thousands of locals pour into the park to escape the blazing heat, which creates a brilliant atmosphere. The sunlight illuminates the thick growth of the park magnificently to form a perpetual scene of emerald green. The park is traversed by streams of ice cold water that are remarkably clear and refreshing to bath in. The Isar River is completely surrounded by colossal deciduous trees and vegetation. The water is so clear that the surface is visible in shallow areas from bridges ten metres high. Remarkably, the Isar is perfectly suitable for swimming and I joined numerous Müncheners in floating down the fast flowing river. It was very difficult to appreciate that this beautiful and naturalisti setting is within a major metropolitan area.

Time to cut the bibble-babble and focus on the solitary aspect that truly defines Munich: beer. The city’s identity and culture is almost unimaginably dependent on the amber liquid, which is ubiquitously present (without exaggeration) everywhere throughout the city. Nick and I joined another free-walking tour in Munich and we found that there was not a single story explained by the guide about the city’s heritage that beer was not a factor in. Bavarians are proud of a (now defunct) purity law established in 1516 that dictates beer can only consist of water, hops and barley. Beer is traditionally served in one litre steins, though 500 millilitre glasses has become nominally acceptable. While there are six major breweries in Munich including the internationally recognisable labels of Paulaner and Hofbrauhaus, Augustiner Brau is the most popular beer for local Müncheners. It is the oldest independent brewery in Munich, adheres to the purity law and does not forsake quality for increased production and therefore profit. Consequently, the beer has very limited distribution outside of Bavaria. If readers attest to know who I am, they should be aware that i have never been all that fanatical about beer; but I loved this particular product. There are countless breweries, beer halls, bars and beer gardens distributed throughout the city. In Germany, the fundamental requirement for an area to be considered a beer garden is the presence of specifically one variety of tree, chestnut trees. We visited the massive beer garden of Augutiner Keller at night, which appeared to be an endless sea of trestle tables among chestnut trees and was utterly packed with a cross-section of the community. We also visited the China Tower beer garden in the Englischer Gartens, which was a pleasant place to be stationed for an afternoon as we listened to cheerful Bavarian music. Intriguingly in Bavaria, it is perfectly acceptable for anyone (yes, even males) to drink shandies. The shockingness of that revelation develops further. To cater for the huge crowds at beer gardens, bartenders pour only two drinks into steins that customers retrieve from the benches and pay for at a separate counter. The two options, with equal status, are regular beers and shandies (known as radlers). Personally I found radlers to be exceptionally refreshing for a hot day, but too sweet to drink consistently. I thought it was a touch noteworthy that despite the unhuman quantities of alcohol consumed in Munich, reckless drunkards seem to be absent totally from public view throughout the city.

Despite investing so much energy into the consumption and adulation of beer, Bavarians have successfully achieved an immense aptitude for producing excellent food. To accompany the steins of beer gulped down by the masses, breweries and beer gardens serve hearty portions of fast comfort food. I had a fantastic serve of pork knuckle with potato dumpling, beer gravy and white cabbage coleslaw at the Augustiner brewery; and fried potatoes and onions at the China Tower beer garden. The tastiest but slightest portioned meal I ate in Munich was two delectable spicy pork sausages with an excellent tangy potato salad (finely chopped potato with creamy dressing). The traditional Münchener breakfast consists of white veal sausages (the city’s culinary icon), sweet mustard, pretzels and (specifically) wheat beer. Unfortunately the sausages are usually boiled, so i didn‘t particularly enjoy them and i found the intestine to be inedible. All other components were however quite delicious. That morning, we requested our (late middle-aged) waitress to bring us the English menus. She returned five minutes later without the menus and asked if we had (magically) received them yet. She expressed a glimmer of interest upon hearing that they were still absent from our presence, but then proceeded to attend to other business matters. I reacted by acquiring the service of a (youthful) waitress, who immediately presented us with the correct menus. I enjoyed the incredibly filling dessert of kaiserschmarrn while in Munich, which originated in Austria but is nevertheless popular in Bavaria. The dessert consists of a pieces of caramalized pancakes that are shredded in the frying process. The mountainous pile of pancake is dusted with sugar and served with apple sauce or a berry compote. The only disappointing aspect of the dish is the presence of raisons in the pancake mixture.

Although I only spent two days in the Munich, I definitely consider it to be among my favourite cities in Europe. Munich probably enjoyed an unfair advantage of my visitation coinciding with the height of summer, but what an incredible atmosphere there was in the city during this period. Munich lacks the monumental structures of other European cities, but I thought the central area was nevertheless highly aesthetical. I was in awe of the cleanliness of the Isar River and streams throughout the Englischer Gartens. These two areas, along with the beer gardens and general greenery of the city, encourage an outdoor and communal lifestyle during the summer. Munich is undoubtedly a city I hope to return to… in summer!

1. Rome
2. Paris
3. London
4. Barcelona
5. Florence
6. Munich
7. Berlin
8. Porto
9. Amsterdam
10. Prague
11. Venice
12. Vienna
13. Lisbon
14. Copenhagen
15. Turin
16. Granada
17. Seville
18. Lyon
19. Madrid
20. Naples
21. Brussels
22. Palermo

That’s all for now,

Liam

photos

Posted by Liamps 13:53 Archived in Germany Comments (4)

Vienna

Vienna photos

I am somewhat sympathetic to Vienna. Its significance on the international scene is now limited to its rivalry with Melbourne in the annual contest of determining the world’s most liveable city. The size of the metropolitan area is rather unremarkable, with only two million residents. While Vienna serves as a national capital, this is just of a piddly Central European nation that dumb American tourists often refer to mistakenly as “Australia” (they sell T-shirts on the main boulevard saying “there are no kangaroos in Austria”). It is therefore inconceivable to imagine that for five hundred years, Vienna rivalled London and Paris as one of the most powerful capitals in Europe. Only a century ago, Vienna was the fourth most populous city on the continent and had World War One not intervened, it could still be the centre of a vast multi-national Empire (although the collapse was probably inevitable).

Vienna’s former imperial status was entirely owed to the House of Hapsburg, arguably the most powerful family in European history. The family’s ancestral origin was a small canton in Switzerland, but numerous politically astute matrimonial arrangements gradually consolidated the Hapsburg’s dominion to include the Archduchy of Austria, the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Kingdom of Hungary. The zenith of Hapsburg power was in the early sixteenth century, when Charles V inherited the aforementioned lands, inherited the Netherlands, inherited Spain (from which he ruled) and her possessions in Italy and colonies in the Americas and was proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor (last monarch to be crowned by the Pope). After his abdication, the House broke into two branches governed from Madrid and Vienna; whence how the Austrian Empire was eventually established. Hapsburg power gradually waned in the ensuing centuries and unfortunately for Vienna, its status and glory completely shrivelled up with the Hapsburg downfall five weeks prior to Pappy’s birth.

While current Viennese influence might be as absent from the international community as the Sound of Music is to palatable tastes, the city’s prestigious past is abundantly evident in the structural grandiosity of the central area. The configuration of the Old town is rather unusual for a European capital because it is entirely located on one side of the city’s primary aquatic thoroughfare and because it is rigidly defined. The “Inner Stadt” is bounded by the Danube canal on its northern side and the Ringstrasse (ring road) which circulates around the remaining sections. The Ringstrasse is a monumental boulevard commissioned in the mid-nineteenth century by Emperor Franz Joseph to replace the obsolete fortification walls. Magnificent public buildings and opulent private mansions were subsequently constructed along the Ringstrasse which became an impressive demonstration of Hapsburg power. Similar to the Central Business District in Melbourne, the Ringstrasse excellently exhibits the diversity of nineteenth-century architecture. There is the Greek-Revival Austrian Parliament building, which is evocative of Ancient Athenian democracy and imposing horizontality. Nearby is the contrasting design of the Rathaus (city hall) with its secular neo-Gothic design, tall towers and therefore emphasis on verticality. Vienna’s beautiful State Opera House, with neo-Renaissance design, also borders the Ringstrasse and is perhaps the city’s true heart. The Inner Stadt itself features a plethora of exquisite buildings and exudes a Parisian-like quality of aesthetical perfection. While there are numerous architectural styles in the partly-pedestrianized Inner Stadt, a common theme seems to be the application of light colour tones. The exception to this is the city’s greatest icon, the Gothic cathedral of St. Stephansdom. Personally I found the structure to be rather unexceptional aside from the multi-coloured tile roof. Throughout the Inner Stadt, there are sculptures, bronze casts or other depictions of the two-headed eagle that represents the House of Hapsburg. This epitomises how Vienna visually exudes power and influence that it has long since lost.

The Emperor Franz Joseph authorized the construction of two identical buildings for the general public to access the Hapsburgs’ vast art collection in the nineteenth-century. One of the resulting buildings, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is considered to be a “total work of art” and houses one of the world’s most extensive collections. Externally I thought the building looked rather similar to the Royal Exhibition Building, with its horizontally expansive façade, central dome and similar style. The interior galleries were specifically designed to consider the paintings, statutory or other ornamentations that were intended to be displayed there. The surfaces are thus covered in lavish but carefully positioned materials. I certainly admired the paintings while I was at the museum, but retrospectively I find the intriguing attention to the ideal layout of the museum most memorable.

While I was in Vienna, I visited the Imperial Crypt of the House of Hapsburg, located beneath a church in the Inner Stadt. The crypt consists of more than a hundred sarcophagi including twelve emperors and eighteen empresses. This was a rather unusual experience because of the excessive and slightly spooky designs that many sarcophagi featured. There were some that were relatively plain and respectable, but others were gigantic (the biggest was probably three metres by two by two) and covered in weird ornamentations like the skulls of emperors wearing the Imperial crown. The most recent entombment occurred in 2011 for the son of the last emperor of Austria. Since he was the head of the House of Hapsburg since his father’s death in 1922, he would have been the longest ruling monarch (officially-recorded) in human history if those selfish Western Allies and Austrian republicans not dismantled Imperial rule. What a tragedy for statistics’ sake!

Like many rather gluttonous aristocratic families of Europe, the Hapsburgs used their excessive wealth to establish expansive winter and summer palatial residences. The Hofburg Palace is located within the Inner Stadt and was the constituent seat of Hapsburg rule for six centuries. The complex is one of the most imposing in Europe (vastly more impressive than austere Buckingham Palace) and consists of several wings constructed during different architectural epochs. The tour through the Imperial apartments focuses on the story of the eccentric Empress Elizabeth (“Sisi”), which I’m sure was appreciate by visitors that are regular readers of “Women’s Weekly”. I however would have preferred a comprehensive description of the emperors’ (plural) political policies and various wars over the centuries (as one might expect), to no avail. As if one gargantuan and opulently furnished palace was not sufficient, Empress Maria Theresa transformed Schonbrunn Palace, on Vienna’s outskirts, from a hunting lodge to a vast and opulent summer residence. I suppose she did have sixteen children to consider. The palace is rather similar to Versailles, although the buildings are yellow and the gardens are not quite as elaborate.

Melbournians insufferably gloat about the superb quality of our tap water, but it tastes like fermented sewerage produced after a curry festival in comparison to the magnificent liquid substance that cascades from Viennese taps. Around ninety per cent of Vienna’s water supply is sourced directly from the Alps and thus the city is supplied with essentially mineral water. After filling up my bottle, I was astonished to discover that condensation was forming on the outside of it because the water was cold enough to seem like it had been chilled in a refrigerator. I am rather tempted to live in Vienna now, purely because of the water.

Vienna consistently delivered marvellous results in the culinary stakes and consequently I thought it was among the best cities in Europe for food. Emblematic of Viennese cuisine is obviously the Weiner schnitzel and I ate the pork and veal varieties (not that the meats taste much different once flattened, crumbed and fried). Vienna’s schnitzels are almost paper-thin, occupy an entire dinner plate, are crisp and crunchy and are served with a very creamy and tangy potato salad. “Wurst” stands are ubiquitous throughout the cities of Central Europe and in-my-humble-but-typically-correct-opinion I thought that the Viennese stands offered the best quality sausages. They sell numerous types of cheap and delicious sausages and I sampled the bratwurst and cheese kransky (different name in Austria that I can’t remember; I assume they were the same). I was introduced to the beloved Central European staple of spaetzle, which is basically boiled pieces of dough. It is usually eaten as a side dish but can be mixed with cheese and fried onions to form the very heavy main of kaesepatzle, which is naturally what I had. After seeing apple strudel on restaurant menus for more than a week in the region, I finally sampled the dessert in Vienna. It probably is not a shocking revelation, but the strudel was ultimately very similar to apple pie (albeit a very good one). Vienna is famous for its café culture and particularly for its luxurious cakes, so while I was in the city I was compelled to forgo my constrictive budgetary policies and attendant the fashionable historic establishments. I ate a slice of the famous Sacher Torte from Hotel Sacher, which consists of two layers of dense chocolate sponge cake with a layer of apricot jam in the middle and is coated in dark chocolate icing.I also had a slice of Cleopatra torte at Café Demer, which consisted of layers of chocolate cake and hazelnut mousse. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to convince waiters that a beer would be unnecessary.

The architectural heritage of Vienna was impressive to see and the city boasts a fine, though expensive, culinary scene. However, ultimately I thought Vienna lacked any WOW factor, except of course for its beautiful tap water. Consequently, I’ve ranked Vienna exactly halfway on the ladder; I liked the city but I don’t feel compelled to return. How different it might have been if the Hapsburgs were still in charge…

1. Rome
2. Paris
3. London
4. Barcelona
5. Florence
6. Berlin
7. Porto
8. Amsterdam
9. Prague
10. Venice
11. Vienna
12. Lisbon
13. Copenhagen
14. Turin
15. Granada
16. Seville
17. Lyon
18. Madrid
19. Naples
20. Brussels
21. Palermo

That is all,

Liam

Vienna photos

Posted by Liamps 10:09 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Prague

Prague photos

The downfall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe has benefited the world in many ways, but none more so than allowing Western travellers like me to visit the extraordinarily beautiful city of Prague. However, communism’s collapse in the region has augmented one serious repercussion: the inundation of American tourists (the irritating variety) to Prague. Consequently, areas of the Old Town can feel as cramped with vacationers and dawdling tour groups as the narrow streets of Venice, at least in the summer holiday season. Fortunately though, since Prague serves a national capital and is occupied by local residents, it is possible to escape the hordes and identify that Prague is still fundamentally a real city (unlike the movie-set of Venice). Prague is probably the only destination that the majority of foreigners visit in the Czech Republic, but the city’s aesthetical value makes it an outstanding representation of the country.

The city is divided by the Vltava River, with the Old Town situated on the right bank and Prague Castle occupying a hill crescent on the left bank. These two central areas of Prague are connected by the famous Charles Bridge, which until 170 years ago was the only structure that traversed the river. While the bridge’s structural integrity is challenged daily by the volume of tourists pouring over it, the side streets surrounding the bridge on the left bank are surprisingly sedate. Nick and I stayed at a hostel located in a pleasantly quiet street; and yet it was just one minute’s walk from Charles Bridge and a major tourist thoroughfare. This was an incredibly picturesque district with colourful buildings, exuberant baroque churches and the magnificent Wallenstein Palace and gardens that now houses the Czech Senate.

We joined another free city walking tour in Prague, although unfortunately our leader was not as captivating as our extraverted guide in Berlin. I suppose I cannot entirely blame his less than inspiring performance, since he was dealing with substantially weaker material (I mean, historical events in Berlin have affected the whole planet, while events in Prague have affected… well, basically just the Czechs). Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the three hour tour around the Old Town which provided a valuable introduction to the city (even if Nick didn’t). Several of Prague’s most iconic structures were projects initiated by King Charles IV in the fourteenth century. Charles is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and ruled Bohemia during a rare period of independence. He was elected Holy Roman Emperor and established Prague as the imperial capital. Bohemia was subsequently dominated by the Austrian House of Hapsburg, until the conclusion of World War One. The newly formed Czechoslovak Republic was invaded by Hitler and the Nazis devastated one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities in Prague. In the late 1960’s, communist Czechoslovakia introduced progressive reforms to the delight of the public. Moscow responded by invading with a quarter of a million soldiers to impose the desired repressiveness. Apparently the Czechs have generally forgiven the Germans for the atrocities committed in World War Two but they still universally hate the Russians. It is wonderful to hold an Australian passport because everyone seems to think of us an adorable nationality from Down Under, while naïve to our historical and current foreign policies. On a lighter note, Prague has a history of throwing people out of windows, perhaps due to the excessive quantities of alcohol they consume.

The Old Town of Prague is composed of exquisite and magnificently preserved buildings that represent a variety of architectural styles. Such a moniker may also be applicable to Paris, but what differentiates Prague from the French capital in that respect is that every building exudes a distinctive character. This is partly because of the potpourri of vibrant colours that are used in the façades. The centre is the enigmatically named Old Town Square, which several prominent and spectacular buildings border. These included the twin-spired gothic Tyn Church, the dramatic baroque St. Nicholas Church and the gothic Old Town Hall. The latter boasts Europe’s most overrated tourist attraction (determined by an online poll): the Astronomical Clock. Every hour, wooden puppets suddenly saunter past a window sill on the tower to mark the beginning of a new hour. I found it to be rather quirky, even if my companion did not. The square is surrounded by a matrix of narrow and cobblestoned streets that evoke the Old World charm. The most scenic area to view the Old Town is on the opposite bank of the Vltava River or while crossing Charles Bridge. The 621m long bridge rests on 16 arches and is phenomenally over 650 years old. There are remarkable gothic bridge-towers on either bank that feature roofs with elongated length. The pedestrianized bridge is lined with thirty baroque statues and is surely the city’s most attractive attribute.

Prague Castle is considered to be the world’s largest palatial complex. Its strategic positioning above the Vltava allows it to command exceptional views over Prague and the complex can be seen throughout the city also. While it was originally founded as a fortified castle in medieval times, additional structures have continuously been constructed on the site by subsequent ruling dynasties which has transformed it into the sprawling and confusing hotchpotch of buildings it is today. Consequently, Prague Castle does not feature a homogenised architectural style; which makes it difficult to identify that it is one singular entity. Renaissance palazzos seem to be the most prevalent building typology on the site, although St. Vitus Cathedral is certainly the most iconic. The construction of the Gothic Cathedral was initiated in the fourteenth century but halted a hundred years later from the outbreak of the Hussite (incarnation of Protestantism in Bohemia preceding Martin Luther) War. In the nineteenth century, efforts to complete the cathedral finally recommenced and it came to symbolize Czech national pride (in the context of heightening Germanization of Bohemia’s culture because of Hapsburg rule). The cathedral is notable for its slender flying buttresses with pinnacles and its colourful roofing.

The area of Prague known as the “New Town” is actually much older than even the discovery of the Americas, although there were noticeably newer structures in this neighbourhood than the Old Town. I am reluctant to use the term “modern” to describe buildings there because most were still of Renaissance and Baroque designs or were from the Neoclassical and Art Nouveau periods in the nineteenth century.

Literally every restaurant in Prague seems to promote itself as serving “traditional Czech cuisine”. Since no one has a clue as to what that entails, I don’t understand why it is absolutely necessary for each establishment to flaunt this disclaimer. Nevertheless, we unsurprisingly found ourselves in “traditional Czech restaurants” and discovered that the food is ultimately very similar to German and Hungarian. Intriguingly, on Czech menus the weight of meat in each dish is listed; and it is usually considerably lower than what you would expect to be served in an Australian restaurant. At a local beer garden on the first evening, I had roast beef in gravy with sour cream and cranberry sauce which was served with the ubiquitous accompaniment of bread dumplings (basically just moulded white bread). On the second evening, we both exploited the relative inexpensiveness in the Czech Republic by ordering half a duck each. It was actually the delicious plate of sides that I was most impressed by and included potato dumpling, bread dumplings, fried onions, white cabbage with apple and red cabbage)\. We went to a pub where the quality of the food had evidently suffered from its booming success. I had a disappointingly bland helping of goulash, which is a Hungarian stew that should have lots of paprika mixed through (but didn’t). The bacon dumpling, a ball consisting of an unidentified carbohydrate with bacon, was rather nice at least. Just prior to departing Prague, we went to a restaurant beside our hostel (coincidentally called “Lokal”) which differentiated itself from competitors by claiming that the food is freshly prepared and not laden with fats. This proved to be one of the most memorable meals I enjoyed in Europe. For entrée, I had the best sausages I ate in Europe, two spicy pork sausages (“from our butcher”) with shavings of fresh horseradish and homemade mustard. This was followed by beef in delectable paprika-based gravy with mouth-watering potato dumplings (the highlight). The Czechs officially consume more beer per person than any other nationality on the planet. Consequently, cheap and excellent Czech beers are readily available throughout this drunken capital.

Its amazing how in twenty-five years Prague has transformed from an isolated city within the communist block to a capitalistic tourist destination attracting an avalanche of Westerners. The crowds are certainly justified as Prague easily ranks as one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. Ultimately though, I found that there wasn’t plethora of things to do. So basically Prague was an inversion of Berlin! Prague is definitely a must-see of Europe.

1. Rome
2. Paris
3. London
4. Barcelona
5. Florence
6. Berlin
7. Porto
8. Amsterdam
9. Prague
10. Venice
11. Lisbon
12. Copenhagen
13. Turin
14. Granada
15. Seville
16. Lyon
17. Madrid
18. Naples
19. Brussels
20. Palermo

This means I am only eleven days behind in my writing. Remember it ballooned out to twenty-seven days just three weeks ago. Jolly good effort Liam!

Tutulu,

Liam

Prague photos

Posted by Liamps 22:35 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Berlin

Berlin photos

There are no ancient ruins in Berlin as there are in Rome. Berlin does not have an immaculately preserved Old Town as Prague does. The city is not entirely composed of beautiful old buildings as Paris is. It lacks the monumental structures evocative of an imperial age that characterise Central London. Historic quarters equivalent to Lisbon’s Alfama district or the Bari Gothic of Barcelona do not exist and the layout of the city is hardly reminiscent of a bygone era, like Amsterdam’s canal district might be. In fact, Berlin consists primarily of rather drab modernist buildings and the entire city appears to be one large construction site. Yet more than anywhere else I have been to, Berlin exudes history. This is probably because the events which established the significance of Berlin were tangibly recent; occurring during the lifetimes of relatives. Berlin was not a major European capital until the rise of the Kingdom of Prussia in the eighteenth century. Germany, as a legally unified state, only came into existence in 1871 (the German-speaking region was previously divided into a disparate collection of duchies, principalities, kingdoms and bishoprics which were loosely confederated as the Holy Roman Empire until its dissolution in 1806 during the Napoleonic wars) through the formation of the Prussian-dominated German Empire. Thus Berlin did not rival London or Paris’ statuses until the end of the nineteenth century. The Kaiser and subsequently Hitler attempted to rapidly develop Berlin into a glorious imperial centre, mimicking the aforementioned cities. But two world war defeats flattened the city and the inevitable partitioning ultimately stymied such endeavours. Berlin’s history is inherently dark and depressing but the marvellous thing about this city is that it confronts its past and exposes it for all visitors to see.

A fantastic initiative in Europe is providing backpackers with the opportunity to join “free” walking tours in major cities. They are conducted by freelance guides and while you are morally obligated to tip at the conclusion of a tour, it is virtually always worth the affordable expenditure. The Berlin tour is often touted as the best in Europe and I would now endorse such an assertion. Much to Nick’s bereavement, the guide assigned to our tour was an American. By the end of the tour though, his informative and entertaining explanations propelled him to win even the approval of ignorant Nick. The tour provided us with an excellent introduction to Berlin as he discussed the history of most of the constituent sites in the central area. To supplement this, Nick and I visited the outstanding German History Museum. It provided detailed documentation about the German lands in medieval times, the formation of the German Empire, World War I, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi reign, World War II and divided Germany through to reunification.

Visually, Berlin is incredibly different to other European capitals because of the conspicuous absence of old buildings. The American and British bombing raids in the 1940s destroyed most of structural Berlin. Consequently, Central Berlin consists of either unassuming modernist buildings or reconstructed versions of former edifices. After the partition of Berlin, the communist East Germans attempted to refurbish or reconstruct many historically significant buildings. However, after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was discovered that these efforts were poorly executed due to the prohibitive economic situation in the East during the Cold War. Therefore since reunification, Germany has enacted a massive project to re-reconstruct historical buildings and this is why the grandest boulevard in Berlin, the Unter den Linden, appears to be one humungous construction site. There were some important structures that survived the war, notably the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and the museums of Museum Island; all of which feature neoclassical designs. Brandenburg Gate provides a monumental entrance to the Unter den Linden and overlooks Pariser Platz (named in honour of the anti-French alliance established during the Napoleonic wars). The gate’s quadriga, which symbolizes triumph, is often interpreted as implying perpetual victory over Paris and France. The Reichstag building has sporadically housed the various guises of German governance since it was established during the imperial era. It was restored after the reunification of Germany and a giant glass dome was added. The World-heritage listed Museum Island occupies an islet in the river that flows through Berlin and consists of several institutions. Unfortunately I ran out of time to visit the Pergamum Museum to see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.

Much to my surprise, the Nazi past of Berlin is completely and unescapably exposed in the central areas of the city. 2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the National Socialists’ seizure of power in Germany and 75 years since the horrific episode of Kristallnacht. Particularly in public spaces frequented by tourists, there were numerous billboards that provided discussion and photographs about these tragic events. Within one hundred metres of Brandenburg Gate is the eerie memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This vast space features hundreds of grey concrete blocks that vary in height and are arranged symmetrically in rows and columns. The Jewish architect specifically desired for the meaning of the design to remain open to interpretation. When I walked through the space, I noticed that I instinctively hesitated and I had slight fear when I was about to pass two (tall) blocks and enter a juncture of paths (they cross perpendicularly). Perhaps the fear from being exposed to the unknown repetitively is related to the meaning. Or perhaps not. There are memorials in Berlin to the Romani people and homosexual men of Europe that were also victims of the Holocaust. There is a memorial to the German soldiers and civilians that died during the war; remembering that not every German was a ruthless Nazi extremist. This was not constructed until after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the withdrawal of Soviet influence in the city. Hitler’s “memorial” is at the unsigned site of his former bunker. The bunker has been covered in asphalt to create a new car-park that dogs regularly shit on. Unfortunately the tour guide was unable to surprise me with this revelation (not that he cared since thirty other people were bamboozled) as it was previously spoiled by Danish Nadia. As I have now spoiled it for you. At the site of the former SS headquarters, there is a series of boards that catalogue the Nazi’s democratic rise to power, their anti-Semitic policies, the brutal suppression of political opponents and their eventual claiming of totalitarian power. There is a neighbouring museum which details the terrifying actions the SS employed during the 1930s and World War II to secure their power and implement the “Final Solution” (elimination of the Jewish and Romani races in Europe). Throughout the city, there are plaques in front of buildings or the former sites of buildings which describe their usage especially during the Nazi era and (usually) their destruction from bombing raids. The structures which successfully survived the war often bear damage from gunshots or explosions. It would be an oxymoron to claim that the war “shaped” Berlin, since it physically achieved quite the opposite, but everything about Berlin seems to be interconnected to that horrendous period in human history.

Berlin was obviously split into areas controlled by the Western Allied powers and the Soviet Union after the war. I have to admit, I regularly found it rather difficult to deduce whether I was in the East or the West. Now that I have observed a map, I realise that the Berlin Wall did not split the city rectilinearly, which explains why I was rather confused by the locations of the various remaining segments of the Wall. The East Side Gallery is the most prominent vestige of the former Wall and it is covered on both sides in street art evoking world peace or scorning politicians. It was oddly similar to the Separation Wall in Palestine. In front of Brandenburg Gate, there are actors in American or Russian military costumes waving their respective flags for photographs. The former American sector features a heavily touristic area with a reconstructed “Checkpoint Charlie” that is surrounded by stores synonymous with capitalism (McDonald’s etc). In the former Soviet sector is the Berlin’s iconic TV tower.

On a slightly different note, Nick and I spent a day at the zoo. Now that I have departed my childhood years regardless of the jurisdiction and since I have been on safari in Africa, I no longer command the same obsession with zoos that I once might have. Nevertheless, I thought I owed it to my younger self to visit the world’s largest zoological collection. There are a preposterous number of species at the Berlin Zoo, in the range of 1400-1500 (compared with Melbourne Zoo’s 350). None of the exhibits at the Berlin Zoo were of a completely deplorable standard, but then I found very few of them to be acceptable anyway. Because of the Northern winters, most of the animals have indoor and outdoor enclosures that the public can view. Berlin Zoo is surely one of the few institutions to house each of the great ape species other than ourselves, with gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos. The collection features both of the hippopotamus species, two tapir species (including Baird which I had never seen before (NSB)), two rhinoceros species and each great cat species. There are entire sections devoted exclusively to bovine species (including gaur and anoa, NSB), swine species (babirussa and red river hogs, NSB), deer (muntjac and pudu, NSB) and birds of prey (including condors and multiple species of vultures, eagles, owls and hawks). We saw okapis, an anteater, sleeping beavers, ibexes (NSB), a swimming polar bear, a swimming brown bear, yaks, flamingos, grey wolves, vicunas (NSB), at least twenty species of monkeys (half of which NSB), a dozen species of small cats and three species of penguins. The “aquarium” consists of a level for aquatic life (each tank represents a different freshwater or saltwater eco-system, such as each of the Great Lakes of the Rift Valley), a level for reptiles and a level for amphibians and insects. There were more than two dozen species of just frogs! Obviously all the usual suspects were there too and obviously I had to see every single species exhibited! Perhaps I haven’t changed.

Berlin is not exactly renowned for its culinary delights, except for two celebrated snack items. Currywurst is the bizarre but delicious obsession of the city. A bratwurst sausage is chopped up, smothered in ketchup (one to one ratio of meat and sauce) and sprinkled with curry powder. The other ubiquitous takeaway indulgence is doner kebab. The huge Turkish population in Berlin have bequeathed the city with fantastic kebabs that embarrass the Australian imitations. We also sampled more substantial Berliner fare at two traditional pubs. Nick and I both ordered Berlin-style pork knuckle, which (we suspect) was boiled. Consequently, the meat was enclosed by a disgusting gelatinous layer of fat, which would otherwise have been crackling if it was roasted. It was served with sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and mushy peas, which should never have escaped Great Britain. I also had an average serve of roast beef, although the meal was saved by the red cabbage and potato dumplings that I now love. The food that foreigners typically associate with German cuisine is from Bavaria (Munich), so twice we ventured to Bavarian restaurants and had outstanding food (and beer). I had a massive serve of roast pork with potato dumplings, beer gravy and white cabbage coleslaw on the first occasion; and an assortment of delectable sausages with potato salad, horseradish and mustard on the second occasion. Oh and the pretzels whoa!

Berlin demonstrates that superficially judging a place by its aesthetical value can be a rather lamentable endeavour. Berlin is not necessarily evocative of beauty, yet there are surely few cities as captivating as the German capital. Perusing through the old towns and glorious museums of Europe may allow us to admire the past achievements and heritage of this region, but in Berlin history that we can tangibly relate to and remember can be best appreciated.

1. Rome
2. Paris
3. London
4. Barcelona
5. Florence
6. Berlin
7. Porto
8. Amsterdam
9. Venice
10. Lisbon
11. Copenhagen
12. Turin
13. Granada
14. Seville
15. Lyon
16. Madrid
17. Naples
18. Brussels
19. Palermo

That’s all for now,

Liam

Berlin photos

Posted by Liamps 07:40 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

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