Category Archives: Germany

• Speicherstadt and Kontorhaus District with Chilehaus

Visit: 28th/29th January 2017

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My first World Heritage Site of 2017 was in Hamburg – though you wouldn’t know it from the title. The Speicherstadt district of the city is an area of waterside warehouses similar to Liverpool‘s centre. It is not the most exciting of places so I needed an exciting companion, who took the form of Teutonophile and former Hamburg property-owner Peter Nowell.

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Our plan was simply to spend one night in Hamburg and then go home again. This being Germany the plan centred around drinking beer, but upon arrival our first move was to stop at local favourite the Mö-Grill for an oversized sausage in an undersized bun.

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I had chosen us a hotel in the Speicherstadt district as I like to stay as close as possible to the WHS itself and preferably within its limits, if possible. The water in the photographs is the Elbe river, and the warehouses that sit on its islands and banks were originally built between 1885 and 1927. The buildings, which display a coherence of style that impressed UNESCO when it was inscribed in 2015, stand testament to the development of large-scale international trade in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

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Significant damage was inflicted in the Second World War, leading to a a general reconstruction of the area in the 1950s and 60s. Today many of the warehouses seem still to be tenanted by import/export businesses. Interestingly, most of the proprietors’ names written above the doors are of Islamic origin.

32276371670_c4b2277a1c_b Also included in the WHS inscription is the Chilehaus, which is a Modernist office block just across the water from most of the warehouses. To me it has a more obvious architectural merit than the warehouses, though I believe Nowell prefers the latter.

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Our night out in Hamburg was quite enjoyable, basically consisting of drinking from early-afternoon onward. We started at a Bavarian brauhaus drinking out of one-litre steins but we came to realise that the Hamburgers do not do it this way – preferring more sensible half-litre glasses for their beers.

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I had half-planned for us to visit another WHS in the nearby Heanseatic city of Lübeck, but our late night put paid to that. My overall impression of Hamburg (which is also Hanseatic, just not obviously so) was of a pleasant enough city but not a terribly exciting World Heritage Site compared with others. As it is the second largest city in Germany is it fair to call it the Birmingham of Germany? Birmingham doesn’t have a WHS (yet…), but whilst Hamburg has a claim to the Beatles I’ll take ELO over the ‘Fab Four’ any day.

• Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen

Visit: 22nd August 2015

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On a Saturday morning in August we set off early from Heathrow to Düsseldorf on a classic one-nighter in North-Rhine Westphalia. The objective was to visit three very different World Heritage Sites. Cologne Cathedral would be a revisit, whereas the Rococo Palace at Brühl and the industrial complex here in Essen were both new to us.

Arriving at DUS at about 10.30am, we boarded a train northwards towards the Zollverein Coal Mine Complex. The attractions of an industrial WHS are not, perhaps, obvious – but the weather smiled upon us, which made it a much more enjoyable experience than it might otherwise have been.

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Zollverein was a major coal mine and steel-milling site, inscribed on the UNESCO list for its testimony to an age of German industrialisation. That didn’t work out particularly well for the world, but it was certainly an important factor in the story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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But Zollverein is notable for more than just its scale. The buildings, whilst functional, are also considered to have great architectural merit. To quote UNESCO, German culture was at the time moving “from Expressionism to Cubism and Functionalism”, culminating in Bauhaus, which “combined form and function in a masterly way”. The buildings in the photos – particularly the coking plant in the first three – were designed and built in the inter-war years, during the German economic boom that came with the Versailles-infringing rearmament. It was poignant, wandering among the disused railways tracks that criss-cross the site, to reflect that we were walking through the engine room of Germany’s build-up to the Second World War.

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Nowadays the site is a cultural centre, with many of its buildings turned into museums or gallery spaces. It is still sprinkled with mining paraphernalia, like the enormous drill-bit, above, and the fearsome-looking machine below.

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In addition to the fine weather another factor helped make what could have been a dreary experience into a rather pleasant one. There was a German gourmet food festival going on (apparently not an oxymoron!), with dozens of stalls selling food mostly consisting of pork. We took the opportunity to try currywurst for the first time, and washed it down with a welcome glass of Pilsner.

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• Würzburg Residence with the Court Gardens and Residence Square

Visit: 24th May 2015

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We arrived from Bamberg into Würzburg railway station surrounded by local youngsters dressed in Dirndls and Lederhosen. Perhaps there was some kind of folk event going on that weekend, we thought, or perhaps this is just how young people like to dress in Bavaria. If the latter, I wondered if they wear these clothes out of a desire to preserve traditional customs, or if it is just some sort of semi-ironic outfit just to wear on a pub crawl (a bit like we English do for ‘pub golf’).

After checking into our hotel and meeting Danny’s girlfriend Tina, we headed straight for the Residence – the grand bishop’s palace that is the focus of this World Heritage Site. It was commissioned in 1719 by Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, who was effectively a sort of local king. Kenneth Clark visited it in his series Civilisation, in which he wondered how much the local people forked over in tithes and taxes in order for the bishop to build such a marvelous abode. The main reason Clark was there was the palace’s renowned ceiling, painted by Italian baroque master Giovanni Tiepolo.

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This fresco is the most famous aspect of the Würzburg Residence, for it is painted on a large expanse of vaulted oak ceiling that is completely unmarred by any columns getting in the way. This was possible thanks to the innovations of the palace’s 32-year-old chief architect, Balthasar Neumann, in his design of the grand staircase.

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Tiepolo painted himself into the fresco as well as his son (also a painter) and Neumann, who is depicted with a cannon. The reason for this is that in response to criticisms by rival architects that his ceiling would never hold its own weight, Neumann retorted that the ceiling would hold even if a cannon were to be fired beneath the vault. Although his claim was never put to the test, Neumann become associated with the cannon.

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There are over 300 rooms in the residence, many of them restored since destruction in World War II. In either a stroke of luck or a symbolic vindication of Neumann’s design, the staircase managed to survive the war completely unscathed. The sumptuously decorated rooms of the Residence put me in mind of Blenheim Palace, which was built around the same time.

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All-in-all, though, we came out of the Residence feeling a little underwhelmed. We had expected something grander, I think: a more impressive fresco with the wow-factor of those in the Sistine Chapel – however unrealistic that now seems. It was impressive, of course, but not what we had hoped. But there was more left to see. On a small sign I spotted an arrow pointing to the Residence’s Hofkirche, or Court Chapel (above). Again the work of Balthazar Neumann, this chapel really took our breath away, being impossibly ornate and riotous with colour and shape. Inside an inconspicuous wing of the Residence, Neumann took a rectangular space and transformed its interior into three overlapping ovals. Like with Gaudí, there are few straight lines. The overall effect is one of majesty, which must be so difficult to achieve in such a small space.

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Although I noticed through a window how impressive the Residence’s gardens were, unfortunately we became too fixated on getting a beer in the palace’s bar to remember to look around. As for the Residence Square referred to in the title of the WHS, I believe that is just the car park in the foreground to the picture at the top.

After leaving the Residence we went on the enjoy the general hospitality of Würzburg with our local guides. The photo above shows us engaging in the local custom of drinking Riesling on the town’s oldest bridge (shown below). It was a nice day for it, and made a pleasant change from all that smoked beer and lager that one traditionally drinks in Germany. We went on to have a surprisingly good meal at what turned out to be the Brauerei-Gasthof Alter Kranen – it was probably the best meal I’ve ever eaten in Germany. We followed that up by drinking in the town’s pubs until daylight came around again, which signified that it would soon be time to head back Nuremberg airport and thence home.

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• Town of Bamberg

 Visit: 6th-7th August 2010, 23rd-24th May 2015

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Bamberg is a small town in Bavaria, in the region known by proud locals as Franconia. Inscribed on the UNESCO list due to its Slavic connections, its architecture and its links with the 18th century Enlightenment, it is known among beer lovers for its sheer variety of brews in that beeriest of countries, Germany.

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Ross, Nowell and I used one of the plentiful May bank holiday weekends to go to two WHSs in Bavaria: Bamberg and Würzburg. We flew into Nuremburg but spent no time in the city, instead heading straight for the station and catching a reassuringly expensive intercity train to Bamberg.

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Upon arrival we met up with Ross’s English friend from Luxembourg, Danny, who has recently become a resident of Würzburg. It was great having him with us as he is a fluent German speaker and a fellow Teutonophile for Nowell to get along with. He is a particular fan of the local fare, which not all of us can claim to be (there is only so much pork and sauerkraut that your average Brit can take).

It so happens that this was our second trip to Bamberg – Ross, Nowell and I visited back in 2010 with a larger group of lads (back when we had more friends) on our way north from Munich to Berlin. Amusingly we seem to have posed for a photo in exactly the same spot on both trips – see if you can spot the differences below (apart from the fact that I am the only one appearing in both pics).

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The most famous beer in Bamberg is the Rauchbier, which literally means ‘smoked beer’. Legend has it that a monastery once caught fire whilst its stores were full of barley. When they had put out the flames the monks decided it wasn’t worth putting it all to waste, so decided to go ahead with the next brew as planned. What resulted was a beer with a deeply smoky flavour, reminiscent – depending on your point of view – of anything ranging from a smoking a fine cigar to drinking a packet of used fags. Nevertheless, we got stuck in – and it was only I who moved swiftly back onto lagers and pilsners.

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Bamberg is also known for its onions, apparently – something I only learned this time around. The town was where onions were first cultivated in Germany on an industrial scale, and their copiousness is presumably what led to the town’s local dish being a meat-stuffed onion, which you can see below.

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After a few more of the local drinks we were done – I can assure you there was no repeat of the excesses of our last visit when our younger selves were probably not the most considerate guests the town has ever known (though I’m sure they are pretty used to that kind of behaviour, being an out-and-out beer town).

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After a night in a ruinously expensive hotel we were well-rested and ready to take on some sightseeing (and light beer-drinking). One sight we completely missed last time around was the 13th century cathedral. Bamberg has an important ecclesiastical past – indeed, it was at one point intended to become a ‘second Rome’, and assigned as the seat of a bishopric.

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The town is built around two rivers, so can feel a little Venetian (in fact there were a couple of gondolas plying their trade that we spotted). The medieval and baroque town houses and buildings are well preserved and most of the streets remain cobbled. Of all the buildings, the town hall, or Rathaus, is the most impressive to my mind.

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As for the Slavic connections, Bamberg played a role in the past a link between Central and Eastern Europe, which explains its rather Polish feel. In the 18th century Enlightenment it was home to the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the author E.T.A. Hoffmann – on whose work ballets including The Nutcracker and Coppélia were based.

Although a pleasant town, if you are not a real beer afficionado seeking to check out the offerings of each of its 11 breweries, Bamberg is quite doable in one night. After narrowly missing the hourly train to Würzburg, we spent the time drinking local lagers and playing list-based drinking games on the platform … a finer activity on a summer’s day I haven’t yet found.

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• Cologne Cathedral

Visit: 17th January 2015 & 23rd August 2015

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Cologne Cathedral is one of the most important Gothic church buildings in all of Europe, notable for its grandeur and its relics. It took a long time to build: 632 years to be exact, having been started in 1248 and finished in 1880. It survived repeated Allied aerial bombardments of the city in the Second World War, including the RAF’s first ‘thousand bomber raid’, making it the German counterpart of St Paul’s in London, which miraculously escaped the Blitz.

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Cologne, 24th April 1945

I travelled to Cologne for a one-night stay with Natalie and her friend Kirsty. We flew on Germanwings from Heathrow, which was convenient because they live so close to the airport. It was my first time on this airline, and I was pretty pleased with it. It is a subsidiary of Lufthansa, and the parent airline has recently outsourced all of its non-hub flying operations to Germanwings. This means that if you book a Lufthansa flight to any German airport other than Frankfurt or Munich you will be flying on a Germanwings aircraft. It is a low-cost carrier, meaning that on the cheapo fares there is no food and drink service, but that wasn’t a problem since it was such a short flight. Cologne/Bonn airport, as it is known, used to serve West Germany’s capital before the Iron Curtain came down, but since 1989 Bonn has faded in terms of significance. Cologne is a €2.80, 18 minute train ride away.

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The cathedral is the second tallest church building in Europe (after the lesser-know Ulm Minster, also in Germany). It was in fact the tallest building in the world from 1880-1884 – the penultimate building in Europe to hold that title (soon after Ulm took Cologne’s mantle America embarked on the skyscraper age and religious buildings ceased to be contenders).

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Inside, the cathedral contains the 10th century Crucifix of Bishop Gero, which unfortunately we missed. It is the oldest known large crucifix in the world. Another important artifact is the Shrine of the Three Kings, a basilica-shaped sarcophagus held to contain the remains of the Magi who visited the Christ child on Christmas Day.

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Shrine of the Three Kings

The remains of the Wise Men are supposed to have lain in Constantinople until they were entrusted by Constantine to the Bishop of Milan in 314. Following his great expansion of the Holy Roman Empire, the relic was gifted to Cologne in 1164 by Barbarossa.

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The facade of the cathedral is the largest of any church in the world, and intricately detailed. It is inscribed as a WHS because it is a testament to the ‘enduring strength of European Christianity”. This is demonstrated by the fact that over its six century gestation period, generations of builders stayed true to its original design. That a building inspired by religious belief can take so long to put up and yet end up just as its designers intended shows how consistent that religious belief was.

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The 14th century stained glass windows relate scenes from the gospels. Though they are extensive and historic, there is a 21st century addition that caught our interest. Since being bombed out in the Second World War, the south transept windows had been filled with plain glass, but in 2007 a modernist replacement was installed, designed to resemble pixels.

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After seeing the cathedral we went to take in some of the other experiences Cologne has to offer. It is a compact cite centre, and only a five minute walk away is the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne’s flagship fine art gallery. We went there expecting to see a small museum that I knew had a Rembrandt and a Dürer, but not much else. To our surprise it spans four floors, respectively dedicated to medieval art, the Baroque, 19th Century art and an exhibition floor. The medieval floor was filled with early paintings, mostly by unknown masters. We were given a bit of a fright by one painting which had 3D wooden heads jutting out from it! The Baroque floor features a Rembrandt self-portrait, which was particularly relevant for Natalie and me, as we had only the day before been to the late-Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The 19th century floor was the one that surprised most positively. I haven’t yet got onto Impressionism in my recreational study of the history of art, but I was nonetheless very impressed by the range of names they had on display. Purely in terms of aesthetics, my favourites included two pretty abstract pieces by Monet, some Pointillist works by Signac and the single painting by Edvard Munch, Four Girls on the Bridge, which to my untrained eye contains clear similarities to his famous Scream.

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The evening and following day we spent in bars, drinking the local brew, Kölsch, and eating German cuisine (pork, potatoes and saurkraut in various combinations). German bar snacks, it seems, leave something to be desired – or perhaps I just need to be a little more adventurous with what I eat – but raw minced pork and onion on a bread roll is not going to be displacing crisps in my mind any time soon.

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German bar snack


 

In August later that year Natalie and I returned (without Kirsty, sadly) on our way between Zollverein and Brühl. This time I made sure to see the one item in the Cathedral that I missed last time: the Crucifix of Archbishop Gero.

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It is the oldest large sculpture of Christ on the Cross in northern Europe, and has been in Cologne Cathedral – without ever leaving – for over a thousand years.

• Museumsinsel (Museum Island), Berlin

Visit: 8th March 2014

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By Tom

Visiting Berlin this month was the idea of my uni friend Bhumi, who suggested going there with a group of friends for her birthday. It sounded good to me, so I booked a flight from Bristol and met the others at Schönefeld airport on Friday night. This is one of the two airports of Berlin that were meant to have been closed in 2010 and replaced by a new airport named Berlin Brandenburg. For various reasons that are unclear to me, it is still not open, and is not expected before about 2016. Anyone who tells you that the Germans are efficient needs to update their stereotypes! Using the S-Bahn from the airport was a nightmare too! No signs on any of the 12 or so platforms at Schönefeld, and no station staff to give advice. I’ve seen Paddington tube station packed full of confused tourists enough times, but that station takes the biscuit!

We stayed in a hostel on Rosa Luxemburg Strasse, north of the River Spree and not far from the famous Fernsehterm (TV tower). Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you can see it from pretty much anywhere (and as with the Eiffel Tower, the only place you can’t see it is from the top of it).

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We had a pretty good night out on the Friday at a local rock n roll bar, then after a brief nap we headed out sightseeing on Saturday morning.

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The Museum Island in Berlin was built between 1824 and 1930 on a natural island in the river. It consists of five museums, which UNESCO commends for their consistency of design despite being constructed over the course of a century. Unfortunately I only managed to visit one of them, the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), which features plenty of works by German Romantic painters as well as some of the French Impressionists and even a few Constables. I quite liked the German landscape painter Paul Baum, particularly his pointillist pieces.

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The museums are all pretty stunning architecturally. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed in WWII, but a restoration programme has given the island back its grandeur. I will certainly be revisiting Berlin to see the other museums, as they house some of the most significant artifacts you can see anywhere in the world. In the Pergamon Museum, for example, you can see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the façade of the throne hall of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon.

Time was tight on this quick weekend trip, so we had to move on from the island and see some of the other famous sights of the city. At the end of a long straight road is the Brandenburg Gate, built in 1791 but a symbol during the Cold War of the desire for reunification. The gate itself was marooned just inside East Berlin, but was within earshot of the West, and it was with the gate as a backdrop that we got the presidential chestnuts “Ich bin ein Berliner” and “tear down this wall!

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After the gate we headed across town to Ostbahnhof to see the Berlin Wall. The place Bhumi took us to was the 1.3km stretch known as the East Side Gallery. This iconic portion of the wall was covered in graffiti, both political and non-political, that the West Berliners used to paint as a symbol of defiance to the GDR next door. One of the paintings is of the famous socialist fraternal kiss between Soviet and GDR leaders Brezhnev and Honecker. Truth be told, I had always assumed this was a satirical painting, but just found out it was based on a real photograph and a real custom! You can see what I’m talking about here.

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Our crew for the trip: Taurai, Manisha, Jas, me, Bhumi, Natalie, Phil and Debbie.

By this time it was getting late-ish, so we went and got some decidedly “meh” food (and orange juice grown to order) and then went to a cafe where I had a strudel – as I always do in Germany thanks to that menacingly memorable scene in Inglorious Basterds – and some Riesling, while the others had smashed up ice creams and flavoured brandy. As it was fast approaching Bhumi’s actual birthday, we made sure it was an appropriately awesome night out on Saturday, and some local friends she knew from travelling came along and took us to a cool place in the Kreuzberg district.

And then it was Sunday, and a beautiful day all over Europe. Berlin felt like summer, despite it being early March. We went for lunch in one of the many, many excellent Vietnamese restaurants in Berlin – a place called Monsieur Vuong. They don’t have a large menu – just six or so mains plus a few specials, but that is often a good sign – if a restaurant offers you a small choice it often does it well. I can confirm that this was the case here in Monsieur Vuong’s, and I certainly recommend stopping in. Except if you are like poor Manisha, who doesn’t like ginger or chili (pretty key ingredients in Vietnam!). 

We then walked for a while over to the Mauerpark, where a bohemian market sells food and nick nacks. The park was full of people having barbecues, doing acrobatics and playing with their perfectly-bred dogs. It was a real first day of summer feel. We stopped for a while in a Biergarten nearby for a drink, where I stumbled upon Weihenstephaner wheat beer, which apparently is brewed in the oldest brewery in the world. It has been serving the good stuff since something like AD 768. Quite amazing to think that people were drinking this beer back when the Vikings roamed England and the world’s oldest tree was only 3,817.

20140311-172816.jpgA great trip, a happy birthday, and I hope we do more like this together.