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Bucharest

Bucharest has no signs!

When I got off my train from Budapest at Gara de Nord, I looked for signs to the metro (also at Gara de Nord – don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting directions to some random station).

Nothing. There were signs for ticket sales (also inadequate – domestic and international sales are in two different halls and the signs don’t say which is which) and a few other things, but nothing that would help me.

Unfortunately my hesitation immediately made me a target for taxi drivers searching for a fare.

Unlike in Budapest, where a simple headshake was enough to dissuade the men chanting “taxi, taxi”, in Bucharest they started following me. I kept walking, saying “no” repeatedly until they wandered off. However, one persistent man wouldn’t budge, so I turned back to him to say that I was looking for the metro.

“You go to the centre of city? I can take you, very low,” he indicated a small price with his thumb and index finger.

“Smaller than the metro?” I asked.

“Very small.”

I shook my head.

“Okay – the metro is at the left,” he pointed to that side of the station.

I turned left but couldn’t see anything, so followed the footpath around the car park. Then . . . an M sign! Above a descending flight of stairs!

The metro also had no signs, and it was the same case when I returned to the surface – I knew which street I had to take to get to my hostel, but I came out at a big intersection with no signs. After about 10 minutes I found one – white and rusted with faded blue lettering and partially covered by the overhanging leaves of a tree, but it was the right street!

After being unable to find my next turn, I realised it was on the wrong side of the road and I was going the wrong way.

I eventually reached Happy Hostel and found the other extreme:

They were everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And check out the overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!

Finally settled in, I could see Bucharest. I visited The Palace of Parliament, The Village Museum and The Romanian Peasants’ Museum, as well as doing some general wandering.

Palace of the Parliament

Village Museum

The Palace of Parliament is worth a visit for its size alone – with a floor area of 360,000m2, it is the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use (the Pentagon is the largest administrative building for military use). It is also the world’s heaviest building and the world’s most expensive administrative building, with the costs of the structure estimated at USD4 billion in 2006. According to a Romanian guy on the train from Budapest, the communist government built this to send a message to the western world:

“Look what we did! Communism = awesomeness! You capitalists suck!”

Unfortunately the tour was a bit dry – it focussed on the facts and figures regarding the size and the architecture, whereas I wanted to learn about the gossip, conspiracies and politics.

Arc de Triompf

The Village Museum was a really relaxing way to spend a morning (though afternoons are said to be a bit hectic). Founded in 1936, since then buildings have been moved from rural Romania to this outdoor museum, so it’s like wandering around an eclectic Romanian village. The Peasants’ Museum was more traditional – artefacts from around the country on display, and scary women on guard to ensure you don’t touch or photograph anything.

 

Roman Athenaeum

In general, Bucharest felt unfinished to me. True, there are some lovely areas, where you can see why it was once known as “The Paris of the East” or “Little Paris”, but so much of it deteriorated under the Communist Party that those names are no longer accurate. Restorations have started taking place, but the work is slow and patchy, especially in the Old Town.

 

Old Town Church

In the Old Town there are some beautiful streets that have been completely restored and house expensive cafés for tourists. Then there are some cafés that are sparkling new neighbouring the abandoned shells of former shops, or buildings where the ground floor has been renovated to accommodate a shop, but the upper levels are crumbling. Some of the roads have their centres gouged out and are bridged by wooden planks, and several cobblestoned streets are so deep in mud that you can’t see the stones under the tyre tracks. And there are piles of rubble everywhere.

In some ways, this adds to the charm – I followed an old Romanian man across an unstable boardwalk into an ancient church to listen to the singing on Friday afternoon. It was spell-binding – one man’s poignant yodel reverberated through the small church and onto the street, while the second man hummed in harmony. And I worried about getting mud on the floor.

I think Bucharest is a place I’d like to return to in a few years, once the restorations are complete. I’m looking forward to the finished product.

Cultural differences

I had the same experience when I arrived in and when I left Sofia.

A man approached me at the station, asking where I was going.

I said I was fine; I didn’t need help.

He then opened his jacket to show a yellow visibility vest with an ‘information’ logo stamped on it. “I’m train information – where you going?”

“Tram line 9,” I said hesitantly.

“Okay, I’ll take you,” he picked up my suitcase and carried it down the stairs. He chatted to me as we walked to the tram and I grinned at how nice and helpful he was.

He took me up to the platform. Then he asked me for money.

The same thing happened on the way out, except the man had a photo ID on a lanyard. The second time I was much more insistent about not needing help, but he walked ahead of me the entire time and by the time we reached the platform it seemed harmless to let him drag my suitcase.

Then he, too, asked for money.

At the time I was shocked and insulted – because of their uniforms, I assumed that they were salaried workers doing their jobs. I thought they were just doing me a favour and, when they asked me for money, I felt as though someone was trying to charge me for directions. Back home this would be completely unacceptable. And I didn’t even ask for help.

I also thought they should have said at the beginning that this was a paid service they were offering – leaving the money until the end felt dishonest to me.

In contrast, to them this was completely acceptable. Like a waiter expecting a tip for good service.

The second time I was slightly more prepared so, when he asked for money, I said, “excuse me?” with raised brows.

“Money, some leva or euros or Australian dollars?”*

“No,” I said firmly.

“But this is good advice I gave you,” he motioned to the train and to my ticket. “You have the train; you know you don’t need a seat reservation . . .”

“I already knew these things – I checked them twice. I didn’t need your help, I didn’t ask for your help, and you should have told me you were expecting money before helping me.” I explained. See? Perfectly reasonable.

“But I gave you good advice,” he argued. See? Perfectly reasonable.

I’m curious about what you think – what would be acceptable in your world?

Am I a spoilt, selfish brat who should have given them a few euros? Are they con-artists trying to take advantage of people who look like easy targets?

Or is it just a difference of culture?

 

* Note – I don’t look wealthy at the moment – my jeans are hanging off me, my suitcase is falling to pieces and everything is in need of a wash (especially after an unfortunate yoghurt explosion yesterday)

Budapest – House of Terror

A security guard nodded to me as I approached the House of Terror. The doors opened automatically and I stepped into a hall. Sombre music sent a thrill through me – in the few moments I was standing there, the three low notes seemed to permeate my skin. As I write this on the way to Bucharest, I can still hear the melody in the train’s rumbling.

After unsuccessfully trying to get a discount ticket (you need an ISIC card, not the Youth card – the full price was 1800 HUF), I was in.

The House of Terror is at 60 Andrassy Boulevard (a UNESCO listed street which leads from downtown Budapest to the Heroes’ Square), in the building that housed the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and the communist terror organisations, the ÁVO and ÁVH between 1945 and 1956. During the communist occupation, the organisation outgrew the building and stretched over the entire block. The cells beneath the buildings were connected in a labyrinth of prison cells.

The museum started on the second floor and finished in the basement, each level forming a square around a model of a tank and three floors of black and white pictures of the communist and Nazi occupations’ victims. Several rooms followed this theme – black walls with silver text, black and white television screens, dim lighting and chilling music. There was a film showing the spread of German power across Central and Eastern Europe, and then the spread of the Soviet regime as the ominous music played – it was almost delicious, how well they fit together.

I loved the darkness – it drew me in with morbid fascination and I felt like I was holding my breath as I waited for what came next . . . and then I entered a room that was well-lit with a hardwood floor. I felt cheated – this was the House of Terror! What happened to all of my doom and gloom?!

Although it’s a great museum, and there were several more murky rooms ahead of me, I felt like the bright rooms broke the atmosphere, making it a less powerful experience.

Finishing in the basement was incredible, though. Concrete tunnels and prison cells have been accurately reconstructed below the building. Towards the end of the museum there were some video interviews with former prisoners. Two of them stayed with me: one was an old woman crying about why this had to happen to her, and saying that she had been living in fear ever since. The second was of a man who was tied up for two hours a day during his imprisonment next to some sort of heater/furnace. He said that he asked the guard to move him because his hand was burning, but the guard just laughed. Then (on the video) he uncrossed his fingers and I gasped – there were two fingers missing from his left hand.

The second last room is the Hall of Tears, which is hauntingly beautiful. Tall and slender black crosses stand in a dark room, each one with a light shining where the bars cross.

‘The terror’s former house demonstrates today that sacrifices brought in the name of freedom are never futile. From the fight against the two murderous regimes, the powers of freedom and independence have emerged victorious.’ Museum brochure

Budapest

Budapest was more expensive than I expected it would be. I’ve found that European countries that aren’t on the euro, and have such high exchange rates that you feel like a millionaire, are often cheaper. Hungary, or at least Budapest, wasn’t one of them.

One euro gets you 272 forint (HUF), but you go through it very quickly. On the first day I spent 10,870 HUF (about €40) – way over my budget. On my second day I was very good – 390 HUF (about €1.45). On my third day I gave up – how could I be in Budapest and not visit the Parliament, the House of Terror or the Opera? (I didn’t get to the Parliament – our schedules didn’t align – but the intention was there.) I also bought my ticket to Bucharest for 14,620 HUF (a seat, because I was too poor for a couchette), which meant that I spent €70.42 on day three. The budget was officially blown.

Sigh. Hopefully Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are cheaper.

The thing is, whenever I wasn’t worrying about money my trip was so much better.

On my first day I was quite good – I knew the 72hr public transport ticket (3,850 HUF) would even out, and that I would only do the thermal baths once. It was only after buying food that I started to worry.

The second day was also good, but I found myself distracted as I started to get hungry, wondering whether I could really afford to buy something decent, and I found myself going up to expensive attractions and turning away.

Never one for self-deprivation, on the third day I was back.

But enough writing about money – let’s go onto Budapest!

I arrived at 9am on Tuesday and was greeted by Aurélien, Pierre from Warsaw’s friend. After dropping my things at his place, we walked around the city and he even let me sit in on one of his classes (he’s teaching French at a school in Budapest). I sat at one of the desks behind the students and, although he didn’t call on me, I think I could have kept up with the thirteen-year-olds.

Afterwards we visited the Dohány Street Synagogue and Jewish museum (admission was 850 HUF with my Youth card). This is the first synagogue I’ve visited in my travels and, upon entering, I couldn’t help but exclaim “wow!”

Built in the 1850s, the vaulted ceilings of Europe’s largest (and the world’s second-largest) synagogue tower 43m high, with two levels of balconies on either side of the nave. Huge chandeliers hang from the centre of the ceiling and smaller ones hang over all three levels.

Next to the synagogue is a small graveyard – the bodies of Hungarian Jews were buried here in a mass grave, and people who knew some of the victims’ names put small tombstones in the garden. There is now also a small monument and a plaque on the back wall with a more complete list of names. If you continue behind the synagogue, there are three monuments to the Holocaust – a free-standing stained-glass window, a wall of little arched holes named for the victims filled with pebbles, and the Emmanuel Tree.

The Emmanuel Tree is a weeping willow made of stainless steel and silver, and was design to resemble an upside down menorah. The names of Hungarian Holocaust victims are engraved on 4000 of its leaves.

After Dohány Synagogue, we visited the thermal baths at Széchenyi Spa (prices start at 3,100 HUF). The spa’s walls enclose a large courtyard with two hot pools (34 ºC and 38ºC) and a swimming pool (28ºC) – on a chilly night, plumes of white steam flew into the air like fog, and being under the water was like being in front of the fire, wrapped in a doona with a hot chocolate in a storm. Inside there are several saunas, a cold-water pool, as well as several thermal mineral baths, each with different minerals and, consequently, different smells. After soaking in a mineral bath, Aurélien asked if I wanted to try a sauna (I’d previously said I loved them, and he said he hated them).

“Sure, but maybe the 60ºC one – I haven’t been in a sauna for a while.”

“No,” he shook his head. “The hottest!”

“Okay,” I quailed inwardly, “how hot is it?”

“80ºC.”

We hopped in with the intention of staying for ten minutes. After seven, Aurélien said he couldn’t take anymore and had to leave. I gratefully followed him out, relieved that I hadn’t been the one to back down. Afterwards we both agreed that it nearly killed us.

Unfortunately we had to go back outside to return to the locker rooms, and those thirty seconds across the freezing pavement in bare feet were unbelievably painful.

Over the next two days I was by myself and, along with general wandering around, I visited Buda Castle and its surrounds, the State Opera House, the City Park and the House of Terror (which I’ll write about in a separate post).

Buda Castle rests on a hill over Budapest and houses two museums, and there are three more in the district, though you don’t need to visit them to appreciate the area. I spent a few hours wandering through the streets and to each of the castle gates (one which looked like a wrought iron spider’s web with a crow resting on top), admiring the elegance of the castle as well as that of the green, yellow and white buildings in the surrounding area.

My favourite part was the Fishermans’ Bastion – the fortress protecting the castle, right behind Matthias Church. Constructed entirely in white stone, the bastion looks like something from a fantasy film. Walking through the white colonnades and looking out over Pest, I felt like a dragon could land on one of the towers at any moment and whisk me away.

The State Opera House (1,900 HUF with student/Youth card) is gorgeous with red carpets, green, pink and grey marble, frescoed ceilings based on Greek mythology, and gold-leaf. Although it was supposed to just contain Hungarian materials, it used timber from Croatia and marble from Italy as well (there is also fake-marble from Hungary, which is more expensive than the genuine stuff).

At the time of its construction, 1875-1884, the State of Hungary ran into financial difficulties, so most of the funding came from Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef. He gave the money on the condition that the completed Opera House would be smaller than the one in Vienna. With 1,200 seats it is about half the size of the Viennese Opera House, but twice as beautiful (according to the tour guide).

Apparently this Opera House has some of the best acoustics in the world – as the pillars on the auditorium’s balconies carry sculptures of angels holding instruments, the legend is that the angels join in the performance every night with their instruments.

At the end of Andrassy Boulevard, the City Park is worth a visit too. This is where Széchenyi Spa is located, along with Heroes’ Square, and Vajdahunyad Vára. Vajdahunyad Vára is a castle built for the 1898 world fair – it hosts an agricultural museum, but I just went to admire the buildings.

So Budapest was awesome, the budget was blown, and I’m going to try to behave myself in my next few destinations.

Warsaw

Palace of Culture and Science - the most distinctive building in central Warsaw, and many locals think it's so ugly it should be torn down

“So, as you can see, Warsaw isn’t the most attractive city . . . and there aren’t that many touristy things to do . . . so what made you decide to come here?” Colin asked me as I dragged my suitcase through the drizzle from the central station to the bus.

Why? Because I was looking into couch surfing at the end of January, and seeing what was available. I knew I would have three weeks before going to Egypt, so was looking for spare couches in Central and Eastern Europe while I planned my trip. Colin, a Scottish guy living in Warsaw, was the only one offering somewhere in Warsaw, and he replied to my email immediately.

To sum up – free accommodation.

I arrived having no idea of what there was to do here, so when Colin asked if I had plans on Saturday night, I said I didn’t.

“Well I’m going to a friend’s birthday party, so you’re welcome to come along to that.”

“Sure,” I agreed and we headed out that evening.

We spent the night with two of Colin’s Polish friends and several beers and vodkas. After reciting all of the random Australian trivia I could remember, and making a Star Wars reference (I knew the word midi-chlorians – thanks dad), I received a marriage proposal and started arranging marriages for my brother and sister so everyone could get a visa to live in Oz (sorry Morgan – there were only guys present so you’ll have to be in a civil partnership for a while). Eventually we started talking about my trip and what I wanted to do in Warsaw.

“I’m not really sure,” I admitted.

These were Michal’s suggestions (also sent to me in a helpful email on Sunday morning):

Places to visit – Old Town, Royal Palace, Library of Warsaw University, Fotoplastikon, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Palace of Culture and Science, Praga, the top floor of the Marriott Hotel and the Royal Park.

Where to eat – Bar Mleczny Pod Barkakanem and Folk Gospoda

Somehow Michal’s suggestions turned into an offer to show me around, and on Sunday there were six of us traipsing around Warsaw as the weather cycled between wind, snow and sun (the temperature was freezing, at all times).

One of the new additions to the group was Pierre, a French friend of the boys’ who is living in Warsaw. When I told him that I was heading to Budapest next, he told me that he’d been in Budapest two weeks before and started recommending activities.

“Do you have anywhere to stay?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I was just going to book a hostel.”

“Okay – hang on a minute and I’ll message my friend in Budapest.”

10 minutes later and I had a couch waiting for me in Budapest! Don’t you love it when things just fall into place?

As for Warsaw, it isn’t like Paris or Rome or Berlin, where there are a million things to do. But there are enough – my two favourite being the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Old Town.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is incredible – the 2,000m2 space is in a former tram power station and split over several levels. Unlike traditional museums, which can be a bit clinical with rectangular white rooms and exhibitions behind glass, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is a black and grey blend of shapes, sizes and multimedia. It’s what all museums should be.

The first area is shaped like a triangle with replicas of old newspapers and fliers plastered on the walls, and plaques with information about the occupation of Warsaw in WWII. Down the centre of the room is what appears to be a thick, black wall that continuously plays sounds. One of them is a heart beating, which repeats endlessly and which you can hear in most parts of the museum – apparently it’s the recording of the real heart beat of one of the survivors. Other sounds are played intermittently – bombs going off and gunfire, as well as a long, low drone, like the bass note of a didgeridoo.

Going through the museum is an adventure in itself – the rooms are dark, there is a hidden tunnel, a warehouse area with a replica of an B24 allied plane hanging from the ceiling, several film exhibits, more traditional displays of weapons and uniforms in glass cases, and short biographies of hundreds of people who were involved in the uprising. You can even climb onto a BMW bike used in the war, walk through a replica radio station, or watch a demonstration of someone printing fliers on a 90-year-old printing press.

We also watched the 5-minute CGI film City of Ruins, which depicts the city after it was destroyed. The boys found it interesting because they could recognise the areas where they now live. I didn’t have the same context, but the size of the destruction filled me with shock and awe. Large parts of the city were flattened, and just the foundations of other buildings remained. On August 31, 1944, Warsaw had 1.3 million inhabitants. On September 1, it had 900,000. I know that ‘stunning’ is usually used in a positive sense, but I found the utter devastation stunning. It stunned me.

We left after three hours because we were hungry, but I could have easily stayed for longer, and I think this museum is enough of a reason to return to Warsaw.At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Old Town, which is stunning in the positive sense. The snow-globe beauty of the Old Town was enchanting and I greedily drank in the abundance of colour in the bright sun as though I’d been starved of it for too long (the modern part of Warsaw was a little bleak the day before in the sporadic snow storms).

Having been completely demolished in WWII, it isn’t the original 13th century town, but a replica that was built on the foundations of the ruined buildings. When I was talking to Colin about the Old Town, he made a point of telling me that it was just a copy, and I wasn’t sure whether this would lessen its value.

Now that I’ve visited it, I think the opposite. When I think of the strength, sweat and sheer stubbornness that must have gone into recreating the Old Town, it is even more impressive.

Photo courtesy of Colin (his camera's better than mine)

Berlin

They have hats!

In other news, I’ve been struggling to write about Berlin. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I spent so little time there that I couldn’t get a feel for the city.

I know it isn’t possible to truly know a city until you’ve lived there, but I’ve found that you can taste the spirit of most places in a few days. I’d love to have another couple more days in Berlin, but I’m not sure that would make a difference. Sure, I’d have plenty to see and do, but – maybe due to its size, maybe because it was destroyed and rebuilt so many times, maybe because it was divided for so long – I think this is a place where you would have to stay for months before you could gauge the atmosphere.

As for what I did notice – Berlin is huge! I was shocked by the open spaces – wide sidewalks border 6-lane roads, some with tree-lined promenades down their centres. Large squares abound and the 630 acre Tiergarten, formerly the royal family’s hunting ground, is in the centre of the city. Even the bike lanes are two metres wide! And there are so few people – when I went out at night the city was deserted, the D- and S-Bahn always had seats available and the only time I saw a large group gathered at any of the monuments was when I took the New Berlin free walking tour on Friday, and we were the large group.

Now – things to see and do:

The remains of the Berlin Wall. Enough said.

The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 1730s, and the statue over it was originally supposed to be of the goddess of peace. Unfortunately, she didn’t do her job too well, and Napoleon took the statue to Paris after the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the statue was restored to Berlin and the goddess’s name was changed to Victoria – the Roman Goddess of Victory. Since then, the square where Brandenburg Gate stands has been named Pariser Platz, so that German victory will always reign over Paris.

Gendarmenmarkt - courtesy of Wikipedia (I'm still working on my panorama)

Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin (the most beautiful that I saw). There are two cathedrals mirroring each other at either end of the square – the French Cathedral, where French protestants could worship, and the German Cathedral, which was built a few years later. If you look at the cathedrals, you can see that although the architecture is very old, the buildings are clean and new. They were actually only built from 1977 to 1981, the originals having been destroyed in WWII.

Alte Nationalgalerie

By contrast, the statues are nearly black with age. The statues are originals – under Hitler’s orders they were kept safe in underground bunkers in the war. Now many of the statues around the city are older than the buildings which they adorn.

Other beautiful sites include the architecture on Museum Island, and the Charlottenburg Palace. The garden in front of the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island is like a sanctuary – incredibly tranquil inside the colonnades in the afternoon sun

Charlottenburg Palace

– and there is a similar atmosphere in the gardens of the Charlottenburg Palace, the largest henzollern palace remaining in Berlin.

Bebelplatz, bordered by an opera house, university buildings and the first catholic church constructed in Germany after the protestant reformation, was built to reflect Frederick the Great’s political power. Unfortunately, it is now known as the place where the Nazi’s burned books on May 10 1933. Now there is a small memorial commemorating the event – a glass window in the ground that looks into a room of empty bookshelves – as well as a plaque explaining what happened. Next to the plaque is a quote by Heinrich Heine, ‘where books are burned, in the end people will burn’, which he wrote over a century earlier, in 1820. Ironically, this quote was from one of the books that was burned.

There is also a general monument for all victims of war around the corner from Bebelplatz – in the centre is a statue of a woman cradling her dead or dying son. Over her there is a hole in the roof, so all of the elements can come in. I’d love to come back when it’s raining – the echoes in the cavernous room must be unbelievable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for WWII monuments, Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial consists of 2711 concrete blocks of varying heights on a 19,000 square metre site one block south of the Brandenburg Gate. The blocks are set on a rippling surface, so the memorial looks like a sea of tombstones. If you walk through it in a straight line, it’s almost like walking through rows of bookshelves in a library. They engulf you as they grow higher and higher, and if you start to twist and turn through the blocks, you can see people appear and disappear.

Around the corner from here is Hitler’s old war bunker, where he killed himself. This is now sealed shut and is under a small car park in front of a block of flats, and its only marker is a small sign in German (this was erected so that visiting tourists would stop bothering the residents to ask them about it in the 2006 World Cup).

Illegal Levis!

I also visited the DDR museum. When I arrived I asked for one ticket.

“€6,” the woman at the ticket desk said.

Poor backpacker that I am, I asked, “is there a special price for young people?”

“Do you have a student card?”

“No, but I have a youth card.”

As I haven’t been a student for a while, I don’t have an ISIC card. However, being under 26, STA Travel gave me a youth card from the same company when I booked my flight to Paris. Never having used it, I still hadn’t attached a passport photo. I’d had some photos taken a few days earlier, but they were too large for the photo space on the card, and I hadn’t gotten around to cutting them to size yet.

I handed her the card and a loose passport photo, and explained the situation.

She looked at the card and looked at me.

I smiled.

She smiled back, “okay, €4.”

Needless to say, I cut the photo to size that night.

The DDR museum was a lot of fun – it describes life under the socialist government in East Berlin. Most of the exhibits are in draws or in cupboards, and there are also replicas of rooms on display. When you open the kitchen cupboards, you can see genuine products of the time. You could also hop into an expensive car, watch a video about housing, or read about the history through a touch-screen desk. It was also a small museum, so it was fairly easy on the brain.

So yes, Berlin is a city with an incredible history and a plethora of things to do; I just wish I’d had more time.

Berlin – Sachsenhausen

Registrationplatz

Yesterday I intended to go on the New Berlin free walking tour, which started at 11.

Map-less and a little lost, I arrived at 11:05 and could see that separate groups had formed with different tour guides, each with a New Berlin name tag on a red lanyard around his/her neck.

I inconspicuously joined the fringes of one of the groups.

¿Ha estado cualquiera a Berlín antes?”* The tour guide asked.

Hmm . . . not the English tour.

I sidestepped one metre and joined the neighbouring group, where the guide was also speaking in Spanish.

I debated tagging along, and then decided the tour would be wasted on me if I couldn’t understand it. I turned to head back to Alexanderplatz and saw another tour group, and the guide was speaking in English with an American accent!

I sidled up to this group, where the guide was saying that our train left at 11:25, so we still had some time if anyone wanted to grab a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I thought it was a little strange that a walking tour would start with a train ride, but didn’t want to alert anyone to the fact that I hadn’t been there since the beginning, so stayed silent.

We caught the train, and it took us 45minutes from Berlin to Oranienburg, where the remains of Sachsenhausen concentration camp rest. It wasn’t where I’d planned to go, but is definitely worth a visit.

Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and was the administrative centre of all camps in the area. About 200,000 prisoners passed through Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945, and 30,000 of them died here. From 1945-1950 the camp went under Soviet control.

We arrived at Oranienburg train station, the same station where the prisoners would have arrived, and took the same route that they would have taken to the camp. They entered Sachsenhausen at Registrationplatz, where officers would pick out some people and beat them in front of the group to set an example for the others. The prisoners were then stripped, and shaved. From then on, prisoners were identified by numbers painted or sewn into their uniforms, and later by coloured triangles. Jews wore yellow triangles (sometimes two – one upside-down and one upright to form the Star of David), political prisoners wore red, criminals wore green, Jehovah’s witnesses wore purple, foreign forced labourers wore blue, gypsies wore brown, homosexuals wore pink, and undesirables (prostitutes, drunks, drug-addicts, etc.) wore black.

Arbeit Macht Frei

We then entered Sachsenhausen through the main gate, bearing the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei – this roughly translates as work will set you free. The original structure of Sachsenhausen was a thousand-acre triangle where barracks fanned out from the space where roll-call was held, Apelplatz. At the base of the triangle is the main gate and watch tower. This layout meant that only three guards could monitor the entire camp from the watchtower, but more watch towers were added as the camp grew.

Washroom

Toilets

Every morning, prisoners had 30 minutes to dress, use the toilet, wash, collect and eat their rations and report for roll-call. Well, that doesn’t sound too difficult. Okay, try it in a barrack of 150 people, which housed up to 400 people when Sachsenhausen was over-capacity. And if you didn’t get out in time, you would be killed. Often people were trampled to death in the rush to get through the morning ritual.

Then came roll-call, when prisoners were usually made to stand for two to three hours in all weather, and this was repeated in the evenings. Sometimes the roll-call would be extended to fifteen hours, so it wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to drop dead. As the area was barricaded by an electric wire, there were prisoners who would make a suicide run, knowing that if they didn’t make it to the wire, the guards would shoot them dead, and if they did, they could electrocute themselves. Consequently, guards were ordered to shoot the prisoners in the foot or the leg – somewhere that would stop them from running, but not kill them. They would then be tortured.

After roll-call, prisoners started their work details. These included working in the infirmary, in the officers’ mess, building weapons for WWII and boot testing. Boot testing was known as the ‘death detail’ – prisoners were given a pair of soldiers’ boots (size wasn’t important) and a backpack filled with sand, and were expected to run around a track for the entire day. The average life expectancy of someone assigned to this detail was fourteen days.

Sachsenhausen was also the site of the largest counterfeiting operation in history. In two isolation barracks, prisoners were instructed to forge British and American currency, which would them be fed into the allied economies to collapse them. Both currencies were perfected, but not enough were inserted into British circulation to topple the system, and none of the currency ever reached the US.

The tour ended with Station Z and the infirmary.

Trench

Remains of Station Z

Station Z was the extermination centre of Sachsenhausen. As Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp, but one designed for slave labour, this part was added later. The first part is a trench, where prisoners were lined up and shot. Later, prisoners were taken to a building they were told was the infirmary. First they entered a waiting room. One by one, they were then taken for a ‘check-up’, where one of the staff was only really checking whether they had gold teeth. Next they walked into a small room with double walls, where a classical record is playing. The prisoners would stand against a measuring stick that had a small, neck-level gap. On the other side of the gap was a secret room, where an SS officer would be waiting. The officer would shoot each prisoner who stood to be measured. This was designed as a clean and clinical way to eliminate prisoners. A gas chamber was also built, but at a later stage. Afterwards, the dead bodies were sorted, the gold teeth were plucked and the bodies were cremated.

Communist Memorial

Sometimes the SS would contact the families of the dead (usually in the case of POWs) and inform them that their relative had died. They would then offer to conduct a small ceremony and send back their ashes for a small fee. No ceremony was conducted, and the urn was just filled with handfuls of random ashes of the dead. The other thing the SS did with the ashes was sell them so they could be used in asphalt.

The infirmary was where medical experiments were conducted on prisoners, the most common being infecting people with hepatitis B or gangrene and studying the effects. If any children were sent to a concentration camp, this is what they were used for.

In 1956 Sachsenhausen was established as a national memorial. Most of the original buildings were removed and an obelisk was built, commemorating the communist prisoners, reflecting the outlook of the East German government. Now it’s a memorial to all of those who were imprisoned there.

Paintings done by a prisoner who had paints smuggled to him by a guard

Memorial

* I don’t speak Spanish – this was Googled.

Montmartre

Relais de la Butte

Rue Poulbot

Although I’ve visited the Sacre Coeur several times, as well as a few other cafés in Montmartre, I’ve realised that I barely know the area at all.

Today I set out to remedy this. Instead of getting off the metro at Anvers, I left at Pigalle and snaked my way up the hill of cobble-stoned streets. Although Montmartre became a part of Paris in 1860, the village retained its character despite Haussman’s renovations.

Chez Marie

From the 1880s artists gravitated to the area, giving it the bohemian atmosphere for which it is still known.

Though, on a Sunday, everything was very calm. People sat under leafless trees on park benches, in tiny parks squeezed into street corners. They posed for photos under iron lamp posts on flight after flight of stone stairs, and they slowly perused café and restaurant menus before choosing whether or not to sit down for a drink. The streets were filled with boutiques, bars and bakeries, many of the glass-front shops dark and empty.

Street performer. He has goldfish on his head!

However, the energy changed as my path wound closer to the Sacre Coeur. The crowds increased and soon the shops were all dedicated to souvenirs. Suddenly the quartier was alive with street artists – not the usual hip-hop dancers you see around Anvers, but a swing band, a cellist and a tap-dancing, balloon-animal maker. The latter was the most impressive – he would select a child in the crowd and make him or her a balloon animal while tapping away, balancing a vase filled with water on his head. And there were three live goldfish in the case.

Place du Tertre

He was performing on the corner of Place du Tertre, a square bordered by restaurants and filled with artists selling their wares. One half of the square had painters with easels displaying images of Paris for sale, and the other half of the square had portraitists who were sketching greyscale images of tourists – there must have been twenty or thirty of them.

Place du Tertre

I continued to the Sacre Coeur, where more artists were standing with sketch paper on clipboards, drawing people while standing.

I considered going to the hill in front of the Sacre Coeur to see what entertainment was there (past examples have included hip-hop dancers, jugglers and a man walking down the hill on his hands), but walked behind it instead.

I was shocked to discover a completely different world. The crowds ceased abruptly, and I was in a residential area. It was still Montmartre, with its stairs, lanterns, cobble-stones, park benches and architecture, but it was quiet. I strolled down Rue Saint Vincent and only saw two couples and an old woman walking a white poodle wearing a red vest.

Villa Leandre

I from here I walked to the mansion and tree-lined Avenue Junot and turned down Villa Léandre. Villa Léandre is reputedly one of the most expensive streets in Paris, with colourful houses and gardens lining the street.

The man in the wall

As I left Villa Léandre I saw a sign pointing to Place du Tertre and a small group of tourists coming my way, and realised that I was heading back to the beaten track.

I followed the sign, passing a sculpture of a man coming through a wall. This sculpture is of the protagonist of French writer Marcel Aymé’s short story Le Passe Murielle – at 42, the character Dutilleul discovers that he can “pass through walls with perfect ease”. This talent drives Dutilleul to sinister pursuits until he is trapped in a wall on Rue Norvins in Montmartre, where we can see him today.

I returned to Place du Tertre, and window-shopped my way along the beaten track back to the metro.

After an hour of walking, I still don’t know Montmartre very well, but I think we’re becoming better acquainted.

Sacre Coeur from back

Brighton

Brighton Pier

After spending Christmas in my old house in London, we went to Brighton for the New Year.

It was so much fun! We walked along the pebble beach, explored the narrow passages and cobbled lanes of jewellery shops and cafés, looked at the historic buildings, and counted the gay couples (though you never know . . . at this time of year the straight boys might have just been lonely).

Royal Pavilion

Brighton’s such a beautiful town – small enough to be intimate and homey and large enough to entertain for a few days.

Other than an amazing dinner on New Year’s Eve at Sawadee (the sauce of the beef masaman curry was like velvet, and delightfully peanutty), the high point was probably the Royal Pavilion.

Built between 1787 and 1823, largely a project of King George IV, the Royal Pavilion has a white Indian-inspired exterior – architect John Nash built a metal frame around the original farmhouse to support the white domes, towers and minarets, a design which caused some controversy at the time (one woman was quoted on the audio guide saying that it looked like a giant turnip).

The interior is decorated in the Chinoiserie style, with oriental designs on the walls, bamboo lining doorways and Chinese dragons and snakes curling in the corners or on the ceilings. The banqueting room and the music room were the most impressive – the banqueting room had a one tonne, 30ft chandelier hanging from the claws of a gilded dragon! Six smaller dragons balanced on the outer rim, their heads upturned with lotus shaped lights bursting from their mouths.

The music room is almost as impressive with its hanging lotus lights – a large one hanging from the central dome and eight smaller ones in the corners of the octagon-shaped room. The thick curtains are blue and red with gold tassels, held by green dragons and snakes. 26,000 gold cockleshells line the central dome of the music room – unfortunately the building was not entirely water-tight, which caused wet and dry rot problems, and the damage took 11 years to restore before it was damaged again. One of the reasons for this was said to be all of the snakes and dragons in the room, which were bad luck, according to the Chinese.

Some other interesting things (well, things that I found interesting) are a cushion on a stand that women used to shield their faces from the fire when they checked their makeup in the mirrors over the fireplaces – apparently back then the makeup had a beeswax base and would slip off if it got too hot – and the exhibition of thousands of black butterflies around the Pavilion. Apparently they are there to ‘judge the decadence’ of King George, though I just found them to be incredibly beautiful and haunting – some of them were hanging behind the translucent white curtains, where they looked like shadow puppets.

So, other than having the most annoying audio guides in the world (“How did you feel when you entered this room?”, “Take the door to the left, find a place to stand, and press #’, “Let’s walk through there now . . .” – seriously, I don’t need that much direction), seeing the Royal Pavilion was wonderful, and I hope I have an excuse to return to Brighton in the future.

Back in London

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas and that Santa gave you everything you wanted (I’ve been without internet since the 26th, but now I’m back!).

So, I went to London for the holidays and, for the first time, I was struck by how foreign it felt.

At Kings Cross St Pancras I said “merci” to a woman. I also find myself saying “pardon” and wondering what I should have been saying instead. And at Morrisons I had to restrain myself from greeting the cashier with a cheerful “bonjour!

When I was grocery shopping I kept saying “Paris has this,” or “you wouldn’t see that in Paris,” or “things are so much better in Paris”. The cheese aisle and a half-baguette labelled as “French bread” were both low points, and I soon had to bite my tongue as I was even annoying myself.

All of the bakeries in Paris had Bûches de Noël on display.  None of the bakeries in London did.

I felt strangely out of place – could it be that now that I’d decided to leave Paris, I’d finally started feeling at home?