Posts Tagged ‘ museum ’

Last stop: La Rochelle

Last stop on my mini Tour de France is La Rochelle, the town that terrorised me from the pages of my high school French textbook.  Well not really terrorised, but the main reason I know of it is from the textbooks.  I was looking for a relaxing place to end my holiday, and curiosity got the better of me as a small part of me wanted to know what it was really like.

As usual I spent yesterday morning was just orienting myself and finding the tourist information office as well as getting a good whiff of salty ocean air.  Surprisingly they can fit the whole town map onto one sheet of A4, so finding my way around wasn’t too difficult and nothing is too far away.

I’d talked to a few people about visiting La Rochelle because (as usual) I wasn’t sure what I was going to do here, and without fail every single one said to me “I hear they have a great Aquarium!”  So that was the first thing I visited yesterday morning.  It sounds childish to visit an aquarium, but it really was interesting with lots of fish and other sea creatures to see, and they cover each part of the sea or ocean separately starting at the shore and heading to the depths.

The first cool thing that you see when the door opens in front of you and you enter the aquarium is a dark 5m long tunnel with small moon jellyfish swimming all around you.  It’s very impressive.  The biggest draws were the sharks of course, and there was a huge tank where you could see them swimming without tearing chunks out of people or boats.  Second on the ‘must see’ list were the tropical fish as people, myself included, are easily attracted to pretty things with bright colours.

la rochelle aquarium

Shark watching

After spending way too long in the aquarium, I left and without an idea of what I should do next, started the city walking tour.  It’s definitely the smallest and quietest place that I’ve visited so far, but it has some charm.  It’s still got three fortified towers that were part of the city walls, and an imposing city gate.  I walked past the beach where people were picnicking on the sand, but fully clothed, no sun bathing going on.

The city hall’s quite different.  Rather than a big facade to shop the town’s strength and wealth, there’s a wall with turrets that encloses the central courtyard.  It may be a sign that the city’s been fought over many times by the French and English.  It’s a story I’ve heard in different cities as I’ve been travelling (Bordeaux was also English for a long time), but looking at it now it would be really strange if a part of present day France was actually part of Britain so probably for the best that it’s French.

I wasn’t planning to have a seafood dinner, but in the end I had oysters and salmon.  I’m still not sure what the attraction of oysters are, but I keep trying to find out.  They taste salty and kinda sweet, but other than that I don’t get any really amazing sensation from them.

la rochelle sunset

Sunset on the beach

Today I walked through the parks on the north of the town, and past an animal park near the beach where there was an enclosure of around 15 peahens among other things, which I’d bet is more than most zoos have.  They also had an enclosure with goats which had three kids playing “I’m the king of the castle” on a pile of rocks, which was very cute.

I didn’t really achieve much in the morning, so I went to the Musée du Nouveau Monde after lunch, which was a museum showing the French and in particular La Rochelle’s ties with the Americas.  They had different exhibits in different areas of the museum starting with slavery and the West Indies which covered the trade in indigo and sugar too, then the colonisation of Canada and the USA, and finally a section on the Native Americans.  It was OK, lots of reading and paintings depicting how things were in those times.

Finally I visited one of the fortified towers, the St. Nicholas tower, that had been used to defend the city in the past and housed a noble family whose father was the Captain of the tower.  His term lasted for one year and during that time he wasn’t allowed to leave the tower at all, so it served a dual purpose as military base and home.

Each of the towers had an exhibit about a different part of the cities history, but I decided just to visit the most interesting one as I didn’t have enough time to go to all three and also I didn’t think I needed to see the city from the turrets of all three.  It was nice to see the port from a height, but the old port is really pretty small and most of the boats are actually berthed further out of town.

la rochelle port

The Old Port

So a short post instead of the usual mammoth essays as I didn’t do much in the last two days, but it was nice to relax a little.


Bordeaux: From rugby to wine

Second last city of the trip was Bordeaux and before I even made it to my hotel I saw something really cool!  They’ve got a tram system that takes electricity from a third rail on the ground rather than over head wires, and the cool thing is that it (of course) doesn’t electrocute you if you walk on it.  Well I thought it was cool…

I went to bed early on Sunday night, but still ended up sleeping in on Monday.  I spent what was left of Monday morning in the Tourist Information office,  who also had a little exhibition of the history of the city which was a useful introduction.

When I left the Tourist Information office, I ran into four German girls.  One of them did all the talking, and asked me if she could ask me to do something.  Umm, well she could ask…  Next question was what nationality I was.  Before asking her third and final question, she explained that it was her birthday and that she has to complete a challenge before her friends would give her her present (at least it wasn’t a hen party!).  Feeling a little uneasy now I said OK, what’s the challenge?  Turns out she needed to have a photo taken with people of five different nationalities. *Phew* that’s no problem, photo taken and on my way again.

Unusually I didn’t visit any religious buildings today and as most museums are closed on Monday, I headed out of the centre of town to the Museum of Wine and Wine Merchants.  It’s not really related to the growing of the vines as I would see if I had visited a château, but it concentrates on the history of wine in the Bordeaux region and the trades around the production of the wine, especially that of the wine merchants who buy wine from various châteaus to blend together.

The museum is quite small, mostly taking up the cellar where wine used to be matured in the basement of a building.  That’s only two arches that are a total of 60m long, but I spent almost 2 hours reading about how the merchants work and how to identify where a wine has come from.  There was also a short explanation of the different types of grapes grown around Bordeaux and the characteristics of each one.

bordeaux wine museum

Bottles lined up in the cellar of the wine museum

There were a couple of other people visiting at the same time as me, but they appeared to be getting special treatment from the staff and I didn’t know why.  I found out later that they were interns and it was their first day on the job, one of whom was English and studying French and German.  She’d spent the last 6 months studying at a university in Germany, and was now going to work for 5 months in the museum which seemed pretty cool.  She didn’t know an lot about wine yet, but I guess she’ll need to learn quickly.

After finishing the theoretical parts of the museum there was a wine tasting too.  The white wine was quite nice, but the red wasn’t to my tastes and apparently it’s young and will improve with age.  The main aim of the tasting was to reinforce the information that was presented to us in the museum about châteaus and merchants, and the people working there were pretty knowledgeable in my novice opinion and also very helpful.

One thing that’s very noticeable in all parts of the city is that there are squares everywhere.  Some large and very grand and others are small and maybe only have a couple of benches to sit on, but you can’t walk for more than two minutes in any direction before finding another square.  It was nice to people watch a little during the afternoon even though it’s not something that I’m very good at, and seeing the locals just hanging around.

bordeaux miroir d'eau

The biggest square in the city, Place de la Bourse, reflected in the Miroir d'Eau

Today I went on a guided tour of the city organised by the Tourist Information office.  I picked up some useful facts that I wouldn’t otherwise have known, but I think that it’s better to go on it on the first day that you’re in the city as I’d already learned or seen a lot of the basic things that we covered.  Also it was two hours long, but it felt like we’d only covered a small part of the city by the end of it.

Some of the interesting facts are:

  • There’s a street in the centre called rue Maucoudinat, which in the Gascon language meant “street badly cooked” because there was an inn on the street that served terrible food
  • Airbus wings sail down the Garonne river by boat until they’re south of Bordeaux, which would be an odd thing to see.  They’re going to the Airbus factory near Toulouse
  • Many buildings in Bordeaux are made using foreign stone, as ships sailed to the city with lots of ballast before being loaded in the port, and the ballast stones were used to make buildings and monuments.
bordeaux porte cailhau

Porte Cailhau, an old gate to the city made using foreign stone

I had lunch with a guy from London who was also on the tour and afterwards tried to find something to do.  I eventually ended up at the Musée d’Aquitaine, which contains a history of the Aquitaine region from prehistory through to the present day.  I didn’t spend too much time examining all of the exhibits, especially as in the earlier times there are lots of tools and arrow heads which are only so interesting.

The Roman era and the middle ages were also covered, then a large part of the museum was dedicated to the last 300 years as the 18th century was Bordeaux’s most prosperous period, when it was one of the largest ports in Europe and the biggest trading point for goods coming from the French colonies such as coffee and sugar.  Slavery is also covered in the exhibits, and while they claim that the city wasn’t a large trading point for slaves they do admit to having made a lot of money from trading products produced by them.

By this point it was almost time to leave, but I had time again to stop for a cup of tea and chill out on one of the city’s squares.  There were a few times when there was no one else in it and it felt almost abandoned, which wasn’t exactly eerie, but is strange in the middle of a city.  The tea again had a name, but I think this time it probably had something to do with the variety of tea used as it was called Silver Dragon.  It was OK, but the most impressive thing about it was that it was served in a really nice Villeroy & Boch mug which probably cost more than 15 pots of tea, so I’m surprised that I didn’t have to leave a deposit for it.  Maybe that only happens in beer bars where people are more likely to steal the glasses.

I got to the train station early and bought dinner, then waited for the platform to be announced for my train.  So for 30 minutes I was watching a mechanical departure board clicking and clacking as trains came and went, and it gave the place a little more character than the usual electronic boards.  On the down side you have to wait until all the clacking has finished to find out if the platform has been announced or if they were just removing a train that departed from the top of the board.

So what did I think or Bordeaux?  It was nice.  A city that’s proud of it’s past as a port and of it’s region that brought money to the city.  Now that I’m trying to think or something to sum it up I’m struggling, as it wasn’t outstandingly good and it certainly wasn’t bad.  It was just a nice place to relax for a couple of days.

bordeaux column

Column in Place de la Victoire, complete with grapes

Toulouse: Rugby country

Next stop on my tour of France was Toulouse.  There were a few cities in the area that sounded interesting, but there was one thing that I wanted to do in Toulouse that made me come here rather than Montpellier or somewhere else.  At the moment I’m thinking that I should’ve stayed in Marseille though as it was the first rainy day of the holiday yesterday, thankfully today was reasonably sunny though.

I started off yesterday morning with a trip to Tourist Information and then a walk around town.  The first thing that hit me was that Spanish is definitely the second language here, everything’s in French and most things are written in Spanish, then if you’re lucky there’ll be an English translation, and it’s tough being German or Italian.  The tourist information signs around the city are all translated to Spanish, the street names are in Spanish and the station names are announced in Spanish on the métro too.  I found out later that the city was where Spanish revolutionaries escaped to when General Franco was in power, so the ties with the the country are still strong.

I made the now routine stop at one of the city’s Basilicas, Saint Sernin, which is very austere with the only thing brightening it up being a set of completely unintelligible modern art which depict scenes from Jesus’ life, allegedly.  When I left a small flea market was being set up outside, with a guy selling used bikes, another selling pots and pans, but what caught my eye in a pile of junk was a red heart shaped “Just Married” cushion, and it made me wonder who would buy someone a second hand Just Married cushion?  I didn’t hang around to find out.

The only other interesting thing that I saw before lunch was in the Notre Dame de la Daurade church which was on my wandering path.  There’s a wooden statue inside of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, but they’re black and no one’s sure why.

toulouse notre dame de la daurade

Black Virgin Mary

After lunch I saw that there were Oxfam charity collectors out on the street, and I managed to avoid one by blurting out “Je ne suis pas Français,” which worked.  Ten minutes later though another one came up to me and said something about my shoes which I didn’t understand.  I told her that I wasn’t French, but she said “Ah, but I speak English too!” Touche!  So we ended up having a chat in French about the weather, Scotland and the fact that Oxfam isn’t known in France but is in the UK.  Maybe I should’ve had a chat to the first woman too, as it was actually quite nice!

The only big thing that I did yesterday was to go and watch Stade Toulousain play rugby against Brive, which I’d bought a ticket for a couple of weeks ago.  Getting to the stadium was a bit of a trek, they have two stadiums and it was in the smaller one, not Stade Toulouse, which is further out of town.  First you take the métro out of the city, the a shuttle bus from the métro station, walk along a stony canal path then cross a pontoon bridge to make it to the stadium.

The game itself was very close, 9-12 at half time and Toulouse eventually won 23-22.  It was the first rugby game I’ve been to without anyone with me to explain what was happening, but I got on OK although there were a couple of decisions that I didn’t understand.  The atmosphere was pretty friendly between both sides too, at least until Brive scored the last points of the game through a controversial converted try near the end.

toulouse rugby

Toulouse in Black, but Brive were way stronger at the scrums

By the time I made it back to the centre of the city it was after 4 o’clock, so I went to explore the shops and squares in the centre.  The almost-pedestrianised zone at the heart of the city is actually really nice, and I was surprised that I saw the same number of small independent shops selling cool and interesting things in one day in Toulouse that I have in 7 months on Paris.  I think they’re just better hidden in Paris, but in Toulouse they’re more prominent alongside the bigger chains.

Today I had another art gallery day, starting in the morning at Les Abattoirs, which is a strange name for the modern art museum.  I suppose the original use of the buildings may have been an abattoir, but they could have named it something else.  I’ve decided to start playing a game of “guess what it is” whenever I see an untitled piece of modern art, as it should keep me amused for hours.  I need to work on my out-of-the-box thinking, but my favourite one is below.  Even titles of some pieces don’t help me at all in trying to decrypt the meaning behind them.

toulouse zombie dog

Untitled. Zombie dog?

Second stop was a museum dedicated to photography called the Château d’Eau, which is a pretty small looking place.  It used to be a water tower for the city from the year 1823, hence the name, but fell into disuse after some years.  1823 was the same year photography was developed, which is the link to why it’s now a photo gallery.  I didn’t know what their exhibition was before I got there but it turned out to be of a Lithuanian photographer that I’d never heard of, Antanas Sutkus, who took photos of life and people during Soviet times.  All of his photos were in black and white and didn’t really follow the rules of composition that I’ve been told, but I’ve also been told that the rules are meant to be broken.  Some interesting photos, some that were a bit mundane, but it was pretty good.

The city, like Lyon, was pretty quiet on Sunday.  There were people on the streets, and the bars and cafés were open as well as the museums, but as usual almost all the shops are closed with only some food shops opening.  I saw my first “statue guy” of the holiday today when I was walking around.  He wasn’t bad (well, he wasn’t moving much) but no one seemed very interested in him and walked straight past.  I felt a little sorry for him, but I did the same thing too.  He was standing on a quiet street though, and I think if he went and stood in the Place du Capitole, the main square in the city, that he might’ve found an audience.

Last thing to do before making it to the train station was to follow the Toulouse Resistance tour around the city, which points out locations in the city where resistance activity took place during World War 2.  It was good but standard stuff, like the resistance press and the organisation of the movement.  One of the differences in Toulouse was that because they’re close to the Spanish border, they helped people get into and out of France over the Pyrenees mountains which sounds like it would be a terrible journey, but better than not going.

And now I’m on the move again…

Leaving Marseille

I finally moved on from Marseille earlier today, after 4 days it’s definitely time to do something new but I’ve enjoyed myself here and it’s been nice relaxing in the sun shine.

Yesterday I went to the Art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia and the Mediterranean Archaeology museums which are in the same building.  They were OK, nothing to special other than the scary masks in the Africa, Oceania and Amerindia museum, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend some time.

marseille african masks


At lunch time I met up with a friend of a friend called Justine who’d been living in Marseille for the last 6 months.  She didn’t know me at all, so it was very kind of her to take some time to have lunch with me and explain a little bit about Marseille.  We went for couscous in a small restaurant where people were all sitting shoulder to shoulder.  The food was good and incredibly cheap, and we just chatted and got to know each other.

After lunch we went for a wander in Marseille, which seems to be what I do every day, and she explained a little about the city.  The area we went for lunch in is called Belsunce, and it’s one of the more downmarket areas on the south side of Marseille, south of the train station.  It’s full of narrow streets crammed with little shops, and Justine told me that the mayor had been trying to get rid of the people who lived and worked there for a while to renovate the area and make it more in keeping with the rest of the city centre, but he hasn’t succeeded yet.

From there we walked along the coast on the south side of the city which is called La Corniche.  It has really nice views over the city and the sea, but has a busy road right next to the pavement so there’s the constant buzz of traffic whizzing past you.  On the way there’s the Palais du Pharo which is a huge residence built by Napoleon, and eventually ended up being owned by the city.  The building itself is quite pretty, but at the back of it away from the road is a small paved area and paths where you can see the sea without all of the distractions (boats, tourists – like me, buildings) that you get when trying to look at it from the Vieux Port area.

We joined all the other people looking out to sea, and Justine noticed that there were two small boats at the entrance to the harbour, then she remembered that she’d heard something about a strike by the port workers, so those small boats were actually blocking the exit and stopping any ships from leaving or coming in.  This was the first that I’d heard of it, so we kept watching and talking for a few minutes then saw a medium sized cargo ship moving towards the barricade.  Everyone around us was staring at the boats and trying to figure out what was going to happen.  There was no way the cargo ship was going to stop in time, even if it wanted to, but the port worker’s boats were holding firm too.  At the last minute when we thought there was going to be a collision the blockade was moved, but there couldn’t have been more that 2 or 3 metres between the cargo ship and the boats.  Justine told me that the Marseillaise were crazy, but they stood up for what they believed in.

After the excitement on the high seas we kept going along the coast and Justine remembered she’d found a pretty little area of fishermen’s houses when she’d been exploring the area, so we tried to find them again.  She told me that she had a photographic memory of the place she was trying to get to, but the actual route to take to find that place was a little more of a mystery.  It’d taken us 10 minutes to find the couscous restaurant that she goes to regularly, but she was on form with the fisherman’s houses as we found them first time.

Once again it was a really pretty area, not on the tourist trail, which made me happy that I’d found someone to guide me around a little.  It sounds like I’m repeating myself, but the sea was gorgeous and blue/green again, and the huts looked very cute.  She also pointed out that the rocks along the coast around Marseille were all white like Dover rather than the more standard grey.  I have to admit that I hadn’t really noticed, but now that I’d been told it stuck in my memory.

marseille fishermens houses

Small houses (but not the huts) on the water

Time for a change of scene, so we took the bus to Parc Longchamps.  The bus was packed to bursting but we couldn’t really figure out why until a few stops later when a whole class of little school children got off and there was instantly room to breathe!  A short trip on the métro followed the bus, then Justine told me that we had to find the correct entrance to the park as there were many of them.  So we made it to the right one, and it was worth it as there’s a huge water feature overlooking the street, from there you climb up the stairs to the top and go through to the other side where the park falls away back to ground level, which is actually a little strange.

marseille parc longchamps

The "correct" entrance to Parc Longchamps

Last stop on the tour was La Friche La Belle De Mai, which was an abandoned factory before it became a cultural melting pot for Marseille.  The main building where it’s based is huge and houses an art gallery, a radio station and lots of other things that I can’t remember, and around this there are concert venues, a skate park, a restaurant and more.  We went to the gallery which had collections of art from a number of different local (I assume) artists, all modern, mostly funny, quite political and highly sexed.  It’s the type of thing that you don’t see in a normal gallery and was quite cool to see exhibited.

The most important thing that I learned from Justine was that in Marseille there aren’t a lot of blockbuster tourist sights (which I mentioned once or twice already), but the charm of the city is in the changing areas and seeing the different ways that neighboring areas live.  Seeing the North African and Middle Eastern area, then a few streets further east there’s the more creative Cours Julien, and seeing the Nouveau Riche moving into the Panier and living next to poorer families that haven’t been priced out of the area yet.  I’m a very bad people watcher, but she pushed me into paying more attention to the people that were in the area that I was visiting.

Today I decided to use that new knowledge and sense of adventure to walk somewhere, but without using a map.  I had two and a half hours to spare in the morning after checking out of the hotel, so I went east.  After 90 minutes of walking through some areas that I’d already seen and others that looked totally anonymous, I ended up back at Parc Longchamps.  That might not be considered a success, but it wasn’t a bad place to end up and I had a play with RetroCamera on my phone.

My plan for the afternoon was to take a boat trip out to the Calanques, which are like coves or fjords that have naturally been eroded in the white rock of the coast.  The boat tours take between 2 and 3 hours and take people out to see up to 12 of the calanques.  It’s also possible to hike out to them, but it’d take way more time, skill and effort than I had available.

The first calanque looked nice, and had twenty or thirty houses and small buildings at the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.  Not exactly idyllic or practical, but it did look good.  Most of the calanques looked pretty similar, some of them were little villages, others had boats collected on the waters edge, and one or two were beaches.  There wasn’t a lot of variation between them though, and I ended up taking photos of trees instead.

marseille sormiou calanque

Sormiou calanque

It was nice to head out onto the water to see a little more of the coast, but it felt bitterly cold for the three hours that we were out there.  It was warm in the city, but on the boat even with gloves on and my jacket buttoned up I still had the shivers.  So my top tip is to take a zip up jacket with you when you go on a boat in the Mediterranean.

marseille calanque tree

Gorgeous skies and trees on top of the cliffs

Museum day in Lyon

So tired today.  Completely overslept and ended up rolling out of bed at 9:30, which isn’t late in the normal world but isn’t ideal when I’m on holiday and it’s my second and last day in a city.  I want to be outside doing things.

After getting ready and having breakfast at the hotel, I eventually left at 10:30 which wasn’t bad considering.  As I’d done all the leg work yesterday, today was going to be a relaxing museum day as there was one that sounded pretty interesting, and one that didn’t sound bad and would be an OK way to spend some time.

lyon lumiere museum

They're quite proud of them!

I started at the Lumière Museum, which is dedicated to the Lumière brothers who invented the first practical video camera as well as developing new innovations for still picture cameras.  The museum is in what used to be their father’s house which used to be in a suburb of Lyon, but is now part of the city.  He built a huge house which overlooked the factory where his company produced still picture plates which were used in the cameras of the time.

His two sons Auguste and Louis didn’t develop the first video camera, but they did develop the first one which could take a fixed number of frames a second, the Cinematographe #1.  Previous cameras had nothing to govern how long each frame was exposed for so the quality varied greatly, but the Lumière camera has a mechanism to expose each frame for exactly the same length of time, giving consistent pictures.

They recorded their first film in early 1895 and later that year showed it to amazed crowds.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal now as we have high definition 3D colour TVs with sound, but it would have been pretty amazing at the time.  Their camera was also light enough to carry with you, so they sent people around the world to record what life was like in Japan, Vietnam, Peru and Morocco amongst others, and in the days before satellites and 24 hour news they gave an insight into what was happening in the world.

The museum has an example of the Cinematographe #1 as well as the cameras that were developed before it and also some that came after.  There are lots of video exhibits, including the first film they recorded which shows workers leaving the Lumière factory at the end of the day, and as with all of their films was only 50 seconds long.  Other films being shown included 40 film directors recreating the first film by taking the place of the workers and walking out of the factory gates, and a related film where each of those 40 directors made a 50 second long film with a Cinematographe #1.

lyon cinematographe 1

Cinematographe #1 set up as a projector

It was really interesting, but a little difficult to understand.  I took an English audioguide but it only explained so much.  All of the text in the museum was in French, and some of it relating to the chemistry involved in making the film, or the specific items (like sprockets) needed was difficult to understand.  I could try and guess from the context, but it was hard work.

The Lumières also developed the ability to take 360 degree images and colour photography which Louis Lumière thought was actually his biggest success, so all in all they were a pretty innovative family.

I headed back into the centre of the city after I left the museum, and despite the fact that it was almost 1:30 in the afternoon almost nothing was open in the shopping streets, and just some bars and cafés in the side streets.  There were still people walking around, and they must have been going somewhere, but I have no idea where.  Not quite a ghost town, but very different to how it was on Saturday.

After grabbing a sandwich at a bakery that was actually open, I went to the “not bad” museum, which was the Musée des Beaux Arts that’s located on Place des Terreaux right next to the city hall.  It’s a museum of mostly old art that has a little bit of everything.  There’s a little courtyard before you go in with benches and flowers beds and some statues dotted around.  You start walking around and realise there’s a Rodin statue in the courtyard that probably gets rained and snowed on all through the winter.  I suppose it was designed to be outside, but it was still a little surprising.

Inside, I worked my way through the Objets d’Art and Antiquities sections quite slowly, and they had a different period in history in every room, from Art Deco back to the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamia.  The most interesting thing that I saw was a set of furniture from the Hotel Guimard in Paris which was designed by Hector Guimard, who designed some famous buildings in Paris and elsewhere, and also the art nouveau Métro entrances.

lyon guimard desk

A desk from one of the Hotel Guimard's rooms

On the top floors they had a big range of paintings starting from the 1300s up to the 20th century, almost all classical art, but some of the more modern ones were interesting.  Before leaving the museum I stopped by the café to have some spiced green tea with grapefruit, called Fakir tea.  It tasted nice, not too much grapefruit, and came in a cool little teapot which made me unusually happy (for a teapot).  I think it’s because it gave me a photo opportunity in a city where I hadn’t seen a lot of cool stuff that I wanted to photograph.

lyon fakir tea

Fakir tea, complete with cool teapot

When I left the museum I still had an hour before I had to be back at the hotel to collect my suitcase, so as usual when I have time to kill, I started wandering and 2 minutes later I found a big group of guys practicing their break dancing (or whatever the kids call it these days) outside the city Opera.

lyon dancer

Dancing dude

For two days Lyon was OK, but I think I missed something while I was there.  There were things to do to pass the time but no huge attractions like other cities.  I’d read that this was the case before I arrived though so I wasn’t too surprised, but I didn’t really get a feeling for the atmosphere of the city.

One thing that bugged me there, and also bugs me in Paris, is that no one cleans up after their dogs.  I assumed in Paris it was just because they didn’t care, and that most of the people don’t consider themselves to be Parisians so maybe they don’t care so much about their adopted city.  I thought things would be different in the smaller cities but it’s not.  I have to confess that I did see one woman cleaning up after her dog in Paris that made me giggle, because she took some toilet paper out of her handbag and wiped it’s bum as well!

Aaaaaanyway, now I’m on a train again heading to my next destination.

Berlin day 4: Two very different museums

Today’s my last full day in Berlin, and I managed to rush around and see two of the museums that I was interested in.  The first was the Deutsches Technikmuseum which covers science and technology, and the second was the Pergamon Museum which I was told was very interesting and contains a collection of ancient antiquities from the Near and Middle East.

Before I got to the museums though, I went to have breakfast in the bar downstairs.  It’s quite an old fashioned place with dark wood tables and chairs, and metal advertising signs on the walls.  Usually it’s very quiet too.  Today however there were other people there so I wasn’t eating breakfast alone, but even stranger was the 90’s hits compilation that they were playing including “classics” such as Mr Vain and You Spin Me Right Round.  I tried to block it out, but I had Mr Vain stuck in my head for the next 2 hours.

Berlin technikmuseum entrance

This plane marks the location of the Technikmuseum

The Technikmuseum opens at 9am, and as I thought it would be a really packed day I managed to make it there at around 9:30.  The largest buildings in the complex are 2 big railway sheds, and I think this was the initial exhibition of the museum.  The sheds are filled with full size trains as well as scale models, and tell the story of the German rail industry from the first trains in the 19th century right up to the present day.  It’s impressive that they’ve got such a big collection in a city museum (it’s not in the centre of Berlin, but not far out), and most of the major exhibits have English and German descriptions, but a lot of things are only explained in German.

It was still great walking around all of the trains though, and inevitably the war was mentioned again as the railway network played a big part in transporting troops and equipment to where they were required as well as transporting people to concentration camps.  While the railway network grew during the war to allow trains to get to their destinations, after the war a lot of the railway stock and tracks lay in France, Poland and other countries who obviously didn’t want to give them back when the war ended.

Berlin technikmuseum train

World War 2 era steam train

The museum covers a lot more than trains though, and I walked around the Chemistry and Pharmaceuticals, Photography Technology, Computing and Paper Making sections.  The sections follow German companies where possible to show the innovations that they developed and the highs and lows through their history.

Berlin technikmuseum photo exhibit

Photography exhibit at the Technikmuseum

The other parts of the museum that I didn’t have time to visit included aviation, ships and shipping, and an on site brewery.  There’s also a vintage car exhibit that’s closed until May, so I didn’t see that either!  I hurried round the parts that I did see in a little over 2 hours as I was told that the Pergamon museum was huge, and you could easily spend more than a day learning about all the exhibits there.  So at midday I headed back out into the cold and tried to find the U-Bahn subway station.

The Pergamon Museum is indeed very big, and it’s situated in a part of the city called Museum Island, so called because it’s an island and is filled mostly with museums. Our walking tour guide told us on Tuesday that the Berliners are not very good and thinking up original names for anything, hence Museum Island.  Other examples are that the subway station in the middle of the city is called Stadtmitte (City Middle), and when the city created a new museum in addition to the existing city museum a committee was formed to find a new name.  They decided to call the existing museum the Altes Museum (Old Museum) and the new museum Neue Museum (New Museum).  Makes you wonder why they bothered with a committee.

Anyway, the Pergamon Museum is named after the ancient city of Pergamon whose Altar and murals from 170BC are shown in the main hall of the museum.  The murals, which are not complete as many parts have been damaged or lost, are mainly of Greek gods driving away enemies of Pergamon, the most impressive thing is their size.  The original square in front of the Altar building was around 25m by 15m, which was covered all the way around by the mural.

Berlin pergamon mural

Part of the Pergamon Mural showing Zeus and Athena fighting their enemies

Other impressive exhibits include the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, which was one of the entrances into the city of Babylon.  The gate is decorated with coloured tiles with lots of images of bulls and dragons which represent the Babylonian gods Adad and Marduk.  As well as the gate, it’s possible to see the walkway which lead up to the Ishtar Gate, which is also decorated using bright blue tiles and images of lions, which were intended to scare away rivals.

Berlin pergamon ishtar gate

Ishtar Gate of Babylon

Berlin ishtar walkway

Part of the walkway leading to the Ishtar Gate

It’s hard to explain what it looks like, so hopefully some pictures will help.  Considering that it dates from around 600BC, it looks really good!

Berlin pergamon ishtar palace

Ishtar Palace decoration

There are many more parts to the museum covering lots of different ancient cultures including the Assyrians, Babylonians and ancient Persians as well as a whole wing displaying Islamic art.  Most of the artifacts in the museum were found by German archaeologists in the 50 years or so before the First World War when they were excavating in Turkey, Mesopotamia and other areas of the Middle East, and many buildings or objects were found almost complete.  After a culture was conquered, died out or changed location to old cities were abandoned, only to be rediscovered thousands of years later.

Berlin pergamon mosaic

Ancient mosaic from Miletus

So this is the last Berlin post as I’m leaving tomorrow afternoon to go to Strasbourg and speak a language that I kind of understand, certainly more than I understand German.  No free wifi in the next hotel, so it might be Sunday before I get to post something again unless I have a really exciting 6 hour train journey that I can’t wait to share with everyone!

I’m kinda happy to be leaving.  Berlin has interesting history, obviously, but I’m not sure about the way the city is now.  Maybe it’s just the weather that’s put me off, but I feel like it lacks character as it doesn’t have the old buildings and surviving history of many European cities – in some places it almost seems American, if only the roads were wider.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my time here, I just guess I’m glad to be going somewhere else.

Berlin day 2: Tired feet

On the recommendation of one of my friends from Amsterdam, I spent today on the Brewers Tours all day walking tour around Berlin.  It was really interesting, although I’m struggling to remember all the useful facts that I learned.  The guide Sion (pronounced Shaun) was Welsh, and a historian, so had lots of little insights into the history of the city.

I met Sion at 10:30am at the meeting point that I’d scoped out the day before, and for 10 minutes or so I thought I was going to be the only one taking the tour.  What I didn’t know was that there were 2 more pick up points at youth hostels nearby, and also that myself and Sion had blazed off leaving a Liverpudlian couple behind at the initial meeting point.  Luckily they followed my red wooly hat to the next meeting point, and we lived happily ever after.  After the first hostel we managed to pick up a grand total of 0 walkers and also at the second hostel, but we eventually grew to a total of 9 die hard explorers.

We were die hard explorers because it had snowed overnight which was lying on top of the ice that was previously coating the ground, making walking around potentially treacherous.  It kept snowing all day too on and off making the Australians dream of a barbeque on the beach, and I’m sure the two Brazilians were having similar thoughts.  Sion told me that they grit the road with actual grit, rather than the road salt that’s I know is used in the UK and the Netherlands, because it’s more environmentally friendly.  The only problem is that grit doesn’t help the ice melt, so it might hang around for a while, maybe a few months like last year.

Our first stop was the Neue Synagogue which Sion explained was initially built as a symbol or power and equality when the Prussians made the Jews equal to all other inhabitants in Prussia, but as always some people were more equal than others, and the Jews still suffered in many ways.  A few decades later and things changed of course when the Nazis took power, and it was due to be ransacked as all other synagogues were on Kristallnacht.  The Nazis had ordered the fire and police service not to interfere with the destruction of the synagogues, and in most cases they complied, except where adjacent non-Jewish buildings were threatened by the actions of the mobs.  At the Neue Synagogue however, one policeman stepped out into the road in front of the mob and fired his pistol in the air and told everyone that they should go home.  Surprisingly it worked and they dispersed.  The Synagogue was actually badly damaged by British bombing during the war ironically, but the Nazis didn’t manage to damage it.

Berlin neue synagogue

Neue Synagogue

From the Synagogue we went to the Gedenkstätte on Große Hamburger Straße, which I posted a picture of at the end of yesterday’s post.  It’s a memorial to the Jews killed after being detained in a former old people’s home on the street.  In addition to removing all the living Jews from the city, the graveyard on the street was also emptied during the war which seems quite chilling.  I don’t think I would like to take up space by being buried, but I also wouldn’t like to disturb those who chose it.

The street is in a Jewish area of the city, and like Cologne, is covered with brass paving stones indicating the names of the people who used to live at that address.  Apparently placing the stones isn’t something performed by the government or local council, but a private organisation which I found surprising as they’re everywhere.  I took the picture below in Cologne.

Cologne rememberance stones

Cologne remembrance stones

After lunch we walked past Montbijou park which used to be the location of a Royal palace before it was destroyed during the war.  Rebuilding it would be expensive, and the Russians didn’t really agree with monarchy, so they replaced it with a children’s play park!

Onward to Museum Island where we were given a quick run down of the museums present and which ones were and were not worth visiting (the Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum are worth it FYI), and then finding out why the Berliner Dom which is the name of the cathedral looks a little dull.  Apparently during the time of the Frederik the Great’s rein (more on him later) the ruling dynasty wanted to create a building as impressive as the Vatican but which they could have control, so they build the Dom as a Protestant church with none of the beauty of the Vatican.

Berlin dom

Berliner Dom

Next we walked to Unter Der Linden (Under the Limes), a street lined with Lime trees, where we stopped near the Humboldt University.  One of the buildings used to be a palace which then became the university library, built by Frederik the Great who Sion said was one of the best monarchs that Germany had, compared to the others who were generally useless.  He was also a great investor in culture, and created one of the first public libraries and public opera houses. What is now the main university building was previously a library and the square in front called Bebelplatz was the location of the Nazi book burning in 1933.

Berlin unter der linden

Under the Limes

Now the location of the book burning is marked with two memorials.  The first is a plaque with a quote from Heinrich Heine which translates to “Where they burn books, they will also burn people,” which seems remarkably prescient.  The second is underground, with a window on the ground looking down to empty bookshelfs big enough to hold 20,000 books.  The same number of books which were burned.

From Bebelplatz we walked to the Gendarmenmarkt, which is unusual because its name is half French (Gendarme) and half German (markt).  Apparently it’s in an area where French protestant Huguenots fled to after the Catholic monarchy in Paris ordered all Protestants to convert to Catholicism or die.  Those who fled to Berlin chose a third option, and in return the German’s build them a French church on this square (the Französischer Dom).  There’s also a French street (Französischerstraße) nearby.  The best thing about the Gendarmenmarkt however was that we stopped for a warming Gluhwein there! 🙂

From here onwards we saw some of the “Big Sites” or Berlin, with Checkpoint Charlie next up.  While the area is significant for what it used to be, nothing related to Checkpoint Charlie is original and only a sign similar to the “You are now entering the American sector” sign would actually have been there while the war existed.  There’s a line of bricks in the ground indicating where the part of the wall which was seen by West Berliners ran, which is soon going to be extended throughout the city.  The shack in the middle of the road with an American soldier is actually staffed by the Party Police, who will also hire you a stripper in addition to an American soldier if you so desire.

Berlin Wall route

Berlin entering american sector

Checkpoint Charlie

We also saw one of the remaining pieces of the Berlin wall, which looks like a thin wall with some graffiti on it.  The wall itself wasn’t the barrier to freedom though, it was the wooden wall, barbed wire fence, the tank traps, watch towers and raked sand – used to highlight footprints – that lead up to the wall that were the dangerous part.  This meant that normally all buildings in this area were destroyed, and graveyards and churches removed, to prevent anyone using them for cover.  All except Detlev Rohwedder House, which was used by the East German Council of Ministers.

The final two sites were the location of Hitler’s official residence and bunker where there isn’t much to see anymore, but we got another essential piece of the German history lesson from the end of the war, and lastly we went to the Brandenburg Gate.

After the tour, as if I wasn’t tired already, I went for a wander and came across the DDR Museum which I wanted to visit.  It’s a small place which is about life in East Germany during communism and it’s quite interesting and amusing.  They explain how the East balanced the books financially (or failed to), how children were indoctrinated into being good Communists and all the luxuries and shortages that Easterners could expect to have.  They also have a Trabant that you can sit in, it’s a very hands on museum.

The weirdest thing that happened to me while I was there was that I saw something moving on the ground towards me.  When I looked a little closer it looked like a brown mouse, and I thought it must be one of the toy exhibits that someone was playing with.  Then the mouse barrelled straight into my boot, then darted off in a different direction.  It was quite surreal.  Maybe it was blind.  Anyway, I told the owners and hopefully they catch it.

So other interesting things that I learned today are:

  1. Sion’s female flatmate and former East German was withdrawn from swimming lessons by her parents after they found out the coach was giving her pills to take.  She was 9 years old at the time!
  2. All the trees in Berlin are numbered with a little metal plaque.  Someone has that job, and apparently there are over 400,000 trees
  3. After Chernobyl the shops in the Eastern Bloc suddenly had an abundance of food.  This was only because the food wasn’t safe for sale in the West
  4. An 18 year old tried to escape to West Berlin by hiding in the stomach of a stuffed cow.  He failed
  5. East Germans could receive West German TV, and vice versa (I had no idea).  There was a program on East German TV that just countered with propoganda everything that was on the West’s TV the previous night
  6. The guy who presented the show was one of the most hated men in East Germany
  7. The East Germans could watch West German TV (I had no idea) but it wasn’t allowed for obvious reasons.  The Stasi found a sneaky way of finding out who was watching it by asking 6 year old school children to draw the logo in the top right-hand corner of the TV screen!