10 tragic Berlin landmarks that will melt your heart

One walk you must take…

Berlin has come a long way from the time Slovenians discovered a marshy, swampy fishing village (ber-lin), way back in the 1500s. Cut to a few centuries later…post WWII and communist era, not only did the city survive, spirit intact, but reinvented itself yet again. There are at least 4000 live construction sites all over the city today…talk about work in progress!

The best way to immerse into the essence of Berlin by taking an escorted walking tour of its historic sights. A fascinating half-day is all it takes to relive the entire gloomy ’40s. And when you’ve walked down this stark, dark memory lane of dictators, war and oppression, you’ll be recommending Berlin to everyone you know too. Here are the unforgettable landmarks from the walk:

1. Berlin Cathedral

Crossing one of the 1700 pretty bridges on the river Spree (that’s more than those in Venice or Amsterdam), near the Museum Island of Berlin, first stop to ogle at spectacular monument on the left bank of the river. The baroque Berlin Cathedral with its massive green dome, 225 feet high and 100 feet in diameter, punctuated with circular skylights is noticeably inspired by the St. Peters at Vatican. This portrait of utter magnificence marks the beginning of the Royal Avenue, an area once lined by a plethora of monuments, including the imperial palace, museums, churches, institutions and administrative buildings. Most were razed to the ground during the war and what remains, including the Cathedral, has been carefully reassembled post-war. Take a few minutes to digest that.

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2. Humboldt University

Move on to the hallowed institution where Einstein, Lenin and Karl Marx once taught. Ponder upon the infamous incident, where masses of students, in a bid to show support for the communist movement, burnt thousands of books written by leaders and thinkers like Ernest Hemingway, and Jews like Einstein and Freud. Peer down the unusual underground memorial on the University grounds through its glass ceiling. Its walls are lined with empty book shelves…symbolically conveying the ‘presence of absence’. On the pavement nearby, over makeshift wooden stands, second hand books and reprints of the destroyed books are still sold for charity…a whimsical, long-standing tradition.

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3. Checkpoint Charlie

This ominous entry way between East and West Berlin, once heavily guarded by the American troops is now just a harmless tourist spot. A sign from the past reminds, “You are entering the American sector. Carrying weapons off duty forbidden. Obey traffic rules”. Study the wall mural of black and white pictures from the Nazi era…a   time of extremes, when one either conformed or was killed.

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4. Berlin Wall

Minutes away, stands one of the few still-intact portions of the Berlin Wall. Imagine…right behind was the headquarters of Gestapo and SS. To think that the entire wall was actually made overnight under heavy guard by Soviets to ban movement of people. A double wall of reinforced concrete with an L-base so it couldn’t be pushed over or smashed. A sewer pipe running over it, so that there was nothing solid to hold on to. ‘No man’s land beyond…filled with landmines, electric fencing, spotlights, rigging and traps. Orders to shoot at sight and incredible escape stories. Times of absolute terror.

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5. Nazi building

Opposite is the only surviving Nazi building in the city, where the Tom Cruise blockbuster, Walkyrie, was shot. Behind the austere grey stone wall facade and iron-grill windows is a modern day tax office. The structure continues to exude fear even today…fear of a different kind! Visualise a group of Nazi soldiers marching out in official uniforms (which, evidently were designed by Hugo Boss). I felt a sudden loathing for Hugo Boss. Maybe you will too.

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6. Elser Memorial

So deep-rooted and intense is the hatred associated with the horrors of Hitler’s regime, that Germans went all out to wipe out his very traces. The Fuhrer is said to have survived 16 assassination attempts, including a failed bomb attack by George Elser, in whose memory an unusual assassin memorial has been erected. Study the 17-meter high steel outline of Elser’s face floating above the trees, wondering how the silhouette would look softly illuminated at night, a 200,000 euro reminder of a martyr rebel’s efforts gone in vain.

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7. Hitler’s Bunker

Apparently, Hitler knew that people hated him so much they would have tortured him even after he died. So he ordered that his body be cremated. After his reported suicide by shooting himself in his bunker, the body was identified by its jawline…he had metallic wires from rotted teeth. A modest apartment block stands over the spot of his underground bunker with nothing but a nondescript board to signify the area. A manhole sits over the spot where his body was cremated. A harsh, pathetic end for a hated ‘world leader’!

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8. Holocaust Memorial

Not far is the Holocaust Memorial designed by Peter Eisenmann. Spread over an area of 205,000 square feet, the Memorial has 2700 upright concrete slabs, varying in heights, each five-sided and unique in size and shape, making up a maze of lanes. Stroll through the maze simply to experience the sheer numbers of people the Nazis killed. The calm coral and blue tinged dusk lends a soft glow to the austere monoliths and slivers of light peek through the walkways, guiding you through the maze. By the time you move out, the sun may have set and the maze would be completely dark. The colours of the stone slabs will have transformed from silver grey to a dark black. This is a strange walk…leaving you feel disoriented, unstable, lost. Maybe that is the impact Eisenmann intended to create.

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9. Reichstag

Feel a mood change from solemn to awe-inspired as you reach the German Parliament (Reichstag). The glass dome height is as high as the Eiffel Tower of Paris…a symbol of political transparency perhaps? Come back for a public tour inside, if time permits. Hitler had bombed this building at 5-6 places at the same time while trying to overtake the government. His plan was to redesign the building on a grand scale, to accommodate 2 lac people inside, 1 million outside, but that never saw the light of day. Picture him standing there in the midst of the rubble, the hint of devious triumph on his face…that strange little man…with so much death and destruction to his credit! A shiver run up your spine?

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10. Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate was constructed in 1791 to celebrate the city’s status as Prussia’s capital. Reflect on the statue of Joan of Arc riding the four horse chariot perched atop the pillared gate, illuminated by a blue iridescent light. Napoleon had it removed in 1806 and held hostage in Paris for 12 years! Interestingly, the Germans got it back after their victory over France.

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It is dark now and Brandenburg Gate is all lit up, as are the buildings lining the avenue. Take a horse carriage ride, relive a charming medieval experience, or simply stroll along the elegant, wide boulevard stretching ahead of you, lined on both sides with diplomatic embassies. This is the iconic spot where Berlin comes together on 3rd of October to commemorate the coming down of the Wall. This is biggest party place in the country, this is where Berlin’s ‘fan mile’ begins. Visualise cheerful chants, unending beer showers, a crowd speckled with the German black, red and gold flag colours, sheer ecstasy of the moment and mass mania!

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That night, like me, you might dream of Hitler leaping off the glass-domed Reichstag roof in a dramatic escape after planting a bomb and being chased by his own convoy of Nazi soldiers through the deserted streets of the city. Brain working overtime for twisted justice? Nah..just Berlin seeping into your soul.

This was once the greatest city in the world!

Cordoba is Andalusia’s most precious gem… 

An hour and a half or 140 km from Seville will take you at Córdoba, the erstwhile capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), where you can witness intriguing remnants of its glory years that lasted from 756 to 1031. Along the road, large yellow faces of thousands of sunflowers bend joyfully towards the sun, welcoming you cheerfully, as if saying, “choose happiness”. Feel the comers of your mouth tilting up unconsciously in a broad smile as you are reminded that they crave warmth too.

Stop first at the original Muslim Alcazar, which was later converted into a castle for the Christian Kings in the 1300s. Roam the impressive mosaic halls, airy patios and original roman baths in the basement, comparing the royal abode to the Seville Alcazar…they are both grand, but worlds apart in terms of exotica. Castle walls connect four corner towers with walkways…enclosing the delightful Moorish gardens filled with ponds, fountains and aromatic plants. Here, Columbus had once sought sponsorship from Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand to embark on discovery of the New World. Gaze upon near his statue in the gardens and contemplate…this was the starting point, literally!

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Then embark on a delightful stroll through Córdoba’s old Jewish quarter., a fascinating network of atmosphere-drenched narrow lanes. Rows of whitewashed buildings deflect the hot summer sun, their walls scribbled with inky black Spanish quotes and typical andalúz phrases. Pass rows of quirky restaurants and Arabic-style tea shops. Countless inner courtyards with wells, fountains, citrus trees everywhere…those with most picturesque floral patios open them up to the public in a contest during May every year. Peek into each serene, outdoor oasis behind elaborate ironwork gates…roses, geraniums, and jasmine spilled down whitewashed walls.

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Centuries back, fountains played and caged birds sang in these mini-paradises…not much has changed since then! Men strum guitars on folding chairs in corners…oblivious to the your inquisitive eyes and clicking cameras…lost in their own music, light fingers flying unthinkingly over the strings. Square metal signs indicate historic homes and stone bumpers on street corners protected buildings against reckless drivers. Smooth river-stone cobbles carpet the lanes with drains running down their middle. Córdoba at its peak was home to an estimated 100,000 people, when no other European city exceeded 50,000…the largest and greatest city in Europe, a seat of power and enlightenment. Today, as the second largest old town in the continent, it is possibly the largest urban UNESCO protected World Heritage site in the world.

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Hidden in a small street close to La Juderia is the 13th-century Chapel of San Bartolome…a wonderful example of Mudéjar style interiors (from the Arab word mudaÿÿan, meaning ‘tamed’) and a curious blend of Christian structure and Arab decoration. Specially notable are the tiled pedestal, the geometric forms, the plastering and the Gothic vaulted ceiling, and my favourite…a  lovely midnight blue altar embedded with gold stars. Arabian nights! In complete contrast is the nearby Synagogue in Calle de los Judios…one of only three originals remaining in Spain… blank white walls and plaster work with Hebrew inscriptions and plant motifs…a very simple structure. Reflect on the approach of the two religions…and the symbolism of the place of worship itself.

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Unleash yourself for lunch at La Juderia. Pick local specialties at an old taberna…Salmorejo (cold vegetable soup made with tomatoes and sprinkled with hard-boiled egg and Serrano ham) and flamenquínes (mouthwatering pork fritters shaped like large breaded sausages). Later, browse in the pretty souvenir shops showcasing traditional crafts of leather and metal work, glazed tiles and textiles…once the roots of Cordoba’s booming economy, now desirable ‘take-me-homes’ from a foreign vacation. I satisfied myself with a large hand-painted ceramic wall plate, typical of the region…a piece of Andalusia to grace my kitchen wall. Maybe you will, too.

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And then its time for the piece de resistance…the 10th-century Great Mezquita (Mosque). Built during the time Córdoba was at its zenith, outshining Byzantium and Baghdad in science, culture and the arts…this is a magnet that draws visitors from far and wide. A classic Islamic courtyard, Patio de los Naranjos, replete with orange trees arranged in neat rows, the deep green of their foliage serving as a vibrant splash of colour against the dusty monochrome of the walls and the ground. A balustraded, tapering bell tower at the north-west corner reminds of Giralda. One of the largest mosques in the world…the huge sand-colored building measuring about 250,000 square feet seems rather undistinguished and its size is deceptively concealed by its modest height of 40 feet. No matter how many pictures you may have seen, you will be completely unprepared for the magnificence that awaits you inside!

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The vast space sprawled out in front of you, is filled with red-and-white colored giant arches resting on 856 columns made of granite, jasper and marble pillars, the alternating brick and stone, creating an unending maze-like forest of distinct red and white striped trees. The bottom half of the pillars is discolored…as if millions of hands had embraced them over the centuries. Sunlight streams in from windows in four cupolas above…and combined with thousands of small oil lamps, gives the red-sandstone maze a surreal glow. It is unbelievable…this structure is preserved like it has just been completed…despite four unrelated expansions since 800 AD!

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Approach the magnificent Mihrab, and you may just be overcome by a compulsion to kneel in divine prayer. The Imam’s words would once have amplified through this shell-shaped ceiling carved from a single block of marble and side chambers flashing with exquisite Byzantine gold mosaics. Hundreds of pilgrims would have crouched on their knees where the stone flagstones are worn out today. The brilliant shafts of sunlight would have filtered through the hundreds of columns, making illuminated paths along the sacred floor, travelling through all nineteen naves into the orange courtyard…until the Mosque was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral when Cordoba was re-conquered in 1236.

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As if this extraordinary vision isn’t enough, there is a bigger surprise concealed at the very heart of the monument…a great Renaissance cathedral constructed in the early sixteenth century, followed later by a royal chapel, nave, pulpits and choir in Gothic style. This is no ordinary cathedral…its imposing high altar and elaborate gothic ceiling are a picture of pure splendour.

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I stood in the centre of the cathedral, gazing at the renaissance walls on either side blend into the neighbouring Islamic arches. Then, moving to one side, I placed one foot on the cathedral floor and the other on the floor of the mosque, imbibing the experience of the shared space and shared history of two religions. Both originated from Judaism and now were like competing siblings, struggling for world supremacy. On this spot, though, their contrasting ideologies appear to co-exist peacefully…the low building of the mosque symbolising submission to Allah; and the soaring church indicating pursuit of heaven. Try it. Close your eyes and feel the space. And trap thus unreal vision in your heart and mind. Forever.

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The most amazing Roman monuments hidden in France

Nimes and Pont du Gard will stun you…

Did you know that picture-perfect romantic French Provence, whose sunflower and lavender fields inspired legendary impressionists like Van Gogh is also home to two of the most jaw-dropping, magnificent Roman structures in the world? And one day is all you need to gawp at their architectural splendour.

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Van Gogh’s obsession for Provence shows in all his paintings

History buff alert. Surely, medieval ‘French Vatican’ town of Avignon is on your radar for its two stunning landmarks…the Roman-styled 14th century old Palace of the Popes and the arched bridge, Pont St Benezet stretching across the river Rhone. (Read my related post on ‘Do you know who was madly jealous of the Popes’ powerful palace’ http://bit.ly/2mQlbse). If you have an extra day in Avignon, then grab the opportunity to explore two  exemplary Roman monuments, just 50 km within your reach.

Head first to the bustling city of Nimes, which used to be an important textile centre from the middle ages to the late 19th century. Interesting side factoid: Nimes was famed for a special blue cotton cloth ‘de Nimes’. No prizes for guessing where it ended up? In America, with Levi Strauss, for use as ‘denim’. So, thanks to this lesser known Roman town of France, today we have jeans!

Nimes was actually built by Julius Caesar as a retirement home for veteran soldiers after the fall of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in Egypt. No surprise that it is dotted with several impressive Roman structures, including the famous Square House (Maison Carree), fabulous Roman gardens, fountains, baths, the Temple of Diana and many neo-Roman churches. All testimony to the remarkable building skills of the ancient Romans under the supervision of Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus and the foremost construction engineer of those times. Spend a few hours exploring all these if you can.

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But what you’re really here for is the city’s proudly displayed centrepiece…the best preserved colosseum in the world! Surprised? Built in the 1st century AD, with the capacity to seat 24,000 spectators, this masterpiece stands erect in one piece, minus the sliced facade of the one in Rome. And its no less awe-inspiring.

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Equipped with an audio guide, you will easily lose yourself in the tour for a couple of hours. There are no gates, just 60 open welcoming arches, all around the circumference on two levels for easy access to the upper level terraces through multiple corridors, galleries and exit stairs. Admission to the arena used to be free, as the Romans wanted to openly encourage a lifestyle of amusement for all. Well, that certainly helped to keep the crowds hooked then. And the tradition continues today…the colosseum is now a bullring! Two annual bullfights ares staged right here during the Feria de Nîmes. Barbaric custom or cultural heritage…the debate continues to rage.

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Mammoth stone pillars support the 60 arches, there are no signs of concrete having being used. The steps going up to the higher levels are worn out, the smooth depressions signal wear and tear over the centuries. Who was the first person to leave his footsteps here, you wonder…does your foot fall exactly where his had once? At the second tier, you may need to shade your eyes from the intense, brilliant sunlight, as you ogle at the 360-degree view. Try counting the rows of stone benches encircling the structure at multiple levels…which seat would you choose?

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Visualise a toga-clad crowd, cheering wildly as drivers guide their chariots with fiery energy around the ring below. Go to the very top for an even more rewarding view of the complete colosseum and the sprawling city of Nimes. Imagine the architectural prowess of the ingenious Romans. Even in those ancient times, they had devised a retractable roof for the arena…a vellum canopy spread out over the tiers of seats; the holes for the canopy’s poles are still visible.

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Later, stroll into the two museum sections: Gladiator’s Quarters and the “Colours of the Corrida” to study the costumes, fighting gear, pictures and short film sequences of gladiators and matadors. Try to analyse your emotions, while you dive into the past, when entertainment had a sadistic flavour and human primal instincts were glorified.

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As you walk out, consider this. Driven by the need to fulfil Nimes’ increasing need for water for its Roman baths and irrigation, Caesar ended up accomplishing another incredible feat: a 50-kilometre long canal, supplying over forty million gallons of water each day to Nimes. And the world’s most impressive three-tier stone aqueduct crossing the Gardon river valley. Pont du Gard, a one-of-a-kind UNESCO heritage site, about 3o km away, is your next stop.

The Pont du Gard park complex is a haven for nature lovers…hiking, cycling, horse-riding or canoeing…pick your poison. Or simply amble along from the visitors’ centre out to the ‘pont’ (bridge) to marvel at the impeccable construction, in the backdrop of an enchanting river valley.

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The massive bridge is 274 meters in length and 49 meters high. At the top of the edifice is a covered pipeline. Although, no longer a functioning aqueduct bridge, the very fact that it is still standing is testament to the outstanding skills of its builders. Not only is this the highest and most impressive of all the Roman aqueduct bridges, it is also one of the best preserved. Cross the walkway on the second tier, pausing to touch the massive mortar-free arches. Reflect on the impeccable precision of the massive engineering project.

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The rays of the early evening sun play hide and seek through the arches of the Pont du Gard. The bridge will be completely awash in golden sunshine, as the sun kisses the soft yellow complexion of the limestone blocks. Sit by the banks, watching the gleaming, twinkling smooth pebbles on the river side and listening to the peaceful trickle of the water. You will find yourself taking unending pictures of its every arch and every angle, until it is time to bid this Roman remnant ‘adieu’. And in the fading glow of the dusk, it will dawn upon you… this is France, not Rome.

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Marvel at the unspoilt magic of Montenegro

A day in Kotor, Montenegro’s prettiest town…

Honest confession. To start off, I was first drawn to Montenegro by the clever deception created by James Bond’s Casino Royale. In reality, not a single scene was shot there. Revelation. It is a thousand times more enchanting than the fantasy its name evokes. 

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Feel the irresistible allure of the Algarve

A lazy, laid-back vibe…

Moorish legends, an exotic coastal countryside, trailblazing Portuguese voyagers of yore, and a name shrouded in mystique (from Arabic al-Gharb, meaning ‘the West’). How can anyone dare to skip Algarve from their Portugal itinerary? 

We picked Portimao as our base. So much less touristy than the nightlife hub Albufeira and the golf mecca Villamoura. And perfect for its proximity to Lagos, Sagres, and Monchique…which were our other lures. Missed Tavira, but you can’t have it all, can you? Multiple queues at the coach counters on Faro airport seemed like a setback until we reminded ourselves that October is off-season. An hour-long wait for the next bus or a seventy euro taxi. Hmm…devil or the deep blue sea, we pondered, before a taxi driver offered a shared ride with three other passengers. Five minutes, coffee and bags of munchies later, we were on our way. 

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Treasure hunt for the most exquisite hidden havelis

Beauties and bounties in the bylanes of Bikaner…

“You won’t be able to find them on your own.” The hotel manager dismisses our valiant declaration of self-exploration with a mysterious smile. “I’ll arrange an auto rickshaw to guide you. The lanes are too narrow for a car.” Intrigue levels: brim high.

Our driver, Wali, nods knowingly, when I show him the google pictures in my phone. We climb into the well-padded back seat of our colourful three-wheel drive towards the oldest part of the city. At 11 am, its still a lazy morning in the marketplace. Steamy curls rising from chai cups, brooms swooshing across verandahs and biscuit-laden carts rumbling along to designated spots. The man stirring hot milk at Ramji Ghewar Wale sweet shop seems absent-minded…still not fully awake yet?  

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Why you need to take this canal cruise. Now.

Discover the jewel box city of Amsterdam: A photoblog…

Walk it, bike it, or get a languorous cruise…the ‘canal’-ity of life will inevitably  entice you in Amsterdam. Surprise, surprise. The throbbing nerve-centre of Netherlands has a predictably unoriginal name, literally meaning ‘Dam on River Amstel’. And a soul which is just the opposite….daring, independent, vivacious, lively. Over 4.5 million throng every year to admire its wonderland of 165 concentric canals, arched by 1500 graceful bridges and lined with trees and gable-crowned townhouses. And talking of surprises, try this: Venice lags far behind, with just 409 bridges.

Continue reading “Why you need to take this canal cruise. Now.”