Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Hills are Alive ...

I love the Sound of Music. Growing up, my sisters and I would act out the movie, recite the dialog, and sing the songs. I have a memory of us trying to build the Von Trapp house out of Lego, and even used to wish that I had three more siblings - two boys and a girl - so we could be just like the Von Trapp children.

Jumping for joy by the lake where the kids fall in and the back of the house

Given that both Stephen and Alice have a similar level of love for the movie it was a real buzz for me to finally travel to Salzburg with them last weekend to see the sights and do the tour. Tane came along too, and was a very good sport about it, even letting us call him Rolfe.

We are 16 going on 17

The tour was fabulous. The only way to really enjoy it is to embrace the cheese, and throw yourself into singing "Do Re Mi" while driving around in a giant painted bus, so that's what we did.

The bus
I loved it, and only regret that my Mum and sisters weren't there as well. The Sound of Music tour is a must for anyone that loves the movie, and I totally recommend it. If you want to cringe whenever Julie Andrews opens her mouth, though, it would probably be best to stay clear of Salzburg entirely!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

3 great things about Stockholm

Last week we went to the fabulous city of Stockholm in Sweden. Stockholm is charming, and home to a lovely old town. Here are the 3 top reasons why Stockholm is O for Awesome:

1. A city of islandsStockholm is exceptionally pretty, partially due to the fact it spans several islands. While not on the sea, I still loved being so close to the water. We also got to see the coolest ship that I have ever seen ...

2. The Vasa

The Vasa accidentally sunk in 1628 and lived in the bottom of Stockholm's harbour until it was brought back up and restored in the 1960s. The Vasa is also possibly one of the most amazing historical objects I've ever seen - it looks like it belongs in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and is so massive all of my photographs look lame compared to how it looks standing underneath it. I think that the Vasa would have been worth the trip to Stockholm alone. 3. Moose!
One of the islands of the main city is home to Skansen, which is half zoo and half showcase of Swedish culture and history. It was an excellent day out, especially as we got to see a real life moose. Later that day Tane and I also ate some moose, but don't tell the guy in the picture. I am impressed with what I have seen of Scandinavia so far, and Stockholm is no exception. The cities are clean, pleasant, and pretty, and I consider Stockholm and Copenhagen the safest cities I have visited outside of NZ. Unfortunately they are also very expensive, so as much as I'd love to see more of that corner of the World will have to wait a while to do so.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Off the beaten track

One of the many cool things about visiting friends is that, being locals, they can tell you about all the interesting stuff tourists don't get to - like the Stasi prison in Berlin. Here's a few other examples from my trip Germany and France.

Osnabruck Rathaus

No, not where they keep German rodents - it's the very old town hall. This one is particularly cool as The Treaty of Westphalia was hammered out here.

The Gasometer

A 161m tall cylinder that used to be hold gas from a coal mine. The mine has gone but the Gasometer remains as an exhibition space. They had a really cool display on the Solar System.

Ulf touches the Sun

The bottom floor was impressive but the top ... wow. It was almost filled with a balloon painted to look exactly like the Moon. It was 25 metres wide and one of the most awesome things I've ever seen.

The Gasometer is symbolic of the Ruhr region. Once it was the greatest industrial zone in Europe, famous for coal, steel and smoky factories. Almost all of the mines are gone now and they have made a big effort to green the area and turn the old industrial sites into tourist attactions. The result is an attractive but rather strange landscape, filled with things like the Tetrahedron below.

View from the top.

The Ossuaire at Verdun

The year-long Battle of Verdun in World War One was the longest and bloodiest of all time.The hills of this area of eastern France are now covered in trees but beneath the leaves the land is still pockmarked with the craters of the 40 million shells that were fired. In the midst of the battlefield is the Ossuaire. In the grounds are the graves of some 15,000 soldiers whose remains were identified. Within the building are the bones of about 130,000 who were not.

For me the most moving thing about the place was a display of photographs of old soldiers from both sides and war widows. All were set against pictures of them from before the war.

Friends, Europeans, Countrymen

September has been the month we've fallen back in love with Europe. We got quite burned out with city breaks in the first six months of travel here, with going away about every third weekend. Then it was all about the exotic developing world. The trip to Normandy aside, we've not been in Europe for well over a year. But with our time in the UK coming to an end we thought it was high time we saw some of our European friends. And they really helped us have a great time. Lauren's already mentioned Andrea and Maria, so I'd like thank ...

Marty and Janka, who showed us around Berlin, one of my favourite cities, and stuffed us with delicious fondu.
Daniel, my host in the lovely, historic university town of Osnabruck and (like Martin and Janka) a good guy for letting me keep him up way too late playing Dominion.

Ulf and Nicola, great people with a great flat and great taste in honeymoon destinations (New Zealand).

Julie, Paxcal and Shistou the naughty puppy for a wonderfully relaxed time in the countryside of Lorraine and lots of games of Mario Karts. Best time I've had in a barn.

Miikka, for introducing us to Stockholm, one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.

You 're are all fantastic.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The colour of evil is grey

One of my favourite places in Berlin is the Neue Wache, a former guardhouse that is now empty except for a sculpture. It's called Mother With Dead Child and is by Kathe Kollwitz, who encouraged her son to go and fight in World War One. He never came back. Nor did her grandson from World War Two.

The sculputure is the centrepiece of a memorial to the victims of war and tyranny. It's hard to think of a city where it's more appropriate to have one.
During our trip to Berlin, Martin, Janka and I went out in to the depths of the former communist eastern part of the city to see some of that legacy of tyranny, at a secret interrogation centre for the Stasi, East Germany's secret police. It was a grey, grim place that radiated a kind of drab evil.

We were shown around by a former prisoner who as a young man tried to escape to the West. He told us of the two phases of the prison. The first was in the days of Stalin, when prisoners were tortured and sometimes murdered. There was a cell coated in rubber that they used to fill with water so the inmate could not lie down or sit without getting soaked. Then there was the punishment cell, a hollowed out wall where there was not enough space to even move. They used to keep people in it until they collapsed.

He then showed us the area where he was kept. These cells were much 'nicer' and there was no physical abuse, as it had been decided that psychologically torturing people was better for East Germany's image - it left no visible scars.

Prisoners were kept in complete isolation from each other and the outside world, unless when it suited the methods of torture. Three people were assigned to each prisoner to work out how to break them down. As an example of how they did it, the Stasi had our guide's wife write him a letter of separation, then left him in his cell with nothing to read but love stories.

"You can break someone with books," he said.

It seemed even worse than the torture cells. I think brutality is easier to understand than the calculated, bureaucratic destruction of people. It's like the Rwandan Genocide compared to Auschwitz.

After visiting the prison we went to the Stasi HQ, a colossal and completely soulless complex. Anyone who's seen The Lives of Others (and if you've not, you really should) will know the kind of ugliness and colour scheme of greys and browns that marked the East Germany government.

The size of the place reinforced just how much money and effort the communist governemnt spent on monitoring and repressing their own people. There was one cool part though - the exhibition on the secret weapons of spying. Fake rocks with recorders inside, guns built into briefcases, cameras inserted into hollowed trees or handbags, or ones like below that could be hidden in clothing. Real James Bond stuff.

In the age of the microchip it makes you wonder what they've got now!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

A few days in Denmark

As mentioned below, earlier in the week I spent a few very relaxing days in Copenhagen. It's a lovely city, and I am impressed with the Danish people as well as how cycle-friendly the city is. The town harbour is especially nice, and a canal trip was my highlight of sight-seeing there. I had a great time walking around, seeing the sights and eating ice-creams. The only disappointing thing for me was the Little Mermaid statue. Yes, everyone had told me it was a bit lame, but I didn't listen and went there anyway. Apparently it's taking a trip to Shanghai in 2010 for some reason, and hope that the people of Shanghai have been warned that it is certainly a little mermaid and much more tiny-Pania-of-the-reef than Ariel.

Old friends

In 1996 two cool exchange students came to Freyberg - Maria from Copenhagen and Andrea from Rostock in Germany. With the help of numerous letters, blog entries and more recently Facebook we have kept in touch, and last week I finally got to visit both of them in their home towns. It was rad - catching up in London or New Zealand (or Washington D.C. in the case of Andrea) is one thing, but seeing people where they're from is even better, especially as we're moving home soon and have no idea when we'll be back in Europe. I'm glad I made it to see them, and look forward to catching up with them both again soon. It's such a pity that the world is so large though and NZ and Europe so far away ...

Andrea and the Baltic and Maria at Tivoli