Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Berlin, Baby!

Berlin, KaDeWe and me

Coming back to Berlin after 31 years is the closest I’ll ever get to time-travel. This was the city where I came of age, where I met, fell in love with, and married my husband when we served in the Air Force.

When we left in 1983, the city was still divided. West Berlin was a snappy international cosmopolitain, so unlike its sad-eyed twin on the other side of the Wall it was hard to believe they were even related. Now the whole unified city has WiFi. And digital billboards. And a sleek metro system that puts others to shame. 

Berlin has become a full-blown bon vivant with a knack for advancement and a pragmatic conscience. The eastern half not only looks caught up, some areas are leading the charge. 

Yet while Berlin has kept pace with today’s technology, so much stayed the same I can barely account for the past 3 decades.

One small corner of the 6th Floor Food Hall at KaDeWe
Our hotel was just off the city center’s Kurfurstendamm, or Ku-damm.  We were within a stone's throw of metro stations and Europe’s largest department store, Kaufhaus Des Westens, nicknamed KaDeWe  and pronounced kah day vay. 

With its 100-year history and legendary 6th floor food hall, KaDeWe has always been one of our favorite haunts. Small wonder it was our first stop after arriving  late Thursday.

Platz der Luftbr├╝cke commemorating the Allied Forces Berlin Airlift
The next day we took the metro to Platz der Luftbr├╝cke which not only commemorates the allied airlift at the end of WWII, but stands just in front of Tempelhof Central Airport (TCA) where we lived the year before getting married. 

Although no longer an active airport, we were allowed to walk the grounds as long as we stayed outside. Technically, we couldn't go inside TCA's buildings because so much has been converted to private offices. Technically. (I have it on good authority that the lobby's elevator no longer has a "Looby" button.)

After re-familiarizing ourselves with TCA and streets nearby, we headed south to see our old apartment building in Lichterfelde. 

Metro train and rail station in the eastern part of Berlin
When Berlin was still a divided city, there were two metro systems. The first was the U-Bahn that generally ran in the western part of the city. This we rode on a regular basis. 

The second was the S-Bahn which operated in Communist East Berlin. We were not allowed to ride it or even go into the stations. It was, in a word, verboten. 

From what we saw back then, the S-Bahn was sadly run down, as was most of East Berlin. But now that the city is unified, we happily hopped on that S-Bahn like a couple of truants. And what a glorious, gorgeous surprise: the stations are so efficient and streamlined they border on futuristic.


I'm not gonna lie: we ate like pigs this trip. From the bratwurst with its crispy, crackly roasted skin and laughably small bun to the donar kebab with onions, sauce and spicy shaved  meat, we never stopped. 

No matter what we ate during the day it didn't spoil our appetites for dinner. And  then we still had room for croissants and coffee next morning. We ate until we squeaked. 

Stumbling stones memorializing Holocaust victims.
While moving forward, Berlin owns up to its past. The city is one of 700 locations that have incorporated Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, into their sidewalks. The brass stones memorialize Holocaust victims and are placed in front of buildings where people were dragged out and deported; they list names, dates and tragic ends. 

Barely higher than the surrounding sidewalk, the stones intentionally cause one to stumble slightly in order to acknowledge their significance. By 2013 over 40,000 such stones have been set. These two were just outside our hotel. Sobering, to say the least.

Iconic Brandenburg Gate, site of so much celebration since 1989
On Saturday we bundled up and walked 2.5-mile in a  bracing 39˚ to the Brandenburg Gate. En route through the city’s eastern portion we were again thrilled at how beautiful the area had become.

Even the Victory Column, which I only remember as a gray blur from the west, was freshly gilded and taller than years past. 

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Soviet Memorial still standing. And in a deft move to ensure ongoing activity and commerce, foreign embassies are now located near the Brandenburg Gate.  

Before leaving on Sunday we made time for another bratwurst, a stroll through the Europa Center, and one last walk along the Ku’damm. Berlin was everything I remembered and then some. Well done, Berlin, next time I won't stay away so long.

Shops along the Ku'damm
Didn't get enough pictures to look at? Maybe this'll help.


It's the little things . . . 

Even the humble manhole cover boasts unification with historic landmarks like the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Funkturm, Victory Column, and others.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Autumn at The Vyne

My First Brush with Jane Austen and J.R.R.Tolkien

The Vyne
With a beautiful Sunday in front of us, we hopped in the car and took a 30-minute drive south to visit our third National Trust estate, The Vyne. Over a 500-year span, The Vyne was home to just two families before it was given to the Trust in 1956. The Vyne has seen its share of history  including at least three visits from King Henry VIII, and is said to have influenced the writings of both Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Originally owned by William Sandys, the estate is 1,120 acres of formal gardens, ornamental lakes, woods, parks, farmland and a stunning house complete with its own chapel. The decor ranges from Tudor to Victorian as fashion came and went over the centuries.  Alongside beautiful renaissance paintings and Egyptian sculpture is a wall of trudgeons used to subdue an unruly mob during the 19th century Corn Law riots. (I didn't make that up and am sorry I didn't get a picture.)

Entry way inside The Vyne

  The second owners, the Chutes, did not have children, but their adopted daughter, Caroline, is likely the basis for Jane Austen’s character Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. Certainly Austen would have known Caroline since her brother, James Austen, was the local rector and dined at The Vyne on several occasions along with sister Jane. 

The gold ring that possibly influenced J.R.R. Tolkien's writing.
Legend has it that a 4th century Roman soldier lost a gold ring near where The Vyne stands today. On a “curse tablet” he pleaded with the god Nodens to help him recover the ring and wished ill to whomever stole it.

In 1929, when Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, he helped discern the tablet and ring's inscription.

Could this ring have influenced his 1937 classic, The Hobbit? Quite possibly. But since there’s no absolute connection, visitors can vote yea or nay on whether this truly is the one ring. 

The Gardens

The gardens and parks are breathtaking with layouts that encourage visitors  to stroll the grounds at their leisure. And when it comes to strolling, I can certainly hold my own.
Stunning lakes, parks and woodlands cover most  of the 1,120 acre estate.

Beautiful garden beds.

Near the house stands a 600-year old oak tree that a timber merchant once offered to buy for 100 guineas during the time of Trafalgar. The owner, John Chute, declined and this beauty stands today. 
100 Guinea Oak tree, over 600 years old.

The weekend we visited, The Vyne was hosting an autumn festival complete with falconry, apple pressing, and food booths. For an extra pound or two, visitors could make a besom broom or faery hat. (I had to look up 'besom.')

For more pictures of our visit to The Vyne, click here.


It's the little things . . .

While the live falcrony display did not grab my attention, this fellow certainly did.

Great Grey Owl