Sunday, May 21, 2017

Why Visit IGA2017?

Since mid-April, I am trying to save at least one day every week for going to visit the IGA 2017, but the weather was the worst partner ever in this project. How could I visit an International Garten Exhibition where beautiful flowers and gardens projects are displayed and writing about it without being able to take pictures with the rays of sun soaking the natural colours? The last week, things started to change, and I spent one of the few first days of the spring without any drops of rain outdoors exploring an unique temporary project.
The exhibition takes places until 15 October this year. For the 186-day duration, around 5,000 events - among which concerts and theatre representations - are scheduled. Full updates of the program are available on the English and German versions of the exhibition website. Initially, the exhibition - which is organised in Germany every 10 years - was planned to be held in Tempelhof the former airport turned into a public park, but it was transferred to Marzahn-Hellendorf, where the infrastructure of the Gardens of the World was already available, to which a couple of more hectares were added where new constructions were built and new project created. 
As I went to the Gardens of the World several times, I rather preferred to see the newest additions, including the cable car which connects the old and new part of the park, with an overview over the flowers exhibitions and the various other projects developed. The launch of the project was accompanied by a new refurbishing of the metro station Kienberg-Gärten der Welt - which looks just modern but without any special personality as many of the metro stations I featured in my post dedicated to the most beautiful metro stations -, which can be easily accessed via U5 line. With the S5 from Spandau, Zoologische Garten or Alexanderplatz, the train should be changed at Wuhletal station. The duration of the ride is about 45 minutes. If you arrive by car, there should be some problems as there are no parking spaces available around. 
In most cases, IGA 2017 is easily accessible to persons with disabilities and families, with elevators and ramps facilitating a best overview of most places of interest. Particularly for children, there are so many parks and playground where children of different ages can have a great time outdoors. 
Near the main entrance, for instance, there is a big playground inspired by the works of the beloved German children author Erich Kästner. 
Age doesn't usually matter here, as you can enjoy your childhood memento on the top of one of the hills playing on a swing, eventually barefoot for touching the small heaps of sands underneath. Time to dream about the location of your summer holidays.
The ambiance of the natural paradies continues in the Arche Park, where horses or sheep are freely roaming around. Maybe a relaxing gateway in the countryside suits you better?
There are many places where one can meditate about the future, including planet's. Bridges made of recycled metal brings you in the middle of wilder nature patches.
The campus area is designated to teach about environmental protection and teach young people - as young as from kindergarten level - about how to be more careful about our green heritage.
The architectural structures easily integrated into the natural landscape are confirming this frame of mind focused on creating more awareness about the environment among different generations.
At IGA 2017, one can touch, see and learn from first hand sources about various farming conditions of different types of grains or about the life of the bees.
Creating a huge installation out of the eco-friendly and sustainable bamboo boosts the limits of creativity in architecture, while keeping in mind to use technologies that don't create chemical pollution or any harm to the environment.
The area designated to introduce nature-related projects and to offer additional information about plants and green cultures is fascinating, especially for someone that has spent too much time in the urban areas. For instance, the small vineyard created where I hope to return in autumn when maybe some drops of fresh wine will be available for tasting.
Or the little igloo where seeds and plants and micro-level cultivation techniques are introduced...
Or how to create eco-friendly roofs made of recycled materials...There is so much to learn that I almost forgot that I only have only one full day to spend here this time. 
Making your way through the over 100-hectare park is very easy due to the directions leading you to different attractions. If you have comfy shoes you can easily walk slowly for around two hours until you make your way to the Gärten der Welt side of the Exhibition. Just in time to see the last breath of the cherry blossom trees.
The silent Chinese Pavillion, where the tea can be sipped as in the Imperial times, remains unchanged, even nowadays the curious passangers from the cable car might be intrusively overlooking the tea-lovers.
This slice of Asian peace remained unchanged so many years after my first visit here.
If you visit the Gärten this time of the year, you can fully feel the spring in all its fragrances and colours. For instance, wisteria, which is a rare appearance in the Berlin catalogue of flowers.
Children are invited to visit a Brothers Grimm thematic park, with representation of different stories by the famous German story tellers. I may confess that with some exceptions, many of the characters were completely foreign to me so it is about time to return to some basic bibliography.
Hopefully, there are many friendly characters, out of the classroom, which can entertain and make a trip with the children an enjoyable experience.
As during my previous visits, I enjoyed spending some time in the Japanese gardens and their balance between nature and man-made constructions...
...or to wander near the temples' gates of the Korean gardens.
But there was also something new to explore, the Balinese Gardens where it seems that the rich and luxuriant vegetation of Indonesia was brought in the far Eastern parts of Berlin.
As I spent some good time lately at the Botanical Gardens in Berlin - a video displaying the beauty of this part of the world being under editing right now - I was reminded one more time about the preciousness and fragility of our eco-system.
And how else one can celebrate the beauty of nature otherwise than by dancing under the fresh wind of summer, surrounded by interestingly manicured trees and a symphony-like beauty of tulips of all colours, in different stages of blossoming.
The journey at IGA 2017 means more than a hiking trip well-spent taking pictures of flowers. With all the knowledge about nature and the inspiring beauty of flowers, it can be compared, at a lower level though, with the inspirational journey of the prophet Jonah, whose Biblical whale was built in the middle of one of the many playgrounds.
I cannot leave the Exhibition without using the opportunity of having a ride with the cable car. It goes smoothly on the top of the park, with a perfect view over the entire area through the window walls. At mid-way it stops for the exceptional construction of the Wolkenhain, which offers an overview of the Eastern part of Berlin, including the famous TV Tower. During the night time, the entire construction is illuminated creating an impressive visual effect. 
One can reach the top with the elevator or by using the stairs, eventually with a stop at the small coffee at the ground level. Food- and coffee-wise, IGA is providing many resourceful stops, serving mostly snacks and icecreams, without anything noteworthy from the point of view of the gourmet option. Hopefully, you can easily buy bottles of fresh water for a well-hydrated journey through the many wonders offered at the Exhibition. 
From the top of the terrace, you can reach far-far East beyond the typical communist constructions of the Plattenbauten which are surrounding the area and are visible anyway, until you can spot the vivid yellow raps camps and the gigantesques windmills. The green patches are beautifying the ugly concrete constructions - I know that those constructions look so fancy and fashionable for expats, but nothing will convince me that besides the affordable rent prices there is anything else to like about living in such boxes of matches. 
Berlin is a city smart enough to give you serious reasons to stay more and explore its insides even longer. IGA2017 is another example of the unexpected potential of this city.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A visit at the Mirow Castle

There are many reasons why I travel: for visiting an iconic place, for discovering hidden histories - I have a PhD in history, after all -, for a special corner of nature or for a literary inspiration. All reasons to travel more are good, anyway. Mirow was mentioned to me last year, outlined as part of a German-UK connection therefore, I couldn't wait for the coming of spring for an extensive visit.
From Berlin, one takes one train until Neustrelitz, which I had the pleasure to discover last year, and from there, switched to HANS, a private line leading to Mirow. The ticket costs 4.40 EUR. one way, the ride not being covered by the normal Deutsche Bahn ride, a surprise not necessarily shared when you are buying your ticket from the machines. As usual in Germany, having some cash with you always helps.
The first minutes upon arrival in Mirow - whose name derives from the Slavic 'peace', meaning 'place of peace' - weren't impressing at all. A train station with the name letters missing, and a town which seems empty, although there are apparently around 4,000 people living here.
We followed direction Rheinbergestraße, and turned to Schloßstraße, enjoying the generous rays of the spring Sunday light. The feeling of being alone disappeared, as we were getting closer to the castle, as more and more people walking joined. 
The first stop was the heart-shaped Love Island, built following the instructions left in the will of Adolf Friedrich the VIth, the last reigning grand-duke of Mecklenburg Strelitz. His mysterious death in 1918 - suicide or murder - was not elucidated until today. Here is a short historical article, in German, about the possible reasons of his death. 
On the other side of the wrought-iron bridge, there is a ladscape of peace welcoming the visitor. The boats are shaking slowly on the water and the small fishermen houses are the only silent witness of human presence.
2-hour boat tours around the lake can be taken, if you want to get a full immersion into the peacefulness of the places. As Mirow is situated in an area surrounded by lakes, rivers and canals, it is a good way to get to know better the nature of Mecklenburgische Seeplatte.
As my time here is relatively limited, I focus this time to a visit at the castle. The construction lasted between 1749-1760, but as in the case of many such constructions situated in the Eastern part of Germany, it has assigned a variety of functions in the last 6 decades: it was the administrative office of the Luftwaffe, granary, a state retirement home or a school. 
The renovation works aimed at reestablishing the castle as a museum took place in the second half of the first decade of the 2000s.
The fact that in the last 300 years the rooms were constantly redesigned has its price, as you can feel the difference between the label of 'Baroque castle' and the relatively modest interior, if you compare to the beautiful appearances of places like the Schaetzlerpalais in Augusburg. However, the careful renovation work followed the original descriptions therefore, the Red Salon, lined with silk Chinese-style wallpaper makes an unforgettable memory of the visit.
Stucco decorations and carved corniches are amplifying the colourful effects of the distinguished wall-paper specific for each space. 
Mirow was included since 1701 into the domain of duchy of Mecklenburg Strelitz, and it is the birthplace of Sophia-Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz, the Queen Consort of George III of United Kingdom. George III himself has German blood, his mother being Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. He is the first Hanoverian monarch born in England and using English as his first language. The marriage with Charlotte resulted in 15 children, out of which 13 reached adulthood. In 1810 he was declared mentally unfit to reign. 
You need to slowly go from a room to another, trying to enter into the elegant mood that required a lot of work to be recreated.
Particularly the wallpapers are creating a special ambiance, modestly matched by the pieces of furniture and the floors. You may feel that things look too shining to be original, but at least it is enough room left for dreaming about the old times of the castle life.
I only have eyes for the walls, which are telling the best part of the story. The solitary piece(s) of furniture aren't convincing me too much about about how to include additional narratives.
My favorite room is the Embroided porcelain cabinet. After WWII the wallpapers, a textile materpiece, was hanging from the walls in shreds. Inspired by real pieces of porcelain, the figures on the wall are hand-made by needle, probably by a circle of women gathered regularly around Duchess Elizabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, the mother of Sophia-Charlotte.
The much praised Great Hall, where big balls and dancing parties used to take place didn't impress me. The stucco and statues - whose details can be closely watched through binoculars - look out of the space, and some of the putti are scary and greatly diformed. The only success of the reconstruction are the lamps hanging out from the ceiling creating together with the natural lights out of the window a certain vision of space. 
Outside, the sun is wrapping the carefully manicured English gardens. It is the best time for some little walking around, but unfortunatelly there was not too much place for the long walking I wanted to have around the lake. 
The fine mouth melting raspberry mousse cake accompanied by a cold coffee served at the museum cafeteria added some sweet taste to the trip, after so many hours of historical wanderings (and some interior design observations too).
We left behind the Mirow and his silences, thoughtful about the recent histories we've read. Although I would have love more nature wanderings, this time was a different kind of trip. I am sure that soon I will be back in the Mecklenburgische Seenplatte for more nature tasting and discoveries. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

48 Hours in Stuttgart

The problem with many of the places in Germany I would love to visit is that due to distance, I need to consider more than one-day trip for a serious discovery therefore, everything should be planned in time, mostly if I want to get the best Deutsche Bahn tickets and convenient hotel rates. This year, I started to advance on my list of places to see that are far away from Berlin, starting with Karlsruhe and its cosy neighbouring towns, such as Baden-Baden. Next on the list was Stuttgart, that I longed to see for a long time. After a long 6 hours trip from the capital city, I am here to explore it step by step for 48 hours.
When I arrived there, on a sunny spring day of mid-March, the entire train station was surrounded by massive construction works and finding my way to the hotel via the center was not very easy, especially when I was not sure which way to go out of the workshop maze. Luckily, the impressive construction of the central train station, built between 1911 and 1928 diminished my frustration. The masonry is made of different types of stones, creating a monumental archaic impression. 
With one eye at the statues from the train station and another trying to follow the directions to make my way out of the station I got to the wrong entrance and suddenly found myself in the middle of an architecture mammouth, the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg square, with busy people in elegant suites moving preoccupied from a corner to another of the building. This area looks like the economic heart of the city and I am impressed by the display of steel and glass, embellished from time to time by the cherry blossom trees on the top of the buildings.
The next stop is the famous Stuttgart City Library inaugurated in October 2011, one of the main reasons I wanted to visit this city for such a long time. Projected as the beating heart of the newly emerging neighbourhood, the library from Mäilander Platz is built as a cube with edge length of 45 meters. Inside, it follows the design of an ancient pantheon, the plans being inspired by the work Cenotaph for Newton, by Etienne Boulle, an architectural poetic homage to science. Before and after going to visit and look for a book from one of the neatly organised 8 levels of bookish delight, one can stop at the 1square meter fountain wrapped into the light coming from the top of the ceiling, in an area designed to create a meditative space.
Meditative myself, but also humanly limited by my jealousy of the citizens of Stuttgart, blessed to have access to such a bookish resource, I am strolling slowly the busy shopping areas and the chaise-longues in the front of restaurants taken by people enjoying the generous rays of sun in Pariser Platz. It is time to go back to my route, find my hotel and continue the exploration, although, every couple of meters I am tempted to stop and follow a random street. 
Once I am at the beginning of the 1.2 km long Königstrasse, the vibe of the city catches me. It is Thursday afternoon and tourists and locals are heading from all direction to what it is the beating heart of the consummerist pleasure, institutional decision making - the building of the State Parliament, Landtag is situated nearby - or just walking.
The Marktplatz, with a history coming back to the year 1304, displays a hectic mixture of classical and modern, with shopping centers hosted in temples lookalike buildings and transparent cubes offering a glimpse into the contemporary art trends. As usual in Germany, any sunny day is an opportunity to spend as much time as possible outdoors, in this case on the grass.
Once I am checking in at my hotel, my second, and hopefully more organised part of my trip is about to start. But leaving some place for the unknown is part of my travels, therefore, when I see the small tram that reminds me of Lisbon, at Marienplatz, I don't think twice before I am heading...not sure where. Interestingly, as the city is apparently coping with serious pollution problems, the days when the level of air pollution is high, the costs of the tickets are half, an information generously shared by a local helping me to find the right ticket for my short trip.
After ten minutes of tram ride, when I passing near fantastic photographic corners from where I can have an overview of different parts of the city, I am in the Degerloch part of the city, a relatively quiet area that used to be a religious quarter back in the 12th century.
Back in the city, on the usual touristic route, I am checking various traditional destinations, such as the family brewery Dinkelacker, with experience in producing beer made in Schwabia - the geographical and historical part of Germany to whom Stuttgart belongs - from the 19th century. Tours and other sightseeings of the location are possible, and a big restaurant generously offering local beers and food seems to be always busy with customers.
The architecture and culture lover is rewarded with the view of the Altes Schauspielerhaus - Old Playhouse - an Art Deco structure with Baroque elements with 500 seats. 
Baden-Württemberg is one of the wealthiest parts of Germany, with a high-end economic and banking profile. Therefore, no wonder that an impressive building is dedicated exclusively to economic activities and research. Haus der Wirtschaft is worth a short look even if you are not a rich and successful banker or CEO, because it shows the importance given to research and development, an incentive for the German economy in general.
However, I am superficial enough to look for other manifestation of a successful economy, mainly the good foodie places. Feinkost Böhm is, for instance, such a destination, offering high-end gourmet products, plus a nice bar in the middle where sushi and some champagne is generously available.
For the end of my first day in Stuttgart, I am exploring places on Königstrasse, with its art messages spread between luxury stores and shopping centers. 
Although not in the mood for some shopping experience, I can't miss the occasion to enter the Königsbau Passagen, be it only for its bold architecture. 
And also for a little bit of local sweets, the Cremschnitte, with the yellow cream melting between the fine pastry layers, which vaguely reminds me of some childhood sweet dishes. Unfortunatelly for my foodie reputation, this is the only local food I am trying during this trip. No Maultaschen - the mince filled pasta dish similar to ravioli - no Kasspätzle - the cheesy noodles - not even the Swabian national dish - lentils with noodles. This time I was to busy to explore the city, even on an empty stomach.
On the way back to the hotel, the city is showing its secret corners under the electric lights of the night.
Marktplatz is looking more restrained, now when the tourists and locals are no more out of the street. As a Messestadt, a city regularly hosting international fairs, Stuttgart seems to never sleep, with a constant number of visitors from Germany and all over the world always around checking the local trademarks.
The next day starts early in the morning with an ambitious agenda, that should be adapted to the aggressive rain that will follow my curious steps. I am buying a one-day ticket that will help me move faster through the city - 6.90 Euro - available for both tram, metro and bus. First stop: the TV Tower - Fernsehturm -, a landmark of the city, famous far beyond the German borders. Built 60 years ago, the 217 metre high construction it is the world's first TV Tower, who served as a model for similar constructions in Frankfurt am Main, Dortmund, Johannesburg and China. From the top, one can have an overview of Stuttgart and its surroundings, preferably while having a meal at the restaurant.
Back in the central area, I am running from the rain at the Staatsgalerie, which has an extraordinary collection of old and new art that can keep you busy for long hours. 
My favorite section is dedicated to modern and contemporary artists, such as Chagall or Frank Stella.
The building itself combines various styles, from the classical entrance to the more exuberant and anti-traditional new wing.
Classical in appearance and spirit, the State Ballet is another famous landmark of the city, with a tradition of being on the forefront of international dance for over 50 years. Especially when you are new in town, with a precarious language knowledge, but interested in arts, this place might be the favorite destination for the new expats and Stuttgart is due to its economic and industrial relevance a destination for people from all over the world. 
However, as I noticed myself as an expat in Berlin for over 8 years, you always need a lot of local knowledge if you want to grasp the local culture and symbols. For instance, if you visit any tourist store in Stuttgart, you might notice everywhere two funny figures, a worried donkey and a naive monkey. The two, Äfflen and Pferdle, were the symbols of the local Swabian programs for children in the 1960s, and are still the funny mascots of the city. 
My next destination for the day is in a completely different part of the city, but only five minutes away by train - S-Bahn - from the central area. In a couple of minutes, I am arriving in a heavy industry area, ready for another immersion into the local culture.
The Mercedes Benz Museum, situated at Mercedes Street 100, is at the first sight an architectural landmark, with its sophisticated contrasts between glass, metal and transparent spaces disposed as part of a complex and complicated geometry.
Inside, the view is equally impressive, and leaves a strong memory although you are not interested in cars or Mercedes Benz as such. The exhibition starts at the last level where the visitor arrives in a metal capsule like elevator. It is a real journey through time and history and the way in which the information is displayed, through video, photos and written text make it one of the best museums I ever visited.
I particularly appreciated how the history of the famous German brand car is intervowen with the industrial revolution and the history of the country. The eight levels of the museum unfold chronologically from the beginnings of the 19th century, until our era.
Even if you are not a big fan of vintage cars, it is not easy to ignore the extraordinary impact on the material culture of the Benz and Daimler discoveries. An unique experience through a 125-years timeline, live lesson into the history of innovation displayed through 16,500 square meters.
There is also a car and truck collection, as well as of race cars, disposed on the spires stages of the museum, descending from the last level. In total, there are 160 vehicles and 1,500 exhibits presented, among which historical pieces, such as the boat owned by Bismark, a present from Daimler. 
From the Museum, I am walking a different path to the train, having a view over the Mercedes Benz Arena, home of the local soccer team VfB Stuttgart, the center of the most important sport activities in the city.
I am back in the central area, in the mood to see all the hidden gems around the big shopping alleys. The castle gardens are a pleasant walk, if it doesn't rain too often, as it happened almost every 30 minutes since I started my second day in Stuttgart.
With such a rich cultural offer, there are always things to fill the time between rain showers. The Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg offers the opportunity to find out more about the culture and history of this part of Germany, for instance.
Schillersplatz with its Haus of Musik, offers a real time display of historical architecture, with local Swabian flavor.
Nearby, the Markthalle invites me to check out some foodie delishes, covering the entire world, including Spain and France, with charcuterie, fine cheeses and wine, a lot of wine...
In the weekend, the flea market from Stauffenbergplatz is generously offering deals of all kinds, or just the opportunity to discover special local and family histories or secrets.
It is never enough walking, as I feel that I still have a couple of things to see here. For instance, the elegant Karlpassage, which reminds me of the elegant KaDeWe from Berlin, with its many international brands and a champagne counter too...
When built in 1956, the city hall building was considered one of the most modern in Europe, with its tower with chime and the geometrical facade. It was built on the grounds of the older structure, a neo-Gothic construction destroyed during the WWII bombings.
Hiding between two brand stores, I finally find also some street art in Stuttgart: a manga wall on Kirchstraße, an interesting sight in this fancy looking area.
If you are visiting Stuttgart, there is another area pulsing with life, recently brought to life: Bohnen Quarter, or the Bean Quarter, a former settlement of tradesmen and wine-growers situated initially beyond the city walls. It acquired its name from poor inhabitants which grew beans in theor gardens. After a massive redevelopment at the end of the 1970s, the area is a lively part of the city, with fancy restaurants, bars and modern apartments. 
Once I've seen most of the city trademarks, I dare to go a bit off the beaten path, following streets and corners I am curious to discover for the sake of the travel adventure. At first sight, I am in love with the colourful Art Nouveau details from Eberthardstraße.
Around Marienplatz, Filderstraße surprises me with some well worked facade details assigned to a high-school.
Close-up decorations, in Art Nouveau style, embelish and bring more humanity to the huge buildings.
I have enough time at hand to notice how the stone high-ground levels and windows are writing an interesting narrative of a street, especially when no one is around. 
As usual, there is a different feeling you have of a city when you are wandering the streets early in the morning. On the way to the train station, I am trying to see even more and catch up some more travel information.
Just before I have to leave Stuttgart - hope not for too long - I have the chance to have a look at the Hegel Haus where the famous philosopher whose conceptions influenced the history of European thoughts in the 19th century was born and lived the first 18 years of his life
My last sight before I say 'good bye' is the Palace Gardens, an elegant architectural display in the middle of a green oasis. I've spent very some very intense 48 hours in Stuttgart but I want to come back to have an even more local feeling. I hope this will happen sooner than later.