Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Quick Guide of Potsdamer Platz

At least for ten days every year year, Potsdamer Platz, described by Stefan Zweig in the 1920s as 'the Babel of the World', is the center of the glamorous world cinema. Raising from a 'no man's land' during the Berlin Wall to a place displaying one of the boldest architectural mix in the whole Germany, this is a place I love to visit once in a while, for its bubbling spirit and the high concentration of attractions of any kind. For those visiting Berlin only for the Berlinale or who are living here, but never too tempted to see all its splendor, here is a quick guide of what you can do, see and eat in Potsdamer Platz.


I've started my exploration at the Potsdamer Platz metro station. It is not in my cards for one of my beautiful metro stations in Berlin, but it has though an old vintage charm of itself and looks much better than in the case of other public transportation hubs in the city. 
Although it is surrounded by so many cultural and historical attractions - from the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, to the impressive modernist exhibitions hosted at Martin Gropius Bau and the dark history on display at Topographie des Terrors, as you will see, there are so many things to check in this small area that if you are a slow traveller, you may need more than one day to go through the entire list.


The cultural offer around this tiny station is impressive. You can start with the Dali Museum, a permanent exhibition I visited a couple of years ago and which has unique illustrations of Carmen, Alice in Wonderland or Gargantua and Pantagruel, as well as special lithographies with very interesting histories. Next door, there is the Korean Cultural Center, which right now is very busy displaying information about the Winter Olympics, but round the year hosts interesting events. A couple of years ago, I've been to a special Korean jazz evening and loved everything about it. 


Another couple of doors, another attraction: Spy Museum, one of the newest entry in the very long list of museums in the city - an almost complete guide coming soon on the blog. As Berlin, alongside with Vienna, used to be a very active spy center during the Cold War, you will see a lot of funny James Bond Stasi-style kind of tricks, but it has also a very elaborated historical material about the creation of intelligence services after WWII and other interesting histories. If you plan to visit, be sure you dedicated a couple of full hours for a throughout exploration.


After so much serious thinking and cultural encounters, a bit of relaxation and some shopping at the Mall of Berlin, across the street, can be a good idea. The malls are a relatively new and pretty controversial presence in the landscape of the hipster Berlin and Germany in general. Although in general small retails and shopping centers are preferred to the massive shopping sprees from North America, Asia or the Middle East, the business landscape is changing here too, with at least another mall planned to be open in the Eastern side of the city in the next years. If not too much into shopping, at least you can use the view from the connecting passages between the blocks of building for having a look at the Bundesrat, the headquarters of German's local parliament, a good example of institutional architecture.


A really hidden gem of institutional architecture is for me the Canadian embassy building. Open in 2005 and aimed to display the role of this country as a main player in relationship with the EU it displays the concept of 'integrated art', with works of art displaying specific geographical and cultural features of the country being includes as part of the building construction. During the planning and further the construction, five local artists worked closely with designers and architects to create works of art which complete and compliment the main concepts. I've found this a great idea, and connecting politics and economics with arts is always a very noble add-on.


More than in any other place in the city, the memory of the Berlin Wall is a reminder of the recent history wounds but also a reference point for how far you can go when there is will and an elaborated political consensus. 


Without a proper investment and political support, Potsdamer Platz could have not been what it is nowadays: an architectural jewel, hosting a high concentration of important foreign and local companies. During the first German unification, for instance, in 1871, the country's busiest intersection with the first traffic light system in Europe installed here in 1924, as it was leading to the then garrison city of Potsdam, the plans of making this square a trademark of the new country were abandoned because the lack of funds. After the second reunification of Germany, there were only a couple of years needed until the planning stage and the start of the constructions, in 1993.


The main concept assigned to this area was connected to 'new beginnings'. From the steel and glass sky scraper house of the transportation giant Deutsche Bahn to the Art Deco building of Potsdamer Strasse 1, designed by Hans Kollhoff where Europe's fastest elevator brings you within 20 seconds to the 25th floor from where you can have a Panoramic view over the city, everything is just out of the best architecture coffee table books. Among the winners of the international architecture competition was also Renzo Piano, the creator of Centre Pompidou, whose building on Eichhornstraße 3 is aimed to balance the weights of another two high scrapers, raising in their middle. Its dimensions are the same as the central nave of Notre Dame, which you may not believe as you have a first look at its elongated shape. 


The newest jewel on the elegance crown is The Ritz Carlton Berlin, with its exquisite display of style and a delicious invitation to afternoon tea


From the old Potsdamer Platz, it is only one single building that remained: Haus Hüth, a former wine house built in 1912, resting nowadays on the Daimler Benz building. Greatly undamaged by WWII, it was carefully restored and integrated into the newest social and architectural landscape. It includes nowadays the Daimler Art Collection and the luxurious Lutter&Wegner restaurant. All around the Potsdamer Platz, the foodie offer is more than generous, from the always busy food courts of the Arkaden shopping center (where you can buy fast your Berlinale tickets), to the international restaurants displaying Mexican, Australian and elegant Italian menus.


Inaugurated in 2000, Sony Center is one of the landmarks of Potsdamer Platz and Berlin nowadays, with its always busy avenues, outdoors restaurants and movie theaters. Especially during the nightfall, the translucent roof, the main element covering the disparate buildings, is wrapping the entire complex in changing colours. What else can better epitomize the changing nature of this city that seems to never have a proper historical rest?


With its multiplex cinema locations, Sony Center is also a destination for movie lovers as it includes the Film Museum, an elaborated journey through the history of German movies, and the Cinematheque. Nearby, the first German walk of stars was recently inaugurated, featuring local famous actors and film directors.


Especially if you are visiting with children, don't forget to pay a long - maybe too long from the parents' perspective - visit at the Lego Center there. 


Right on the corner, there is the building of the National Library - Staatsbibliothek - the work of the German architects Hans Scharoun and Edgar Wisniewski, next to the Landwehr Canal and near the Ibero-American Institute. After the Soviet occupation of Berlin, and the building of the Berlin Wall, books that were aimed to be saved previously from the bombings ended up here, and the other half in the other building of the Staatsbibliothek in Unter den Linden. Nowadays, the two institutions - 'the library in two houses' are part of the same cultural umbrella 'Preussischer Kulturbesitz'. 


Part of the Kultur Forum, which includes buildings in a more brutalist style specific to the time of the construction, the 1970s, on the other side of the street, with the Design Museum and contemporary art exhibitions, it is also a counter-answer to the very modernist Mies van der Rohe Neue Nationalgalerie, currently under renovation.


Probably less known is the fact that in this very modernist area, there is also a small little place called the Instruments Museum, where music lovers can have a very interesting journey through the history of European music and beautiful instruments.


Another work of Sharoun, the Berliner Philharmonie, is one of my favorite works of architecture in the whole city. During my first year in Berlin, I've spent here a lot of time, going to various concerts, including the free Tuesday lunch concerts in Hauptfoyer. Especially if you are new in the city, music is the best way you can connect to the city and Philharmonie has one of the best offers in this respect.


Near one of the entrances, opposite the Tiergarten, there is a relatively less known memorial, in the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people victimes of euthanasia during the National-Socialist regime.


After such an intensive tour, only a slow walk through the Tiergarten can help you settle down your memories and impressions of such a busy day. Berlin is still having so many stories to tell and I am here to listen them all.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

6 Lovely Destinations for Movie Lovers in Germany

The direct connection between Germany and movie industry is not always explicit, especially because the good German movies are often produced and created in the the German language. The local film industry is perceived as a world in itself, but the serious movie lovers may be familiar with productions like: Good bye, Lenin (Wolfgang Becker), the movies of Fatih Akin, The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel) or Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link), to mention only few of my favorite German movies known also in the maybe too dominant English-speaking realm.
In addition to the local production, Germany is also an affordable country for filming, attractive not only for the prices of the locations (mostly in the former Eastern Germany area), but also for the diverse landscape and urban architecture, as well as for the historical inspiration.
With this year edition of the Berlinale Film Festival in full swing those days, many of the international visitors may be interested to stay a bit more, at least for a couple of days, to discover even more interesting histories about the German film industry. For them and anyone which would love a different German journey, here are my 6 lovely destinations for movie lovers in Germany.


Berlin


Berlin, the Haupstadt - the capital city - is where any serious movie lover should start his or her journey. With its own avenue of stars featuring local German artists and film directors, and 10 days the year when the attention of the movie industry is concentrated in the once-divided capital city, Berlin deserves a special place in any such itinerary. Its rich history make it into a perfect background for a variety of international movies, with locations in more or less famous cultural or historical destinations. Last year, I've wrapped up the best places every movie lover should visit

Potsdam


Potsdam, less than one hour away by train from Berlin, is not only a recommended destination for photographers, but appeals to the movie lovers as well. Although this time of the year, the famous Babelsberg studios are closed, there are at least two other film destinations to check while on a break from the Berlinale. If you love pretty palaces and small streets, you would probably love to stay more and this guide of my favorite things to do and see here will help you for sure. 

Beelitz


Especially for Berliners, Beelitz is mentioned very often when the asparagus season is open, as the place is considered a valuable source of the high-quality local veggie. However, there is more to it than the spargel plate, such as the fact that here were filmed two interesting historical movies: Operation Valkyrie, The Pianist and Schindler's List. Its famous sanatorium, at the time of its inauguration, at the beginning of the 20th century, the biggest and the most modern medical institution to treat tuberculosis - Beelitz-Heilstätter has some historical memories too and the place was recently in the center of a conflict between those that want to keep the place as an exclusive creative place and the real estate representatives keen to use the location for building some fancy lofts. I personally plan to be back there this summer to check out what happened since my last visit. And maybe do some spargel shopping too...

Görlitz


Görlitz, or Gorliwood for the hard-core movie fans, may say nothing to many citizens of the German republic, but it is very famous among the film lovers from around the world. Gossips say that Nicholas Cage himself anonymously donated a huge amount of money for the renovation of its historical colourful streets, that usually appear in the background. The Art Nouveau Department Store which is currently under massive renovations, for instance, was featured in the Grand Budapest Hotel. In case that you decide to go there, here are my - at least - 5 reasons to pay a visit to this town.

Hamburg


Hamburg is beautiful and one of the German cities that I love very much. Actually, I visit this place at least twice the year and still can't have enough of it. It is always what Berlin is not: rich, settled down, elegant. But besides its famous Elbphilharmonie and the many museums, in the last two decades it also creates a profile of a great destination for movie lovers and producers. Fatih Akin movies, for instance, do have many scenes from here, and the local studios filmed international productions such as An Enemy to Die For (Peter Dalle), or Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch). In a city where big media outlets are located, movie industry is trying to strive a life for itself, with its own film festival that this year will have its 26th edition at the end of September, beginning of October.

Munich


Munich is very popular for its Oktoberfest or its famous Marienplatz where the Gothic city hall is located, but the city has made a name for itself in the movie industry as well. Especially after the reunification, a more or less open rivalry between Munich and Berlin is always bursting - actually the two of them are so different that can easily survive near each other - which has to do with the film industry as well. The counter-part of the famous Babelsberg are Bavaria Filmstudios. Created in 1919, it was here were Alfred Hitchcock made his first film, The Pleasure Garden, in 1925. Other famous film productions that were created here are: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Rainer Maria Fassbinder (1980), The Serpent's Egg by Ingmar Bergman (1977), The Snowden Files, by Oliver Stone (2015), The Neverending Story (1984), which was also filmed in Babelsberg or Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006). I haven't been to Munich in a long while, but planning to be back at least once this year so hopefully will bring more testimonies and movie stories from this Bavarian city.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Winter day in Ilsenburg, in the Harz Mountains

I haven't been in the Harz mountains for over two years, after a very intense period of time when I checked, one by one all the colourful and famous destinations in this relatively underrated area in the North of Germany. From the pleasant Quedlinburg to the nature-adventurous inspiring Thale or the surprising gardens of Blankenburg, I've seen almost everything that have to be seen here. However, when checking out a place where I can have a short-term experience of winter - just a bit of snow and some ice, but nothing more, I realized that I've never considered Ilsenburg. For people living in Berlin this destination doesn't say too much, but for those living in Hannover, it is one of the favorite destinations, only one hour away by car. It's their Potsdam, I've been told so I got encouraged to spend one full day in this small town.


We arrived with the HEX after three hours of direct train ride from Berlin. Ilsenburg is very close from another colourful destination in the Harz mountains that I loved, Wernigerode, but it's lacking its business and crowds of tourists that are always on the streets snapping pics of the unusual houses. Practically, for more than 30 minutes upon arrival, we walked the empty streets without meeting anyone. No tourists, no locals, it looked like we have the town only for ourselves.


One of the features of this town is how nature is always interfering with the urban life. Ilsenburg is surrounded by mountains and sound of wild waterfalls is stronger than that of the 4x4 cars, so useful when you are living in the mountainous area.  


Ducks swimming lazily on the lake were the only active beings we encountered for a long while, in the middle of a frozen landscape.


Although empty, the streets do have their own charm, with old 16th century stone houses gently surrounded by bushes of roses that despite the cold temperatures were in full bloom.


And colourful crafted doors adorning local shops or houses which are always a pleasant surprise for the eyes.


Getting closer to the central area - thanks to the many directions leading the few tourists to the main attractions - we encounter gracious swans doing their daily lake tours.


The Harz mountains are also famous for their half-timbered traditional houses, coming in different sizes, colours and historical styles. In Ilsenburg, they make it the big majority of the constructions. 


As we are walking slowly the streets, we finally encounter a real winter landscape, as I haven't seen in a long time. I am not a necessarily winter person, but I grew up with four seasons and winters with mountains of snow that I liked to play with as a kid. 


Everything looks so quiet here too, but we can see the footmarks in the fresh snow, a sign that we are not so alone here. But with one exception, of a dog and his owner, we don't encounter too many creatures on our way.


Breathing deep the silence and the crispy air is a very healthy meditation practice that I keep repeating during the small hiking. I can imagine how beautiful this area is in the summer and how blessed are the people living here to be so close to nature.


On the top of a small hill, there is a small citadel-looking monastery.


It serves nowadays mostly as a cultural center and hosts also a small coffee place that I am not yet tempted to visit, as I want to keep filling my lungs with fresh air and my mind with clear thoughts.


I want to be outdoors as long as the day lights allows, enjoying the rays of light and using my camera to catch the silent local beauty.


In Ilsenburg, even the city hall looks like a doll house, small and colourful and very inviting.


It is time for a break though, and the first stop is at the restaurant of the five-star Zu den Roten Forellen, which has an exquisite lunch menu. I am only for a coffee and a delicious tiramisu which melted deliciously in the mouth. The service is excellent and very careful, the kind that you would love to have more often at a 5-star location in Berlin.


With sugar at high levels allowing to cope with another batch of cold hours, I keep exploring the houses and the streets, surrounded on all sides by the snow-capped mountains.


The traditional witches' motif so frequent in the literature inspired by the Harz mountains are hanging everywhere, included near an old mill dating from the 16th century.


There are a couple of hotels in Ilsenburg, but I would personally be very tempted to see how it is to live in such a heritage timbered house. The prices are more than decent, with the average price for a night in a Ferienwohnung - vacation home - for around 30 EUR. the night.


Some of the streets are ending up in the middle of the forest, but the hiking is relatively easy. You only need some normal sport shoes and a bit of walking training, which I both have so I can have another full mountains immersion for the next minutes.


Although silent, the human presence is there, with some architectural modern variations.


Our next long step is at the other famous local hotel, the 4-star Berghotel, with its stylish traditional-looking lobby. There is another place in Ilsenburg where one can have some bites, the Cafe am Markt near the city hall, but it was very crowded and we weren't so in the mood for a long meal.


How can I think about food when I've just spotted this cute pinky house in the corner?


Or this one with orange with yellow stripes on the top?


Many dozen of pictures after, we are on the back to the train station. We moved up and down around the city the whole day, but Ilsenburg still stays the same. Ready for a new day, a new week...