Tag Archives: chocolate

Beer-lin at Christmas

December was a busy month with trips to Birmingham, Berlin, Lancaster, Norwich and Great Yarmouth and a visit from my cousins, where I cooked for five for the first time.

I learnt that you need to have everything prepared and ready to go for the day of the visit. I spent that morning scouring local farms for turkey, only to be told that it had to be ordered in advance. I was saved by a pre-prepared one at Waitrose.

There was so much to see and do in Berlin. The city had a festive atmosphere with Christmas lights and markets. Temperatures were close to zero so my thermals came in handy.

Hotel Indigo was comfortable, clean and stylish and was lovely to return to after a day on our feet. We had an executive room with a balcony and we wrapped up to admire the view.

It was easy to get around using the S-Bahn and U-Bahn train systems. The U-Bahn is the Underground. You have to get your ticket stamped by the machine or you can be fined.

Transport links from Schönefeld airport were dismal, perhaps the reason for its rating on Google of under 3 stars. We were shattered after our budget airline experience featuring the usual lengthy queues. I nearly fell over as I had labyrinthitis – an inner-ear infection causing balance issues and disorientation. I had just started swimming again and medical opinion was that it had pushed infection further into my ear. Luckily it was the last 24 hours of it.

There was a long walk to the train station which was a vast concrete space with confusing German signposting to unfamiliar areas and some omnipotent machines. You needed to have the right amount of coins as they did not take cards and most did not like notes. Perhaps this is to encourage those in the know to buy at the airport. There were no officials and no information desk. In England there are information points at almost every major station so it was a culture-shock. I’d already been jarred by the lack of warm water in public toilets. Economical efficiency at its best but punishing in winter. Hand-warmers are recommended.

Berlin Photo Tour

Many meals centred around sausages (wurst). This is tasty currywurst.

Many meals centred around sausages (wurst). This is tasty currywurst.

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This pint features the German bear in front of the dome of Berlin’s parliament or Bundestag which is one of the subjects of my next post. Bears first appeared on a city seal (emblem) in 1280. The earliest city seal from 1253 didn’t feature a bear but an eagle, which was the symbol of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, an important part of the Holy Roman Empire that included Berlin. In 1280 the second emblem featured a Brandenburg eagle flanked by two standing bears. When Cölln and Berlin were merged into one city in 1709, the coat of arms featured the bear below two eagles -red for Brandenburg and black for Prussia. By 1875, the bear gained a crown signifying Berlin’s status as a free city.

 

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Schnitzel was nothing special.

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The apple cake was delicious.

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Our walking tour started in front of the Brandenburg Gate, outside Starbucks. It was free if you were heartless but our charismatic guide explained that he lived on donations and 15 Euros was the going rate. It was well worth it as we felt we had seen all the key sights and were fully briefed in the history. All questions were answered.

Just past the Gate on the road is the dividing line of the Wall that divided East and West Berlin until 1989, stretching off into the traffic. Division seems a distant memory, one that many would surely rather forget.

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Today is the 70th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz where over 1 million people died. An estimated 90 per cent of these victims were Jews, with Poles, Romani gypsies, Soviet Prisoners, homosexuals and others deemed “undesirable” making up the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish victims that were killed at the hands of the Nazis. The death toll is inconceivable. I thought of my grandfather, who liberated and dealt with the aftermath of Bergen-Belsen. Hell on earth. He never spoke of it and it must have been easier to repress than think about. Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish Auschwitz survivor, writer and chemist, remarked  “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man” quoting the Robert Burns poem “Man Was Made to Mourn”.  

The Jewish Memorial in Berlin was quite an experience. It was a series of concrete blocks gradually getting taller until you were engulfed by oppressive blank columns trapping you on all sides. You are suddenly in a narrow space overshadowed by heavy grey monoliths leaning towards you which blocked out the light.

It was even more powerful at night. I couldn’t see anything but a gloomy, shadowy passage in front of me. It was eerily silent and you could hardly see the sky.

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You could go on a “Trabi” tour. Trabant cars, affectionately termed “trabis”, were iconic vehicles used by the Soviets of East Berlin. There is a museum for almost everything in Berlin, from those cars to computer science.067

Balloon sightseeing looked fun but freezing. We didn’t get a chance to see the Berlin Wall art but click here for a good website with it.

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Source: ampelmann.de

The East side still retained some differences such as the pedestrian crossing signs which featured a large man in a hat. The design was conceived by a traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau. The thinking behind it was that we react more quickly to appealing symbols.

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The history of a divided East/West Berlin reminded me of North/South Korea. The Russians called the East the Federal Republic and the British, French and Americans named the West the Democratic Republic. The wishful thinking post-War was that both halves would be run harmoniously. But the 1950s saw the fear of Communism explode in the States with witch hunts including even Charlie Chaplin. There were uprisings in the East which were dealt with by the Stasi, the secret police. Around 2.7 million East Berliners defected from 1949 until the Wall was built, with 200,000 leaving the year before in 1960. Reasons for escape were economic, social or political.One reason was the introduction of a collectivization policy in the 1950s. The goal was to consolidate individual land and labour into collective farms in order to increase food supply. But this meant that profits decreased and there were food shortages and riots instead.

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The Wall was publicly built to prevent a war for the city but privately it was

Walter Ubricht (Wikipedia)

Walter Ubricht (Wikipedia)

also to stop the East-West exodus. The East-German leader Walter Ubricht termed it an “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart” protecting the Federal Republic from “military adventurers”.

The photo above shows border guard Conrad Schumann who left two days after Wall construction began. His fellow soldiers were distracted and he saw his chance. West Berliners encouraged him to jump and after deciding for a moment he went for it. The moment was captured by passing photographer Peter Liebing. The iconic photograph was used as propaganda.

There were some unusual escapes, such as by tightrope-walking and with a car converted to go under the crossing barrier. Many who succeeded were guards, with over 1,300 fleeing in the first two years of the Wall’s construction. This led to the installation of locks and further walls requiring several soldiers to open them.

There was a good exhibition at Nordbahnhof S-geisterbahnhof_21_01606Bahn station about the division of the Underground. Tube trains from the West could pass through Eastern stops but they could not be used and became “ghost” stations. Even here soldiers escaped, so they would be locked in a platform bunker until the end of their shift.

Officially, 136 Berliners died fleeing to the West. Some wanted to earn more money, others were trying to join family members. Friedrichstraße station was nicknamed “The Palace of Tears” as it was the station where East Berliners would have tearful goodbyes to West Berliners returning, unsure when they would be allowed to see them again.

Many casualties were not recorded by the secretive Soviets. But a victims research group called “August 13 Working Group”  has claimed there were more than 1,100 fatalities linked to the division of states. West Berliners used it to fly-tip.

The photo above captures the worst Wall stand-off caused by a senior U.S. diplomat, Lightner Jr (American for Junior, which means son of) wanting to go to the opera in East Berlin. The East Germans demanded to see his passport, which he insisted only Soviet officials had the right to check. He was forced to turn back. Due to the tank stand-off and fervent diplomacy that ensued, officials on both sides were allowed to attend the theatre and the opera over the border. As for Lightner Jr, he went to the performance days later.

This month Stasi records became available online for the first time. The Stasi were Soviet secret police. Their files have been available to their subjects since 1992. But you had to write out for them and there were delays in release. The records were saved by East German citizens who stormed Stasi offices when the Wall fell in 1989. They include the harrowing case of Manfred Smolka, a former East German border guard who was seized, thrown in solitary confinement and guillotined after he escaped to the West.  The Stasi even attempted to recruit Prime Minister Angela Merkel when she was at University.

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Our tour guide was fantastic and we felt like we had been fully briefed on the key history and sights of the city centre.

The German market looked fantastic. To the left is the Concert House where we enjoyed an orchestral and choral Bach performance.

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All photos on this page Copyright literarylydi. Please ask for permission before using. Thank you.

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You must visit Fassbender and Rauch. It’s a chocolate shop with green awnings like Harrods and has confectionary which is just as fancy. There were several iconic buildings made entirely of chocolate. Upstairs in the lift is the restaurant where they do a main meal in chocolate on Monday-Friday. There can be a queue early in the afternoon but it is worth the wait. Their petit-fours look exquisite and are delicious.

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Christmas decoration in Pottsdam, copied nicely in chocolate in Berlin. That city is the subject of my next post, along with more of Berlin.

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January 27, 2015 · 9:21 pm

A weekend in Birmingham

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I feel like a villager in Birmingham. It’s a city for giants, with skyscrapers touching the clouds all around. If you have money to spare it’s a lovely place for a night out.

My boyfriend’s university friends were having a reunion. I imagined a rowdy night out with mostly guys, as it had been last year. But this year there was a married couple who worked at a charity for children with learning difficulties and a physicist with his Masters student girlfriend. Or at least that’s as much as I could gather from the conversation. I was feeling a bit shy. I had said I didn’t mind staying at home and working – after all my boyfriend was offered a spare bed. But when I saw the company I could see why he was keen for me to come.

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We rolled up at the Marriott Hotel. It had been the only last-minute booking available and my boyfriend grumbled about it and said it was “just a hotel”. But it wasn’t “just a hotel” to me. Although there were smudges of something on the marble floor under the light, everything else was clean. The bathroom was mostly marble, with pretty shell mirror lights. The room was standard, except that it had a nice wooden wardrobe and three windows, two of which opened. I was expecting a kettle and teas for the price but it was still a treat. I was so tired later I didn’t mind the firm mattress, which is just how my boyfriend likes it, though he really doesn’t need the extra support.

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Spot Santa!

I was going to put on a short party skirt and top but luckily my boyfriend told me that we would be outside for a while at the German market, so I kept my acrylic LBD (long black dress) on. The whole of the city centre was covered in little wooden huts with fake greenery and baubles on the top. There were Santas on the rooves and a large Christmas tree. It was “Frankfurt” in Birmingham and the prices were probably just as ridiculous. The atmosphere was lovely though and there was one stall selling incredible hand-crafted chocolates in tool shapes – there were pliers, bolts, calipers, cameras, instruments and hammers. All the details were so delicate.

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We went to a French restaurant, Le Truc. I had a lovely hot spiced apple cocktail with a slice of apple in. It warmed me up and tasted sweet and delicious. We sat down to dinner and I ordered onglet. I wasn’t sure what it was but it sounded fancy, and with beef dripping chips. I asked one of the company what it was and I heard “snake”. I proudly announced to my boyfriend that I was having the most exotic dish. He didn’t know what onglet was but asked why they would serve snake. I asked the waitress and apparently it was steak. She asked how my boyfriend would like his steak. I told her he likes it freshly killed with blood still oozing from it. When he served it to me for the first time recently I could still taste the blood and felt a bit sick.

The onglet arrived but gristle was a better description. I couldn’t cut it. I struggled for a while and then gave up, ordering a fillet steak instead. When it came it was the best I’d tried, juicy, succulent and full of flavour. It was £17.50 for that and some standard chips – I couldn’t taste the beef dripping apparently on them, and a couple of leaves of spinach. I also had a goats cheese starter that was a slice of fried goats cheese on a potato cake. I thought it wasn’t much for £6.

I shared my boyfriend’s creme brulee for dessert and that was delicious. I’d IMG_0016only taken £50 cash to the city, thinking I would just be going for dinner and maybe a few drinks, but the drinks were so lovely I ended up spending £40 on two cocktails and the meal. The surroundings were nice with chandeliers and arty sketches and cartoons, and there was actually a French waiter. He was asked whether there were any nuts in the tart or sticky toffee pudding and didn’t understand until I translated rather falteringly with what I could remember.

Gingers was a lovely cocktail bar. They were really tasty and there was a wide variety on the menu. They were £6.50 each so I tried to make mine last. I had a strawberry milkshake one with a little too much alcohol in, it was quite sharp. Some were £8.50.

Although it was a classy establishment, unfortunately shortly after we sat down someone projectile vomited out of the toilet door (clearly more money than sense) and there were no other seats free. We were soon breathing through our mouths due to the chlorine bleach cleaning operation underway from a glamourous member of staff in a figgure-hugging LBD (also long). Ladies tottered around her in ridiculous heels, wearing fancy short dresses, fake-style make-up, curled freshly-dyed hair bouncing about. It was lovely being able to talk – the music was in the background and there wasn’t a dancing area, one wouldn’t want to encourage drink-spilling and debauchery.

My boyfriend took great delight in ordering “the gayest thing on the menu”. He had been yawning since the restaurant and after enjoying IMG_0023a sweet “Pink Panther” cocktail in a delicate little glass yawned until everyone followed suit and decided to call it a night. Most of the company were 30 or over and clearly weren’t used to such late nights.

In the morning I was annoyed that I woke up too late to enjoy the hotel pool. I enjoyed using the marble bathroom and the novelty of riding in a lift with a carpet and a mirror though.

We went to brunch at one of The Independent’s top 50 cafes. Nothing on the meu cost less than £6 so it was a bit pricey, and for that I only got three IMG_0041Scottish pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, a couple of blueberries and a strawberry. When we ordered tea I asked what tea they had and they said Earl Grey or ordinary. I wasn’t impressed. The salmon and poached egg brunch was probably what impressed reviewers, it looked like better value for money. There were wooden tables and the tea came in a lovely knitted tea-cosy. It was called The Plough and the toilet was rather fancy, all wood pannelling with their own soap and hand cream.

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We then went round the Christmas market again. I had a potato pancake, deep-fried. It was very fatty and chewy and not to my taste, even with the apple sauce. Others had little dough balls. I tried one but they were also chewy and fatty. Not worth £4 but they looked pretty.

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Then we went round the Bullring shopping mall. It just had chain stores in but we got lunch there. We marvelled at the cakes and tarts at the Patisserie Valerie counter. I asked whether my boyfriend wanted a tart for his birthday (on Friday). I said he was only allowed an edible one though.

We rushed to the station only to discover that when I was really tired I had bought a ticket from Sheffield to Birmingham instead of the other way round, having booked a ticket from Sheffield to London for our upcoming trip to Istanbul at the same time. My boyfriend was driving down south for an 11 day shift, working away. I’m going to London the day before we fly  and my boyfriend is picking me up and taking me to the airport hotel. I bought him return flights and he’s treating me to free 4 star spa hotel accommodation throughout the trip, as he stays away so often with work that he has lots of points he can use.

So my knight in shining armour not only bought me drinks and my Christmas presents but then had to buy my train fare home. He’s refusing to let me pay him back so I’ll get him something nice for Christmas instead.

I’m really looking forward to the next two weekends and I’ll tell you all about them as soon as I can.

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