I took the bus north, from the shabby concrete concourse of the Berlin ZOB. Waiting for the bus reminded me of travels that seem a long time ago now, catching the bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo or along the Croatian coastline, the entire series of Rocky films dubbed into the local language playing above my head as some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world passed by in darkness. As I stood in the cold with my fellow passengers I thought of Cape Town to Durban and the loss of feeling in my legs after thirty-odd hours, and the longest journey of all, from Berlin to Ormskirk via Hannover, Amsterdam and London. I have never been particularly fond of long distance bus travel.
Today is the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in German-occupied Poland. As events are held across the world to commemorate the anniversary, I dug out an article I wrote based on a visit to Krakow in the early months of 2006. Katrin was pregnant, and we had travelled to the Polish city to scout locations for an international hostel conference she was organising. A few months later, when the conference took place, we had to travel overland as Katrin was no longer allowed to fly, but on the first visit we landed at the airport and were driven into town through socialist-era suburbs that reminded us of Berlin to the beauty of the old city centre:
On a clear winter’s day, with a light mist hanging overhead, weak sunshine bathes the Old Town of Krakow in a gentle, almost dream-like light. It softens the cobbled streets, the towers and spires, the market square – a more beautiful city in Europe is hard to imagine. In the bone-chilling cold people move at a brisk pace. Young women students scurry between university buildings wrapped in heavy scarves and jackets, hats pulled low, their round, pretty faces open to the elements. Only tourists loiter – that’s what tourists do – framing the city through digital lenses. But in January they are few in number. As the city ebbs and flows, people go about their daily business. For them beautiful Krakow is commonplace; while visitors gaze in wonder, local eyes rarely rise above street level.
The night train is one of the great travelling experiences, and sadly – according to this article in the Guardian – it is one that is under threat. I have taken many night trains across Europe, from a first experience in an eight person compartment between Prague and Budapest that probably should have put me off the idea for life, to the journey we took a couple of years ago from Paris home to Berlin, introducing Lotte to the excitement of falling asleep as the train moved through the suburbs of one city and waking as a new city in a new country came into view. That service is one of the night trains that will no longer be running by the end of the year, and it is not only a great shame, but one that feels shortsighted in an era when we should be looking at ways of reducing the environmental impact of our travels.
We returned to Berlin a week or so ago from our summer travels through Germany and France, straight back into the hectic normality of everyday life, and with a notebook filled with scribbles and reflections on the places we have seen and experienced. So where to start? On page one of course, and a man-made lake at the southern edge of the Harz Mountains…
On our second morning at the Wiesenbeker Teich and we emerged from our tents to a view of the forested mountains above the lake shrouded in mist. There was some rain in air, and from our camping spot above the water, it looked as if the lake itself was smoking in the early morning gloom. Apart from the campsite, there is not much around the lake. A crumbling hotel stands at the end closest to the town of Bad Lauterberg, but otherwise it is steep-sided hills falling into the water, with trees growing all the way down to the water’s edge.
This morning I woke up, caught the S-Bahn to the end of the line, and ran home again. The route I chose was to follow the Panke river from Bernau for 25 kilometres until it arrived just a couple of footsteps away from our front door. It is a journey I have wanted to make for a while, passing through the north of the city alongside the river. As it happened, for the first third of the journey the Panke kept itself fairly well hidden. It was little more than a ditch when I began, running through an allotment colony just south of Bernau station, and then it swung away into some fields, only to appear periodically until I reached Buch, the Berlin city limits, and the overgrowth of the Schlosspark.
Review by Paul Scraton:
In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor began a walk from the Hook of Holland that would take him across Europe, a journey he would later immortalise in three books – A Time of Gifts, Between the Woods and the Water, and (published posthumously) The Broken Road. The first two have, since publication, been long regarded as classics of travel literature. Reading them today you are struck with the sense that these are books written about a time when Europe was at a tipping point – much of A Time of Gifts for instance is set in a Germany where the Nazis are in the ascendant – but also and especially later in Fermor’s journey, in the lands to the East, where the books are filled with tales of aristocrats and peasants it is a world that became decidedly less “modern” the more he walked.
At the harbour at Kladow most of the waterside restaurants and beer gardens were empty, although they were obviously getting ready for the weekend. As the weather gets warmer, this corner of Berlin becomes a popular spot for walking and bike riding on both sides of the Havel, and the next few days would see hundreds of people heading down to the water, but on this Friday afternoon we had the place pretty much to ourselves.
We sat on a bench and looked across to a small island and a colony of cormorants nesting high in the trees. We ate the remains of our sandwiches and sipped at cups of tea. Across the water we could see the Peacock Island and the Wannsee shore. That was where we wanted to be, to find a shady table at the beer garden before catching the S-Bahn home. But first of all we had to get across the water.
Just less than a week in a Japan and it remains a jumble of memories in my head. Here is the second half of my fragmentary tale of a journey to the other side of the world…
On a Sunday morning we take the train to Hibuya and then walk through the wooden gate into the grounds of the Meiji Shrine. This was once parkland where the Emperor Meiji – the man who opened Japan and ushered in a half century of incredible change, including a social, economic and industrial revolution – and his Empress Shōken has been known to visit for periods of rest and reflection. The paths leading through the woodland to the shrine that was built in their honour is flanked with billboards telling some stories of the Emperor and the Empress, as well as their poetry and other reflections. Only a short stroll from busy city streets, and despite there being a lot of people walking the gravel trails with us, it is a peaceful place. The crowds get thicker at the shrine itself, drawn to the site of the wedding party walking through the grounds. At the front the couple are in traditional dress. Behind then men are in smart suits, the women in dresses, and all the bags that dangle from their arms carry the name of famous designers from around the world. The bag that it comes in, it seems, is as important as the gift contained inside.
By Julia Stone:
Ever since I was a small child my mom has been telling me how great Scotland is, the beauty of the landscapes and the friendly people that she met, and how she really wanted to eat haggis… the delicacy that she missed on her first trip over 35 years ago. So in October we made a trip – her return to Scotland – for our annual mother-daughter journey together.
(above: View from a balcony, Cape Town)
With the death of Nelson Mandela recently, and the acres of newsprint and billions of pixels devoted to the past, present and future of South Africa now that he has gone, I have been thinking a lot about Mandela and the country that I visited three and a half years ago during the World Cup, the final of which happened to be his last, major public appearance. I have also been thinking further back, to those posters on the wall at our home in the 1980s, the two concerts we went to as kids at Wembley Stadium, and standing in the drizzle of Millennium Square in Leeds a decade later as he addressed the crowd.
I thought about the fact that Nelson Mandela was – along with Vaclav Havel – one of the heroes of my political education, and one of the inspirations for my long-standing and continuing interest in societies in transition and how we manage our collective past and memory to move forward to a more positive future. Both men were flawed, because – after all – everyone is and must be, but in post-apartheid South Africa and post-communist Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), both Mandela and Havel offered examples of how we can bring together a fractured and damaged society, and how appealing to the good in people, the positive and the progressive, can shape that society for the better.