As always I started the year resolving to write a little more here on Under a Grey Sky, and for the first couple of months of the year it seemed to work out okay. And then came March. We began the month with a journey south as part of what has become an annual tradition around Katrin’s birthday to find a place to explore somewhere between Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden in order to bring her together with her closest friends and their families. This year we ended up in sleepy Torgau… the picture above is the main market square on a Saturday afternoon. Torgau is famous as being the place where the American and Soviet troops first met at the end of the Second World War, and infamous for its history as a place of detention both before the war, during the Soviet occupation, and throughout the history of the GDR. So part of Katrin’s lighthearted birthday stroll was spent exploring an exhibition entitled Traces of Injustice… this also appears to be part of a tradition as two years ago we were wandering around Colditz castle.
But a day trip to the banks of the Elbe river was not the main reason for Under a Grey Sky radio silence. In fact there were two. Firstly, this happened:
That is us launching the third edition of our magazine Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. We had chats on stage with contributors, drank some beer and gave some readings and the whole evening was a lovely celebration of another six months of hard work and (we think) great writing and illustration about places around the world. If you haven’t yet had the chance to get your hands on a copy, all three editions are available – take a look at our online shop if you are interested.
The second main reason for a lack of posts in this neck of the woods was that we spent the second half of the month away in Rhoscolyn, perhaps my favourite place in the world and that I will finally be writing about in the next issue of Elsewhere, published in September. We did some walking along the coast and in the mountains in glorious weather, some catching up with family, and some sitting in a caravan in the rain (all part of the experience). We collected plenty of inspiration for these pages and beyond, which I hope to get online soon. We returned not only with those stories but Katrin took hundreds of photographs and we brought home a new mug for our collection. So as I sit in Berlin and eat my breakfast, I can imagine I am in that bustling cafe in Llanberis, just down from the hills…
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig and Paul Scraton
The sounds of the city began to fade as we climbed the steep slope up from the river embankment; the squeal of the trams as they turned the corner to cross the bridge; the siren of a police car racing past the Rudolfinum on the opposite bank; the bells from any number of churches, whose spires rise up above the Old Town and, as we climbed higher, came more and more into view.
At the top we reached Letná Park we could see beyond the narrow streets of the Josefov and around Old Town Square, out to the TV Tower with David Černý’s babies ever crawling up the sides. After a few days of staring up at the castle we now looked across the ridge to it, to Petrin Hill and down the river towards the National Theatre, the New Town, and some modern tower blocks beyond. Continue reading
On the 17 November 1989 a group of students set out on a candlelit procession through the streets of Prague, following the funeral route of Jan Opletal, a medical student killed by the Nazis in 1939. Fifty years later, with central and eastern Europe revolting against Communist rule, the students of 1989 were in no mood to follow the agreed route. Instead they made their way along the river bank to the National Theatre and turned right onto Národní třída, heading for Wenceslas Square. Met by riot police they held out flowers, put their candles on the road in front of them, and held out their bare hands to show their non-violent intentions. The response was brutal, and truncheon blows rained down on the students and the other men, women and children that had joined the peaceful demonstration. It was, in the words of Timothy Garton Ash, “the spark that set Czechoslovakia alight”.
The memorial to mark this momentous first step in the Velvet Revolution that would end Communist rule in just a couple of weeks, is pretty difficult to find. It is on Národní třída, hidden in a small passageway at the point on the street where the students met the riot police. It is close to the Cafe Louvre, where Kafka and Einstein once hung out, and the Reduta Jazz Club where President Havel took President Clinton during a visit that seemed to take in more basement watering holes that palace reception rooms. The simple memorial shows a set of hands. “We have bare hands,” the students told the police, and regardless of the violent response, the protests would remain peaceful. That, and the speed of change, is one of the remarkable achievements of the events of November and December 1989. Continue reading
Today we walked down a side street, not far from Tescos, and at a fairly anonymous wooden door rang a doorbell. A woman answered. “Is this the place for the exhibition?” I asked and she smiled and held the door open, apologising for not speaking English. No matter, she spoke German, and so she led us through an empty room with bookshelves at one end and piles of folding chairs beneath the windows. “This is where we hold our events,” she said, before taking us into a small room underneath those typical Prague Old Town arches. The room housed an exhibition titled “Václav Havel in a Nutshell”, his life story told on touchscreens with quotes and photographs filling all the space on the walls.
Prague’s celebration of the playwright, dissident President is modest, and you would only find the exhibition if you know about it and have the confidence to ring the doorbell. At first you think it is a shame that this is not more accessible, in the “Top Ten of Prague” to lead off every guidebook, but in the end it does not matter. He was one of the best, and in 15 sqm it was all there. Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred, he said on Wenceslas Square on the 10th December 1989. He was right then, and he would be right today. They charged us nothing to visit the exhibition, and so I bought a couple of postcards. A tiny contribution. And so Václav Havel will look down on me as I work at my desk… one of the good guys.
Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig
The weekend crowds, even in winter, patrol the boutiques of Binz’s main shopping street, aiming for the pier and its walkway out above the waters of Prora Wiek bay. Follow the beach away from the pier and, once past the last house, the cliffs begin to rise and the gentle sands turn to uneven pebbles and rock. The crowds thin. It is not easy walking, around the headland beneath the cliffs, and so it is left to the fishermen and the beachcombers, picking their way across the stones and the rock-pools in search of amber. Or perhaps “chicken gods”. These stones with holes were once seen as good luck charms, warding off evil spirits. Now they are used for necklaces or candle-holders. At the promontory we pause and luck across the bay, just about able to make out the chalk cliffs of the Stubbenkammer in the distance, topped with the beech trees of Jasmund. Casper David Friedrich found stirring landscapes upon which to build a romantic mythology. Theodor Fontane simply found it melancholy. Perhaps both are true, especially under January’s grey skies. Continue reading
From the resort of Binz, on the coast of Rügen island, the path into the Granitz forest starts at the point where the promenade runs out, the neat paving stones giving way to a sandy track of dirt that skirts the beach until it plunges inland and up towards the high cliff-top trail. Germany’s Baltic coast can in general be pretty flat – a landscape of big skies, dykes and dunes, where the only things reaching up towards the clouds are electricity pylons or windfarms. But Granitz is a bit different, formed as it was during the ice age; an undulating moraine landscape that marks the furthest extent of a glaciers journey, like rubble pushed across a wasteland by a mechanical digger.
We caught the tram having walked through smooth, unmarked snow on the pavement outside our house. As we walked a cyclist passed, cutting a solitary line ahead of us where the caretaker of a neighbouring building leaned on his shovel and considered the work that was to come. The tram was soggy, with puddles of water surrounding islands of grit, our neighbourhood of Berlin-Wedding passing by on the other side of steamed-up windows.
We took the tram to the end of the line. Is this where we came for my arm? Lotte asked, as she always does when we come to this corner of the city, as we disembarked opposite the Virchow Klinikum. Yep, I replied, but turned her away from the hospital and crossed over towards the graveyard that stands like a gothic warning to patients walking the grounds on the other side of the street. Here the road, our road, makes its last hundred metres as an ordinary city street before it becomes the motorway, next stop Dresden, Leipzig or Magdeburg…