Rome and Berlin

Sunday 21st June 2015

A midday flight from Gatwick to Rome meant that we could get up at a normal time and get going at a leisurely pace – luxury!

In the event we were delayed at little on the runway by a computer fault, but we still arrived at Ciampino more or less on time at 15.35. We were supposed to be landing at Fiumicino, but a couple of days ago Gill was told of a change in destination airport. Apparently, one of Fiumicino’s terminals was recently badly damaged by fire, and a lot of inbound flights are being diverted. In the event, this worked well for us, because Ciampino is closer to Rome and also because Gill was able to book a taxi pick-up that took us straight to our apartment.

Trastevere is a lovely part of Rome, almost overflowing with nice places to eat. Our apartment is within 100 yards of an excellent restaurant that Gill found last year when we were here with Sarah and Carly, so that’s where we headed this evening.

We chose the 28€ ‘tasting menu' consisting of bread and three courses, expecting it to consist of small dishes. Unfortunately, the starter course (cheese, ham, bruschetta and fried courgette flowers) was huge and we didn’t quite finish it. This left us dreading the main course consisting of two different pastas - we ate even less of this one! Luckily, the dessert course (tiramisu, zabaioni, panna cotta and fresh fruit really was along ‘tasting menu’ lines, so we cleared our dishes, full though we were!

Tomorrow it’s our ‘food walk’ in the southern suburb of Testaccio. At least we’ll be able to walk it off as we go!

Sunday 22nd June 2015

Careful research on-line last night had told us that we needed to get to the Tiber then catch either the 23 or the 280 bus to Testaccio. Uncertain of how long it would take us to get there we set out from our apartment before 10am but arrived in a sun-drenched Piazza Testaccio by 10.30, so we picked a bench in a sunny spot.

Our walking tour started at 11.15 and consisted of twelve of us and a young American guide, Gigi. There was a Danish couple and a group of eight people from Melbourne who were travelling together.

The first three stops came in quick succession; the first was for an Italian croissant plus tiramisu in a little chocolate cup and the second was for a couple of slices of pizza with ‘suppli’, a deep-fried rice ball that is a speciality of Rome, apparently. The third stop was at a wonderful delicatessen where we sampled prosciutto, wild boar salami, truffled pecorino and parmesan. The prosciutto was exquisite, so tender that it seemed to just melt in the mouth. We also sampled a couple of balsamic vinegars, one of which was so nice that Gill bought a bottle, plus a large piece of parmesan. The balsamic cost 30€, so we’ve agreed to hide it from visitors ;o)

On our way to our next stop we passed The Pyramid. This enormous structure was built during the Roman period by an official who had spent time in Egypt, and it had been incorporated into the subsequent Aurelian Wall around Rome. At its foot is the cemetery reserved for non-Catholic foreigners, where we saw the graves of Keats and Shelley. Keats’ headstone refers only to a ‘young English poet’, ‘whose name is written in water’. The grave of Goethe’s son is also in this cemetery.

Going back to Roman times, Testaccio was the central point for the importation of food. It also, until 1975, hosted the largest abattoir in Europe, which is now being ‘re-purposed’ into an arts and educational centre. There’s a large, modern market in Testaccio that focuses mainly on food, and here we had tomato bruschetta, buffalo mozzarella and ricotta-filled Sicilian cannoli, all at different stalls.

We then headed for Monte Testaccio, a very large hill that, according to Gigi, consisted entirely of broken amphorae that had built up over the centuries – this seemed just a little unlikely, but it made a nice story. A number of bars and restaurants had been dug into the side of the hill to exploit the naturally cool and consistent temperature inside, and here we had lunch – three different pastas. After this, the final stop was for gelato. Gigi first explained how to tell genuine gelato from imposter varieties and then we all chose what we liked best from the large range on offer.

That was the end of the tour, so saying farewell to Gigi and the others Gill and I set off to take a bus back to Trastevere. We spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing by the pool, reading.

At 8pm, realising that we did indeed feel just a little peckish, we set off into Trastevere. We headed for a restaurant that had been recommended by the walking tour organisers, but when we got there we were amazed to find a crowd of 20-30 people waiting in the street on the off-chance of a table becoming available. We went back to a quiet restaurant that we’d passed earlier and had a lovely, light meal of prosciutto and melon, cheese and bruschetta.

Tuesday 23rd June 2015

Early in June Gill had booked us timed tickets for a visit to the Borghese Museum this morning. Unfortunately, we realised last night that, between us, we had forgotten to print out the e-mail that we could exchange for our tickets. In the event, we downloaded the relevant document to Gill’s tablet and took that with us. Happily, that was acceptable at the ticket office.

It’s a bit of a hop from Trastevere to the Borghese Gardens, but Google Maps came to the rescue again by showing us that a ten minute walk to the nearest bus stop for route 63 followed by a 20 minute ride would get us to our destination. Again, we arrived very early, so we sat reading in a sun-drenched park waiting for 11am when we would be admitted.

Gill and I are very similar in that we don’t dwell over exhibits and usually expect to get round (and out of!) any exhibition in an hour or less. The Borghese collection is so enormous that we took well over 90 minutes! It features mainly paintings, mainly Italian, from the mid-15th century to the mid-17th, but there were also pre-Christian Greek and Roman sculptures. There was a Botticelli, a couple of Raphaels and four Caravaggios to hold us up on our way round.

When we left we took a little tourist ‘train’ to the opposite corner of the park and then went down to the Piazza del Popolo where we caught a bus that took us to Piazza Venezia. There we boarded a sightseeing bus that offered a one hour circular tour with live English commentary for 10€. We thought that was quite good value, that is, until the commentary began. The girl who had the microphone had such a ridiculously strong accent and such a weird mock-theatrical delivery that we couldn’t even tell most of the time whether she was talking in English or Italian. However, it didn’t really matter, because Gill knows Rome really well and even I have a feel for where we are quite a lot of the time.

From Venezia to Torre Argentina and its cat sanctuary is only a short walk, so we went for our usual ‘feline fix’. This time there seemed to be more injured and very elderly cats in the hospital area. Sometimes it’s quite hard to resist the urge to adopt one of them and give it the first decent domestic home its ever had.

As we set off on our walk back to our apartment across the river we treated ourselves to gelati – white chocolate with violets!

This evening we went to another restaurant that we’d visited last year with Sarah and Carly. ‘Spirito di Vino’ prides itself on ‘slow food’ and claims to be sited over a cellar, plus two storeys below, that is older than the Colosseum. We loved it last time for its quiet and quality atmosphere as well as serving food in small, delightfully-presented portions, and tonight it was exactly what we wanted. We agree that it’s the best restaurant that we’ve eaten in in Rome, and that includes one with a Michelin star.

Tomorrow, a taxi will pick us up at 4pm and take us to Fiumicino for our 6.30 flight to Berlin, where, it seems. the weather is overcast and rainy. We were counting on scorching sunshine!

Rome to Berlin

Wednesday 24th June 2015

This morning we packed our bags and left them in our locked apartment. We set out for the Chagall exhibition, ‘Love and Life’ that’s running this summer near Piazza Navona.

We’d had no idea that Chagall had lived so very long, being born in 1887 and living until 1985. The exhibition was very limited in scope, focusing only on his Jewishness and his nostalgia for his early years in Vitebsk, now in Belarus, where life was governed by religion. Then again, maybe that *was* typical of his artistic output. There was a very large number of paintings, drawings, lithographs etc., all on loan from Israel where one assumes he’s a hero for his depictions of Jewish life. At any rate, it was an interesting exhibition that kept our interest for our usual threshold ;o)

We stopped in Piazza Navona for fresh orange juice and pastries in blazing sunshine before walking back to Trastevere via Campo di Fiori and the Ponte Sisto. Our taxi wasn’t due to collect us until 4pm, so we had plenty of time to visit Villa Farnesina, an impressive palace with gorgeous frescoes by several big name artists like Raphael. We lingered in each of the seven or eight rooms but were still ready to leave in about 45 minutes, so we sat reading in the garden for a while.

At 2pm we found a nice little restaurant with chairs outside that was within 100 yards of our apartment, and we managed to drag out our stay until 3.45pm. We had a sharing plate of sea bass, prawns and calamari, followed by ice cream (Gill) and a home-made cherry and ricotta flan (me). All the while the skies were darkening and we could hear the rumble of thunder, but by the time the taxi dropped us at Fiumicino the skies were blue again.

We were an hour late taking off due to an absence of buses to take us out to the plane – the easyJet pilot wasn’t too happy about this. We landed in Berlin at 9.30pm, and 20 minutes later we’d gone through passport control, collected our bags, bought travel cards in the airport terminal, walked to the railway station AND were sitting on a train ready to leave – amazing! An hour later we walked into our hotel having completed the second half of our journey by tram.

Gill found us a new hotel this time – really, a very new hotel. If you look up its location on Google Maps it’s just a building site! It’s a rather ‘cool’, young place that fits in quite well with its location on the fringes of ‘hip’ Prenzlauer Berg. After the fairly basic apartment in Rome this one seems luxurious - as I write Gill is soaking in the bath J

We have three full days here before a midday flight home on Sunday. We have quite a long list of things to do that we haven’t done before. The only fixed event is ‘Cabaret’ tomorrow night near the Reichstag’ – we’ve seen it here four times before and it never fails to be memorable. I’ve just checked the web site and it looks as if several of our favourite performers are in it yet again! See: http://www.tipi-am-kanzleramt.de/en/cabaret-the-musical/

Thursday 25th June 2015

One of the visits that Gill always likes to make is to a jewellery shop in Hackescher Markt, not far from our hotel. However, Google Maps indicated that there was another branch at Potsdamer Platz in the big retail area called the Arcades, so we decided to go there first.

Unfortunately, when we got there we found that either Google was wrong or else the shop had closed. At any rate, the lady at the information desk had never heard of it. However, our trip wasn’t wasted because there was a large exhibition running throughout the retail area concerning the building of the Berlin Wall and its eventual destruction. One of the aims of the organisers was to inform young people about the Wall – it was 26 years ago this November that it fell, so most people under 40 probably wouldn’t have been aware of it in detail.

We then set out to see the War Memorial in Viktoria Park, Kreuzberg. We only knew that it had been designed by Friedrich Wilhelm Schinkel, who was responsible for many of the most beautiful buildings in Berlin. Getting there involved about a mile’s walk from the nearest station, and on the way Gill spotted a hairdressers and popped in for a wash and blow dry ready for tonight.

A little further down the road we found a bar/restaurant with seats in the sunshine, so we stopped for lunch. As we ate we noticed that the 140 route buses kept coming back from the park, heading for the Ostbahnhof, which gave us a great alternative for getting back to the hotel without too much walking.

Berlins sits in the middle of the Brandenburg Mark, a large, flat plain, so it was a bit of a surprise to find that the memorial is on the top of a surprisingly steep hill. The memorial commemorates the battles against France leading up to and including Waterloo.

We took the bus and a train back to Hackescher Markt where Gill finally got to the jewellery store and bought a couple of lovely (inexpensive!) necklaces. Then it was back to the hotel for a freshen-up before Cabaret.

There was some sort of road race going on in the Tiergarten close to tonight’s venue, with road closures that made it hard to make our way there. However, we were there in plenty of time to bag our seats at our usual table for four in the front row. The couple who joined us were from Toronto and both were university professors – we spent quite a while chatting before and after the show.

We’ve seen pretty much the same production of Cabaret four times now and several of the leading actors/actresses have been in at least three of them, and yet for some reason we independently felt that tonight’s production was more poignant and emotional than usual. The audience seemed to be equally impressed, and judging from the happy reactions from the cast they seemed to have received one of two more curtain calls than usual.

We wandered through the Brandenburg Gate on our way home, noticing that there were lots of public control barriers set up and several TV outside broadcast vans, which reminded us that The Queen will be here tomorrow. On balance we probably won’t bother to go along to see her :o)

Friday 26th June 2015

Today, since we hadn’t been at all impressed with the hotel’s breakfast yesterday morning, we decided to go to the little snack bar two doors along. Their fresh orange juice, croissant and baguette were not only much nicer but also a lot cheaper!

We set off by train on the line that goes to the south-west of Berlin heading for Wannsee. On the way we hopped off at Grunewald to see the memorial to the Jews who were deported by train to the death camps. It’s called ‘Gleis 17’, (Track 17) and is hidden in the trees alongside the station. If this had been the case during WW2 maybe that showed that the Nazis were keen to hide their misdeeds so that the general population could carry on pretending that they ‘knew nothing’. Along the platform edge the dates and destinations of all departing trains were given, together with the number of people on board. Believe it or not, the last train left in March 1945.

We went back to the station and took the next train onwards to Wannsee, where we caught a bus to the ‘Max Liebermann House’. Liebermann was a painter who was a contemporary of Van Gogh and who was instrumental in introducing Impressionism to Germany. He was Jewish and knew exactly where the Nazis would drag his city and his country. His town house was in Pariser Platz, right by the Brandenburg Gate, and as he watched the Nazi’s torchlight parade shortly after Hitler became Chancellor he is reputed to have said, ‘My stomach cannot contain the amount that I would like to vomit’.

His house in Wannsee is currently staging an exhibition of his works together with some early Van Goghs - the similarities are really quite strong. Apparently, Van Gogh travelled to a particular Dutch town hoping to meet him but missed him by a couple of days, and never had the opportunity again.

A Trust bought the house in 2002 and restored it in order to open it to the public. Liebermann, like Monet, seems to have been a very keen gardener, and the gardens around the house were looking gorgeous as we wandered around. And at the foot of the garden is the Wannsee lake, with water lilies planted in the shallows at the edge. Liebermann’s house is a simply wonderful place to live.

We took the bus back to Wannsee station and grabbed some lunch while we waited for the 218 bus that would take us up into the Grunewald and its tower. The Grunewald Turm was erected in 1897 as a memorial to King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who was also Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. He died in 1888 at a ripe old age and his son also died within months to be followed by the infamous ‘Kaiser Bill’. In Germany 1888 is known as the ‘Year of the Three Emperors’.

The tower is built of red brick and is 180 feet high. To climb to the top involves 204 stairs, so it’s a bit of a plod. From the top there are magnificent (but quite scary!) views across the tree tops to the city. I remember coming here in 1969 with the Sparr family when I made my first ever visit and even have a couple of photos somewhere. Over the years I’ve had a hankering to come back, but wrongly assumed that we’d need a car to get here.

We’d noted the departure time of the next bus when we arrived, and it came along bang on time. A little over hour later we had got back to our hotel by U-bahn and tram and were enjoying a cuppa. The weather had been good this morning but rain had started as we were returning. It’s a shame really, as you’d normally expect scorching weather here at this time of year.

This evening we went to a restaurant that we hadn’t tried before. It was very German, with the serving staff wearing Bavarian traditional dress. It was tucked away deep in former East Berlin, two short tram rides from our hotel. Unusually for a traditional German restaurant it offered a few fish dishes – Gill does get slightly weary of typically German, meat-based food! In the event, she was tempted by fried liver with onions and apples that she said reminded her very much of the sort of excellent meal that Winnie used to prepare. I had Nuernberger sausages with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes, and like Gill, found it so delicious that I finished my plate with ease. We had ice cream with warmed cherries plus a red fruit compote with custard for dessert. All of this, together with three glasses of wine, came to under 40€, i.e, about £30, for *two* delicious meals – amazing value!

Saturday 27th June 2015

Our last full day in Berlin. Because over our many previous visits we’ve seen all of the major attractions this week we’ve been determined to do all new things …. well, apart from Cabaret ;o)

This morning we went to Isherwood’s Nollendorf Platz where there was supposed to be a street market. In the event we found it nearby at Winterfeldtplatz. It was a very up-market middle-class affair, with lots of good fresh food and also garden plants and cut flowers. We had a couple of pastries, one of which was a German ‘cake’ called, ‘Bienenstich’ (bee sting) that has lots of honey and almonds all over the top.

We then travelled to the German Museum of Technology. I’d heard about it over the years and seen the ‘Rosinenbomber’ (Raisin Bomber) suspended over it outside. This was one of the aircraft that took part in the Berlin Airlift in 1948 when the Russians blockaded the city which was then supplied from the West entirely by air. Absolutely everything that the city needed was flown in, not only food but also essentials like coal.

It the event, the museum was a great disappointment as it seemed so ‘bitty’ and lacking a narrative that held each section together. Worse than this, labelling was in German only, which nowadays seems very shoddy indeed. We skipped through it and didn’t stay longer than an hour. In fact, we possibly spent as long in the Museum’s excellent restaurant having lunch!

Then it was off the the Berlinische Galerie, an art museum for which we’d seen a YouTube trailer before we left home. Its theme is art in Berlin 1880-1980. Again, it seemed a little thin on exhibits. Also, the earlier works were much more satisfying than the later ones – neither of us has a high tolerance level for modern art. So, two ‘misses’ in a row!

We went back to our hotel, marvelling that in spite of the forecasts of heavy rain over the past two days there had been no heavy showers. When we emerged two hours later we found that there had been a huge, sustained downpour and that there were big puddles on both pavements and streets.

We’d decided to go to ‘Oranium’ for dinner tonight, as it was a long term favourite of ours – OK, OK, so it wasn’t somewhere new ;o) We’ve always liked their ‘German Tapas’, which consisted of small dishes such as dates wrapped in bacon, which were particularly suited to sharing. Unfortunately, today’s disappointments continued when we discovered that these dishes were no longer on the menu. Three ‘misses’ in a row!

Mind you, I’ve had sausages twice today, as well as last night. In fact, I might have had them every day while we’ve been in Berlin, so that would make it my Wurst visit – geddit?! ;o)

Tomorrow, our flight home is at midday, so we should be landing by 1pm. We’re hoping to pick up the cats on our way home and then we’ll be able to stay indoors and put our feet up for the first time in a week – we’re exhausted! Thus ends another travel journal. Mind you, in ten days we’re off again, this time to France!