…. And then we take Berlin

‘They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom

for trying to change the system from within …’

Leonard Cohen, that poet songwriter and singer is to the road trip what sweet green figs are to a good Roquefort, and don’t discard the Ratafia Haute Cabrière to finish it all off.

I’ve often thought of these words of Leonard Cohen when I think back and sometimes they really feel true, but now my emphasise is definitely on the ‘then we take Berlin’ phrase. A two-day break-away just became a week trip and no-one minded as the six people, a dachshund and plenty to see and talk about (plus that magnificent little Apple iPod with amongst 3749 other songs some great Leonard Cohen as well)had us all in pretty good spirit to build the anticipation for that magnificent world city, stooped in history which would be our base for the next four days.

Over the Afsluitdijk to Berlin

Berlin was the Headquarters of the Nazi ruling party in World War 2 and the scene of many World War atrocities. My interest is however more on the Cold War period after World War 2, that period of communist’s ideology and how life was for the everyday citizen during those dark years. Furthermore the fact that these things happened in our lifetime! I’m not talking dark ages, I’m talking recent times, our parents have been born, and that, my dear friends makes it so much more incredible to ponder, and to wander the streets where the Berlin Wall once stood. Its not all doom and gloom though, as the good part of this story is that we did come to our senses, freedom in the end did win, both in Germany and in many more places across the globe including our own wonderful country. The challenge remains to maintain this newfound freedom in a sustainable way.

From our flower trip in Lisse, crossing under a part of the Ijsselmeer at Amsterdam and the over the Afsluitdijk at Den Oever we ventured through the province of Groningen, the city Groningen and stopped for bratwurst and beer (I’m sticking to the ‘alkoholfrei’ when driving – some brews actually have a version they call ‘drive’) in Hamburg before arriving in Berlin. It is notable to see that the countryside in this northern part of Germany, which was previously in Eastern Germany, is less built-up and seem to still have a larger part that is unspoilt. Larger parts are still natural forest and the farms houses are more remote than in the southern and western parts. I will have to come and venture on the ‘little’ roads of this area soon.

To really appreciate Berlin, one needs to know a little bit about the history of the city and Germany in the past 60 to 70 years. Therefor, focus for the next few minutes and grasp my layman’s and very shortened history lesson, as it really is fascinating stuff.

When the war was over in 1945, the allied powers, consisting of France, the USA, Britain and Russia, divided Germany into four administrative regions that were then governed by administrators or High Commissions from each of the allied countries. Since Berlin was the capital, it was divided into four regions as well, even though the city fell slap bang into the Russian sector of the country.

Berlin was locked-in by Eastern Germany. West Berlin was part of the West, though

This is an important concept to understand. Shortly after this dispensation was put in place the proverbial pawpaw started to enter the fan. Josef Stalin started to impose the socialist ideology on his eastern sector and Eastern Germany and the east block was borne. As a deliberate political stance the other three of the allied union stood strong and never gave up on the western philosophy, even though the pressure was huge.  Remember that Berlin was now a landlocked city surrounded by the GDR (imagine that, Eastern socialist Germany was called the German Democratic Republic). I can still remember how I sat fascinated in front of Riaan Cruywagen reading the news (the real news, not as Haas Das!) in the seventies and eighties and talking about stuff such as the Airbridge. At that time I didn’t fully comprehend what that was and what that meant! The United States Air Force and the United Kingdom Air Force flew more than 200 000 flights in one year into Tempelhof Airport, West Berlin with supplies. That translates into 548 flights per day or 22 per hour around the clock to deliver up to 4700 tons per day of necessities! Some Supply Chain lessons to be learned there!

During the fifties, close to three million refugees emigrated from East Germany to West Germany, most of them through the relative easy loophole created in Berlin, where the West was so near! Life under the commies wasn’t that lekker and people wanted better lives and futures. This caused a huge embarrassment to the Soviets and their socialist ideology. On 15 June 1961 the Chairman of the GDR still proclaimed in an international press conference, Niemand hat die Absicht, eine Mauer zu errichten!”‘ (No-one is thinking of erecting a wall’). Nevertheless, in the early hours of Sunday 13 August 1961, temporary fortifications were erected at the western sector borders! West Berlin was now seriously fenced in and families and relatives were in many occasions split up. This armed blockade lead to many attempts to escape and many people lost their lives – 192 to 239 is the number of deaths on The Wall I could find.

GDR border soldier Conrad Schumann flees to the West on the corner of Bernauer Street and Ruppiner Street on 15 August 1961. (post card scanned)

Walking in streets such as Friedrichstraße where that famous Checkpoint Charlie (and still is though now as a commercialised tourist attraction), and Café Adler was leaves one both cold and awed with thoughts of what transpired here in the decades before the evening of 9 November 1989 when the crossing points were opened and The Wall in effect came tumbling down! In a weird sense its nearly romantic with visions of Michael Caine or Sean Connery or even Tom Cruise sipping something fancy in Café Adler and ‘spying on the east’. I’m sure I saw Dolf Lundgren ‘spying back’ from across the street!

Checkpoint Charlie in Friedrichstraße (postcard scanned)

On my previous visit to Berlin in June 2007, Café Adler still existed, though as a newer coffee-shop type café. We were seriously disappointed this time round to see that it disappeared with all that history and was replaced by a Cafe Einstein.

Just a block away from Checkpoint Charlie, on the corners of Wilhelmstraße and Niederkirchenstraße a 90 odd meter of The Wall was kept intact and serves as a museum/monument of the monster! Elsewhere in the streets, the path of The Wall is visible in the tarmac and pavement where it was paved in.

Paved markings indicate where the wall was

There are however, two other pieces of The Wall, which is still in tact. The one is known as the Eastside Gallery as it is used as an art mural nowadays.

Madiba features in the East Side Gallery

Just a block away from Brandenburg Gate, a memorial for the holocaust victims was built. It consists of various grave-like structures of different sizes and heights with paths like a maze between them. Though it’s a real sombre and devoted place, it was amusing to see the majority of tourists just couldn’t stop themselves from using the play

Playful at the holocast memorial

opportunities the architecture provided, to the great frustration of the German caretaker trying his best to stop people from jumping and running on the monument.

Learn from the bad but focus on the good is always good advice, and this applies in Berlin as well. Since The Wall came down and the city united into one is a mere 23 years, but in those 20 years the city has become a world class modern city with the once barren Potsdammer Platz changed into a magnificent modern shopping area, the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff an ultra modern glass and steel structure which serves both as a five level train station and shopping centre.

Brandenburg Gate, then
Brandenburg Gate, now

Oupa Cas and Stean in particular lost themselves in the Deutsches Technik Museum where several floors of aeroplanes, boats, trains, computers and many other industrial megafters are on display, while Ouma Koekoe and Cara enjoyed the enormous Berlin Zoo. Heleen and I headed for the DDR (Deutsches Democratisches Republik) museum, where life in Eastern Germany is excellently displayed.

An interesting claim by this DDR museum is that the German preference for nude swimming actually stems from the era of socialism as a way of proclaiming individuality amongst the people. I think I’ll stick to jeans and t-shirts.

Leaving Berlin on the Bundesautobahn 115, we passed a strange sight. Next to the highway is an old stand, as if we were driving on a racing track of some sorts. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, but it also solves many questions, and after a quick iPad search while driving Heleen confirmed that indeed we were on the ‘Automobile-Verkehrs- und Übungstraße’. It was indeed a public road, also used for motor racing, though its not been in use for that purpose since 1936. The 1927 Berlin Grand Prix was actually held on this piece of road. Amazing, the spectator stands are still there, right next to the current highway.

There’s been a chain email doing the rounds of the Magdeburg waterway with the ships crossing it and though some people denied it being true, I can now personally say its real. We stopped there en route back to Köln to take the pictures. Standing under the incredible piece of civil engineering of one waterway crossing another in mid-air I couldn’t help thinking bemused how I struggled to waterproof my 2×1 meter fish pond, while these guys have a huge canal ‘hanging’ in the air, and not dripping!

So, our planned two-day flower trip to Keukenhof turned into a great seven-day 2000km circular trip that included too many sights to report on here. Something I have learned is that one should never try to compare sights, as each one is magnificent in its own right. Traveling is about seeing things, visiting places and experiences people, culture and foods. The two main attractions, Keukenhof and Berlin that we visited are both highly recommendable, though for me personally a visit to Berlin for the sake of the learning this city provides is a bucket list must!

Thanx Oupa Cas and Ouma Koekoe for your visit, we already miss you.

Tulips from Amsterdam ….

Well, not exactly Amsterdam, but rather Keukenhof at Lisse, just outside of Amsterdam.

‘Its spring again’ and with Oupa and Ouma visiting from SA what better destination to head off to see some tulips in Amsterdam!

Due to car-space being limited with six people and a dog on the road trip, the plan was to do a weekend trip to Holland, then return to Köln, stretch our legs and plan the next destination. Neither Oupa Cas nor Ouma Koekoe has been to Berlin, and we thought we should fit that in while they’re with us in Köln. However, mission one was ‘blomme kyk’, (flower watching) alla Namaqualand as this was the season and it’s ‘just around the corner’ from us.

Köln to Keukenhof and then a bit of sight seeing towards the Afsluitdijk

Thus, with not much more than 2 days’ clothes and baggage we hit the road.

I have done some proper Namaqualand flower watching in South Africa and because its more wild and spread, its something really special. And being biased I will always say I prefer wild, expanse and untamed.

Namaqualand in South Africa's West Coast provides flowers of a wilder kind

However, when you live in Europe, or travel Europe for that matter, its important to understand that this is old world; its been inhabited and tamed for centuries and thus non-built-up space is extremely rare. And that mere fact is something wonderful to keep in mind when visiting nature in Europe. Its not wild, with lions and ellies visiting camp sites but its purposefully preserved nature within an environment where pressure on new and modern is always increasing.

With this understanding in mind, and just one week after opening for the new spring season we stopped at Keukenhof with that cold north-sea wind I mentioned in Hup-Hup Holland chilling through our bones. It seems that the change in season memo and the fact that the sun sets much later nowadays didn’t reach that cold wind!


Keukenhof is a garden in Lisse, southeast of Amsterdam, which is annually prepared as a spring spectacle and has become a major tourist destination. The garden was established in 1949 by the then-mayor of Lisse. The idea was to present a flower exhibit where growers from all over the Netherlands and Europe could show off their hybrids – and help the Dutch export industry (the Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of flowers). From the beginning of autumn the team at Keukenhof plant no fewer than 7 million bulbs! Every time I see that statistic, I can’t help but wonder how old Willem and I would have faired with our wheelbarrow and ‘gardena’ little garden forks preparing for spring. Though we generalise by thinking only tulips when we think Holland’s flowers, they are by far the most impressive in beauty and variety for my untrained eye. There obviously are many more varieties in Keukenhof though. However, all the effort is worth their while as comes springtime, a spectacle of note springs to bloom, pun intended! And anyone who knows Oupa Cas and Ouma Koekoe will really understand that these two lovers of plants and gardening were out of their skins with delight with the spectacle. Oh and the ‘Belgians waffles’ were quite something too!

The sultans of the Ottoman Empire wore a tulip on their turban as a symbol. The name tulip comes from the Persian word for turban, tulipan.

As per Heleen and my travel philosophy we again did not book accommodation beforehand and this time it nearly backfired on us. After a few calls I did find a bed and breakfast outside Ter Aar but we were not impressed when first walking into the facility. It seemed to be quite rundown and not very clean, but it was already late and we did not have much of a choice but to take it. At least it wasn’t expensive and it did make for some nice photography the next morning. We had a good rest and a very good breakfast, typical Dutch style with various different kinds of bread, boiled eggs, cold meats and cheeses. And coffee, there must be coffee and there was. The important issue though, was that we were getting into the relaxing mode of travelling through Europe by road and we decided there and then that we’re not going back to Köln first, but we’ll hit the road through to Berlin.

But before Berlin, we had to take Katwijk aan Zee for a beer, Die Hoek van Holland for some great ‘fish and chips’ and a quick stop in Amsterdam to just ‘feel’ it for a future visit.

I don’t believe in straight driving and first had to traverse the Afsluijtdijk. Its something I remember from my Yellowwood Park primary school days when we did some lessons on the ‘dijk’s’ and ‘polders’ in the Netherlands. Ever since those days this magnificent piece of civil engineering amazed me and it was one of these ‘bucket list’ items that one lists for one-self without officially stating it as such. I now had the perfect opportunity.

The Asluijtdijk was constructed from 1927 to 1933; and remember, there were no Atlas, Bobcat, Demag or large earth moving equipment dozers available in those days! This dijk is 32km long, is 90 meters wide at its base and rises 7 meters above sea level. It was built to contain the Suiderzee and provide a causeway across the sea. By splitting the Suiderzee, it meant the end of the sea, and the creation of the Ijselmeer and Waddensea. It’s a spectacular sight and we were fortunate to also experience great photographic day.

Over the dijk I drove through the little town of Oosthuizen of which surname I also have a few friends and then I hit the long haul to Berlin! A two-day break-away just became a week trip and no-one minded as the six people, a dachshund and plenty to see and talk about had us all in pretty good spirit to build the anticipation for that magnificent world city, stooped in history which would be our base for the next four days.