do there as the romans do

For €2, the traghetto combined a more interesting way of crossing the Grand Canal than one of the bridges with a much cheaper source of gondola fun. We crossed in a green, hazy morning, poled fore and aft by men in stripey black-and-white jumpers. The euro coins were just stacked on the gunwales, showing great confidence the boat wouldn’t list too much and dump a day’s fares on the bottom of the canal. In a rare display of Venetian machismo, the locals stood rather than sitting in the tiny, heaving boat. The traghetto put us off at the fish market, piled high with sad looking fish and things with tentacles, and we wandered through an entirely different set of winding passages to the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

This gallery holds da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, although not actually on display (sadly), and a magnificent collection of largely religious art, although half the gallery was closed off (something they didn’t warn us about at the door; this was a recurring theme in Italy) and we killed some time with a set of mediocre nationalist statuary packed away in the basement. The early Renaissance saints and the terrifying baby-head-studded ceilings were high points, although not so high as the couple of genuine Hieronymous Bosches. A vaporetto took us all the way back to the railway station – Italian for railway is “ferrovia”, exactly cognate with “eisenbahn” or “chemin de fer”, just not with “railway”. Depressingly, the train down to Rome was already nicer, cheaper and more comfortable than pretty much anything on the rails in England.

In a touristy country, in a day and age where English is very much the tourist lingua franca, the train of course had English-language announcements alongside the rapid-fire Italian ones. They had a very clear, careful, neutrally accented voice, which would be excellent if they included the names of stations. Unfortunately, they just put in the Italian voice clips, leading to “The next stop is [avalanche of Italian syllables in a completely different voice]”, which was almost totally incomprehensible. A pair of rather fat Americans sat in the seat in front of us, one upbeat about the excellent landscape zipping past, the other generally moaning about Italy, but they got off at Florence.

Roma Termini station is about 70% boutique, 30% trains and 0% useful signage; it took about twenty minutes of increasingly sun-scorched irritation to find something which would sell us a bus ticket. Having done so, the bus journey was one of the worst I’ve had in a first world country, a packed, rolling sweat-dungeon with barely any seating or suspension which vibrated across the inexplicably cobbled streets like a tiny mobile hell. The suffering was slightly alleviated by two priests who got on next to us and gossiped for the entire trip. I couldn’t make out a word, but it was superbly entertaining.

Our airbnb was a little tucked-away flat in a 17th century block of flats, down a street which in most cities would actually be considered an alley; it had a lovely wooden ceiling, solid quarry tiles, and a bell in the courtyard that had probably chimed the same hours in the same way since the time of Good Queen Bess. Our host showed us the wifi code and indicated the location of some good restaurants, and we followed those directions across the orange-lit Tiber to Trastevere. There, after a good amble around the cobbled streets eyeing up restaurants, a man in plastic Roman armour finally snared us into a restaurant with a mascot which looked oddly like Ian McShane. It’s funny, I think the centurion was actually scaring a lot of punters away as an engineered touristy gimmick, though we couldn’t doubt that the guy genuinely and probably thought it was something people would like.

We went for the set menu: pickled mushrooms, salami in oil, spicy bruschetta and rubbery strips of salted pig skin. I feel every pig-based culinary culture has invented its own approach to pig skin: British scratchings, Ukrainian salo, the weird Romanian thing I had over there, whatever that Hungarian crackling spread is called. I also feel that, having grown up with one of these things, you will find all the others faintly disgusting. However, the pickled mushrooms were lovely. The vast second course (maccheroncelli and ragu; the proprieter gave me a bib) would have been worth the whole meal on its own, and the main (lamb chops and crispy roast potatoes in the local fashion) was absolutely divine.

It was a warm night, and we took a wandering journey home along the high bank of the low Tiber. Archaeology is absolutely everywhere, and every few hundred yards we would encounter a curiosity like a terrace of buildings plonked atop the crumbling remains of an ancient theatre, or a digsite showing the compound remains of a half-dozen ancient temples built on top of each other’s foundations, and we detoured away from the river a while to gaze down the moonlit vastness of the Circus Maximus, beneath a horizon contoured by the immense silhouettes of the Palatine Hill.


a palace and a prison on each hand

The Doge’s Palace is a place of almost unbearable grandeur. It’s not just where the Doge (a non-hereditary, very carefully elected* ruler) hung his amusingly unique sort-of-like-a-flaccid-Phrygian-cap hat, but is also a functional government complex, where high courts sat and Councils of Forty, Ten, Greatness etc met. The members of these courts and councils were all scions of staggeringly wealthy merchant families, who were denied many other forms of showing off (to forestall dangerous bling arms races, Venice’s oligarchs collectively kept a tight lid on most public displays of wealth – it’s why gondolas are glossy black, and why there are essentially no public statues before 1797, when the Republic fell.)** So the Palace and its decoration represented not only the political institutions of the Republic (of which they were quite justifiably proud, maintaining something like a millennium of stability at the centre of a multi-continent hurricane of money and invasions) but also, personally, the best opportunity for most of the richest people in southern Europe to show that they were men of wealth and taste.

Thus, its staircases feel like ascending into a heaven made of gold-leafed stucco, and the rooms they lead to range from exquisitely realised high-relief classical pantheons to acres of Old Masters plastered across every flat surface. The finest painters and sculptors of Europe were brought here to decorate the walls and ceilings with various Doges and allegorical figures doing thematically appropriate things: trashing Turks, dispensing justice, chilling with saints, accepting the benedictions of classical figures. The largest walls are reserved for apocalyptic naval battles or twenty-five-metre-wide murals of God and all His angels, the ceilings covered in yet more magnificent paintings separated by rivers of gold leaf. The effect is overwhelming. The flat roofs seem oddly boring until you realise how much harder they were to build than vaulted cathedral ceilings; similarly, the building’s flat square facade, pre-modernism, would be obvious to everyone as incredibly accomplished as well as space-efficient. Oddly, the armoury is the one part not filled with bling; the weapons there that aren’t trophies of war are mostly functional, serious things for the palace guard, swords and crossbows and what may be an original Puckle gun. The Bridge of Sighs takes you from palace to prison, a glum, intimidating place of graffitied stone and very well made interlocking iron bars.*** Back in the palace, one room contained an absolutely marvellous temporary exhibition of Indian jewellery. Jade thumb rings and tulwar hilts shimmered with rubies and emeralds under two-storey paintings of the Battle of Lepanto.

Most clock faces show twelve hours, and trust the time-checker to work out from context whether it is midday or midnight. Several around Venice, apparently not trusting their audience, have twenty-four, either numbered I-XXIV or with two I-XII sequences continuing from each other. One clock inside the Doge’s palace, however, only shows six hours. Along the walls of the first floor loggia, specially carved lion-faced postboxes swallow anonymous denunciations; in the courtyard below them is a statue of the unloved St Theodore, who was the patron saint of Venice until the city, wishing to distance itself from Byzantium, stole the bones of St Mark from Alexandria and took him as their patron. Poor displaced Theodore appears here and there but is easily mistaken for the more popular Saint George (they share the “stabbing a dragon” gimmick), and everywhere in the city the symbol of  St Mark, a winged lion, holds its book open with expressions ranging from “READ THIS, SINNER” to “hurr hurr funny book”. Here and there you can find plaques thanking the British “Venice in Peril” fund for stopping some part or other of the city from falling into the waves.

St Mark’s Square was full of predatory seagulls, making close passes overhead; I shouted a warning to Fran, but she misheard it as being about pedestals, and ten seconds later her panini was inside a mob of opportunistic birds; this is the second time this has happened this year. We had reserved a timeslot for St Mark’s Basilica, which given the huge queues turned out to be a brilliant idea; waiting for that slot, we took a lift up the Campanile for views of the city’s sunlit roofs. Down in the canals below, gondoliers offered parties of pensioners and Chinese tourists a production-line trip (€80 for an hour, probably quite a bit more for the optional extra musicians.)

Here’s a video I took of one of the best ones.

The basilica itself is a different style of magnificent. Its lower levels are a gorgeous selection of patterned marbles in white, green, grey and purple; the serious decoration, the stucco and mosaics, only starts a couple of metres up. Inside, it feels more Orthodox than Catholic, with gilt mosaics and long-faced saints smeared across the inside of a clutch of great domes.  It feels larger inside than out, and it’s a strikingly patched-together, almost ramshackle place – the ragged, uneven floors, the repairs and compromises made to the architecture over a thousand years, the plaintive cries of “no photo!” from staff ignored by tourists and tour guides alike, the little extra barriers inside trying to charge you a few euros more to go up on the balcony or look at Those Famous Horses**** and the general gloomy lack of light all give the place an ancient, entropy-laden, wonderfully Byzantine atmosphere.

We strolled down the wide, stall-strewn waterfront, where little pumps recirculate water over overpriced chunks of coconut and crowds of tourists go to and from the day ferries, to the Arsenal, the real source of Venice’s power. The naval museum (its doors flanked by the immense anchors of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts Tegetthoff and Viribus Unitus) was closed, but in the Arsenal sheds to the north they keep an amazing collection of boats: gilt barges, tiny fishing skiffs, a large WW2 torpedo boat and a complete boiler and engine assembly from a huge yacht. The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gave access to the museums ringing St Mark’s; it said “museums” as if they were plural, but all seem to be part of the same complex, a multi-level sprawl whose contents ambled amiably from leathery old globes and classical statuary to bits of Napoleonic and Habsburg swag; among one suite of grander rooms, a great deal of noise is made about “Sissi” as if anyone this century should know or care who she was.***** Most entertaining of all were the uniquely Venetian things, like a complete set of every coin ever minted in the Republic, a pair of flood shoes somewhere between platforms and ship rudders, and a model depicting an apparent traditional Venetian pastime: making a human pyramid on top of two barges.


*An amusing exception being the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary general who left an enormous endowment to Venice on condition that a statue be erected to him in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian government thought about it very hard and said they’d take the money, but the statue would go up opposite the school of St Mark, a vastly less grand location.

** I quote: “New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”

*** Looking out on the shimmering green waters, imagining that this is the last time you ever will, you can see how the bridge got its name. Although it’s not clear if that’s actually true or just a very old urban legend.

**** The four horses on the balcony of St Mark’s are replicas anyway. The originals: are shrouded in myth, may have been from Rome, were definitely in Constantinople for centuries, were nicked by the Venetians when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, were nicked again in 1797 by Napoleon but returned to Venice after Waterloo, and now hide indoors from air pollution. Their story is fantastic but the horses themselves are quite boring, and the reverence and significance which these obviously incomplete parts of a looted chariot statue were and are given is an essay in itself about Europe’s relationship with the classical world. Though to be fair they’re also covered in gold and quite shiny.

***** “Sissi”- Elisabeth of Bavaria – was the wife of Franz Josef I, who through his immense longevity and witlessness presided over the destruction of the otherwise extraordinarily long-lived and resilient Habsburg empire. Sissi herself was a vain, pointless, miserable consort known only for being pretty and dying violently. She is still, bizarrely, the object of intense devotion both here and in Vienna. Anyone who, like me, is wondering when the Diana meme will finally die will find it distressing that Sissi’s cult appears to be going strong after 120 years.

welcome to doge city

 (Click the images for decent resolution!)

Down through the overcast, peering through windows threaded with windblown condensation, we first made out the landscape of the Po valley: yellow fields and red roofs, straight railways and wandering rivers. Venice airport proper is on the coast of the great Venetian lagoon, but we had saved money by flying to Treviso, an hour inland by bus. However, unlike seemingly every other Ryanair customer in Europe, we had actually kept our seats.

From above, Venice is shaped roughly like a fish, with the Grand Canal winding through it and accentuating the cut of the pectoral fin where the Basilica di Santa Maria sits. The tail is the Arsenale district, with the Doge’s palace and San Marco nestling in the fish’s belly. Above, the cemetery island San Michele floats by like a discarded square of polystyrene. I can’t work out where the Giudecca fits in this metaphor; possibly it’s a friendly eel.  At the fish’s mouth, the cruise ships moor, and above their docks the causeway to the mainland brings in people by road, rail and rubber-tyred tram.

It was a grey, hazy day, and we crossed the causeway in a spray-filled breeze, with docks and infrastructure crowding the skyline to the right, and the green waters of the lagoon stretching away to the left. Ahead the city was a broad, low sprawl of roofs, the towers rising above it an intriguing mix of styles, neither Italianate nor Byzantine but a mixture of both. Our airbnb was in the Cannaregio area, near the old ghetto which gave the world that term (somewhere near the fish’s forehead? Alright, I’ll stop.) It’s a quiet district, where the few remaining Venetians who actually live in the city tend to roost; our host was one of them, and he led us – through the crowds, across little arched bridges, along canals full of little boats, past glorious mansions with cracked old stucco faces- to our fabulously opulent lodgings (marble terrazzo floor, walnut furniture, gilt-framed mirrors – and this was, genuinely, at the cheap end).

What is left to say about Venice? Marble palaces slowly crumbling into grey-green canals, gleaming black gondolas poled by men in stripy shirts or moored between even stripier barbershop-poles, tiny alleys you almost have to walk sideways through, glittering carnival masks and twisted glass wonders behind shop windows. Any decent art gallery will have at least one Canaletto knockoff showing the glorious city on the water, and very little has changed since they were painted. It’s everything one expects: rarely more, but never any less. This ridiculous, impossible, architecturally unlikely fantasia was a massive player in the Mediterranean for no less than a thousand years, took on the Byzantines and the Ottomans in stand-up war, enabled Crusades and established its mystique as a tourist destination while the concept of tourism was still being invented. Eaten by the French, then the Habsburgs, and finally the Italian state fabricated in the 19th century, it’s less unique now, perhaps, than ever before, but is still an absolutely singular place.

We wandered out at dusk, exploring the back streets with no particular aim; Fran bought a dress more suited to the Venetian chill at the “everything €9”fashion shops (there are, bizarrely, dozens of similar places infesting this otherwise incredibly expensive city). Dinner started with a local specialty, pasta in cuttlefish ink: despite looking like a plated crude oil disaster and leaving you with a pronounced “goth lipstick” effect, it’s actually very tasty. We chatted to a retired Dutch couple who came back regularly for the biennial art exhibition – they’d been back in Venice five times and ate at this place every time (a recommendation!). To round off our first evening, we walked through the dark alleys of the central district to the Rialto. There’s no menace to Venice (excuse the rhyme); even the darkest alley holds nothing worse than a mild urine scent or an unusually insistent hawker trying to flog you a selfie stick. It is, however, an unbelievably easy place to get lost in; there are no visible landmarks and a great many routes are blind turns off squares where the casual ambler can’t tell if there’s a way forward until they walk there. Even with all the helpful signs saying PER S. MARCO, the only practical ways to navigate are a GPS smartphone or a lifetime of practice.

Still, we came to the Rialto district – a large (somewhat overrated) bridge, banks thronged with attractive (somewhat overpriced) restaurants – and after a rejuvenating coffee took a vaporetto back up the Grand Canal. The long, low ferryboats – vaporetto means “little steamer”, though they’re diesel now – are the only practical public transport in a city with no roads and no railways, and although expensive and crowded at all hours of the day are a very enjoyable way to travel. When the Grand Canal rolls past, the ticket price is justified by the view as much as by the convenience, as all the buildings turn their most elaborate faces onto the water. The dark arches of the fish markets, the striped poles where the gondolas moor, the immense white Casino with its private red-carpeted pier, the giant white hands of some mad art exhibit rising from the water to caress the facade of a mansion, all glide by twice: once clear-cut and starkly floodlit, once shimmering and broken by the ripples of the ferry’s wake.

Venice & Rome 2017
Canals by Night – Doge’s Palace, Basilica di San Marco – Traghetto and Trastevere – Roman Remains – Pantheon, Vatican Museums – St Peter’s, Castel Sant’Angelo

hey ho, on the devil’s mount


"Sorry, your listening post is on another hill."

“Sorry, your listening post is on another hill.”

In Grunewald, overlooking much of west Berlin, stands a steep green hill called Teufelsberg. This means “devil’s mount”, and while the ominous associations lift for a moment on learning the name was after the nearby Teufelssee (“devil’s lake”), they return full force on learning that the hill is not natural, but artificial, built from the ruins of a dead Berlin. Between round-the-clock aerial bombing from the RAF and USAAF, and the Red Army taking the city a street at a time with rifle, hand-grenade and 203mm siege howitzer, Berlin was more rubble than city in 1945; and when the Cold War began in earnest, the blockaded West Berlin had no way of shipping its remains beyond city limits. Thus: a giant hill made of piled-up destroyed buildings, with an indestructible Nazi training college underneath it, and an odd observatory-looking NATO listening post on top.

I hadn’t even intended to go to Teufelsberg, but the Technikmuseum and the Gatow airbase were both closed on Mondays for whatever weird Berlin reason, so Plan C it was. Navigating was more difficult than it should have been; Google Maps’ listed paths are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike reality. Realising this and adopting the traditional hill-climbing method of “up”, I accidentally stormed up the smaller Drachenberg instead, and after spending a while catching my breath on the windy open plateau there, had to come halfway down again in the blazing sun. Still, it was a lovely walk; trees have been planted on Teufelsberg, the leafmould and wild grass have covered the detritus of the war. It feels like any other wooded hill, but where the path wears away to the bones of the land beneath, it’s not rock that is exposed, but brick, concrete and rebar.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either's good.

Count how many times the fence has been broken and then repaired. Or, go insane trying. Either’s good.


Ascending the much more heavily wooded Teufelsberg, for real this time, I couldn’t work out what the actual status of the listening post was. A website offering tours said it had shut down and I couldn’t find its successor; Wikipedia gave a very muddy and uninspiring account; and coming to a fence at the top, whose many, many repairs showed evidence of a constant, vicious running battle between fence-maintainers and people with wire cutters, made me no more optimistic. But persevering along the path I found a gate, where several extremely scruffy-looking people with beanbags and a small child asked me for money. As it turned out, the complex has been overrun with hippie-ish squatters who charge entrance based on no authority whatsoever. They said €7, €5 for students (and had a clipboard to make it seem all legit). I said I was a student and showed them my young person’s railcard. They were in no real position to argue.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

Sub-dome with matching armchair.

The squatters have padlocked most of the buildings up (the fucking hypocrites), but what remains is an intriguing post-Cold-War sprawl of lovingly-if-messily maintained gardens, recycling stations and hoards of furniture arranged with Germanic pedanticism, all in the shadows of huge dead NSA structures sprayed with really quite impressive murals in all sorts of lurid colours and degrees of fatuous countercultural nonsense. I don’t know the engineering behind the listening station, and all the significant kit is long gone, but what remains is a series of tall buildings capped with puffball globes made of fibreglass hexagons. The highest and largest building has two lesser globes on the roof of a squat office building, and a single greater one between them, on a tiered column lined with shredded tarpaulins.

Above: Domes. Below: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Upper left: Domes. Lower left: Popular theory as to purpose of domes.

Said main building is easily accessible and is basically a graffiti gallery; all very run down, but not stinking of piss, which is a mercy. The roof has been lined with a fence made of wooden forklift pallets, there are separate bins for different recyclables and you just know they empty them every day; very German squatters. There’s no electricity, though, and health & safety is generally thoroughly Ukrainian; to get to the highest point, inside the top dome, you need to climb about fifteen flights of stairs in pitch blackness (thank heaven for the LED function on modern smartphones. The dome itself has almost no views, just a port in it, but the echoes are incredible, and I spent a good fifteen minutes up there whacking pieces of detritus into each other and stamping my feet to see how it would sound.

Leaving, I discovered the fridge of drinks by the clipboard hippies was on an “honour system”, so I donated a euro for a rainbow-labelled COLA-MIX in order to a) rehydrate b) maintain my self-destructive habit of buying oddly named sweet drinks in foreign parts. It wasn’t that bad, in truth. Going downhill was even more of an odyssey than coming up, as I once again put my trust in Google Maps and was once again betrayed. Trying desperately to follow my phone’s directions along paths which weren’t there, I ended up on mountain bike tracks which testified to the daring, not to say total suicidal lunacy, of local mountain bike riders, and ended up at the right place by luck as much as judgment. Overall, I had the time of my life, but it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have anyone else with me; between the steep hills, mild peril and totally improvised navigation, I suspect most companions would have got quite annoyed with it all. But I’ve always found that the best way to have an adventure is to point yourself in the vague direction of something interesting and follow your nose.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016



gravity’s rainbow

Prora and Peenemünde are practically adjacent, maybe 40km as the V-1 flies.* However, we were taking the Billmobile, and unlike the V-1 it has no easy way of crossing the twelve of those km which are water. So, after a breakfast of bread, Nutella, cheese and nondescript meat at Prora, we were in for a long drive back across Rügen and the north of Germany – the sky overcast and full of kestrels, the roads well-maintained and punctuated by utter idiots. Peenemünde is, as any fule kno, pretty much the birthplace of modern rocketry: home to the Nazi development programme which spawned the V-1 cruise missile, V-2 ballistic missile, their hundreds of less-well-known but still visionary siblings, and, through captured tech and scientists, the Soviet and American space programmes. In the usual chaotic Nazi way, several separate organisations worked in parallel but not always collectively on rocket-themed tools of destruction. Laboratories, factories and launch sites crowded the island, but most were bombed to powder during the war and the remains thoroughly looted for technical secrets by the occupying Allies.

"Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That's not my department," says...

“Once zer rockets go up, who cares where zey come down? That’s not my department,” says…

Peenemünde is a secluded peninsula, suggested by the mother of Nazi rocket genius and karma houdini Wernher von Braun as “just the place for you and your friends”. Like Prora, it’s technically on an island, Usedom, which in this case is part German and part Polish. Usedom has any number of odd little tourist attractions – Wildlife Usedom with a growly tiger, something involving Teutonic knights whose poster had a bunch of them under a wheeling bald eagle (note: bald eagles are not native to the Baltic or, indeed, to Europe), a €7 hall of mirrors. Comprehensively and almost literally overshadowing them is the vast disused power plant housing the Peenemünde museum.

Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.

Note the massive Nazi death-rocket in the foreground.

The power plant, built to power the military base (especially the production of liquid oxygen for rocket engines) was at the time of its construction one of the most advanced in the world, with pioneering particle-ionising technology to hide its smoke – the same that’s used now to reduce. It survived the war and the subsequent loopy GDR mismanagement, and is preserved as a “living museum” of the technology – and of the sad state of affairs under communism: the switch from mineral coal to low-grade lignite (all the good coal mines being the other side of the Iron Curtain), then to natural gas, and then back again when East Germany had supply problems with that; the underpaid, overworked plant staff having to jerry-rig** their own sandblasting machines and make wheelbarrows and fenceposts in their off hours to comply with GDR consumer goods requirements. Most of the boilers, the coaling infrastructure and the flue cleaners remain, although the turbines are all gone.

Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.

Crane and coal-crusher, from when they could actually get anthracite.

We took a lunch break for currywurst and chips before heading back in, this time for the true attraction: the rocketry museum. The collection was superb, with crumpled nosecones and hull pieces off A-4s (as they insisted on calling V-2s), pulse-jet components off V-1s, and models of all the weirder projects – the effective but aesthetically unbalanced Hs-293, the directly violent-looking Fritz-X, the thoroughly silly Rheintochter, the outright suicidal Me-163. Lots about the Wasserfall missile, an early surface-to-air rocket: its advantages were that unlike the V-2 its fuel could actually be stored, its disadvantages were that it cost as much as the bombers it was intended to destroy, and its terminal guidance system still hadn’t actually been invented when the war was lost.

Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.

Right: GPS. Left: GLONASS.

It’s a complete museum, technical, conceptual and, inescapably for a war museum in Germany, moral, shot through with (reasonably eloquent, though patchily translated; one reference to “hydraulic” rockets was particularly confusing until we worked out it meant “liquid-fuelled”) comments on “the ambivalence of technology”. A gallery of utopian science-fiction visions and the lives and works of pioneers like Goddard and Tsiolkovsky was paces away from an unflinching look at a world of grim, emaciated slave labourers, striped pyjamas sewn with a pink triangle; in the next room, bricks and dust, wartime newspapers with photos of blitzed-out London streets; and, down the hall, a thoroughly-referenced meditation on mutually assured destruction (with graphs!). I thought the impact of the actual V-weapons was a bit overdone, as the RAF routinely inflicted more death and devastation in a single thousand-bomber raid than everything invented in Peenemünde put together. Actually, the RAF got a look-in, with a room devoted to Operation Hydra – the biggest bombing operation against a single point target (as opposed to a city) of WW2 (and, presumably, of all time). Although Peenemünde was more or less neutralised by the raid, and V-2 production went (literally) underground, it was a poor showing for British aviation; most of the bombs went into the sea, or landed on the slave workers’ barracks. Oops.

V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower head and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.

V-2 fuel mixing system. Each hole holds an individually milled brass shower-head thing and about twenty smaller milled brass pieces, spraying a vortex of alcohol fuel and liquid oxygen. All this was powered by a large milled aluminium pump which itself required two more types of fuel. No wonder they lost the war.

I had been hoping to venture north into the actual ruined launch sites of Peenemunde (breaking through a hole in the a fence and wandering down miles of abandoned road to investigate a bombed-out rocket stand probably still riddled with live ammunition… no, that doesn’t deter me, that’s the point) but Prufstand VII, the most impressive bit, was an irritatingly long way away, and the guides I found were vague as to distances but specific as to the presence of impassable mosquito-ridden bogs. Most importantly, Bill was knackered after two full-on days, especially with another 300km of driving to do. So, next time, I suppose.

"And that was the longest, and that was the end."

“And that was the longest, and that was the end.”

* There are lots of large, confident black-and-grey crows around, along with the hundreds of sparrows, wagtails, blackbirds, swallows, house martens, sedge warblers and various other small nice birds of the Baltic coast. It’s nice.

** Technical term.


Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora PeenemündeTeufelsberg

the colossus of Rügen

(Click on the images for higher-res versions!)

North of Berlin, the autobahn ran through dense (but orderly) forest and then opened out into broad fields under the grey morning sky. Wind turbines have sprouted across Mecklenburg-Vorpommern like daffodils in spring, their blades striped orange. Occasional showers came down, brief but intense, but by the time we reached the island of Rügen the day was bright and the sky blue. Over the bridge by Stralsund, with its striking Marienkirche and picture-perfect Hanseatic seafront, was Rügen itself, with an unexpected number of of car dealerships and railway lines, and on its east coast, Prora.

Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.

Youth hostel in Block V, bottom left; Block IV, largely abandoned, centre; Block III, mostly museums, top right. There are eight blocks; the entire complex is nearly 5km long.

Prora is a holiday camp of cyclopean proportions, envisioned as a key point for the Nazis’ “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength through Joy) organisation -a mass tourism initiative intended to overcome class divisions by uniting the German Volk in affordable but healthy holidays, with lots of outdoorsy pursuits, hiking, sea cruises etc etc. It appears from history that Hitler learned of the Butlins camps being built in the UK in the mid-late 1930s and, more or less, turned to Albert Speer and said “outdo them.”) The result was a resort built for 20,000 people, continuous blocks of flats punctuated by piers overlooking a huge crescent-shaped beach on the east coast of Rügen. Its completion interrupted by the war, it was used in a vague way by East Germany and mostly abandoned, with large parts in ruins. Part of block V contains the largest youth hostel in Germany; we were in Room 101 (gulp), which as Block VI is now rubble stands as the northernmost surviving part of Prora.

It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.

It goes on like this for miles. Literally miles.

(The pier structures joining them up were never completed, so the most Prora has ever been is eight separate gigantic blocks of flats; the southernmost and the two northernmost are ruins now, and the remaining five are now numbered, south-north, I-V. With me so far? Good. Here’s a map, the surviving blocks are red on the right.) That block, of which the youth hostel occupies less than a third, is well over half a kilometre long.

The hostel felt rather in keeping with the original KdF intentions – clean, austere, healthy, affordable but with no emphasis on class, with the implication that this was merely for hiking, swimming naked, etc etc etc. * Initially, though, our hopes of exploring Pripyat-like abandoned ruins deflated; the place was much busier, much more orderly and much better fenced off than expected. Sets of Nazi-built bungalows were in regular use, now basically just suburbia; stern, efficient German fencing covered the rest of Block V, and most of what we could see of Block IV had already been redeveopled into some surprisingly nice flats. The foundation of the pier structure between V and IV was just an inaccessible foundation which I barked my knee trying to climb, and the railway-and-technology museum, by the time we reached it, was only open for another half hour and wanted €10 for its single room of cars and trains (although it was a big room, and they did look like quite good cars and trains.) We returned to the hostel for an early dinner, bockwurst and kartoffelsalat – a typically German cheap meal, the sausage nondescript flavourless meat, the potatoes lost in a sea of mayonnaise, but it filled us up and didn’t cost much.

The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.

The idealised German tourists, their complexion a healthy bronze.

We set out again, looking to make the best of it. The pier foundation by our room, between block V and the now-gone block VI, was at least accessible if nothing more than a cartouche of sea-wall overlooking the beach; a statue of two very naked bronze German holidaymakers (the woman with massive shoulders and tits-as-an-afterthought, the man horse-faced and standing, silver spray paint on her nipples and his cock) watch over the actual, considerably less sculpted (in every sense) holidaymakers on the beach. We strolled down the white sands, full of little shells and leftover sandcastles – you can see nothing of the resort from the beach, it’s grown quite a bit since Hitler’s time.

Harbour structure - now just sand, bricks and spray paint.

Harbour structure – now just sand, bricks and spray paint.

At the very centre of Prora’s crescent, between blocks III and IV, stands the pier structure which was meant to take Baltic cruise ships; the superstructure and the jetties were never finished, all that’s left is a graffiti-stained redbrick wall, and inland the site of the Festhall is a tangled wilderness of little pine trees and fragrant pink roses. But, pressing on, we found a proper half-built structure with that tasty crumbling STALKER feel; a look through a shattered window found some sort of abandoned bowling alley, a wriggle under the fence and negotiating with a shattered wall got me in (it was, indeed an abandoned bowling alley). That was a bit better.

Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)

Bowling alley! (Of course I went in.)

Moving inland along the building revealed the only one of the pier structures actually completed, a long curved Nazi-deco building which contained a fish restaurant and something which advertised itself as a nightclub but looked extremely closed. Beyond it, in Block III, were several now-closed museums, one trying much too hard with its signage to attract us in, the other barely trying at all, and an empty adventure playground/agility course, where healthy young Germans can move from tree to tree along zipwires and suspended platforms, in a death-defying fashion. Moving further along down the coast, we found Block II, half-converted into flats with nice glass balconies. I’d seen some cranes, far, far to the south, from the Block V pier and assumed they were in the town of Binz, south of Prora. They were actually working on Block I – and Block I isn’t even the southernmost part. “Bloody hell, but this place is huge,” I thought, for neither the first nor the last time that day. Even the abandoned ones were quite emphatically fenced off, and mostly building sites; still, we’d seen enough that the trip didn’t feel wasted, and headed back home.

It's difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.

It’s difficult to imagine, but there were meant to be sets of these piers at the end of each block. They were double-ended; this is the landward one, but opposite it one would have jutted out into the beaches. As far as I know, this is the only one ever completed.

But at last, coming back, we lucked out: the southern end of Block IV, in the process of redevelopment: gutted but accessible, and we wasted no time in going in, climbing to the top floor and wandering around the huge dusty concrete emptiness, enjoying the crumbling construction and the views of the brilliant blue Baltic. There were holes in many of the staircases, it was all thoroughly enjoyable, and we came back to our room late in the long dusk to drink tea and look out over the sea.



* What? It’s not a bad idea just because the Nazis liked it. Hitler was a vegetarian, remember, and I don’t usually accuse my veggie friends of Nazi sympathies.

Berlin & Northern Germany, 2016
Prora – PeenemündeTeufelsberg

“…some radiant joy will gaily flash past.”

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I love cities at night, and St Petersburg is as magical as any of them – the vast palaces and government buildings floodlit under the moody clouds, Petropavlovsk’s walls picked out with an illuminated strip, the golden spires above the Admiralty and Cathedral of Peter & Paul shining bright as daytime. St Isaac’s muted and half in shadow, the streets around it filled with young women on horses offering rides to tourists and boy racers in black Jaguars weaving through traffic like they’re in a Bond movie and accelerating like they’re in a MiG-25. Nevsky Prospekt shines with ten thousand points of night. On a Friday night in summer, warm and slightly muggy, the streets are full of nightclub spillover: drunks tripping over fences and flirting loudly in several languages, pouty young people swaggering as if they’re the most beautiful things ever made. Passing the roadside bars, holding anyone’s gaze feels uncomfortable; the girls look at you like they’re about to name a price and the boys look at you like they’re about to shout “davai, cyka” and shank you. Club music and flavoured spirits pollute the air.

The many bridges of the Neva, low and flat like those of the Thames or the Seine, have a secret which is not obvious to the casual observer: they lift up, Tower Bridge-style (but without any of the magnificent yet structurally superfluous Victorian bling.) Not as and when boats arrive – as if they’d disrupt traffic to let any old tramp freighter mess up the view of the Winter Palace – but all together, in a nightly sequence which is apparently worth celebrating all on its own, when all the freighters stacked up outside are allowed to come through and head up towards Lake Ladoga.

The waterfront by the Hermitage at 0130 hours is a more local, more authentic-feeling scene than the clubs, which could be literally anywhere in Europe: numbers of the more sober(ly dressed) tourists, trios of Russian men pouring vodka into three cups and chatting seriously, the entire riverbank flashing yellow with the hazard lights of people pretending they’re not parked illegally. The mighty bascules of Trinity Bridge lift up, red lights shining at their tips, and a vast fleet of riverboats streams through, gunwales crowded with partying Russians, filling the Neva with running lights and diesel smoke. Someone lets off some fireworks, Chinese lanterns drift into the air, and the boats actually big enough to need the bridge lifted, a string of hefty Baltic coasters straight out of Tintin, grumble from bridge to bridge in line astern.

We wandered there for a while, just enjoying the activity: a group of Russians having a sing-along, street-sellers flogging candy-floss and boiled corn, couples dancing energetically by the roadside, a band of boys in wifebeaters with electric guitars rocking out under the sightless eyes of the statues on the Winter Palace.



St Petersburg 2015

Border crossing, monuments by night – Downtown Petersburg, St Isaac’s Cathedral, Peter’s Aquatoria – Peter & Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum – Nevsky Prospekt, Saviour on Spilled Blood, The Russian Museum – Central Naval Museum, Icebreaker Krasin – Neva bridges – The Hermitage – Krasnaya Gorka, Kronstadt