Archways Kreuzberg Berlin

Kreuzberg Berlin – Where East & West Finally Met Again

Berlin is a fascinating city for 20th Century history buffs. Not only does it have serious World War 2 history but Berlin was literally split in half during the Cold War. And this is still most evident in the suburb of Kreuzberg.

If you want to get a good sense of what the Berlin Wall did to the city and its people, first visit Checkpoint Charlie and the museum. It’s a big museum, with lots of interesting displays, but there’s so much to see and much of it is very heavy on detailed copy explanations, so give yourself some time and focus on what interests you. I found all the displays on how people tried to escape from East Germany very interesting – everything from converted cars to tunnels to hot air balloons – they were industrious (and obviously desperate).

Checkpoint Charlie Area Berlin

Checkpoint Charlie Sign Berlin

When you’re up to speed on the history, take a short metro ride to Mehringdamm, and stroll around Kreuzberg. Very close to Mitte, the centre of Berlin, Kreuzberg has had an interesting history, and it’s a microcosm of East and West Berlin in one suburb (a very big suburb since it merged with Friedrichshain).

Kreuzberg Street Berlin

Buildings in Kreuzberg Berlin

Archways Kreuzberg Berlin

The Mehringdamm stop brings you out on the wealthier side of Kreuzberg. And as you walk out the station, you will find two of the city’s most popular eateries. Pick up a meal at Currywurst 36 or stand in line at Mustafas Gemüse Kebap, which is so popular there is always a queue (I counted more than 70 people one lunch time), so expect to wait 20-40 minutes for your meal. Then, kebab in hand, take a stroll up Kreuzberg Hill (Tempelhofer Berge) for a great view over the city.

Shopping street Kreuzberg Berlin

Curry Stall Kreuzberg Berlin

When you’re ready for the other side of Kreuzberg that best personifies Berlin’s motto – It’s poor but it’s sexy, hop back on the metro and find your way to Oranienstrasse. (You could walk, but Berlin is very big and spread out and the metro is cheap, clean and efficient). This is where you’ll find Berlin’s large Turkish community and it’s also the epicenter of the LGTB community. A colourful and interesting mix if ever there was one.

The district has gentrified in recent years, with the music, design and fashion crowd moving in, but there are still more than enough kebab kiosks and bars and nightclubs around including SO 36, the 1970’s punk club and hangout of Iggy Pop and David Bowie.

Kreuzberg Old Side Berlin

BO 36 Club Kreuzberg Berlin

Gold shop Kreuzberg Berlin

You’ll also find the Berlin Wall Eastside Gallery nearby, which you can read about in my other post. And after dark, you’ll be in the right place for one of Berlin’s most famous clubs, Berghain and the Panorama Bar (inside an old power plant) where you can spend a long, long, night dancing to your heart’s content.

Did you know? The Doner kebab was invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin.

Bridge over canal in Venice

Visit Venice In The Low Season

Venice is sinking, but it’s not global warming that’s to blame, but rather the tidal wave of tourists that flood the city every day in season. In 2016 alone, more than 500 ships and and 1.5 million tourists poured into the city. Throw in stifling heat, crushing crowds and canals that smell worse as the heat rises and your trip might not be all you dreamed of. The solution? Head there out of season and you’ll have a far better time with as much space as you like to see the city in all its glory.

Venice Grand canal view

Speedboat on Venice Grand Canal

With less people crowding the city in late autumn, we decided it was safe to stay in a central area. We chose the luxury art deco Palazzo Barbarigo hotel on the Grand Canal, close to the main thoroughfare that would take us straight to the Rialto Bridge. You can of course stay in the outlying areas, but as charming as the side canals are, they can be very quiet, and it isn’t as necessary to escape the crowds out of season.

Click here for the story on Palazzo Barbarigo hotel.

Everyone heads to Venice for a different reason, whether it’s architecture, art or history. Whatever you plan to see on the way, the truth is Venice as a city on water is what’s fascinating. A surreal film set that’s best enjoyed by walking every inch of it. It is a fantastic walking city, with thousands of narrow alleys and paths linking the 6 districts, and not a car in sight. It isn’t as big as you might think and most sites are within easy walking distance of each other, but the alleys are often very narrow, and even in late Autumn there were bottlenecks as people tried to get the best photo opportunity or tour groups stopped to admire a building.

Quiet back alley waterways Venice

Gondola in side canal Venice

Sightseeing

Walking shoes on and map in hand we started early, heading up the narrow alleyway to our first stop at the famous Rialto Market. Since 1097, yes that’s right 1097, Venetians have depended on the Rialto markets for their daily fish, fruit and vegetables. It’s best to arrive early if you want to see the Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market) in full swing because the wholesalers and most of the retailers close up shop by midday.

The Erberia and Pescheria are only open Tuesday through Saturday, so locals suggest not ordering fish in restaurants on Mondays, because the fish is unlikely to be fresh.

There are also several stores selling gourmet goods around the market area and more stalls leading up to the bridge that sell non-food items (these are always open but mostly cheap Venetian masks and souvenirs).

Venetian Masks Rialto Bridge

Fruit and vegetable boat Venice canal

The Rialto Bridge also is filled with shops selling souvenirs and tourists congregate at the top trying to get the best photo they can without strangers in it. Stop at the top watch the watery freeway below. You feel like you’re in an alternate historical universe.

Rialto Bridge Grand Canal Venice

We crossed over to San Marco, the busiest district in Venice, thanks largely to St Mark’s Square, where you’ll find The Basilica of San Marco, the greatest symbol of Byzantine Venetian History. The square was partially flooded when we got there thanks to the high tide and waiters knee deep in water were setting up tables in anticipation of the receding tide as tourists crowded the dry areas around the basilica and queued to climb the campanile for a view of the city.

St Marks Square flooded in Venice

Campanile in St Marks Square Venice

We passed the Doge’s Palace, the residence of the former ruler of Venice, and the headquarters of the Venetian Republic, a city state that existed for more than 1,000 years. For centuries the Doge’s Palace had three fundamental roles: as the Doge residence, the seat of government and as the palace of justice, but since 1923 it’s been a museum. It is also where you’ll find the famous Bridge of sighs that connected a palace to a prison.

Side alley on Venice canal

Flooded pathway Venice streets

Tree lined square Venice islands

As we trawled the alleyways, getting lost more often than not, we saw countless churches, galleries, museums and antique stores each offering up a glimpse of Venetian history. So if that’s what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. Head to the home of Venetian 18th Century art at Carezzonico Museum or the Gallerie del Accademia for pre-19th century art. If modern art is more to your taste, you’ll find it at the Penny Guggenheim museum, which hosts a modern art collection collected by the famous lady herself.

Palace on canals in Venice

Church on canal in Venice

When you’ve done enough walking and seen enough, spend the afternoon sitting at a restaurant on the edge of the Grand Canal. They can be overpriced, but if you stick to pizza and a bottle or two of wine it makes a very worthwhile, romantic and entertaining interlude as you watch venetians go about their day.

Boats waterside on the Grand Canal Venice

Front of gondolas Venice

As the sun sets you might want to take a gondola ride. It is an expensive tourist trap, but if you’re feeling particularly romantic, book one through your concierge to prevent being ripped off.

With so much to see, there’s no doubt Venice is a fascinating city and it’s a place you should see once, if only for a day or two.

Baku’s Beautiful World Heritage Site

The beauty of Baku’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is that you can see it in all its restored glory without fighting your way through touts, storekeepers and busloads of tourists. I’ve never seen such a beautifully restored world heritage site with so few tourists, and truth be told I really enjoyed it.

My first experience of the Old City was actually on my first night in Baku. I was there for a wedding, and the bride’s cousin offered to babysit me while all the ladies went on a girl’s night. So we drove into the Old City for dinner and ended up at the Art Garden restaurant, a building that was literally excavated and rebuilt from the ground up fairly recently.

Old City Mosque in Baku Azerbaijan

Old City at night in Baku Azerbaijan

Old City Eating

Inside the walled entrance, we walked through the large covered terrace and headed straight for the private rooms at the back, each individually decorated by famous Azeri artists. We took the one that paid homage to Azerbaijan’s ancient history. It reminded me a lot of the cave paintings we have in South Africa, but apparently you’ll find similar ones only an hour or two outside Baku. It was a room for six, but we had it all to ourselves, and with the door closed to keep the cold wind out, we had the cosy, vaulted chamber to ourselves and all we needed to do was push a discreet buzzer every time we wanted the something from the waiter.

To kick things off we ordered drinks, a bottle of unwooded Azeri chardonnay. I was told it wasn’t the best one, but it was light and easy drinking and went down well. Suitably warmed, I was excited to try Azeri food, so my host helped me make sense of the menu. I learned that Plov is a signature Azeri dish in upmarket restaurants. It’s a saffron rice dish served with meats, onions and prunes on the side and there are more than 40 varieties. I also learned that meat is a big thing, but lamb is the most popular.

Vaulted VIP Room Art GardenRestaurant Baku Old City Azerbaijan

VIP Room in Art Garden Restaurant Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Azeri Food, Wine & History

The table was filled with the same dishes every Azeri table is filled with to begin; a plate of green leaves and veggies called goy, plenty of chorek (bread), salat (a tomato and cucumber salad), qatik (yoghurt) and pendir (cheese). I tried Qutab, a type of pancake stuffed with cheese for starters, while my host had the ubiquitous minced lamb dolma (vine leaves).

My main course was the popular, and recommended, grilled sturgeon kebab with a sweet pomegranate sauce. It was a natural choice seeing as we were right on the Caspian Sea, the home of sturgeon and its more famous fish roe; caviar. It’s the first time I’ve ever tried this fish, and the sauce made it tasty, but personally, I found sturgeon way too fatty. The other option was Beluga kebabs, and I can’t imagine how fatty that might have been. I guess the water is cold in the Caspian.

My host and I chatted a lot, and I got a great insight into Azerbaijan and its history. We spoke about the first oil boom that helped build the wealth of the Nobel Brothers and the Rothschilds. We spoke about Baku being Stalin’s playground, how the mayor is trying to maintain the delicate balance of restoration and private homes in the Old City, and how Baku itself is probably the least attractive part of Azerbaijan.

Once dinner was finished and our black tea settled, we drove around the Old City and I saw some of the private homes and eclectic range of restored mansions built during the first oil boom. It was a fascinating night and the perfect welcome.

Traditional Stoe Wall Paintings Baku Old City Azerbaijan

Black Tea at Art Garden Restaurant Old City Baku Azerbaijan

The following day Baku lived up to its Windy City name, and the rain swept in off the Caspian, practically drowning the city. So we all spent the day cocooned in the luxurious JW Marriott Absheron, and were very thankful the following morning, to be able to wander down the Boulevard back into the Old City.

Strolling Inside The Old City

Built on a site inhabited since the Palaeolithic period, The Inner City (Icheri Sheher) is one of the few surviving medieval towns in Azerbaijan and has preserved most of its 12th-century defensive walls. It is widely accepted that the Old City, including its Maiden Tower, date back at least to the 12th century, with some claiming that construction dates as far back as the 7th century. This has never been settled though.

Back in the day, the Old City was divided into several quarters, which also served as social divisions. Sometimes, the divisions were named after their mosque, but there were also other quarters I found really interesting, including Aghshalvarlilar, a quarter of city nobles, literally ‘those with white pants’. And Noyutchuler, a quarter of oil workers, Juhud Zeynallilar, a Jewish quarter and Bozbashyemeyenler, a quarter of ‘those who do not eat meat’. These days, those quarters may not be quite as evident, but the Old City still retains all its charm, with cobbled streets, narrow alleyways, ornate balconies and tiny courtyards.

Baku Old City Famous Tower Azerbaijan

We entered the Old City next to the The Maiden Tower (Giz Galasy), which also dates back to at least the 12th Century and is believed to have been an observatory or a fire tower, so it’s no wonder it was undergoing a bit of restoration when we were there.

Just alongside the Tower, an area has been excavated, and from a raised platform we looked down on some of the ancient foundations on display. We walked up past the carpet sellers and handful of souvenir stores and the owners politely asked if we wanted to take a look. No high-pressure tactics or smooth talking, it was all very refreshing.

Excavation of Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Souvenir Store in Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Carpet Shop in Old City Baku Azerbaijan

We passed the Art Garden, where I had dinner, and wound our way through as many side roads and back alleys as we could find hoping to run into some undiscovered treasures.

Palaces, Private Homes And Oil Boom Mansions

Unfortunately we didn’t find as much as we’d hoped. Aside from the odd food kiosk, antique store, or resident’s courtyard that we tried to peek into, there was very little else. We couldn’t understand why everything seemed so quiet on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but later we realised that Baku itself doesn’t draw a large number of tourists. Expatriate oil workers and businessmen they have plenty of, but actual tourists are still relatively few and far between.

The main historical treasure within the walls, and top attraction, is the palace of the Shirvan-Shahs, complete with a harem, mosque, family mausoleum, and the Shah’s supreme court. The Shirvanshah’s Palace was built in the 15th century when Shamaha was finally abandoned as the capital in favour of Baku. It was damaged very badly by the Russians back in the 1800’s, but has been restored to its former glory.

In 1806, when Baku was annexed by the Russian Empire, there were 500 households and 707 shops, and a population of 7,000 in the Old City (then the only neighbourhood of Baku). Just after this, the city started to expand outside the walls for the first time, and the Outer City began to develop. Obviously the Old City is now just a tiny part of Baku, but there are still plenty of private residents living inside the walls.

Restored house in Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Colonial Mansions Old City Baku Azerbaijan

View of Baku Old City Azerbaijan

The entire Old City is beautifully restored, and if you love architecture, you’ll find it fascinating. It is unique because it combines the historic with the modern; East with the West, and everything from the Zoroastrian temples to art noveau buildings. The crescent of the Old Town is also ringed by a wide range of the oil boom mansions I mentioned earlier. The oil tycoons went a bit crazy with money and the ostentation, so you’ll find a range of styles from Moorish to Persian to Italian Renaissance.

Not finding much in the quieter back streets, we meandered our way back past the boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, oil companies, and diplomatic buildings on main thoroughfare where we found a quaint coffee shop, traditional clothing stores and a police station.

Cafe Banu Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Mounted Deer on wall in Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Traditional Azeri Cafe Old City Baku Azerbaijan

Browsing done, we took a seat at the charming wooden café, next to the Maiden Tower to give our feet a rest and enjoy the sunny outdoors. We didn’t exactly have to fight for a table, which was great. So we rested under the trees next to a table of nuns and drank our strong coffee before leaving the peaceful Old City for the more manic Outer City of modern Baku. All in all, it was a quiet and very enjoyable bit of sightseeing through a very significant historical site. Made all the more special by the lack of tourists, I doubt I will find many more World Heritage sites in a city that I’ll be able to enjoy at my own pace and in such peace.