La Bohème Berlin

On a Thursday night, I was in a gastronomic fix. Tucked into the alleys of the hipster district of Kreuzberg in Berlin otherwise known for its annual May Day riots, is a massive hall called Markthalle Neun, where the movers and shakers of Berlin’s burgeoning pop-up restaurant and supper club scene come together. There I stumbled into the underworld of Berlin cuisine. Orbs of fried octopus, Koshary (Egyptian street food), Berlin Meat Balls, Peruvian Ceviche (raw fish with lime juice), Allgäuer Kässpatzen (German-style macaroni and cheese) and Korean Bao Buns vied for the attention. Local beers and ales were naturally the hotsellers. And there in that hubbub of music, people and food couched inside a 19th century market hall, the windows of which were once painted black and business brought to a standstill during World War II, I found myself  caught in a dilemma that no food lover should complain about.

In Berlin, nightlife begins only around midnight and these food markets cater to nocturnal revellers. As I left that district which is home to immigrants, progressive youth and expats such as my husband’s Canadian friend of Chinese origin – she had taken us into its beatnik heart – the feeling that I was in a freewheeling city clung to me. Then there are its beer bikes. One extremely sultry afternoon past us chugged this rolling bar, pedal-powered by groups of beer chuggers. Their reward: 10 litres of beer per hour.



Grilled octopus
Juicy meat
Beer biking 

You see by now that almost everything goes in Berlin. The bohemian thought process is reflected almost everywhere. That would include its famous 520-acre public park, Tiergarten that once used to be the hunting quarters of kings till one worthy Frederick II decided to transform it into a lustgarten (pleasure garden) for the public. What would Frederick have made of the nudists who sun themselves now in a certain quarter of the park, I wonder.

My initial reaction to Berlin was dismay. The city that had been headquarter to the Nazis, staged a revolution, been bombed to oblivion, sundered into two and been reunited again — I expected it to be chock-full of history. My disillusionment was stoked by the sight of the accoutrement of urban shops, hotels, restaurants and Bikini Berlin, a ‘concept mall’ of West Berlin, on Kurfürstendamm, one of the most famous boulevards in Berlin and where my hotel was strategically located. The only redeeming feature there strangely enough was the ruined spire of Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, a 19th-century church badly destroyed during the air bombing raids of 1943.

But I started changing my mind as I found my way to the historic Mitte, walking for miles and miles along the leafy trails of Tiergarten. There on the way I chanced upon disconcerting memorials such as the one to Aktion 4. It was a programme of forced euthanasia in Nazi Germany carried out on psychiatric hospital patients declared unfit to live. The methods were later to be replicated at extermination camps and mobile death vans.

Memorials make up Berlin’s landscape. There are more than 30 that mark its warped history but the most poignant of them is the plaque for Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer, who became a symbol of the Cold War. Fechter was shot by GDR border guards in 1962 as with a co-worker he attempted to climb over the Wall to Kreuzberg in West Berlin. The co-worker got away but Fechter bled to death while guards and witnesses watched him die. Then there’s the Rosenstrasse memorial which I looked high and low for. It recalls the uprising of a group of non-Jewish women when their husbands, 2,000 Jewish citizens of Berlin, were detained in February 1943 at Rosenstrasse as part of deportations by the SS and the Gestapo. The result of the uprising was that in March 1943 the prisoners were released.

Nudists in Tiergarten


Informal evening eateries
Coffee and mamorkuchen
Classical theaters


Remnants of the Berlin Wall
When the Wall was in place
Checkpoint Charlie
Chunks of the dismembered Berlin Wall
Memorial to the Holocaust
Memorial to the Sinti and Roman gypsies
Memorial to the Soviet Soldier
Rosenstrasse memorial

The commemoration that needs no hunting down is Checkpoint Charlie. The crossing between erstwhile East and West Berlin nowadays resembles the first guard house erected in 1961 with sandbags. A former colleague of mine told me that she had found soldiers patrolling the checkpoint when she had visited the city during the year that the Wall came down. How different times can be… I came upon actors dressed shabbily as allied military policemen, charging enthusiastic tourists heftily for token photographs.

In between queueing up for a visit to the Reichstag for hours and browsing free museums such as the Willy Brandt Haus on Unter den Linden named charmingly for the lime trees that line it, I fell for a few quarters in the city. The grand Parisier Platz with the neo-classical gate, Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag just around the corner, Museum Sinsel, a hub of five museums, dominated by the Berliner Dom that sits on the River Spree. My other designated happy corner was Gendarmenmarkt, named for the Gens d’Armes, an elite Prussian mounted regiment that was quartered there in the 18th century.

On a grey windy day in the middle of that hot summer, I climbed 254 steps up the Französischer Dom on Gendarmenmarkt and was rewarded by a beautiful view of the city. From above it, I could hear the rantings of a pony-tailed man who had been stomping up and down the square with a strolley for some time, screaming himself hoarse about some kind of conspiracy. Just around the corner from the square is a chocolate boutique, Fassbender und Rausch Chocolatiers, the first in Europe to spice everything with cocoa. Be it fish, meat, salad or soup, expect sweet notes of chocolate in it.

The Reichstag


In Tiergarten
The French Cathedral
The German Cathedral
The still and the living share space in front of Berliner Dom
Gendarmenmarkt from atop the French Cathedral
Brandenburg Tor
Straße des 17.Juni, the flea market with heritage
In the sweltering heat of Berlin


Now, I was warned about the temptation that awaits the unwary at Berlin’s famous flea markets. On a steamy Sunday, when outdoors it seemed to be the very personification of a sauna chamber, my husband and I stepped into Straße des 17 Juni Flea Market to indulge our antiquing souls. In a market that has been tagged Berlin’s oldest flea market since 1973, along with the hordes we braved sultriness to rummage through vintage metal tin signs, antiques, paintings, cutlery, crystal and vinyl to our heart’s content — the thought running through my mind that no day in Berlin can be orthodox.



A Day in Dresden

No porcelain was made in Dresden. In my years of growing up I used to see porcelain figurines that carried the Dresden blue crown mark and wonder about the place that could produce such delicate pieces of art. It was only after I went to Dresden, a German city on the River Elbe, last year that I figured it out. Fifteen miles from the Saxony capital and down the Elbe is the town of Meissen which has actually been the home of porcelain making.

Yet the fashionably dressed figurines are down right to Dresden’s credit. After those figurines were made in Meissen, they were sent to Dresden for the finishing touches. Decorators in Dresden used to dip fragile lace into porcelain casting liquid before using it on the figurines. On firing, the lace would ignite and leave behind a filigree of billowy ensembles on the figurines.

On an early morning in Berlin, I caught the Flix bus to Dresden. The Flix is your cheap fix if you want to travel within Europe on a low budget, with the comforts of air conditioning, wifi and a toilet on board. People take it for long distance travel too. Sophia, a 20-year-old British-French girl and co-traveller was going to take the Flix to Paris from Berlin. A journey that took her some 20-odd hours.

I was exasperated when the Flix bus arrived so very late at the bus station in Berlin and a bit incredulous because I was in Germany after all. Where trains and buses always run on the dot. On the other hand, Sophia got lucky because just as the bus was about to leave she arrived, all flustered.

At Dresden Hauptbahnof (train station), Sophia asked me about the bus that was going to take us back to Berlin. Here was someone who was more nervous than me about missing the bus back. On that note of empathy, we teamed up and headed into Dresden.

With just a few hours at hand, we came upon a city that is mired in history. That is so beautiful that ‘aahs’ and ‘oohs’ become standard exclamations at every bend of every alley. Using the elements of grandeur and drama, two styles of architecture stand out at once in Dresden. The late 16th century Baroque school, characterised by a design that emphasises the wealth and power of the church, and the 18th century Late-Baroque or Rococo style that was an about-turn from the Baroque school and insisted instead upon playful, elegant elements in design.

From a Slavonic fishing village that came up late in the 12th century as a merchants’ settlement along the Elbe, it became home to the Saxon dukes, electoral princes and kings since the 15th century. Dresden became synonymous with art, culture, education, politics, architecture, and beauty to the extent that it was referred to as ‘Elbflorenz’ or Florence of the Elbe.

Old Dresden

Then came WWII. British and American forces had carpet bombed Dresden by 1945. Ninety per cent of its centre was reduced to rubble, not to mention the major loss of lives. I had seen another city like this – Warszawa (Warsaw). It was an insight into how both sides were affected in the aftermath of the war. Yet there is a marked difference between Warsaw and Dresden. The architecture in Warsaw is markedly new though it was built to recreate the centre as it once must have been. Dresden however had the perfect comeback with the ancient look intact in its rebuilt monuments – the various churches, opera house and palaces looked right out of the times when the Kings of Saxony would have lived in Dresden.

We had earlier passed by the section of the city that is a reminder of its former German Democratic Republic past, in the bus. Massive Brutalist blocks of apartments made me wonder Why such buildings were allowed to materialise in the Soviet bloc. The most significant GDR building in Dresden is the Kulturpalast, a jarring piece of urban architecture, apart from which an Eastern Bloc mural of a female worker reminds you of Dresden’s brush with socialism. Maybe someday they shall disappear. Maybe aesthetic structures shall come up in lieu of those cold blocks of monstrosity.

The Zwinger
At the Zwinger
The Fuerstenzug. A large mural of Meissen tiles. Depicted on it is a procession of the rulers of Saxony.


We spent the next few hours in the city, walking around the Alstadt (Old Town). The historic heart of the city is mesmerising. The Zwinger in the Innere Altstadt (or Inner Old Town”) had particularly absorbed my attention. It was the idea of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who was inspired by Louis XIV. The French emperor had just moved his court from Paris to Versailles. Augustus in the 17th century had travelled to France and Italy and he wanted something just as grand for himself. The Zwinger was constructed with its fantastic orangery, galleries and festival arena to live up to the king’s wishes.

We climbed the stairs in the Frauenkirsche (Church of Our Lady) and from its massive bell-shaped dome had a stunning view of the city in every direction. It was poignant to think of the damage that had been wreaked on all of these monuments during WWII including the church we were surveying the city from. But it was a wonderful indicator – that we humans are a determined lot. We move on because we have to move on.

I think Dresden was blessed when the 1950s and 60s came to an end and GDR rule became a thing of the past. The Neumarkt (the area immediately around the  Frauenkirsche) and Altmarkt used to be vacant during the GDR days and only the ruins of the Frauenkirche were left in a pile as a reminder of the horrors of war.


How is an old city complete without the horse carriage trotting through its cobbled lanes.

We were so taken in by the city, that we barely had time to eat anything. We sat in the Neumarkt on the pavement tables of a beautiful old café and tucked into a Dresden delicacy – the Eierschecke. The cake made of yeast dough, egg custard and quark cheese was dry but it did look nicer than it tasted.

I made up for the disappointment with a big cone of gelato on that hot day and just as we were tucking into our cones we realised that we had just 5 minutes to reach the hauptbahnof. We ran all the way back to it and made it just in the nick of time.

Dresden reminded me of a Ray Bradbury quote which always strikes home. “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”


Slices of Scandinavian Quaintness

We crossed The Bridge with heightened anticipation. A few weeks before I had watched a politician’s body, cut in half, lying on that bridge. Now don’t go swooning on me. I am merely referring to a Scandinavian crime drama, The Broen (The Bridge), that was my introduction (and a rather dramatic one at that) to the Øresund Bridge – the longest road-and-rail bridge in Europe linking up Denmark and Sweden.

The cities of Copenhagen (in Denmark) and Malmö (in Sweden) lie on either side of the Øresund strait, after which the bridge is named. On a cold winter’s day, we took a bus from Copenhagen for Malmö and in just a matter of 186 Swedish Krona (20 Euros) and 40 minutes, we were in another country. I could not help but be caught up in the infectious glee of my husband. Plus it was my birthday.

The journey was punctuated by a stop at the Swedish toll booth where a couple of cops, with a young German Shepherd in tow, carried out on-the-spot checks. They scoured every possible nook and corner of the bus, and then some more as they prodded their canine friend to inhale every passenger as much as he could. Once he gave us all a clean chit – not a single law breaker on the bus is equal to no drama – we continued to Malmö. The idea was to ferret out drugs. After all we were coming in from Copenhagen, home to the druggie-hippie haven of Christiania.

Ahead of us lay the skyline of Sweden’s third largest city, a twisty silver building emerging out of it. The Turning Torso, named aptly for a tall, modern structure that seems to have wrung been out at 90 degrees, all along its length, looms above Malmö’s low-rise skyline. It happens to be Sweden’s tallest building at 620 ft.

I fell in love with Malmö because of its coffee shops. They are, and I do not exaggerate, straight out of a coffee lover’s dream and the pages of a glossy décor magazine. Warm wooden interiors, contrasting white walls, books stacked by the dozen into tall shelves and incandescent yellow lighting. The Swedish take their coffee quite seriously and they even have a name for their coffee culture. It is referred to as ‘fika’ or a break which necessarily means a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. For what is life without such small pleasures, right?






Having experienced the vibe in the world’s most avid java-swigging countries such as America (where I was introduced to the concept of wet and dry cappuccinos) and Italy (where all kinds of coffee are divine), my self-respecting, coffee-loving genes were swept off their feet in Sweden.

Historical customs records state that the first batch of coffee was shipped into the country in 1685 but King Karl XII kicked off the trend of drinking coffee in the 18th century when he returned to Sweden from Turkey with a Turkish coffee kettle in tow. Coffee, in those days, was an expensive drink but who can stop the bon ton when there is a statement to be made.

Now, it is important that you picture an extremely windy, bone-juddering cold day when we walked across the three squares in the city. You would then be able to appropriately make soothing noises of empathy when I say that an indescribable pleasure surged through me as I laid my eyes upon the various coffee shops. I had to gave into those warm interiors that beckoned to me in dulcet tones, “Come, child come”.

Stepping out of the coffee haven, we came across the equestrian bronze statue of King Karl X Gustav in the middle of Stortorget (Malmö’s Big Square). The worthy king was Karl XII’s grandfather and an illustrious figure who had wrested the city’s freedom from Denmark.

Apart from being a coffee haven, Malmö is a formerly fortified Hanseatic port that traces its roots to the year 1272. It was for years under Danish dominion till Denmark ceded it to Sweden.

Yet our discoveries in the old town square of Malmö that had me thrilled to bits had nothing to do with its considerable history. The first was a shoe shop that had Crockett and Jones emblazoned across it. It is a shoe brand that was started by two heavily moustachioed men from Northampton, the town where we live in England and which is known for its tradition of shoe making. A Charles Jones had got together with his brother-in-law James Crockett “to encourage young men of good character in the towns of Northampton and Coventry to set up business on their own”. In all these days of living in Northampton, we had never laid eyes on shoes that actually hail from there.

King Karl XII’s grandfather mounted upon a horse in the middle of the square.
Malmo’s town hall.
In front of a gabled house front
Musicians of Malmo
On the train to Lund.

The tall Swede inside the shop held up a pair of one of the finest shoes we had seen (with prices to match) and said: “They come from Northampton, an English town that is renowned for its shoes.” Fancy that. That is travelling in a nutshell for you. You really never know what lies around the corner.

The second installment of my discovery took place in a small kiosk where I bought a box of Summerbird chocolates. Tasting a piece from this Scandinavian brand is akin to stepping into chocoholic heaven. They are pompously priced but when a piece of chocolate is nobly made with Trinitario cocoa beans (that is one of the three grand varieties of cocoa), you know you can be utterly forgiving.

Leaving the urban arty sophistication of the city behind, we caught the train to a small town called Lund from Malmö. The station was chock full of refugees camping in it. A strange sight but one overtaken by the beauty of the Skåne (southern Sweden) region that both Malmö and Lund are a part of.

The Skåne was once known to be a romping ground for the Vikings and is patch-worked by an open, flat countryside of lush farms, forests, lakes and manors.

At the end of our brief journey lay the town of Lund, the wonderful quaintness of which reminded us of Bruges.

The gnarly trees of Lund.

Lund is a university town with the second oldest university after Uppsala in Sweden. Therefore, it is a town packed with students bicycling through its charming cobbled lanes and pathways. Medieval timber-framed houses flank its cobbled paths, colourful facades crop up around every corner while leafy parks abound.

We spent our time traipsing down those lanes, past its old libraries and university buildings which are all dwarfed by the Lund Domkyrka (Lund Cathedral) – a paean to its historical status as the religious capital of Scandinavia during the 12th century. With its impressive grey stone magnificence, the cathedral was typical of medieval Europe.

The architecture of Lund is disarming.
Trying not to shiver in Lund’s university campus.
Gearing up all in all available warm accessories.
Quaint cottages
Lund’s cathedral is an impressive affair.


Once though the town had more to boast of – its 27 churches and eight monasteries were razed down by King Christian III of Denmark for the construction of the Malmöhus Castle. Yet Lund is one of the oldest European towns tracing its roots back to the year 990.

And too soon another beautiful day trip had come to an end.But not before it added shivery-happy memories to our travel diary. As a wise man had observed: “…I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”


Autumn in Paris – II

“You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.”  

Allen Ginsberg

The Carousel Garden. Part of the Tuileries. Under Louis XIV’s reign, it was opened up to ‘les honnêtes gens’ or the ‘respectable folk’. It became the In thing to be seen walking in these gardens.
The Tuileries.
So many famous names have walked and performed inside the Lido. Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker… I could go on and on till the cows come home.
‘Naughty but nice’ Lido
The Tuileries
Bouquinistes of Paris. Booksellers who sell used and antiquarian books along both banks of the Seine. Which is why the Seine is referred to as ‘the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves’
Browsing old manners and modes at the bouquinistes’
Paris. From the Notre Dame.
Chimeras top the Notre Dame.
Inside the Notre Dame.
Inside the Louvre.
“Mine was the twilight and the morning. Mine was a world of rooftops and love songs.” Roman Payne.
A Jeff Koons.
Canal St. Martin. Near Bastille.
Are you a flea market flâneur? Then, this is your soul place. It is one of the best flea markets I have traipsed through.
Flea market treasures
When I spotted a colonial item and got excited.
Could not resist getting into a frame with La Tour Eiffel.
“And trade is art, and art’s philosophy, In Paris.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
“Paris. City of love. City of dreams. City of splendour. City of saints and scholars. City of gaiety. Sink of iniquity. In two thousand years, Paris had seen it all.” Edward Rutherfurd.
“I had forgotten how gently time passes in Paris. As lively as the city is, there’s a stillness to it, a peace that lures you in. In Paris, with a glass of wine in your hand, you can just be. All along the Seine, street lamps come on, apartment windows turn golden.” Kristin Hannah.
Place des Vosges from Maison de Victor Hugo.
Victor Hugo’s bedroom in which he breathed his last.
“Everyone remembers their first taste of Paris.” Kristin Hannah.
Hôtel des Invalides founded in 1671 by Louis XIV, the Sun King. Translated it reads, The National Residence of the Invalids, which is why Louis XIV had it built as a home and hospital for aged and unwell soldiers.
“For in Paris, whenever God puts a pretty woman there (the streets), the Devil, in reply, immediately puts a fool to keep her.” Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly.
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” Coco Chanel.
The city of fashion.
At the bouquinistes’ along the Seine.
Angelina. A favourite with Audrey Hepburn for its hot chocolate.
Old-world charm. Angelina.
Parisian fashion.
“Paris at night is a street show of a hundred moments you might have lived.” Courtney Maum.

If you cannot have enough of Paris, like me, there is Autumn in Paris – I for you.

Autumn in Paris – I

I will leave you this time with just photographs from the city of amour.

Because no city does romance like Paris does.

Eiffel Tower
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemingway.
“I ought to be jealous of the tower. She is more famous than I am.” Gustave Eiffel.
The power of a waffle.
“But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty, nor sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong nor the breathing of someone who lay beside you in the moonlight.” Ernest Hemingway.
Laduree. Macaroons that are as beautiful as the city they come from.
The Notre Dame on the Seine.


“The Louvre is a morgue; you go there to identify your friends.” Jean Cocteau
Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs (Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters) by an unknown artist circa 1594. Gabrielle d’Estrées, mistress of King Henry IV, sits nude in a bath holding a ring and her equally nude sister pinches her right nipple.
The Monalisa who is but a tiny presence on the wall. But her attraction is anything but minuscule. A horde always surrounds her.
Autumn in Paris is a joy to behold.
“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.” Victor Hugo.
The Eiffel Tower is truly as if made of lace and steel, as someone had once said.
And it is but inevitable that we give into the romance of Paris.


Related post: Autumn in Paris – II