Thoughts from abroad: Berlin, Prague and Venice
It was only a short stop in, at only two nights, and my explorations could not chip away even the surface of what it has to offer.
Berlin is built upon difficult times and a difficult history, but these are but rocky grounds and not roots. Berlin has grown not from its history but above it, with a certain and watchful step that is determined not to slip again.
We started our day in what was once Soviet occupied east Berlin, guided by the ampelmann and curved streets, and we moved into what once stood as west Berlin, an isolated island of capitalism in a sea of communism. Every cobbled strip along the road is not decorative, but a reminder of a wall which stood for more than penning people inside.
Standing in what was once the death strip is impossibly and undecidedly difficult. The locals who pass by carry a wealth of experience and knowledge, and I’m reminded that Berlin’s troubled history is more contemporary than I assume.
A glass plate in a town square casts light into an empty library at the place where the book burning took place May 10th, 1933. It was students of the overlooking universities who initiated the book burning, by emptying their libraries into the street, and burning those books which did not align with their regime. Today, the empty library stands in memory of the day where 25,000 books were burned in the desperation to expel knowledge. It shows that the burning of the books did not bring power or strength, it just left the people with nothing. Knowledge cannot be burned or buried. It is understood and shared, and one could interpret the empty shelving as a symbol of our everlasting knowledge which cannot be stolen and destroyed, and will always fill our shelves.
In the evening, we explored alternative and underground Berlin, and discovered a city which has freedom of expression and creativity. Strewn with street art and food and music, Berlin is as rich culturally as it is historically.
Inside a nuclear bunker, 18 metres below the ground and surrounded by concrete walls 3 metres thick in every direction, I’m as unaware of the people passing by overhead as they are of me; meanwhile, the bunker is the starkest reminder that people are here and powerful, and they can be resourceful, and they can be cruel.
Prague is a cobbled and closed maze of a city which is like something out of a fairytale, while shadowed by its history of war and division. Prague was a city braced for attack during the cold war, but solved its own national issues peacefully, and with regard to the needs and desires of the citizens.
Venice, from Salzburg.
The roads twist and twine between the Austrian Alps, leaving behind Salzburg and the Sound of Music and the birthplace of Mozart, and we greet the Italian border with a sense of revival. The architecture shifts with the languages, and Italy is its own.
Joining the Italian roadways, we weave through rural Italy until we reach the bridge connecting the mainland to the Venetian islands. A private boat awaits our arrive, and sets sail across the water surrounding Venice and its islands, delivering us to downtown Venice along with five stowaway travellers we invited because they were beyond lost and spoke a language which was neither Italian nor English.
Venice is quite literally set upon the water. Many streets are not lined with paths, but closed windows to houses with a canal view. Boats are the only mode of transport besides walking, and that includes all emergency service vehicles and public transport, because a city built upon stilts cannot accommodate more than feet upon its streets.
The winter tour of Venice was spectacular and unique. There is a world of difference between a sweaty summertime tour of a city sinking beneath the weight of thousands of tourists, and our mild winter evening with barely a foot in the square before the Basilica, and barely a breath down the canals.
The Basilica is undeniably one of the most grand and lavish buildings in the world, and to drink in the view from the square is surreal; however, when our local tour guide led us to its door, as a spontaneous addition to our city tour, I entered a space which is the result of 500 years of hard work from thousands of creators who dedicated to their lives to the Basilica’s creation, while most never saw its completion. The structure is lined with golden mosaic masterpieces which are magnificent and bigger than any one person’s vision or means. Anybody who enters walks atop, beside and beneath detailed mosaic art, and the pride of a city.
The city sinks and rises along its footpath, and the shifting reveals the compacting of the earth beneath Venice. Quite literally, Venice is sinking.
It’s also starved for space, so it cannot expand or inflate. The homes and stores are compact and tall and squashed together in organised chaos, forming a maze of cobbled islands connected by canal bridges. As evening descended, we took a gondola through the canals. Winter clears the canals, and we rowed gently and luxuriously between homes and cafes and stores. Peer into a kitchen, an office, a dining room, a bar. Christmas lights danced across the water, and silence filled all that water did not.
Dinner was a traditional Italian array of foods, structured into a five course meal and accompanied by a saxophone and accordion. A vegetable, bruschetta and cold meat platter fell before a pasta, followed by a squid ink risotto illuminated by salt flames on each plate. The main dish of fresh Venetian fish was followed by a housemade tiramisu, and all was complemented with Italian wine.
Once, the borders to these countries were closed, or inaccessible, or without peace. Today, the world has open doors and I want to walk through them. Get lost in a new place, learn to say hello in a new way, and learn to see things with an open mind. The world is huge and amazing and beyond anyone’s own understanding, but it’s at each of our fingertips.
Niamh is studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in writing, after realising that a Bachelor of Business wasn't for her. She writes a blog, is trying to save the bees, and is on the hunt for the best chai latte.