A Roman holiday in Xanten

We took a short ‘Roman holiday’ and spent a day in the German city of Xanten, that was a huge Roman settlement 2000 years ago. The city is now known for one of the largest archaeological open air museums in the world: the Archeological Park. It is built on the remains of Colonia Ulpia Traiana, as the Roman settlement was called.

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Northern city gate of the Roman settlement.
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View from the tower of the northern gate.

A beautiful park

Do you need to be a fan of Roman history to enjoy this park? No, not necessarily. Because this is simply a beautiful park to walk in. The Roman streetplan is marked by broad lanes of trees. In the park you’ll find a number of marvellous reconstructions of Roman buildings. These reconstructions are the result of profound archaeological research into Roman building techniques and constructions.  Some of these reconstructions are on the exact same place as the original buildings. So this is how they built the amphitheatre, the city walls and gates, the inn and the public baths.

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The amphitheatre

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Reconstruction of a Roman temple.

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A copy of the grave stone of the Roman soldier Firmus found at Andernach, Germany. There are a number of these grave stones near the northern gate.

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In the park you will also find the LVR-RömerMuseum, that was moved from the centre of Xanten to the park a few years ago. The building design is a mixture of modern and Roman influences. The architects took their inspiration from the Roman baths. For a reason, because the remains of the reception room of the Roman city therms are buried under the museum.

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The museum building design is a mix of modern and Roman influences.

The museum shows the history of Xanten in chronological order. It’s interesting to see the many archaeological finds froom 2000 years ago. The remains of the Roman therms are in a separate hall of the museum.

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The remains of the Roman baths in a separate hall in the museum.

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We spent about 5 hours in the park and museum. The park is quite large and you can walk around for hours. Perfect for a day out!

Medieval city centre

The Archaeological Park is not the only atraction in Xanten, the medieval city centre is also wordt a visit. It is centered around the marketplace and (Alter Markt) the cathedral. The Alter Markt is a perfect place to have lunch or dinner in one of the many restaurants.

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Xanten cathedral. The cornerstone was laid in 1263, construction of the cathedral lasted 281 years.

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Travelling on the Eurostar (or how we ended up spending the night on a train station)

The first time I travelled to London was in the 00’s, by airplane. At that time, taking a plane for such a short distance was still considered normal – also by me. Flying was cheap and fast, so why bother? But things have changed. In The Netherlands we now have a word called ‘Vliegschaamte’: shame of flying. More and more travellers think of the environment when they travel from Amsterdam to London. Did you know that there are 1350 flights between London and Amsterdam every week, 209 a day?

But there has been a sustainable alternative since 1994: the Eurostar. Some time after I took a plane to London, I tried the Eurostar. At that time, you had to travel to Brussels to get on the Eurostar, as there were no stops in Rotterdam and Amsterdam yet (this service wasn’t established until spring 2018). So yes, it took us some time to get to Brussels. And the Eurostar tickets were more expensive than they are now. But travelling on the Eurostar was a very positive experience for me: fast and comfortable. And green! Last year, we booked the Eurostar again, and apart from some problems with connecting trains in The Netherlands (HSL-train between Breda and Brussels), we arrived in London perfectly on time.

This month, I travelled on the Eurostar for the third time. It was the first time I did so during the summer holiday season. And probably the last. Travelling to London was perfect: trains were on time, check-in and boarding in Brussels went smoothly. A good start of my holiday. The trip back to Rotterdam – on the hottest day of the year – was a totally different story. We had heard that the day before we travelled, there were severe problems on the Eurostar: a train had a power failure and the airconditioning broke. People had to be evecuated from the train, as temperatures inside the carriages rose to 40 degrees. On top of that, there were speed restrictions as a result of the heat, causing long delays.

We arrived in the Eurostar terminal at London St. Pancras in the late afternoon. Fortunately, we were early, because there were very long lines at the check-in. It was also slightly chaotic. The waiting lounge was very full and there was nowhere to sit, people were sitting on the floor.

We were glad to get on the train. Everything went smooth until Lille. After that, we drove to Brussels very slowly. We arrived in Brussels more than an hour late. Then another problem occurred: there was no driver! He had to come from The Netherlands. Staff kept on making announcements that ‘the driver would arrive in 15 minutes’. Eventually, we ended up staying in Brussels for an hour. When finally the announcement came the driver had arrived, people cheered loudly.

We were to arrive in Rotterdam around midnight, 2.5 hours late. We heard people around us calling their family and friends to pick them up, as they wouldn’t be able to catch the last train home. We had nobody to pick us up. Other passengers offered us a place to stay near Rotterdam. But I managed to find a way to get home. Or so I thought. I mentioned the Eurostar-chaos on Twitter, and a webcare person of NS Dutch Railways assured us that they could arrange our transport home at their expenses, because we had pre-booked tickets to the station in our hometown. She gave us a phone number to call.

When we arrived in Rotterdam, we ran as fast as we could to catch the last train home. But it took off right before our eyes. So we called the NS phone number and explained our situation. The woman we spoke to, asked us to wait a few minutes, as she had to discuss the situation with her colleagues. We were baffled by her answer. She said she couldn’t help us, because we should have arranged for a cab or hotel on the Eurostar. She regretted the fact that her colleague on Twitter had wrongly informed us. And that was it.

So there we were, at Rotterdam station. With nowhere to go. We sat down in the entrance hall and decided that was the best place to stay. We spent the night watching what happened on a station at night. We saw people stocking the shelves of the supermarket. People running with luggage to get the 3.15 train to Schiphol Airport. Teenagers coming back from a night out. But it was still a very long night. We were glad when the first train to Tilburg arrived at 5.45 AM.

So, who is to blame here? NS? Eurostar? NS International, the organization where we booked our tickets months ago? My guess is that we should have asked the Eurostar staff for help. But then we got the wrong advice from NS, the Dutch railways. And there was no information/announcement on the Eurostar, that informed passengers about the possibility of free transport to get home.

Recently, the European Commission conducted a research into train journeys, and the result was that most travellers have no idea what their rights are when travelling within the EU. Information to passengers is unclear. About time these EU-rules get an update. It could have prevented us from having to spend a night on a railway station.

So will I travel on the Eurostar again? Probably, because it is still the best and greenest way to get to London. But I won’t go in peak season. And if I encounter a problem, I will turn to Eurostar staff immediately. But the most important thing is that European carriers finally start informing their passengers better!

Potsdam, city of kings

Do you want to be amazed by baroque and rococo style architecture? Do you want to step back in time and catch a glimpse of the life and wealth of Prussian kings? Then Potsdam is the place to travel to! It’s easy to reach by train and S-bahn from Berlin.

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A colorful historic building near the Old Market Square in Potsdam.

For centuries, Potsdam was a small village. But that changed in the 17th and 18th century, when the Prussian kings made the town near Berlin their favorite residence. Thanks to them, Potsdam nowadays is one of the greatest tourist hotspots near Berlin, with the Sanssouci palace as the biggest attraction.

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St. Nicholas’ Church on the Old Market Square. Left of the church a marble obelisk built in the 18th century.
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The City Palace at the Old Market Square in Potsdam.

One of the most important builders of Potsdam was king Frederick William I of Prussia. In about 9 years, from 1721 to 1730, he had a town for 10,000 people erected on the swamp that surrounded Potsdam, quite an achievement. The medieval core of the town was taken down.

Dutch Quarter

One of the, now famous, new builds on this swamp was the Dutch Quarter. It’s hard to believe that this area was on marshy land before, because now it is right in the heart of the city of Potsdam. The Dutch Quarter was originally meant to attract Dutch skilled workers, but that plan failed.

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The Nauener Tor (Nauen Gate) is one of the three preserved gates of Potsdam. It is also the entrance to the Dutch Quarter.

Nowadays, the Dutch Quarter is a very charming and picturesque part of Potsdam. The area includes four squares and 134 two-storey houses. In the houses you find little cafés, galleries, pubs and craft shops. There are also some annual events, like a Tulip festival in spring, a pottery market and a traditional Dutch Christmas (Sinterklaas) market.

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Houses in the Dutch Quarter.

Sanssouci

The top attraction of Potsdam, the famous Sanssouci palace was built from 1745 to 1747 by king Frederick II, also known as Frederick the Great. It was his summer palace, built in rococo style. In the 19th century, the palace was expanded further.

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Sanssouci palace

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You can also take a walk through the park around the palace and see many other buildings there, like the Chinese Pavillion, the historic mill and the Neues Palais (new palace). Sanssouci has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1990.

Russian village

Also worth paying a visit is the Russian village Alexandrowka, once a Russian colony. The village, located near park Sanssouci, consists of 14 woorden houses and an orthodox church. You can also visit a small museum that tells the history of the village.

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One of the wooden houses in Alexandrowka.

Berlin Tempelhof: How a Nazi airport became a massive urban park

One of the places I was most looking forward to visiting when I was in Berlin last year, was Tempelhof Airport. Why? Because I was really curious what had become of this former airport, that was transformed into a recreational area a few years ago. A vast recreational area of 300 hectares, that is in the hands of the city of Berlin. You don’t see that a lot. Because usually when a huge piece of land like this comes available, city planners and real estate developers with dollar signs in their eyes wil take over. They also tried in Berlin, but the people voted against their plans.

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Main entrance and main hall of Tempelhof Airport. The main hall is also used for concerts and other events.

We arrived at the airport on a particularly windy autumn day. It was strange to see the main entrance and the main hall looking exactly like it was when the airport was still in use. But now, there was not a single traveller in sight. We walked around the site, that is enclosed by a fence, looking for an entrance to the park. Behind the fence, we saw many buildings. Were they apartments, or offices? Tempelhof has many tenants. The Berlin police is a big one, but also the city’s traffic control authority, a lost property office and a kindergarten. In total, the airport houses more than 100 institutions and businesses. And then there’s the few hundred refugees (there used to be 1,200 a few years ago) that have found a temporary home in Tempelhof. The main hall is also used for concerts and other events.

Tempelhof has a long history, longer than you think. Most people know that Tempelhof came into use as an airport in the 1920s and was further developed by the Nazi government in the 1930s. Tempelhof quickly became one of the busiest civilian airports in the world.

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Tempelhof used to be one of the busiest airports in Europe.

But long before that, in the 13th century, this land was the local headquarters of the Knights Templar. Hence the name Tempelhof. In 1722 Tempelhof became the parade ground of the Prussian army and before World War I, German soldiers paraded here. During the Berlin Blockade in 1948 and 1949, one of the fist major crises in the Cold War, Allied forces used Tempelhof to keep the people of Berlin supplied with their Airlift. The last plane took off of Tempelhof Airport in 2008. In 2014, a majority of the Berliners voted to keep the site unchanged.

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In 2014, a majority of the Berliners voted to keep the site unchanged.

We found an entrance to the field and after some time, we saw a man standing outside a small building, apparently an information office. He gave us a map of the airport and some other information. And then we just kept walking and walking and walking…and we realised that the area was so vast that maybe we shoud have rented a bike! Nonetheless, we had a lot of fun. I must admit that walking was easier with the wind at our backs, then the other way around. But we enjoyed being in this special place, and seeing all the people walking, inline skating, cycling and flying their kites. We were there in the fall and I could imagine what the place would look like in summer, with people having a picknick, barbecuing or just relaxing on the grass.

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Tempelhof is a paradise for cyclists, inline skaters and other sporters who want to train.
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Endless runways to walk on.
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Tempelhof still houses a few hundred refugees.

I wonder how long Tempelhof will stay the way it is now. The pressure to use part of the former airport for housing projects is growing, certainly with Berlin’s housing shortage in mind. I hope the largest urban park in Europe will keep its unique character.

A visit to the oldest building in Berlin

Do you have any idea what is the oldest building in Berlin? Before I visited Berlin last year, I had no idea. But now I can proudly say I have visited this building, that has lasted for more than 800 years: the Julius Tower, located in the borough of Spandau, West Berlin. The Julius Tower was built in the beginning of the 13th century to defend the castle that was on the same site at that time. In the 16th century, the castle and the Julius Tower became part of a large fortress, the Citadel (medieval castles became less important then, because of the development of firearms). The fortress would serve a military role fort the next 360 year.

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The entrance of the Citadel, the Julius Tower is in the background.

The fortress was designed by Italian architects. It is symmetrical and completely surrounded by water. And, very important, it has no blind spots for enemies to hide. In the course of history, the Citadel was captured by different armies: the Swedish in 1675, Napoleon’s troops in 1806. The French army caused heavy damage to the Citadel, it was rebuilt after that. Russian and Prussian soldiers took the fortress in 1813. The citadel was also used as a prison for Prussian state prisoners.  In 1935, the fortress served as a laborotory where nerve gas and chemical weapons were developed by the National Socialists. After the war, the buildings served a non-military purpose. And nowadays, the Citadel and the Julius Tower are a major tourist attraction.

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The fortress is completely surrounded by water.

We spent several hours at the site, there is plenty to see. You can climb the 153 steps of the Julius Tower and enjoy the maginificent views. Take a walk in the park around the Citadel and see the Havel river.

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View from the Julius Tower.
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View from the Julius Tower.

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Nice views on the Havel river.

The main building houses a museum, full of items that were found during archeological excavations at the site. You can also see many soldiers uniforms and weapons. And a lot of information is given about the Citadel. But this is not the only museum on the site. In the middle of the courtyard, there is another museum hall, that houses all kinds of cannons. But what I found more interesting, was the museum in the former Provisions Depot. It houses a permanent exhibition called ‘Unveiled. Berlin and its Monuments’. It is a collection of political monuments, that were removed from public space. There was one I recognised immediately: Lenin. In contrast to other museums, you are allowed to touch the statues!

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The granite head of Lenin used to be part of a 19 meter statue at the United Nations Square (then named Lenin Square) in Friedrichshain, Berlin. It was taken down in 1991, after the Wall fell, sawed in 129 pieces and  buried.

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Apart from the Citadel, I would also recommend visiting the Spanday town centre. Especially if you love shopping; there is a large shopping centre next to Spandau central station. The Citadel can easily reached by public transport, it is only a 5 minute walk from the underground station Zitadelle. But you can also take the S-Bahn, bus or train.

More to discover in Oslo

When we came back from Flåm, we had two more days to spend in Oslo before flying back to the Netherlands. Did we get bored? Not at all! We found some interesting places in Oslo we hadn’t seen the week before.

Vulkan and Grünerløkka

We discovered the neighbourhoods Vulkan and Grünerløkka.The term ‘gentrification’ can definitely applied on both areas. Grünerløkka used to be a working class district, on the ‘wrong’ side of the river Akerselva. Until the end of the 20th century, now it’s an alternative area with lots of coffee bars and little shops where you find vintage clothing, jewellery, arts and crafts, and much more.

Between Grünerløkka and Oslo’s city center, you find the Vulkan area. A former industrial area, that is now defined by innovative, eco-friendly architecture. Warehouses and factories have been replaced by hotels, office spaces, restaurants and apartments. We had a great time at the Mathallen food hall, where we enjoyed delicious Hungarian food at Bistro Budapest https://mathallenoslo.no/en/butikk/bistro-budapest/. The next night we ended up at American-style restaurant Lucky Bird, outside of the Mathallen http://luckybird.no/.

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We enjoyed the food at the Mathallen in Oslo.

The island of Hovedøya

In the inner Oslo fjord, there are a number of small islands that can easily be reached by ferry from Aker Brygge pier. The islands are a popular destination for the residents of Oslo, to go swimming and sun bathing or to go hiking. You can get on the ferry by buying regular transportation tickets. We took a boat to Hovedøya, the island closest to the city centre. The boat trip is less than 10 minutes.

What struck me, was the natural diversity of this island of only 0.4 square kilometres: We hiked through woods, passed a sandy beach, saw green pastures, beautiful flowers and rock cliffs. And we found a desolated rocky shore. It’s no surprise that part of the island is a nature reserve!

Hovedøya has something for everyone. Whether you are interested in nature, art or history, you find it on this little island. We visited a small art gallery near the ferry ride. This Lavetthuset (‘gun-carriage house) used to be a military building. What we found even more interesting, was the photo exhibition  in the woods near the gallery.

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Photo art in the woods of Hovedøya.

Hovedøya is uninhabited, but it wasn’t always like that. Traces of its inhabitants can be found on serveral spots on the island. In 1147, a church was built on the island, later expanded with a Cistercian monastery. It was an important economic force fort he Oslo region during the Middle Ages. But the monastery was looted and burnt down after the abott came into conflict with king Christian II. The ruins (or what’s left of it; most of the stones were used to expand Akerhus Fortress in the 17th century) of the monastery are a tourist attraction on Hovedøya.

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The ruins of the Cistercian monastery

Hovedøya also has a military history and it is still visible on the island. Two cannon batteries on the island installed in 1808, remind visitors of the time Hovedøya belonged tot he Norwegian army. So do the two gunpowder depots, one of which is the art gallery I mentioned before. And then there’s the commander’s residence (‘Kommandantboligen’), built in 1850. It served military purposes, but was also used as a residential house.

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Cannons on Hovedøya remind visitors of the island’s military history.

Medieval Park Oslo

One of the last things we did in Olso, was paying a visit tot he Medieval Park. This is where Oslo’s history started, in the Middle Ages. Around 1,000 AD, the first settlement was founded in Gamlebyen (Old Town). In the Medieval Park you find the ruins of St. Clement’s Church, St. Mary’s Church and the former royal residence. Apart from that, this is just a nice park to go for a walk, or have a picknick near the water. We were there on Sunday morning and it was pleasantly quiet. On the way, we also saw some great modern architecture. It was nice to see the oldest and newest Oslo on the same day!

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The oldest and newest buildings of Oslo captured in one photo.

 

 

 

 

Bye Bye Bergen, hello Flåm!

After our cruise to the Hardangerfjord, there was another boat trip we were looking forward to: this time, our friends from Norled would take us from Bergen to Flåm, along the King of the Fjords: the Sognefjord. Another 5.5 hours of magnificent views and beautiful nature. This was going to be a one way trip as we had booked accommodation in Flåm, so we had to take our luggage.

The Sognefjord consists of a number of smaller fjords: the Fjærlandsfjord, Sogndalsfjord and Lustrafjord in the north and the Lærdalsfjord, Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord in the south. Each fjord has its own characteristics.

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We left early in the morning for our trip from Bergen to Flåm.

Like the other boat, this one left early. When we arrived at the quay in Bergen, we noticed that there were far more passengers waiting than before our trip to the Hardangerfjord. And many of them had all their luggage with them. Some of them apparently were afraid that they wouldn’t have a seat on the boat, because people were pushing me instead of just waiting patiently behind me to get on the boat ☹ And when we were on the boat, some passengers were arguing about the seats. While the best place to be was not on a seat indoors, but on the deck upstairs.

But fortunately, the great views made up for this! Norway really has one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world.

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The kids in this remote house had a great time waving at the ships passing by!

The boat made several stops along the way, in villages like Balestrand and Leikanger. But most passengers had the same destination as we had: the village of Flåm.

I must admit that I had some mixed feelings about Flåm, from the moment I got off the boat. For starters, there was a huge cruise ship lying next to our boat and somehow it didn’t fit in the picture. And then all those tourists, swarming around the souvenir shops and restaurants near the quay of Flåm, a village of about 500 residents.

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A rare sight: no other tourists on the quay of Bergen (it was very early).

There’s really only one reason most people want to visit Flåm: it is the starting point of the famous Flåm railway. This train journey, between Flåm and Myrdal, is one of the steepest railway tracks in the world. The line is 20 kilometres long and has a height difference of 866 metres.

We got to Flåm with the same goal as the majority of the tourists, and to be honest, there wasn’t much else to do in Flåm – that is, if you don’t like hiking and climbing. Because there are many hiking and biking trails in and around Flåm. We walked up to the Brekkefossen waterfall, just outside the village. It was a steep and exhausting climb but we were rewarded with stunning views at the top! It was great to be in this quiet place, away from the crowds in the harbour. Fortunately, we did this hike in dry weather, I don’t think I would have gone up with the stones all wet and slippery.

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A highland cow hiding from the sun.

 

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After a steep and exhausting climb we reached the Brekkefossen waterfall.
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Marvellous views from the Brekkefossen waterfall!

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We only spent one night in Flåm and that was enough for us, we were going to board the Flåm railway the next day. In the evening, we visited the Flåm Railway Museum, that is located in the old railway station. It shows the build of the famous railway and has a little souvenir shop. Entrance is free.

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A Flåmsbanen railway wagon in the museum.

The next morning, we boarded the first train from Flåm to Myrdal. From Myrdal, we were going back to Oslo. The Flåm railway ride – fully booked as always – was nice, but it wasn’t very special. We had seen many spectacular landscapes in the past few days and this train ride didn’t add anything new to that. The train fare was quite expensive, I think touring this area by car is much cheaper and you get the same views. Without all the tunnels 🙂

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The inside of the train

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Nice views from the train.

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What I did find funny was that five minutes after we left, the train stopped because there was a sheep on the railway track. The train driver got out of his cabin and tried to scare the sheep off the track. After a few minutes, we continued our journey. The train stopped a few times, to give the passengers the opportunity to take pictures. We also stopped at a waterfall for 5 minutes, people could go outside to take photos.

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A sheep on the railroad track.

 

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The train stopped for 5 minutes at a waterfall.
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At the waterfall.

The Flåm Railway felt a bit like a tourist trap, to be honest. What made it interesting for me, was the thought of all the handwork that was done to build this railway long ago.

A few hours later, we were in Oslo again. I have already written a few blogs on Oslo, but we discovered more interesting places on the last days of our trip. More in my next blog!