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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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/.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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!
The city of Bergen is, besides a fantastic place, also the starting point of many cruises and boat trips through the fjords. And how could we not visit the fjords while in Norway? We had arranged for a boat trip through the famous Hardangerfjord with Norwegian boat and ferry operator Norled. The Hardangerfjord is about 170 kilometres long, making it the second largest fjord in Norway.
We got up early in the morning to catch the bus that left from the Bergen bus terminal and would take us to the quay in Norheimsund, the real starting point of the boat trip. The bus ride took about 90 minutes.
The boat was an open deck catamaran, which gave us the opportunity to fully admire the amazing scenery and natural beauty! I could not stop looking at the majestic mountains with their snow-covered peaks, gletsjers, the waterfalls, trees, and the beautiful villages and settlements we passed along the way. The trip takes about 5 hours in total. The boat stops off at a number of picturesque villages like Herand, Utne, Lofthus, Kinsarvik, Ulvik and Eidfjord. The staff gives interesting information on the attractions along the way.
In Eidfjord, the boat docks for almost three hours. Norled offered a 2.5 hours sightseeing bustour from Eidfjord to Hardangervidda Nature Centre and Voringsfoss waterfall, which cost about 40 euros. The other option was to explore Eidfjord and its lovely surroundings by ourselves. We didn’t have to think long about that, we decided to skip the bustour and go hiking! After 3 hours on the boat, we were in need of some exercise.
At the information centre, we discovered there are several hinking routes in Eidfjord. We were interested in the yellow route, that led us to burial grounds from the Viking era and the Iron Age. And again, I was amazed at the natural beauty we encountered: a river with a beautiful little beach, colored houses looking tiny against the mountains. The burial ground itself was not very special, but as usual with these kind of places: you have to use your imagination!
The hiking route took us about 2 hours, so we had plenty of time to visit the tourist shops and the local supermarkt near the Eidfjord quay. Then we boarded the boat again and enjoyed another 3 hours of spectacular views on our way back to Norheimsund. I admit we both felt a little tired. And we were not the only ones, many people were dozing off on the boat and in the bus back to Bergen 😊. I’m sure they all had sweet dreams after all the beauty they had seen!
One of the big differences between Oslo and Bergen became clear immediately after we had left the Bergen train station: it was raining! Not heavily, but still. We hadn’t seen any rain in weeks, it had been dry in The Netherlands for a long period (and it still is). And we didn’t get a drop in Oslo either. And now we were walking in Bergen with our raincoats on – also because it was only 18 degrees. The people living in Bergen were probably not surprised about the grey weather, since the city has about 260 raindays a year.
And that’s not the only difference between Oslo and Bergen. Oslo has the urban, big city feel. Bergen has more of a nautical vibe, feels more authentic, older.
Bergen has a few spots that are hugely popular with tourists. The first one is Bryggen, the old wharf of the city. It consists of a number of colored, wooden houses. Behind those houses, there is a maze of alleyways and courtyards. Bryggen is the oldest part of Bergen and is. UNESCO world heritage site.
Walking through the small alleys in Bryggen is like taking a trip back to the Middle Ages. Because that is when Bryggen was built. Bergen was founded in 1070 AD and quickly became a thriving trade city. In 1350, the Hanseatic League, an important conglomerate of cities and guilds in Northern Europe, opened an office in Bergen. And they created Bryggen, which means ‘wharf’, to stock all their goods.
The buildings you see now, are not the original ones, as Bryggen was damaged by fire in 1702 an 1955. But the houses have been carefully restored to the way they were in the Middle Ages.
In the old houses at the waterfront, you find mainly restaurants and tourist shops. The alleys are home to galleries and little cafés, and local crafts like a silversmith workshop.
Across the street you find that other thing Bergen is famous for: the fish market. Want to taste some freshly boiled shrimps or eat raw oyster, then you can find it here. There was even a tank full of living lobsters, and one stall sold whale meat. Not sure what to think of that. We didn’t buy any fish. Marco doesn’t eat any fish and also, the prices were ridiculously high. It was nice to see this place, but it’s really a tourist trap. No local would go here.
The centre of Bergen is nice:
We also visited Bergen fortress, at the harbour front. Some of its buildings are about 800 years old. Until 1299, Bergen was the capital of NORWAY. At that time, Bergen fortress was also the royal residence and political centre of Norway.
Also very photogenic is the Nordness peninsula, with its colored wooden houses and charming alleys. On top of it is the Frederiksberg fortress, built in the 17th century.
There is one other thing I will remember about Bergen and that is the Naboen pub (Sigurdsgate 4). We ate here two evenings in a row, because the food was so good and the atmosphere fantastic! They serve wraps with reindeer kebab, delicious fish and steak on a plank (plankstek), amongst others. And there’s a large choice of beers. Prices are very reasonable! This little cellar is certainly worth a visit when you are in Bergen!