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A Medieval Ruhr Surprise – Hattingen

The beauty of life is that you always find things that defeat any kind of stupid prejudice about any area in the world that is supposed to be boring, ugly or not worth visiting.

The Ruhr area is Germany’s industrial hub. Coal has been mined in the region since the 19th century. It has a reputation of being quite ugly. North Rhine-Westphalia, where it’s situated, is the most populous federal state, and in the Ruhr, city follows upon city when you travel through by train – and well-known, big ones, too: Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg. All of them have largely fallen victim to architectural catastrophes committed in the 1950s and 60s after being horribly bombed during World War 2. Although the area was Culture Capital of Europe in 2010, it is hardly your most obvious travel destination in Germany.

Hattingen, GermanyYes, the beauty in the world lies in how it surprises you. I at least never would have placed a town as charming and pretty as Hattingen in the Ruhr area if you had shown me pictures of it beforehand.

Hattingen, Old Town, GermanyShowers of rain had come down in the morning, but when Jan and I get to Hattingen, the sun is out in glorious early autumn warmth. The day is bright and beautiful and lies ahead of us in all its weekend peace. The first thing we come across even before we enter the actual old town is a church. We both have a thing for churches, and I don’t see us passing one by in our foreseeable travel life without at least checking if it’s open. This one is. Quite plain inside, beautiful red brick stone buttresses line the cupolas. We stand, just the two of us, and look up quietly. I link my arm in Jan’s and start singing. The acoustics are amazing, and the way the sounds ring through the church makes me feel utter joy. Stepping back out into the sunlight, there is one more little blessing hanging upon this day.

Hattingen, Old Town, GermanyWe move on and into the old town. Signs send the visitor through the centre with little information boards that explain any point of greater or smaller interest. I am instantly taken. There are half-timbered houses, some overgrown with ivy or wine, the leaves already changing colour into bright autumn red. The tiny tollhouse – which, we learn from the board, was never used as such – is especially pretty.

Tollhouse, Hattingen, GermanyOther houses are made of schist (boy, have I never heard that word in English before!), and while I might have thought before that schist would turn out rather dark and dull, it is shimmering in the sunlight. Medieval tiny streets are opening up onto small squares, and there is street cafe upon street cafe.

Schist house, Hattingen, GermanyIt’s a lively little town with people all out and about. We window shop our way through the main walkway until we see a tower to the side that looks like it might belong to an interesting building – it turns out to be the town hall.

Town hall, Hattingen, GermanySaint George, the city patron, sits proudly on its stele in front of it. In fact he is everywhere in the city: as a statue like here, as a mural in the old town, as a bronze in the entrance to the biggest church that is of course consecrated in his name. And that is what we’re off to see now. On we go down the small streets, following the church tower that is slightly bent and crooked.

St George, Hattingen, Germany Finally we pass through a narrow passageway that opens up to the friendly market in front of the church. There’s a noticeable memorial called Hattingia which commemorates the victims of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 that ultimately led to the unification of Germany in 1871. Jan comments that you don’t get many of those anymore. I realize how true that is. Commemoration of the World Wars has almost extinguished a living memorial culture that refers to anything that happened earlier. There are good reasons for that I guess, but I only just now realize that it’s probably quite remarkable.

Hattingia, Hattingen, GermanyLots of little retail shops line the square, not just the big chains you have everywhere. One we enter is, the friendly clerk explains to us, a “shelf shop” where people can rent space on a shelf or two to expose their own handcrafted items. There are scarves, pillow cases, little dolls and puppets, beanies, pacifier keepers, handbags, jewellery and all sorts of cute little selfmade giveaways. It’s incredibly unique and I wonder why us arrogant metropolitan hipsters always think that these things can only be found in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg. I had already noticed the many shops for wool and needlework all over town – Hattingen seems to be a creative place.

St George, Hattingen, GermanyThe church itself, a protestant one, is yet much plainer than its catholic sister we visited earlier. We don’t linger long but move on through the alleyways to come across more pretty houses, more cute shops, more inviting cafes.

City wall, Hattingen, GermanyWe finally end up at the old city wall. There’s another memorial that shows statues that are… interesting. But maybe I am a philistine. They surely have artistic value – they are supposed to remind of the history of steel refining in the area.

Iron Men, Hattingen, GermanyWhen we feel like we’ve walked the old town thoroughly, we return to the church square for some coffee and cake. The waitress notes our order down on a plate of slate with chalk. When she’s brought us our cappuccinos and cake (which is heavenly, I should add!), she sits with a friend and starts knitting. It’s beautifully down to earth, unpretentious and comforting in its comfortableness.

Hattingen, GermanyAnd at the end of the day, it is Jan again who points out what makes this little town so unique and special. It is a small reminder that everything has always been here much longer than we think. The Ruhr didn’t come into existence with industrialization. It’s been around as long as any other place. And Hattingen shows us part of the region’s history that is much older than 200 years.

Spiritual Places in Hercegovina

The reason that Bosnia and Hercegovina is equally as complicated as it is beautiful is hard to explain, and I am the last person to claim that it can even be understood at all. Part of it, however, is how nationalities and religion are weirdly intertwined in the Balkans. Talking about a Croat means talking about someone who is Catholic, a Serb is someone who is orthodox, and a Bosniak is Muslim. A Bosnian Croat is a Catholic from Bosnia, and a Bosnian Serb is an Orthodox from Bosnia. Adding to the confusion quite a few of the people there are not even that religious. They grew up in Yugoslav communism and don’t identify much with their religious heritage that was to define their identity in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Travelling in Bosnia and Hercegovina, however, the impact of religion on the country in its political and societal struggles is impossible to miss. At the same time, it is its multiethnic and multireligious history that founds its potential as a modern country that has an amazing amount of beauty to show. Today I want to talk about two places in Hercegovina that have significant spiritual meaning for Catholics and Muslims respectively, and that still are so fundamentally different from one another.

The first one is Međugorje, a small town that lives up to its name which means „between mountains“. It is set between the barren karst hills that turn the gorgeous green colour with thick forests only further North. About 30 years ago this was an insignificant village. Today it is the third largest pilgrimage site for Catholics in Europe.

Medugorje Cathedral, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaIn 1981, six teenagers witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in the hills outside the village, and some of them have continued to have visions of her ever since – or so the story goes. Not much is known about the nature of the apparitions, and they aren’t recognized as a miracle by the Vatican, but that doesn’t stop pilgrims from coming here – thousands of them!

Souvenir shops, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaMeđugorje has turned into a huge industry. There are souvenir shops upon souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, a huge sports centre, and a retail industry that might be unmatched elsewhere in the country. People who live here are wealthy, rents  and land prices have skyrocketed. A highway is being built from Croatia where a lot of the pilgrims are coming from. But it is by far not restricted to the neighbouring countries. They are coming from all over the continent, if not all over the world, to walk up the now so-called Apparition Hill, to catch the tears from the weeping Jesus statue (another miracle, supposedly) and to visit services in the Cathedral.

Rosaries for sale, Medugorje, Bosnia and HercegovinaSince there is so much commerce around, I have to say that Međugorje doesn’t feel like a very spiritual place to me. But I very much agree with Bata, my friend who has taught me so much about this country, who says, in a gist: „You don’t have to believe the miracle of the apparition. But 30 years ago there was absolutely nothing in this place, and look what it’s become. I’ll easily call that a miracle.“ Certainly the pilgrimage site illustrates how religious matters can influence the economy and thereby the politics of a region.

Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaThe second place I want to introduce to you is Blagaj. Not only does it hold the ruins of Stjepan grad, or the Blagaj fort, a medieval fortress that was seat to the dukes and counts of Hercegovina region – but also it is home to a beautiful Tekija. Tekija is the Bosnian term for what in Albania is usually called a Tekke or what is found on Wikipedia by the name Khanqah. It is a place for retreat and meditation of members of the Muslim Sufi Order.

Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaAs is the case with a Tekija traditionally, it is set in a place of natural beauty and power. The house is cuddled under the mighty hill that carries the fortress, right next to a cave in the cold stone. Out of this cave flows ther river Buna, shooting out with all its might. The place is called Vrelo Bune, source of the Buna, but the actual source is 19 km away somewhere deep inside the mountain. Satellites have been sent down there to find out about this after divers had unsuccessfully tried to find the source.

Vrelo Bune, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaI love Blagaj. I have been there seven times in total now, and my favourite moments were when I had time to enter the Tekija, scarved up and wearing a long skirt, sit down and listen to the forceful sounds of the river and absolutely nothing else. There is a scent of peace in the air, a quiet feeling of content that settles right in my heart whenever I go. The beauty of the house, in- and outside, is of great simplicity. Not much is needed here. Just an honest and open heart to hear the spirits of the earth and skies, and the voices inside of oneself as they slowly calm down simultaneously with the body. Yes, Blagaj holds a very special place in my heart.

Inside the Tekija, Blagaj, Bosnia and HercegovinaDon’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Međugorje is a bad place while Blagaj is wonderful. There are places sacred to Christianity in the world that really speak to me as well – not least in the Balkans! And Međugorje certainly has that feel, that indiscribable aura. It is just a lot more frequented and, as I said, commercialized which I find a bit unfortunate, but that is certainly a very personal thing. Both places are absolutely worth a visit, and both tell a lot about Hercegovina’s history and its situation today.

What are spiritual places you have visited? And how have they spoken to you?

Fieldstone Churches in Brandenburg

Last week I had a day so bad that I knew right away that it was time to take some distance, get out, and leave my job and my life behind for one day of discovery and enjoyment. I rented a car, not knowing where I wanted to go. Just out.

Blossoms, Lindow, GermanyI picked up the VW Polo at Alexanderplatz and took random turns through the city. Finally there was a sign directing me towards the Autobahn. I took that turn. On the Autobahn there was a sign toward Stralsund. I knew I probably wouldn’t make it that far, but I love that town, so I followed it off of the Autobahn. And then all there was were rape fields, lakes, forests, and a horizon so wide that it made my heart jump.

Rape Fields, Brandenburg, GermanyThere is something about rape fields. The bright yellow spreading for miles and miles like an overdimensional carpet. I’ve often met southerners who think Northern Germany’s landscapes were boring due to the lack of hills and mountains. Well not to me they aren’t. There is nothing like the tree lined alleys and the  contrast of juicy green grass, the intense blue skies sprinkled with white cotton clouds and golden yellow rape.

I felt so wonderfully free, there was music on the radio, and the day awaited me with nothing but beauty to show. I spotted a gorgeous small church in the distance – so I took a few turns and went there to take pictures. The signs told me I was in Herzberg – wasn’t a village that had the word Herz, heart, in it, the perfect first stop.

Herzberg, Germany

Fieldstone church in Herzberg

There is fieldstone churches galore in the Northeastern part of the country. A lot of them are not well-kept, but this one must have been recently restored. The little cemetery was lovingly cared for, fresh flowers lined the graves, and daisies and dandelions drew patterns on the lawn. Someone was laying new bricks on the steps from the street to the church, he was listening to well-known German hip hop singer Jan Delay on a portable radio which seemed unfitting for work on a cemetery – but I didn’t mind, I thought it was funny. The guy eyed me suspiciously as I entered the church yard. Surely they don’t get many visitors. I just smiled at him and he shyly smiled back. I booked that as a success. To my surprise, the church was open, so I took a look around.

Church, Herzberg, Germany

„I am the light of the world“ – the church altar and pulpit in Herzberg

The inside was every bit as pretty as the outside. The beautiful wooden ceiling with its dark red, yellow and grey colours was intricately done, and had me look up at it for a long time. Of course I was overcome by the powerful urge to sing, and so I did. It’s not like anyone would have been disturbed by it. It was just me and the presence of that unseizable something that is bigger than all of us – call it God, call it fate, call it life itself, I don’t care. I just know that there was something there when my voice rung through the tiny church.

Church, Herzberg, Germany

Levitating angel in the church in Herzberg

There were two levitating angels, one of which I stood eye to eye with for quite a while. Presenting his stoup, it had a mysterious look on its face. I say it, because it was weirdly genderless which I quite liked. Angels aren’t male or female. They are bigger than the dichotomies we use to grasp our lives. I felt like it was there to give me a small blessing and reassure me that I was watched over, but that I nonetheless had all the power I needed to prevail inside of me already. I left the church feeling stronger, smiled at the construction worker at the steps again, got in my car and drove on.

A few rape fields and shadowy alleys later, I found another church that prompted me to stop.

Radensleben, Germany

Church in Radensleben

I had missed the town sign, so I had to check my smartphone to see where I was (and I loved the fact that it was of no real importance whatsoever, but just my curiosity that made me do so!), and it was a village called Radensleben. The churchyard was much more overgrown than the one in Herzberg, but I loved its romantic atmosphere. The church was closed, so I just aimlessly wandered around the church.

Chapel, Radensleben, Germany

Chapel at the church in Radensleben

There was a brick stone chapel on the backside of the church. The low walls with the cross pattern in them allowed for a beautiful play with light and shadow, and of course all my avid readers know that I love red brick stone more than any other material. Moving on, I found a wooden gate behind which I spotted a small cemetery. As I pushed down the handle, thick cobwebs tore on it, and the door creaked loudly as though I was about to enter the Secret Garden from Frances H. Burnett’s childrens‘ book. Magic was about to happen.

Church, Radensleben, Germany

The cemetery behind the church in Radensleben

The small cemetery was partially buried in deep black shadow, but the sun still shone hotly on most of the pretty tomb stones. The daisies were so big that they bordered on marguerites. While from the front the church had looked somehow bigger and cooler than its sister in Herzberg, from this angle it radiated the simplicity I find so inviting about field stone churches. They are down to earth. They don’t look to impress with pomp and grandiosity. They just are.

Walking out of the creaking gate and making my way back to the street, my eyes lost themselves for a little while on the cute cobblestone street that the village arranged itself around. Deadstraight it ran into the distance, as though it lead right into eternity. Dusty, empty. Peacefully sleepy. No one about. The moment was perfect. But I think it was so only because the road promised so much more to be ahead.

At the next rape field outside of the village that lined the country road, I stopped, got out of the care and walked into the rape. The smell of nature embraced me, and I realized how very far away my very bad day was, even though it was only two days ago.

Point proven. Travel heals.

Mariella in a rape field, Brandenburg, Germany

Bremen – The Key to Heaven

There is a German city rivalry, maybe not as viscious as the one between Cologne and Düsseldorf, but quite profound nonetheless: The one between my hometown Hamburg and it’s fellow Hanseatic city Bremen. I am in a bit of a double bind there because I was born and raised in Hamburg, but my mum is from Bremen, and while Hamburg is unmatched and unrivaled as my home, I do have a soft spot for Bremen as well. If I must take sides in football, I even support their team Werder Bremen (but shh! Don’t tell my dad!).

Bremen coat of arms, Bremen, GermanyThe coat of arms of Bremen shows a key – and it is said to be the key to the gates of heaven. It is in the coat of arms because Saint Peter, who holds the key to heaven, is the patron saint of the Bremen Cathedral. Hamburg’s coat of arms has a gate, they call the city the Gate to the World, and when I was small I heard the story that the Bremen key unlocked the Hamburg gate. Either story works fine by me – Bremen opens the gate to something wonderful, be it heaven or the world. Or just its own beautiful urban scenery.

Market Square, Bremen, GermanyI went to Bremen to see family between Christmas and New Year’s, and I took my most amazing Christmas gift – my new camera, a Sony NEX-3N. I am only just starting to get into photography, and I am not going to give you a professional review of any kind (because I am not nearly knowledgeable enough), but I know that quite a few will be interested in knowing which camera took these pictures. I for my part am insanely happy about the pictures‘ quality and feel like I can now finally support my writing with images that are more than plain visual aids, but an inspiration in themselves. So I set out on my trip to Bremen intent on capturing some beautiful images.

Bremen bag, Bremen, GermanyThe day is mild for the middle of winter, and the sky is overcast as I make my way from the train station to the city centre. Shamefully I must admit that I don’t know Bremen well, so I need to use my phone for orientation, but it isn’t difficult. Once pointed in the right direction, I just let myself drift a little and quickly find the market square with its beautiful cathedral – to me, one of the prettiest churches in Germany – and the town hall in its red brick beauty.

Town Hall, Bremen, Germany

Eastern facade of the Bremen town hall

I love the Northern German market squares. I love market squares in general, but the ones in Nothern Germany are wide and open and not cozy and overloaded with quirky architectural knickknack. I could linger here forever amidst the pretty buildings and do people watching. On I go toward the cathedral.

Cathedral, Bremen, Germany

Bremen Cathedral

There has been a church in this place since 789 A.D.! No, there is no 1 missing in that number. Yes, that is over 1200 years ago. It was wooden then, the first stone construction came about in the 11th century – that is still a really long time ago… My mum had her confirmation here, and I feel a strange deep connection with the church. Maybe it is the blood red net vault, or generally the intense colours of blue and gold against whitewashed walls. Not even the fact that it isn’t a red brick church can turn me against it.

Schnoor, Bremen, GermanyAfter having lingered on the market square for a little while, I make my way toward the Weser River /for what would a Hanseatic City be without the water!), say hi quickly and take a picture of the bridge I find there, which is soon bound to be on my Bridges on Sundays series 🙂 and then I am happy to roam the Schnoor, an amazingly pretty narrow lane in a riverside district by the same name. The word is lower German for „string“, and strings were what used to be made in this area.

Schnoor, Bremen, GermanyToday the small houses that line the tiny alleyway house souvenire shops and coffee places, and tourists are all around. I still like the cobble stone and the occasional half timber, and all the details you can spot on the facades.

Schnoor, Bremen, Germany Schnoor, Bremen, Germany

The Schnoor is a place for those who want to discover small, random trifle; little things that might escape someone else’s eye, like decorations or inscriptions or grown over reliefs on house walls. It also invites for getting lost in the little aisles and walkways of the quarter, and to dream yourself away to hundreds of years ago when fishermen would live here, in close proximity of the river, and it would smell of salt water and fish and harbour.

Schnoor, Bremen, GermanyMy time for discovering and photo hunting in Bremen is all too limited, but by the time I must leave to get to my family meet up, the sun has emerged and flooded the city with slightly golden bright winter light. I take another picture of the market square, of the townhall bathed in sunshine.

Town Hall, Bremen, GermanyThe way the shadows creep uopn the building, claiming it, while the sun still triumphs over them and makes the red bricks shine colourfully, looks so beautiful to me. The line between shadow and light – between evil and good? sad and happy? mournful and hopeful? – is so clear cut, so nicely absolute, radical, no grey zone, nothing that is hard to grasp or define. Life is much more complex than that. But beauty, very often, is plain and simple. It is just there. All around.

A Belgian Revelation – Brussels‘ Architecture

Brussels came to me as a shock. Why is that? Because I didn’t expect anything. Certainly not anything outstandingly beautiful. But boy, was I wrong! I must admit that this part of Central Western Europe is a bit of a mystery to me. Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg are blind spots on my map so far. Brussels thus had all the more of a chance to sweep me off my feet, and it took it.

Panoramic View, Brussels, Belgium

View from Parking 58 in Brussels. An amazing 360 degrees round view completely for free!

Being in town for work, I didn’t have an infinite amount of time on my hands; but it was more than I have had in a while. Not only did I discover an unknown place, I also spent some much needed quality me-time. I didn’t have an agenda, but I just walked through the streets lined with beautiful buildings and took in what I came across. It did help that my first night in town I met up with friends who had couchsurfed with me in Berlin a while back and who gave me much appreciated insiders‘ advice.

Apart from the food (the waffles, the chocolate, the fries and the geuze beer were seriously amazing!), it was most definitely the architecture that had me quietly rejoice on my walks through the city. The first place I went to was Grand Place, or Grote Markt in Dutch, and I swear, my heart skipped a beat as I emerged from one of the small alleyways around it to find myself surrounded by sublimity.

Town Hall, Brussels, Belgium

The Brussels Town Hall – so delicate with its ornaments, and can you believe it is around 600 years old?

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Grand Place doesn’t just have the big and memorable buildings, but every single small house in it is amazing! No wonder it’s a UNESCO world heritage sight!

Unfortunately, my first day in Brussels was so cold that I couldn’t spend as much time in Grand Place as I would have liked. Instead I went for some hot chocolate and a waffle (heaven!) before I made my way to the Cathedral. I don’t know France very well, but I felt that the Cathedral was proof of closer proximity to it. I spent about an hour inside marvelling at the glass stained windows and watching art students draw the pillars and ornamental details – and again, if it wasn’t for the cold, I would have lingered much longer at the square in front of it that so majestically led up to the church.

Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels Cathedral

After the cool stillness and the white of the cathedral, the houses that could be found in any random street were all the more so colourful and enchanting! Be they combining white and red brick stone to an elegant whole or be they keeping their rough exterior resembling granaries, with jutties, counterforts and beautiful doors and windows. I could not get enough of it.

Brussels, Belgium Brussels, BelgiumOne of the most interesting corners was in the Marollen quarter where there are five tiny streets lined with social housing that are architecturally remarkable. I wish they built stuff like this in Berlin instead of lining up the gazillionth house full of lofts that no normal person can pay rent for. The flats had large balconies and the small streets they were lining were quiet and peaceful.

Marollen, Brussels, BelgiumWhat I like most, however, is the sheer infinite number of beautiful small buildings in the streets outside of the city center. Very often they are in Art Nouveau style and display pretty little ornament or an unexpected glass stained window in their staircase. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are everywhere, not just in the touristy streets around Grand Place where the crowds gather and take fries to go. As I stroll through those residential areas that are filled with these absolute gems, it is easy to imagine living here. Granted the areas that have them feel quite gentrified, but what can I say, I am not immune to hipsterdom.

Brussels, Belgium

As is the case so often, places are easiest to like when you don’t expect to find anything amazing in them. Brussels was unexpectedly easy on the eyes. I think it may be the most underrated city I have visited in Western Europe.

Have you been to Brussels? What did you think when you first saw it? What is your favourite architectural gem you discovered there?

Porto – A City with a View

When you look for a place to stay while travelling, you may be looking for the proverbial Room With a View. Seek no longer. I have a whole CITY with a view for you. Or should I say many views.

View from Torre dos Clérigos, Porto, Portugal

From Torre dos Clérigos, you have a perfect view of the former prison which holds the Photography Centre of the country today and is a beautiful building with perfectly morbid charme

On our first day in Porto, Julia and I make our way to the guest house (which, inspite of what it said on the internet, does not have heating and is freezing cold not only, but very much also in our room!) only to drop of our stuff and then go for our first stroll through town. We just head in the direction of the waterfront. I love getting lost in a foreign place – drifting, daundering, just following my heart. Porto has the perfect size for that. It’s big enough for you to get lost, but small enough to not get lost entirely. My kind of getting lost. Just above Rua di Vitoria, we find a lookout that seems to be there coincidentally rather than purposefully arranged for tourists. The views are spectacular.

View of Porto, Porto, Portugal

This first glimpse of the Cathedral won’t be the last, but the way it majestically emerges from the sea of red roofs in this moment is particularly touching to me.

The next day, Julia and I climb the Torre dos Clérigos, a beautiful baroque bell tower and a landmark of Porto due to its height and visibility from various points throughout the city. Cathedral, Porto, PortugalJail, Porto, PortugalAgain we see the cathedral and the Antiga Cadeia da Relação, the former prison that today houses the Portuguese Centre for Photography. I marvel at the colour contrasts – the grey cold stone of the bell tower, the bright red roofs beneath us, the blue sky and the white sunlight. I am not sure what I did expect when I came here, but I don’t think it was the red roofs. For some reason, so far they have seemed innately German to me. From now on they will be something I remember about Porto.

View onto the town's roofs, Porto, Portugal

View from Torre dos Clérigos onto the cityscape

On our third day, a day after our climb up the bell tower, we have booked a free walking tour through PortoFreeWalkingTour. Eugénia is a lovely guide, knowledgeable, kind and she obviously likes what she is doing. She sets great store by history which is my kind of thing exactly. Amongst many other places, she takes us to yet another viewpoint on top of the old city wall.

City Wall, Porto, Portugal

Standing on the city wall and looking onto Rover Douro and over to Vila Nova de Gaia

It is misty this morning, and grey. Fog lies upon Douro River, and the pinnacles seem even more barren, more lifeless, but in a way also more eternal, more ancient to me. The river is of that fresh, chilly blue and grey-ish colour, and it is quite still, but not clear enough to reflect the life at shore in its waters. The street you can see in this picture is the one crossing over Ponte Luís I into Vila Nova de Gaia.

Later, in the afternoon, Julia and I cross that bridge to set foot on the other side. It is strange to think that we we are in another city. But then, and don’t I know it, sometimes bridges connect countries, even continents, why wouldn’t they plainly connect two cities. The view onto Porto is gorgeous and much more romantic and charming than the one onto the more modern Vila Nova de Gaia.

Ribeira, Porto, Portugal

View onto Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia – what is mainly to be seen is Ribeira, the Old Town of Porto

Crossing back into Porto over the bridge, there are bridges to see in every direction. But the most majestic view is still the view onto Ponte Luís I from the streets of Ribeira.

Ponte Luís I, Porto, Portugal

View onto one of my new favourite bridges, Ponte Luís I

Porto offers amazing views on every corner – and they are all the more impressive in contrast to the secluded little alleyways where the houses seem to be closing ranks above your head. You leave one of those shady little streets only to find yourself out in the open, with the wide, blue sky above you and beauty abounds all around you. Always having to walk up hills is exhausting, yes – but totally worth it for the views you find.

Have you been to Porto? Did you notice a beautiful view anywhere that I have missed? What’s the most exquisite view you have come across during your travels?

Early Morning Rome – The Colours of the Eternal City

Four years ago, in 2009, I spent four days in the Eternal City with the family I had lived with in the US for a year when I was 16. It was simply an amazing city trip. My host father had organized tours of all the major sights, we had all the delicious food (oh! the gelato!!) and the weather was perfect. What meant by far the most to me, however, was having time with my second family. Even though I only spent a fraction of my life with them, they do feel like my dad, my mom, and my little sisters. I am blessed to have not one, but two families in this world who I love and who support me so much.

In the light of this, I was soaking up the company of the people I love and don’t nearly see often enough so much that my heart couldn’t even take in all of Rome. On my last day, my host family left around 6 am to catch their plane. I got up with them and decided to re-visit the places we had been to during the last few days, but this time in the early morning hours – without the masses of tourists and the burning August heat of the day.

Rome, ItalyThe light of dawn slowly turning into day accompanied me on my walk from Vatican City, via Piazza Navona with its beautiful renaissance fountains, to the Piazza della Rotonda with the Pantheon. The colours were simultaneously intense and almost muted – a weird twilight state, hard to describe. I took many opportunities to just sit down anywhere – on the pavement, if need be – and just note down my thoughts in my journal. I will quote from it below.

Vatican City Walls, Rome, ItalyI have a thing for inscriptions, or any kind of writing on the wall (pun absolutely intended). I call them word sights.  This one is a quote from the Bible in the Vatican City wall. How could religion not be omnipresent where Vatican City is? I was thrilled to remember my Latin well enough to understand it right away. This is Psalm 91, 11 – „For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.“ I was grateful that this inscription made me feel protected in this moment, because just a second earlier I had felt a tiny pang of loneliness after the last few days that had been spent in constant company.  St Peter's, Rome / Vatican, ItalyVatican City was incredible at 7 in the morning. I remember sitting and looking at the ginormous basilica for a very long time, marvelling in the light effects the sun created. My journal says:

I am sitting in St Peter’s Square, the place that impressed me so deeply when I set foot in it for the first time on Saturday. It still reverberates in me – the presence of an unearthly power. Is it Love? Is it Beauty? Is it God? Does it really matter what we call it?

I pondered deeply on religion sitting there, and the difference between faith, religion and the church. I won’t bore you with all my babble on it. But I do think that no matter if you believe or not, no matter if you even care about religion, no matter your confession – having seen Vatican City will make you see things about it that you haven’t seen before.

Rome, ItalyOn I went through the sometimes small and narrow, sometimes broader streets. One thing I regret is not having taken any pictures of bridges across the Tiber river – but I wasn’t the Bridgekeeper back then. All the more reason for me to go back, I am sure. I reached Piazza Navona still deeply in thoughts.

Piazza Navona, Rome, ItalyThe beauty of the Renaissance fountains was so perfect, so aesthetically impeccable that it was hard for me to believe it was not some kind of trick. The enormous dimensions of everything in this city extended to the beauty. It was unreal. Next to me street musicians played jazz classics in a group of a cello, a guitar, an accordion and a saxophone. Their style turned everything slightly latino-pop, and it added greatly to the relaxed morning atmosphere. Piazza della Rotonda, Rome, ItalyMy last stop before I had to make my way to the airport to fly back to Germany was Piazza della Rotonda where I took a look at the Pantheon. I loved the deep orange and red colours of the houses in the square. They contrasted harshly with the white marble of the Pantheon – The temple for all the Gods, as the name tells us. An ancient Roman temple converted into a church.

CIMG3135My journal says:

Beautiful and horrible: How vehemently Christianity takes possession of everything. Beautiful, because it creates an impressive case of interculturality. Horrible, because the Christian church thus makes a claim for power that might be deeply un-Christian.

Such were the ways that Rome inspired me to think. How is it that philosophising seems to come to me more easily when I am surrounded by beauty? In that sense, Rome made it very easy for me. I think I shall return, sleep during the day, and roam the streets between midnight and early morning every day.

Guest Post: Jenni’s Top 5 Museums in Armenia

Jenni and I started talking on twitter in the realms of our respective rotation curation of the @i_amGermany account. Her blog on museums, Museum Diary, is insightful and thorough and a true joy to read. You should also follow her on twitter @jennifuchs. Thank you so much, Jenni, for writing for me about Armenia – a country I personally cannot wait to visit!

Hello, my name is Jenni, and I write a blog all about museums. Many thanks to Mariella for asking me to guest post here. I want to share with you my favourite museums in Armenia, a country I had the privilege of visiting for the first time last year.

The Yerevan “Cascade”

The Yerevan “Cascade”, as it is known, is part of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. It is the most impressive sculpture park I have every come across, and  it’s easy to see where it gets its nickname from – set against a staircase with 570 steps and a 15 degree incline, a series of plateaus and fountains seem to literally cascade down the hillside, continuing into a park at the foot of the staircase. If all those steps are too much for you, there also escalators inside that will take you most of the way to the top. And it’s worth it – the views of the city are fantastic!

Yerevan Cascade, Armenia“Matenadaran” – Ancient Manuscript Museum

Located in central Yerevan near the “Cascade”, “Matenadaran” means “depository of ancient manuscripts” in Armenian and is home to one of the world’s richest collection of medieval manuscripts and books. The subjects span a broad range,both in Armenian as well as in many other languages. The displays include not only many precious books, but also maps and calendars, as also some displays on the restoration of books, and on the plants and minerals used to create inks and paints used in the illumination of manuscripts.

Matenadaran, ArmeniaArmenian Genocide Museum

Although it covers a rather grim episode of 20th century history, to gain an understanding of Armenia and its people the Armenian Genocide museum is not to be missed. The museum opened in 1995 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Remembrance Day for all victims of the Genocide, and stands alongside the Armenian Genocide Memorial which overlooks the city of Yerevan. Be prepared for an emotional visit.

Genocide Museum, ArmeniaEchmiadzin Treasury Museum

Echmiadzin is located in Armavir Province in Central Armenia, about 20km from Yerevan, and is home to Echmiadzin Cathedral, the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the worldwide Armenian Apostolic Church. The cathedral, dating back to the 4th century AD, is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and worth a visit itself. Right next door to it is the Treasury Museum, which displays rare and precious treasures of the Armenian Apostolic Church throughout history. One of the highlights of the collection is an alleged piece of Noah’s Ark (though sadly this was on loan elsewhere when I visited).

Echmiadzin, ArmeniaZvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve

Another beautiful cathedral I was introduced to, this time from the 7th century, was sadly destroyed by an earthquake, but it’s ruins were discovered and excavated in the early 20th century. The Zvarnots Historical and Cultural Museum Reserve tells its story. As well as visiting the ruins themselves, you will find out about the architecture and construction techniques of the cathedral, its artistic decorations, and its excavation and reconstruction (on a model scale). There’s also a small display about Armenian architectural history and influences across the country.

Zvarnots Cathedral, ArmeniaTo find out more about these and other museums in Armenia, as well as museums in the rest of the world, please feel free to check out my blog, Museum Diary

Gretchen’s Question, or Travel and Faith

In one of Germany’s most prized pieces of cultural heritage, Goethe’s monumental drama Faust, there is a phrase that has become proverbial in the German language as the Gretchenfrage, or Gretchen’s question. This now refers to any question that is very hard to answer, but crucial for the inquirer; a question whose answer has so far been deliberately withheld or even avoided. You know that moment in a fresh relationship when you come across something that might be a deal breaker and you are reluctant to ask about it – or be asked about it – because it might drive the whole thing with this new person to an untimely end? Yes. A classic case of Gretchenfrage at stake.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Places of Worship? The Blue Mosque in Istanbul is certainly one of the most impressive ones

The original question that Gretchen asks Faust in the drama is if he believes in God, or actually „Say, as regards religion, how you feel.“ Faust tries to wriggle out of it, prompting Gretchen to be certain of his atheism. Many travellers visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and many travel bloggers have written about places of worship – I myself have done posts about St Paul’s in London or the Cologne Cathedral. Yet the question of faith or religion is hardly ever addressed. I wonder if this is because less and less of us believe in God or if it is just a topic that people try to avoid out of fear of stepping on someone’s toes.

Studenica, Serbia

Studenica Monastery in Serbia – a deeply spiritual place

My one explicit travel experience related to this was when I got into a very strange discussion with a girl I met in Croatia. I wear a cross on a necklace – a bit of a superstition really, but also a small commitment to my faith. The girl saw it and asked me if I believed in God. I said: „Yes.“ She asked: „Hardcore?“ I didn’t even really know what she meant by that, but since I don’t fanatically run to church every Sunday, I said: „No, not really.“ She said: „Good.“ And then she went on to explain to me how every person in the world who believed in God wanted her to go to hell because she was a lesbian. I tried to tell her that this wasn’t true, that I have a lot of gay friends and don’t want to see any of them in hell (a concept I do not even believe in). She wouldn’t have it and we didn’t exactly part on excellent terms.

Dominican church, Krakow, Poland

My favorite church in Poland – the Dominican church in Krakow. They do student services on Sunday nights that are great for just the atmosphere even if you don’t speak Polish!

Personally I find my own faith to be a bit of a conglomerate of different ideas from various religious backgrounds. I was baptized Lutheran as a baby and had my confirmation aged 14. I went to a catholic primary school. I hung out in college with people who were into Hinduism. I have long had an inexplicable fascination with Islam. One of the reasons I loved the novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel is that the protagonist calls himself a believing and practicing Christian, Hindu and Muslim. How cool is that, really.

What’s more important to me, though, is that I have always put the values of humanity before the values of any religion. I actually think they should be the same thing anyway. I don’t believe it to be important what your God is called, as long as he gives you a few ideas as to how to live a good life. Anything destructive that religions do doesn’t go with the general idea in my book. The Oatmeal has really said it all in his brilliant comic How to suck at your Religion.

Ohrid, Macedonia

I had a moment of spiritual awakening in this church in Ohrid, Macedonia – a moment of truly being at peace with myself.

Now the beauty of travel is that it puts forward all the ideas of humanity that ideally religion should enhance as well, and more than that – travel can help you learn about what you believe in. And I don’t just mean that in terms of denomination – but that too. I learned so much about Islam when I was in Bosnia and Turkey, and it helped me understand certain debates that I only knew from the media so much better. I went to services in England, in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and many times in Poland and it’s taught me about the way that people celebrate their own beliefs.

It is hard to argue that in many cultures religion contributes immensely to the belief system of the people. Because of this, I think we should ask about religion more and learn as much about it as we can while we travel. Things are only ever scary as long as we don’t understand them. That goes especially for the weird fear-respect-scepticism mixture that I sense in many Westerners toward Islam – a beautiful and peaceful religion full of wisdom and love, from all I can say about it.

Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany

This is the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther started reformation by proclaiming is 95 theses.

When I had my preparatory classes for my confirmation 15 years ago (OMG did I just really write that…?), we discussed the concept of sin. I never liked it much, it had the whole guilt trip thing about it. My pastor explained to us that the German word for it, Sünde, is related to the word Sund – in English sound, a strait of water in an ocean between two landmasses. When we sin, we put a sound between us and another person (or, if you will, between us and God), we divide ourselves from others, we cease to be whole. In that explanation, the concept of sin made sense to me for the first time. And if we accept that this is so, then forgiveness means to build a bridge over the sound that has been created so that we can come together again. And once again the bridge is the symbol that, for me, sets everything right.

What do you think? Do you believe in God? Have you been confronted with questions of faith when you travelled? Do you talk to people about religion when you travel?

The Rough Charms of Nottingham

Inspite of my recent train ride from hell, I feel unspeakably lucky for why I took it – a spontaneous weekend trip to see Andrew in Nottingham. Although it had never been on my list, I at once got excited about going to the city that is mainly famous for Robin Hood. I don’t know England particularly well and any chance to change that fact was more than welcome.

Andrew has a whole program planned out for us, which is honestly something I have to get used to after such a long time of solotravel. I don’t just walk wherever I feel like going, but I follow Andrew around who has known this town for his entire life. I feel a bit like relinquishing control, and the die-hard solotraveller in me comes through as I think of a quote from my favourite sitcom, Friends: „‚Relinquish‘ is just a fancy word for ‚lose‘.“ But in the course of the weekend I will get used to that feeling and learn to enjoy being shown stuff as an alternative model to discovering everything on my own.

Rhododendron at Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, England First on the list of Nottingham sights is Wollaton Hall. The city bus takes us through a quiet area of the city with the significantly British low-roofed houses. Most of them are made from red brick stone, my love for which I have mentioned numerous times. It is somewhat idyllic – not quite in the nostalgic, idealizing sense of the word, but it seems quiet and settled and in a calming way uneventful.

Wollaton Hall is a country house that starred as Wayne Manor in Christopher Nolan’s last Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. There is pleasantly little annoying advertisement that mentions that. I am guessing that the place could get more visitors if it played more on the „Home of Batman“ bonus, but I’m glad it doesn’t. The walk around the lake with the rhododendron in rich lilac blossom dipping into the water, families with excited children and scout groups, and all the while the view of the architectural marvel on the hill in its majestic beauty make for a wonderful introduction to Nottingham – although this is a different world from the bustling city center, an alternate space where time seems to have stood still for a hundred years.

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, England

After the peace and quiet of the immense manor park, the city center seems almost crowded, although it is still rather quiet for me, being used to Berlin. We walk around the Old Market Square and I try to feel myself into the place – it is difficult for some reason. Elements of the cityscape seem familiar, but in combination they make for something that feels more foreign than many places I have encountered in Eastern Europe. Again I muse how people think that Eastern Europe is a world away, when it’s not. I perceive Nottingham to be much more foreign to me than, say, Gdansk. It’s somehow – uncontinental. That is the only word I can come up with.

Old Market Square, Nottingham, EnglandWe walk uphill towards the castle and pass by the Robin Hood monument. Being a child of the 90s, his legend is familiar to me mainly from the Kevin Costner film, as I must only half bashfully admit. So I try to reenact the scene where Maid Marian distracts Robin from shooting his arrow straight by breathing a kiss on his wrist.

Robin Hood Monument, Nottingham, EnglandNottingham Castle costs money to enter, but through the gates the flower beds and little paths up to the proud stone walls look so intriguing that I really want to go in. We stroll along and up to the castle building from which there is a beautiful view into the wide country. Andrew points out different places to me in the city and my orientation becomes a bit better.

Nottingham Castle, Nottingham, EnglandView from Nottingham Castle, Nottingham, EnglandThe pretty church towers over in the city center call for me alluringly, and so finally we make our way back to close off the day by seeing them. After a quick stop to St Peter’s we walk over to St Mary’s. We enter the churchyard and approach the closed doors – and already I can hear that there is a choir rehearsing in there. I want to just press my ear on the mighty old door and listen to the saintliness of it. We find an open door on the other side, a small one, and I stand and peek through the door frame into the interior of the nave reaching up so high. Pure voices fill the space in unison, as they fill my soul.

St Mary's church, Nottingham, England

On our way between Andrew’s home and the center, we have walked past a bus stop that advertises a Nottingham image campaign – it says: „A safe, clean, ambitious Nottingham. A city we’re all proud of!“ I’m amused at this loftiness that is so unintenionally funny, but looking around, I find that I quite like the city. I am not head over heels in love, it’s not heart-breakingly pretty and overwhelmingly charming. But it is one of those places that to me seem to be honest, that leave you knowing where you’re at with them. It is attractive rather than beautiful, real rather than unearthly. Nottingham hasn’t ravishingly encompassed me like other places – but it has touched my heart.

What do you think? Do you feel Nottingham is a place worth a visit? Have you been? Do you think it has a different style from continental European cities?

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