vrijdag 19 december 2008

Hopeful news from the music scene?

Some glimpse in the darkness in today's music scene may be coming our way, although I try to not be overenthousiast just yet before the news gets confirmed. But in an era of musical recyclement, bad covers of great classics, short-lived hypes created in Pop Idols contests, ... one is more keen to believe in the hopeful news coming his way.
The odds look good that A Perfect Circle, one of my favourite bands, is not dead at all and is even returning from its hiatus. A Perfect Circle, which was formed in the late nineties by guitarist Billy Howerdel and Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan, has risen to fame with 3 albums (of which notably Mer de Noms in my opinion deserves a mention as one of the best metal albums ever) before going into hiatus in 2004 due to Maynard's commitments with Tool. Rumours about the future of A Perfect Circle have been ongoing since then but it seemed long time that there would be no future at all. "We pushed this project as far as we could, I think it's over," said Maynard himself during an interview a few years back. Worrying news confirmed by Howerdel saying that "APC is done for now".
Ever since, the band members never really indicated a possible return but also never called it an end officially. Maynard at some point said APC was over "until this tour with Tool is done" or that "afterwards we may do some APC". It all seemed vague plans and Billy forming his new band Ashes Divide did not seem to point at a bright futrue for APC. Until now, when Maynard confirmed in an interview that he and Billy are writing new material for A Perfect Circle. A few songs would be ready or in advanced stages. The news apparently would have been confirmed by Billy but I have not read an official interview confirming that. Maynard did not mention which of the former musicians involved with APC would be joining him and Howerdel when the songs are being recorded (very likely Josh Freese will be on drums though) nor if there will be more than just a few songs. He indicated the band would not plan a real album ("nobody is interested in those plastic disks anymore anyway" - no, Maynard, we are interested!) and take things song by song, with the internet as possible channel to release the new material. The same story goes for concerts: a few randomly spread occasional concerts but no real tour planned, although I guess we can hope the spark returns and leads to a full reunion including tour. It does seem that, whatever the output will be, A Perfect Circle is alive and well and the hiatus seems to be officially over!
In Het Laatste Nieuws, one of Belgium's leading newspapers, another rumour circulated. The paper cites that The Smiths would be "closer to a reunion than ever before" and that US based music festival Coachella would have asked the band for a once off reunion gig again, this time offering a sum that even Morrissey would not refuse.
While I am a big Smiths fan and would even fly to California to see them if only this were true, I am more sceptic about this rumour. Reunion rumours have existed for several years, especially linked to the Coachella festival. Up until now, it were just rumours but nothing even close to reality. Morrissey has always refused to reunite the Smiths, refusing a lot of money on earlier occasions. Famous quotes about the subject include that he would rather eat his testicles than to reunite the Smiths (note that Mozzer is a very fanatic vegetarian) or that the only way to unite the band would be to drag the members' dead bodies into a single room. In other words, since the famous courtcase in which drummer Mike Joyce sued the band for unpaid sums of money, the band seems to be over for good and without any hope of ever reuniting. The conflicts within the band are very severe and even if together on stage again it would be questionnable if it would ever be the same as in the band's glory days. With a very succesful solo career and new album and tour coming up, Morrissey also has no direct reason to consider a Smiths reunion. Maybe the most we can hope for is a future collaboration between Morrissey and Johnny Marr, but a full Smiths reunion? It has never been a realistic option so far.
So while I would love to see it happening, allow me to be very sceptic about this one. But with A Perfect Circle returning from a long sleep, there is some exciting happenings to look forward to anyways. 2009 looks to be promising as it is, with Placebo, Marilyn Manson, Orphaned Land and Echo & The Bunnymen all releasing new material.
PS: my Alphaville concert report is upcoming, so stay tuned.

zondag 14 december 2008

The Levellers set Palac Akropolis on fire

with my apologies for the delay in publishing this report :)
16/11/2008 : THE LEVELLERS - live in Palac Akropolis, Zizkov/Prague
One of the bands that, despite a lack of recognition in the press, seems to be unstoppable and never let the critics stop them from continuous recording and touring, are The Levellers. The English punkrockers from coastal city Brighton have been going for almost 20 years now and built a very loyal fanbase with their catchy combination of punkrock, English/Irish traditional music, and politically inspired lyrics that lean to left wing politics and especially a mild form of anarchy. Anti conformist, idealistic and guarantee for a party atmosphere, that is a short summary of why The Levellers have been attracting crowds from all different age groups all over Europe (plus a small but dedicated fanbase in the States) for many years now. The band has been going for nearly 20 years with hardly any interruption, if they are not recording they are constantly on the road with a very intense touring schedule. The line up also hardly changed for many years now, with most remarkable persons in the band of course singers Simon Friend and Mark Chadwick, violin player Jon Sevink, and charismatic bass player Jeremy Cunningham. During this European tour, three concerts in the Czech Republic were scheduled, of which the last one was in Prague.
The concert could not have been in a better place than the Palac Akropolis in Zizkov. Zizkov is a more or less centrally located area of Prague, one of the oldest ones (just spot the countless old houses, old apartment blocks dating from the communist era, etc) but also one of the most iconic ones. Zizkov is a nightlife district with a wide variety of options. The district is known to have more pubs per capita than any other area in the whole of Europe, and indeed the area has a certain attraction. It may look old and gloomy sometimes, but it still attracts with its vibrant atmosphere and wide variety of places worth visiting. Zizkov has a great number of artistic venues where young artists and an alternative crowd hang out, but the contrast with the many brothels and gambling houses only a few streets away is huge. But I guess those contrasts and that very special decor is what attracts people to come to Zizkov.
Palac Akropolis is a stonethrow away from the famous Flora shopping mall, the concert hall is in the basement of an old building that inside looks almost like a cavern. Many narrow rooms and corridors with each a few tables and a bar, it was special but it was cosy and charming.
The support act today was one man named James, an expat living in Prague for a while. His lyrics are in English but he did manage to get the attention of the crowd by speaking to them in fluent Czech. The man could maybe be discribed as singer songwriter but with a large rock attitude. Without any backing band, just his voice and his guitar, he still managed to create a very large spectrum of sounds and some excellent riffs. It was quite amazing how rock-esque this man sounded without any electric guitar or drums involved. Definitely a talented and charismatic guy, although I doubt many people will have remembered his act, as obviously the whole crowd was coming to see The Levellers.
The Levellers themselves took the stage shortly after and immediately chose for a classic to start with and get the crowd dancing. Fifteen Years, a song about a man looking back in melancholy while fading away in alcoholism, a relatively old song but still one that gets the crowd going each time. It is a typical Levellers song as well, with heavy guitar riffs with on top of that the Irish violin sounds of the fiddle. This is the classic Levellers sound that brought them fame in the first place, and this is still the Levellers at their best.
The more recent tracks, promoting the new album Letters From The Underground, then followed. That the band have still not forgotten how to write catchy tunes combined with politics laden lyrics or lyrics about the events ongoing in the world, was proven by their most recent single Burn America Burn, a song about the gun culture in the USA and especially about the bloodbaths caused by young people abusing the gun posession law.
And the gunman has just one round left, and he's saved it for himself
The cops are fighting, and some are on the run
There's a bloodbath in the school, and I've only just begun
The sun is shining, the days just begun
Start praying to your Gods, because I'm still having fun
More recent tracks followed, with a few older ones in between. Together All The Way really had the catchy and rocking sound that I appreciate so much about The Levellers. But then, this was one of the oldest tracks in their discography.
Generally though the newer tracks were a bit more calm and less heavy than the older Levellers work. The fiddle is still present in every song but often just collides with the guitar chords and becomes almost a background instrument. The new songs were absolutely far from bad and the lyrics still have that idealistic and society-criticising undertone, however they were just a bit calmer than the average Levellers track. The sound that really made the Levellers to what they were are the more heavy guitar riffs and pounding drums that create a heavy punkrock sound, coming to an apotheosis with an Irish traditional touch when the fiddle comes on top of the screaming guitars right at the moment when the music reaches its climax. This is the Levellers sound that has brought them the loyal fanbase they now have, and I somehow missed that climax and how the fiddle would come into play right at the perfect time rather than being a more constant less noticeable part of the overall sound in some of the recent tracks. It seems though that the majority of fans really enjoyed the new tracks, as the crowd was dancing as usual while bass player Jeremy Cunningham (his dreadlocks now long enough to reach his buttocks) was dancing and jumping around the stage as usual.
However, the audience was treated on some classics as well near the end of the setlist. First there was the uplifting Carry Me, and then a few tracks later it was time for their absolute signature tune "One Way", a song about the struggles of the working class, and about escapism out of the daily gloom by chasing your ideals and living life the way only you want to live it. This is the perfect Levellers track: meaningful lyrics, guitars that come to an absolute climax during the chorus, and Jon Sevink getting a leading role when right at the moment the guitars get heavier his fiddle creates a real Irish pub party atmosphere. This is a song that probably will never get old and always pass the hands of time, and it was a pleasure to see the crowd (with both youngsters and people well in their fourties) jumping around and singing along together that "there's only one way of life, and that's your own!". As has become traditional during recent times, a kilt-wearing guy with white facepaint and red hair is invited on stage to add some didgeridoo sounds to it. Great moment that really set the crowd on fire.
More classics followed near the end of the setlist, such as Riverflow as last song before the encores. Meanwhile the audience was also treated to a very old Levellers song that was embraced again as part of the setlist, the song "Belaruse" (note the odd spelling with the -e in the end) which is about the Chernobyl disaster and how badly it has affected the surrounding countries.
Belarus no longer feels the sun, but it's under the skin of everyone
Belarus, forgotten by the blind... that is until the next time
Remember all your yesterdays in the deep blue
before the world came and rested there on you
And if the sun and moon were both to doubt
Sure enough they'd both go out
When you can't walk in the field, feel water in your hands
You've been touched by the doubts of men
Remember all your yesterdays... in the deep blue
Before the world came and rested there on you
Some nice guitar riffs, in depth lyrics, and right in between there is the fiddle that almost creates a riff on its own and gives the song a really authentic Irish/British folk sound. It may be odd to add such an instrument in a song about a former Soviet country, but it just works to create a party atmosphere without forgetting the powerful lyrics.
The crowd was left screaming for more but also got what they asked for, with a 3 songs encore including two classics: Dirty Davey and maybe the second most known signature tune of the band, "Liberty Song".
They're trying to get to me, to take my liberty
No... Gotta go, go... Get out of here... You don't want me here... Gotta go go, get out of here because...
This means nothing to me, to me...
The way things were is the way I want to be!
Screaming heavy guitars, pounding drums, the fiddle that sets the crowd on fire as if the whole concert hall turned into a huge English or Irish pub for a moment, and the crowd all together singing along that nobody will ever take their liberty... It is an old tune, but it is catchy enough to never get outdated at all.
A great final of an overall quality concert, this was my 5th Levellers gig and once again they did not disappoint. Still, I must add the new material, while far from bad, is not the same as the old classics. A bit heavier guitars, and a better use of the violin (more on the forefront, less in the background) would have made them more memorisable for me. But for the old classics alone the concert was still worth the trip. Unfortunately there was no room for some other classics such as the very hopeful and dreamy What A Beautiful Day (a song about the power of escapism and believing in your dreams with a slight political sauce), Hope Street (the perfect description of what Zizkov looks like in fact: old dirty streets with gambling houses and many pubs) or Just The One (a song about alcoholism that really creates an Irish pub atmosphere - would have suited this decor perfectly well). Guess you cannot have it all...
While posing for a picture with bass player Jeremy and enjoying the chats with some other fans in the cosy basement of the Akropolis, I also had noticed the merchandise stand complete with CDs and shirts as usual, but also with Levellers scarves, all sorts of pins, and many other memorabilia. In a way this may seem a bit odd for a band which usually goes against the grain of our capitalist society, but guess we better ignore such debates and just enjoy the music. The band continues their European tour with some gigs in the Benelux left, and a full month of touring the UK in December.
- Fifteen Years
- Burn America Burn
- The Fear
- The Road
- Before the End
- Fight of Flight
- Together All The Way
- Death Loves Youth
- Sell Out
- Pale Rider
- Carry Me
- Eyes Wide
- One Way
- Belaruse
- A Life Less Ordinary
- The Cholera Well
- The Riverflow
- Far From Home
- Dirty Davey
- Liberty Song

woensdag 29 oktober 2008

London After Midnight live in Poland

About 5 months after the first live exposure to London After Midnight at the Wave Gothik Treffen in Leipzig and after a highly succesful US tour, Sean Brennan and his live band were returning to Europe for a new two weeks tour. The tour was named "The Un-American Tour", refering both to the critique of frontman Sean towards the political status of his homeland and the recent events involving the USA, and of course refering to the fact that this was actually a European tour. The live band this time was made up of Pete on drums, Randy on bass, and Matt on guitar. Only familiar faces, this means.

Those who are not familiar with LAM can easily find my earlier report on the Wave Gothik Treffen, including an introduction to LAM. Brief summary: LAM is the musical project of Sean Brennan, who composes all music by himself but is guided by a live band during tours. The project has been existing since the early nineties and has Los Angeles as homebase. LAM are most often linked to the gothic scene by music critics, something however which is not really appreciated and considered as pointless tagging by the people involved with the project. LAM are quite famous for their social and political statements in their music and during other ways of communication with the fans. The bands last album, Violent Acts of Beauty, had a very heavy political undertone even more so than earlier albums who however had their songs with political statements just as well.

The first gig of the tour was actually in Berlin goth club K17, ironically the place where I first got exposed to LAM when the DJ played their iconic song Sacrifice. I was entranced from the start, and a few songs on internet later (most notably my favourite "Where Good Girls Go To Die") I had purchased several LAM albums already. The WGT experience, including a very brief encounter with Sean and Randy, tasted for more. The circle would have been round when attending the gig in Berlin, but unfortunately this was not an option due to not being in the city for now. I however was not willing to miss out on this tour and soon found an alternative to see the band live: Warsaw. I had never been there, I had a day off the next day, this was perfect. Ticket was booked a two weeks in advance when the concert promotor rang me the night before, announcing there were financial problems within the club and LAM would very likely not play. I was very disappointed but at the same time hardly believed the story as the LAM site did not mention anything about a cancellation. As spending a day on train for nothing is less bad than missing a concert if it goes ahead after all, I decided to jump on the first train to Warsaw after all the next morning. A wise choice, because arrived in Warsaw I was confirmed that LAM would be playing and that only Clan of Xymox had cancelled their gig. The other bands scheduled for the night would be playing, with LAM being the main act and final act of the so called local Independent Festival.

It was a very long train drive to Warsaw, basically I left very early morning and arrived close to 6:00 PM. This means I have not had much exposure of the city, but what I saw made me curious enough to want to go back on a citytrip. Warsaw is said to be one of Polands less interesting cities because it was largely destroyed during the second World War. This means a lot of Soviet style architecture and modern blocks, but luckily a few historical buildings and squares were reconstructed in the original style. These few spots should give the city a nice combination of old and new with a touch of memories on the pre-capitalist era. The parts of Warsaw I did see were the direct environments of the (very big and, with many shops and restaurants, very vibrant) train station and the areas halfway the station and the concert venue. Right across the train station is a nice example of the more modern side of Warsaw, with a big glass building hosting a mall. A mall, but at least they bothered to make it look a bit stylish from the outside.

The concert venue was named Progresja, and is not only a concert venue but also a club. It is mainly orientated on alternative music, including gothic and aparently also metal. The gothic and metal scenes are very big in Poland. Progresja is not the biggest club but it was clean and cosy and it could host a crowd big enough while still being still small enough to have a cosy intimate atmosphere. To my pleasant surprise communicating in English was not a problem at all, and less to my surprise the female fans were a pleasant sight. Ready set go for a nice evening of music.

The first bands I saw were a few synth/wave bands from Germany and Poland, as I was more focussed on talking to security to see if there was a way to meet the LAM guys and say hello, I sort of missed part of the other bands gigs. The Polish band, Agonised By Love, was however far from bad. Same can be said about the band performing just before LAM, replacing Clan of Xymox as the Dutch goth icons had cancelled their scheduled gig at this festival. Psyche was a good replacement however, I had first heard this band back when I lived in Belfast and they stroke me as very interesting back then. Focused mainly on the LAM concert to come however, I again missed a few songs while looking at the merch salespoints and again asking security if briefly saying hi to the band would be possible. What I heard of Psyche was quite good though, with the exception of their cover of Joy Divisions song "Disorder". The original song sounds monotome, gloomy and cold, a perfect soundscape for Ian Curtis' tortured vocals singing about mental decay. Psyche turned the song into a more synth-driven slower song, it sounded more accessible maybe but somehow missed the cold and desperate feeling of the original song. However, the gig was pleasing overall.

By then it was clear London After Midnight would be performing and when at the background of the stage the introduction film to Violent Acts of Beauty began, there was no more doubt. Soon enough the band had entered the stage on a loud applause from a now very packed Progresja club. Clearly I was not the only one who came especially for London After Midnight, and not the only one even who travelled quite a far distance for this gig.

A first highlight for me was Feeling Fascist, one of my favourites from the new album. The lyrics spot on with their very clear political undertone, with "Ignorance is not a bliss" being a core message of the song, and a nice rocking sound. However, the third song in the set was an even more emotional moment as it was a song that touches me emotionally because of some own experiences. The very fragile and beautiful "Scatter" was next on the list, a song that never fails to reach my emotions.

You did it again, yes, you in the mirror
You put your faith in a cruel world
All my dead friends come to haunt, harm and hinder
Never letting go, here to drag me down to hell...

Those lines still amaze me and move me, no matter how often I hear them. Shortly after another highlight came, also from the Psycho Magnet album which mainly deals with themes such as emotional abuse and loss of innocence. The song through which I really fell in love with LAM, "Where Good Girls Go To Die". In Leipzig it was not in the setlist, but this time it was and it was absolutely great to hear it live. The guitar riffs just before the chorus, the haunting atmosphere and the beautiful metaphorical lyrics ... another one of those songs I never get tired of.

Where good girls go to die, that's where I'll be, waiting for my love with my heart on my sleeve
Forget about the future, it wasn't meant to last
My hands are cold, my heart beats slow
Thank God it's the end at last...

Next up we were treated with some new tracks from the latest album, such as the beautiful "Heaven Now" where Sean's warm vocals truly shine in the chorus, and the very political "America's a F**king Disease" which was accompanied by a video stating some less honourful facts about society and politics in the United States. The videos displayed on the background were all composed and produced by Sean himself, and the next songs "Republic" (a well-aimed stab in the body of the Republican Party) and "Pure" also had some fantastic videos accompanying them. Especially the video for Pure was really moving and a great work of art. I hope people in the audience massively paid attention, this work deserved a lot of credit.

The setlist was concluded with two signature tunes of LAM: "Kiss" (again dealing with the theme of emotional abuse) and the deeply romantic "Sacrifice" from the very first LAM album. Still a classic and a fan favourite after all those years. Despite some slight health problems stemming from an exhausting tour, the band treated the very vocally thankful audience to two encores. The evening ended with a nicely rocking "The Kids Are All Wrong", again accompanied by a great video.

Veni, vidi, vici. A great concert once again, and the whole Progresja seemed to share my opinion about that. Despite the exhausting touring schedule and early flights to catch on to the next shows in Greece, the band stayed loyal to their habit of never letting the fans down and coming into the crowd for signatures and pictures. I was able to have a brief chat with Randy and Pete and then spotted Sean in the audience. I was hoping to briefly say hello and maybe a very short chat, but to my surprise he agreed to (once all other fans had their signature and/or picture) let me go backstage for a brief moment in order to have a short chat away from the busy crowd. I was able to talk to him for a short while, which was absolutely great and a lot more than the short hello I had hoped for. Afterwards I ran into guitar player Matt who hung around with me and a few other fans and even invited us to an afterparty in the hotel (which unfortunately I had to skip due to having to catch the early morning train back). The guys in the band were all extremely friendly and down to earth and it was once again a pleasure to meet them and see how much these people really care about their fans. A sincere thankyou.

The trip back was exhausting after a nice without sleep, sleeping on a train is not that comfortable at all when being woken up frequently by random passengers and ticket controllers. But as tired as I was after the trip, I would immediately do it again. Going backstage for the first time, even if it was only briefly, was a nice experience but overall the whole evening and especially the concert was fantastic. LAM will likely be touring Europe again next year. See you all in 2009 and once again thanks to Sean, Randy, Pete and Matt for a great concert and for the meeting afterwards. And Warsaw ... too bad I did not see the entire city, but I guess the upside is that is gives me a reason to go back someday soon :)

Setlist LAM:

- Your Best Nightmare
- Feeling Fascist?
- Shatter
- Nothings Sacred
- Where Good Girls Go To Die
- Demon
- Heaven Now
- Beginning of the End
- Americas a f***ing Disease
- Republic
- Pure
- The Bondage Song
- Kiss
- Sacrifice

- This Paradise
- The Kids Are All Wrong

zaterdag 9 augustus 2008

The alternative football atmosphere of TB Berlin and the unexpected Dynamo visit...

Nicht alle Berliner Herzen schlägen für Hertha.
This was the inscription of a t-shirt sold at the merchandise shop of Tennis Borussia Berlin. Indeed, TeBe as the club is usually called, is one of those small Berlin clubs that survive in the shadow of the very popular Hertha. Maybe Union Berlin can still count on a few thousands of loyal fans, but other former "Traditionsvereine" such as Dynamo Berlin (the club from the former Stasi, the DDR police), TeBe Berlin and such have all slipped away to lower leagues and survive now as tiny teams in the shadow of Hertha. But they survive, even when TeBe is now in the Oberliga, the 5th division (comparable with the Conference in England, or the 1st provincial division in Belgium).
Today was one of those rare opportunities for TeBe to be in the spotlights for once again. In the first proper round of the DFB Pokal (the German Cup), TeBe received the visit of Bundesliga team FC Energie Cottbus. For once a team of any fame visited the Mommsenstadion again, and for once TeBe was out of its anonimity even if just for a day. As the Mommsenstadion was the only Berliner stadium where I had not attended a game yet, I of course had to be there.
Tennis Borussia Berlin versus FC Energie Cottbus. The game sounds a bit odd for a football game when you hear those names. The first team almost sounds like a team that has gone lost and ended up in the wrong sports, while the other team sounds like a factory team right from the communist era when most teams were linked to government institutions or companies. A bit of history.
Tennis Borussia Berlin is not named like that by coincidence. The club was founded in 1902 and is one of the oldest clubs in the country. It started off as an omni-sports club where table tennis and tennis played an important role. Throughout the years, the tennis became less and less important while the football branch of the club became the most prominent team. TeBe evolved to become mainly a football team and I am not even sure if there is still a tennis branch within the club. But, to not just forget its history, the club stayed loyal to using the word "tennis" in its club name. The purple-whites have their home in the Mommsenstadion in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin, formerly West Berlin. It is in the outskirts of the city, in a very green zone surrounded by a lot of nature. Despite many relegations and financial problems, the club still survived without ever needing to undergo a merger, unlike many other Berlin clubs existing this long.
Maybe it is interesting to also look how such a club survives and how other clubs do. Hertha is obvious as it was always more or less the biggest club in West Berlin, apart from a few seasons. Hertha is the club for the masses and more or less non-political ever since the second world war was over.
Union Berlin is the second biggest club in Berlin, with attendances varying between 5000 and 15000. The club is from the Köpenick area of Berlin, former East Berlin, and was the club of the working class without ties to any political institution ; the popularity of Union lies herein that they were not connected or funded by the communist government. Their main rivals were Dynamo Berlin who were ruled by the Stasi, the secret police from the East German government, nowadays Dynamo plays in 5th division and attracts a very right-wing audience which is notorious for causing problems and racist issues (although this is a reputation that may not be completely true...).
And then there is Tennis Borussia, the last Traditionsverein to survive. Other older Berlin clubs such as Vörwarts Berlin, Blau-Weiß Berlin and Empor all died or merged. TeBe survived although it attracts a small following. The TeBe fans are known to be a quite alternative football audience: very strongly opposed to hooliganism or provocations and focused on football in a cosy atmosphere. The club also is known to attract some artistically minded people, and is not unpopular amongst politically left-wing people in Berlin. This means the club has a rather alternative following, small in numbers but a bit special. I must say this attracted me as well to attend a game of the club.
In the margins of those traditional clubs, more recent clubs have emerged as well of course, with Türkiyemspor Berlin being the most succesful and mainly attracting a multicultural and immigrant following.
Anyway, then there is the opposition of today. FC Energie Cottbus. Cottbus is about 200 km from Berlin and not too far from the Polish border. Indeed, former East German soil. In the communist times many clubs were linked to companies or institutions. Hence the many clubs named Dynamo (usually linked to the police of their city), Lokomotiv (linked to the state-owned railways), CSKA (army clubs) and more such clubs. I must say however I am not sure where the name Energie comes from, maybe the club was linked to an energy provider in the former GDR but I am not sure of that.
Energie Cottbus never played a role of much importance in the old East German league, dominated by clubs such as Union Berlin, Dynamo Berlin, FC Magdeburg and Dynamo Dresden. However, most of those clubs collapsed after German reunification and all of those former East German giants now play in the third or fourth league of the united Germany. Ironically, FC Energie however began to rise once Germany was unified and, along with Hansa Rostock, became the only club from former East Germany to become a more or less established Bundesliga team. As Rostock relegated last season, Energie Cottbus is this season the ONLY former East German club in the highest league of unified Germany. So we can definitely say the club has become a success story since the unification.
A short subway drive took me to the Mommsenstadion in the outskirts of Charlottenburg. To find the stadium was easy with big floodlights high in the sky and with many football fans drinking crates of beer in the woods between the subway stop and the stadium. You could immediately see TeBe attracts a loyal but small fanbase: even though they were playing at home, there were about twice as many Energie Cottbus fans hanging around the stadium. Also remarkable was a small group of Dynamo Berlin fans coming to the game. Why do Dynamo Berlin fans come to a game between TeBe Berlin and Energie Cottbus? Dynamo has a reputation of causing trouble during away games, so the police took some extra security measurements by putting all Dynamo fans together in the stadium, forming a somewhat bizarre "neutral fans" area. In theory I was a neutral as well, but I opted to stand in the Tennis Borussia end of the stadium.
Tennis Borussia used to play in the second Bundesliga at some point, long before they dropped to the Oberliga (5th division) where they are now. The Mommsenstadion can hold just below 15000 fans and is a memory of how big TeBe used to be. Now, the stadium is often looking very empty as TeBe plays its home games in 5th division for 500 to 1000 fans average. Today however, with some neutrals and many Cottbus fans who made the short travel, something like 3500 fans attended the game (I estimate that, with guests and VIPs included, it were more than 4000). TeBe used this opportunity handy and invited several local companies to have a small information spot in the stadium. Handy way to get some extra cash out of this one game they were receiving a decent crowd.
The stadium has, like many German stadiums, an athletics track around the pitch. I really dislike that. Other than that though, it was OK. A nice big stand with seats with a nice roof and comfortable seats. Underneath a paddock where the TeBe die-hards were standing. Behind the goal were curved terraces, and opposite of the main stand was the big terrace where the Cottbus fans (I estimate at least a small 1000) gathered. The unexpected Dynamo Berlin fans were, surrounded by police, gathering behind the goal. In fact this stadium looks nice really, especially with a nice forest-esque environment surrounding it. The terraces and the main stand are nice, and so is the VIP room where I managed to have a small look. The only bizarrity: none of the terraces have a roof, this privilege is only for those who pay to have a seat on the main stand. Also remarkable: a hypermodern scoreboard displaying the logos of both clubs and pictures of all players ; this may be common in professional teams' stadiums but for a 5th division team this is rather unusual.
So the stadium was nice. And yes, the somewhat alternative image of the TeBe fans is correct to a certain extent. If they are really left-wing is not sure to me, I did not discuss any politics. If artists and alternatives are drawn to TeBe is also not entirely sure to me, but it is likely to be true as I saw several somewhat eccentric people walking around the terraces and the fans all looked very calm. Not very vocally present, but just enjoying a chat and a cosy atmosphere. The non-hooligan and non-provocative image is 100% true and for that alone I respect their fans a lot (I dislike the tribalist terrace culture you often see at bigger clubs). And looking at the few somewhat eccentric fans (not large in numbers but still a few) the artistic image may be true, but I am unsure. I liked the atmosphere though, it was very friendly.
Also, before the game songs such as "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC and "A Love Like Blood" by Killing Joke (a band popular in the goth culture) were played. I never heard that before in a stadium but I loved it! Also, a version of the Ramones' classic "Blitzkrieg Bop" with alternative lyrics about TeBe was played. Yes, the alternative/artistic image of TeBe fans will probably be correct as well.
The fans of Energie Cottbus were more typical football fans: very vocally present and colourful. At some point during the game they even danced the pogo on the stands. Yes, the pogo... :)
All ingredients were there for a nice football evening. The only question was: how would a 5th division team be able to compete with a fully professional Bundesliga team used to play teams like Bayern München, Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen?? TeBe probably had entered the field with little hopes of winning and with the main target to just leave the pitch with the heads up high.
In the first 10 minutes the difference in leagues was not that clear really. Cottbus did play more on the half of TeBe and had more possession, but they were not that dangerous and TeBe did try to counter-attack whenever they had the chance. The first few tiny chances were for Energie, with a few shots from distance that missed the target. TeBe saw a free kick from Fuß (what an appropriate name for a soccer player) easily saved by Energie goalkeeper Tremmel. Another TeBe shot from distance also missed the target.
TeBe comfortably survived at first but almost brought itself in a nasty situation when a long ball from Cottbus was reaching a defender from TeBe who, despite no Cottbus player being near, headed the ball into corner and thereby narrowly missed his own goalpost. With a bit less luck this was one of the most silly own-goals you could imagine, but "die Borussen" got away with it. However, on the 20th minute Cottbus did as expected open the score when Pavicevic's cross from the right was shot into the net from close range by Rangelov at the first post. No chance at all for goalkeeper Stillenmunkes.
TeBe defended well and do receive credit for never giving up, but it was clear that their opposition was a bit too strong. A rare chance for the 5th division team was a free kick for Ahmetcik who shot the ball only narrowly over the Energie goal from 20m.
But only 7 minutes after the opening goal, Energie Cottbus doubled the score. Skela dropped the ball over the entire TeBe defense and saw Branko Jelic, with only the goalkeeper in front of him, volley the ball in the net via the far post. A great goal as the ball came at a difficult height but rather than controlling, Jelic chose a volley and made it a superb goal. 0-2 and in fact the winner was known at that point. The remainder of the first half, apart from a weak header from Cottbus, was not really worth mentioning: Cottbus knew victory was assured and easily controlled the game, while TeBe tried their best but clearly was not good enough.
The second half was basically Energie Cottbus controlling the game, with TeBe just trying to play a decent game. Jelic slipped through the defense after 10 minutes and was brought down in the box, the referee somehow failed to award a penalty kick. Little protest however with the Energie team in nice orange away jerseys, they felt sure of victory anyway.
There was little to see on the pitch, but unfortunately there was a lot to see aside the pitch. The Dynamo fans unfortunately confirmed what people feared: the few Dynamo fans who somehow attended the game, had come to cause trouble. In the zone where the approx 20 or 30 Dynamo fans gathered, suddenly people starting kicking and pushing bystanders, a lot of policemen rushed to that section of the stadium to interfere. Unfortunately this was not the end: some of those "fans" managed to run away into the area of the stadium where the (very well behaving) Cottbus fans were and starting attacking a few Cottbus fans. A very large number of policeman had to come in between to keep the hooligans away from the normal fans and avoid very serious riots, but some kicking and fighting did occur. I am not sure if people got arrested, but the police had to interfere in large numbers to prevent very serious riots. Such a shame that a very peaceful evening is disturbed by a group of hooligans from a club who was not even playing... I know, the majority of Dynamo fans are probably nothing like that, but it is a shame a small group of people were trying to ruin a very peaceful football night. Thankfully the police did their job properly before the riots were getting out of hand, but the things I see (I was luckily far away from the area where it happened) looked quite violent and bad... First time since I live in Germany that I witnessed violence in the stadium, and it is bizarre to see it was caused by people not even supporting the two teams on the pitch.
Once the situation on the stands had calmed down people could focus on the actual game again. An Atan free kick sailed over the crossbar. With 23 minutes to go finally some real excitement: an excellent shot from Angelov into the far corner of the goal was perfectly saved by TeBe goalkeeper Stillenmunkes with a very nice dive. Great save, followed by a rare Tennis Borussia attack resulting in a header from Griesert that missed the goal.
Although in fact it was long clear that Cottbus cruised to an easy win, the scoreline became totally decisive when in the 73rd minute the ball got stuck in the box but the TeBe defense could not clear it, Rangelov suddenly got posession and face-to-face with the goalkeeper he could no longer miss this chance. 0-3 and totally over and out.
Only 1 minute later it should have been 0-4. A rost cross reached Jula, who controlled only a few meters from the goal. This should be as easy as can be to finish off, but somehow he managed to shoot it against the post instead of into the net. A chance the average fan in the stadium would have scored, but with the 0-3 already on the scoreboard it did not really matter anyway.
TeBe never managed to make it Cottbus difficult but, probably also because Cottbus did not play at full speed most of the game, they were never overpowered and in fact deserved a consolidation goal as reward for never giving up. With 6 minutes left to go TeBe came very close to that 1-3 when Griesert's cross from the right reached Fuß in front of goal whose header from close range was only stopped by goalkeeper Tremmer just before the goalline. In fact this was the only big chance for TeBe and the only time Tremmer really had to save a ball. Other than that TeBe had some shots from distance who missed the goal, including a last efford shortly before time that curved past the far post.
0-3... Cottbus has an easy evening and TeBe did not get a very harsh defeat. "Our opponent is 4 leagues higher, but there is only a 3 goals margin", the stadium speaker said. So clearly Tennis Borussia were not uncomfortable with this defeat. The defeat was expected but they did the best they could and with a decent number of spectators they will have had a financially good day. The Mommsenstadion was nice, the TeBe crowd was friendly and cosy, the only downside were the "neutral fans" who tried to ruin it with their fights. When entering the stadium I was wondering why there was a large policeforce present, after seeing what happened I am glad they were there.
A nice evening after all, and next week the big games begin for both teams when Energie Cottbus kick off their Bundesliga season while Tennis Borussia begin their new season in the 5th division. For Cottbus the target is a worryless season in the mid table of the Bundesliga, for TeBe the target is promotion to the 4th division and slowly starting the climb back to their old glorious status.

zondag 3 augustus 2008

A visit to Magdeburg

Wir sind durch die Stadt gerannt
Ham keinen Ort mehr erkannt
an dern wir nicht schon einmal waren
Wir ham alles ausprobiert
Die Freiheit endet hier
Wir müssen jetzt durch diese Wand
Verlager dein Gewicht, den Abgrund siehst du nicht...
Achtung, fertig, los und lauf!
Vor uns bricht den Himmel auf
Wir schaffen es zusammen übers Ende dieser Welt
die hinter uns zerfällt
I am opening my diary entry with a quote from the song "Übers Ende der Welt", written by the best contemporary German poet/songwriter, Bill Kaulitz from the new German music sensation Tokio Hotel.
Why quoting Tokio Hotel?! Apart from the fact that I sort of like their music (I know this is a guilty pleasure), there is another good reason: today's trip took me to the only big city in the former GDR that I had not visited yet: Magdeburg, which also happened to be the city where Tokio Hotel were formed. Magdeburg of course is famous for a lot more reasons than having given the world Tokio Hotel. It was one of the most important medieval cities in the area and its town laws were spread across Europe known as the Magdeburg Rights. The voyage started at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a cheap 35 euro weekend ticket would allow me the 1,5 hour journey to Magdeburg central station. Achtung, fertig, los und lauf!
Magdeburg is not a big city, or at least the city is not that big. In fact I could walk through the historical center in less than 2,5 hours by foot and still see all historical places. Having been heavily suffering during the world war II, the historical sights in Magdeburg are not large in numbers, but they are nice. First of all the train station itself is quite nice as well. The walk from the train station to the inner city shows one of those things that former East German cities seem to have in common (when thinking back of Leipzig and Dresden): classy old houses and monuments next to hypermodern shopping malls and business complexes. It sounds wrong on many levels, but somehow it works fine and old and new go together well.
Most beautiful place is definitely the city hall (Rathaus) and the square it borders. The city hall itself is a beautiful building, a sober version of a baroque building with a few statutes. The whole square itself shows a lot of old houses of which one is worth a few pictures of your camera's memory card. In front of the city hall you can find the Magdeburger Reiter, a sort of big lamppost with golden decorations and a small golden statue inside of a knight on a horse. Not a big statue, but a beautiful.
We then cross a few more modern squares, including some Stalinist-esque architectures and a nice fountain, and then arrive at the main sight of the city. The "Hundertmeere Haus" (house of 100 seas). Why it is called like that is beyond my understanding, but it is a great sight. Describing it is hard because rarely you will see something equally bizarre. It is like a pink mansion with all sort of other colours incorporated, very bizarre shapes in the wall, balconies in a really bizarre form like you would see in a fairytale, golden domes, and all sorts of bizarre shapes and abstract figures decorating the building. Inside is a small courtyard with a fountain. Extremely bizarre but a unique sight. Opposite of this are a few old mansions that nowadays house a bank.
Also worth seeing and only a stonethrow away from this bizarre building, is the Magdeburger Dom, an old cathedral which also is a more sober version of baroque but still too stylish to be classified as gothic. It is considered a gothic cathedral and is one of Germany's oldest in its sort, but I would personally say it is somewhere in the middle between gothic and baroque. A great sight for sure. Behind this church is a park and a small promenade along the river Elbe.
So Magdeburg is small, the historical center is really small. It is smaller than Leipzig and MUCH smaller than Dresden. But it is still worth a visit, even if only to see the incredibly bizarre Hundertmeere Haus... This building alone is so special that it is worth the trip to Magdeburg. And for those wanting a small stop on their way to bigger cities in the area, strolling 2 or 3 hours in Magdeburg would be ideal as it allows you perfectly to see the entire city. Summarised: the city is nothing special and certainly doesn't feel like a big city, but the few nice buildings are still nice enough to dedicate 2 or 3 hours to this city.
PS: I was lucky that, although the heatwave was over, it remained dry and cloudless. So no need to go durch den monsun, hinter die Welt, ans Ende der Zeit bis kein Regen mehr fällt...
Next stop should be Istanbul although there may be another short trip added somewhere in East Germany. If so, updates will follow in my blog.

zaterdag 2 augustus 2008

Eisern Union in the Jahnsportpark!

Union Berlin hat nur 1 Heimat: an der Alte Försterei...
Since this season German football has 3 national divisions, while until last season there were only 2 nationwide divisions followed by the regional divisions. The brand new 3.Bundesliga was formed by a few relegators from the 2.Bundesliga, plus the best teams from the Regionalliga who narrowly missed promotion to the 2.Bundesliga. Amongst those latter teams is Union Berlin. The "Eisern Union" from the Berliner district Köpenick was in the running for promotion to the second division until the last game, when a 0-3 defeat versus Oberhausen terminated their dreams of promotion. But no worries, Union had long qualified for the new 3.Bundesliga.
This new "Dritte Bundesliga" started last week and contains quite a few nice teams with a long history: Dynamo Dresden, Union Berlin, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Eintracht Braunschweig, SpVgg Unterhachung, Carl Zeiss Jena, Wuppertal... they are all present in the newly formed third division. And indeed, Union as well. After their first game away from home in München it was time for the first home game of the season this weekend.
"Home" game is a bit questionable though for the Köpernicker outfit. Their own stadium "an der Alte Försterei" in the southeastern outskirts of Berlin was for a long time in danger of disappearing because it did not fit the standards for the new third Bundesliga. Several Union fans were outrageous: leaving the Alte Försterei was unthinkable and should never happen as it is a part of the club's history. A move to the Jahnsportpark where enemies Dynamo Berlin used to play, was even less acceptable. In the end the club found a solution: the Alte Försterei is being modernised so that Union can stay in their own Heimat. The modernisation is unique in a way: not only professional construction workers but also many fans who volunteered are rebuilding the stadium. Yes, the stadium is being rebuilt by the club's own fans!! The Alte Försterei will be completely up-to-date with modern security standards in less than 3 months and end of October, when Paderborn travel to Berlin, the new Alte Försterei will be officially opened.
Union can stay at home, only for 2,5 months while the construction works at their own stadium are going on, a temporary solution was needed. As no other options existed, Union will play 6 home games in the Jahnsportpark. Only 6 games and then back home to the Alte Försterei, this was acceptable for the fans as well. And thus, this first home game was played in the Jahnsportpark.
The Friedrich Jahnsportpark is situated in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, not too far from the city center. Prenzlauer Berg is, like Union itself, former East Berlin. It used to be a neighbourhood known for its alternative population including punks and artists. Nowadays it still is a bit like that, with many artists residing here and a vibrant nightlife with its many narrow streets and bars. The Jahnsportpark lies in the middle of a nightlife area so you won't get bored after the game... It is the second biggest stadium in Berlin at the moment, only the Olympiastadion of Hertha Berlin is bigger. The Jahnsportpark was used by several clubs in the past. The now defunct Vorwärts Berlin used to play its home games here, and Dynamo Berlin  as well for a while. Especially the latter was a reason why Union Berlin fans did not like the stadium: while Union was the people's club without ties to the communist regime, Dynamo was during the East German era the police club who often committed fraude in order to win trophies to please the communist regime. Needless to say the hatred between Dynamo and Union was big, very big. Since Dynamo left the stadium to move to the Sportforum a bit further down the area, the Jahnsportpark has served several clubs from several sports. American football, soccer, ... have all been played in the stadium. Hertha Berlin recently beat an obscure Moldovan team here (8-1) in the UEFA Cup while their own stadium was unavailable. Union Berlin itself used the stadium 8 years ago to play their European games in the UEFA Cup. From this season on, Türkiyemspor Berlin will have their home here because (after being promoted to the Regionalliga) their own stadium in the Kreuzberg area became too small.
And now Union Berlin are using the "stadium from nobody but for everybody in Berlin". The first 6 home games will be played here, before going back home to the Alte Försterei. The Union board hopes to use the occasion to promote Union Berlin to people living closer to the city center.
I had never been inside this stadium, only outside but with locked gates. I do remember the impressive sky-high floodlights, classic floodlights like in the good old days. Inside the stadium was quite nice actually, even despite the athletics track around the field. Because of the athletics track the stands around the field have an oval shape. Two stands aside the pitch have a roof (one of them is the quite high VIP stand) while the seats behind the goals have no roof. The stadium is an all-seater and, which gives it a colourful outlook, the seats are all in yellow-red-green. Yes, the colours of my beloved KV Oostende :) About 5100 Union fans have made the trip to the stadium, while opponent Stuttgart had brought about 30 maximum. If you include however the VIPs and guests who got in for free, you can say we probably had not much less than 6000 fans at this game.
Introducing Union is not really necessary, but the opposition today was far less interesting. The rules of the third Bundesliga say that maximum 3 reserve teams of 1.Bundesliga teams can participate. Union had to start last week against the reserves of Bayern München (and lost 2-1) and now another reserve team was the opposition: the reserves of VfB Stuttgart. Two reserve teams as first two opponents, you can hardly call that attractive games... (a third reserve team in the 3.Bundesliga are the amateurs of Werder Bremen).
I personally don't like reserve teams in the regular leagues. And today you could see again why: VfB Stuttgart reserves were supported by exactly 30 fans. OK, it is a long drive from Stuttgart to Berlin, but still. If this was the normal Stuttgart team there would have been several hundreds. Reserve teams simply don't interest or attract lot of people. Last week in München, the game between the Bayern reserves and Union Berlin was attended by only 3000 fans as well. Personally I would have prefered the likes of FC Magdeburg or VfL Lübeck in the third division instead of reserve teams of 1.Bundesliga clubs. But anyway...
The game started off with an aggressive Union team but apart from a lot of posession and mainly playing on the Stuttgarter side of the pitch, there were few chances. The first danger even came from the Stuttgart amateurs when a cross frpm the left narrowly missed their striker at the far post who could otherwise have slided the ball into the open goal. Union had most posession however and their noisy fans screamed them forwards. Gebhardt's free kick was the first good chance for the "Eisern Union". Shortly after Union broke the deadlock: a free kick from Gebhardt from the right reached Ruprecht who headed the ball into the net. 1:0 für die Eisernen!
10 minutes later Union doubled their lead: the Stuttgart Amateure did not clear the ball outside of their box, and a Ruprecht header was narrowly saved by goalie Ulreich. The ball bounced back in the field from the crossbar and Benyamina easily shot the rebound into the net. 2-0!
The second half was less exciting with VfB Stuttgart II being more dominant and having more posession, but they had very little chances. When they could not keep up their tempo, Union saw counterstrike possibilities. A Dogan corner was headed in by Benyamina but the Stuttgarter goalie saved. One minute later a new corner followed and this team Benyamina headed the ball into the net from close range at the near post. 3-0 and the Eisernen were now sure of victory.
Stuttgart's reserve team played well but was very sterile in attack, apart from a few shots from distance easily saved by the goalkeeper Glinker. 13 minutes before the end, Hofmann gave the Stuttgarter reserves a consolidation goal when he shot the ball past goalkeeper Glinker in the far corner of the goal. 3-1 but that latter goal was just a statistic.
Overall a deserved victory for Union whose fans seemed to have enjoyed their first day out in the Jahnsportpark. 5 more home games to go in Prenzlauer Berg, und danach ist's züruck nach Hause, züruck nach dem Alte Försterei! The home game versus Paderborn in the last weekend of October will celebrate Union's return home to the modernised stadium in Köpenick. Und niemals vergessen: Eisern Union, Eisern Union!
2/8/2008: 1.FC Union Berlin - VfB Stuttgart II : 3-1
Jahnsportpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin
Union: Glinker - Göhlert, Stuff, Ruprecht, Kohlmann - Bönig (80. Menz) - Bemben, Younga Mouhani (66. Dogan), Gebhardt - Benyamina, Biran (87. Patschinski)
VfB Stuttgart II: Ulreich - Schwabe, Kovacevic, Feisthammel, Enderle (82. Rahn) - Ikeng - Funk, Träsch, Rudy (82. Klauß) - Schipplock (46. Schieber), Hofmann

vrijdag 1 augustus 2008

A lot of travelling... from Norway to Poland

The last weeks I have had very little time to update my blog, partially due to some travels. I thought I would stir up the travel desires in you all and report a bit on my voyages.
First destination: Oslo, Norway.
Oslo is the capital of Norway and only somewhat big city (unless you consider places like Bergen or Trondheim big cities, which I don't). The Norwegian capital has approx 600000 citizens but if you count in the surrounding towns you will get well over 1000000 people. About 50% of the country's population resides in the capital city or surrounding towns. It is rapidly growing city and one that attracts a lot of immigrants searching for employment and welfare. The city has a growing expat population with mainly non-European expats such as Pakistanis, Indians, Arabs, Turks, ... While growing more cosmopolitan, the city also expands in terms of population which means a lot of construction is going on. Despite that, Oslo is still not a big city like some other capitals such as Paris, London, Berlin, ... Oslo still has the cosy feeling of a big town rather than a metropolis.
Those who know me, know that Norway is the country of my dreams. It has been since childhood, and it has always remained like that. Countries such as Turkey and Israel can be added to that list, I am a Middle East fanatic as well. But my obsession with the far north and Scandinavia goes back to early childhood. In fact it is mainly the north of Scandinavia that attracts me. Everything above the polar circle, and in particular the city of Tromsø which combines the arctic feeling (no sunlight in winter, no sundown in summer) with a vibrant city life, strongly attracts me. The north of Norway combines desolate areas with a few small villages surrounded by mileslong wilderness, and a unique scenery. Places like Honningsvag or Grense Jakobselv (nowadays a ghost town but it used to be the very last outskirt before entering the USSR ; a sort of arctic gateway into the communist world) are the true edge of the world, unless you include very isolated arctic villages further north like Longyearbyen or Ny Alesund. I still hope to relocate to north Norway someday, but meanwhile a visit to Norway is always a pleasure even when the voyage takes me to the more southern outskirts of the country.
Oslo lies in the south of the country, by the south coast. The city is quite unique because it is surrounded by nature, unlike many other capitals. To the north of the city there is endless woods. Take a train only 20 minutes out of the city and you're in the middle of nowhere. Even the train from the Gardermoen airport to the city center goes through some rural areas with only a handfull of houses in several miles. Knowing some of those woods are on soil that belongs to Oslo municipality, means Oslo is a very green city. To the south of the city there is a big fjord with some small islands off coast. This fjord is extremely close to the city center, you can see the sea between the shopping malls and buildings when walking along the main boulevard in the center. Only 5 minutes walk from the main shopping street take you to the fjord, where a lovely promenade along the sea and a cosy marina await you. A drink on a terrace overlooking the fjord, followed by a walk through the hypermodern architecture of the neighbouring Aker Brygge district is a very idyllic way to spend your evening.
The train from Gardermoen airport takes you directly to the National Theatre close to Aker Brygge and Slottparken, or to the central station in the heart of the city. Slottparken is the big park where the royal palace is situated. You can walk through the park and just come extremely close to the palace. There is no fencing around the palace, it is just a building in the middle of the park. Some guards will make sure nothing nasty can happen, but other than that you can just walk passed the royal residence without any hassle or have a picknick a few meters further in the park. At the end of the Slottparken you find the main shopping boulevard Karl Johans Gate. All modern shops and a few hypermodern malls are on both sides, as well as some cosy pubs and classy restaurants. In the middle of the big avenue you have some terraces where people enjoy a drink. In between the houses and shops you can see the sea, as the big Oslo Fjord is only a 5 minute walk to your right, with a cosy promenade and marina overlooking the idyllic fjord.
At the end of Karl Johans Gate you can find the parliament building Storting which is worth a few pictures on your camera memory card. Once past this building you enter the nightlife district with, apart from the huge shopping mall near the central station, you will mainly find bars and clubs. Cross the river to the left of the center and you come in the Grunerløkka district of the city which is known as the big nightlife area. Grunerløkka is quite different from the rest of the center, as it mainly has a lot of small streets with older houses housing bars and pubs. No hypermodern architecture like Aker Brygge or no big malls here, but mainly narrow streets housing cosy pubs and bars.
Oslo is not a big city, even for a capital it feels quite small. It feels more like a smaller city than a capital, because the city center can be walked through in less than 1,5 hour and it doesn't breathe the atmosphere of a metropolis. But Oslo is cosy. It feels cosy and clean, and it combines some hypermodern sights with natural beauty and lovely scenery a stonethrow away from the main shopping and clubbing districts.
The cliches of Norway are proven correctly here as well. Yes, the women are drop dead gorgeous and most of them are blonde! Yes, the nights in summer don't last long, it gets dark only around 11:30 PM and before 5:00 AM sunlight is welcoming you again. And unfortunately yes, the country is damn expensive. I tried to keep my expenses low, but to give you an idea: a glass of coca-cola costs about 3 to 5 euro, in more expensive clubs probably more. I am not a beer drinker, but I heard those cost over 5 euro often enough. Internet cafe: 4 to 5 euro for an hour, while in my current home Berlin it would be 1 euro per hour maximum. Hotel, while not a luxury hotel, was about 60 euro for a night. Locals do earn salaries adapted to the cost of living, but for tourists and expats not used to Norwegian salaries the city is very expensive. Recent polls showed Oslo is in the top-10 of the world's most expensive cities. So this may not be the ideal destination for those who feel like clubbing and nightlife. Not that options are very diverse in that area anyway, probably enough choice if you just want a drink in a cosy pub but I could not find a single goth bar and only 3 rock bars of which 1 would close down forever the night after my visit...
But, overall I like this city. Small but cosy. The people are friendly and the vast majority of them speak English fluently so you won't have any problems talking to locals. Everything is very modern but with a bit of searching you find some more historical sights just as well.
One downside I need to mention: while I would love to relocate to Scandinavia, jobhunting is not easy unless you want to work in fishing, hospitality or unless you have a very high degree as engineer or so. For regular office jobs, companies will demand fluent knowledge of a nordic language, even though the majority of the people in the city speak English fluently. It is very hard to find vacancies you can reply to, as either the language is a barrier or the demands include a bachelor degree or higher. Working in a pub or hotel is an option but those jobs are not available all year and often enough they want you to work a few days as a trial and start immediately when you are doing well, so finding such job while still being based abroad is also very hard. I hope to realise my dream sooner or later, but it will be a goal that is difficult to reach.
Shortly after my return to Berlin, me and a few friends decided to make a day trip cross-border to Poland. Destination was Szczecin, a town less than 10 miles across the German-Polish border and thus very easy to reach from Berlin. Note: because few foreigners manage to pronounce the name of the city well, the Germans have their own name Stettin for the city. As this is indeed a bit easier, I will resort to using this name ;)
To reach Stettin you just take a train from Berlin-Alexanderplatz or Berlin-Gesundbrunnen and this takes you straight to Poland. Stettin is less than 1,5 hour away. The weekend ticket cost us 35 euro and divided by 5 this means 7 euro each. Bargain! The train drive took us through the countryside of the former East Germany, where miles without any sign of civilisation were followed by very tiny towns of less than 4 streets. I felt fascinated to know what the people living in such remote towns do for a living... As we crossed the Polish border and left the train in Stettin's central station, it felt like entering into a different world. Even though the German border is so close, the differences are huge.
The first sights from the train station were very old houses that apparently did not get renovation or paint in many decades. It felt a bit like a ghetto: very old houses in a bad state. We thought this may be just a few less attractive blocks, but soon enough while walking into the city center we realised the majority of residences were like that. The city seemed full of very old buildings that really need renovation or at least a layer of paint. They all look in very poor state, maybe they look pretty inside but with this appearance outside it really felt like a bit of a ghetto. A few of those blocks were full of graffiti and did not have glass in the openings that should normally contain windows. I felt sorry for those living in those particular blocks. It was a sunny day and it all looked a bit special, but I can imagine that in winters when it is dark and rainy, this city can give a depressing feeling if you live in the wrong areas.
Another thing that surprised me: despite the German border being so close, hardly anyone spoke English or German. In the dining places we visited, we often needed to point at the food we wanted, after which the waitress had to write down in numbers how many Zloty we needed to pay (yes, Zloty... like most new EU member states, Poland will only introduce the Euro as currency a bit later on. 1 Euro is something between 3 or 4 Zloty). It really felt a bit like a different world in some bizarre way.
However, the city looking old and sometimes a bit grey does not make it an ugly city. There is still enough to see. Not that Stettin is a place full of beauty and history, but there are some places worth seeing for sure. We saw a lot of churches (a lot more than you would see in the average city) of which a few were really nice. There was a more cosy area which featured some nice restaurants and terraces, and a lovely old mansion with a courtyard that contained some really lovely architecture. On that courtyard a Russian folk choir was performing Russian folk music.
It is not the most exciting city but it felt totally different than the average German city and therefor worth a visit and still stirring up the desire to travel. Also, we had our oddities to photograph such as a true army tank in the middle of the city center streets, and a tram with the carriage number 666 on it.
Then a few trips in Germany itself. I won't comment on Leipzig as I already did that before, even though the second visit was just as pleasurable.
Potsdam was the first stop. A small city in the suburbs of Berlin, but because Berlin is a Bundesland (county or state within the federal German republic) on its own, Potsdam is technically another Bundesland and serves as capital of Brandenburg Bundesland. It has about 150000 citizens or slightly more. The city is only a 20 km out of Berlin so very easy to reach. It is a small yet cosy city with some narrow streets in the center which serve as shopping district. A few old houses and a nice city gate (like a miniature version of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin) gave the city center some nice sights. The gate is by the way called Brandenburger Gate, but definitely not to be confused with the big arch in the heart of Berlin.
The main attraction of Potsdam however, is the big park that contains the Sans Souci and several other palaces. The Sans Souci Palace is in the middle of the Sans Souci Park, only a stonethrow from the shopping streets. Sans Souci means "without worries". It contains a large lane full of nice statutes, a lot of green, many fountains, and several palaces. Nicest palace by far is the impressive Sans Souci palace which stands on top of a small hill with many trees and hagues between the stairs to the palace. The biggest palace is on the other end of the huge park and is called Neues Palais. About 5 or 6 other palaces and nice buildings can be found in the park, on both sides of the huge central lane. The nicest ones you should not miss are the Chinesisches Teehaus (a pavillion in Chinese style with some very nice golden decorations) and the Schloss Charlottenhof.
Saving the best for last then, as the last city I visited was probably the most beautiful one. Dresden is the capital of the Sachsen state within the federal republic of Germany. Dresden is in the extreme southeastern corner of the former GDR, very close to the border with the Czech Republic and less than 150 km from Prague. Distance to Berlin is about 200 km. It has almost 700000 citizens in the city proper.
Dresden is known as one of Germany's nicest cities in terms of architecture, but it is also a quite big city with many suburbs who each have their own character and some have their own sights worth seeing. To discover the whole city you need quite a bit of time, a Stadtrundfahrt (a tourist bus through the whole city) may be a good idea although the drive takes over 2 hours in total. The most central parts are the famous Altstadt (old city district containing all historical buildings) and the Neustadt (the new city district) and those are also the two areas I visited.
The Altstadt is definitely a must see. It is full of beautiful architecture. Old buildings and new modern buildings such as business complexes and malls go hand in hand, but the old buildings dominate the cityscape of this district. Most impressive is definitely the Frauenkirche in the middle of the market square, it is a beautiful old yet colourful church. Surrounding the church are a few opera buidlings, museums and other halls who each have an equally beautiful appearance with mainly baroque outlook. When going away from the market place you come in the Kneipenviertel where you will find a few narrow streets with many cosy restaurants and bars that, during the heatwave we experienced during our visit, have terraces all over the street until late night. Add a nice fountain and another old church next to the pubs and you get a really cosy feeling.
Even outside of the heart of the city you will stind find a lot of academies, opera buildings and churches who each have beautiful architecture to offer. Dresden clearly is a baroque city and this style pleases me a lot. The city center is not large, you can walk through it in 1,5 to 2 hours time, but it has a lot to offer with beautiful buildings and monuments on nearly every street corner. The Hofkirche is definitely a must-see. Just outside of the city center you find a very weird building with minarets in a more moder style (it looks like a sort of future-esque mosque) and the extremely beautiful Zwinger Palace, a huge palace accessible through a bridge over a small river and an impressive gate decorated with gold. The tower overlooking the inner yard of the palace is beautiful and the whole palace is extremely pretty to see. Don't forget to consume a drink or lunch on one of the many market squares in the city, enjoy a drink or meal surrounded by the fantastic architecture of the Altstadt!
The Neustadt is less impressive but still worth a short visit. It is a collection of very narrow streets where the (not necessarily new!) houses are home to a somewhat alternative population of punks, goths, students and such. Many small pubs, punk and goth stores, record stores selling hard-to-find music, small restaurants etc give this city area a somewhat special touch, even though it has no monuments to witness. But with its alternative touch and wide variety of subcultures present here, it definitely has a nice atmosphere and is worth a short peek. The bridge connecting the Neustadt to the Altstadt overlooks the river Elbe with in the background the towers of the many impressive churches in the Altstadt. A lovely sight, and an excellent place for a picknick or sunbathing along the river if the weather is fine.
Definitely a city I would recommend to visit.
In two weeks time I am off to Istanbul. Back to the city for which I felt love at first sight and where I spent several months full of pleasure last year. Reports of that travel will follow as well of course, as well as photos of my last voyages I just described.