I've already said a little about Carl von Gontard's Französischer Dom tower from 1785 on Gendarmenmarkt. What I didn't say at the time was that, for 2 euros 50, you can climb the tower (via the stairs, of course - I imagine it'll cost a lot more if you want to do a spiderman) and enjoy the view from the balustrade.

From the ground level, you can look all the way up to the carillon in the dome above, which, with 60 bells, is Berlin's largest. I think the staircase is quite interesting architecturally: the brickwork has a bit of a 19th century industrial kind of feel to it, though it was actually created as part of the 1977 - 1981 restoration of the building.

After you've climbed the 284 steps to the top, you can look all the way down to the decorative tiled floor at the bottom. Of course you're probably not going to want to climb 284 steps just to look at the floor that you saw on the way in. You might want to take a closer look at the bells, of course (and note the one with the inscription "Berlin Stadt des Friedens" - city of peace - a title given to Berlin in 1979 by the World Peace Council), but I imagine that the main attraction for most people is the viewing gallery.

At 40 metres high, it's well above the surrounding rooftops. It's not quite high enough to give you a clear view between the buildings, but still it's an interesting perspective on the city. It's nice to be able to look out without any glass in the way.

I'd actually hoped there'd be some nice warm light over the city like there was the day before, but clouds quickly moved in to shroud the sun, leaving everything looking decidedly cold. To tell the truth, cold is how it felt too. The tower's open until 7 in the evening, so I imagine it would be a good place to watch the city light up after dark, but with temperatures around -9°C and a cold wind blowing, I really didn't fancy waiting up there for that to happen. There's a great view over Gendarmenmarkt though!

"Someone needs to give that a good going over with a cloth"

I'm stood looking at the mosaics in a doorway on Karl Marx Allee. I've been here many times before, but the golden light of this winter's afternoon on the towers of Frankfurter Tor has attracted me back. The sight of me with a camera has attracted the attentions of an old lady, who just a moment ago had been hobbling, walking-stick in hand, along the snow-covered street.

"The people here now, they don't take care of it," she continues, looking up at the doorway. "It used to be so beautiful, inside too, all red and grey, but now..." she tails off. "And those symbols there," she continues, gesturing towards the hammer, compass and sickle in front of us, "those meant something once." She looks wistfully for a moment. "Still, at least a good going over with a cloth, that'll make everything better." With that, she wanders off on her way again.


If there was ever a reason to learn German, it's this: Berliners can be wonderfully talkative and they say the most fascinating things. From accounts of the night the wall came down to the assertion that the Fernsehturm is the top of a spaceship, I can truly say I've heard all sorts on Berlin's streets.
I recently read a travel article which suggested that staying in a hostel is the best way to meet the locals. That may be the way all the trendy backpacker kids do it these days, but I have to say that standing around in Berlin with a camera has always done the trick for me.

I look back at the mosaics. Where the lady saw tiles that were in need of a polish, I see tiles in the muted, fading colours of the old East Berlin. As the city changes, there are many who look with excitement towards a bright new future, saying good riddance to the bad old days of the wall, the Stasi and endless shortages. Others look back and see a bright past that's slowly becoming dull and tarnished. Germans talk of the 'Mauer im Kopf', the wall in people's minds, which for some still separates Germany - and Berlin - into East and West. One country, one city, with two separate identities. Some East Germans feel like they had the rug pulled from under their feet in 1990, when the country which large numbers of them had lived their entire lives in ceased to exist. Some, of course, would prefer to say they suffered their entire lives there, while others always have a cloth handy, to keep the memories sparkling.

It's a striking scene in the 2003 film 'Good Bye, Lenin!' where the huge Lenin statue is lifted up by helicopter and flies off over the city, pointing as it goes. As you might imagine, the scene was invented for the film, but there was a Lenin statue in Berlin and it did meet a fairly bizarre fate.

It was in 1950 that the former Landsberger Platz was given the name Leninplatz by the GDR, a name it would keep until 1992, when it became Platz der Vereinten Nationen (united nations square). A competition was held in 1967 to find a new scheme for the rebuilding of the square, which was won by a collective led by Hermann Henselmann and Heinz Mehlan.

What the pair presented was an experiment with prefabricated building parts, moving away from the standard rectangular building shapes towards more creative designs. It consists of a 77 metre tower block on one corner, plus a pair of curvy, longer blocks, one s-shaped, the other boomerang shaped, taking up the adjacent two corners. The fourth corner is home to a small low-rise supermarket building and a conventional rectangular housing block.

If that all seems a bit hard to visualise, this view from the Fernsehturm gives a good idea of how it's all laid out (I hope you'll forgive me for not including it here - as it's a summer picture, it didn't really seem to quite belong here).

At the development's focal point is a pile of rocks. Actually, it's a fountain in the summer, but it's a fountain amongst a pile of rocks. If that strikes you as an odd thing to put there, that would be because it replaces something that proved far more controversial: a 19 metre high statue of Lenin.

The statue was created by Russian sculptor Nikolai Tomsky from red Ukrainian granite and stood in front of the tower block at Leninplatz between 1970 and 1991. Of course, post-German unification, a giant statue of the founding father of the Soviet Union wasn't really something the authorities wanted in their city. As a result, they did something quite strange in 1991: they dismantled it and buried it in a sand pit to the south east of Berlin. While it was claimed that this was to stop it attracting any of the wrong kind of attention, to me it seems to have elements of a strange superstitious ritual.

They put the current fountain in its place, with boulders for each continent of the world. I can't say it provides the same sort of focal point. Considering how a number of East Berlin's tower blocks have been crowned with the logos of global brands since unification, I can't help wondering how it would have been if they'd just replaced Lenin's head with Ronald McDonald's instead - at least then the square would still have had a focal point.

Even without Lenin, there's something striking about the whole development. The tower block was the tallest residential building in the GDR and still seems fairly imposing now, while the coloured panels on the curved buildings lend them an almost Mondrian-like edge (though some of those are modern additions - the tower block was originally bare concrete). Either way, it's an interesting experiment and one which is now a protected monument. With any luck, that might mean that nobody buries it in a sand pit any time soon.

The Polish memorial in snow

On the northern edge of Volkspark Friedrichshain stands an imposing memorial.

Having just been in Warsaw, this one seems particularly appropriate, as it's a memorial to Polish soldiers who fought in World War II, as well as to the German anti-fascist resistance.

It was built in 1972, in the spirit of improving relations between Poland and East Germany. East Germany was keen to establish its identity as a state formed by victims and opponents of fascism (with the west, in the view of communist rhetoric, a continuation of fascism, hence the Berlin wall being called the anti-fascist protection barrier), so memorials to communist war heroes were fairly commonplace.

The word communist is important to this memorial, though. It was originally dedicated only to communist Polish soldiers who fought on the side of the Soviets, ignoring, for example, the Polish Home Army resistance.
It was rededicated in 1995 to include those left out in the monument's original dedication.

The Polish memorial in snow

The figures are a Soviet soldier, a Polish soldier and a German resistance fighter, depicted in a classic socialist realist style. The column carries the Polish eagle on one side and the GDR's hammer and compass on the other.

The large inscription says "Za naszą i waszą wolność"/"Für eure und unsere Freiheit" - for our freedom and yours (the German actually says the reverse of the Polish: for your freedom and ours), a motto popular with Polish forces in the 19th century, then later appropriated by communists.

The memorial was designed by Zofia Wolska, Tadeusz Łodzian, Arnd Wittig and Günter Merkel.

The Polish memorial in snow

My friend and I arrive at Warszawa Centralna - Warsaw's central station - at just after 6am. The sun has yet to rise and the cold hangs in the air of the dark rabbit warren of underground tunnels that makes up the bulk of the station. It's a bizarre world of eternal night down here; even when the sun does rise, there's little chance for it to reach this far and the dark, seedy atmosphere remains.

The main station building was designed by Arseniusz Romanowicz and was completed in December 1975. The construction had been rushed, so that it would be finished in time for a visit by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The building was clearly a source of great pride for the city's leaders. Built with the help of western loans, the station was a shining beacon of modernity when it opened. A shining beacon which started to fall apart soon afterwards, as the consequences of the rushed construction began to set in; it ended up under constant repair for the next 10 years. A shining beacon which...well...up on street level, it shone. Down in the depths, it's all black and grey granite with fluorescent strip lighting.

We head for the platforms to find an indicator board. The train's due to leave at 6:40, but after finding the platform and waiting a while, it turns out the train's delayed. Gradually, as we wait, the estimated delay gets longer and longer - first, it's 20 minutes, then after 10 minutes, the estimate changes to 30 minutes. We go outside for my friend to have a smoke. I'd rather not be away from the information screens for too long, but as they seem to be lengthening the estimate all the time, it doesn't look like too risky a thing to do.

When we return 5 minutes later, all signs of the Berlin train have disappeared from the indicator screens, while other, more significantly delayed trains, are still showing. I have to say I'd reckoned with problems and aren't as bothered by the prospect of having to change plans as I might have been at other times, but still the idea of putting my friend's cigarettes in a place which sees even less sunlight than the station platforms does briefly flash through my mind.

It turns out they've just decided to remove all evidence of the train from the screens, for some reason known only to themselves. Announcements confirm that the train is still coming, just further delayed - an unspecified technical fault. Still, it means I'll get to Berlin today after all, and my friend escapes receiving a tobacco suppository.

And so we find ourselves waiting in the only place there seems to be to sit down here: a kebab shop. At just gone 7am, still surfacing from the depths of a night of too little sleep, I have to say that the idea of a kebab breakfast doesn't appeal. My friend has no such reservations, though, and the shop owner dutifully scoops up a heap of chicken doner meat, pops it in the microwave, then hands it over to my friend, steaming in its flatbread wrap.

While I know the shops under here aren't all identical to what was there 35 years ago, something about the place feels like not much has changed. There are also some unexpected things - while I'm quite used to seeing things like tobacconists and bakers in stations, I think this is the first one I've seen that has a butcher's.

The building doesn't seem to be exactly universally loved and it's not hard to see why. The platforms and tunnels, buried below the city streets, are the complete opposite of the light, airy stations which are currently in fashion. After standing around in it for close to 2 hours, I have to say it's also really not a particularly fun place to wait for a train in either. And yet...and yet...I have to admit it: the place fascinates me.

It's the product of a different time, a relic of a bygone age and one which still manages to be free of the likes of Marks & Spencer, NEXT and Body Shop (all of which have branches into the smart Złote Tarasy shopping centre next door and none of which would, I imagine, want to be seen setting up business here instead). It's not pretty, but it has personality.

There's also the main hall to be considered, which is currently undergoing refurbishment. Unlike the underground bulk of the station, the main hall is light and airy, with a huge barrel vault ceiling. Really, from a sensible "making it a nice station" point of view, I have to say it's a shame that some of that light couldn't have been allowed down to the platform level, as is the case with the redevelopment of the undercroft at London St Pancras International. From a "loving the oppressive dark atmosphere" point of view, of course, it would be a shame if they had.

The refurbishment of the station is due to be completed in time for Poland's co-hosting (with Ukraine) of the Euro 2012 football championship. After that, who knows what fate awaits the station. There's certainly still talk of pulling the whole thing down and I do get the feeling that, as Warsaw continues to undergo economic growth, it's a building which will increasingly be seen by many as out of place in the city.

With this thought to ponder, it's time for my train to leave, 2 hours later than scheduled, but better late than never!

It's a dark and icy afternoon as we head through quiet streets towards Warsaw's Nożyk Synagogue. It's an unassuming location, tucked away behind the buildings that face onto Ulica Twarda and Plac Grzybowski.

The synagogue was designed by Leandro Marconi, who was also responsible for the design of Warsaw's Great Synagogue.

At the time that German forces arrived in Warsaw in October 1939, roughly 30% of Warsaw's population was Jewish - 359,827 people according to a census conducted by the Nazi-established 'Judenrat' (Jewish council), making Warsaw second only to New York City in the size of its Jewish population. Serving them were some 400 houses of prayer, from those in workplaces and residential buildings to the large synagogues like the Great Synagogue on Ulica Tłomackie, the round Praga Synagogue which stood on what's now Ulica Jagiellońska and the Nożyk Synagogue.

Warsaw's synagogues were forcibly closed in 1940 and the Jewish population forbidden even from meeting for prayer in private residences. The Nożyk Synagogue was turned into a stables and animal feed store, serving to further underline the Nazis' contempt for anything Jewish. Beyond this, the synagogue escaped the degree of deliberate destruction which met, for example, the Great Synagogue (which was blown up by the Nazis on May 16th 1943, after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising). It did, however, sustain damage during the fighting of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.

It's estimated that, after World War II, less than 20,000 Jewish people remained in Warsaw. Many later left for Israel and elsewhere.

The Nożyk Synagogue is now the only pre-World War II synagogue still active; a small number of other, inactive, former synagogues remain.

It seem like most travel guides focus on Warsaw's old town. Consult most Varsovians (is it just me who thinks that word sounds like something out of Dr Who?) and you'll most likely get pointed in that direction by them too. So what, then, am I doing heading away from the old town, down Ulica Marszałkowska (Marshal Street)?

As I already touched on a tiny bit in the Palace of Culture and Science article, Varsovians have good reason to not be happy about the continued existence of the city's communist-era buildings.

They are, however, inevitably entwined with the city's post World War II history and it seems to me that with so many relics of the era still surviving and in use, this particular chapter is one which hasn't yet been finished.

Around 85% of Warsaw was destroyed during World War II, particularly during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and the subsequent systematic destruction of the city by German forces afterwards. While the old town was meticulously reconstructed, the areas further from there were redeveloped according to the planning ideas of the newly installed communist government. Some of this, as with the Palace of Culture and Science, was a matter of ideology, while some more a matter of economics and the need to build quickly and cheaply.

And so I find myself on this snowy winter's morning, looking around at the variety of communist-era buildings that line the street. I don't have the time to walk its whole 3.6km length, so instead just pick the section I can cover most easily in the time, from near its northern end at Plac Bankowy (Bank Square) down to Plac Konstytucji (Constitution Square) around 2/3 of the way down.

I'm struck how, just with the way Berlin's Fernsehturm is visible along most of the length of Karl Marx Allee, the Palace of Culture and Science is rarely out of view along Ulica Marszałkowska. Just as you start to forget it's there, you look up again, or turn around, and there it is, peering over the other buildings.

Just opposite the 'palace', where Ulica Marszałkowska meets Aleje Jerozolimskie is the PKO (Powszechna Kasa Oszczędności - general savings bank) Rotunda, designed by Zbigniew Karpiński and first completed in 1966. It was badly damaged in a gas explosion in 1979, but repaired and re-opened. As well as being a bank, the building's a popular meeting point, being both close to the station and an easily recognisable landmark.

There are some wonderful old neon signs above the shopfronts on the western side of the street, in the section leading up to Plac Konstytucji. This one's for a chinese restaurant, which still seems to be operating under the same name. I don't think the sign is still working, though!

Then there's Plac Konstytucji itself, named in honour of the Polish communist constitution passed in 1952. If you're into socialist realist architecture then, just as with the Palace of Culture and Science, this is an impressive example of it, designed by architects Stanisław Jankowski, Jan Knothe, Józef Sigalin and Zygmunt Stępiński.

Like with Karl Marx Allee, even the streetlights are given the socialist treatment.

The arcades on the eastern and western sides have decorative ceilings, with mosaics at both ends. These are quite a typical feature of socialist realist buildings - there are some on Berlin's Karl Marx Allee too.

There are some old neon signs on the buildings on the western side. This one says 'Lingerie Gallery'!

A fascinating piece of Warsaw's history, which has a very 'real' and lived in feel - certainly not somewhere that's been carefully manicured for the tourists. A shame I don't have more time to explore it right now...but then that's a good excuse to come back, isn't it?

Some weekends are made for exploring; others seem to be made more for sitting by the fire watching the snow fall. This one is definitely heading in the latter direction, helped no end by the roaring fire and comfy chairs in the friend's house where I'm staying. Am I going soft on you all? I might well be...

Before we declare the spirit of adventure completely dead and buried, though, it's time for a wander out into the snow-covered roads, fields and woods which surround Warsaw's outlying towns.

Though it's only the middle of the afternoon, it's already getting well towards dark.

We end up at a stables, where the horses stand in the yellow-green glow of sparsely placed fluorescent strip lights.

This - the Pa Ta Taj riding school in Kanie - is reportedly the largest equestrian facility in the Warsaw area. There's not a lot of riding going on at the moment though. All the horses have been brought inside from the snow and there's a slightly agitated quiet as they munch on hay and settle down for the night.

In a corner of the stables is an old tractor. It seems its driver is asleep though...

This is an Ursus C-330, an old staple of the communist days, built just a few miles from here (in the suburb of Ursus) and in continuous production for 30 years, between 1967 and 1987.

There's a small bar here too, with a machine stirring up hot chocolate on the counter. Just the right choice for drinking by the fire. Going soft on you? Yes, and it's good.


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