Post lock-down sailing in the Ionian – June 2020

The long awaited date, 1st June, dawned bright and clear and after visiting the Port Police, to retrieve the boat registration document which had been lodged with them over winter, we were off….. private cruising yachts were now allowed out of Greek harbours and marinas. Hooray!

Whilst yachts which were already in Greece were able to sail, yachts from other countries were still generally not allowed. Their date of entry varied according to the country they had been in [not their flag] but none were entitled to enter Greek waters until at least 15 June unless they had special permission from the maritime authorities.

So we, and six other boats left that morning, two heading straight to the Cyclades and the rest to the two anchorages at Koroni. Two crews opted for the town anchorage – where we have been twice previously – we, along with “Coriander” went round to the southern “Zaga beach” anchorage with lovely views up to the old castle.

Looking west along Zaga Beach

The castle grounds contain a number of churches and the Timios Prodromos Convent

Koroni was our first stop on our way round the tip of the Peninsular and into the Ionian. We had chosen this sailing ground for summer 2020 for two reasons. Firstly, given that it is likely to be a quieter season it was an ideal time to visit places and anchorages which are normally teeming with boats…. an opportunity to see the Ionian islands at their best. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we had no idea when we left [and still don’t have] whether the Greek Government will need to impose another lock-down. When they took that decision in March of this year, they gave boats 48 hours to get to a harbour or marina before either fining crews for sailing in Greek waters or expecting them to have left the country. We know that, except in extreme weather conditions, we could get from anywhere in the Ionian back to Kalamata within that timescale. As we had also decided that Preveza and the Gulf of Amvrakia were as far north as we wanted to go, the likelihood of a relatively easy, swift return was increased…. and, with two longish day sails, would also allow an overnight stop half way.

Before leaving the mainland and heading out to the islands we stopped at Koliuri Bay near Finakounda….

Finakounda – We hope to anchor here on our return to Kalamata

….. at Methoni….

Anchored in the bay

….and in Ormos Navarinou where we anchored firstly at Pylos for two nights to weather out some strong wind and rain….

Storm brewing….

….then at the head of the bay and finally at Gialova where, incidentally, we celebrated our ninth Wedding Anniversary….

…… before heading north to our last mainland port of Katakolon.

Eager for both culture and to get out and about and stretch our legs more than the lockdown period had allowed we went exploring at all of these places.

Methoni and Pylos were both strategically placed historically, significant towns and therefore had the required castles/forts to protect them. Both are reasonably well preserved and we enjoyed visiting them though, unfortunately, because indoor museums were still closed we were unable to view the archaeological collections.

A “canon hole” at the base of one of the Methoni fort entrances

SE Coastal Tower – Methoni

The Methoni Bourzi in the background – the last place of refuge

A fortified gate and a drawbridge in the SE tower gave it even more protection








The Lion of St Marc – protector-saint of the Venetian Republic – on the outside castle wall, Methoni

A granite column stands in the Piazza D’Armi, Methoni

A view across Pylos castle grounds to sheltered Navarinou Bay. The church in the foreground is a converted mosque.

Now these are anchors! Pylos castle

Perhaps the most interesting walk was from the head of Navarinou Bay which is famous for the battle of [you guessed it!] Navarino when, on 20 Oct 1827 the combined British, French and Russian fleets fired at point blank range on Ibrahim Pasha’s Turkish, Egyptian and Tunisian fleet sinking 53 ships and killing 6,000 men… a decisive moment in the War of Independence.

However, on Koryphasion Hill which overlooks the site of this battle lies another ruined castle and Nestor’s Cave where, according to legend, Hermes hid Apollo’s cattle.

A walk from the anchorage, along the side of the lagoon and through the sand dunes….

Looking back over the dunes to the lagoon

leads to the horseshoe shaped “Voidokilia Bay”…..

Voidokilia – said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Greece…. lovely, but we have seen better

….and from there a scramble up the dunes to the cave.

The “Paleokastro” above Nestor’s Cave. Look hard for the small black blob in the centre of the photo

A view of the horseshoe bay from the cave entrance

Amazing coloured rocks inside the cave

It is possible to climb from there to the old castle but it looked far too steep and treacherous to attempt. Maybe, if we visit there again, we can take the alternative path which leads up the seaward side of the hill and is a much easier route.

It is perhaps worth me pausing from our travels at this point to make an observation about the impact of lockdown on local people who depend on tourism for their livelihood. The photographs below aren’t all taken in the usual quiet middle of the afternoon, but at various times of day.


Methoni main street

Apelati village – high above Keri

All closed – and just 5 miles from Laganas

We first noticed the lack of people as soon as we left Kalamata and, speaking to a young man in Koroni, Mike was told that his restaurant had used only 1 x 10kg propane bottle in the 3 months of lockdown. For comparison, that is the same as Mike and I use in about 10 weeks on O+P.

The story was the same wherever we went. Shopkeepers and restauranteurs telling us that on the one hand they were desperate for tourists but on the other worried about what that might mean regarding the spread of Covid 19 which, to date, Greece has managed very well. Many shops had clothing and other goods on sale at the start of the season, something for which one would normally have to wait until at least September. Café owners and others have made a point of asking where we are from. That is a common question in Greece and once answered is usually followed by the name of a football team they think you will support based on your answer. This year the question had an underlying meaning so we have been at pains to say that although we are from the UK we have been in Greece for two years and spent lockdown in Kalamata. That has prompted smiles, a more relaxed stance and further conversation most often about health v money.

A slow start to tourism hasn’t just been a feature on the Peloponnese Peninsular. The situation was the same when we reached the islands, though this has been, in part, a result of the Greek Government delaying flights from certain countries where the epidemiological figures warranted it.

Our first island was Zakynthos which, as many of you will know, is a well-known holiday island. What is more, anchored at Ormos Keri, in the only part of the Marine Park where anchoring is allowed during turtle nesting season, we were only about 4 miles from the most popular resort on the island…. Laganas. Having been to Laganas twice [yes, I know….sorry!] I am fully aware of how trip boats ply the bays, scooters and jeeps zoom round the island villages and there are holiday makers everywhere. Not this June. On arrival on 10th June there was just one coffee shop open in Keri and the small supermarkets were just starting to stock their shelves.

Keri village and small boat harbour

Two walks into the interior gave us great views….

Ormos Keri anchorage with Lagana at the other side of the bay

…. took us past fabulous olive groves….

The tales this ancient tree could probably tell.

Well, this has the makings of a hobbit house!








… brought us to a small hilltop village of Apelati [pictured above]

… and allowed us a close quarters look at [and smell of] the tar bed lagoon just behind the shore at Keri. The tar used to be used, amongst other things, to line the hulls of ships.

Tar oozing up in the lagoon

Hopeful of an influx of visitors when island airports were opened to direct international flights on 15 June, a restaurant and gyros bar opened in Keri three nights later – the night before we left. I fear they may not have had the numbers they expected because we saw very few visitors anywhere during the rest of the month.

So, where did we go? Well, from Keri we moved 10 miles east and round the corner to Porto Roma ….

Looks rather like a bad film set

……. a strange place which I’m not sure I would normally choose to visit, but pleasant enough for one night without the reported jet skis, loud beach bar music and partying young folk.

Social distancing OK on this day.

A lack of tourism suits us old fogies!

Those were our only anchorages on Zakynthos from where, on 15th June, we sailed 25 miles north to the small harbour village of Kato Katelios at the SE end of Kefalonia.

Kato Katelios small harbour and beach

Now, rather than take you on a day to day tour following our route and anchorages for the rest of the month I will tell you that between the middle and end of June, in no particular order, we visited Agia Eufimia and Fiskardo [which are also on Kefalonia], Ormos Filatrou, Vathi, Kioni, Frikes and the small bay behind Agios Nikolaos islet [all on Ithaki] and Vasiliki [SW Lefkada].

As we had hoped, in none of these places did we have a problem with space to anchor or berth.

We were the only boat on the west wall at Frikes – there was one catamaran on the north wall at the same time.

Serene Frikes. Yachts are often rafted here three deep

The Mermaid of Frikes

We were one of four boats anchored in Ag. Eufimia with similar numbers in the two bays on Ithaki’s east coast.

The harbour wall at Ag. Eufimia is usually full of stern-to berthed yachts

We have long lined three times but where boats would normally be in very close proximity to each other there was lots of space…..

Five on the wall and just us longlining in Kioni – a lovely place

Practically unheard of in June – just five boats long-lined in Fiskardo

….and we were one of the few boats anchored in Vathi – a significant difference from the upwards of 200 boats either berthed or anchored as reported by Steve and Gill when they visited two seasons ago.

Vathi is another place we went to “hide” from a blow.

Clouds brewing following our move. Our view of Vathi from the north-west part of the anchorage

Initially anchored off the town quay we woke, on the morning of 21st June to 35-40kn winds blowing directly into the anchorage. Whilst the excellent mud bottom gives good holding, “Owl and Pussycat” was being tossed around and we felt it was too uncomfortable for us to sit it out. So, whilst “Coriander” moved back to Ormos Filatrou which, being on the east coast, was sheltered from the westerlies we moved to the north west end of the main Vathi harbour and were similarly sheltered.

“Owl and Pussycat” safely anchored in the more sheltered NW corner at Vathi

A lovely dinghy dock at the north-west end

Working fishing boats… the top of the small one’s mast was at hip height when its owner stepped aboard

Ithaki Vathi [or “Big Vathi” as it is popularly known] is the largest town on Ithaki, provides good provisioning opportunities and has plenty of bars/restaurants to visit if you choose. We were delighted when on our first night we were passing a bar and saw two Swedish friends with whom we had spent winter 2018/19 in Kalamata. It’s always good to catch up… just a shame I had left both camera and phone on board.

Although I have reported above that we were generally sheltered from the 24 hour blow, one big gust put such force onto the furled mainsail that it pulled the lazy jack pulleys from the mast. There was no other damage but Mike spent a sleepless night knowing that somehow these pulleys had to be put back up. We tried to buy stronger rivets but none were available. Mike hit on the idea of one rivet plus one screw. Great…. But going up the mast is now proving a challenge for Mike as his head for heights is getting worse. I am OK with heights but not strong enough to do the job.

So….Captain Courageous Steve to the rescue.

Thanks Steve – a real mate

Up he went and in no time all was well once again…. In fact all was better as the new arrangement is at least twice as good. We bought the drinks that night and then all celebrated with a meal at “O Nikos”….

Mike and Steve wondering where everyone is?

…..unfortunately for the proprietor, another example of the dearth of customers. He told us that in a normal season he often has 200-250 covers per night with tables booked in advance or queues down the street. As a “flotilla favoured restaurant” we normally wouldn’t go, but there was nothing to signify this. We were four of only ten customers that night and he was a friendly guy, his food was good and there was absolutely no problem with “social distancing”!

It’s probably now time for another “aside”. In June, there were no regulations about mask wearing in supermarkets, shops or restaurants but there was an expectation that tables were adequately spaced in restaurants and that only a certain number of people could be in a shop at any given time – the number dependant on the square footage. As you might have already ascertained, given the number of people around this wasn’t generally a problem.

Disinfectant/handwash is provided at store entrances and at tables in many bars/restaurants and we watched a young waiter disinfect ALL of his menus one lunchtime even though there were no other customers than us and we hadn’t asked for a menu as we only wanted beer/soft drinks.

The Greek people seem to have, at least outside of the two major cities, taken “protection” very seriously and we have too.

We don’t actually know whether other “liveaboard” boats [other than “Coriander”] are doing this or, indeed whether charter boats and day trip boats are following the requirements but, when the sanctions were lifted about boats sailing in Greek waters there was a mandatory regulation that each boat should have a crew list and also a log of each of the crew members/passengers temperatures every morning and where they disembarked/embarked and the timings of such. We have followed the regulations religiously.

Thanks for this photo Mike!

Extract of our temperature/movements log

We understood that this log should be available for inspection at any time by Port Police or Coastguard but we have never been asked for it…. or for any other papers. Twice we have seen coastguards approaching us, firstly whilst at anchor in Koliuri and secondly in Filatrou Bay. On both occasions they seemed to look at our boat name and/or flag and then either waved and moved off or ignored us completely. We don’t know whether they had been following us on AIS and therefore knew that we had come from Kalamata or what but it wasn’t a case of not being vigilant as we saw them approach and speak for some time with the captains of two Maltese flagged motor yachts who both then immediately left the anchorage we had all been in.

Getting back to our adventures, there are some more places and walks I want to tell you about.

One anchorage we were lucky to be able to visit, as it is normally chock full, was the one tucked in behind Agios Nikolaos. A beautiful setting with crystal clear water….

This photo doesn’t do it justice

…..and a fabulous “cantina” type of taverna…

….where sundowners are no doubt enjoyed by many, though we were the only customers that evening.

We took lots more walks too. From Vathi we headed out along the coastal path to the chapel we had seen on our sail in. Mike managed well….

……despite some tricky patches where his vertigo could have forced an immediate turn round  but we decided that taking the inland route back would be better….. or so we thought! First of all we found ourselves trespassing, but carried on as there were no signs of life at all in what were probably expensive holiday rental villas set in extensive grounds. Having found the track out we followed it up, and up and even further up. Whilst it afforded us a fantastic view of Vathi….

…. the downside was that we then came across locked gates and a fence. Fortunately we were able to scale a fence pole and escape but the short inland route we anticipated turned into a long, hot haul up and down.

We fared rather better from Frikes when we meandered along leafy lanes to the lovely inland village of Stavros….

“To Kentro” – the Centre – an apt name for this lovely village bar

…… where the town square incorporates a small exhibition dedicated to the mysteries of Ithaki….

…… and to Homer and the voyages of Odysseus.

“We’ve been there too! Odysseus encountered the Sirens of Skylla at the entrance to the Messina Straits

Some years ago I had a holiday on Kefalonia, based in Sami and I was eager to see the town again as I couldn’t really remember it. So, we decided to catch the early morning bus from Agia Eufimia, visit the town and walk back. Whilst the harbour looks lovely viewed from the ferry dock….

…. there was little to commend the town itself and I realised why I had probably forgotten it!

The monument of the “Unknown Sailor” in Sami

The walk back, however, took us through the village of Karavomylos and its small lake.

So clear you can see the ducks feet

What was particularly fascinating was that there was a constant flow of water running through the lake….

No longer a working wheel…..

….but the water still gushes out









……… and into the sea but no visible stream coming in. It may well be linked to the underwater system which feeds the more well- known and visited Melissani Lake Cave just a little further inland.

From Fiskardo we followed two well marked walking trails……

…. the first being a short walk from the anchorage out to the two lighthouses on the point….

The old Venetial lighthouse in the foreground with the current one behind

……..and the second being “The Cypress Trail”.

This took us through wooded hillside where we encountered an abandoned village….

An old well….

….and ruined buildings








…. and Mike took a detour to see a cave. I had decided I didn’t want to do this part of the walk because having slogged uphill….

Hot, but at least there was decent shade most of the way up

….. the way to the cave was back down again which would obviously mean more up to regain the main trail. Mike declared my decision as the more sane one as the “cave” wasn’t exactly worth the detour!

Call that a cave!

The funniest thing we encountered was this…..

“Please close the gate” – OK but the whole road is open!!

… and perhaps the most interesting were these….

Roman graves

…. which are actually at the outer limits of Fiscardo village and which can be easily visited without doing the whole trail.

As always, wildlife takes my eye and a feature of many of our walks were spiders…

A kind of funnel spider web

Spider eggs cocooned in the web

…. so it’s a good job Gill wasn’t with us for the Vathi walk where I needed a “”spider stick” to push aside the webs, and often the large spiders on them, which hung across the path.

At the chapel with my trusty spider stick!!

I also captured some more colourful flora…

“Angel’s trumpets”

… and fauna….

Love the eyebrows and expectant look of these baby swallows

Green metallic “jewel beetle”

Dragonfly, damselfly, or something else?

Silver studded blue butterfly

Mmmmm Mythos! Nectar for this “two-tailed tiger swallowtail”

….. and just couldn’t resist taking this shot.

A Blue Jay’s feather – a symbol of light and joy.

As always, everywhere visited brings us “Joy” and it has been a considerable joy to be in the Ionian this June, seeing the places at their best. Apparently a Blue Jays feather can also symbolise “healing” so I take this as a positive whilst we continue to make our way through these strange times.

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Over wintering and lock-down in Kalamata 2019/2020

Early morning on D dock Kalamata marina

For reasons obvious to all, our 2019/20 “over wintering” in Kalamata marina was extended until the end of May 2020.

We arrived here on 21st of October and, as we didn’t know then that Covid 19 was just around the corner, we wanted to get moving straight away on our jobs list to ensure everything was finished by the end of March. Our first task was to organise haul out as there were several things we wanted to do which meant “Owl and Pussycat” needed to be on the hard standing. Initially we thought that we would be out for 4 weeks and booked an Airbnb for that period. Steve and Gill had very kindly offered us a berth on “Coriander” for the duration but we felt that four weeks was probably too long for four people in a confined space. In the end we were out for six weeks…. So the decision was probably the right one especially as the small house had a washing machine and a large TV – what luxury!!

The travel lift operator, Peter, is extremely meticulous and takes great care with haul out, pressure washing and chocking and “Splash”.

Peter checking all is well before operating the hoist

Looking east to the Taygetus mountain range from our spot on the hard…

….and looking west over the marina








We were pleased to find that the “Coppercoat”, put on three years ago, had done its job.

Not looking too bad after three years constantly in the water

A few small patches needed touching up but overall we were pretty foul free and it all looks good for a few more years.

Our Max prop was immediately sent to France for a full overhaul, we organised “Ioannis” and his Messinian Yacht Centre staff to undertake some cosmetic repair to our transom and polish the hull, and Mike also found “Theodorus Christopoulos”, an excellent local refrigeration engineer who fitted our new keel cooled fridge with a small freezer.

The compressor fitted perfectly under the floor

We now have two fridges, this new one and the old, air cooled one which now acts as a cool store for things like salads, vegetables, spreadable butter and my preserved lemons and olives, which I made over the winter.

We can have ice with our G +T …Hooray

Whilst out of the water Mike replaced the packing in the rudder sealing gland and fitted a new inner part of one of our seacocks, changing the position of it as he did so because previously we had needed to remove the valve opening/closing arm as it didn’t fit in the available space while attached. We didn’t like the practice of having to fit it to use it… not good should we need to operate it in an emergency situation.

We also made new fender covers, fitted a stainless steel bow protector and finally got round to putting on our bow logos.

Shiny hull and bow protector and our logo at last

It was difficult enough to do balanced on a scaffolding tower…. Heaven knows what would have happened if we had tried to do it whilst balancing on a wave rocked dinghy!

So, we were back in the water in good time for Christmas……

Let there be light

One of around two dozen special Christmas kiosks

Boats are symbolic at Christmas in Greece and ornamental boats are given for good luck

…..when we were delighted to welcome on board our super friend, Malc.

At “Kardamo… one of our favourite restaurants

He stayed with us between 19th and 27th December and  a good time was had by all.

Santa has been!

Christmas Day pre dinner drinks

Ready for the feast, wearing hats made from the used wrapping paper

No wonder we had a good time!

We were sorry that he wasn’t able to stay for New Year, but we managed to celebrate it in fine style anyway.

More silly hats!

As we did last year, we also watched the 3 Kings Day celebrations on 6th January…..

Here come the priests

….. found a superb small bar at which to join the locals for a “Burnt Thursday” souvlaki BBQ which, this year, was on 20th February…..

Enjoying the February sunshine

The proprietor grilling the souvlaki

Bouzouki music

…….and took part in the traditional “Clean Monday” kite flying and beach picnic on 2nd March.

Lets go fly a kite

What a great Christmas present for Mike from Steve and Gill

We, and the rest of Kalamata, had been preparing for and looking forward to “Karnival”….









…..which should have culminated in a small parade on Saturday 29th February and a full parade on the Sunday. Acting quickly to the increasing threat of Coronovirus, the Greek government cancelled all Karnival parades and followed this by closing all bars and restaurants on 14th March and a full lockdown from 23rd March.

We had been intending to go to a small town on the Mani peninsular – Areopoli – to celebrate Greek Independence. Although Greece as a whole celebrates Independence Day on 25th March, the Greek War of Independence actually started in Areopoli on 17 March 1821 when an army of 2,000 Maniots advanced on Kalamata where there was an Ottoman garrison. The Maniot army captured the city on March 23rd. A later “invention” regarding the start of the War was that it occurred on March 25th when revolution was declared by Archbishop Germanos in the Monastery of Agia Lavra. Regardless of which of these versions is true the residents of Areopoli honour the anniversary of the uprising on 17th.

Unfortunately neither Independence Day nor Easter were celebrated properly this year as all citizens were subject to lock down at home. From 23rd March to 4th May we were allowed out for a maximum of an hour at a time to visit the supermarket, bakery or pharmacy or for exercise. We believe you could go out twice in one day, but in practice we probably went out 2 or 3 times per week in total. Similarly, all the local people took lock-down equally seriously.

Empty roads…

…empty pavements










We had to carry passports and a form which stated the time you left your residence, where you were going and the purpose of the visit.

All of this time on the boat gave us plenty of scope for completing other jobs. The list is fairly long, includes all of the annual maintenance and polishing jobs but I won’t bore you with everything we did though have included a couple of photos of us doing it!

The spaces and positions we have to get into to work in them

Typical cabin chaos created when we are working

Yes….I work too

Right at the start of the New Year when we were still expecting to leave the Med this year and cross the Atlantic at the end of it, we commissioned a complete re rig, including incorporating the SSB aerial into it. This involved taking the mast off and, just like Peter the travel lift operator, Mixalis and his rigging crew were fantastic.

Mixalis and his son Constantinos who is quickly learning the ropes!

All carefully tied away

Vangellis being hoisted up to put the blanket round the mast

Mast protected and all hooked up

Steady as she goes with Vassilis and Constantinos guiding the way

Although at this time it seems very unlikely that we will even leave Greece this year, never mind the Med, the rigging is now done and good for insurance purposes for at least ten years.

For me, two of the other most significant improvements Mike undertook – not already mentioned above – have been to the cockpit table…..


Sanded and now the teak oil is being applied

…. and after

….and the fitting of stainless steel guard rails to replace the top wire from stern to centre gate.

Feels much more sturdy

My sis might also be delighted to know that the lemonade spill marks on the saloon rug have now been totally removed by some lovely, friendly cleaners who turned up “en masse”, spent about 2 hours with various applications and charged us the princely sum of €30.

“Ecoland” carpet cleaners

As you will have seen from many of the photographs, we have had excellent weather throughout the winter. We saw snow, which only lasted for about three days, on the tops of the Taygetus mountain range with “Profitis Ilias” its highest peak at 2,404 metres [7,887 ft].

A light covering of snow on the mountain tops

We generally had less strong winds and only one significant rainstorm which turned the normally near empty river channel into quite a torrent.

Usual state

…and in flood [or as much flood as we got this winter]








What follows rain, but flowers….

March colour

Can you spot the bee feasting on the bottlebrush tree [Callistemon]

…. and lots of lovely vegetables, particularly beets, potatoes, artichokes, heritage tomatoes, peas and broad beans.

Perhaps because of the restrictions on travel, the local supermarkets – although national companies – seem to have been stocking more local produce which has been of excellent quality. It is also worth noting that unlike, it would seem, many other countries there was no shortage of anything except sanitising hand-wash which was right at the start of the lock down period. Toilet rolls, flour, yeast, pasta, etc etc which seem to have been stockpiled in other places were plentiful.

So although it has been frustrating not to be able to sail as hoped, we feel that we could certainly have been in far worse places during the past two months. As I write this it is 26th May and we are hopefully free to go sailing again on Monday 1st June. As I hinted above, it is increasingly likely that we will return to Kalamata again next year when we will be able to reacquaint ourselves with all our favourite restaurants which will hopefully be open, maybe commission more work from the fantastic trades people we have found in Kalamata and revisit all our lovely local shops.

AB – our mid range supermarket…. there is also Sklavenitis [Carrefour] and Lidl

Gill’s favourite – Poundland meets Ikea’s compulsory circulation system!

Mike’s favourite screw shop run by dad…everything Mike has asked for has been available and in inox

…. and the tool shop run by his son








Brilliant T-bone steaks and cooked ham from this butcher in the market

George and Niovi run the chandlers …and if it isn’t in stock it quickly arrives from Athens

And last but not least…..”Pes Aleuri”, which literally translated is “Say Flour” though may mean something slightly different if you speak better Greek than me!

Anastasia and Constantinos the baker. Such wonderful bread

In the meanwhile, we are now able to leave on 1st June so I hope that my next few posts will come from whichever islands and mainland towns we are able to visit.

Looking along the old breakwater… “Koroni”, hopefully our first destination this year, in the distance

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A symbolic weekend in Berlin

How lucky were we! We had decided that we would visit James in Berlin at some time during this over-wintering season in Kalamata. He had a holiday booked in Vietnam at the end of 2019 so sometime between January and March 2020 seemed ideal. He sent us a message to say that he had booked a special gallery visit on Saturday 15th February and could get extra tickets if we wanted to go that weekend. I was a bit surprised, given that it was Valentine’s weekend and that he now has the lovely Polina playing a big part in his life. However, taking after his dad, James didn’t work out until after we had booked our flights and accommodation that maybe it wasn’t the best weekend! But, had we not gone then, we would probably have booked for mid-March…. and wouldn’t have been able to go at all given the current situation.

So, not only did we see Berlin and James, but we also met Polina and Coco and had a super weekend.

There is so much to see and do in Berlin that we were a bit unsure where to start. When we met James and Polina on the Thursday evening they gave us some hints and tips and we were able to plan a walking tour for the Friday based on the places we most wanted to visit.

Public transport in Berlin is absolutely fantastic. A €2.90 ticket lasts for 2 hours and can be used as often as you need during that time period on all four types of transport within zones A/B, i.e. bus, tram, metro or train within the wider city centre boundaries. Although we only used it once on that day to get into the city, we did make good use of the system throughout the weekend.

So, our starting point was the “Reichstag” building.

The Reichstag

Taking ten years to construct, the building opened in 1894 and was the parliamentary seat of the Weimar Republic between 1919 and 1933 when it was damaged by fire, the circumstances of which remain unclear. Unrepaired following the fire, it was further damaged by air raids. Post-war, being situated in West Berlin, it wasn’t used by either of the governments of the Democratic or of the Federal Republics. The official reunification ceremony was held at the Reichstag on October 3rd 1990 and the following day the parliament of united Germany assembled there as a symbolic act. After a “healthy” debate in 1991, the decision was taken to move the German government back to Berlin from Bonn, though it wasn’t until after reconstruction of the building finished in 1999 that it once more became the parliamentary seat.

A very short walk from there is the C18 neo-classical monument – the Brandenburg Gate.

It is supposedly Victoria in the chariot

Berlin’s only surviving historical city gate it is also one of the city’s most iconic sights. Given its geographical location in the city, which was in an exclusion zone within an arc of the Wall, it has symbolised both the Cold War Division and the Re-Unification.

Originally built as a military memorial, it has now come to epitomise peace and unity, freedom and tolerance. Hence, it – and the “Pariser Platz” in which it stands – have become the site of both large and small demonstrations against injustice. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that we witnessed these demonstrators on the day we visited.

We are human – not a virus

Equally iconic, but rather less immediately noticeable, is “Checkpoint Charlie”.

Nearly missed seeing it!

The current “barrier” is actually a small simulation of the original which was removed on 22nd June 1990 in the presence of the foreign ministers of the four Allied states, the DDR and West Germany.

People were queueing to take photographs at the barrier. I actually thought that this made a much better shot!

Salute the Colonel!

Just before reaching Checkpoint Charlie we passed the “Trabi Museum”.

Trabi museum and “The World” hot air balloon

I have to admit that I had never heard of the “Trabant” – which is perhaps hardly surprising as I would be pushed to name the make of any car I haven’t owned and might well still get those I owned wrong!

Anyway, the “Trabi” was manufactured between 1957 and 1990 by the East German company “VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau”. The most famous model was the 601 and 2,818,547 of these were built from 1964 onwards. They have been variously dubbed as “that weird soviet car”, “the worst car ever built”, “an awful car made by communists” and “the car that belches like an Iraqi oil field”.

Apparently the average lifespan of a Trabi was 28 years though it seems that this may have been because, having taken ten years from ordering one to getting one, owners tried their best to care for them – which wasn’t easy as spare parts were even harder to source than the car! In its favour [?!] there weren’t actually that many parts…. E.g. No speedometer or fuel indicator – the former wasn’t much of a problem as the car hardly ever managed to reach speeds more than 50mph, the latter was compensated for by drivers learning approximately how many hours it took to empty the tank.

These interesting facts, and many others, we learnt about when we visited the interactive DDR museum which housed an amazing array of exhibits covering “everyday life” in the former East Germany.

There were three themed areas and although “Public Life” and “State and Ideology” were absorbing – particularly information about how children were “socialised”- I think the most memorable for me was “Life in a Tower Block”.

So reminiscent….. just look at that wallpapaer!

What was particularly fascinating, and shouldn’t have been surprising, was the huge number of objects around the “flat” that I recognised from my childhood. Many goods were, like the car, in short supply and hard to obtain and, possibly as a result, what was common place in the UK in the 1960’s wasn’t available to the average East German citizen until the 70’s.

As well as the Trabi, there was also this bike…

The 1964 KR51 – The Swallow [Schwalbe]

The original owners of the company, the Simson family, were Jewish. Having been dispossessed of their factory in 1936 they fled the country following which their products were built with various names under the Nazi and early Communist governments until the brand name “Simson” was restored in 1955.

Whilst the Wall and the East/West Germany split dominates the Berlin tourist trail I also wanted to visit “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” particularly after seeing these plaques which mark the spots on various Berlin streets where German Jews were taken.

Unfortunately, one of many – there were three at this spot – a family.

Also known as the “Holocaust Memorial”, it consists of 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights.

The Memorial

To be honest I did not fully understand the representation. I suppose that the blocks look rather like coffins but, from everything I have read or seen, coffins were certainly not a feature of being shot in a pit or gassed in a chamber. One critic has suggested that if you walk around in the centre of the memorial where the blocks are taller, you see less sky, the walls feel like they are closing in and the way out seems less possible and that this denotes how Jewish people were hounded and trapped. I can understand what that critic is saying but remain disappointed by the Memorial.

However, I was not at all disappointed by the Information Centre which is housed beneath it. It was full of things you had to read and look at but wish you didn’t.

There are several themed rooms. One room sets out the historical time line from the early persecution by the Nazi regime of people with mental illness, of homosexuals and of Gypsies and Roma to the concentration on the Jewish race.

The “Room of Families” tells the fateful stories of how families from different countries were rounded up, transported and separated. I had not realised that almost 59,000 Greek Jews from a population of around 71,000 Jews in Thessaloniki were transported and murdered during the holocaust. Similarly I had not realised that the Ukraine had such a large Jewish population with around 1.5million killed.

I had also mainly associated concentration camps with Auschwitz, Belsen and Dachau but in the “Room of Sites” learnt about the atrocities of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and other lesser known sites [lesser known to me that is].

The short biographies, the photographs and the memoires take the victims out of their anonymity with the “Room of Letters”, for me, the most poignant. I sat on one of the benches reading extracts from letters written by wives, husbands, mothers and children, I looked around the top of the wall where the numbers of people from each country murdered were inscribed and I cried.

Most importantly, for me, the Memorial is not only a place of Remembrance, but also one of warning.

So true

Bosnia, Rwanda, Myanmar were three places which immediately sprang to my mind when I read this. Will we ever learn?

Well, after that I am sure you need cheering up. We certainly did.

A wander through the classical “Gendarmenmarkt Square”….

The Concert Hall and the French Church

….was followed by a Gluhwein in “Alexanderplatz”……

The TV tower and Marienkirche [St Mary’s church]

The toweres lined up!

… then a few more drinks and a meal as we worked our way back to our accommodation.

We knew that Saturday evening was the art gallery visit which James had booked so we decided to have a light hearted day. We like seeing local neighbourhoods outside of city centres which are geared more for people who live there than for tourists and we plotted a route which took in a couple of real ale outlets with decent sounding food.

What we hadn’t researched was their opening hours! “Neighbourhood” bars/pubs, it would seem, open only in the evening. Still, we had a good look around and made full use of the above mentioned transport before making our way to the city centre where we finally found Mike some beer……

Plenty of choice once we found one open

… and then headed to the “Sammlung Boros Art Gallery”.

Yes…. this is it – “The Bunker”

One of several old war bunkers, this WWII air raid shelter has been used variously to house prisoners of war [by the Red Army], as a warehouse to store textiles and then, during the Cold War, tropical fruit. After being abandoned for a while, it resurfaced as a Techno club before being bought by Christian Boros, in 2003, when he transformed it into a gallery to show his contemporary art collection.

It was certainly an interesting building, five stories high with 120 rooms – though we went into less than half of them.

One of the outside walls is full of bullet holes….

…… and one of the entrance doors is strangely blocked by a rock.

One of many installations



We weren’t allowed to take photographs of the exhibition so, to give you a taste of what we saw, I credit this to the galleries Facebook page.




However, I was able to take a photograph of the corridor as we entered the building.

Two memories of the tour will remain with us, the first being the excellent, if rather wacky, guide and the second the ink pad print we were encouraged to make replicating the “Arma Branca” woodcut on journal paper and wood prints created by Paulo Nazareth, a Brazilian artist of African heritage.

My print of The Kitchen knife

Our final full day, Sunday, dawned rather damp. This was disappointing as James and Polina had told us about a “karaoke in the park” event which apparently happens most Sundays and which is, we were told, fun to watch. Plans about when and where to meet them therefore changed and gave Mike and I another opportunity to go into the city centre to see some of the places we hadn’t managed to get to on the Friday.

Considered another obvious city landmark, the double decked Oberbaum Bridge spans the River Spree.

The magnificent Oberbaum Bridge

It too has become a symbol of unity as the river was part of the Wall and split the Eastern borough of Friedrichshain and Western Kreuzberg.

The first bridge was built in 1732, made of wood with a drawbridge in the middle. Modified and extended over the next hundred years or so it was finally replaced by a stone bridge in 1896. Designed in a Gothic style it has turrets, coats of arms, pointed arches and cross vaults.

Underneath the arches

In 1945 the middle section of the bridge was blown up by the Wehrmacht to try to prevent entry of the Red Army and parts of it were destroyed or allowed to rot whilst the bridge was effectively the border and, for the most part therefore, closed. It re-opened to traffic and pedestrians in 1994, with the upper U-Bahn rail section being completed a year later.

Its other claim to fame is its use in the mini-series “Smiley’s People – as the hand over point of Karla to Smiley. Mike remembered this scene. I didn’t, though we both remembered seeing the “Glienicke Bridge” in spy films which was a real exchange point for spies during the Cold War. Unfortunately, being out of the city near Potsdam, we didn’t see it – a good reason to return methinks!

From the Oberbaum Bridge we could see the 30m high metal sculpture which stands in the river.

Molecule Man

You can just about see that it consist of three humans leaning towards each other. Their bodies have hundreds of holes punched in them which are, according to the American designer/artist, representative of “the molecules of all human beings coming together to create our existence”.

The Oberbaum Bridge is at the southern end of the East Side Gallery.

The start of the gallery at the southern end

At 1.3km long it is the longest open air gallery in the world and the longest continuous section of the Wall remaining. Other parts of the wall, with their graffiti have been and still are being sold off as memorabilia!

Bits of graffiti Wall!!

Immediately after the wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting it and it officially opened in September 1990 before being awarded protected memorial status just over a year later.

Not sure what this gate in the wall was – maybe some more symbolism?

To conclude our tour of Berlin galleries we later met James and Polina who took us to the Berlin Photography Museum. The ground floor was dedicated to Helmut Newton, a prolific and somewhat provocative fashion photographer. Whilst interesting, Mike and I actually preferred the third floor showing the work of local industrial photographers in the 50’s that recorded industrial processes, people and localities.

As well as seeing the sights of Berlin we looked forward to the tastes. Over the course of four evenings we ate in Vietnamese, American diner style, German and Russian restaurants – all different and all good. I think the Russian was our favourite, which we could not have managed so successfully without Polina showing and telling us about the best choices.

A great weekend – thanks James and Polina

All too soon, the weekend was over. We had a great time, especially the time spent with James and Polina. So, until our next visit……

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