Second Avenue Again

The two-way bike lane along Second Avenue, the stretch between Pike Street and Denny Way, was completed late this winter. We can see bits of the new path from our window, and it saves us a lot of trouble getting back home from downtown. Here’s a view southward from near the northern terminus.

We were away on vacation when the work was finished, but there wasn’t a celebration to miss anyway:  the City, embarrassed by the cost of this section, didn’t make a fuss. There were big changes to the pavement itself, plus new signalization at several intersections that previously had only stop signs.

These pedestrians are shown at the crossing with Broad Street, which is planned to become a tourist-friendly link from the Space Needle down to the waterfront parks. At present it’s a bicycle trap with fissures big enough to swallow a 28mm tire.

Below is a view from near Blanchard, looking back in the opposite direction along Second.

It’s hard to tell much about the bike lane from this photo — the path is hidden on the other side of that row of parked cars on the far side of the street. But just beyond the nearest intersection you can see the planters that separate the bike lane from a left-turn lane for cars, right in front of the green sign of the famous Crocodile Cafe.

I’ve chosen this view because I happen to have another from about the same spot, taken 34 years earlier.  In this older picture the Crocodile is still the Athens (it was sometimes called Nick’s, or the Acropolis).  Toward the far corner of the same block one encounters the Hawaii West Tavern, where I broke up a fight on the sidewalk one night, then the Rama House, where I first learned to eat Thai food, and then the famous Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, still open now, under new management, though threatened by redevelopment.


In August of 1984 I stood at the window of Mama’s with a waitress called Blythe and watched what was surely the last parade of circus animals in Seattle.

I happen to have pictures of this area because, through most of the 80s, I lived a block further north in the Lexington Apartments, the closer of the two doorways in the brick building shown below.  The Lexington and Concord had been built in the 1930s, with single working people in mind.  My room had a genuine Murphy Bed, and there was an actual ice box too, that is, besides the plug-in refrigerator, there was a built-in cabinet with a slotted bottom to drain melt-water from a block of ice.

The shorter building to the left of the Lexington had been the office of One Reel Vaudeville Show, the organization producing the annual Bumbershoot festival on Labor Day weekend. Next door for years was SARCO, the Small Appliance Repair Company, and, on the corner at Wall Street, a real estate office, which is still thriving there.   Here’s what the old block looks like today, again with the new bike lane between the parked cars and the curb:


One obvious difference is the trees. The City began beautifying Second Avenue not long after I moved in. The first step was to install banners on the light poles, lauding the neighborhood. These quickly frayed and faded in the winter wind and were eventually removed.  Much later, they added a row of cedar trees, but the contractor planted the wrong variety. Those trees soon died and turned brown, but stood for years nonetheless, until replaced by the current successful evergreens.  The deciduous trees came later.

For more information about Second Avenue have a look at our earlier posts, Our bikes in Seattle and Speaking of Second Avenue.

Hong Kong

We decided to be rich for a few days — even though it might mean some poverty later.  The best place for this seemed to be Hong Kong, and in particular “our” neighborhood, the International Financial Center. That’s basically a world-class shopping mall with skyscrapers sprouting out the top and a vast transit center beneath. The tallest building in the picture below, Two International Finance Center, stands at the eastern, left, end, and our hotel, the Four Seasons, a couple blocks to the right, at the western end, eclipsing the building with the noticeable mast on top.


Though it cost a bit more, we had asked for a room on a floor above the 35th, insuring a magnificent view.  But the hotel had overbooked, maybe for the New Year, and offered us one on just 18 instead.  To make up for the disappointment, they gave us a suite — and one that included privileges at the Executive Club. Having now seen how the Other Half lives, I think I am beginning to understand what makes money so attractive.

Here’s what our sitting room looked like, except that you can’t see the the foyer with its elegant little half-bath:

Also not obvious are the hidden ports for electronics, or the portable controls for the sheers and the curtains on the windows.  We operated these once, for the thrill of it, and then left them all open all the time, using Kowloon as our night-light.

On this trip we had begun seeing “Do Not Disturb” signs that operate electrically instead of relying on cards hung on the door. Here, there’s a switch not just by the entrance, but another set by the bed so that you can change your preference without getting up.  I would be surprised if the “Please Make Up Room” signal didn’t light up in the attendant’s room as well.

I reckon that the suite is about the size of our entire condo back in Seattle. It has two or three times as many chairs — and definitely three times as many television sets, once you notice the little one set into the mirrored wall at the foot of the tub. The walk-in closet is perhaps better called a dressing room:  it’s large enough to have its own artwork.

The suite lacks a kitchen — but of course there’s an excellent one on the other end of the phone line. Also, there are complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea, an early, light supper, and snacks available at any hour, at the Executive Club.

It’s there, at the Executive Club, where they have that magnificent view — they’re on the 45th floor.  The remarkable thing may be the service though. The person who holds your chair for you at breakfast isn’t so much a waiter as an administrative assistant.  They’re eager to discuss your plans for the day and to help with anything involving scheduling, transportation or communication. As soon as you give your room number to one of them, they all address you by last name and title, no matter when they see you.

We were able on several occasions to wrest ourselves free from this heaven of hostelry, the first time shortly after our arrival, when we made our way into the open air to have dinner at another luxury hotel several blocks away. On our return, judging ourselves now quite the Old China Hands, we did some window shopping. Besides all the designer clothing shops there’s a big Apple store, and one just for Leicas. Quite near the entrance to the hotel there’s a BVLGARI sign — also the name on the give-away toiletries in our bathroom. We acquired some chocolate at one of the many boutique shops. The more pedestrian outlets tend to be on the transit levels.  There’s a Mrs. Fields within a stone’s throw of two 7-Elevens, for instance.

Our very best purchase was an Octopus card for each of us, the equivalent of our ORCA transit pass back home — except that it lets you ride more kinds of transport, gets you discounts on some of them, can be used to make purchases at many stores (!), and then refunds your unused balance when you’re ready to leave town.

So we used our cards to go to some of the typical tourist places.  We rode the Star Ferry over to Kowloon (see again that picture at top) and visited a couple of nice parks there.  We took the tram (a long wait and a separate ticket) up to Victoria Peak.  We rode the subway all the way back out to Tung Chung on Lantau Island and then the cable car to Ngong Ping  for the classic aerial view of the airport and a look at the world’s largest statue of Buddha.

The next-to-last stop on that train line is the connection for the local Disneyland resort. An excited little girl with her extended family boarded after we did, and I started to offer my place to a mother or aunt; but Grandfather signaled that I should remain seated — it’s age, not gender, that gets you special treatment here. As they all got up to leave we wished each other a good day.

At one time Hong Kong sounded far too exotic for me, but it’s one of those places that allow the traveler to sample just the desired degree of foreignness. It offers  what could be a valuable experience to many Americans:  to find yourself in a situation where 1) nobody looks anything like you, and 2) nobody gives a darn.

Victoria Harbour — Executive Overview

Cambodia

The task:  create an earthly replica of heaven; that is, the sacred Mt. Meru and the cosmic ocean that surrounds it.  Given a few decades, plus the resources of an empire that covered most of Southeast Asia, this was pretty much a snap:

After several centuries of deferred maintenance, Angkor may no longer be the world’s largest urban center; but improved airline connections have probably put it within reach of a greater number of people. We, for instance, went there (the modern city of Siem Reap) as the last stop on our bicycle tour.

That’s Angkor Wat in the picture above, seen shortly after dawn, both an early capital and the temple with the best name-recognition.

But of the dozen temples and other ruins accessible with a single wearable punch-card pass, the site that best brings out the tourist’s inner Indiana Jones may be Ta Prohm.

Nothing says “Lost World” quite like a delicate stone carving caught in the clutches of a strangler fig. This Buddhist monastery, abandoned in the 15th Century, vandalized by iconoclasts and then given only minimal restoration in recent years, provides a brooding backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters and whirlwind vacations alike.

Here’s our local guide Borin pointing out another mystery: two of the images on this column seem to resemble, respectively, a stegosaurus and a drawing by Maurice Sendak. The best theory is probably that these are the result of imaginative coincidences.  On the other hand, it was once asserted that Angkor’s wonders were produced on a single night by a divine Architect.

The earliest of the works we see are Hindu monuments; some were re-purposed more than once as the predominant religion alternated with Buddhism, now by far the favorite. These are not the only attitudes that have changed:  Borin told us that the current older generation of Cambodians once wondered why the Americans hated them so much that they dropped bombs on them.  The younger folks view Americans favorably, regarding them as generous tippers.  He was our guide during our tour in Cambodia, working for Backroads; then, the next day, after the other guests had left, he was back as our fixer, on behalf of Trails of Indochina, making sure that we got not just to the airport okay, but into the best line for check-in.

By the way, it should not be imagined that the wonders of Southeast Asia are all visual.  By the time our trip was over, I had eaten, for the first time, jackfruit, dragon fruit, rambutan, mangosteen and longan.  And durian!  And — crickets!

Here a guide rides his personal bike. In Cambodia, Backroads uses only their version of the mountain bike, that is, their standard titanium frame but with fat tires and flat bars.

The Pleasures of Hội An

It wasn’t just the warmer weather, or the lower traffic density, that made our time in Hội An seem more comfortable.  There was also the discovery of the Four Seasons Nam Hai Resort, at least briefly my favorite hotel.  So great is its charm that our trip leaders have identified a syndrome, called “Nam Hai Fever,” which seems often to prevent  guests from leaving the premises even to join in planned activities.

The hotel has a number of types of accommodations, including suites with up to five bedrooms, but our bunch was put up in their one-bedroom villas.  This page has a link that shows the graceful floorplan, which puts the living area in an island all its own, leaving plenty of airy, naturally-lighted space for circulation.

The villas are arranged so that each unit has a view straight out to the water, with a big furnished, covered patio on that side.

The other end of the bungalow is the ideal way to return from the beach, since it has a little yard with an outdoor shower.  We used the light there as a night light.

In this back part of the house (which can be screened off from the living area), there are two vanities, each with its own small walk-in closet, including a low dresser, cubby-holes and an overhead shelf.

The main entry (yet a third doorway, notice) is at the side of the house, forming a spacious transept with the closet-like mini-bar across the way.  The elevated living area, built like big six-poster bed, encompasses a soaking tub, seating areas, and a spacious desk that shares its backboard (and flexible task lighting) with the bed on the other side. In this picture the desk and bed are offstage to the right:

Centuries ago, Hội An was one of the most important trading centers in Asia. drawing settlers from many other countries.  Today, tourists come to look at the well-preserved old city and to sample the cuisine that resulted from that meeting of cultures. It seemed like maybe the New Year’s party had already gotten into full swing, but we were told that, no, it always looks like this.

Even I overcame my “fever” to spend some time in town.  One of the activities offered on our tour was an evening learning from Ms Lu at the Morning Glory Cooking School. The street view above is from the balcony where we ate  chicken skewers that we had prepared earlier (our pancakes and spring rolls having been consumed in the moment).

Each guest gets a bicycle.

Personally, I could have stayed at the Nam Hai forever, but it should be stated that others found themselves less suited to the arrangements. Alex points out that, though there is plenty of room for lounging, there are no chairs, so no meaningful back support. The components of the living area are ingenious but complex, as is the lighting system. And I have myself observed that any person who is six feet tall will eventually strike his or her head on the elegant shelf in the closet.

For the visual delight, for the appearance of the local Marou chocolate in the mini-bar, for the serenity of contemplating the pot of rainwater with its ladle out at the end of our yard, I would have been willing to learn to sit cross-legged, and to memorize the topography of the fixtures. But the opportunity did not arise, because, inevitably, after just a few days, we were off to Cambodia.

South from Hué

It was gray and rainy when our bunch landed in Hué, but Alex and I were prepared.  While the others pedaled around in filmy handout ponchos, we Seattleites were snug and warm in our robust, reflective yellow winter cycling jackets, rain pants, helmet covers, and even booties.  Still, we were plenty glad to pull up at our hotel, the Art Deco La Residence  (the history link on their website is worth a look). We spent some time cleaning the road dirt off our gear and then settled in for the evening, passing up the tour of the Citadel on the other shore of the Perfume River.

Among the splendid sights of central Vietnam is the Khai Dinh Mausoleum, resting place of the next-to-last Nguyễn emperor, who died in 1925. The bronze likeness was cast in France — a clue to his coziness with the colonialists, which earned him criticism from many of his subjects, including the young Hồ Chí Minh. Nonetheless, we have the Emperor to thank for the decree that Vietnamese would no longer be written in Chinese characters, providing the tourist with the single scant hope of understanding some of the language.

Veneration of ancestors is important in this part of the world, so you don’t have to be the king to get a noticeable tomb. Elaborate monuments rise from rice fields and hillsides. At another altar, we joined in the ritual of burning currency so that wealth might be carried aloft by the smoke to waiting spirits.  (The money that’s burned is normally counterfeit, raising some question about who is being fooled.  Later I saw a guy carrying a cardboard motor scooter, and yet still had to be told its purpose.)

We aren’t souvenir hunters, but one of my favorite stops was at a village where handicrafts were on display.  One little shop was producing incense sticks, starting from freshly-cut bamboo that we saw being brought in. Next door was a maker of those ubiquitous conical hats made from palm leaves; and there I learned another thing I wouldn’t have guessed.

The hats aren’t completely opaque, and it turns out that it’s possible during construction to add an intermediate layer with a message or a picture, like in a shadow-play, that will be visible only when the hat is trans-illuminated, as by holding it up to the sun. Traditionally, a suitor might carry this discreet message for his beloved, revealing it, wordlessly, only at the ideal time and place. While it wasn’t practical for me to commission one of these “poem hats,” I was very glad to bring the concept back with me.

After a couple days in Hué it was time to head south. The idea is to ride over Hầm Hải Vân (“Ocean Cloud Pass”) to Đà Nẵng; but, as sometimes happens, I got a late start and decided to skip the uphill grade. From the summit though it was a new day, the weather now sunny and warming, with a pleasant ride downhill and then across the harbor to the Buddhist temple out on the peninsula. Lunch followed at a resort near there and then a bus ride, south along China Beach to our next stop, the Four Seasons Nam Hai at Hoi An.

Đà Nẵng’s answer to Fisherman’s Terminal.

Hanoi Traffic

Fifty years to the day after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, we were on our way to Vietnam.

This wasn’t a political act — we just hadn’t thought about the date, and were looking forward mostly to a Backroads bicycle trip.  Apparently, the locals weren’t giving the anniversary any particular notice either though, at least that we observed from our room at the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, or while strolling around the Lake of the Returned Sword.

Peach blossoms too.

The lunar calendar put the celebration a couple weeks later in this particular year, on February 16, so we were present for some of the preparations. The holiday is close enough to Spring that decorations center around flowers and fruit.  A favorite, and frequent, image in Hanoi is a decent-sized kumquat tree speeding down the street, partially obscuring a motorbike, the latter bearing at least one human, and possibly more.

We saw many other loads, just as remarkable in different ways. One scooter was carrying a tall oxygen cylinder placed transversely at the driver’s feet. There were plenty of two-wheeled hay-wagons and mobile kitchens of course. These extra-wide vehicles beep continually as they travel; the regular ones, mostly just when merging or passing. The note of a car horn here is usually advisory, not accusatory. I don’t remember seeing any sign of anger or aggression.  It may be that all have become conditioned to view the chaos as a communal problem, rather than a zero- sum competition.

There’s lots of other stuff to talk about besides motorbikes, but traffic is the one aspect of life that just can’t be ignored. The pedestrian is not sacred here.  A walk light may tell you when to cross, but it doesn’t seem to tell vehicles to stop for you. Spotting a lull is doubtless a good idea, but the essential skill is to move with absolute predictability.  Traffic will certainly part for you, but in the way that a river will part for an island, not as the Red Sea would for Moses.  The speed of the current, and the smallness of your island, are both remarkable.

The system works astonishingly well.  Our trip leader Trevor says that, when back in the States and waiting for a traffic signal, he sometimes finds himself thinking.  “Why are we all just sitting here?  This is so inefficient!”  There are over seven million people living in Hanoi, and over four million motorbikes. No pavement is wasted.

This all probably seems natural to the participants, who will have grown up in traffic. I wonder if infant-scooter-position may not be more important to development than birth order?  I would imagine that a person who grew up draped over handlebars, Kilroy-fashion, would be fearless and outgoing, at least compared to one who was carried in the driver’s backpack, perhaps facing another relative.

At the hotel, an oasis . . .

Alex and I got to see more of this phenomenon than some of our fellow-travelers, because we took a separate side-trip to Hai Phong, two hours each way by car, on our way to Ha Long Bay.  During this journey I developed my second theory,  that motorbikes provide a kind of lubricant for larger vehicles.  Say you’re driving along in a truck and want to move left one lane. Vehicles in that lane are paying you no attention.  But sooner or later a motorbike will wedge its way in, perhaps followed by others.  They may not be as long as a car, but they aren’t as wide either, and eventually part of your truck may share their lane. Now you briefly have two lanes to choose from, as the bikes swarm off to fill some other void.

There are a few other refinements to bear in mind.  For instance, left turns may occur in two stages, the first beginning well before the intersection. For the pedestrian, again, all that is required is resoluteness.  The cyclist needs a broader perspective; and for this reason, we were not allowed to pedal in traffic until we got to Hué.

Holiday Wrap-up 2017

It was a pretty good year — as far as I remember.  We were both under general anesthesia for part of the time;  Alex at least got a new hip out of the deal.

Prior to that, we spent a portion of our summer first in Berlin, and then along the Rhine, bicycling part of the way.  Accounts of that trip are available below, or by following the arrows at bottom left.

To get in practice for traveling, I had flown to Lubbock for the 50th year reunion of my high school class.  The old building, like many of us, has gotten bigger; the difference is, it’s looking a lot better than it did back in the ’60s.

Some kayaking occurred also.

Fortified, we are again looking forward to new adventures.  We have signed up for the Backroads  bicycle trip to Vietnam and Cambodia in February, and then plan to spend a few days in Hong Kong afterward.

Season’s greetings to all, and a wish for a great new year!

 

Amsterdam

After the end of our bike trip in September we spent a few nights in Amsterdam, made even more pleasant by staying at the five-star Hotel Pulitzer, an assemblage of 25 grand old canal houses cunningly linked together and named for one-time owner Herbert Pulitzer, grandson of the publishing magnate. The abundance of architecture spells some trouble for the bellhop, and a real danger of getting lost on your way back from breakfast, but it also means that there are some wonderful spaces to enjoy, both shared and private. Not all such spaces are indoors: the hotel has its own historic canal boat, built in 1909 but recently converted to electric power, available for hourly rental as well as scheduled tours.

It was in the hotel that I first discovered another charming feature of life in Amsterdam: hot chocolate is customarily served in kit form.  Whipped cream appears on the side, to be added as required, avoiding milk-moustache and allowing accurate titration.

This particular scene is from Bagels & Beans, a little chain of cafes, and demonstrates ultimate coco-deconstruction: the chocolate itself arrives separately.

By the way, the Pulitzer is thorough in carrying out its literary theme.  Not only are there books for reading anywhere you look, but if you turn your shirts in for washing they come back neatly folded in manuscript boxes.

Also, Amsterdam may be the only place you’ll ever find bicycle tire repair kits among the items for sale in your mini-bar.

Friedrichshafen

Between our visit to Berlin, described in an earlier post, and our Backroads bicycle trip down the Rhine, we traveled to Friedrichshafen.  It’s a nice enough city on its own, but for aviation buffs it’s a can’t-miss. We spent parts of five days there at the end of August.

Our Zeppelin approaches Konstanz.

Most folks these days, when they think about flying, think about airplanes. But airships flew above Lake Constance before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, and crossed the Atlantic before Lindberg, thanks largely to the ambition of local hero Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

Germany’s economic troubles following World War I, plus some later unfortunate experiences with hydrogen as a lifting agent, allowed heavier-than-air machines to surpass airships in popularity. But they never went away. Once aloft, they’re vastly cheaper to keep that way than any other conveyance (or surveillance platform). They’re relatively quiet and can operate in places where runways have yet to be built. And they’re huge, so there’s plenty of room on the side for advertising.

When the familiar Goodyear blimps neared the ends of their useful lives, that company partnered with successors of the original Zeppelin concern to produce replacements. This has been part of a world-wide renascence, in which we were happy to share during our vacation. We booked passage on the Zeppelin NT.

The flights at Friedrichshafen (or at Munich if you happen to be there instead) range from the half-hour bucket-list ascent to the two-hour circumnavigation of Lake Constance. (Twice a year they also offer instruction, during which you can get 30 minutes of time at the controls.) We chose the hour-long sightseeing trip to Konstanz. Everybody has a window seat, some windows are openable for better photography, and at the end they offer you sparking wine in the best ballooning tradition. In the picture above, we are near where the Rhine leaves the lake on its journey to the North Sea.

The ride doesn’t provide time for the luxury once lavished on transatlantic passengers, but it is gentle and quiet, and takes place at an ideal height for sightseeing.  Airplanes need to move very slowly on the ground but very fast in the sky, and weather can complicate the transition. While hot-air balloons are always struggling to be at the right altitude, the Zeppelin achieves neutral buoyancy like a diver, and then climbs and descends by directing its thrust.

Entering and leaving the airship requires some choreography though — new passengers board gradually as old ones leave, so that the load stays about the same. There’s no extendable jetway — actual steps are climbed up and down.  But, resting in its enormous hangar at night, after the tourists are all gone, while its handlers are asleep, the Zeppelin remains patiently airborne.

Our gracious, multilingual flight attendant occupied the co-pilot’s seat for takeoff and landing, an arrangement that would make sense if only to maximize room for passengers.  But I noticed that she kept her left hand resolutely on a T-handle at the rear of the control console during those procedures, its light blue color suggesting to me that it could be used to dump ballast. And indeed, after our flight, as we watched the aircraft depart with our successors, a considerable amount of water was shed, attesting to our own lot’s sveltness — at least compared to the after-brunch crowd that followed us.

The picture above looks back toward the airport from Fischbach, a town just to the west of Friedrichshafen, where an old gradeschool friend spent many years.  It also includes the restaurant “La Taverna,” where we had a memorable meal on our first night.

Aviation-wise, Zeppelins aren’t the only game in town. Count Ferdinand’s personal scientific advisor, Claude Dornier, originator of all-metal monocoque aircraft construction, founded a company of his own, capitalizing on the airplane boom to make huge flying boats, affording passengers the treatment they had come to expect from dirigibles combined with the speed and noise of heavier-than-air machines (one of his airplanes, long the world’s largest and most powerful, had twelve engines). Again, politics interfered with innovation, and eventually Dornier was swallowed up by other companies (Daimler, Fairchild, Airbus . . . ); but during its life the company led in the development of vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft and was involved in a big array of other projects, including some American aircraft (Hueys, F-104s) and in space exploration and sustainable energy.

The Dornier story (again in amazing detail) is told in their museum, on the other side of the runway from the Zeppelin hangar. Their theme is that anyone can be a pioneer, and a glance at the aircraft there — even just the ones sitting around outside — suggests a certain lack of concern about whether their airplanes looked like anybody else’s.

Post-vaction Update:  The Dornier museum will now also display a Boeing 737, the one hijacked on its way to Frankfurt in 1977, “as a symbol of a free society, undefeated by terror.”

Between flight-related missions, we traveled again to Konstanz, this time via a fast catamaran. Welcomed to the harbor by the statue of Imperia, surely one of the most remarkable pieces of public art anywhere, we faced the choice of visiting the garden island of Mainau close-up, or wandering around the streets gawking at old buildings (connected however to the city’s free WiFi, making tourism even easier).  We chose the latter, and ended our visit with a long-anticipated lunch at Tolle Knolle, a potato-centric restaurant of international repute.

Konstanz also offers the opportunity to walk, or cycle, back-and-forth across the Swiss border, if you haven’t already.  But we would soon be on our way to Basel anyhow . . . .

One more thing about Friedrichshafen. On a walk from our hotel, beyond a shopping center and an apartment building under construction, I was surprised to encounter a big field of corn. A sign nearby listed sister-cities, including Sarajevo; Imperia, Italy . . . and Peoria, Illinois. I suspect that the corn is meant for livestock, or for other uses, like compostable plastics.  We didn’t see so much of it in the markets, but we later saw it growing all along the Rhine valley.

Berlin

We were going to Germany anyway, for a bicycle trip.  How could we skip Berlin? Chock full of recent, relevant history, capital of a country at the crossroads of modern economic and political trends, well served by public transport; described by a former mayor as “poor but sexy”  — we went there near the end of August.

A picture from near the top of the Reichstag dome.
Confronted with a new metropolis, we usually spend most of our time just gawking at buildings from the outside. Berlin is an unusual case when it comes to architecture. For one thing, it’s a new city: the Middle Ages were nearly over before anybody gave much thought to living here. Later, much of the city was destroyed in the Second World War.  After that, there was a lot of real estate without clear ownership, coexisting with great swaths of utilitarian Communist housing. Finally, the disappearance of the Wall left oddly-shaped open spaces.

One smart thing we did was to get the folks from Berlin on Bike to take us around. Our first guide, André Franke, a city planner by trade, showed us a lot of neat stuff that we would have missed otherwise. Then we spent part of another day mostly looking at historical sites.

If you sign up for the tour of the Reichstag, they let you climb up the spiral ramp, all the way to the top of the new see-through dome. The symbolism of this feature is pretty powerful: the populace is explicitly superior to their legislature, and transparency is paramount. Active climate control is built in, too. Plus, the view is pretty good.

For the very best view, we had  a late lunch on another day at the Fernsehturm, East Berlin’s answer to the Space Needle. The reservation is the way to skip the ticket lines and guarantee yourself a good seat, and we found their gluten-free choices online before signing up. In this picture, our hotel would appear near the upper right hand corner:

A picture from the restaurant at Berlin's Fernsehturm.

From near that point, the path of the former “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” (billed as keeping out freeloading capitalists) heads across the top of the picture and then just this side of the big green wooded area on the left, the Tiergarten.  West Berlin lay beyond there, as far as Spandau but not so far as Falkensee, bounded by more of East Germany. Today, wherever the route of the wall is not otherwise obscured, it is marked on the ground by a course of bricks set lengthwise in a band of cobblestones.  The Mauerpark, near our hotel, recreates a segment of the Wall’s environment.

In addition to the visible, linear, open-air trace of the former Wall, there are two essential concentrations of historical material.  The first of these is called “Topography of Terror.”  Purpose-built on the site of the original SS headquarters, it’s not just a museum but a “documentation center.” Modern Germany became the country that it is by coming to terms with its past, rather than trying to deny it as another nation might hope to do. It has done so in meticulous detail. The lives and careers of particular figures are carefully documented, alongside official actions and broad social currents.  We are reminded that only when judging the Third Reich did the world first begin to hold individuals accountable for the atrocities of war and genocide. Close by is a monument different in nearly every way, the 4.7 acre Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is a place of art instead of analysis, evocative rather than referential.

Hatred of Fascism was intense after the war, and suspicion in East Germany was particularly slow to abate. Those who had fought to defend Marxism were not going to take any chances. The second great repository of totalitarian memorabilia is in the actual former STASI headquarters, near Frankfurter Allee in Lichtenberg. Records and paraphernalia are preserved and displayed here too.  The eavesdropping devices seem quaint, but the methods of coercion have changed little — a target was led to do something wrong, through blackmail or bribery (maybe a chance to get needed medicine or to aid a relative); once the line had been crossed, an informant could protect himself or herself only by continuing to betray others. The actual settings have been preserved — the crisp blond wood paneling we recognized from “The Lives of Others” or the TV series “Weissensee;” the chairs where suspects were asked to sit on their hands,  the medals awarded to the patriot-inquisitors, etc.

If every knock on the door was a threat to the mid-century Berliner, that’s hardly the case for the modern tourist. Now it’s the sound of room service, or one’s clean laundry returning. Our hotel, the i31 (named for its address on Invalidenstrasse) goes ‘way beyond offering the typical complimentary shampoo or sewing kit.  With a deposit, you can borrow, cost-free, their pair of electric motor scooters, or an actual sub-compact car.   And every room comes with the free use of a dedicated smartphone, with local information pre-loaded.  I found this particularly “handy”, as my plan to buy a European SIM card for temporary use was thwarted by recent changes in security regulations.

Breakfast at our hotel

In many European hotels, the bar and reception functions have begun to merge.

Before leaving, one more kind of monument needs mentioning, a cross between the art and documentation mentioned above, between enormity and individuality: Stolpersteine, the stumbling-stones that appear now across Europe but clustered in places like Berlin.  Each brass square bears the name, at least, of someone who was taken away, and it is placed at his or her last voluntary dwelling or place of work.

There are, at a recent count, at least 40,000 of these, each (or sometimes, as here, each little group) with a poignant story to tell. Those stories need to be heard, in a world where many are eager to make the same mistakes that Germany once learned from. (In the city of Hagen, a group of students are literally making stories heard, by linking them to geospatial data, allowing smartphone users access to written or recorded information.)