Berlin is a city that harbors its share of ghosts. As Germany’s premier city marches ever further into the future, shiny new government buildings and designer lofts rising on vacant lots across the capital, vestiges of Berlin’s infamous role in two World Wars and a Cold War can still be found if you know where to look. A prime example of this 20th-century legacy is Teufelsberg, an artificial hill just west of Berlin that harbors an amazing connection to Second World War military history and a now abandoned Cold War-era spy station.
The history of Teufelsberg is a fascinating mix of World War II and Cold War intrigue. During the Third Reich, Teufelsberg was to be the site of a proposed Nazi military technical college that was never completed. After the war, German authorities began hiding the unfinished buildings by burying them under more than 75 Million cubic meters of rubble created by Allied bombing campaigns. As the Cold War kicked into high gear, American military personnel began using the artificial hill’s excellent height to improve their efforts to spy on Soviet and East German communications, eventually building the radar domes and buildings in evidence to this day.
Touring the Teufelsberg site today is possible through an organized tour, though there is a bit of an ongoingdebate amongst Berlin locals as to who should be allowed access. Once inside, the sight is a beautifully creepy mixture of colorful graffiti and decaying radar towers. Theme park this is not – broken glass, dark staircases and a lack of railings make the tour rather treacherous – but for a one of a kind chance to step inside Berlin history, it can’t be beat. Check out the photos below from Gadling’s recent visit.
For a country with only 1.3 million people, Estonia has a hell of an art scene. There are several good museums and galleries and a lively round of readings and exhibition openings.
One of the biggest names in the Estonian art scene is Raoul Kurvitz. He’s been big for a few decades now, producing a steady output of installation pieces, experimental films and paintings. Right now KUMU, the Art Museum of Estonia, has dedicated an entire floor to his work.
While I’m a hard sell with contemporary art (see my ambivalent response to Damien Hirst) I found Kurvitz’s work consistently challenging and innovative. He ranges from accessible videos like this cover of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness Darkness“ to weird art happenings that leave the viewers scratching their heads and feeling slightly disturbed.
This is an artist that takes risks for his art. In the 1989 experimental film “When Lord Zarathustra was Young and Polite,” he gets flogged by two female assistants and then washed into a Finnish river by an opening sluice gate. In another video he’s surrounded by fire. And I have to wonder what that blue paint tasted like when it came out of the fish’s belly.
KUMU is an ultramodern building chock full of Estonian art of all periods. What’s interesting is how they followed all the great Western traditions such as Impressionism, Cubism and the rest but put their own twist on it. And then there are the mavericks like Edvard Wiiralt who veered off into their own high strangeness.
The literature scene is doing well too. I was lucky enough to meet Piret Raud and Kätlin Kaldmaa, two Estonian authors who gave me the lowdown on writing in a language that only a little more than 900,000 of their countrymen speak. The rest of Estonia’s population are native Russian speakers and tend to look eastward for their reading material.
%Gallery-179740%Given such a small readership, you’d think publishing would be all but dead in Estonia, but nothing could be further from the truth. The fall of Communism led to an explosion of publishing houses. Where once there had only been a couple of official state-run publishers, now there’s more than a hundred indies. Many are micropresses with only one or two titles, while others are major houses with long lists.
That breath of freedom must have been a relief after decades of Soviet occupation. During those times many Western books and magazines were banned and sailors made a good side income smuggling them in. One of their best sellers, I’m told, was Playboy magazine. Pornography was banned in the Soviet Union. They saw it as Western decadence, I suppose. So admiring the Playmate of the Month became an act of political defiance. The world is a weird place.
Besides reading illegal imports, some Estonian writers bucked the system by participating in the Samizdat movement, writing subversive books and distributing them through a postal network to like-minded individuals. Since the Soviets didn’t exactly dole out printing presses with the ration cards, most of these books weren’t bound. They’d be typed out with a couple of carbon copies or simply handwritten. Kaldmaa told me some books were even photographed page by page and you’d get a stack of photos in the mail.
I would have loved to meet one of these writers. I write what I feel and all I have to risk is some anonymous coward giving me shit in the comments section. Say what you felt in the Soviet Union and you could end up in a KGB torture chamber. Writers back then had balls.
On my last night in the capital Tallinn I was invited to a poetry reading at Kinokohvik Sinilind, a rambling cafe/bar/arthouse cinema in Old Town. Several poets and a band took turns on the weirdly lit stage doing their stuff while a large crowd listened and chatted. The poetry was all in Estonian, of course, so I listened to the cadence of the words rather than their meaning. An odd experience but a rewarding one.
There were a lot of prominent writers there. Kaldmaa introduced me to a poet who specialized in translating poems from Japanese, Chinese and Korean into Estonian. He spoke French and English too. Scary. I met a whirlwind of others too, at the table or at the bar. Everyone seemed to have their latest book tucked under their arm, all cleverly designed by local talent.
I’m jealous of poets; they always get nicer covers.
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.
The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.
Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.
Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.
Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.
%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.
This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.
Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.
If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.
Today marks the 51st anniversary of manned space travel, and if you happen to be in a former Soviet country, you may be celebrating Cosmonautics Day. On April 12, 1961, 27-year-old Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space, orbiting the Earth for nearly two hours. The USSR beat the US in the space race by just three weeks, and two years later, Russia would send the first woman to space. Flickr user (and new father, congrats!) AlphaTangoBravo snapped this picture of a Russian Cosmonauts poster he picked up in Moscow. You can celebrate the anniversary of space travel, or Yuri’s Night, at parties around the world.
If you’ve traveled to Russia, you’ve probably ridden on the amazing Moscow Metro with impossibly deep and fast escalators, Soviet-realistic sculptures and mosaics, and constant flow of passengers. If you haven’t been, or just want a refresh, you can take a virtual ride with this video. It combines beautiful images, clever editing and dramatic music for a powerful travel video. Sčastlivovo puti!