An English Idyll in the Rheinland

This blog is getting too political lately. Now for something completely different.

I visited Heltorf Castle Park (g) yesterday, an English-style landscape park from the early 19th century located on the very northern outskirts of Düsseldorf. It's part of the private holdings of the Spee noble family (g) which has resided near Düsseldorf for centuries and has left its mark on the city and the surroundings in innumerable ways. 

The park was originally part of the private grounds of the nearby Castle Heltorf, an early 19th-century pile. A certain Abbé Biarelle conceived of the idea of creating an English-style park in 1796, and the renowned landscape architect Maximilan Weyhe (g) began the work in 1803. The park is 54 hectares, and open to the public only on weekends during spring and summer. I'd always meant to visit. I rarely met people who had, but the ones who did returned singing its praises. 

It's quite far outside the city center, a 20-minute streetcar ride away, but very much worth it. The place is magical, on a par with the finest English parks. The landscape is lush, slightly hilly, and dominated by a spectacular centuries-old trees from all over the world — conifers, firs, maples, magnificent copper beeches (called "blood" beeches in German!) and the largest tulip tree in Europe, which must be at least 45 meters tall. A brook winds through the park, and forms several ponds in which fat carp meander and tadpoles squirm. There are innumerable rhododendrons throwing off blossoms in all colors.

And the best thing is visitors have it all to themselves, since the park isn't very well-known, is somewhat out of the way, and is only open for a small part of the year. I saw only 6 other people in the few hours I spent there. The park is located well outside the city, charges €3 entrance, and has no "attractions" or ice cream vendors or playgrounds or bandstands or trashcans or bathrooms or any other distractions. The only sounds are birdsong and occasionally a faraway hum of traffic. (This is the most densely-populated part of Europe, after all.)

If you need any more stimulation than nature, discreetly molded by men of impeccable refinement, you're in the wrong place. And probably quite unclubbable.

I saw not a single speck of litter anywhere. The park doesn't even have any seating (although there are a few simple log benches) or signs, except two discreet wooden arrows pointing you in the general direction of the exit. You can get a photocopied map of the park about the size of a postcard at the entrance, but it looks to be about 30 years old. Not that anything's changed much in that time, of course.

You're meant to meander around, pleasantly lost, until you encounter a moat or ha-ha. The modern Spee family runs a forestry business in the area, and a small corner of the park is apparently used for this purpose, since I saw a small, discreet sign asking visitors to keep out. But that just adds to the charm. Something's got to pay for the massive effort of work it takes to keep the park looking so unpretentious.

I even ran into the owner, Wilhelm Count of Spee (pronounced 'shpay'). He lives in fairly modest water castle on the edge of the property, and was out taking pictures on this fine spring day. Like every member of the German nobility I've ever met, he was quite friendly and laid-back, but also impeccably groomed and dressed. He looks a bit like Ulrich Mühe. He obviously loves this jewel of a park, and seems to know something about every tree in it. He says he's working on a detailed book on the park's history, which I'm looking forward to.

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Street Art is Over. And So Is Berlin.

Every time I visit Berlin, which I do every few months, it seems a bit lamer and tawdrier. More and more of the dopier kind of tourists, more signs of social decay (beggars, madmen screaming at nothing, fights, vandalism, subway stenches, puke puddles), more chain stores. Don't get me wrong; it's still an interesting place, but the 'there' that was there is fading fast. In fact, Berlin's cachet is fading right in sync with street art's cachet. Take it away, Alex Cocotas:

I first visited Berlin in March 2008. The highlight of my trip was the Alternative Berlin Tour. I found the flyer in my hostel; it described itself as an “anti-tourist tour.”

…[T]he tour lasted more than eight hours. We visited artists’ studios in the Tacheles building; we illegally mounted a section of the Berlin Wall; we broke into an abandoned prison and climbed onto the roof to watch the sunset.

Along the way we stopped at numerous street art installations. They were everywhere: on walls, on sheered sides of buildings, wrapping around whole apartment complexes: colorful, political, irreverent. I had never seen anything like it. I took tens of terrible photos to show family and friends.

A few years later Exit Through the Gift Shop came out and suddenly everyone with a stencil and spray paint thought they were Banksy, and social media gave aspirants a platform to distribute their work globally with the meme as their conceptual framework. But at the time, it was pretty unique: a city draped in public art to brighten the day of pedestrians and residents, to give fresh stimulus to dull buildings.

Every time I stumble upon one of these murals or buildings I am always a bit amazed to find this fugitive artifact of memory disinterred from the phantasmagoria of impression. What then seemed so radical is now in the most generic and sterilized neighborhoods of Berlin, places I try my best to avoid. The Tacheles building, which I returned to after the tour and where I happened upon an impromptu concert in an artist’s studio that shocked my somewhat provincial perception of things, now sits empty, awaiting demolition and conversion to condominiums.

Street art was “discovered” and now covers every city with pretensions to cool. Developers use it to raise real estate prices; some artists are happy to go along, others keep their distance. What once appeared as semi-anonymous benevolence on the part of its creators now seems like an intentional act of brand building. Much street art I see today operates at the nexus of tired clichés and exhausted ideas. It sadly waits for someone to take its picture, unable to conceal its lack of joy and hollow origins.

And now it has been institutionalized by Berlin’s city government as the “Berlin Street Art Festival,” undoubtedly the brainchild of some mid-level bureaucrat tasked with dreaming up schemes to financially capitalize on Berlin’s accrued social capital.

 

An American in Berghain

Schlecky Silberstein stumbled upon this instant Internet classic — an American from San Antonio decides on the spur of the moment to visit legendary Berlin nightclub Berghain and, as his Yelp review indicates, is scarred for life. I'm putting it after the fold because, well, this is Berghain we're talking about. You've been warned.

Here's the text of the review, link to original below:

Please excuse the long review, but I'm going to share with you my experience at Berghain. I was in Berlin a couple weeks ago and I was sitting in my hotel bar. I started chatting with a couple guys from London. They seemed normal and told me they were getting ready to head to the worlds coolest night club. I figure it's Saturday night…what the hell. So I ask them if I can tag along. They said no problem. One of them informs me that I should probably change clothes because this place is hard to get into, but they had a connection. They recommended that I go change into black, simple clothes. No buttons on the shirts and no hoodies. They said if I had a black scarf, that would be awesome. Said the door guy loves scarves and black clothes. So I go change and come back down to the lobby. We hail a cab and are now off to this place called Berghain.

Upon arriving…I see this super long line that's leading into what looks like a commercial building of some sort. I'd liken it to a warehouse. It's not inviting at all. The guys from London tell me we are going to cut in line. While we are standing there looking for the spot to cut, I take out my phone to check Facebook. One of the London guys goes into a rage and starts cussing me out and grabs my phone. Yelling…"DON'T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE. DON'T USE IT!" "THEY WON'T LET US IN!"…Anyway…we get to the front of the line and there's this creepy looking, older guy with ear rings–face tats and spikes in his lips. Supposedly he's some type of guru in the club scene. He's a weird guy and yes he had a scarf on. He looks me up and down and then waves us in using his pinky…Now things are about to get really weird.

Once inside, the music is blasting too loud. You could feel it in your chest. I thought the bass was going to set my heart off rhythm. I tell the two guys from London…"Let's go get a beer!"…They look at me like I am crazy. They offer me these strange looking little pills and I pass. No drugs for me. They both pop them and then start making out! I'm not talking about a little kiss or a peck, I'm talking open-mouth, tongue kissing. It was very aggressive/disturbing kissing. I didn't even know these dudes were gay! I look around and there are 3 or 4 naked guys dancing all crazy with erections. I decide to go get a beer and I tell myself—maybe I'm in the wrong part of the club? Maybe this is the gay section. Nope. The whole club is the gay section!

On the way to grab a beer, I pass in disbelief, a bearded guy butt fucking the crap out of another bearded dude. You could smell feces and sweat. I take my eyes off of that situation and it only gets worse. There's another guy, and I kid you not…he's got his arm, almost to his elbow, up another guys ass! I thought it was a magic trick or an illusion. It WASN'T! The guy that's basically getting impaled is enjoying it! I saw one guy getting tag teamed (double penetration style) by 2 guys! I said to hell with this…I'm out of here! As I'm leaving, I remember that one of those Londoner's has my phone. So I need to go to find him.

Now there are naked guys everywhere! Sucking each other off. Fisting each other. There was one dude that was riding another guy (cowgirl style) and yelling "Balles Tief!" "Balles Tief!"…I ask the dude next to me…"What's he screamin?!"…He informs "Balles Tief" is German for "Balls Deep"…

This Nazi looking guy comes up to me with a syringe and acts like he's going to stick me with it. I jump back and think about beating the shit out of him and he starts laughing and in very bad English says "You vant chemical to keep wake and make you high?"…As I'm saying "NO!"…a loud siren/whistle starts blowing and the whole club starts going bananas! I ask this guy who looks like a vampire…"What the hell is that? Is there a fire or terrorist or something?"…He does this weird  giggle and say's the siren means it's "Slip and Slide time!"…100's of guys, the ones that aren't already naked, drop there pants and start masturbating on the dance floor. Evidently, you are supposed to ejaculate on the floor and make it slippy and then naked guys go sliding through it! WTF! I look back and that vampire looking dude is jerking off in my direction. I throw a beer bottle at him and start hauling ass out of there.

I run past this one guy that seems to be injured and he's asking for help. I'm a pretty nice guy, so I ask what happened. He bends over and you can see this silicone/rubber looking object barely protruding out of his butt. You could barely see it. He then explains that he had shoved a rubber arm with fist up there and it was stuck! This guy thinks I'm going to help pull it out?!? Get the fuck out of here!

I finally get to the exit and I yell to that weirdo door man "YOU SICK BASTARD!"…I hail a cab and make it back to my hotel. That was my experience at the "worlds coolest night club"..I can handle a lot of stuff, but this place was WAY over the top. I will not be back. Never.

Read Kyle W.'s review of Berghain on Yelp
https://www.yelp.com/embed/widgets.js

Spotting Berlin Gentrification — Follow the Blond Dreadlocks

I popped over to Berlin for the weekend and this time stayed in Friedrichshain. Friedrichshain is part of the former East Berlin which was pretty rundown 10 years ago, last time I visited, but is now gentrifying, as the phrase goes. I'd say the process is about 65% complete in Friedrichshain. You still have some hard-rock bars and blotchy, disgruntled East German retirees, but they increasingly look bewildered by what is happening to their Kiez ('hood). What you get instead are:

  • Boutiques with aggressively unique handmade purses and clothes out of rescued fabrics or ancient leather.
  • Self-consciously crudely hand-drawn posters for various kinds of punk that were all the rage when I was in college 25 years ago (Psycho-Trash Punkabilly from France, Runaway Monks Buddhist punk, Ska-Punk from Ipswich).
  • Small clever cryptic stickers showing faces in silhouette, Third World children, or bearing mysterious slogans like '435%' or 'BBAN' or 'whyisnow.com'
  • Posters demanding solidarity with Blockupy, with migrant workers seeking back wages, with the political prisoner Sürgül Amedölügcülügünülcü, with refugees, with the 'anti-Fascist resistance', with Mumia Abu-Jamal, with Pussy Riot, Gaza, homosexuals, squatters, and so many more!
  • Spray-painted anarchist symbols, haunting symbols of the imminent Revolution that will soon sweep us all into the Spree.
  • Small, ancient travel vans with faded stickers for bands, political causes, and football teams. 
  • That most insufferable of all claques, white people with dreadlocks. These people should be forcibly shaved, and their greasy hairworms used to make comfy pillows for refugees. After thorough sanitization, of course — the refugees deserve no less.
  • Community centers surrounded by multicolored murals with vaguely Eastern or ethnic themes.
  • Ads featuring ironic clipart of clean-cut, smiling 1950s housewives and businessmen. Again, all the rage in the US in 1988.

Did I miss anything?

The Neander Valley and Ultra-Rectilinear Mettman

Over the weekend I set out for the Neander Valley, where the first Neanderthal skeleton was found. It's also an ultra-pleasant hiking destination, complete with babbling brooks, succulent green meadows, winding forest pathways, mildly dramatic shale rock formations, and quaint villages where people set out bookcases full of old horse magazines by the side of the road. The leaves were, to use Oscar Wilde's phrase, 'ruined gold'.

During the hike I made a wrong turn or two and ended up in Mettman, famed as one of the epicenters of German Spießbürgerlichkeit (g) (petit-bourgeois stodginess). Everything there was quiet, respectable, recently-cleaned, and terrifyingly rectilinear.

Perhaps you readers can help me clear up a few mysteries in the pictures below. First, those metal studs pounded into the (mold-yellowed) wooden electricity pole? Who puts them there and  what do they mean? Second, the old stone markers by the side of the road in Bracken, Germany. What was their original purpose. Any clues would be appreciated.

Moss on rotting tree stumpPath and Meadow near Düsssel in Neander valleyPath in sunlight in Neander valleyRuined gold chestnut leaves in Neander valleySignal Studs in Wooden Electricity PoleStone marker in BrackenStone markers in BrackenUprooted tree roots amid broken slate Neander valleyView of Mettman Creek ValleyHouse in MettmanRectilinear neat garages in MettmanIch hase Zigreten machine in Mettman

Beech roots Neander valley Bookshelf and door near BrackenDetail of mountain creek wildlife info posterDüssel river in fall Neander valleyEsel Nicht Füttern Don't Feed the DonkeyGaststätte im kühlen Grund Christmas festInformation poster about molesIvy and beech leaves Neander valleyIvy Covered Rocky OutcropMaple leaf caugh in twigs Neander ValleyMeadows in Neander valleyMein Pferd magazines in outdoor bookshelf BrackenMigrating geese and doves in Neander valleyMoss covered rotting tree branch Neander valley

Pictures from the Siebengebirge

Last Friday a friend and I went hiking in the Siebengebirge, gradually ascending the Löwenburg. Below are a few pictures of the fall splendor, and of Haus Neuglück (g) a funky villa in Königswinter where a young Guillaume Appollinaire fell in love with an English housemaid. Lars von Trier, impressed by the gloomy splendor of this classic German forest, filmed 'Antichrist' near where these pictures were taken.

If anyone knows what built the large insect nest on Schloss Neuglück, please let me know in comments. 

Beech Tree Branches Forest Löwenburg Caryatid on Schloss NeuglückCreek near LöwenburgInsect Nest Haus NeuglückIttenbach Marker near LöwenburgLöwenburg Apple OrchardLöwenburg Path TSMany-Branched Tree on Path near LöwenburgMaple Leaves LöwenburgPath with Fir and Beech Trees near LöwenburgRotting Tree Stump LöwenburgSchloss Neuglück Info PlaqueShutters Schloss NeuglückSlate Outcrop near LöwenburgValley Below Löwenburger Hof