A Perfect Week in Berlin

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now repurposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

One of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, now re-purposed as an outdoor gallery on the banks of the Spree

 

Two skyline icons of the new and old Berlin: the rebuilt Neue Synagoge and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

Two icons of the new and old Berlin: the Berliner Dom and the Fernsehturm on Alexanderplatz.

It has been a long time since I’ve had a great week, much less a perfect one. Divorce, the death a year ago of someone I’d known and loved for fifty years, and my own black dog of depression have conspired against good days, much less good weeks, these past two years.  But as I arrived home last Sunday from a week in Berlin with my dearest and oldest friend in the world, Nancy Talbot, perfect was the only word to describe it.

The weather was gorgeous, warm but not hot, breezy and so beautiful that we walked for miles every day, wandering in and out of neighborhoods nach Lust und Laune, as the Germans would say, that is with no set itinerary or destination.   The two times that it did rain were brief cloud bursts that cleared the air of dust and pollen and made Berlin sparkle like a platinum-and-emerald crown worthy of a Hohenzollern queen.

The company was wonderful, a combination of family – my mother and oldest brother, Pete, who happened to be in Berlin the same week – and old and new friends – my two pals of 40 years, Nancy and Peter, and my new friend, Barbara, Peter’s wife – and made for lively discussions and intimate, heart-to-heart talks that nourished the soul, as well as the mind.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

Dinner with friends at a Turkish restaurant in Koepenick, outside of Berlin in the former East Germany. The town has a lovely castle/museum and sits  on the Spree River four hours by boat downstream from Berlin.

The museums and monuments, a dazzling melding of the former East and West Berlin collections and institutions, as well as new ones built since reunification, are so numerous and stimulating that you could stay a year in Berlin and not see them all.  Having bought a three-day Museum Pass, we took advantage of it to fit in nearly a dozen exhibitions while we were there, including the wonderful Jugendstil collection housed in the  Broehan Museum.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

A stunning Jugendstil desk and chair at the Broehan Museum in Charlottenburg.

 

On another day, we took on the Deutsches Historisches Museum and its intellectually rigorous timelines and artifacts, while on yet another I sneaked out to revisit some old favorite 19th century German paintings like Casper David Friedrich’s “Moonrise Over the Sea,”  which used to be housed in the Neue Galerie in the old West Berlin, but now hangs among thousands of other 19th century European paintings in the Alte Galerie on the Museuminsel, or Museum Island.  Best of all, staying in Mitte, the hip part of town that used to be a part of East Berlin, we hardly ever needed to use public transportation, opting to walk most places, instead.

Casper David Friedrich's Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Casper David Friedrich’s Moonrise Over the Sea, one of my favorite paintings in the world

Our hotel was unbeatable.  I’m not one to usually plug one place over another, especially not a chain hotel, but the Radisson Blu was flawless.  Our immaculate room looked right out at the Spree River and the Berliner Dom, and we had the world’s largest indoor, circular aquarium right in the lobby and so got to watch swimming fish and scuba divers cleaning the tank while we ascended and descended in the hotel’s elevators.  And having booked a Business Class room, free Wifi and the hotel’s truly sumptuous buffet were included in the room price and eliminated the need or desire to eat lunch (although not Kaffee und Kuchen, of which we ingested a lot). Best of all, when we finally retired every night around 1:00 a.m., no one banged on paper-thin walls to tell us to stop laughing so loud, because the thick steel doors and sturdy walls rendered our room the most peaceful and restful haven I’ve ever experienced in the middle of a huge city.  I’d go back to the Radisson Blu in a heartbeat.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A scuba diver at work in the aquarium in the middle of the Radisson Blu lobby in Berlin.

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel

A tour boat on the Spree, right below our hotel window

And finally for this inveterate birder, and since this blog is really about birding most of the time, there were birds everywhere in Berlin, especially eagles, which have played an important role in German iconography and symbolism for over a thousand years.  Granted, most of them were stone or wood, but I loved the sensation of  being observed by the majestic birds everywhere I went, from Schloss Charlottenburg to inexplicably random street corners and building facades across the city.  My heart soared every time I saw one of them. And even the lowly Hooded Crow, a common scavenger all across Berlin, made me smile at its comic antics.

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well

The black eagle, the longtime symbol of German kings and other rulers, and the official bird of the German Republic, as well.

 

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

Another soaring eagle, this one in the courtyard of the Maerkisches Museum in Berlin

 

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

A Hooded Crow, doing what he does best, scavenging

I came back from Berlin a different person than the one that left, a heady mix of ingredients conspiring to finally return the woman I used to be.  I’ve missed her and I’ve missed Berlin.  Being back there was perfect.

Forty Years On, Berlin Is Better Than Ever

 

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

The Quadriga of Victory atop the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin

 

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

In front of the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, with my oldest and best friend, Nancy Talbot

Forty years ago, I moved to Berlin with two of my brothers and my father when he became CEO of a large German corporation.  It was a decision made as all decisions by my father were, which is to say without prior consultation or even notification.  It was left to our housekeeper, Hedy Hauser, to tell us that we were leaving New York and moving back to Europe, not to Switzerland, where my parents were from, or to England, where I had been born, but to Germany.

Truth to tell, I knew very little about Germany or Berlin at the time.  I was fifteen, a top student at the private school where I finally felt settled after two lonely years, and if I had ever wanted to move back to Europe, it would have been to France, whose language I studied and loved and at which I excelled, placing fourth in the nation among French students, encouraged by my wonderful Algerian-born teacher Mrs. Amsellem.  So the news that we would be packing up and leaving the only country that I could remember, and the few friends that I had garnered, was devastating. But no matter.

After spending Christmas with our Ohma in Switzerland, and on (in retrospect) the presciently named Epiphany Day, January 6, 1974, my brother Dan and I flew into Tempelhof Airport in the American Sector of the four-way divided, post-World War II city of Berlin to join our father and brother Pete.  And though I did not know it then, and even if I still marvel at my teenage self for how quickly I transitioned from Swiss-German to High German after being unceremoniously enrolled at a German-American school where the vast majority of students and teachers were German, moving to Berlin was one of the best things that has ever happened to me.

The four years that I called Berlin home before returning to the U.S. to attend college transformed a shy, awkward and impressionable Swiss-American girl into a confident, sophisticated and intellectual woman who proudly called herself a Berliner.  I adored and still madly love this city of opposites on the Spree, where comedy and tragedy, intellect and ignorance, darkness and light, kindness and cruelty, reason and insanity and beauty and ugliness seemed then (as now)so inextricably intertwined, like doomed, conjoined twins who awed and appalled in alternating cycles, each wanting to best the other.

It was in Berlin that I met my best friend in the world, Nancy Holston, now Talbot; embraced classical music, opera, theater and art and culture of all forms; became blasé about tanks rolling by our school every day; watched armed East German soldiers squint at me from concrete towers adjacent to the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie; laughed so hard at the mercilessly sharp humor here that all others paled in comparison; and happily smoked and drank my way through my teenage years.  It was here that I came into my own, falling in and out of love, reveling in the ability to travel to foreign countries for a weekend, devouring history as hungrily as German bread and Currywurst, and savoring the wonderful incongruities of wild boars and high-class brothels, both on the street where we lived.

I have called many places home, but no city has ever captured my heart like Berlin -during or after the Wall – and no friends have ever meant more to me than those made here. And so, forty years after I first arrived, young and not a little afraid, I have come back again, not for the first time, but with my then and still-best-friend Nancy. We are of course older, each of us with our own memories and regrets, but both still filled with awe for the city, even more beautiful now since reunification.  With our beloved and very successful friend, Peter Tarnowski, we have explored the neighborhoods of the former East Berlin, filled with buildings that the Communist regime thankfully never thought to tear down, thus preserving glorious examples of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, whole courtyards and apartment buildings that now have been burnished to their original glory, as well as yet-unrepaired façades that wear their war wounds patiently nearly seventy years later.

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

A restored Jugendstil stairway in the Hackesche Hoefe area of the former East Berlin

 

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

The rebuilt Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, in Berlin

DSC02466

 

Fittingly for the former East Berlin, many of the neighborhoods still have an air of grief to them, the ghosts of  their former residents, mostly Jews forcibly evicted and sent to concentration camps to perish, still palpable.  Today, brass markers on sidewalks and building facades call them back to mind, as do the restored New Synagogue and the nearby Jewish Cemetery, where, as the war wound down, thousands of Gentile victims joined the Jews in uneasy repose, yet another juxtaposition in this endlessly complex, conflicted and truly beautiful city that I would gladly call home once again.

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews exterminated during the Nazi era

Brass plaques commemorating the lives of Jews who had lived in Berlin but were exterminated during the Nazi era

One of Berlin's many eagles, all stone

One of Berlin’s many eagles, all stone

A Morning at the Clay Licks

Parakeets waiting their turn at the clay lick

Parakeets waiting their turn at the clay lick

A blur of blue wings as parakeets take off and land at the clay lick

A blur of blue wings as parakeets take off and land at the clay lick

I don’t keep a life list of birds, but if I did, every parrot and macaw-like bird in the world would be on it.  They’re all so smart, brassy and gloriously gaudy, I just can’t get enough of them.

No surprise, then, that parrots and macaws were uppermost on my mind when planning my trip to the Amazon. I had two major criteria: I wanted to see lots of them and I wanted to visit a clay lick.  Clay licks, for the uninitiated, are gathering spots where parrots and their relatives flock to ingest clay to neutralize toxins that are in the seeds of fruits that the birds love to eat.  The toxins are there to prevent the seeds from being eaten so that they can safely germinate in the ground close to where the fruits fall. In reality, though, birds are nature’s best planters – and pretty smart, judging from how the parrots figured out how to foil the seeds’ defense mechanism – and I suspect that many more fruit trees have been planted through a bird’s back door than have ever actually germinated in the ground where the fruits first fell.

Clay licks exist throughout the Amazon region, a fact that indigenous people have known for centuries, but that outsiders discovered only fairly recently. Now, however, much as lodges throughout the Andes feature hummingbird feeders to allow visitors to see those birds close up, so, too, have Amazon lodges incorporated trips to clay licks as one of their principal draws. Napa Wildlife Center is no exception and it boasts an impressive three licks within 15 minutes of each other.

By 6:00 a.m. we were at our  first lick – a float by, if you will.  It was located on a high clay bank on the Napo river, and our captain stayed at least fifty yards away and cut the engine so that the parrots wouldn’t be disturbed.  Mostly what we saw was a mix of mealy and orange-cheeked parrots all tightly clustered against a cliff, squawking as only parrots can and seemingly having a grand time of pecking at the red clay. They had certainly gouged an impressive hole in the bank. Our second lick was in one of the Kichwa communities, which charges a $20 fee to go in there and observe their lick from a distance of about fifty feet.  It drew an entirely different, if equally vocal clientele: hundreds of dusky headed parakeets, yellow -crowned parrots and blue-headed parrots all clamored for their turn at the muddy clay.

It was the third lick that captivated me, though.  Situated about a 15 minute walk into the national park proper, observers sat under a thatched roof structure that looked out on the lick at the bottom of a steep, tree lined hill.  When we first arrived,  the birds – all parakeets, I noticed – created a deafening cacophony, but not a single one of them was at the lick itself.  Instead, as I looked up at the trees they shimmered with hundreds of cobalt-winged parakeets, all of them squawking furiously,  in fear it seemed.  Just above them, one lone scarlet macaw sat in a separate tree, watching.  Whether it was the macaw that had the parakeets nervous or a hawk somewhere unseen I didn’t know, but I settled in for a long wait.

Over the course of the next hour, the parakeets gradually and slowly worked their way down to the lick like apple peels in slow motion spirals.  One or two parakeets always led the way: a branch or two lower, then a whole tree, and suddenly hundreds more followed until almost all of the parakeets were in the same tree.  This process repeated itself five or six times until the first bold parakeets touched the ground and finally reached the lick.  Seconds later, the lick was alive with whirling green and blue wings, the birds’ pitched squawks now those of excitement and anticipation. I sat transfixed for another half an hour as the parakeets pecked at the clay, some of them staying for long periods of time, others pecking quickly and flying away. Interestingly, the macaw never did come down in the time I was there, nor did any other species of macaw, parrot or parrotlet, save for one orange-cheeked parrot, who was like a  buoy on an otherwise entirely blue and green sea.  I wish that I had been him.

 

 

The Owl of San Isidro

A gathering of photographers and birders for the nightly visit from the black-banded owl at San Isidro

A gathering of photographers and birders for the nightly visit from the black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro in Cosanga, Ecuador

Posing for a close up, the resident owl at Cabañas San Isidro surveys his adoring public

Posing for a close up, the resident owl at Cabañas San Isidro surveys his adoring public

A black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro

A black-banded owl at Cabañas San Isidro in Cosanga in Ecuador’s Napo Province

No one knows exactly how long there have been black-banded owls at Cabañas San Isidro in Ecuador’s beautiful Quijos Valley, but they’re so well-known among birders and photographers that one is featured on the lodge’s logo, and people make special treks just to see the owls. Large in stature – about the size of a barn owl – at least one owl shows up most nights here, not for the people, as some would like to think, but for the moths and other insects that these particular owls love to eat.

Black-banded and black-and-white-owls, which are closely related, are prone to hanging out in places like hotel parking lots and illuminated walkways where the bright lights attract the owls’ favored fare.  Last week when I was on the western slope of the Andes in the town of Mindo, a resident black-and-white-owl appeared nightly at Sachatamia Lodge’s parking lot, too.

Tonight at Cabañas San Isidro, a group of American photographers was getting antsy around 8:00 p.m., when dinner  was winding down in the lodge’s dining room.  “Ok, everyone in the parking lot in 15 minutes,” the tour’s leader announced, and the rest of the guests watched as the photographers grabbed their gear and headed out.  Half an hour later, I walked over to the parking lot myself, but the owl wasn’t in the same spot it had been the night before.  It didn’t take me long to figure out where it did show up, however, because I could see the flash of strobe lights near another lamp-post about fifty yards away.

It was so amusing to see the whole group and their array of expensive cameras all pointed up at this one owl, like paparazzi stalking a movie star. The night took on the atmosphere of a film shoot, just without the makeup crews and trailers.  The owl did its thing, which was to blink its red eyes, plump its feathers and swivel its gorgeous head repeatedly while the cameras clicked madly. I snapped a picture of the group, which expanded to include three late-arriving Dutch men and a couple from Quito – all toting similarly imposing cameras and lenses and jockeying for positions – took a few hurried shots of the owl and then walked quietly back to my cabin.  Entertainment just doesn’t get much better than that.

In the Ecuadorean Countryside

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A mountain lake in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A view to the mountains

A view to the mountains

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Guango Lodge near Papallacta

Free range chickens outside their hen house.

Free range chickens outside their hen-house.

High montane flora

High montane flora

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe  at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

A rufous-bellied seedsnipe at 15,000 feet in Cayambe-Coca National Park

Torrent ducks on the Guano River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Torrent ducks on the Guango River near the hot springs resort of Papallacta, about 40 miles east of Quito.

Travel writers seem to focus exclusively on the Galapagos Islands as Ecuador’s prime tourist draw, but having spent the last ten days on the western and eastern slopes of the Andes, I think they’re missing a more authentic Ecuador that also deserves to be discovered.

With birding as the organizing principle for my trip, the Ecuador that I’m experiencing – by car – is mostly rural countryside with small towns and villages, spectacular national parks, nature reserves and small lodges that offer comfortable accommodations, excellent food and wonderful wildlife in addition to birds.  There are pristine rivers full of trout and bass; challenging hiking trails on which you won’t see another soul; hot springs to soothe the most tired of muscles; and countless farm stands and simple eateries that all feature local foods, though that’s really not a term that needs to be touted here. Almost everything I’ve eaten here has been local, from fresh mozzarella to trout to chicken and most of the produce, including delicious mushrooms that were served in a soup last night here at Cabañas San Isidro where I’m currently staying.

Less than an hour east of Quito, for example, and at altitudes of up to 15,00 feet, Cayambe-Coca National Park offers stunning scenery, mountain lakes, hiking trails and the very real possibility of seeing two of its famed inhabitants: the spectacled bear and the least seedsnipe, both of which inhabit the upper reaches of the park. Though I didn’t see bears the day we were there, we did see the seedsnipe, and both my guide and the driver had separately seen bears on their last visits, less than two weeks earlier. There are no admission fees to that or any of  the parks or reserves that we visited, and on the day we were there we only saw four other people, two of whom were rangers.  The high montane flora, for anyone interested in plants, is simply spectacular, as are the vistas, although visitors accustomed to American national parks will be struck by the lack of any amenities, including bathrooms.

Heading east another half an hour past the park at about 11,000 feet is the town of Papallacta, which sits in the shadow of two volcanoes, the Cayambe and the Antisana, which are the sources of the hot springs that have turned the area into a popular tourist destination for Ecuadoreans. Accommodations in the town range from very simple to quite upscale, with virtually all of them offering access to the springs, and one or two offering full spa services.  There is also quite a nice, little botanical garden in Papallacta, as well as an excellent small inn, Guango Lodge, a few miles down the road. I stayed there and savored excellent Ecuadorean food, wonderful hiking trails along a river, and hummingbird feeders that drew hundreds of the tiny creatures every day.

Everywhere you look in this part of Ecuador there are rivers, waterfalls, farms that cultivate crops on steep slopes, and huge tracts of preserved land that keep the area appealingly wild and filled with wildlife like tapirs, pumas and agoutis. Driving the countryside in search of birds, we passed countless small farms with chickens or cows.  This area, in fact, is known for its dairy products, including cheeses, butter and ice cream.  At times, if I didn’t look too closely at the flora, I could imagine myself in Switzerland.

If this part of Ecuador doesn’t have the polish of European or North American mountain resorts, it makes up for it them with its dramatic beauty that co-exists harmoniously with the seemingly timeless traditions of farming and living from the land.

A Day Walking in Quito

The Basilica in Quito

The Basilica in Quito

The Mirador de Panecillo statue, which looks down from a hill in Quito.

The Mirador de Panecillo statue, which looks down from a hill in Quito.

Restored buildings in Quito's historic district

Restored buildings in Quito’s historic district

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, marker and museum outside of Quito.  The yellow line represents the equator.

The Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, marker and museum outside of Quito. The yellow line represents the equator.

A Quechua woman selling strawberries, one of dozens who come into Quito every day to seek produce

A Quechua woman selling strawberries, one of dozens who come into Quito every day to sell produce

I’m not much of a city person  anymore.  Too many years living  on a farm where owls and foxes provided white noise at night, where I never took the car key out of the ignition and couldn’t remember if there even was a key for the front door, changed me.  Whereas I used to love the relentless bustle, noise and swagger of big cities, now I find most of them overwhelming and insufferably self-important.  Whether in London, New York or Bangkok, I find most cities dirty to an appalling degree, unsustainable in almost every way and pricey beyond what most normal people can afford. Cities also tend to exacerbate economic schisms, resulting in really rich and really poor neighborhoods, with little in between and not much interaction.

Still, I am a sucker for nice architecture and I love walking around neighborhoods people watching and peeping into other people’s lives. Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, features lots of diversions on both fronts, and I spent a very happy day exploring it solely by foot. With the historic center dating back to the 16th century and built on Incan ruins, Quito is not only an old city, but at 9,350 feet it is also the world’s second highest capital city behind La Paz, Bolivia and so is breathtaking in the literal sense.  Having flown in from sea level the night before, I started the day in my fusty historic hotel, the Sierra Madre, with a mild headache that I flushed out with copious amounts of water. That necessitated many bathroom visits over the course of my eight-hour perambulation, ranging from those in historic churches and convents to parks, local pastry shops and family owned restaurants, where I sampled all manner of local food.  The first piece of good news: there are plenty of clean bathrooms in Quito. The second: Ecuadorean cuisine is wonderful.

The local parks and streets are filled with vendors selling all types of food, from fresh fruit cups with mango, papaya and pineapple that school kids and businessman alike walk around snacking on, to plantains and chicken freshly cooked on small, wheeled grills with propane canisters, to little stands that featured a huge variety of fried foods, both savory and sweet. Just about every corner of Quito also featured Quechua women who come in from the provinces every day to sell their local produce in plastic bags, so that if you weren’t hungry right then, you could buy a bag of eight avocados, say, for the princely sum of $1.  Other similarly priced bags that the women hawked in sonorous, repetitive chants included grapes, strawberries and cherries, all of which looked delicious.

Food was everywhere in Quito. Virtually every street in the city features a bakery or panaderia as they’re known here,  with delicious smells wafting from open doors or tiny stalls no wider than six feet. In addition, big streets usually also have a pastry shop with home-baked sweets and European pastries, as well as a local restaurant or two with typical Ecuadorean fare, which melds European and Latin American influences. The cuisine here includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a lot of rice and other starches, and includes everything from chicken in many forms, to beef and pork dishes, often served with freshly fried yucca chips. Dishes of fiery salsa were a staple at every stand or restaurant.  When I stopped for lunch, the chicken soup that I had as a starter for my $3.95 lunch featured an entire chicken foot, which seemed to be staring at me with every spoonful I took but was scrumptious, laced with fresh thyme and filled with vegetables and onions in its savory broth.  A dash of salsa made it a little more picante.

My meandering eventually took me to the historic district, where I did visit the beautiful but still unfinished Basilica del Voto National, as well as the Monastery of San Francisco, built in 1534, both very European in style and imposing.    Mostly, though, I made random turns down narrow alleys and found myself in the warrens of Quito, where the city was divided into whole streets that featured nothing but car parts, for example, or kitchen appliances or soccer uniforms or floor tiling or sewing notions. It was one of the most interesting discoveries of the day, especially because it seemed as though there wasn’t a thing that you wouldn’t eventually find if you needed it and knew which alleyway to turn down.

A lot of life is lived outdoors in Quito, I discovered.  All over I saw women casually nursing their infants on benches or while they stood talking on cell phones; large groups of school children in their uniforms playing tag and soccer in the streets after lunch; business people conducting transactions at open air and stand up cafés, and tourists crowding the main square in the historic center, as tourists worldwide always do.  Though the weather was overcast that day and so the view of the Pichincha volcano was obscured, the temperature was mild and pleasant. As I walked back to my hotel, the parks were packed with dog walkers, musicians, chess players and soccer players entertaining people on their way home from work.

Like most big cities, Quito has many different faces, from the alluring and well-to-do façades of meticulously restored colonial architecture and luxurious modern buildings, to the simple, even shack-like homes found not all that far away from the city center and seat of government.  Quito certainly has its share of impressive museums and cultural institutions, but it doesn’t wear its history ponderously, as does London, say.  It seems and is a city that is still defining itself as it sprawls outward onto the surrounding mountains and climbs to two million people in population. Having received many accolades in recent years for its beautiful historic center and surrounding natural beauty, Quito struck me not as a beautiful city first and foremost, but as a livable city, one in which rich and poor co-existed far better than in most other capitols I’ve seen.  It’s a city I’d gladly spend more time in.