Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Summer 2011: Barcelona, Spain

July 23-27, 2011 -- Barcelona was the sixth and final city in Europe I visited by train before flying to Israel for a month.

The capital of Catalonia is a fiercely independent, vibrant, progressive place with loads of history. Barcelonians love their Barca football club, tasty tapas and pinchos, biking along the beach, and living life to its fullest. From Franco to the Olympics, this city has seen it all.

Speaking of those mouthwatering tapas. And yes, they taste as good as they look.

And the pinchos are just as tasty.

I have to give a hearty recommendation to Hostel One Paralelo. The location is amazing -- in a quiet residential area near the Olympic Village on Montjuic and an easy walk to La Rambla. The gracious hosts cook a free dinner for the guests every night. There is also a jacuzzi to relax in.

In light of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have spread across the United States and around the world, it must be noted that last May the Indignant Movement in Spain began the first around-the-clock protest camps in cities and towns across the country. Spain has the highest unemployment rate in the industrialized world at 21% overall and nearly 40% for young people under 30 years of age. Here is an Indignant protest banner in Barcelona.

I'm going to now try to explain the passion Barcelonians and Catalans have for their professional football club, FC Barcelona. The roots of the club, founded in 1899, run deep, much deeper than their recent success as the current European and Spanish champions, although that is a source of great pride.

But the bigger picture is that FC Barcelona is intertwined with the Catalan independence movement and the fight against Franco's fascist dictatorship. When Franco ruled Spain he attempted to impose Spanish nationalism upon Catalonia, which has a distinct language and culture. After the Spanish Civil War, these restrictions included banning the Catalan flag and prohibiting football clubs from using non-Spanish names. To this day, the Catalan flag is flown in defiance all over Barcelona.

Catalonians and Spaniards in general are just recently coming to terms with the Franco regime, which lasted from 1938 all the way to 1975. In 1938, the Germans and Italians provided air support to Franco during a bombing raid of Barcelona. During the aerial bombardment, a bomb struck the offices of FC Barcelona. But more devastating was a bombing campaign earlier in the year that killed 42 people, mostly children, who where hiding in the Church of San Felipi Neri. In 2007, there was finally a memorial plaque installed remembering this horrific act at the hands of Franco and his collaborators.

Knowing the history of Barcelona's football club and its ties to Catalan independence and the resistance to the Franco regime, it is easy to understand the team's slogan --  mes que un club, more than a club. Here is a picture of me in front of Barcelona's home field since 1957, Camp Nou. With a capacity of 99,354 it is the largest stadium in Europe.

Now that bullfighting has been banned in northeastern Spain, going to an FC Barcelona match is really the best way to get to know the sporting passions of Catalonians.

Besides the brutality of the Franco regime, there is another shameful period in the history of Spain I'd be remiss not to mention, and it is not even the Inquisition. The 1391 pogroms against the Jews across Spain resulted in some 300 Jewish deaths in Barcelona when the Jewish Quarter was attacked and destroyed. In the years following the massacre, the Jewish cemetery on Montjuic (Jew Hill) was ransacked and the Hebrew-inscribed headstones were pilfered and used to help construct many buildings in the Gothic Quarter, especially at Palau Reial Major (Grand Royal Palace). This is a stolen Jewish gravestone on the wall of the Palau del Lloctinent (Viceroys' Palace).

From Joan Miro to Pablo Picasso to Antoni Gaudi, so many genius artists and architects have left their mark on this city. But the most impressive and wondrous structure I've ever come across has to be Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece -- the Sagrada Familia. It is breathtaking up close. Every perspective reveals new details. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. It is a must see if you visit Barcelona

Click here for more observations of Barcelona on Green Center Blog.

Here are more photos of Barcelona. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

Here is video of a Barcelona street festival near the hostel.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Riding the Rails: Paris to Barcelona

July 23, 2011 -- After a brief one day visit to Paris, I hopped on a TGV high-speed train heading south from Gare de Lyon railway station to Spain through the French countryside and Mediterranean coast via Nimes, Montpelier-Saint-Roch, Sete, Agde, Beziers, Narbonne and Perpignan . After a transfer at Figueres-Vilafant to a Renfe high-speed train, I headed to my last destination in Europe -- Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.

It is hard to describe the feeling of speeding past vineyards and palm tree-lined coastal villages at nearly 200 miles per hour. It is amazing. I hope one day Americans will be able to experience true high speed rail like what the citizens of France, Germany, Spain, China, Japan and other nations enjoy.

And I hope that on that beautiful day in the United States of America when our trains travel over 200 mph, that we can look out the window and see wind turbines like these near the France-Spain border powering our country with clean, domestic power.

Here are more photos and video of my train trip from Paris to Barcelona. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr. The 30-minute video shows scenes of the spectacular French and Spanish countryside and Mediterranean coastline.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Summer 2011: Paris, France

July 22-23, 2011 -- Paris was the fifth city I visited on my summer trip to Europe after London, Brussels, Berlin and Prague. It was a very brief visit to the City of Light, but with a rented bicycle I covered a lot of ground in one day. And since the Tour de France would wind its way to the finish line along the Champs-Elysees the next day, it was appropriate to tour Paris on a good old-fashioned bicycle.

Like Brussels, Paris' bike sharing system only accepts European Smart Cards with embedded microprocessor chips. That means with my old-style American credit card I could not take advantage of the largest bike sharing system in the world, called Velib. Thankfully, there was a bike shop a few blocks down from Absolute Hostel where I stayed along the Canal Saint-Martin. For ten euros I rented a beat-up old mountain bike which did the job.

I biked down Canal Saint-Martin to Bassin de l'Arsenal to the Seine River and then along the Seine to Île de la Cité and Notre Dame Cathedral and other sights on the natural island where the medieval city was refounded. Then I crossed the Pont du Carrousel bridge to The Louvre Museum and explored the palace grounds before biking back to the hostel near Place de la Republique.

Click here for more observations of Paris on Green Center Blog.

Here are some photographic and video highlights of my brief bike ride around Paris. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.

Here is video of the Seine River, which runs through the heart of Paris.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Riding the Rails: Prague to Paris

July 21-22, 2011 -- After two days exploring Prague, I took an overnight Deutsche Bahn City Night Line train to Cologne and then transferred to a Thalys high-speed train that took me to my next destination on this summer's rail trip through Europe -- Paris, France.

Prague's modern train station is attached to the historic early 20th century Art Nouveau booking hall, which is now a cafe named after the Czech architect who built the station -- Josef Fanta. The station hall is well-preserved and is an excellent example of Art Nouveau architecture.

At the cafe you can order Mattoni mineral water from the spa town of Karlovy Vary, which is famous for its health benefits.

There is a memorial plaque to former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson with his quote that "the world must be safe for democracy." From 1945 to 1953 the Prague railway station was called Wilson station (Czech: Wilsonovo nádraží).

On Oct. 5 a memorial statue to Wilson, who helped the Czechs gain independence in 1918, will be rededicated in front of the railway station seventy years after the original statue was destroyed by the Nazis.

The couchette cars of the overnight train feature four beds and there was a fun group of Americans on their way to Amsterdam which helped pass the time to Cologne -- a college student from North Carolina, pictured left, and two friends from Texas touring Europe. We drank the original Czech Budweiser Budvar (called Czechvar in the U.S. and Canada) and had a great time into the night as we rolled through the German heartland.

After transferring to a Thalys high-speed train at Cologne, I finally arrived at Paris Gare du Nord railway station the next day and was ready to explore the City of Light.

Here are photos and video of the train trip from Prague to Paris. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.

Summer 2011: Prague, Czech Republic

July 19-21, 2011 -- Prague was the fourth city in Europe I visited after London, Brussels and Berlin. But it was unlike any other city I've ever seen because its Gothic and Renaissance architecture survived World War II largely intact, and also because the city was behind the Iron Curtain until 1989 and when the Czech Republic became an independent nation in 1993 it rapidly modernized and has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world.

In a word, Praha is spectacular. Walking to the Prague Castle, Charles Bridge or Old Town Square you get a feeling that the views aren't much different than what Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV saw in the 14th century when he ruled Bohemia or what early 20th century writer Franz Kafka experienced wandering the streets of this magical city on the banks of the mighty Vltava River.

Everywhere you turn there is a postcard picture to be taken. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, which is why I'm glad I took a tour to help explain the story behind all the amazing buildings and districts in Prague.

Like Berlin, Prague is a place that has survived both Nazi and communist tyranny to become arguably the most important city in Central Europe and certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

But democracy and freedom have not come easy for Prague and the Czech Republic and its citizens have paid a heavy price. The 1930 census of Bohemia and Moravia (where Prague is located) listed 117,551 Jewish citizens. In 1945, 10,090 Jews registered with the Jewish communities as returning deportees, out of a total of 80,614 who had been deported; 6,392 had died in Theresienstadt (a Nazi show camp used to fool foreign observers into thinking that Jews were treated humanely), 64,172 had been murdered in the extermination camps, and of the Jews who had not been deported, 5,201 had either been executed, committed suicide, or died a natural death.

In the former Pinkas Synagogue in Prague's Jewish Quarter there is a moving Holocaust memorial with the names of every Czech Jew who perished written on the walls. Upstairs there are drawings from doomed Jewish children imprisoned in Theresienstadt. This is the Old New Synagogue in Prague's Jewish Quarter. It is the oldest active synagogue in Europe.

Prague was behind the Iron Curtain from 1948 until 1989. During this time of communist totalitarian rule, the Czech people's basic human rights were suppressed, which led to the 1968 Prague Spring reforms and then to the strong Soviet reacton, which involved a military invasion of Czechoslovakia by four Warsaw Pact countries. Soviet troops would be present in Prague until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that ended communist rule. In 1969 two students separately set themselves on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet suppression of free speech -- Jan Palach and Jan Zajic. There is a memorial for the pair who bravely gave up their lives to protest brutal Communist rule in front of the National Museum. The plaque reads: "In Memory of the Victims of Communism."

Click here for more observations of Prague on Green Center Blog.

Here are photos and videos of this special city. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Riding the Rails: Berlin to Prague

Riding the rails along the Elbe River in the Free State of Saxony, Germany.
July 19, 2011 -- After visiting Berlin this summer, the next destination on my rail journey around Europe was Prague. I rode the EuroCity 171 Hungaria train from Berlin Central Train Station (Hauptbahnhof) to Prague Main Railway Station (Praha hlavni nadrazi). We traveled through the spectacular Saxony countryside along the Elbe River (Labe in Czech) and Bohemia in the Czech Republic.

The train was an older model and the Czech Republic isn't set up for high-speed rail yet so it didn't go as fast as most trains traveling through Western European nations. Czechoslovakia dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia rather recently on January 1, 1993 following two uprisings against the communist regime -- the Prague Spring of 1968 and the 1989 Velvet Revolution.  There are plans to construct a high-speed rail network in the Czech Republic, although operation isn't expected until at least 2020.

Prague Main Railway Station and train I took from Berlin -- EuroCity 171 Hungaria, whose final destination is Budapest, Hungary.
But traveling at slower speeds was actually preferable because it offered more time to enjoy passing the scenic countryside and historic villages, towns and cities in Saxony and Bohemia.

There are four seats to a cabin with a sliding glass door and I had it to myself for most of the trip. There is rolling cart food and beverage service as well.

As en environmental journalist and clean energy blogger, I couldn't stop snapping pictures of the wind turbines in Germany. Every time I looked out the window while traveling through the Saxony countryside I saw enormous wind farms with huge wind turbines.

Not to be outdone, while traveling through the Czech Republic I took this picture of a solar farm. That is a lot of solar panels supplying clean, renewable energy to citizens of the Czech Republic.

Another highlight was passing through Dresden. Almost completely destroyed by an Allied bombing campaign near the end of World War II, the city has been rebuilt since then and is now one of the most important cities in Germany.

Arriving at Dresden's main train station.
We finally arrived in Prague and I set out on exploring the next city on my European rail adventure.

Here is video of the rail trip from Berlin to Prague.

And here are more photos of the rail trip from Berlin to Prague. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Summer 2011: Berlin, Germany

July 17-19, 2011 -- Berlin was the third city I visited this summer after London and Brussels. It was also the most interesting. Perhaps no city in the world has been defined by events of the 20th Century than Berlin. The city has survived Nazism and Communism to become the liberal, tolerant city it is today. Berlin is the capital of a unified Germany that is a model democracy. The city that has suffered so much has triumphed over its tragic past.

I stayed at the Grand Hostel, which is consistently rated as one of the top hostels in Germany and the world. The historic building, constructed in 1874, is located in the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain overlooking the Spree River.

I highly recommend taking the New Berlin Free Tour, which leaves every day near the Brandenburg Gate for a 3.5 hour walking tour. The guide will ask for a tip at the end if you liked the tour, and most people give him around five euros. It is an excellent introduction to the amazing history of Berlin -- from its days as the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia; to the capital of the Third Reich; to when the city was divided by the Berlin Wall; to its development into a world-class city.

Seeing the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Gendarmenmark, remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie and other historic sites were amazing. But it was the brief twelve year period from 1933-1945 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party ruled Berlin that was most intriguing to me.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a moving memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Walking the 4.7 acres (19,000 square meters) through the 2,711 concrete slabs brings about different emotions to different people. For me, I felt how orderly, vast and inhuman the Nazi extermination system was.

But as much as Germans have gone out of their way to honor and remember the victims of Nazi tyranny, they have also chosen not to remember the perpetrators. Case in point is Hitler's bunker, which is located underneath a car park a few blocks from the Holocaust Memorial because German authorities don't want it to become a shrine for neo-Nazis. There was not even a plaque to mark the site until the 2006 World Cup was in Germany. After 66 years, the feelings are still too raw in Germany to even attempt an archaeological excavation of the underground site where the Fuhrer married Eva Braun before they both committed suicide as Russian soldiers closed in.

Another few blocks brings you to the only Nazi-era building still standing after the Battle of Berlin and the Allied bombing campaign in 1945 -- the Ministry of Aviation Building, where Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring was in charge of development and production of aircraft, primarily for the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe).

The government building was a vivid reminder of the cold, calculated centralized bureaucracy behind the mass murder of millions. This building was a typical government building in Berlin during the Nazi era. Thousands of bureaucrats making life and death decisions every day. The most disturbing thing about it is that the building wouldn't be out of place in Washington, D.C., Paris, Beijing or any other world capital.

Bebelplatz is the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony, which took place on the evening of May 20, 1933. The Nazis set fire to 20,000 books by many authors including Heinrich Heine, whose tragically prophetic quote from 1820 is engraved at the site of the book burnings: "Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people."

A memorial by Micha Ullman consisting of a glass plate set into the cobbles, giving a view of empty bookcases, commemorates the book burning.

There are stories of ordinary Germans who did extraordinary things during that dark period in human history. One such figure was a local police officer named Otto Bellgardt, who on the night of Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi mobs were destroying Jewish businesses and institutions across the city, saved the historic New Synagogue on Oranienburger Straße by drawing his pistol and telling the mob it was a protected historical landmark and he would uphold the law in protecting the place. The crowd dispersed and the synagogue was saved.

Click here for more observations of Berlin on Green Center Blog.

Here are more photos from Berlin. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Riding the Rails: Brussels to Berlin

July 17, 2011 -- I took a Deutsche Bahn InterCity-Express train from Brussels to Berlin with a transfer in Cologne. The train makes intermediate stops at Liege and Aachen before reaching Cologne. From Cologne the train makes intermediate stops at Dusseldorf, Duisburg, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund, Hamm, Gutersloh, Bielefeld, Herford, Hannover, Wolfsburg, Stendal and Berlin-Spandau. DB ICE trains travel at speeds up to 200 mph (322 kph).

The train station at Liege, Belgium is spectacular. It was designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the new transit hub at Ground Zero in New York City and the Chords Bridge in Jerusalem.

In typical German fashion, Deutsche Bahn wants you to know exactly how fast and efficient their high-speed trains are. The ICE trains top out at around 200 mph (322 kph) so my train was gaining speed at the time I took this picture. For Americans reading this blog post, that is 155 miles per hour.

As we sped through the German countryside I was expecting to see alpine houses and gothic cathedrals, which I did. However, I also saw gigantic wind farms with enormous wind turbines dotting the landscape. And it seemed as if every other house I saw had solar panels installed on the rooftop. Germany is obviously not the windiest or sunniest country in the world, but the Federal Republic has had a Renewable Energy Act in place since the year 2000, so this is the result of over eleven years of generous incentives for wind and solar power. It is impressive to see so many wind farms and so many citizens powering their homes with the sun.

That evening we arrived at the multi-level, futuristic looking Berlin Central Train Station. Trains are coming and going all the time on different levels, making it look like something out of the Fox animated science fiction show "Futurama." So cool.

Here are photos and video of my high speed train trip from Brussels to Berlin. Click here to see the photo set on Flickr.

Summer 2011: Brussels, Belgium

July 16-17, 2011 -- Brussels is a bit off the beaten track. It is not the most popular tourist spot in Europe. It is weird and wonky -- the de facto capital of the European Union and home to the Atomium monument, pictured above. But Brussels is worth a visit because it is so unique. It is only a two hour train ride on the high-speed Eurostar from London St. Pancras so the city is easily accessible.

I stayed at the Hello Hostel, which doesn't have the social scene of a lot of hostels in bigger cities and is a little far from the city center, but nonetheless is a quality hostel and is within walking distance of a Metro subway station.

Brussels has a complicated history that from an initial observation it doesn't seem to have fully come to grips with yet. First there is Belgium's colonial legacy in Africa. In the lates 1800s and early 1900s under King Leopold II, Belgium colonized the current Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. There has been much suffering and bloodshed in the years following Belgian rule in these African nations. This excerpt is from the website

"The most important legacy of colonialism in Rwanda and Burundi involved the Belgians' obsession with racial, ethnic classification. The Belgians believed that the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda was racially superior to the Hutu ethnic group because the Tutsis had more "European" features. After many years of segregation, the tension erupted into the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which 850,000 people died."

This dated memorial pays tribute to a shameful period in the history of Belgium -- the colonization of Congo, Africa. It was inaugurated in 1921 by King Albert I.

And there is also the Nazi occupation of Belgium during World War II. Belgium was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940 to 1944, and there was active collaboration with the Nazis in persecuting Jews. Some 50,000 Jews lived in Belgium in the 1930s and about half were killed during the Holocaust. But not all Belgians went along with the Nazi persecution of Jews. There was a resistance movement. I visited the Military Museum at Park du Cinquantenaire and was disturbed to see Nazi era uniforms and regalia on display. But there was also this statue honoring Baron Jean Michel P.M.G. de Sélys Longchamps, a Belgian nobleman and World War II RAF fighter pilot remembered for his attack in 1943 on the Gestapo headquarters in Brussels in occupied Belgium.

But Brussels today is a vibrant, progressive city that is the de facto capital of the European Union. The city's European Quarter is home to the headquarters of the European Commission (Berlaymont building, pictured below), European Union Council and other EU institutions. Poland currently holds the sixth month rotating presidency. There are 27 member states in the EU. 17 of these member states, including Belgium, use the official currency of the eurozone -- the Euro.

And of course Belgium has some of the best food in Europe. Here is the famous Belgian waffle covered with chocolate syrup. And yes, it is as delicious as it looks.

While the EU conducts serious business in the city, the citizens of Brussels have a quirky sense of humor and don't take themselves or the city too seriously. How else can you explain the popularity of Mannekin Pis, a small bronze fountain sculpture of a little boy urinating into the fountain's basin?

Click here for more observations of Brussels on Green Center Blog.

Here are more photos from Brussels. Click here to see the set on Flickr.

Here is video of a Brussels Metro train arriving at Gare du Midi - Zuidstation:

And here is video of a Brussels Metro escalator. The escalators in Brussels are motion sensor, meaning they are stopped until someone walks up to the escalator and triggers the motion detection system and the escalator starts moving. This brilliant concept saves energy and reduces wear and tear on the escalators.