‘You do realise this place is not actually in Berlin?’ I asked Bernie on the phone. She said she did. And could she bring her friend Anna.
It has to be said that most of my friends who visit me in Berlin do not come for the culture. They might squeeze in getting confused in the Holocaust Memorial or a serendipitous walk past the Brandenburg Gate, but it’s all incidental. They come here to party, and the optimistic ones, to try to get into Berghain. I even had some friends fake a few photos on a two hour whistle stop outside the Air bnb, just before their Monday flight, so it looked like they had seen something of Berlin.
So Bernie surprised me when she asked for culture the week before her arrival. You’d be surprised too if you knew the Bernie I knew – she is a dazzle of bright orange human sparkler. She is Bernie who goes to Burning Man in those steampunk goggles, who burns the candle at both ends and mostly, always, brings the party spirit bundled into her hastily packed bag. I made a few suggestions and to my further surprise, she liked the sound of Sanssouci Palace, in Potsdam, an hour west of Berlin on the S7.
The sun was shining again when I clambered out of the tent. We had kayaked to Wolziger Lake in near darkness and camped near the water. We were pitched next to a small channel with geese and horses and moored boats and a view through reeds of the rippled surface of the lake. Roxy 2, our hybrid kayak, was resting upsidedown over the bags, and Scott was making tea on the stove. I was looking forward to exploring Storkower Canal, scared of the lock on the water map as usual, and feeling quite sore. The previous day I had drunk too much beer, got two bright pink stripes of sunburn on my legs and then paddled strenuously for several hours. In fairness, Scott does most of the power work and steering from his back seat, and I help by looking at the German water map and taking photos. I let him believe that his kayaking prowess is the ultimate Manc-skill.
Vabali in Berlin is what someone on an American style holiday show would call an ‘oasis of calm’. It is right in the middle of Berlin but even when you are sitting naked in Pandangan, the upstairs sauna, with a picture window and a wide view, all you can see is trees. No one can see you except the reclining Buddha outside the window. And the other naked people all around you.
Ruby was there to sort her life out and Vabali Berlin is where we started. Gently perspiring, breathing and silent. Looking at trees and lawns and ambling bodies slipping into the hot tub in the garden. A rambling hippy theme park with a coloured map and blackboards with timed activities involving oils and leaves and little pots of salt. It was Germany after all. Vabali is a green and calico surprise quietly spreading out amidst the traffic and trains of Hauptbahnhof. Continue reading “Berlin : Vabali – Ruby goes to the sauna”
This was the deciding trip. Sintra held the answers I was certain. By the time we left, the decision about moving to Portugal would have been made. To give it all up again, as so many times before, and start over. There was a weariness simmering under the surface, which is the downside of having a nomadic nature. Even pushing fifty, when I have accepted myself and stopped judging, there is the gnawing worry of where to live, what to do to make money, of having nothing but my wits, some camping gear and Scott’s sometimes doubtful Manc-skills. And these days a folding walking stick… But mostly I was just excited to be going somewhere that had famous leylines. The guidebook had a fact box which said that Sintra was a place of cult worship and strange happenings. Right up my street…
I was hooked on the Douro. I wanted to see where it came from, how it had grown into such a glittering monster, pulling in the landscape and finally Porto, on its way to the sea. In Brittanica.com it says:
Rising in the Sierra de Urbión in Spain, the river crosses the Numantian Plateau in a pronounced bend and flows generally westward for 556 miles (895 km) across Spain and northern Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean at Foz do Douro.
We were confident that in the next two days we could make a dent in the 556 miles, if we stuck to the edge of the river as far as the motorhome would allow. We headed east and drove all day in the winter sunshine. The river was the be all and end all. It glinted and blinked and squinted. It lazily smirked and then shone and beamed welcome from around a bend. It had all moods and knew all things. Each time we swung away I craned my neck to keep it in view. I leaned out of the window as we turned this way and that, photographing on the move, pretending I was a real photographer chasing a shot. The other drivers were confident and drove fast on the winding roads. But they were not like the Armenian drivers from our last road trip -their windscreens are intact to the last car, and they used at least one hand for the steering wheel. We climbed up and up and the roads twisted more and the buildings became smallholding rustic, in a winter mingle of russet and dark grey, of milky whites and yellows. Initially, the vineyards were smallish and garden-like, with their little houses tumbling down the hillsides into them. Even the lowliest patch of of flattish ground had three or four spindly vine trees on them, knobbly and knarled in their winter state of undress; nothing was left uncultivated. The little fields swooped down into small valleys and swung back up with the vines clinging onto the crumbly winter soil.
Why do we travel if we are not on holiday lying on a sunbed recovering from work? Is it about finding the inner landscape in the outer one? As we set off to Porto I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for. ‘Settling down’ has eluded me. I counted up recently how many times I had moved house and it was thirty-three. I am forty-nine next week, which means I have moved house every year and a half. And yet there I was, feeling excitement rising in my chest that I still may find a ‘forever disney home’. If I live to the age of my grandmother I am only half way through my life, so there is no pressure.
Doesn’t ‘porto’ mean ‘door’ in some languages…?
Was Porto the inner map? It was a little stressful finding somewhere to park the motorhome in the steep and winding streets of Via Nova de Gaia, the village to the south of the river where the port wine magic happens deep in caves. When we finally parked up overlooking the Douro on the way to the sea, I had a pink gin and Scott went off to get some air by the water’s edge.
I had a few questions milling around in my head on the journey to Sintra to collect the motorhome. What is the rest of Portugal like and do we want to live there? What are the people like and will they like us? What will we find in Porto – a port? some port? the point? But the biggest question was ‘will we lose the 1500 euro security deposit on our huge grown-up rental motorhome?’ Six days later, by the time we returned the van, I realised I had mostly been asking the wrong questions…
‘Blue Sky; winter; who’d a thought!’ Scott’s Mancunian twang woke me up. I looked out at a square of sunlight geometrically inching its way across a washing filled courtyard. Lisbon! Guidebooks are always going on about washing in Lisbon and here it was! We skipped into town, under-dressed in the chilly morning air. We had packed like the ultimate British holiday maker stereotype going to the ‘continent’, confusing sunshine for heat, and shivering valiantly on deserted beaches whilst local people are wearing gloves and waiting for spring. Sunglasses in winter is a joyous oxymoron that eclipses all else.
After the anarchic New Year’s Eve experience I slowly got better. A trip to Vabali Spa and some homeopathic doses of sparkling wine and I was right as rain. I decided to become a vegan. Well, I decided to think about becoming a vegan and to take some steps towards it. I also made Scott promise he would become a full vegetarian as opposed to a flexitarian. He said he would, as soon as he had eaten a huge steak and smoked a cigar with Zach. I think in Scott’s mind being a vegetarian has little to do with vegetables, and more to do with chip barms – Manchester food… it’s even in Wikipedia…
In parts of North West England and Yorkshire, a barm or barm cake is a common term for a soft, floury bread roll: menus in chip shops offer chip barms consisting of chips in a bread roll, these are also known as “chip butties” in some areas.
Due to a rather ill-judged decision to throw a New Year’s Eve Eve ‘get together’ I woke up sick on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t so much a hangover as a violent case of poisoning. I think perhaps we were too liberal with the Angostura Bitters in our sloppily made Champagne Cocktails. Chuck in a bit of sugar, dowse it in bitters, mix it all with cooking brandy and fill it up to the top with cheap Sekt. Repeat dozens of times… A metaphor for Silvester, I now think. By the early evening I knew I would not be donning PVC and prancing at the Kitkat club that night. But I didn’t want to miss the party completely, as I have had a habit of having shitty New Year’s Eves all my life. I was in Berlin, where it’s so famous it’s got it’s own special name, and who knows where I would be next year?