Olympiastadion – Berlin

Berlin’s present Olympic Stadium is the second such building on the same site. Both were destined to be ill-fated. The original was intended as the venue for the 1916 Olympic Games. These games, of course, never took place. The second stadium was used for the 1936 games, an event with the dark shadow of Nazism hanging over it.

The stadium has had a more agreeable existence since then, primarily as a football ground. Three matches were played here during the 1974 World Cup and six in 2006, including the final. The Olympiastadion is also the venue for the German Cup Final and is due to host the 2015 Champions League final. Hertha Berlin have occupied the stadium since the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963.

The stadium was reconstructed in 2000 and feels impressively modern with its updated seating and giant roof. Walking round the exterior, however, provides a slightly unnerving experience, as there are still discernible features of the 1936 Olympic Games. The neo-classical sculptures of muscular athletes are typical of the Nazi era – indeed, the stadium is reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome, though it has a rather more spartan feel to it. The Olympic Bell, complete with (partially eroded) swastikas, sits outside the stadium, separated from the tall tower that once housed it. The Olympic rings are plainly visible above the eastern gate at the stadium’s entrance.

Olympic gate

Olympic gate

The stadium is part of a sports complex. The outdoor swimming and diving pool is located to the north of the stadium and there are several sports grounds dotted around the site. One of them, Maifeld, used for equestrian events during the 1936 games, is home to the Berlin Cricket Club, so those looking for something a bit different can say they have watched cricket in Berlin.

The Bell

The Bell

The stadium can be visited at any time and guided tours are available, but is best appreciated when there is a match taking place. Even though the Bundesliga enjoys huge support, getting to a game is easy enough. The capacity of the Olympiastadion is around 77,000, so it’s not too difficult to get a ticket for most matches. When Duck Holiday visited the stadium, the visitors were Borussia Dortmund, one of Germany’s best-supported clubs, but we were able to buy tickets at the ground about an hour before kick-off.

Sporting heroes

Sporting heroes

Buying a ticket in advance is not a bad move, though. Germany has a rather more enlightened attitude towards football fans than some countries in Europe and if you are possession of a match ticket, it will cost you no extra to travel to the ground on public transport. Even if you haven’t got your match ticket, a Berlin Card will cover any transport within the city. There is a U-Bahn station (Olympia-Stadion) which is on the U2 (red) line and you can also get there by using overground trains (S-Bahn line S5).

Olympic flame stand

Olympic flame stand

Those used to football in the UK may feel an element of surprise – though the surprise is pleasant – on arriving outside the ground. Beer stalls abound and fans of both clubs mingle and chat over jars of pre-match libations. This is indeed civilisation.

Blue: Hertha Yellow: Dortmund

Blue: Hertha
Yellow: Dortmund

Overall, there is an awful lot to be said for football in Germany. Ticket prices are far from exorbitant, there are no travel costs (other than the minor detail of getting to Germany), public transport is excellent, the stadiums are largely very impressive and the quality of the sport is high. Combining a visit to a museum in the morning with the footy in the afternoon and following that with a meal and a nice little variety of German beers in the evening makes for a thoroughly rewarding day. It might not amount to the cheapest day out you’ve ever had, but try doing something similar in, say, London and check the price difference.

Here they come

Here they come

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Great Museums – The Hermitage

 The State Hermitage Museum, to give it its official title, is quite simply the finest in the world. With more than three million exhibits spread across its five interlinked buildings containing over 400 halls, it is not small. Those wanting a quick visit should allow at least four hours. If you’re looking for something more substantial, but are restricted to a single day, Wednesday has the longest opening hours, with a start at half-past ten and a closing time of nine o’clock in the evening. As is standard practise for museums all over the world, the Hermitage is not open on Mondays.

The Winter Palace

The Winter Palace

On entering, it’s wise to pick up a plan of the museum at the reception desk. This shows the layout of the halls and their numbers. It might seem a bit geeky to tick off the halls as you make your way through the museum, but it’s not the worst idea, as it’s all too easy to end up going round in circles. There is also the possibility of running into large groups, so there are some rooms that you’ll probably want to revisit once they are a bit quieter.

We're in!

We’re in!

Even if the extraordinary collections were to be removed, the visitor would still be stunned by the décor. The buildings would be worth seeing purely for their magnificence, particularly in the original Winter Palace. The famous Jordan Staircase is a flamboyant concoction of marble and gold and the Pavilion Hall is looked over by 28 crystal chandeliers. It’s worth taking a little extra time to look at the exhibition halls in their own right, as one can be overwhelmed by the art displayed within them and to miss the sheer beauty innate to the halls.

Jordan Staircase

Jordan Staircase

The Pavilion Hall is home to the astonishing creation that is the Peacock Clock. It was designed by the London goldsmith James Cox and presented to Catherine the Great in 1781. The clock still functions, the huge gilded peacock spreading its wings as the other attendant creatures also perform for astonished visitors.

The Peacock Clock

The Peacock Clock

While it’s tempting to head straight for the paintings, there is a fine collection of antiquities to see. The Greek, Roman and Egyptian discoveries would make for an impressive museum by themselves. There is also a spectacular collection of gold, silver and royal jewels in the aptly named Treasure Gallery.

Jupiter

Jupiter

The first floor is, essentially, a Who’s Who of art. There is a solitary work by Michelangelo, his sculpture Crouching Boy, and this is possibly the most photographed piece in the entire museum. The muscle definition on the figure is remarkable, though note the unfinished feet!

From Italy, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Lippi, Caravaggio and Canaletto. From Spain, Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Murillo. Flemish art is represented in large numbers by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, various members of the Brueghel clan and Rubens. Duck Holiday was especially delighted to see a work by the Dutch artist Jacob Duck. Even Britain, a country not renowned for producing great artists, shows what can be done in the shape of works by Morland, Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The empresses Elizabeth and Catherine were notable Francophiles and this is reflected in the huge French collection. Only the Louvre holds more French art than the Hermitage. The Renoir portraits are especially noteworthy and include his delightful Young Woman with a Fan. Other types of fans, those of Impressionism and post-Impressionism will have a field day among the Monets, Matisses, Cezannes and Gauguins on the museum’s second floor. The Impressionist gallery is not solely French; Picasso and van Gogh also feature strongly.

Renoir

Renoir

As residents of Fife, it was pleasing to see nine portraits by the Fife native Christina Robertson. She was highly respected at the Russian imperial court in the middle of the 19th century and ended her days in St Petersburg. Her grave is in the city. There are also four works, including a self-portrait, by another woman, the renowned Swiss artist Angelica Kauffman.

Another Briton, George Dawe, painted portraits of no less than 329 generals who were engaged in the campaign against Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Like Christina Robertson, he relocated to St Petersburg and his work can be seen in the Military Gallery.

Military Gallery

Military Gallery

Back among the Italian collection, look out for the superlative view of Venice created by Canaletto, bearing the snappy title The Reception of the French Ambassador Jacques–Vincent Languet, Compte de Gergy at the Doge’s Palace, 4 November 1726. There is an interesting little exercise to undertake here. Walk slowly back and forth in front of the painting and keep your eyes focussed on the buildings. Their distance from the edge of the painting seems to change as you go from side to side.

Canaletto

Canaletto

Another diverting little game for the visitor from Britain is to look out for the collection of art acquired from Houghton Hall. This was the Norfolk home of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose legacy was somewhat squandered by his successors. The collection was sold to Catherine the Great, but as a BBC4 documentary revealed recently, some sketches were found at Houghton Hall, showing not only the paintings, but where they were located in the house. The Hermitage generously agreed to a request for a loan of the collection, and for a year, the pictures were restored to their original places on the walls of Houghton Hall. They are now back in St Petersburg, but the visitor can see from where paintings were acquired by the descriptions accompanying them. A considerable number of them are by Van Dyck, including the many portraits undertaken during his time as court painter to Charles I in England.

There are, naturally enough, several shops within the museum. These sell a wide range of books, prints, gifts and other artefacts and are not, in general, particularly expensive. The potential visitor should note, however, that it’s advisable to have a good breakfast if you’re intending to spend all day at the Hermitage. The café is, quite frankly, a bit rubbish and the queues can be rather long. The prices aren’t outrageous, but it’s not really up to much. Far better to hold on for a decent meal in one of the many excellent restaurants in St Petersburg. There should, after all, be plenty to discuss over a pleasant dinner and a bottle of Georgian wine. It’s best to prepare for a long day, but it should be a richly rewarding day.