Afternoon tea at the Regent, Berlin

Introduction

On Saturday morning I leave my hotel just after 09h00. I have a slot for the Pergamon museum at 10h30, so I figure I might as well walk. And walk. And walk some more.

My hotel is on the rear side of the Tiergarten, in what used to be West Berlin. I decide to take the long route, so I first walk up to the Siegessäule, and then from there through the park and past the Bundestag to the Brandburger Tor. I keep on going through the gate and then continue all the way down Unter den Linden until I hit the Berliner Dom.

The Pergamon museum is right next to the Dom, and totally worth a visit. Currently, the museum is being refurbished and expanded. And I’ll definitely need to come back once it’s done. Because even with many of the exhibits currently inaccessible due to the ongoing construction, it’s still an impressive collection to see.

What I like about this museum, is that they have tried to reconstruct what the exhibits originally looked like, which obviously gives visitors a much better impression of what they’re looking at. The photo below is a reconstruction of the famous Ishtar gate. The decorative animals on the walls are from the original construction.

From the Pergamon museum I first head in the direction of the Alexander Platz, which is currently a bit of a mess as they’re renovating parts of the square.

And then from there I head to the Humboldt Forum, which I guess is to Berlin what the Centre Georges Pompidou is to Paris. Apart from the interesting events and shows they put on at the Humboldt Forum, it’s quite interesting to go up onto the roof of the building, where you have a good view of the city. There’s also a restaurant.

By the time I’m done, it’s already gone 13h and I’m seriously starting to run out of steam. I’m also very hungry. Luckily, I have a reservation for afternoon tea at the Regent Hotel near the Gendarmen Markt, which is only a few minutes away from the Humboldt Forum.

The Regent Berlin

The Regent Berlin sits on the Charlottenstrasse in one of the corners of the Genderamen Markt. From the outside, the building is quite unprepossessing. But once you step into the lobby, it’s a very different story. The afternoon tea is held in a small room with only six tables, so it’s a fairly intimate setting.

The staff are all very nice, and clearly they have been trained well. The head waiter is knowledgeable about tea and suggests I try a few different ones throughout my stay. I first try a First Flush Darjeeling, before moving on to a rather striking & smoky Early Grey.

It’s the perfect pot of tea, nicely flavoured but timed to ensure there isn’t the slightest hint of bitterness in the leaves.

We start with an etagere of savouries on three levels. On top there are canapés of tête de moine cheese and focaccia with chestnut paste.

On the second level, we have a choice of finger sandwiches.

The choices are ham and cheese, boiled egg…

… smoked salmon and cucumber.

And then comes a second etagere with the sweets.

The top tier has a selection of little sweets: a raspberry meringue, a peanut Florentine and a kind of butter cake with lemon curd.

The second level has a plate of berries and fruitcake.

The scones are on the lower plate and they are served nice and warm. What’s more, full brownie points go to the Regent for using real clotted cream and not whipped cream instead.

Conclusion

The afternoon tea at the Regent is a great way to while away a lazy Saturday afternoon when it’s cold and wet outside. The staff are excellent and very welcoming. It’s a great way to take a rest from the toils of shopping and or sightseeing.

The afternoon tea is very popular, and I would strongly suggest you book in advance if you want to experience it. While I was there, several persons were turned down and the couple on the next table inquired about afternoon tea in December, only to be told there were no more slots available until Christmas.

Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon – Paris

Introduction

Le train bleu was the unofficial designation of a scheduled service provided by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-lits, who also operated the infamous Orient Express, that ran from Calais to the Côte d’Azur from 1922 on. The train got its name from its carriages’ blue livery.

Le Train Bleu was eventually terminated when travel became more affordable and demand for luxury travel gave way to mass tourism. What remains, is an excellent restaurant within the Gare de Lyon in Paris. And today, I am going there for lunch.

Le Train Bleu restaurant opened back in 1901 on the occasion of the inauguration of the Gare de Lyon in Paris. Originally, it went simply by the name of Buffet de la Gare de Lyon. However, in 1963 it was renamed to take its current name.

The restaurant’s interior is spectacular in the opulent fin-de-siècle style and really unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a restaurant. It looks more like a cathedral than a restaurant.

Access to the restaurant is via the grand staircase in the middle of Hall 1 of the main concourse of the Gare de Lyon.

The menu

The menu offers a wide selection of seasonal dishes that nicely showcase French cuisine.

The waiting staff

The staff at the restaurant are all very friendly and helpful. I think what impresses me most though, is a) just how many waiting staff are active in the restaurant at the same time, and b) just how nicely paced the meal is.

The meal

We begin with an amuse bouche of lightly smoked white fish on cream cheese.

For the starter I go for the lightly smoked salmon with seasonal pickled vegetables and blinis. The presentation of the dish is lovely, and the taste is excellent, with a nice variety of subtle flavours.

For the main course I have the quenelles à la Lyonaise. Quenelles are a kind of fish dumpling. They are served in a rich bisque infused with cognac and a side dish of grilled basmati rice. And lovely, crunchy French bread.

The main course is absolutely divine, and mopping up the bisque with the bread when I’m done has me making the most obscene moaning noises.

My travel companion has the grilled scallops, which are nicely presented and apparently taste very good. The scallops are served on a bed of chickpeas.

For dessert, I really just can’t resist and go for the crêpes Suzette. What a classic! At le Train Bleu the dish is prepared at your table, including the bit where they set the whole thing on fire with a healthy dose of Grand Manier. And this is just heaven. I shove a fork of the sweet goodness in my mouth and all the frustrations of the last two years are just washed clean off me. And all that remains is the zesty flavour of the orange juice combined with the creamy, buttery richness of the crêpes.

My travel companion has the chocolate fondant, served with creamy vanilla ice cream and an elegant hint of licorice.

Once I’m done, I do for a moment consider a cup of mint tea to round off the meal. But I’m running out of time. I have an appointment at the Louvre at 15h00 to see La Gioconda, otherwise also known as Mona Lisa, and I don’t want to be late. Luckily, I’ll be back in Paris next week, and already have another reservation at Le Train Blue, so perhaps I can try all the things I missed out on this time…

And tomorrow? I’m in Paris, and tomorrow is the start of the IATA winter time table. With that you can probably figure out what I’m up to next…

The scenic route from Engelberg to Lucerne

I spend my Sunday morning in Engelberg climbing among the rocks at 1800 m above sea level like a deranged mountain goat. Down in the valley it’s still fresh. But up on the Brunni the sun is already warming up the air.

By the time I make my way down the mountain it’s already gone eleven. I have until 12h00 to check out of the hotel. There is a train departure from Engelberg every hour at two minutes past the hour. There are two possibilities for me to get back to Lucerne. I can either just stay put on the Lucerne-Engelberg Express, which should get me there in 43 minutes, or I can take the scenic route.

The scenic route requires two changes, but is totally worth it! From Engelberg to Stans takes 33 minutes on the express. There I have seven minutes to change trains to a local service to Stansstad, which is a journey of four minutes.

And then from Stansstad it’s about five minutes on foot from the railway station to the lake, from where I’ll be catching the boat back to Lucerne.

The trip by boat from Stansstad to Lucerne takes just over one hour. En route the boats calls at Hergiswil, Kehrsiten, Kastanienbaum, and the Transport Museum. Today’s service is being operated by the Titlis, one of the smaller vessels in the fleet.

Despite the many places I have visited around the globe, as far as I’m concerned nothing beats a lazy Sunday afternoon on Lake Lucerne in the autumn. It’s still warm enough to sit out on the deck, but without the humidity and the oppressive heat of summer.

Pilatus emerging out of the fog.
Just before Kersitten.
The Rigi, if I’m not mistaken.
The Bürgenstock.
Just before entering the port of Lucerne.
The Uri, which entered service on the lake back in 1901. She was overhauled back in 1994 and is still plying her trade on the company’s scheduled service. The Uri is the only one of the original steamboats on the lake that also operates in the winter.

The port of Lucerne is right in the centre of town. The railway station is two minutes on foot and the city’s famous covered bridge, the Kapelbrücke, is not much further away.

Afternoon tea at the Kempinski

Sadly, Britain’s colonial history really is noting to be proud of. However, among the few positive contributions Britain has made to the world, I would definitely count afternoon tea. I mean, how could anybody not like cucumber sandwiches?

In my time, I have had the privilege of trying many different afternoon teas, such as Raffle’s Hotel in Singapore, or Fortnum & Masons in Piccadilly in London. This time, I am reporting from the Kempinski Engelberg, where I spend the weekend before my birthday.

Afternoon tea at the Kempinski is served in the winter garden, adjacent to the main lobby. The tables are rather low, and the sofas are very soft. But there are many cushions to make sure you’re sitting comfortably while you indulge.

The afternoon tea is served on bright and colourful crockery.

To drink I ask for a pot of Earl Grey tea. I forget to ask what brand the tea is. Which is a shame because it’s certainly very good and has a nice, subtle taste with only a hint of Bergamotte.

First, the sandwiches are served, and there are two squares each of four different types of sandwich: salmon, ham, egg, and cheese with chutney.

Once the sandwiches are removed, a three-tier étagère is served. It includes: two plain scones and two scones with raisins, a selection of sweets and pastries, and a plate with two little sticky toffee puddings.

For the scones, both cherry and raspberry jam are served, which is fine. Although I prefer the more customary strawberry jam. There is also vanilla infused butter, lemon curd and whipped cream.

All things considered, this is not a bad afternoon tea. However, at CHF59 per person I do think it is rather pricey – especially for what you get. There also appears to be a systemic lack of attention to detail among the staff at the Kempinski: there is no sugar on the table, which the staff don’t even notice. The waiter refers to the whipped cream as clotted cream, which a) it simply isn’t, but which b) I think would not be too much to expect given the price for the tea.

Linz

Eating Linzer Torte in Linz

On the bucket list of things I planned to do this year while the droves of overseas tourists are still absent from Europe, was a visit to Linz. In the interest of full disclosure and investigative blogging, I will freely admit that I don’t think I could really say all that much about the city, even now that I’ve been. From what little I saw, it has a nice open feel to it and the centre of the old town is easily accessible and pleasant for pedestrians. But that’s just about it. I really only went along for the food…!

The Linzer Torte is a traditional Austrian sweet that takes its name from the city of Linz, although it seems that the original recipe is Hungarian and came to Austria during the K + K monarchies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Essentially, the Linzer Torte has a short crust pastry base with hazelnuts and lemon to give it a fresh, zesty taste. There are also spices in the dough, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. On the base is a thick layer of jam. The traditional recipe recommends using red currant, although very often these days they tend to use raspberry jam or a mix of raspberry and red currant. On top of that, an intricate lattice is placed and the edges are decorated with almond flakes. The exact nature of the lattice is somewhat contested. Some shops will make it out of the same dough as the base of the Linzer Torte, while others will produce a lattice made of marzipan.

I decided to go with the Konditorei Heuschober on Marktplatz 13, which is close to the railway station and the Stadtpark. At Heuschober the lattice is made of marzipan, and it is put on the Torte before it goes in the oven for baking. At Heuschober they also put another layer of short crust on top of the jam, which helps keep the Torte nice and moist.

Getting from Vienna to Linz

There are frequent trains from Wien Hauptbahnhof to Linz. Most of them are operated by high speed Railjet trains. The journey time is roughly 90 minutes and tickets can be purchased online or on the app of the Österreichische Bundesbahn (ÖBB).

Il Duomo di Milano

The main objective of my brief stop in Milan was to visit the duomo in the heart of the city. Like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the building is enormous. But that’s probably about as far as the similarities go. While St. Peter’s is built in the elegant Renaissance style that would later give way to the more opulent and gaudy Baroque style, Milan’s duomo is in the sombre and austere gothic style.

There is an interesting contrast between the outside of the cathedral and the inside. While the former is in bright, white stone that is nearly blinding to the eye on a sunny day, the interior is dark and gloomy and with very little decoration.

Next to the church is the duomo’s museum, which is interesting to visit. It houses a collection of many of the figurines that once decorated the church’s interior and exterior.

And if you’re weary from all the culture and spirituality, the Galleria Emanuele Vittorio II with its glitzy shops is right next to the duomo.

I visited the duomo in the late afternoon, and there were no queues to enter the cathedral itself nor the museum.

The Vatican Museum – I Musei Vaticani

Introduction

The Vatican museums house an huge collection of art that has been collected over many centuries by the catholic church. The collection ranges from ancient Roman statues to contemporary pieces by Salvador Dalì. The collection is immense, and a visit to the museum leaves you with a sense that probably there is a lot more to show but that is not on display.

The Stanze di Raffaello refers to a set of four reception rooms that were originally commissioned as the living quarters for Pope Julius II. Each one of the four rooms is decorated in frescos done by Raffaello, which is where they get their name from – The Rafel rooms. Probably the best known of these frescos is that of the School of Athens in the Room of the Signatura.

But without a doubt, the absolute show stopper of any visit to the Vatican museums is the Sistine Chapel that was painted by Michelangelo. Perhaps the best piece of advice to give anybody visiting the Vatican museums is to make sure they keep looking up, because the decorations on the ceiling are truly amazing, and this is even more the case in the Sistine Chapel: in the centre of the ceiling is The Creation of Adam. And this, I must admit, left me completely speechless. Again, it’s one thing to know about these famous pieces of art and reading about them in books. But to see them for real is quite humbling. Not just because of the artistry and craftsmanship that when into their creation, but also because one cannot deny just how much these unique works of art have shaped Western civilisation and culture as we know it, irrespective of whether or not one approves of the catholic church.

Practicalities

Tickets for a visit to the Vatican museum can be booked online. From what I’ve heard and read on the web, in usual circumstances tickets sell out fairly quickly. So it’s normally best to book as far in advance as possible. However, I visited in July 2021, when Italy was only just starting to recover from the Covid pandemic. There were quite a few visitors on the day I visited, but the facilities are obviously used to coping with significantly larger crowds. There were no queues for security and I was actually allowed in thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled slot I had registered for. Upon entering the museum, you first need to exchange your online ticket for a paper ticket, simply to let you through the turnstile to enter the exhibition.

Photography, as well as video or audio recordings are not permitted in the Sistine Chapel. The photos below are all from the actual musem and not the chapel.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Introduction

Michelangelo’s Pietà is a marble statue of Mary holding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. It is one of the most important sculptures from the Renaissance period. Upon entering the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, the Pietà is located immediately to the far right of the edifice.

Most of us have already seen pictures of the sculpture in films or photos. I consider myself fortunate enough to know, now that I have seen it with my own eyes, that none of the pictures even come close to doing it justice.

I am not at all a religious person, but I must admit I was moved by the sculpture, and found it difficult to walk away from it. It’s not just the realisation that you are standing in the presence of such a magnificent piece of art, nor the inconceivable talent of Michelangelo’s craftsmanship, or the amazing accuracy and detail of the sculpture that leave you speechless. I think what moved me was the immense look of despair on the face of Jesus, and the solemn, despondent sadness in Mary’s. She sits with her murdered son in her lap. Her left arm is slightly raised, with the palm of her hand facing up, in a gesture that suggests the silent question that all of us ask ourselves when we need to come to terms with loss: why does it have to be this way?

The Basilica

Visitors are free to enter the Basilica without a ticket, as it is still an official place of worship. However, visitors are expected to behave with the necessary decorum befitting such a place. Short shorts, sleeveless tops and a big cleavage are nor permitted – on men or women – and guests will need to cover up before they enter.

Apart from the previously mentioned Pietà and the oppulence of the decorations inside, it is the sheer size of the Basilica that impresses the most. To begin with, you’re not even fully aware of it, until you find your bearings and see just how much the people in the Basilica are dwarfed by the height of the ceiling.

Le Palais de Versailles

Introduction

Shortly before his death in 1643, King Louis XIII expressed in his testament that a council should be put in place to rule on behalf of his underage son, who would later become Louis XIV. However, upon his death, his newly widowed wife, Queen Anne, had the testament annulled. She had most of her husband’s former ministers sacked or exiled, declared herself her son’s regent and appointed the mercenary Cardinal Mazarin as her minister to oversee the affairs of the state.

Queen Anne successfully expanded the range of the crown’s power with the help of Mazarin. She appears to have held the unwavering belief that the crown’s entitlement to rule was divine providence, and in her view that meant that the monarch was destined to reign supreme. In as much, a lot of the decisions she took as regent were aimed to secure her son’s reign by increasing his powers.

Eventually, Louis XIV assumed control of the government upon the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661, at the age of 23. It had been expected that he would appoint a minister to oversee the government of the state, similar to the way his mother had with Cardinal Mazarin and his father before that had with the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu. But Louis XIV was his mother’s son, and believed that it was his duty to shoulder the divine burden of ruling the country by himself. And so the young Louis proclaimed to his astonished parliament that ‘l’état, c’est moi ‘-‘I am the state’, and assumed control of all affairs of the state.

Louis XIV went on to rule the French monarchy for 72 year. His reign saw the rise of absolutism in France and in Europe, which firmly placed the monarch at the very heart of political power.

I mention this all here, because the château de Versailles played an important role in fostering the image of the King who ruled by divine appoinment. The building is imposing, to say the least, and its dimensions are difficult to grasp, even from close quarters. Clearly, its main purpose had been to impress and to indimidate, to make sure the Roi de Soleil’s claim to power went uncontested.

My visit in July 2021

Today, the palace and its grounds are open to the public and are one of France’s major tourist attractions. The palace sits on a vast domain of land that sprawls over an area of more than 800 hectares. My plan had been to visit the palace during the Covid pandemic, in the hope of avoiding the worst of the notorious crowds that are usually lining up to enter the building and its grounds. And I think I managed that rather well. I purchased a ticket in advance with a jump the queue option. And indeed, I was able to enter without delay. There still were quite a few people. Nonetheless, it was still possible to amble through the palace and enjoy it at my own pace.

Where to stay

I stayed at the MGallery The Louis in Versailles itself. MGallery is one of the many brands of the Accor group of hotels. Usually, I rather like their properties. But sadly, The Louis is not one of them. The infrastructure is a bit dated and the staff could really do much better. However, what The Louis has going for it, is its excellent location only 200 metres away from the main entrance to the Palais de Versailles.

Conclusion

Below I have added some pictures taken during my visit. However, I am painfully aware of the fact that they do not really do the place justice. I also don’t think I would be able to fully describe the grandeur of the place in words. So I’ll just say that I’m glad I visited the Palais de Versailles. Not just because I wanted to tick it off the bucket list, but because it really is a truly very impressive sight to behold that is so closely linked and so prominent in the history of Europe.

The Salon des Glaces

Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens and Primrose Hill

As you exit Oxford Circus Station and step into the street, there are four ways you can go. Heading west will take you up Oxford Street to Marble Arch, while heading east will take you down the other half of Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road. You can also turn into Regent Street and head south, past Liberty’s, Hamley’s and the entrance to Carnaby Street towards Picadilly Circus.

Or else, you could just head up north in the direction of the BBC building. Keep on going until eventually you will stumble upon a very small enclosed park, which is known as the crescent and which houses, among other things, the entrance to Regent’s Park tube station. Keep heading north. Cross the road and you will find yourself at the entrance to the much larger Regent’s Park.

Queen Mary’s Rose Garden is located in the middle of Regent’s Park. The entrance is quite unspectacular, but if you go there when the flowers are in bloom, the delicate scent of the roses is quite dazzling the moment you step into the garden. Inside the garden it’s easy to forget that you’re actually still in London, one of the busiest cities in Europe. It’s peaceful and quiet and there are plenty of benches to sit and take in the sights and the smells of your surroundings.

Eventually, if you keep heading north you will arrive at the entrance to London Zoo and the exit from the park. Exit Regent’s Park and then turn east to walk along the canal, until eventually you will emerge in Camden Town near the old Camden Lock.

By this time, you may be feeling hungry. As some of you may know, I have a bit of a thing about Indian food. And fortunately for me, there is a Masala Zone in Camden that also opens for lunch. Without fail, I always have the Grand Thali…

On Camden High Street keep heading in a northwesterly direction towards Chalk Farm tube station. Turn left into a narrow lane that will eventually take you up on a foot bridge across the railway lines. Cross the bridge and keep walking until eventually you reach another vast green area – and that is Primrose Hill.

Primrose Hill is not a natural formation. The mound is man-made and was created when the engineers of London started excavating to build the tube. The rubble they dug out of the ground was eventually dumped in the same place and eventually created the hill.

From up top you have a brilliant view of the London sky line. In the summer is a nice spot to just sit and watch the city.