I’m in Love with Old Buildings

About two years ago I went to Europe for the first time. I visited Berlin. Being an enthusiast for old buildings, I thought I’d quench my thirst for architectural tourism, but I never enjoyed ancient buildings in Berlin, and I could never figure out why until last year when I visited the ancient towns of Vence and St. Paul de Vence in France. At first I thought the buildings in Berlin were not old in the strict sense of the word, since the city was obliterated during WWII and many sites had to be reconstructed, or rebuilt from scratch, but I did not feel any thrill while exploring Vence and St. Paul de Vence.
 
Travelers admire Belvedere auf dem Klausberg,
in Sanssouci park, Potsdam, Germany

I love old buildings, not just because of the fantasy that they might be haunted. Something about man-made structures that have lived for eons captivates me. Each time I see one, I wonder why has it stayed alive all this time?

Bazar street, Tororo, Uganda, where I grew up.
I grew up in one such house, in Tororo, not old in the way someone from Europe or Asia would think of old, for Tororo was built in the 1920s by migrant Indian traders who came to profit from the building of the Ugandan railway. It was among the first urban centers in the modern (colonial) history of East Africa. Maybe that’s why I’m fixated on ancient sites, and maybe that’s why whenever I travel I look out for those things that have stood since before my great grandfathers were born. 
 
 
A sadhu, holy man, in Pashupati temple, Nepal
Nepal is a haven for relic hunters, especially Kathmandu, where it seems like every building is over a century old. I lived there for two years, and traversed much of the country, satisfying my quest. Walking into temples that had stood for several hundred years, and still serve the same purpose, was like stepping into a time machine. I saw monks dressed pretty much the way they were dressed five hundred years ago; I saw worshipers lighting candles in the Stupa, an activity that has gone on for centuries; and I saw Sadhus smoking ganja on the banks of the Bhagmati as they await the next fistful of ash from cremated bodies in the Pashupati temple; I saw people doing the same things that had been done thousands of years, worshiping gods in the same way, and I heard of temples where the same fires have been burning for eons. That experience took me to worlds I could only dream of.
 
On returning home, I tried to find similar buildings. I went to Fort Patiko in Gulu and to Fort Jesus in Mombasa, but I was a little disappointed for I could not get the same orgasm as I did from the temples of Kathmandu. I couldn’t understand why. I thought it could be because they were built by foreigners, so their presence was more like somebody else’s history.
 
A view from a windmill near Sanssouci Palace.
When I went to Berlin in February of 2014, I expected to see places with similar emotional histories as those in Nepal. I took a walk from the Brandenburg Gate to check out the Berlin Cathedral, maybe the most impressive building I’d ever seen, and in between there was plenty of buildings to see. I totally enjoyed the art installations in the museum island, and then on the Berlin Wall – that was probably my best moment in Berlin. I visited the Reichstag building, with its stunning views of the city, but I still had a hankering and someone advised that if I wanted to see the real old ones, I had to go to Potsdam, for most of Berlin is a reconstruction. So I jumped on the train and headed off to Potsdam, for a one day trip.
Anything interesting in there?
A woman peeks into Orangery palace.
Belvedere auf dem Klausberg, Sansoucci park
I was disappointed. Sanssouci Palace did not look old at all. It could looked like something the English might have built in colonial Uganda. It felt nice for a picnic, for a walk around the park with a girlfriend, and I saw many people doing just that. I jumped on the bus and headed off to the New Palace, but on the way I saw the Orangery Palace and I decided to stop for a look. The disappointment deepened. It looked like a something set up with a pretentious effort at art, overrated, I should say. I found it closed for renovation the day I went, which is probably why I disliked it.
As I waited for the next bus, which I realized would take over an hour, I decided to explore the wilderness around the Orangery Palace. That was more exciting than the actual palace. I stumbled upon this building, it looked small and alone in the bushes, and strangely out of place. I would expect it to have been in Asia, with its style imitative of pagodas and with it being on top of a hill where you had to go up a steep flight of stairs to get to it. It reminded me of many small temples I saw in Nepal. Curious, I went up the stairs, and entered the building. It turned out to be a restaurant, very warm inside. Almost everyone was an elderly white person. I was the only young man, and black at that. The waiter too looked young, and he spoke a little English. I looked through the menu, and the prices were murder. I couldn’t afford anything in it, so I excused myself and stepped out into the coldness. A sign-post I came up shortly after said this was building was called Drachenhaus (dragon house).

 

Drachenhaus in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Well, the jewel in the clichéd crown was supposed to be The New Palace completed sometime in 1769 by Frederick the Great. The architecture of the kitchen was like something you’d find in Game of Thrones. I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the palace. The king apparently did not want the chaos and noise of the kitchen to disturb his peace, so he built the kitchen way off from the main house.
Hitherto, I had not peeked into the insides of any of these palaces. Though I was broke, having lost 200 Euros stupidly (believe me, the money just fell out of my pockets, twice, a hundred euros at a time), curiosity overcame me. I paid eight euros for a ticket. I was eager to see what it looked like inside, and I was disappointed to find it wasn’t any different from what I’d already seen in the movies and the photos. The extra money to take photographs was a complete waste. I could have as well used my phone camera, but because I had a DSLR they made me pay extra and I stupidly did. Idiot. The furniture, the paintings, the décor, there was nothing new I was seeing. Even the history of the individual rooms (this was where so and so died, this is where so and so committed suicide, this king used to have breakfast here, this was the music room) well, knowing all that didn’t move me. I thought it was because I wasn’t German and didn’t know any of the people they were talking about.
But then, in Nepal, I wasn’t Nepali and didn’t know any of the kings and goddesses, yet I still enjoyed Nepal, for I wasn’t visiting museums. The palaces in Berlin on the other hand are just that, museums, huge monoliths without life. In Nepal, I could go to the Kumari’s courtyard and though I would find a group of tourists, if I hung around long enough I’d be lucky to see the living goddess at the window, looking into a mirror, or having her hair combed, or something fun, something that told you the house is still what it was a thousand years ago, a house full of life, not dead and commercialized.
The servant’s section in New Palace was more interesting
than the building where the king resided and hosted parties.
Vence and St. Paul de Vence were a little better experiences than the trips to Berlin. The Grand Jardin was a captivating park, full of life, and the architecture in old Vence was interesting enough, different enough from what I had seen and know about Europe. I enjoyed St Paul de Vence more than I did Vence. I didn’t know about St. Paul until I was on the way to Vence, when I looked out of the bus window and saw a surreal village sitting on top of a rock. For a moment, it struck me like a movie set, something straight out of Game of Thrones, and I wanted to jump out of the bus and go to it, but I had set my eyes on Vence so I stayed in the bus and chose to visit St. Paul’s commune another day.

 

The problem is that both places are dead, not in the museum sense like the palaces in Berlin, but still dead. They have more shops and art galleries than real life. The art galleries are supposed to continue the culture of these ancient cities. Some famous artists, writers, and actors are said to have lived and worked there, and two including an American writer James Baldwin is said to have died there. I went off the main track and explored the alleys where few tourists went, I found people living in the little cottages. One cottage had a sign saying a poet, Jacques Prevert, lived in it in 1940. I wonder if there is a poet living there now. I wonder what kind of people were living in the houses right inside a tourist attraction. St. Paul de Vence and Vence were not as dead as Sanssouci park, and they keep their culture alive with galleries selling really high-end, and extraordinarily expensive art. But I still did not get the thrill for they are not really the kind of places they were at the time of construction. They had changed with the times, and though they were a little better than museums, I did not get into any time machine when as I explored them.

 

Artwork on display in St Paul’s Commune, Vence
In St Paul I came upon a chapel, The White Chapel, that intrigued me. The guide said it was a penitentiary of the White Brotherhood. I paid 4 Euros to enter. It was billed as the Church of Folon. I didn’t know who Folon was, but I was so curious I wanted to see this secret chapel that a brotherhood used. Maybe I would experience something from the Da Vinci Code. So I paid, and went in, but what did I see when I got in? An empty room. Yes, that’s exactly what it was, this chapel that the guide books had said was a penitentiary of the White Brotherhood, that they called the Church of Folon, I don’t know what exactly I expected to see, but an empty room? Come on. Okay, it was not exactly an empty room for there was a woman sitting by the door to make sure only ticket holders came in. But why put a guard to prevent people from entering an empty room? Do you have to pay to see the paintings on the wall and the sculptures? What made no sense was that both the paintings and sculptures had nothing to do with the Brotherhood. It would have been worth it if these paintings were old, or if they were from the brotherhood itself, but they were done by this Folon guy in the 1950s. Charging 4 Euros to enter an empty room to see ridiculous works of art is outright robbery. Maybe it would make more sense if I know who exactly Folon was, a version of Da Vinci?
Inside the chapel, this is all you see.

 

Impressive. St Paul’s Commune in Vence, France
The one exciting thing I remember from the trip to Vence was the sight of St. Paul’s Commune on the hill. It’s a good thing I had not known about it before, so it was a pleasant surprise to look out of the bus window and see an ancient city on top of a rock. I found a similar spectacle in Cannes, this time it was not a city but a castle, complete with a flag waving about. I grew up on literature featuring castles, and so they are kind of romanticized in my head. I had searched for them in Germany, but was told there was none near Berlin and I didn’t have time or money to go exploring far, so when I saw this one in Cannes, I was thrilled for a few seconds, until I remembered that it would no longer be a living place, but a museum. So I went to it without expecting much, and I didn’t find much thrill, but I enjoyed the chapel, where I saw people praying, and I think it’s still used for regular service. It then struck me that if I wanted to find that joy in visiting old buildings as I did in Nepal, I would have to go to places of worship, for they certainly would still be in use. I just hope I don’t find more scams like the Folon Church in St. Paul’s Commune.
So when I heard of a castle in Nice, La Chateau, or Castle Hill, it turned out to be just as unsatisfactory. It sits on a hill, but does not offer any romantic façade like Chateau de la Castre in Cannes, though from the top, just as from the one in Cannes, you get a grand view of the scenery below. I went mostly because I had heard that old town Nice was not only ancient, but still a home to people. I took joy in walking through the very narrow streets, though they were mostly empty, and as I wandered about, I came upon an old church, Cathedral of Saint Reparata, built around 1650. The thing about travelling is to not find out as much about a place as possible before going there, just the basics, and so just as I didn’t know about St. Paul’s Commune though I knew of Vence, I didn’t know about this church in old town Nice, so I got a pleasant surprise. Outside the cathedral a street band was playing some great music. That’s one thing I enjoyed very much about Europe, the street bands composed of seemingly talented musicians, crooning for pennies.
Beautiful music for pennies in front of the Cathedral of St Reparata,
old town Nice, France

 

After the church, I toured the flower market, expecting to see something like Owino, but it did not live up to its expectations. I guess you have to be a flower enthusiast to experience joy at visiting a flower market.

 

As a side note, if you visit Vence, or St Paul’s Commune, or even the Sanssouci park, make sure you don’t miss the last bus or you are screwed. There aren’t any taxis nearby. I’ve heard so much about transport in Europe, how it’s so cool and everything is on time and you can schedule your movements, but I found it a great, big inconvenience. You can’t travel at any time you want, as is the case in Kampala, where you go to the roadside and you’ll be sure a taxi will come along at some point. You have to stick to a creepy schedule, and if a train runs late, then you are screwed. I made the mistake of jumping on the wrong train once, to Grasse, yet I was to going to St. Raphael, and only then did they tell me that there is no train going back the other way. It was 8pm, and the trains had stopped running, the buses as well. My only option was a taxi, it cost me 200 Euros. I guess you have to live there long enough to get used to that system.
Well, that’s it for the old buildings in Europe, at least for now until I learn of better places to go to. I will be exploring more in Africa, and I got a taste of it in Nigeria in November 2014. When I went there I did not expect to see so many old buildings, there was one in almost every street in the cities that I went to, Abeokutta, Ibadan, Idanre, and Akure. I didn’t go to Benin for I feared it was more of a touristy place, and I instead went to little known palaces built using mud that had stood for nearly thousand years, yet still alive. Like the temples of Nepal, they are not relics, people living in them, and they still serve the same purposes as when first built. I have reserved another blog post for my trip to Nigeria. While there, I heard of the wooden houses in Freetown, Sierra Leon, and I think that should be my next stop, if I ever get the chance, but I also want to satisfy my curiosity about the old towns on the East African coast. I’ll definitely be making a visit there later this year.
A market booms in front of Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria
Tororo Town, one of the first urban centers in modern East Africa

 

New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam

 

New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam

 

Where a poet lived, in St Paul’s Commune, Vence

 

A couple explores St Paul’s Commune, Vence

 

An old house in Vence

 

A woman and her dog in ancient Vence

 

A view of old town nice, with the cathedral prominent

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