In Berlin, a World War II bunker is repurposed to house an eclectic collection of modern art

This fortresslike superstructure was formerly a World War II bunker in the Mitte section of Berlin. Its renovation took four years. It’s now home to an art exhibition space. Architects also added a glass-enclosed penthouse living space for the art collection’s owners.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m a serious student of World War II, and that while I’m traveling, I seek out related sights. Berlin, of course, played a pivotal starring role, and tourists can easily spend a lot of time pinpointing WWII landmarks — or plaques noting what used to stand at the site — before moving on to the later history of Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the destruction of same in 1989, the resulting Reunification, and Berlin being proclaimed Germany’s capital in 1991.

My Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned a WWII bunker under the entry “Sammlung Boros,” explaining that it was now an art gallery, housing the modern collection of Christian and Karen Boros. Reading this description before I departed home failed to make the impression that this was literally next door to my hotel.

When I booked the Best Western Hotel Berlin-Mitte for my visit in May 2012, I knew that it was within walking distance of the historic Brandenburg Gate and “Museum Island” with the world-class Pergamon Museum and nine other worth-a-visit sights. The hotel website made no mention of the bunker.

So when I got off the bus from Berlin Tegel airport and was walking toward my hotel, what I wasn’t expecting was a looming concrete superstructure.

The first question I asked at reception was: “What is that?” And the second: “Can I go inside?”

Answers: An above-ground bunker built during World War II, and “yes.” As it turned out, the staff was used to these questions, because I was handed a full page of information on the bunker, which covered some of its history from shelter to exhibition space.

I walked over to check on availability. Tours were being given only on a limited schedule, and they were fully booked, but I was advised to come on Saturday. I was told that cancellations or no-shows might open up a space, which is exactly what happened.

The bunker was officially called Reichsbahnbunker Friedrichstrasse (State Railway Bunker) based on its proximity to the Berlin-Friedrichstrasse railway station. The structure was intended to protect fleeing station passengers during Allied air raids, people who lived nearby and those who might be attending a performance at the German Theatre.

In 1942, the bunker, constructed using forced labor, was completed, under the supervision of the architect for the Third Reich, Albert Speer. It could accommodate up to 2,000 civilians in its 120 windowless rooms, each just 7.5 feet in height, over five stories. Toward the end of the war, more than twice that number huddled in fear during Allied bombing runs. Despite having a “sophisticated” ventilation system, it must have been stiflingly hot.

An interior view of a bunker room.

The bunker’s exterior dimensions: More than 52 feet tall (16 meters) and a bit less than 125 feet long (38 meters) on each side. The walls were more than 6.5 feet (2 meters) thick, constructed of a special “blue” concrete and rebar. The concrete was said to fully harden only after 30 years. Each of the four sides had an entrance with stairwells.

“Rauchen verboten” — smoking prohibited — dating to the original construction, was still evident on some interior walls, as I saw on my tour. Other WWII evidence included thick black lettering indicating floor level and directional arrows pointing the way.

The dour gray exterior, except for some ground-level graffiti, showed pockmarks left by bullets, but otherwise was in remarkable condition. It appeared every bit as formidable and fortresslike as when it was first built.

The bunker, built by forced labor, was completed in 1942, under the supervision of Albert Speer, known as the architect for the Third Reich. This modern-day graffiti would not have been tolerated.

The trendy Mitte district today is lined with a profusion of shops, cafés and eateries. Prior to the war, it was home to a large Eastern European Jewish population, serviced by stores selling kosher goods and about 20 prayer rooms.

When the war was over, the Allied victors — including the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and France — partitioned the city into four zones. The Mitte section fell under Soviet administration, and the Red Army used the bunker to house prisoners of war.

By 1949, political friction ignited the Soviets’ acrimonious split from the other Allied powers, and the landscape evolved into the antithetical German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).

Over the ensuing years, the bunker warehoused a variety of goods, from textiles to fruit (including oranges and bananas) imported from Cuba, earning it the nickname “Banana Bunker.”

After Reunification, it became a noted venue of techno music, fetish parties, an erotic trade fair and other envelope-pushing behavior. Spent cigarettes, other unsavory debris, phosphoric paint and graffitied, slimy walls — the product of too many sweaty people in too close a space with inadequate ventilation — left the bunker the worse for wear.

Finally, in 2003, Polish-born Christian Boros, an advertising entrepreneur and art collector, bought the property and hired a team to undertake its renovation. That included construction of a modernist, glass-surrounded penthouse and terrace for the Boros family. Karen had a background in art history, and Christian was, in fact, a client of hers at an art gallery, selling him some of the pieces that have been on exhibit in the bunker.

Displaying a wide-ranging art collection in a transformed bunker might seem like an odd choice, but other unlikely buildings paved the way. Consider that the Gare d’Orsay — a former train station and hotel in Paris, completed in 1900 — has been home since 1986 to a magnificent collection of Impressionists, other paintings and artwork, shown to their advantage in abundant natural lighting at the Musée d’Orsay.

Or the Tate Modern in London, on the city’s south bank of the River Thames, that was formerly the post-WWII-built Bankside Power Station. Closed from 1981 to 1996, it was refitted and reopened in May 2000. Its large unobstructed spaces are perfect for some of its massive modern and contemporary art installations.

During the Berlin bunker’s overhaul into an art gallery — one year of planning and four of conversion — 40 of the 120 rooms were eliminated, and some reconfigured in order to accommodate oversize artwork.

“Artists make a huge contribution by deciding on the placement of the works and installing them themselves,” Christian Boros told Silke Hohmann, an editor at German art magazine Monopol, in a 2013 interview. “We view the presentation as a collection of small one-person shows,” he said. Boros, who has been collecting since the 1990s, has been quoted as saying that he buys what he doesn’t understand.

The bunker’s historical significance isn’t lost on Boros either, as he said that foreign diplomats and politicians are often more interested in the structure than the art.

“You can’t really fail to notice that it’s a Nazi bunker,” Boros told Hohmann. “Foreign guests want to see how a new generation deals with the fascist legacy. No one can or would want to deny the origin of the building.”

Karen Boros told Hohmann in the same interview: “We’re happy over the fact that political ­figures … come here because they’re interested in how an example of building ­history is dealt with today. If they leave with even a little enthusiasm for contemporary art, all the better.”

When it opened its first full exhibition in 2008, the gallery had just two employees. That’s grown into several dozen now, many of whom lead the 55 tours per week, lasting about 90 minutes each. That first exhibit was up for about four years — this was the one I saw — and drew more than 120,000 viewers.

The second exhibit ran from 2012 to 2016, and drew more than 200,000 visitors. A third is being mounted now and is scheduled to open May 4.

I was unfamiliar with many of the artists and their works, and to say that the collection was head-scratchingly eclectic would be an understatement. Much of it was “conceptual art open to interpretation,” our guide said.

There were about 130 installations and 20 photographs, representing 21 artists, just a smattering, really, of the more than 700 in the total Boros collection, which includes many dozen other artists.

The swinging, clapper-less bell in the entrance lobby is called “For Whom” (2008) by Kris Martin. The bell was purchased from a decommissioned church. (Yes, it’s out of focus.)

We were not allowed to take photographs of the art, aside from the entrance lobby. Many of the works were sculptures, and more than a few were installations incorporating the use of lighting or mirrors. With so much to see, our guide didn’t have the time to explain each one.

Fortunately, the website has more than 60 images from the 2008-2012 exhibition, so I was able match the artist and title to go with what I wrote in my notebook. The website also has more than 50 renderings of the 2012-2016 display. Click on “Exhibition” on the page’s left column.

The first room had a large multihued glass ball with interior mirrors, hanging from the ceiling, and the colors seemed to change as we circled the ball. This was called “Berlin Colour Sphere” (2006), from Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

In the next room was a wide, clear cylinder of water perched on a round-glass-topped pedestal, with a skinny internal cyclone in the middle, also by Eliasson, called “Vortex for Lofoten” (1999).

Another work was a tall, thick lightning bolt, made of wood and painted black, and it zigzagged through three rooms. Our guide said the untitled work from 2007 was by Polish artist Monika Sosnowska and that it illustrated themes of “disorientation and irritation.”

In one of the rooms upstairs, the performance art installation “Tom Kha Soup” (1991) by Argentine-born Rirkirt Tiravanija resembled a kitchen, with deep metal cooking pots, plastic bowls and utensils, in which someone had prepared a meal for a crowd, served, and then left the cleanup undone.

“Fountain,” a 1994 work also by Tiravanija, who grew up in Thailand, Ethiopia and Canada, was a series of randomly placed white wooden stools. Natural wood water barrels sat atop two of the stools, and discarded plastic white cups were strewn on the floor and on some of the stool seats.

Also upstairs was the piece “Temporarily Placed” (2002) by Elmgreen and Dragset. (That’s Michael Elmgreen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Ingar Dragset, born in Trondheim, Norway. They teamed up in 1995 and live and work in Berlin.)

The ragged section left of the window on the bottom row is where a chunk of concrete was removed for the art installation “Temporarily Placed.”

A lifelike male body with a bandaged left arm was reclining in a real hospital bed in a sterile white space with overhead fluorescent lighting. He faced a metal-framed glass door, behind which a vast chunk had been cut out of the exterior concrete, giving an excellent view of the thickness of the original wall. The gigantic hole allowed daylight in, which wasn’t the case in many of the other rooms.

What’s more, the room looked directly across to the hotel where I was staying. I can only imagine what guests thought at night when peering out of their windows at the deathly still patient, especially if they weren’t aware of the bunker next door.

Quick reference: Sammlung Boros, Reinhardtstrasse 20, Berlin. The gallery is closed through May 3, as it installs a new exhibit. Tours are limited to 12, with guide, and last about 90 minutes. Tours in German depart on the hour; tours in English on the half-hour. Thursdays-Sundays, times vary by day. Reservations required via the website. Admission: 12 euros. Individual tours and group tours also available.


Two sweet desserts for ushering in spring holidays of Passover and Easter

Strawberry, Raspberry and Rhubarb Crisp is a juicy mix of tart and sweet. This version has oats and brown sugar among its topping ingredients.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

If you don’t have a traditional dessert that you make every year for your Passover or Easter  holiday menu, or you’re looking for something new to try, then consider these two options.

Passover begins at sundown on April 10, and Easter falls on April 16. I’m posting these recipes a bit in advance in case you want to give them a trial run before the holidays.

Vivid shades of ruby, and sweet and tart sensations make the Strawberry, Raspberry and Rhubarb Crisp memorable. You can, of course, use any mix of fruit that totals about 4 to 5 cups. But the berry and rhubarb combination enthusiastically announces “spring.”

Rhubarb, technically a vegetable and a member of the buckwheat family, can be quite tart, thus the rather generous amount of granulated sugar in this recipe.

If using fresh rhubarb, look for bright red stalks, which are generally sweeter. Wash well and trim the ends; discard the leaves. You want to use just the stalk, which resembles a rib of celery, sliced in about 1/2-inch pieces.

I’ve made this recipe using all fresh or all frozen rhubarb. In the finished dish, you won’t be able to tell the difference. Generally, I use frozen raspberries with the frozen rhubarb, and usually fresh strawberries, with plump, juicy berries coming in from Florida.

While preparing the filling, mind your countertop. If you spill a bit of juice or some fruit jumps out of the bowl while you’re mixing, scoop it up quickly and wipe the counter immediately to avoid stains. Likewise, be extra careful when serving because this will stain your tablecloth.

I’ve included an all-purpose recipe for the Easter (and all year) version of the crisp topping. If you have a go-to favorite, by all means feel free to make that.

Completely different in texture, Carrot Pecan Cake with Orange Caramel Glaze is more crumbly and heavier. It also takes longer to prepare but can be made a a day in advance and left unglazed in the refrigerator.


The juices should be bubbling when you take the crisp out of the oven. This is the Easter (and all year) version.

Strawberry, Raspberry and Rhubarb Crisp

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling

Serves: 8

For the filling:

2 cups (about 10 ounces) fresh strawberries, cored and halved or quartered, if large

1 cup (1/4 pint) fresh or frozen raspberries, not defrosted

2 cups (about 12 ounces) fresh or frozen rhubarb; if fresh, trim ends and slice into 1/2-inch pieces; if frozen, do not defrost

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 tablespoons packed corn starch (if making for Passover, substitute potato starch)

Regular or nondairy whipped cream or ice cream, for serving (optional)

For the crumb topping, Passover recipe:

3/4 cup matzo meal

20 soft coconut or almond macaroons, crumbled with fingers (about 1 cup packed)

4 tablespoons nondairy or margarine, or butter, melted

For the crisp topping, Easter recipe and all year: 

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats

1/3 cup (5 tablespoons) butter or margarine, softened

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

To make the filling: In a large bowl, stir together strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, sugar and corn starch (or potato starch). Set aside while preparing the topping.

To make the Passover topping: In a medium bowl, stir together matzo meal, macaroons and melted margarine (or butter). Set aside.

To make the Easter topping: In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, oats, butter or margarine, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside.

Place oven rack in center of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch-square baking dish with margarine, butter or nonstick spray.

Restir the fruit mixture to make sure corn starch (or potato starch) and sugar are evenly distributed. Gently pour fruit into prepared baking dish. Sprinkle Passover or Easter topping evenly over fruit mixture.

Place the crisp on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet before placing it in the oven. It saves a messy cleanup if the juices overflow.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until fruit is tender when pierced with a toothpick and sauce is thick and bubbling. Cool at least 30 minutes before serving. (Crisp may be baked up to 8 hours before serving.)

Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipped cream or ice cream (optional). Refrigerate any leftovers and rewarm before serving.

Passover version: Adapted from “Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays: Complete Menus, Rituals, and Party-Planning Ideas for Every Holiday of the Year” by Marlene Sorosky in collaboration with Joanne Neuman and Debbie Shahvar (William Morrow and Co., 1997, $27)

Topping for Easter version: “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today” by Betty Crocker Kitchens, General Mills (IDG Books Worldwide, 2000, $27.50)


Carrots and pecans form the base of the cake batter, and eggs and potato starch (or corn starch) help bind it together. Decorate with thin curls of orange peel or use orange segments as your garnish.

Carrot Pecan Cake with Orange Caramel Glaze

This recipe reminded me of a carrot cake but with fewer spices. Customize as needed in observance of your religious holiday, and for your taste buds.

The glaze did not live up to expectations, so I’ve included my work-around for it.

Hands on: 45 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, plus overnight refrigeration

Serves: 8 to 10

For the cake:

3 to 4 carrots, peeled

2 medium navel oranges, divided

2 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup granulated sugar, divided

2 eggs, separated

1/3 cup potato starch for Passover (or corn starch for Easter)

2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

1/2 cup golden raisins (about 7 ounces)

1/2 teaspoon salt

For the glaze:

1/4 pound (1 stick) nondairy margarine or butter

1/2 cup orange juice

1/2 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1 tablespoon potato starch (or corn starch)

Orange slices or orange peel curls for garnish

Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with nondairy margarine or butter.

To make the cake: In a food processor with the shredding disk, shred carrots. Measure 2 cups and set aside. (You may have leftovers.) With a microplane zester, zest skin of 1 orange into a small bowl. Return 2 cups carrots to food processor. Add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar and zest. Process until carrots are finely ground. Add yolks, 3/4 cup granulated sugar and process until thick and pale yellow. Add potato starch (or corn starch), pecans and raisins. Pulse until combined and pecans are finely ground. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat egg whites and salt until stiff but moist peaks form. Gently fold 1/4 of the whites into the carrot-pecan batter. Add remaining whites and fold in until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top.

Bake for 30 minutes. Cover top loosely with foil and bake 30 more minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the sides pull away from the pan. Remove foil and cool on rack for 20 minutes.

Run a sharp knife around the edge of the cake and remove pan. Invert cake onto a cake plate with rimmed edge. Cool to room temperature. (Cake may be refrigerated up to 2 days or frozen, tightly wrapped. Bring to room temperature before glazing.)

To make the glaze: In small saucepan, melt nondairy margarine or butter. Remove from heat and stir in orange juice, brown sugar and potato starch (or corn starch). Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until smooth. Bring to a boil for 3 to 4 seconds, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and cool until thick enough to glaze the cake.

Pour evenly over the top of the cake. Use a small offset spatula to smooth the sides, if necessary. Glaze will form a pool on the plate. (Cake may be refrigerated, uncovered, overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.) Garnish with orange segments or with curls of peel from the second orange.

Notes: I found the glaze to be a soupy mess, even with using just 1/4 cup of the orange juice. I decided to turn it into frosting by adding 1 cup confectioners’ sugar (approved for Passover), another tablespoon of potato starch and then beat it with a hand-held mixer. (You may need even more starch and sugar, depending on how thick you want it.) I refrigerated the frosting overnight before spreading it on the cake at room temperature.

A different option would be to sprinkle confectioners’ sugar to cover the top, then garnish with thin orange peel curls. A second alternative would be to make your favorite cream cheese frosting, like you would use for carrot cake.

Recipe adapted from “Fast and Festive Meals for the Jewish Holidays: Complete Menus, Rituals, and Party-Planning Ideas for Every Holiday of the Year” by Marlene Sorosky in collaboration with Joanne Neuman and Debbie Shahvar (William Morrow and Co., 1997, $27)

G’day mates, from atop the majestic Sydney Harbour Bridge

The engineering marvel known as the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in March 1932. It has eight lanes for traffic, two railroads, a pedestrian walkway (right) and a separate bicycle lane. Six million rivets were used in construction.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

The Australian-made film “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” may have a more memorable catchphrase — “Two men enter, one man leaves” — but those of us getting ready to climb onto the Sydney Harbour Bridge had our own mantra: “Three contact points, three contact points,” especially on the ladder rungs on the ascent and descent.

What our guide, Michael, stressed, for safety’s sake, was “one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot” had to be touching the bridge in unison as we progressed above the harbor. Once we got into a natural rhythm, the instructions were easy to follow, even if we were dazzled and distracted by the photo-defying panorama around us.

Sydney is a beautiful city, with its unique history, multicultural cuisine and gorgeous beaches, but among my most striking memories is the feeling of exhilaration generated by being atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

When the the bridge was completed in 1931, it quickly became the most impressive architectural accomplishment in the New South Wales capital, and perhaps all of Australia. Its ceremonial opening was March 19, 1932.

At more than 1,650 feet, it was the widest long-span bridge in the world, and weighed 51,965 tons. More than 1,400 workers were employed, beginning in 1923, to build the bridge, known locally as the “Coathanger.” Sixteen workers died in accidents while the bridge was under construction.

Eight lanes for traffic, two railroads, a pedestrian walkway and a bicycle lane now provided an efficient link between North and South Sydney, rerouting travelers who had previously made the trip by ferry or an indirect road.

Its monumental supremacy was unchallenged until the equally photogenic Sydney Opera House began to rise at Bennelong Point, on the eastern side of Sydney Cove, in 1959.

What was supposed to be a three- or four-year project and cost $7 million, dragged on and on. Along the way, visionary Danish architect Jørn Utzon resigned — he never did see the completed building in person — and construction costs rose to $102 million.

Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia to open the Opera House in 1973. Regardless of the delays and expense, the complex, meant to evoke unfurled ships’ sails, presented instant competition to the bridge’s iconic status.

An up-close view of some of the Swedish-made ceramic tiles (left) at the Sydney Opera House, with the magnificent bridge in the background.

From many vantage points, eager shutterbugs can capture both the bridge and the Opera House in the same frame. Each imposing structure says “Australia” in its own inimitable way.

Visitors can take a guided tour of the three buildings, eat at one of the restaurants or attend the opera or ballet. I saw the Australian Ballet perform “Coppelia” on my second trip to Australia in May 2010.

What tourists cannot do is walk on the Opera House’s Swedish-made ceramic roof tiles, one million of which gleam in the legendary Down Under sunshine.

I took this photo of the Opera House and harbor traffic from the pedestrian walkway.

That’s the one aspect where the bridge defeats the Opera House hands down in the battle (if there is such a thing)  for best Sydney Harbour attraction.

I had seen a “Globetrekker” TV program wherein the presenter was part of a group that walked on top of the bridge. It looked like a fantastically fun thing to do, even though I am not wild about heights in general.

The business BridgeClimb Sydney (“360 degrees of unforgettable,” its website boasts) is in the historic Rocks area, where convicts transported from England, some for such petty offenses as stealing a loaf of bread, were housed in hastily built accommodation.

The general vicinity, which saw the First Fleet of 11 ships bearing more than 1,350 convicts and mariners arrive at Botany Bay in January 1788 after eight months at sea, now caters to tourists with numerous eateries, souvenir shops, small museums and hotels.

To date, more than 3 million people have completed the bridge climb. The idea was the brainchild of Paul Cave, who in 1989 organized the first climb as part of a business convention.

One can only imagine the reaction among the various state and local political bodies, worried about propriety and safety issues, and concerns of conservation/historical groups when Cave proposed what must have seemed like a hair-brained scheme to make climbing the bridge a tourist attraction.

“You want to do what? You want to let people who aren’t mountain climbers — or even trained athletes — risk their lives and our liability — just for the experience … and the view?,” they might have sputtered.

But Cave, who has an abiding affection for the landmark — his late father-in-law purchased the very first train ticket to cross the bridge on March 20, 1932 —  persisted, satisfying all requirements and putting all doubts to rest.

In 1998, the BridgeClimb led its initial tourists onto the top arch, about 440 feet above one of the greatest natural harbors in the world.

I had been at a greater height outside, close to 1,000 feet up, when I visited Taipei 101, the striking green-glass skyscraper in Taiwan’s capital. The observation deck on the 91st floor has protective fencing all the way around, and while I was technically outdoors, I was in regular street clothes and wasn’t doing anything strenuous. My stay was brief, maybe about 15 minutes.

So it’s not really fair to compare Taipei 101 to BridgeClimb, other than to say it was plenty windy at both sights.

(I’m talking about manmade sights here. In Switzerland, I’ve been at more than 11,715 feet  when outside the Sphinx Observatory at Jungfraujoch, “the top of Europe,” the highest train station on the continent. The site is easily accessible from Interlaken on the Bernese Oberland Railway and the Jungfrau railway. The Jungfrau, along with the Eiger and Monch, comprise a well-known trio of Swiss Alps.)

Bridge climbers have several options as to what time to go up: dawn, daytime, twilight or night (dawn and twilight are the most expensive). Visitors can make a thrilling adventure even more so by witnessing the sun rise or set, or marveling at the thousands of lights of Sydney Harbour’s buildings twinkling far below.

You can also decide if you want to mount the top arch or an inner arch, or go on a shorter express climb.

I chose the 3.5-hour day climb because it included the longest period that I could actually be on the bridge, covering a distance of more than 1 mile and 1,332 steps.

I was traveling solo, and an international cast of 13 others were in my group (14 is the maximum group size).

After check-in, we were each given a Climber Declaration and Disclaimer Form, which asked about any current health issues and assessed our general physical condition.

Safety is the top concern at BridgeClimb, and just as you wouldn’t drink and drive, don’t expect to climb if you’ve been imbibing. Staff administers a Breathalyzer-type test to weed out any people with suspect sobriety.

Once through the preliminaries, it was time to get dressed. We were each given a blue, black and gray full-length jumpsuit (staff were excellent at estimating what size we needed). In a curtained room, after stripping down to underwear, we put on our jumpsuits. (The website says depending on the weather, you might be allowed to keep on some of your clothes for warmth under your jumpsuit.)

Closed-toe shoes with a rubber soles, such as running shoes or sneakers, are recommended.

The rest of our equipment: a wide belt with clasps to attach our safety lines to the bridge, a billed cap (or woolen hat), a headset and power pack, outer fleece or rain gear and gloves, as needed. Our street clothes were stored in lockers and the key was secured in our jumpsuit. Staff checked our gear to make sure everything was suitably snug and being worn properly.

Everything we were wearing was clipped to someplace on our jumpsuit. This meant that we couldn’t accidentally drop anything either on the bridge or on anyone way below.

My group then had a mini-practice climb indoors, as we scaled metal steps and walkways in preparation for the real thing.

As we approached the door that led to the bridge ascent, I expected my heart to be pounding much harder and faster. And I thought I would be more anxious.

But I was thankfully calm. I wasn’t mentally picturing danger to life or limb, which would have been so easy to do.

Maybe it was the confidence Michael exuded, or the safety preparations and orientation that put me at ease.

Once through the door and heading toward the bridge, our safety lines were secured and we traversed several catwalks. The first real obstacle was the steep rungs of a vertical ladder, with noisy road traffic clearly visible beneath us.

Michael paced the ascent so that each climber was clear of the hurdle before the next was allowed to begin.

Two climbers are negotiating the descent on the Darling Harbour side of the bridge, but the ladder ascent on the Opera House side is similar. I took this photo the day before my climb.

We proceeded in this manner — advance personal safety line and climb, wait for the group, repeat — as we made our way higher and higher on the Opera House side of the bridge. Left and right hand rails also contributed to imparting a secure feeling. Three points of contact, indeed.

Some sections were a mild incline and more walking than climbing. Overall, I didn’t find the exertion taxing and was surprised that I didn’t feel even the slightest hint of height-induced nausea.

In other words, I was on top of the world, Australia-style. Being wind-blown and pelted by light rain on the ascent were a small price to pay for the unencumbered vista of Sydney Harbour. For our trouble, we were gifted with a spectacular rainbow.

Our guide kept up a steady narrative, giving the history of the bridge, identifying important buildings in the development of the harbor and taking questions along the way.

At 1 p.m, a cannon was fired at Fort Denison (a daily occurrence), on a harbor spit of land named Rock Island by the First Fleeters. Particularly troublesome convicts were sent to the island, and lived on notoriously short rations.

The fort itself was built in the 1840s-’50s. It was amazing that from our bird’s-eye view we saw the flash from the gunpowder before we heard the boom.

This group has passed the flags of Australia and New South Wales in the middle of the top arch of the bridge and are beginning the climb down on the Darling Harbour side.

When we got to the summit, i.e. the spine of the top arch, we paused for a lingering look and group photo. Nearby, a lovely sight: two tall flagpoles, with patriotic banners for Australia and New South Wales proudly flapping in the breeze.

On a clear day, Michael noted, climbers can see the famed Blue Mountains in the distance, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.

Too soon it was time to begin the descent. This meant crossing over to the Darling Harbour side and returning in the direction from which we came. We did not continue to the far side of the span.

A few caveats:

● You cannot take anything with you except your sunglasses. No camera, no smartphone, no headphones.

● Don’t worry about immortalizing your climb. The guide will take an individual photo of you on the ascent (and a few others) and then a group photo when you are atop the center span. The group photo is included in the overall cost, as is a certificate marking your achievement, and a blue cap (this has changed since my visit; I paid $12.95 AUS for the cap). You will have a chance to buy additional personal photos at the end of the climb, and souvenirs in the gift shop.

● Go to the bathroom before the climb. Obviously, there are no facilities once you are on the bridge. If you go on the longest climb like I did, you won’t have bathroom access for about two hours and 40 minutes.

● If a paralyzing fear of heights kicks in while you are on the bridge, and you feel you must retreat, a staff member — not your guide — will come to the rescue.

Should the price deter you, you can still get an excellent view of the harbor from the Pylon Lookout, on the city side of the bridge. The small Harbour Bridge Museum is also in the pylon and it has photographs and other facts and figures about the bridge’s construction. If you do the climb, the admission ticket for the pylon is included.

Quick reference: BridgeClimb, 3 Cumberland Street, the Rocks, Sydney. The website is loaded with information, video and photographs to help you plan your climb. Reservations are required; tickets are nonrefundable. Prices on the website are in Australian dollars. The climb I did cost about $150 US in 2010. It’s now up to $217 U.S. Children 8 or older are welcome, but they must be at least 3-foot, 11-inches tall (or 1.2 meters), and they must be accompanied by an adult.

The weather isn’t generally an issue, unless the winds are extreme or there is the possibility of an electrical storm. In those cases, the climb is postponed.

At Ahu Tongariki, where 15 restored moai guard the Easter Island landscape


The 15 restored moai and ceremonial platform that comprise Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, are among the most famous and most photographed of all the island’s sights.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

In November 2016, spring in the Southern Hemisphere, I took an unforgettable, two-week trip to Easter Island and Chile. This is the second post about my adventures.

On the east-northeastern side of Easter Island is a picturesque broad inlet known as Hanga Nui Bay. No settlements remain nearby now, but evidence that this area was once a hive of activity is manifest by the 15 stone moai that make up the site known as Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial structure ever constructed in Polynesia.

The colossal, restored moai side by side by side at Ahu Tongariki are perhaps the most photographed and most famous of all the Easter Island statues. Their backs are turned on Hanga Nui Bay and the greater Pacific Ocean. Their rough faces and stout bodies show the effects of centuries of erosion. They stand only about a mile from Rano Raraku, the quarry in which they were carved.

Serene Hanga Nui Bay provides a glistening background for Ahu Tongariki. This photo was taken from Rano Raraku, the quarry where the majority of the moai were carved, about one mile away.

In person, one can only stand in spine-tingling awe of the magnificence of the scenery — natural and man-made — and the mystical energy of these stone giants.

Only one statue — second from the right — wears the red scoria topknot (called a pukao), believed to be an imitation of a male ancestor’s hairstyle. Originally, all 15 possibly sported a pukao, and the remains of some of the other red cylinders are scattered around the Tongariki site.

Archaeologists and anthropologists believe the islanders, as in other settlements around Polynesia, were ancestor worshipers. When an important tribal member died on Easter Island, a statue was commissioned to embody the deceased’s spiritual power, known locally as mana. Once erected in the tribe’s village, members believed the moai watched over and protected the people and their land.

Moai carving began possibly around A.D. 1000 and continued for about 600 years, with the figures becoming bigger, more well-defined and in some cases embellished as the craftsmen honed their skills.

The original Ahu Tongariki was also formerly a burial site — the longest on Easter Island — and measured almost 722 feet (220 meters).

The Tongariki 15 are not the best-preserved of the Easter Island moai. That distinction would likely go to four of the seven moai at Ahu Nau Nau at Anakena Beach. I’ll discuss this site further in a future post.

Another view of Ahu Tongariki reveals the massive scale of not only the moai and platform but the surrounding site.

At least seven theories exist as to how the long-ago moai makers of Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui, transported the gigantic statues from Rano Raraku to their destinations around this geographically remote island.

One school of thought believes they were upright and tethered by long ropes to teams amassed left, right and behind (roughly forming a triangle, with the trailing group stabilizing the operation) and rocked from side to side in an attempt to “walk” them.

At least two archaeological teams favor the idea that they were placed on a sledge — one camp says the moai were standing, the other that they were lying on their back — and pulled over a series of wooden rollers to advance. Research continues, but for now, no one can say for sure.

What is known is that by about 1840, no complete moai remained upright on their ahu (ceremonial platform). After they were pushed over — and again theories diverge as to the reason why, but intertribal warfare is likely — the moai rested face down in the earth. Many were broken, some into multiple immense pieces.

In this state, with face and eyes buried, the moais’ mana was negated.

The toppled Tongariki moai remained mostly undisturbed until a massive tsunami in 1960 pushed some of them and the platform stones hundreds of feet farther inland, quite a feat considering that some of the statues weigh more than 30 tons (or 60,000 pounds),

At about 7:11 p.m. on May 22, an underwater earthquake, the strongest ever recorded — 9.5 on the Richter scale — hit about parallel to Valdivia, in southern Chile. A towering wall of water possibly more than 26 feet high engulfed Tongariki, and many hours later came ashore as far away as Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

The earthquake and tsunami left between 490 and 5,700 dead in Chile, more than 200,000 homeless and caused $550 million in damage, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Hawaii, 61 people died and damage was estimated at $23.5 million from the tsunami. In Japan, 139 died, and 21 in the Philippines lost their lives.

The tsunami from the 1960 Chilean earthquake pushed these red scoria pukao, or topknots, farther inland at Ahu Tongariki.

The impetus for restoration, which cost about $2 million, came from an unlikely source, thousands of mile away in Asia.

In November 1988, a former governor of Easter Island, Sergio Rapu, gave an interview to a Japanese TV crew. He remarked that a crane would be just the ticket to restoring the moai atop the ahu.

A program viewer with admirable motivation just happened to be an employee of Tadano, a Japanese manufacturer of trucks and cranes. An idea had taken root.

In April 1991, for testing purposes, Tadano constructed a moai that stood more than 12 feet tall and weighed more than 22,000 pounds. Next, company representatives did a site survey at Tongariki, assessing what equipment would be needed while at the same time ensuring that all archaeological procedures would be followed.

In February 1992, the Moai Restoration Committee of Japan was born, and teaming with the Ahu Tongariki Reconstruction Committee, the project was under way in earnest.

Archaeologist Claudio Cristino, in charge of the restoration, colleague Patricia Vargas and a team from the University of Chile, dozens of islanders, and specialists and experts from Poland and Italy and United States were also instrumental to the project.

(Cristino has written that he thinks the Tongariki site was no longer in use by 1770, citing the offshore visit of Spaniards led by González y Aedo. They used small boats to circumnavigate the island, making several maps, including Hanga Nui Bay. Cristino says it is inconceivable that intact, erect moai wouldn’t have been noticed, yet the visitors made no comments about them, so they must have be in ruins.)

By June 1992, a Tadano crane with a lifting capacity of 50 tons was disassembled and loaded onto a cargo ship in Kobe, Japan, heading for the port of Valparaiso, Chile, and then from there, another 2,220 miles or so west to Easter Island.

With the help of the Chilean Navy, the crane was offloaded at Anakena Bay in September, with islanders looking on. Site excavation and preparation took several months and turned up ancient tools, earrings made of whale bone, and other items that are now on display at the museum.

From the back of Ahu Tongariki, visitors get a better appreciation of how boulders were reset into place to form the ceremonial platform.

From March to July 1993, the ahu stone boulders were, like a jigsaw puzzle, painstaking restacked to complete a platform 321.5 feet long, 19.6 feet wide and 13.1 feet high (in meters: 98 by 6 by 4).

Before the first moai was lowered onto the ahu, heads were matched to bodies. Holes were drilled into the trunks and necks and carbon-cloth-wrapped stainless steel poles were inserted before the two pieces were joined. An epoxy resin further secured the mended statues.

A milestone was reached on August 7, when the first moai, covered in protective tarps, was lifted into place. It weighed 41 tons and stands 19 feet (5.8 meters) tall.

It took another nine months to restore the other 14 moai and place them atop the ahu. The finishing touches weren’t completed until September 1996.

For good measure, Tadano donated the crane and other equipment to the people of Easter Island. When the crane broke down in late 2003, damaged by seawater and salty air, Tadano declared it was beyond repair. A brand new model was dispatched, and it arrived by ship in March 2006.

The mock moai had a happy ending, too. It stands at Megi island, west of Tadano’s company headquarter in Takamatsu, Japan.

At a dedication ceremony at Megi island in November 1996, Chilean ambassador to Japan, Jaime Lagos, remarked: ”The moai statues are one of the seven wonders of the world, even now veiled in mystery. I hope this moai statue will be helpful to the children in filling up their imagination.”

Quick reference: To see a timeline of Tadano’s involvement with the restoration, go to It also has photos of the project.

See my first post in this series, from February 12: Easter Island, aka Rapa Nui: Beautiful, remote, mysterious and captivating