Friday, September 21, 2012

Germany Day Nine

Day Nine -- a catchy subtitle doesn't feel right today

Slept fairly well even though I was back to a standard hotel room with no orthopedic pillows, waterfall shower and sudoku and Toblerone turndown service. Sigh. Breakfast was pretty extensive, cererals, yogurt, pastries and a gorgeous looking fruit salad. I know I’ve been away from my normal diet too long when veggies and salad are looking that good to me. I had a delicious pain au chocolate with my cereal and a small yogurt smoothie on my way out.

With a full free day left, I had a few choices. One was Potsdam self-guided (no tours ran today). Another was to go back to the German History Museum and try to get to the Stasi Prison. The last option was a guide tour with Insider Tours again, this time to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. In the end, I decide to take the guided tour of the concentration camp today.

I got to the meeting point and met Mike, the guide for the day. He warned me that once we left at 10:15, we would not have a chance to stop for food again until 4:30. That was a strong suggestion to buy something for the road. I went to an organic food market and got a tomato baguette and a focaccia and a bottle of orange/apple juice. We took the S-bahn about 45 minutes north to the town of Oranienburg, where the camp is. From the S-bahn station it was a 2.2 mile walk, the same train ride and walk that prisoners would have made on their way there.

Let me just stop here and state the obvious. For me this was not sightseeing. There were some in my group who were acting like this was a sideshow at a carnival. For me, it was exploring history for myself, gathering details that I can in order to become a less ignorant, more thoughtful traveler and citizen of the world. I am debating with myself whether to share the photos I took, because I don’t want it to seem like it was in the same category as some of the less serious adventures I had this past week. But I also feel that if I can share them with those who’ll never get to go, perhaps I can educate them in the same way…. Public service announcement over.

Mike explained to us that Sachenhausen was meant to be a “model” camp. It was one of the earlier ones and the initial design was such that the sightlines from the main guard post Station A allowed for simultaneous surveillance of all barracks, which were arranged in a semi-circle in front of the guard post.

Station A was also the first gate prisoners would go through. Like other camps, there is a sign on the main gate “work will set you free”, which in itself is a chilling thought, knowing that for many, no matter how hard or how much they worked, they never got out.

It should be mentioned that Sachenhausen was meant to be a prison for political foes first and foremost. It wasn’t until much later that other objectionable classes of prisoners (remember, it wasn’t just Jews, but also Sinti-Roma gypsies, homosexuals, unemployed, diseased and handicapped, and Poles) were put there by necessity. When the Jewish barracks were constructed outside that initial semi circle of barracks, they were outside that simultaneous sightline of the guards, and thus Sachenhausen was no longer considered a “model” camp. When it became a Memorial after the war, the East German authorities chose only to commemorate the political prisoners, conveniently forgetting everyone else who passed through or died here (50,000 deaths, countless others may have been moved on to other camps where they died there).

Mike pointed out the roll call area in between Station A and the barracks. Roll was called twice a day, and if anyone had managed to escape, all were punished. Although if someone managed to make it through the neutral zone (where snipers were meant to shoot to kill), then the trip wire, barbed wire, over the wall and more barbed wire, they would not have many options in the way of destination as it was so far from Berlin for someone on foot. Townspeople who harbored escapees would be punished severely, so that was not an option either.

One sick trick the guards would play would be to toss a prisoner’s hat into the neutral zone and command them to fetch it. It was a no-win game: refuse and they’d be tortured and probably killed, fetch it and the snipers would get them. Often prisoners would run into the neutral zone to get shot on purpose. Many times suicide was the best way out.

We got to look into a barracks, where they had only one sink to wash faces and small troughs to wash their feet. Three to a bed, three beds high made for tight quarters. The best bunks were on top, where heat rose and where prisoners couldn’t get hit by vomit or other fluids from prisoners above.

Hard labor was either in brick yards, at “satellite” camps which were corporations like Krupps, Daimler, Henkels, where they would serve as slave labor, or in something called the boot testing track. This track was made of uneven and torn up pavement, meant to simulate conditions soldiers would walk or run on. Prisoners would wear various types of boots or shoes made for soldiers, purposely in sizes either too big or too small for them and always a new pair so as to be most uncomfortable and they would walk the track for 9-12 hours a day. If the labor was also meant to be punishment, they’d have to run it the whole time. In effect, doing a marathon in new shoes everyday. When the camp physicians were testing drugs to be used on soldiers (methamphetamines, to keep submarine crews awake for days, for example) the testing would be done on these boot testing prisoners to see how the meth would affect them and their ability to perform first.

There was, believe it or not, a brothel for prisoners. If you or your work team performed particularly well, you would be rewarded with time in the brothel, which was staffed with prisoners from a camp for women nearby. These women were told they could reduce their sentence by working in the camp, but if they became pregnant (and contraception was not handy, so that was likely) they would be killed. Quite a risk to take.

We saw the location of the gas chambers and crematorium. The gas chambers weren’t used as often as in other camps because it took a lot of body heat or extra heat to get the gas to work, and they were never killing that many people at once. It seemed the method of choice here was a gun to the back of the head, usually with a solider shooting through a hole in the wall so that there were no post traumatic effects to him by shooting eye to eye. Hanging were popular too, either traditionally on a gallows or by tying hands together behind the back and hanging by the wrists from a peg over head, or death by intense shoulder torture. Bodies were piled up under the mortuary and when there were enough, they’d be carried to the crematorium and burned. Relatives told of the death of their loved ones at the camp could buy an urn of ashes. No guarantee they were their relatives ashes, but ashes nonetheless.

Sachenhausen, with its large population of political prisoners, has the odd quandary of burning bodies with lots of fat on them (as soliders and politicians tended to be) and that created a more noticeable, black smoke whereas emaciated prisoners created hardly any smoke at all.

Sick prisoners in the infirmary were often used for medical research. For example, they’d be cut on the arms and legs and glass or dirty straw was inserted into the cut and sealed over to try to foster gangrene. Then the doctors would try to treat and cure the gangrene without amputation in order to better treat soldiers on the front lines.

I think what got to me the most though was the mortuary. Here, prisoners who were lay people, not physicians or scientists, would perform autopsies on those killed. They had to do so in order for there to be a death certificate issued. And usually what was written there was false (old age, tuberculosis, consumption) because it couldn’t be written what really happened (gassed, shot, beaten to death, hung). Surely some folks did just perish because it was too much with little food and too much work. But it takes a certain kind of sick and twisted to lie on a death certificate like that. What was pathetic though is that sometimes the bodies were coming into the mortuary that the ones performing the autopsies just did one incision and then closed it up. That was procedure enough to enter a cause of death, apparently.

One notable prisoner as Sachenhausen was Martin Niemoller, probably best known to most of us for writing the following:

When the Nazis came for the communists,

I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

I had absolutely no idea how I would respond to this visit. Mike did an incredible job with a very difficult subject matter. That he is so schooled on the subject and European history helped a great deal. The numbers of atrocities and deaths is mind numbing. The logic behind them all is inconceivable. He left us to ourselves to reflect the whole way home and it was disconcerting and more than a little uncomfortable.

I left Mike at Friedrichstrasse and he gave me his email to get his recommended reading list as I’d told him what I’d read to prepare for the trip. I think now that I have seen all this and the many different places I’ve seen and things I have learned are all really coming together for me.

As much as I was pretty mentally tired from the day, I did have over an hour and was close by the Germany History Museum, so I zipped back there with the sole purpose of seeing the Fokus DDR temporary exhibition. What that ended up being is an exposition on all the many dozens of GDR acronyms, what they really meant, what they produced or what their role was in the GDR (east german republic) and what their ultimate outcome was. It was interesting and mind numbing. They do like their acronyms, that’s for sure. Some were familiar to me, but many many more were new to me.

Dinner tonight was up in the air. I had several ideas but wanted to be near my hotel for an early night. Tarek, the guide from last week, had drawn on my map four restaurants in my neighborhood. One I visited last night. I headed toward a Russian café and found it, connected to a much larger restaurant called Pasternak. I assumed the café and restaurant were related, and Pasternak seemed familiar to me from my research, so I asked for a table. I should say that both last night and tonight, I think going early (6 p.m.-ish) has been the only reason I have gotten tables. It seems that these restaurants all book up for later times. I lucked out and got the last non-reserved inside table.

I should say that 1) I know that Russian cuisine is going seriously off plan here, but I NEVER get any Russian food at home and 2) this waiter who greeted me was a cutie, very sweet. All boded well from the beginning, and then I looked at the menu. They had set menus as well as a la carte. Usually I go a la carte, but I saw a four course set menu of salmon caviar on eggs, a cured meat soup, beef stroganoff and blini with sour cherries. I was in heaven. I haven’t eaten this since Russia in 2010! The caviar was delightful, even if it was only barely 2 teaspoons. The sweet salty bubbles were incredible. The soup was good, a beef broth with various slices of meat, sausage and potato. The beef stroganoff with two potato pancakes was excellent indeed and the Dornfelder red wine I picked worked perfectly with it. And the blinis topped the meal off perfectly. My waiter laughed at me when he asked if I wanted coffee too, I said “no but a shot of vodka would be nice.” I think that surprised him and he laughed and asked “100 grams, no?” That would have put me in the ground, so I said just the 50 grams. He presented it with a smile and a “na zdorovie.” Indeed a nice way to cap off an evening and a brilliant week.

I’m back here now, a glass of sparkling wine, all packed and boarding passes printed. It has been an excellent, busy, exciting week of learning and reflecting, relaxing and breathing easy. Now it’s time to bring that all back home.

Talk to you from the other side of the Atlantic!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Germany Day Eight

Day Eight - The Suitcase Incident, Miscalculating Museums, the All Pig Meal

This morning I was backto firing on all engines, so I went full throttle on breakfast. Actually it wasn’t too much different from yesterday. I just added pineapple and red grapefruit sections and a piece of some sort of ricotta breakfast cheesecake type pastry. The waiter stopped by at one point and asked if I would like to try the juice of the day, which was cherry peach. I did and it was delicious. I haven’t seen as much cherry anywhere as I have here. It seems to be on every menu somehow.

The train back to Berlin from Dresden was not as simple as the first leg of the journey. I somehow managed to get in a car that had little cabins of 6 seats with a sliding door on the cabin. This meant there were no luggage racks at the end of the car. So what to do with the luggage? I all of a sudden became the idiot traveler I hate at home. My non-English-speaking train cabin companions all had ideas where to put the suitcase, none of which were great. I asked a train employee out on the platform and he motioned to just leave it in the very narrow corridor outside the cabin. Which was fine until other passengers tried to get by, or the train moved, then the case rolled all over the place. At one point a conductor came by and opened our door and started barking German at us. My 3 companions all pointed at me, he barked directly at me, then the grandmotherly type of the three barked back at him. He just put the suitcase where he wanted it in the corridor and moved on. I smiled at the grandmother woman. She had my back.

I’m now staying in Prenzlauer Berg, in the former East Berlin. From what I can tell this house used to be all one-room apartments with en suite baths. That is the feeling I get from the way it is set up. But the rooms have been incredibly refurbished into theme rooms. I knew from the website that there was a safari, beach, Asian theme. And I ended up in the golf themed room. It feels pretty masculine, with wide board hardwood floors, beige sofas, gold broadstriped wallpaper and golf accents. But it’s on the top floor, has floor to ceiling windows and is quiet so far. We’ll see how good the breakfast is, which is served in a café two doors down, and shared with another property owned by these same people.

I’d saved Museum Island for when I was staying on this side of the city. There are five museums on the island, the two most prominent of which are the Pergamon and the Neues. There is a combined ticket for 14 euro that gets you into all 5 in a day (with others for multiple days). As today is Thursday, arriving back into Berlin at 11:30 wasn’t so much of a day eater as these museums are open until 8 or 10 on Thursdays. Everything I’d read said that I would need to book a specific time window for both the Pergamon and the Neues museums. It turns out that was completely unnecessary. I walked into both with no crowds whatsoever.

The first museum I went to was the Pergamon, which is named for its centerpiece, the Pergamon altar. I’d read that this museum makes the British Museum look like a cake walk, and I’d say while the altar was similar to and bigger than the Elgin Marbles, it was not as vast an overall collection as the British Museum has. The Pergamon altar was pillaged (sorry, I’m bitter about ancient ruins being taken elsewhere) from Turkey and reconstructed to the same scale in this museum. Same with the Miletus Market gate and the Ishtar Gate. They were each very different from the other, as they came from different eras and different parts of the region. While each was beautiful on its own (and in the case of the Ishtar Gate, particularly stunning I thought), I couldn’t help but think these should be on display in their countries of origin.

The next museum I visited was the Neues Museum, with the showpiece being the bust of Nefertiti. I was stunned that this was 3000 years old. The colors are nearly pristine and if accurate, Nefertiti was a stunning woman. I appreciated the fine lines around her eyes. A little age looks good on her. There was also a very impressive statue of Helios on the other side of the building. He is so large that when the museum was rebuilt after the war, he had to be lowered through a hole in the roof. The rest of the museum was all Greek, Roman and Middle East antiquities. Given that my attention span for that is about 4 minutes and it was approximately 115 degrees in that museum, I cut the visit short.

The last of the Museum Island museums I visited was the National Gallery, which focused primarily on German painting, although there was a random room of French Impressionists (collected before the Nazis said that it was dangerous art and forbidden). I seem to enjoy looking at art when I have no idea who the artists are, as was the case in Russia’s national art museum. Here, I could at least guess at the genre of the painting because they tended to be similar to what I’m used to seeing from French, Italian and Dutch artists. They tended to focus a lot on Romanticism and Realism. The German Impressionists weren’t many but they gave it a good shot.

The room of French Impressionists had a cast of Rodin’s The Thinker, four Monets and two Reniors and a very interesting Manet. One Monet was an early one, of the back of the St. Germain church in Paris. The others were pretty typical for Monet, grassy field scenes. The Manet was a man and woman sitting on a bench, but what made it interesting for me was the symbolism and interpretation the audio guide pointed out. All in all, this was a good experience if only to wander and look at art by artists you may not have heard of. This was really the best Germany had to offer.

By now it was nearly 5:00 and too early to head to dinner, so I popped into the German History Museum right around the corner. This was not covered by the Museum Island ticket, so it was separate entry. It did not take me long to learn the error of my ways. This ended up being THE museum to go to for everything I am interested in. The museum breaks German history down into sections from prehistoric times through 1994. I only had an hour to see what I could today. Had I researched this better (and admittedly things like focusing on safari and other commitments really pulled me away from properly researching this) I would have realized how gosh darn amazing this is.

I decided to focus on the time periods that interest me and see how much I could get through. So I started in 1918, wandered through the crazy 20s and came through the Third Reich, the Nazis, the concentration camps, allied occupation and reunification. I did not give it nearly the attention I wished I could, but I felt like what I saw was quality. This is a very fine balance between text to be read (never more than a few short paragraphs) with visual aids. Either uniforms or letters or video or signs or slabs of the Wall or photographs, thousands of photographs, newspaper front pages. It was endless and it deserved hours, not just the 70 minutes I had for it. And there were 2000 years before this I didn’t get to. Damn.

I could try to itemize things I saw to illustrate how amazing this was, but I’d go on forever. But a quick list: Nazi SS uniforms, Helmut Kohl’s briefcase, a Jewish star, a concentration camp outfit, front pages after Hitler’s death, photos from the Churchill/Stalin/Truman meetings, signs from protests, markers used to mark the border between east and west, endless video of Hitler, video of the announcement of the opening of the border. It was just insane how much there was to look at and take in. It was incredible.

A quick note about the video from the announcement of the wall opening. Our guide last week told us about it. The government sent this guy out to make a press announcement that travel across the border will be open to anyone without restriction. So he makes the announcement to the media. One media guy asks “when will this begin?” And you can see if you watch the video that he has no clue. He hasn’t been told that, and no matter how many times he shuffles the paper he just read from, no date is going to magically appear. So he says “ummmm, now.” So then anyone and everyone who happened to hear that starts pouring out into the street.and head for the borders. The first border crossing to open opens only because one guard figures he can’t stop the numbers from going over as they multiply from 10s to 100s to 1000s. So he just walks out and lifts the gate. Simple as that. And yes, both men are still alive. The government guy is retired but makes money on the lecture circuit now.

So dear readers, remember this. If I were to do this trip again, I’d get myself to the German History Museum as early in the week as possible and plan to spend hours. I went to the ancient history museums because I felt they were must sees. But I have to be honest, if you have seen the British Museum, you can probably give them a miss and not be any the wiser.

Four museums later, I was ready for dinner. I headed back towards my hotel, knowing a plethora of fabulous restaurants was just outside my door. I also knew if I went back to my room, I was tired enough that I might not go out again, so I went right to my first choice, as confirmed by the tour guide last week, Guglehof., an Alsatian restaurant. I figured I like German food and I like French food, bringing them together can only be a good thing. And I was right.

The restaurant is warm and almost pub-like. The servers are all hot young men. Apparently all the hot men in Berlin work here. And that made me regret coming to eat in sneakers and with the look of gobsmacked tourist written all over me. But anyway, I digress. This meal may go down in history. It was wonderful. I started with a pumpkin cream soup with something elderberry drizzled over the surface in a lovely heart pattern. As a pumpkin lover, I found it wonderful. Very creamy and filling and a nice subtle pumpkin flavor. My main dish was chocuterie Gugelhof, which was one large blood sausage, two links of regular sausage and three cured pork cutlets served over sauerkraut and with three boiled potatoes and two types of grainy spicy mustard. Holy mother of you’ll-be-thirsty-as-hell-later. I think even Anthony Bourdain would have been happy with this all pig meal. I know many are not, but I am a fan of blood sausage and this was amazing, just barely holding together when I cut into it. Yowza. The sausage links were excellent, but I have had more than my share of sausage this week. The cured cutlets were a cross between thick Canadian bacon and a great spiral cut ham. All sorts of awesomeness that I devoured. I left the potatoes, those were unnecessary but I haven’t yet had a meal here without potato.

I needed something sweet to finish the meal with but nothing heavy. I had deep red raspberry sorbet floating in a pool of sparkling white wine. What a nice way to end the meal.

Heading back to my hotel, I found a wine shop with an owner who speaks English. We talked wine a bit and I asked him to pick any one bottle for me to take home. He picked what he says is an “excellent” Riesling, which I just so happen to love. I have a wine pack to get this home in. And now I know why I brought the big suitcase! Yee ha!
That’s all for tonight…last day tomorrow. Spoiled for choice as to how to spend it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Germany Day Seven

Day Seven - Museums and churches and opera house, oh my!

What a difference great pillows makes! Having ordered off the pillow menu, I picked two pillows for neck support and haven’t felt so good on waking as I did this morning in I don’t know how long. Unfortunately, something I ate yesterday wreaked havoc on me overnight, so I was a bit hesitant to eat a humongous breakfast. I was bummed about that because breakfast is my favorite meal to splurge on (no, really!) and Swissotel has a massive buffet. In the end, I settled on scrambled eggs, a yogurt, a couple links of sausage and a small apple Danish (for carbs, you know, have to balance out the protein). That lasted me well into mid-afternoon.

I had a 10:00 reservation for the Green Vault, and I had literally a 15 second walk across the street and into the courtyard of the castle. That was easy. The tricky part was having to check everything I brought with me. Apparently nothing but your person is allowed into the Green Vault. I wish I’d know that or I would have left everything in my own personal bag check known as my hotel room, which was free and not 50 cents to use. Understandably, once I got inside it made sense, as some of the objects are (unwisely) not behind glass, so one idiot with an oversized backpack could turn and knock something. But poor layout if that’s the case. But they didn’t ask me.

So in order to keep all these precious antiquities in tip top condition, only 100 people are let in every hour (I think it’s hour…) and those 100 people have to go through some hermetically sealed snuffer that blows all spare dust off of them before they go in. It was sort of a cross between having Scotty beam me up and getting the full body scan at the airport. It wasn’t intrusive but it did take a year and a day to get 25 people through it, as you have to go through individually. Sigh.

The Historic Green Vault is, essentially, all the cool presents and treasures that Augustus the Strong and his descendants collected, sans the paintings and most sculpture. The reason it is called the Green Vault is that the rooms that originally held all this royal collection were painted a medium green. The layout of the collection is such that each room is a theme: amber cabinet, jewel room, bronze room, gilded room, ivory/pearl/shell room. You get the picture. For me, the amber cabinet was interesting because of what I learned and like about amber from going to Russia. I also love the jewel room because it’s not often you can see crazy amounts of gemstones in different mounts and just plain old raw. But among the collection was just about anything you can think of made in some precious material. Silverware, jewelry boxes, cups, bowls, jewelry, bric a brac. Actually that is really what it was: royal bric a brac. I took the audio tour and every so often the narrator would say something like “this knife was not meant to be for every day use, it would never withstand the wear and tear.” So they had knives and things that were never used, just looked at.

One thing that just blew me away was this Augustus Colossus, that was an obelisk created for Augustus that had just about every type of bric a brac in or on or surrounding it. It was overwhelming. But the whole exhibit was overwhelming. It was like a visual overindulgence candy-corn style. Room after room after room…there were 9 rooms in total, and I’ll tell you, by room 7 I wasn’t listening to any more of the optional audio tracks. I just wanted air. Except….

Upstairs was the “New Green Vault”. New as opposed to Historic. Basically it was everything else in the collection that didn’t fit downstairs. I skipped through this, looking only for the one and only green diamond. The story behind this is interesting in that no one knows exactly how this diamond made its way from India to Germany, but they DO know exactly how much it cost. Something smells funny there. It was a very fine diamond though. At a whopping 41 karats, I’d probably have it reset into a pendant. I don’t need the 411 diamondettes surrounding it.

I got outside, got some fresh air and did a bit of retail therapy at a shop near my hotel. Dropping my purchases back at the hotel, I headed to the Zwinger to the Semper museum, which houses the Gemaldegalerie Old Masters Painting Gallery, where I promptly had to unload all my belongings YET AGAIN for another 50 cents. Believe me, I did plenty of research on these museums and none of them said anything about this. It’s a hassle to carry my wallet and a guidebook along with the audio guide I always get. Serious PITA. But I digress.

This gallery is spread out amongst 2 floors and arranged by region. From the name of the museum, it should be no surprise that all the work is old, like 1200-1700. All the big names are here, but my eye was for Rembrandt and two resident Vermeers, both of which chose not to run from me to the Tokyo exhibition like that one in Berlin did. But alas, like a good museum-goer eager to learn, I followed the Baedeker’s Dresden guide suggestions and found all the works of note. First was the Sistine Madonna by Raphael (named such after Pope Sixtus, not the Sistine Chapel), and like any really good Raphael, it got me swooning early on.

I really liked Giorgione’s languid Sleeping Venus and appreciated how the audio guide pointed out the artistic differences between that and another Sleeping Venus in the same room.

But I won’t kid you here, it took a lot of control to walk through Italian and French masters before getting to the Dutch. I wondered who I would come upon first, and it turned out it was Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window. At first I wasn’t terribly moved either way, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought about it, the more attracted to it I became. The mossy green of her dress and the curtain that is pulled back between us and her is different from Vermeers I’ve seen before and I liked it. For the uninitiated, Vermeer is know for his mundane, daily life interiors. Usually though, the painting is loaded with symbolism or hints as to what it’s about. I couldn’t come up with any of those hints myself, and it was tough judging from the girl’s face how she was reacting to what she was reading. Flipping through the guide in the gift shop, I learned that this would be considered ordinary daily living as folks in Holland then had a penchant for letter writing. But the guide also pointed out that x-ray had revealed that Vermeer had painted over a painting behind her on the wall that would have clearly symbolized that the letter was all about love. I sort of liked wondering myself.

And only those with a serious interest would want to know that on either side of the Vermeer were four Metsus, and a Dou. Interesting choice. Seeing Metsu and Vermeer side by side was interesting because as much as they say they are cut from the same cloth, the excellence of Vermeer really stands out when it’s the jewel in the crown

The other Vermeer was hard for me to swallow that it was a Vermeer. I think experts may have gone back and forth over whether it is or not. There are only 35 known Vermeers, and the majority are the daily life scenes, so this Procuress (basically a whore being bought) seems unlike him. And the visages and staging of it don’t seem like him. And it is HUGE. I think maybe only the larger paintings of his in the Hague may be equal or bigger. So I’m not convinced.

So after all that with Vermeer, I rounded the next corner to find myself in the Rembrandt room. Ten in all. None of them struck me like the Rape of Persephone did back in Berlin, but there’s no such thing as a bad Rembrandt. There were two portraits of Saskia, and again I noticed how tenderly he always seemed to paint her. One though, I’d been looking forward to seeing was a painting of Rembrandt with Saskia on his lap. It appears to be them in roles from the Return of the Prodigal Son, but it just felt all wrong. The positions were anatomically impossible (unless Saskia could spin her head 180) and the faces looked more Frans Hals than they did Rembrandt. The audio guide said that the painting was originally horizontal and parts of the canvas got lopped off and other parts of the scene painted over, so who knows what he really meant to do with this.

I also sought out the Spanish masters there, as I am a sucker for Velazquez and El Greco. Neither were breathtaking, but I did look.

Needing a bit of a break from museums, I stopped into Frauenkirche. This is the large church that was destroyed in a bombing raid on February 13, 1944. Well, basically all of historic Dresden was destroyed in the bombing raid. Some of the buildings though weren’t destroyed by the bombs as much as by the intense heat from the fires that burned long after. There is a large chunk of the original church outside the rebuilt one. The loss and rebuilding of the church is really a testament to the will of the citizens. In the 60s the DDR declared the ruins a national memorial and the attempts to rebuild needed to wait until the wall fell. In 1990 funding began and in 1994 building began. 43% of the church now is from the remains of the first church. In a somewhat fitting tribute, the cross on the top was a gift from England and made by the son of one of the English bomber pilots from that raid. The church wasn’t dedicated until 2005, so what I see today is so relatively new, even by US standards.

The interior was beautiful, with a Baroque alter and lots of gilt everywhere. It was like being in a jewel box, almost. I’m glad I visited and got to appreciate what Dresden did by pulling together and remembering what is important. Their pride in the church is obvious. I feel blessed to have been able to visit it, and I don’t say things like that often.

By now you’d think I’d be hungry but breakfast was holding me over well, so I decided to go to the Albertinum, another art museum, this one focusing on more recent art. I had my eye on the French Impressionism room, but was fully aware that there was a whole lot of modern and contemporary art there too. Not that that’s bad, but it’s just not my thing. I managed to make it through a lot of rooms’ worth of it, and even picked a Klimt off a wall from a room away. So I’m getting somewhat better.

One very strange part of this museum were these cabinet rooms, which were essentially just cases of shelves of all sorts of sculpture that didn’t have a home anywhere else in the museum. Essentially, public storage. It was disconcerting to see a shelf chock full and then notice one’s a Rodin, one’s a Canova. It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like that.anywhere else. There were some Rodins on view off the lobby, as well as one Canova, but I would consider them lesser works or plaster copies of originals (The Thinker, for one).

I can’t say that for the one Monet and one Van Gogh (still life of pears) that the trip was worth it. There was, however, a Degas of two ballerinas that I swooned over. It was very similar to the one at the Pushkin in Moscow that I loved. This one was done all in vibrant orange with his jewel tone blue highlights. Must look that one up at home, it is frame worthy.

About now I was just starting to feel peckish, but there was a 3:00 English tour of the opera house and I have 15 minutes to buy tickets and make it there. I grabbed a Berliner pretzel (a sugar coated donut twisted in the form of a pretzel) and a piece of apple kuchen, just to see if it’s at all like Mom’s. It’s not and I hardly ate half of it.

Back to the opera house I went, which is just a few blocks from where I’d been near the Albertinum.

The tour was pretty good. The guide explained that this was actually the third opera house on or near this site. The first burned down in the late 1800s. Workers cleaning left perfume scented candles going to take care of the smell from cleaning and managed to burn the place down. But opera is such an important part of German life that they rebuilt it in just 6 weeks (granted, it looked like Noah’s ark). That’s the one that was destroyed by the firestorm in 1944. I wouldn’t expect a wooden structure like that to withstand much of anything, let alone a firestorm.

The guide explained that opera in Germany is still very accessible and not yet overpriced like it is in other cities. This house has 300 performances a year and a full, diverse program. Stauss debuted 15 operas in this building (well, not THIS building but one of the opera houses on this site).

The tour took us through the halls and the guide explained that almost all the materials in there are cheaper, man-made materials rather than real granite or marble. Finally we got to see the venue itself and it was pretty. It is not exquisite like Paris’ is, but it is pretty. The stage is grand and the theater itself holds 3300 people, I believe he said.

Right across the street is the Hofkirche and I decided to stop in there on my way back to the hotel. This is the only Catholic church in Dresden. When it was first built, the Protestant majority wouldn’t even let it ring its bells. This church was also burned out and left a wreck for some time. The interior of this church was much more simple and not as ornate.

Having been on my feet non-stop since 10 a.m. I decided to go to the hotel and put my feet up around 4:45. The location of this hotel is a dream and really allows me to do things like that without even thinking about it. After a bit of a rest, I went window shopping at the shopping arcade at Altmarkt just past where that outdoor market of stalls is. I didn’t buy anything other than chocolate gifts for people at home and olive oil hand cream for me, but it was interesting to see the fashions and especially the prices. Workout gear like I’d buy at home was easily 15-20% more even before the exchange rate.

Dinner tonight was at Augustiner anu de Frauenkirche, another restaurant right on the square around the church. This was decorated like a beer cellar and the wait staff again in traditional dress. I have to say I think I liked this meal better (and will like it better still if it doesn’t wake me up at midnight). Tonight I had for a starter the sausage salad. This was thinly sliced sausage with chopped red onion and gherkin pickles. I think it was in the brine of the pickles, if I’m not mistaken. To die for. It’d be a fabulous cookout side dish! My main course was Munich style schnitzel, which meant it was stuffed with ham and cheese, cordon bleu style! The side was potato cucumber (which really meant pickle) salad. I had a glass of German white (Elbling, I remembered to write it down tonight) with it.

I was totally stuffed and couldn’t finish the entrée, so I skipped dessert and walked around and took a few more photos. By the time I got back to my hotel, I had room for a small dish of white chocolate ice cream at the chocolate specialist next to the hotel. Now I’m all packed and ready to roll back to Berlin tomorrow.

Dresden has been beautiful. If I did this trip over, Dresden would get one more full day in the itinerary. I don’t know how people “do” this as a day trip from Berlin. I still had the new town on the other side of the river to get to, and easily 6 more restaurants to try! And it will be damn sad to say goodbye to Swissotel. Sniff.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Germany Day Six

Day Six -- Auf Wiedersehn Berlin, Guten Tag Dresden!

One more time with the standard breakfast. It really is good and I guess I am a creature of habit. Christian was very sweet when I left and wanted to make sure I’d had a good time as I’d asked for very little help from him, so he wasn’t sure if I did.

I will highly recommend Christian at Pension Bregrenz, on Bregrenzer Strasse, off Ku’dam. Five nights with en suite bath and breakfast was 300 euro, so that’s about $80 a night. Quiet, clean, efficient, what more could you ask for?

Today was the day I moved on to Dresden. I was ready for a bit of a change, I think if I did it again, I would stay one less day in Berlin before moving on. But I’ve done well so far and looking forward to seeing Dresden. I remember years ago Conde Nast Traveler did a feature on Dresden and the photos of the Frauenkirk after it being rebuilt are ingrained in my memory. I just want to see it!

Every time I think about train travel on vacation, I immediately cringe, I think because I am a jaded commuter at home. I always forget how easy it is. Having pre-paid and pre-booked online, my printed ticket already had which platform, which car, and which seat I’d be in on both journey to and from. (In Europe on longer journeys it is advisable to reserve a seat, not just pay the fare; they are two separate charges). So I waited exactly in the spot on the platform where the sign behind me said my carriage would stop and it did. The hardest part of it was getting my suitcase on, not because it was heavy but because it was just hard getting it up the two very narrow steps. But I dropped it in the luggage rack inside the door and took my seat. Watched a movie on my iPod and before I knew it, I was in Dresden.

It was a very quick, cheap taxi ride to my hotel, which is the brand new (opened in April) Swissotel. I booked it a few weeks before it even opened, and got a very good special rate (let’s not kid ourselves here, I would not be in Swissotel on their regular rates!). The location is spectacular. Out the front door and 15 paces across the little road is the entrance to the castle complex, where I’ll be going tomorrow morning for the Green Vault. As the taxi drove into the road, I saw Frauenkirk first, right behind the hotel! Amazing. I was here!

Check-in was quick and efficient and very, very friendly. I got an involuntary upgrade, so I am on the top floor in a grand room. King bed, living room with sofa and chair, bathroom with waterfall shower. There could be no more reason to be happy except, oh, I dunno, a pillow menu! Yes, I ordered up two extra firm to make up for the soft fluffy ones I’d slept on the last 5 nights. And the mini bar is empty, because I’m supposed to call and tell them how to stock it. I could just stay here for two days and be very happy.

Except that it’s gorgeous out and warm and sunny and I need to see Dresden. So I grabbed my Rick Steves guide and headed out to do his Baroque walk around my new neighborhood. At the top of the road is the Catholic Church and clock tower. Around the corner is the Opera House and the back side of the Zwinger. The walking tour heads up over the Zwinger courtyard and then down a grand set of steps into the courtyard where the four sides of the Zwinger surround me. Finally I get to the steps of Frauenkirke and it dawns on me that I’m really here!

This is all Baroque architecture, but what is notable is that Dresden was leveled in WWII (1943, I believe) and all of this has been rebuilt. Everything. Except in the case of the truly historic buildings, they weren’t rebuilt in modern style (like I saw in Berlin) but rather in their original forms. They say Dresden was rebuilding for 50 years. And then the flood of 2002 hit, just as it did in Prague, and restoration on a lot had to begin again.

Speaking of Prague, that is really what Dresden feels like to me, in a way. A lot of what I’m seeing reminds me of it, with the spires of the churches and the squares where the focal point is a church or churches. I like how compact the old town is and how easy it is to meander and wind up right back where I started. There’s not a lot of navigation and it’s hard to get lost. It’s a great mental break from the big city feel of Berlin. But Dresden is nothing to sneeze at size-wise at 530,000 or so. It’s no small town.

Somewhere in my wandering I had lunch of a piece of thick toasted pita with melted sour cream cheese and ham on it. It hit the spot. After lunch I started to meander a street market in the square up the street. It reminded me a lot of the stalls in the Christmas market in Paris, which is to say lots to look at, not a lot I would buy. The food looked good but I’d already eaten. As much as I felt I should keep exploring, going to the Dresden Zoo with the hopes of seeing their 8 week old lion cubs was nagging at me. Finally I figured if what I wanted to do was be at the zoo, at the zoo I would go.

I hopped on the tram #9 which had a “Zoo” stop on it and four stops later (less than 10 minutes) I was at Dresden Zoo. Map in hand, I headed straight for the lion enclosure. At first I saw just a male and a female, but rounded the corner and found an enclosure with two little lion cubs in it, a male and a female. I stood there longer than I care to admit and took way too many photos, but got to see them sleep, play, eat meat (or play with it, I doubt they’re on meat yet) and interact with their parents. When Dad came in, you could tell he rules the roost and that they bow down to him. It was really impressive. I am glad I went, just for the cubs, but the zoo itself is nice, compact and well kept. They have a nice collection of animals, but if you weren’t standing there watching cubs for over an hour, you could probably see the whole thing in about 45 minutes.

I headed back to my hotel to get ready for dinner. I’d reserved restaurants for both nights I was here, because I was attracted to two menus in particular. Tonight I ate at PulverTurm. This was a sort of “theme” restaurant in a cellar. The staff wear period costumes and there are roving musicians playing German folk songs and at one point, the Irish drinking song Wild Rover. Tonight I had the potato soup with sausage, veal medallions with tomato and goat cheese over herbed baby potatoes and a cherry parfait with what the menu said was avocado and cherry ice cream, but I can’t be convinced that was avocado, I just can’t tell what it was. Overall the appetizer and entrée were excellent. I’d pick something else for the dessert next time. I had a glass of goldenriesling with the meal which was tasty. Again, I’m in love with the whites here!

I spent some time after dinner retracing the walking tour route to take night photos. It really is a pretty area all flood lit.

Just as I got near my hotel, in the tunnel under the castle were two young opera singers singing there on the street. I love really good street music and these two were really good, and singing in the tunnel made them sound incredible. I stood there for about a half hour taking it in before I decided to call it a night.

Arriving back at my room, I found the turndown service had been in. They had gathered my paperback off the night table and arranged it on a tv tray with a sudoku puzzle, the tv remote and a Toblerone. They better stop or I could get used to this!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Germany Day Five

Day Five - Latte Mystery Solved, U2 Pilgrimage, Slowing Down and Taking It In

I woke today and logged on to find that the DC zoo had a panda cub delivery over night. That consumed about 45 minutes of my morning. I’d wanted an early start, but I read and watched what I could before I forced myself out. Onward I went.

Same breakfast again today. Honestly, there are other things on offer (cold cuts, raisin bread, rolls, hard boiled eggs) but this standard has gotten me through the first four days, why change now?

On my way out, I asked Christian the owner of the B&B when I should leave for the train tomorrow (8:00 a.m. for an 8:45 train to Dresden) and I thought to ask him if the Stasi prison in covered by my Zones ABC transport pass. He did his very best to talk me out of going. He made it seem a mess to get there, and said “you can find much better things to do here.” I didn’t pursue it further, but it gave me pause. Quickly in my head, I reorganized my day, which was a bad thing as I was now out nearly an hour later than usual.

Stopping at Starbucks today, I finally solved the discounted latte mystery. It seems that this month is the 15th anniversary of Starbucks in Germany, so all barista crafted drinks are E1.50. I don’t know much German at all, but I figured out what was written on the chalkboard over the register.

My first stop was to the Victory Column in the center of Tiergarten Park. I took the S-bahn from Savignyplatz to get there and it was quick. Then a walk through Tiergarten to the statue. For the uninitiated, this statue was featured prominently in the Wim Wenders movie “Wings of Desire” and also more importantly, in the U2 video Stay (Far Away So Close). After a brief warmup with the walk to the column, I climbed 270 steps to the top. Now, it was cool this morning but not cold and by the time I reached the top (going of course at step mill speed, not casual stroll speed) I was a big sweaty mess. It felt good as it’s now been over a week since I’ve hit the gym, but I really didn’t want to spend the rest of the day a big sweaty mess. Ah well, I figured if Bono dragged his two pack a day butt up there, I was going to run it up. So I hit that top step and looked out and was overcome with a wave of vertigo that had me grabbing the doorway. I managed to take a few shots up the street towards Brandenburg Gate and one shot overhead to prove I made it to the angels, before I was running back down all 270 steps without having had a chance to catch my breath. Just chalk it up to exercise I suppose.

From here, I walked my way back to the S-bahn, changed to the U2 line (how many U2 references will I make in this daily installment anyway?) and got off at Mendelsohn Park. I hadn’t planned to do any sort of U2 pilgrimage on this tour, but I looked up Hansa Studios last night and realized I’d already walked by it about 10 times this week already. This studio was where most of Achtung! Baby, my favorite album, was recorded. And Depeche Mode has recorded there as well. It seemed silly since it was so convenient, not to stop by. So I did.

What I never realized is how close to the Wall the studio was, and U2 recorded here mere months after the wall came down. Potsdamer Platz is the closest U-Bahn stop, and that was one of the ghost stations from 1961-1989. The band was really in the thick of things when they were here recording. Interesting trivia for me.

From here, I walked up to Brandenburg Gate again and decided to walk up Unter den Linden (that means “Under the Linden Trees”) to Museum Island. This was an interesting walk, passing by the American and Russian Embassies, past a few nice book stores (browsed, did not buy!) and right up to the area where the tour was on Saturday, near the Neue Wach, Humboldt University and the museums.

I’d been meaning to save the museums and that part of the city for when I return here after Dresden (and am staying up in that area) but I’d read about the DDR Museum and decided to head that way. I got slightly sidetracked though when I realized I had plenty of time today and I popped into the Berliner Dom in time for its noontime prayer service. I’m always curious to see what “the biggest church in…” whatever city or country is. Given that this church isn’t even that old (1899, I think), it was understandably modern in feel, compared to a St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s for sure. But it was pretty and huge and it was nice to sit and listen to the music and the sermon, even though I understood not a word. It was only 15 minutes, so a nice break from the day.

I should mention that by this point, I’d long shed my jacket and rolled up my sleeves as it felt nearly 80 outside, warmer in the sun. So while it was a beautiful day to be enjoying outside, the occasional break and air conditioning was welcome too.

Before the DDR Museum, I needed to renourish. There was a nice looking river-side café where I sat and had, yes, yet another currywurst and fries. Oh yes, and a caramel gelato to wash that down. I may be wearing leggings knee length sweaters when I go back to work if I keep this up.

The DDR Museum was actually a great find. I liken it to a discovery museum for adults. Adults in the “strong historical content” sense, not the “explicit material” sense. All of the exhibits were meant to be experienced by touching, listening, viewing. Most of it was interactive. I’d never been to a museum like it before. The first half of the exhibit covered daily life in the DDR (this was East Germany) after the wall went up. There was a Trabant car to sit in, a model kitchen and living room to walk through, a model Stasi prison cell. When you opened certain drawers or cabinets, you’d learn more about things like “Women’s Day” (when all men did all the housework for one day) or what foods were available and not available at the time. There is a very thorough account of schooling, right through college and to the first job. The children were raised to be good socialists with the expectations of becoming good workers. In college, students went through all the course work together in the same group. When they graduated they were expected to work right away.

There was a surplus of jobs and not enough workers. Because of the low tech nature of most of the work, a lot of people didn’t want to do a lot of the available jobs. However, those found to be “work shy” or not actively working on a regular basis, were imprisoned because they did not follow the standards set for citizens to follow. In some jobs, a person could be put into a work team and the expectation was that the team would not only work together, but also socialize outside of work all the time too. Promoting this type of brotherhood seemed to be the norm.

Vacations weren’t very common because you couldn’t go too far outside of East Germany or other communist block nations. Many people went to lakes nearby and oddly enough, nude sunbathing became the norm. From what I could gather, it was the one thing they could do that wasn’t regulated to death. But when the country merged in 1989, the first thing the government did at these beaches was make the “clothing optional” beaches “clothing required” and vice versa. Sort of switching the balance between clothed and unclothed without making anything outright illegal.

Another tidbit I learned was that under DDR health care, every female was given oral contraceptives. It became so widespread that cases of veneral diseases increased drastically because no one used condoms any longer.

The back half of the exhibit was more about the politics of the time, the military service required for men, how interrogations went when the Stasi called you in. The informant culture was vast. People either volunteered, were pressured into informing or paid for doing it. Citizens would inform on just about anyone to get ahead and stay ahead. The Stasi listened, read and watched just about everyone do everything. Files were kept on everyone in Stasi archives. After the country united, they could go and request to read their file and learn why things had happened to them in life; why they’d gotten a job or been refused, why people around them disappeared, why just about anything happened to them while they were being watched. Sometimes things only became clear after they read their files, sometimes things only got worse if they found out who was informing on them. No one could be trusted.

Initially after the wall went up, no one could travel between east and west. After a time, Westerners could travel into the east periodically to visit family. After a bit more time, Easterners could petition for visits in the west for special circumstances. It seems to me that all this gradual loosening of restrictions led to the eventual uprising in the Eastern Bloc nations. They kept getting more and more bites of freedom until finally it was too much to bear.

I could go on for ages about this. I’ve read a lot of books on life in the DDR, so ask me if you want recommendations.

After the museum, it was still gorgeous outside, so rather than go to another museum, I jumped on a boat ride around the canals near the Dom and Museum Island. It was just really an out and back ride, but seeing the Dom, Reichstag and some of the government buildings from that viewpoint was interesting. And it was a nice day to just kick back and put my feet up and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. It occurred to me that I don’t often just stop at home. A very good friend of mine wrote me over the weekend and said “don’t forget to just stop and take it in.” Today I took her up on that and it paid off well. It was the first day I didn’t worry about home, and it felt good.

After the boat ride, I walked to Hackesher Markt, which is a series of small markets off of courtyards that are linked together over several blocks. I walked in and out of some cute and trendy shops (bought a scarf even) but just strolled and enjoyed watching the people and exploring the area. By dinner time, it was still warm and sunny, so I sat in a café with a glass of Reisling and listened to a brass oom-pah band. They were a group of about 6 young guys and they were quite entertaining.

Dinner tonight was a slight deviation in plans. As Berlin has a substantial Turkish population, I decided to eat Turkish tonight. I went to a place in Hackesher Markt called Hasir. There I had an appetizer of fried eggplant, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes with a yogurt sauce. I was really craving veggies and that seemed to hit the spot. My main dish was a kebab medley of lamb, beef and some form of sausage with a tomato sauce and more garlicky yogurt dip. Both were really very tasty and I was pleased with my choices. I did not have dessert here, as I spied an Amorino gelato stand, of the Paris Amorino variety, down the street. I had a small cup with caramel, mascarpone and milk-free chocolate gelatos.

Back to the hotel early tonight to pack up and watch a bit of panda cam before bed. Today, life is good. Really good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Germany Day Four

Day Four -- Lions, Tigers, Parliament and the Wall (again)

Today, play it all again, except today I remembered deodorant and wouldn’t stand in the hellacious line at Starbucks. Christian, the owner of this B&B, gave me a second pillow yesterday and it enabled me to sleep more uninterrupted than the night before, so I was well recovered from my late night out last night.

Which is a good thing, because I had a mission. I was going to the Berlin Zoo. I’m really a sucker for zoos, and especially big cats and baby animals. I had hoped to see the zoo’s panda Bao Bao, the last living gifted (rather than leased) panda from China to any other country. But alas, Bao Bao passed away at the age of 34 just a month ago. He’d been quite ill, so I’m glad he didn’t hold on for me.

Many thanks to Petra for all of her assistance and advice about the zoo. I loved it! I’ve never seen so many species in one place, and there were animals I’d never seen before at any zoo at home (sand cat, anyone?) With no panda in residence, I headed immediately to the big cats. I found they were all inside. The indoor enclosures here are not glassed in but rather just bars, and the animals are quite close, so I got to see exactly what I’m missing at home with Morley, a whole lot of sleeping cats. Although I could swear the tiger was awake, his tale gave him away when I “encouraged” it to open its eyes.

I had one other goal of this visit to the zoo and that was to see the polar bears who lived with (and one mothered) Knut, the famous polar bear cub who died in early 2011. On my way there, however, I went by the elephants and found a 5 week old baby elephant. She was absolutely gorgeous and a joy to watch. I spent a whole chunk of time watching her and taking a zillion photos (testing out the camera for safari, you know!). She really is a cutie and her mom takes such good care of her. I would return here a few times before I left.

I found the polar bears, who seemed so far away in their enclosure but I got to zoom right in with the camera. I also stumbled upon a few leopards in my travels (next time I see those will be in Africa, none at the zoos at home!) as well as the hippos who were swimming and coming up for air on the odd occasion. Before I knew it, it was almost noontime and I had to move on for my 1:00 appointment at the Reichstag.

I jumped on the U2 at Zoo Station (how I have wanted to write that! HA!) but not before I had another currywurst outside the station. Petra said I have good taste as that one was voted best of Berlin. It really was delish!

Earlier this summer I’d applied for a time to get a guided tour of inside the Parliament building here. There was a fair amount of formality, and security was tight going in (passport check, two security checks). But all this was totally worth it. Our guide was engaging and entertaining, and the tour had the right mix of history, politics and trivia. It ended at the entrance to the glass dome that is on the roof. Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to learn anything about German politics.

Parliament is the lower house. Members get elected either by a majority vote of the constituency or if they rank high enough on their party’s list. Members get fined 40 euro for every mandatory vote they miss. Roll call votes are done either by show of hands, electronic card voting (red, blue, white cards with bar codes on them) or by walking out one of three doors which say either Yes, No or Abstain. The guide pointed out where Angela Merkel sits, and explains that the party whips sit in the first couple of rows of seats, but after that it’s first come first serve for the seats. It behooves members to be there early to get closer to the front so they get more tv face time, especially close to election season. Each member gets 8000 euro a month (about $10,600) plus living expenses. The aforementioned fines would come directly out of that stipend.

The Reichstag was burned by the Nazis in 1933. Tarek, my guide on Saturday, said that the Nazis burned it in order to put citizens in a panic and get them to more easily accept the Nazis in an election that week. The guide in the Reichstag says that no one knows exactly who burned it, but that the Nazis blamed the Soviets and that the hunt is still on for who did it. Hmmm.

We got access to the Parliamentary chamber, then one of the party antechambers where bargaining for majorities goes on. The guide let us out on the front balcony so we could look out over the big lawn and see the other nearby government buildings. On the way up to the dome, he pointed out in the hallways the graffiti in Russian that was left from when the Soviets occupied the building. The architect who rebuilt the Reichstag in 1999 wanted to preserve the graffiti, so it’s been left in place and sealed so that it won’t fade further.

As today was one of those warm, bright, sunny days, the view from the dome was unlimited. You can see just about everything from up there, and the dual ramps (one for up, one for down) make it easy to get to the very top with very little effort. There is a free audio guide that changes the track as you walk around the dome so that it is always describing what you are facing.

I made my way to the S-bahn to head to north a bit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. On my way, I attempted to get into a very crowded Starbucks, and couldn’t, so I grabbed a Fanta and a piece of cherry strudel for a snack instead.

This memorial is in a neighborhood that was literally split right up the middle when the wall went up in 1961. In fact, in some locations, the house was in the east but the sidewalk in front of it was in the west, so residents would jump out the windows to escape. That is before the East Germans came along and bricked up all the windows.

Really, when you think about it, there were some unexpected logistics to walling off West Berlin from East Berlin. Like the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (the subways). Some ran through East Berlin neighborhoods as the line progressed from one part of West Berlin to another. So the East Germans had to come up with security to ensure that no one could sneak into Western stations along the tracks. They also closed the Eastern stations and they became “ghost stations” where no one got on or off and armed guards patrolled the platforms. In some cases the above-ground stops would disappear entirely, to eliminate any chance of people using them as an escape route. The Nordbanhof stop, where I got off to visit the memorial, has a lot of photos and captions (in English even!) showing how the stations were just closed up and left until the 90s when they reopened. That explains why some of those stations look trapped in the 60s, because they are!

There are two information centers along the walk that covers the memorial. The walk is organized into four sections, and I had the energy left at the end of the day to cover two of the four sections (about 25 minutes of walking, up and back). The literature and two short films (free at the information center) explains how the walls and security were set up, with dead man’s land, trip wires, beds of nails, guard houses, dogs, mobile units and the like. They left nothing to chance, folks were not going to escape alive over these walls. And the initial propaganda trying to convince East Berliners that this was a good thing was incredible. There was a temporary exhibit on what they were told and how things changed immediately (lots and lots of meetings at work and going to a 6-day work week can’t actually be interpreted as positive, I wouldn’t think!)

In this particular neighborhood, where the East Germans determined the wall should be cut right along a cemetery and right over a church. Initially congregants were allowed to enter the no man’s land for church, but that came to an end pretty quickly. Eventually the East Germans dug up graves and moved bodies to expand the border zone and at the same time they demolished the church entirely because it prevented them from having an unobstructed view of the no man’s land. Indeed, nothing was sacred.

Throughout the area between the east and west walls, there are stations with more information about what happened at a particular spot (say, a mass grave, an escape attempt, etc.) so as I walked, I learned things at each spot. I would say that this is an extremely well done presentation of a challenging subject. They’ve managed to maintain the importance of history while not threatening (at least noticeably) the balance in the neighborhood.

While I wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination when this wall went up, I remember clearly when it came down. With this trip, I learned more about the politics behind it, how it came about that it came down. I bought a book in the shop that is a photo documentary of the wall coming down. To me, now that I’ve been here and seen all the sights for myself, to look at photos of them with the wall around them is just so hard to believe.

After a day spent entirely on my feet, I was beat around 5:30. I headed back to my part of Berlin and stopped at a little place called Zillemarkt, right under the S-bahn tracks in Savignyplatz. It is a cute little biergarten that the trains run right over, but it is surprisingly not annoying (or dangerous). I had the potato soup to start (a Berlin speciality, allegedly) and then cabbage stuffed with pork with a ham sauce over it, which was enormous and very hearty. I managed to squeeze in a delicious slice of apple strudel with vanilla sauce. And I had yet another delicious glass of white wine, I just wish I remembered to write them down. Who knew I’d like them all that much!

Off to bed early. Tomorrow’s my last day in Berlin as I’m off to Dresden on Tuesday.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Germany Day Three

Day Three – Museum Day

This morning dawned rainy and damp. I’d pretty much already decided that I was scratching the day trip to Potsdam to see everything I wanted to here first. I would have anyway, with the rain and all. Plus, my creaking joints were saying enough with all the walking/standing, so I decided to dial it back for a day.

Same breakfast as yesterday, only today I chatted with a retired couple from Toronto who were here starting 3 weeks in Germany. We talked about travel and what we’d seen and where we’d eaten so far. Nice folks. They affirmed my decision to get to the Jewish Museum today.

I headed out and realized half-way down Ku’dam that I’d forgotten deodorant today. Rather than obsess about it or go back to the hotel, I stopped into an apothecary and bought some. That’s always fun, talking to the pharmacist about your personal needs and having them find what you need and hand it to you. I should see what they have for knee and neck pain next time I pass by. I also stopped into Starbucks, where Benito the sorta hot barista undercharged me yet again for the apple crumble latte. What the hell, it makes me feel less guilty for drinking 600 calories in one go.

My first stop was the Gemaldegalerie, or Painting Gallery. This museum houses many old European masters in the 13th-18th centuries. The museum is only one floor, and organized regionally and then by century within regions. I exercised restraint and paid homage in the Flemmish and German galleries before I ran for the Dutch section at the far end of the building. I had read that this museum has one of the largest collections of Rembrandt outside of Holland. I was not disappointed. There were 19 that I counted, and some wonderful ones at that. There were portraits of both of Rembrandt’s loves, Saskia and Hendrijke. There were a few religious works unlike any I’d ever seen by him, like the Moses holding the tablet overhead. The mythical Rape of Persephone was just gorgeous, with Persphone being spotlit in the center of the painting and Jupiter and goddesses fighting over her between them, but barely seen. The golden work on her dress was gorgeous. There was a Christ profile which I wonder if I saw in Philly last year. There was a gorgeous holy family scene in a tiny frame that was just beautiful. I was smitten. And if that was not enough, there was a Vermeer around the corner. The Glass of Wine was on view, the other Berlin Vermeer is in Tokyo. Not that first time that’s happened to me, I’ll just have to come back! The Glass of Wine is pretty typical Vermeer, I think. I enjoyed seeing it, but it is not one of my favorites. Two more await me in Dresden (neither on loan, thankfully!)

The Italian section had a wonderful Caravaggio a Botticelli’s Venus and a Rafael Holy Family tondo. That was all pretty impressive, but I was drawn back to that Rembrandt room more times than I remember.

After a couple hours there, I walked back up to Postdamer Platz, where I had a lunch of currywurst and fries. Not terribly healthy, but it hit the spot.

My next stop was the Jewish Museum, which deals specifically with the Jewish experience in Germany which, yes, goes far beyond the Holocaust years. The architecture of the building is something to behold, with an almost palazzo-like main building a steel lightning bolt of an edifice next to it. There is no visible bridge between them, as you enter the permanent exhibit in the newer building from a tunnel. The tunnel has three axes (axises?): Axis of the Holocaust, Axis of Exile and Axis of Continuity. The first two deal with exactly what they say. The Holocaust axis ends in a tower which is unheated and darkened and lit only by natural light from the very top; the sensory deprivation of it, being able to just see light and just hear noise from outdoors is meant to represent the void in life from the loss of so many Jews. The Exile axis ends in a small square garden with tall pillars in it. As I walked on the uneven ground and lost myself in the maze of pillars, that was meant to represent the uncertainty and unsettled feeling those who moved in exile felt in their new lands. Ok, so far, I was hooked. Along each axis were mementos from various victims of the Holocaust or stories of those who were exiled.

The Axis of Continuity led to the rest of the permanent exhibit, which walked through the entire Jewish experience in Germany, starting in the Middle Ages. Since I’m not shy about saying when I learn something and how ignorant I feel not to know what I probably should, I’ll say it again here. I learned so much it was almost embarrassing. As I wound my way through the Middle Ages to the age of Enlightment (when, for a brief period before the Nazis came to power, Jews were equal to all other Germans) and even learning about the faith and its customs, I realized there was so much more to learn and understand. Of course this museum too spent a significant portion of the exhibit covering the stages of the Holocaust, from Kristalnacht to the various laws passed against Jews to moving to the camps, but then it also gave fair play to the return of Jews who survived the camps and how many ended up leaving, feeling that they could not stay in a place where something so violent happened.

One particularly interesting space was the Memory Void, which was another cold and seemingly empty space, except there were 10,000 steel faces piled on to the floor. They were larger than dinner plates and hard to move. They represented the void left by those lost to us and walking over them (which you were meant to do) you could not walk easily over them or move them out of your way, the resilience of the large plates as they clanged and refused to move was chilling.

I think that as much as I’ve made it sound sort of somber or morose, I also saw dozens of representations of how Jews contributed to society here and more than made their mark. There was a great section on innovation and famous German Jews (hello, Einstein and the Mendelsohns to name a few). This was one of the most thorough and positively navigable museums I’ve been to on any one subject. It’s definitely not to be missed.

After a quick stop at the hotel to rest up and change, I headed out to meet Petra, a fellow panda fan who lives here in Germany. We spent a great night talking about shared interests like travel and animals over a great Indian meal. I had a hot chicken tikka and a mango lassi. I don’t find great Indian food at home, so this was a great treat, and to share it with such a dear new friend was a bonus! Thank you Petra!

After midnight now, so signing off. Hoping for favorable zoo weather tomorrow or Monday!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Germany Day Two

Day Two – The Oddest Starbucks Experience, The Longest Tour, The Best Meal

For those who don’t travel across time zones, you will not understand what I’m about to say. For those who do, you’ll nod your head and say “oh yeah.” Last night I slept that first day jetlag sleep of the dead sleep. I literally fell asleep typing the blog last night, woke up, finished the blog AND uploaded photos and then was out cold for 10 ½ straight hours. That’s partially because I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and ran the first day sightseeing rat race yesterday. And partially because sleep hasn’t been plentiful of late…

Anyway, I woke to a nice chilly room (slept with windows open but there’s a gorgeous duvet on the bed that kept me warm) and took a hot shower. Breakfast here was good. I had what I think were Sugar Smacks (granola, schmola, I can have that at home), a yogurt and two soft waffles with cherry jelly. Whenever I see cherry jelly I have it because I never find it as good at home.

I headed straight out to meet my tour with Insider Tours of Berlin. That was at the other end of Ku’dam and I had to pass two Starbucks on my way. At the second one, I ventured in to order the Apple Crumble Latte I spied yesterday. Used to mortgaging the farm for a barista-crafted drink, I handed the cashier 4.10 (euros that is, about US$5.30) and he looked at me puzzled. “It is only 1.50.” Huh? I though, looking down at the Apple Crumble Latte sign in front of me that said 4.10. I shrugged and figured I’d be getting water or steamed milk for that price, and he just didn’t understand me. Lo and behold, it WAS the Apple Crumble Latte. And it was heavenly. This was a very auspicious start to the day in terms of food. And I will be repeating that every day!

I met the Insider Tours folks in front of Zoo Station. I was assigned to the guide Tarek, a young, handsome devil who turned out to be a half-German, half-Egyptian New York City born architect now living in Berlin. This was meant to be a 4 hour tour hitting all the major sites and a lot of hidden ones. Our tour lasted nearly 5 ½ hours. Not that that is a bad thing, given that I got a discounted rate of 9 euro for the tour (thank you Welcome Berlin card!) but I did have other things I wanted to get to today, and didn’t. But in the end, with all I learned, it was worth it.

Let me warn you now, my minor obsession with German history is about to take over the blog. I learned that once again in order to learn what I should have learned in junior high, I have to spend two grand and travel 3000 miles. But this is why I travel. I love a day when I can look back on it and realize that my own thoughts and beliefs were challenged, when I was made to reflect, made to evaluate how I see things, made to realize what I hadn’t already. Tarek made that all happen. One thing Tarek said to kick off the tour was meant to put things in perspective for us: “history is the lies of the victors and the self-delusions of the defeated.” Basically, take everything you learn with the source in mind.

We started at Museum Island in former East Berlin. I’ll be heading there at the end of next week (when my last hotel is nearby) to see all there is, but I got to learn that the royal palace was torn down, and is being reconstructed, in ready made pieces in China. The Berliner Dom, which is meant to rival St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s was also fairly new in design (late 1800s). Tarek gave us all the relevant history of Germany up to about 1913 in about 15 minutes and then spent the rest of the day bringing us up to the present day.

The first stop that gave me pause was Neue Wache (new guardhouse), which looks pretty similar to the Pantheon in Rome and even has the oculus through which the bright September sun was shining through today. The building has been a few different things over time, including the Prussian War Memorial and a guardshack. When it was destroyed and then rebuilt following WWII, it became a memorial to victims of fascism and militarism. There is a modern sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz of a Pieta inside, and that is it that we can see, but the remains of an unknown concentration camp victim and a unknown soldier are buried inside and that makes the vacant space a bit more profound.

Here, Tarek explained to us that “crimes are only as bad as the number of memorials you build to commemorate them.” And he says that Berlin has an inordinate number of memorials to all of the crimes of the Nazis and Third Reich. He then asked us to compare the memorials in the countries of two of Hitler’s contemporaries, who were equally guilty of the same if not more crimes. Russia and Japan both had leaders at the same time and neither country has take steps to commemorate or publicly acknowledge the victims through any memorials at all. I’d never thought of that, and asked Tarek if he felt that Germany’s “owning up” to those crimes through memorials is almost detrimental, because ask anyone in the US if they know what Russia or Japan did at the same time, and many, many people would be hardpressed to respond. Ask them about Hitler, and everyone nails the quiz.

Back to what I learned that I should have when I was 12. Starting in 1961, Berlin and Germany as a whole was split amongst the US, French, British and Russians. Berlin itself though was in the Russian section of Germany, which meant that the US, French and British has to travel through Russian-occupied Germany to get there, so dedicated highways and flight patterns were created for that reason. (I know, a lot of you know this, I am just now catching up on my public school education). The “Wall” around West Berlin was put up to keep the East Berliners from getting into West Berlin because once they were in West Berlin, they could very easily use the dedicated thoroughfares set up for the Allies to get in and out to get out East Germany altogether. The Wall was at first barbed wire, and was gradually converted to cinder blocks and then the pre-fab slabs we see now. Checkpoint Charlie, which Tarek said is the biggest ado about nothing, was the only way the Allies could get between East and West Berlin. That’s why we all know it, that’s why it’s an utter tourist trap today. In fact, nothing that’s there that I took pictures of yesterday is actually real or original. It’s all set up to take advantage of the pop culture phenomenon that it became over time.

Tarek took us to another section of wall (he couldn’t know that I walked a mile of it yesterday) and this was more rundown and not all painted up. It traced the outer limit of the Topography of Terror, which I came back to after the tour. From there we went on to a residential neighborhood where we found an apartment complex that was built on the site of Hitler’s bunker (where he and his wife killed themselves). Tarek said that it is purposefully not indicated where the bunker was so as to prevent obsessive crazies from creating shrines and worshipping at it. He says the Third Reich cults exist and they really get carried away, so that’s probably a good thing. I’d watched a Discovery Channel show on Hitler and his life before he came to power and into his rule as fuhrer. I found it odd that he allegedly loved Eva Braun but reportedly they never had sex. Today Tarek told us that Hitler didn’t ever marry Eva until right before they committed suicide because he was always married to Germany first. Ok, sure… But it was a sign that he’d given up Germany when he married her, and then they both bit the cyanide pill and shot themselves in the head. So it was a brief commitment.

No intro tour to Berlin would be complete with discussing the Holocaust. Tarek said from the beginning that he is not out to exonerate the Germans to be correct many assumptions that we have about them and the “facts” we know about them. He said that so many people think the Holocaust was about eradicating Jews from the face of the earth, but 6.5 million Jews were killed by Hitler’s regime AND 7 million others: Poles, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled, “enemies of the state”. Holy crap! As Tarek said “every time someone says something about the Jews and the Holocaust, 7 million other victims are rolling over in their graves screaming ‘what about us?’” That definitely gave me pause. Truly.

His mother being German, Tarek has been asked if Germans at the time knew what was going on when Holocaust victims were taken away. He said that his mother knew there was no way you couldn’t know, you would most certainly hear the boots marching up stairs, the yelling of revolt, and notice that day after day after that intrusion, the neighbors were missing. What they might not have known though is what happened to them. As all the concentration camps were well outside the cities in remote areas (so no one saw the chimneys spewing smoke or smelled the burning), Germans may not have known the ultimate fate of these people. His explanation for why no one stood up to stop this from happening is three-fold: 1) apathy – it’s not me or mine; 2) opportunity – buying up goods or real estate of the departed; 3) fear – would you have opened the door up if you heard that going on next door?

Again he said that he doesn’t want to sound the apologist for Germans, but the Nazis did contribute to society as well. They introduced the torch at the Berlin Olympic Games, it actually was a Nazi symbol. The Nazis invented the autobahn here. And the support the Nazi Party got was remarkable. They employed Krupps coffee maker company to help make tanks. Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms. DeutscheBank financed the building of the concentration camps. IBM made machines to help them “count things” in the camps. Tarek pointed out that a lot of the Nazi efforts would not have been successful without at least some support somewhere along the way both from corporations and individuals. Corporations obviously played along. Yikes.

We stopped back at the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, where I’d been yesterday but today I got a better appreciation of it with a guide. It was designed so that the deeper you go into it, the more sunken you feel, the further away the sky seems, the taller the plinths are. It is meant to make you feel more distant from what is safe above you. It was strategically placed right along the direct route to the Reichstag (Parliament) so that politicians, in theory, would have to see it.

It is also right next to the American embassy, which I don’t think is intentional. The embassy had our flag at half staff today due to the killings in Libya.

One more stop at the Brandenburg Gate, which was quick as we were approaching the 5 ½ hour mark on the tour. One thing Tarek pointed out was the Hotel Adlon on the square there, which is famous for all visiting dignitaries staying there and Michael Jackson almost dropping his kid out the window. Cool.

Somewhere in this tour, we stopped for lunch, which was just a grilled chicken bagette. Nothing fancy, but it did leave me feeling peckish, despite the handful of Irish candies from duty free in Dublin I’d stashed in my bag and the half Luna bar I ate along the way. So I grabbed a Bounty ice cream bar, which was just dreamy: dark chocolate coated coconut ice cream.

My next stop on my own was the Topography of Terrors. This was built on the bombed out remnants of the Nazi Reich Security Main Office (home of the SS, SD and Gestapo). As I mentioned earlier, remnants of the wall line one side and the “museum”, if you can call it that, is made up of an indoor and an outdoor exhibit. Outdoors presents the story of Hitler’s regime on Berlin. Inside presents the entire story: affected victims, countries, organization, rise and fall. This took me nearly 2 hours to comb through. The combination of text to read and photos and artifacts to look at was enough to keep me going. My feet finally gave out around 5:45, so I headed back to the hotel and changed for dinner.

Last weekend from home I’d called Marjellchen, which had been highly reviewed on Trip Advisor and on certain forums I’d read. I know when I write these blogs it sounds like I trip over good meals, but I research my restaurants almost as much as my itinerary. I knew Marjellchen was going to be golden. And it was. This restaurant has been run by the same women for 27 years. They’re older now and look like your typical Prussian grandmother. They run the 12 indoor tables and 6 outdoor tables in sneakers. One seems to work the bar, another chats up the diners and asks “Do you like a toothpick now?” when you’re done with your main course. The décor is old and dark, the music a best of eastern European hits.

The food is incredible. It’s meant to be Prussian family specialties that the owner’s grandmother passed down. It was so freaking good, I nearly passed out. I started with borscht (beet soup with sour cream and beef in it). It was just as good as what I had in Russia, if not more so with the beef in it! It arrives at the table in that violent orangey reddish pink with the sour cream melted through it and smells amazing. My main course was a pork chop stuffed with prunes, apples and rye bread. I am not exaggerating when I say it should be criminal to make stuffing that good. I ate every ounce of it. The chop had a sauce over it which the server “warned” me had cinnamon in it (who doesn’t like cinnamon?) but I thought it pulled it all together so well. It came with potato dumplings (basically big balls of mashed potato) and boiled cabbage. Unreal. I paired it with a German red wine that was stunning and I wished I remembered what it was. For dessert, apple dumplings with vanilla ice cream. Utter perfection. I will probably spend the rest of the week trying unsuccessfully to beat that meal. I almost asked them to reserve me a table for Sunday or Monday but realized I need to explore more and try other things. Hmmmph.

So back here now, I hear the rain beating down, let’s hope that passes by morning. I think I am scratching Potsdam from the itinerary because there is just too much left in Berlin I want to get to before I go to Dresden on Tuesday. I may sleep in a bit in the a.m. and head out to the Gemaldegalerie for some art when that opens at 10.

More randomness….

Paying for the trains/trams/buses/subways work on the honor system here. I bought a 5 day pass and validated it on the first day. I never show it or stamp it again, but may be subject to a search by undercover employees. If I don’t have a valid ticket, I get booted off the train and fined 40 euro on the spot. This seems to work here (and it did in Vienna, which did it the same way) but I can’t imagine this working at home. It’s just such a different mindset.

This is yet another city that has communication on their lines down pat. Just about every mode on every line I’ve taken has displays of time until the next train. And they’re always accurate. Now there’s a thought!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Germany Day One

Day One – Wurst, Apple Crumble WHAT?, the Wall and the schnitzel

After being escorted on to the plane from the lounge ahead of (literally) everyone else, Aer Lingus managed to make one of the fastest flights ever to Dublin. I don’t ever remember a flight going by so far (about 5 ½ hours) but then again after 16 hours Chicago to Beijing, everything else feels like the shuttle to Laguardia. I ate the airline food, which wasn’t bad (cheese ravioli). But I note that since the last time I flew Aer Lingus (maybe in 2005?) they have done away with free liquor (sigh, but I dinged them in the lounge, don’t you worry) and breakfast, so now dinner comes about 2 hours into the flight. If you choose to eat, by the time you’re done, you only have about 2 hours to sleep. I watched “The Five Year Engagement” on the plane entertainment system, which was fine plane viewing.

I won’t say I slept well, but I did sleep, both on the Dublin and the Berlin flights. It was only 1 hour 55 min to Berlin but bumpy. No one in the middle seat so I curled up and kept scaring myself awake which I’m sure thrilled Mr. Businessman on the aisle who kept trying to wedge his briefcase on to said empty middle seat which now had my legs on it…

I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, it was about 38 euro, which is high but I was in no mental condition to figure out the train situation. The hotel is on a quiet residential street off Kudam (main shopping thoroughfare). It’s on the fourth floor and there’s the tiniest elevator pretty typical in this sort of European building. I’ve seen similar in Italy and France: just big enough to hold your luggage and you, but tough to get two sets of doors closed to make it run!

My room is pretty and big. It’s a queen bed and big bright and airy windows and smallish shower/tub combo (the type you step way up and over into, without glasses I am destined to kill myself, or launch myself out the window next to it). I showered and unpacked quickly, packed my day bag and off I went. Christian is the owner of the hotel and he convinced me to buy the Welcome Berlin card for 5 days. That gets me unlimited public transportation as well as discounts on many of the places I want to visit. It was 35 euro, I think, and I’m fairly certain I put a dent in that today just in subway rides alone.

I walked down Kudam first. It reminds me a lot of a very uncrowded Champs Elysees in Paris. There is practically no one out there walking, which is puzzling. All the big designer houses are at my end of Kudam, and the further up you walk, the closer to the bigger train stations, the seedier it gets, like in any other city. I went up that way to catch the underground (this line being U2) to get closer to the Brandenburg Gate.

It was in front of Zoo Station that I had my first currywurst. I’ve never been a fan of street food, but…BUT…this was good! As a newbie to it, I just ordered it plain, which meant I got one big ass sausage that had been steamed and grilled. The vendor cut it into chunks, sprinkled a hell of a lot of curry on it and dumped a gallon of ketchup on it. This, you think, sound horrible, but believe you me, served on that little paper plate with a tiny plastic fork, it hit the spot. Too late I realized I could have had French fries to mop up the remnants of that mess! Tomorrow…

A change or two later and I was walking there and figured out that I was approaching Brandenburg Gate from the side. On the way I passed the Memorial to All Jews Murdered in Europe, which is very chilling. It is 2177 slabs of concrete of different heights that to me look like coffins. I didn’t do much more than stop and look, as I know it’ll be covered on the city tour I do.

Brandenburg Gate is very pretty and it is large width-wise, but I think the Arc De Triomphe is higher. It just feels that way. I won’t say I was underwhelmed but I definitely expected there to be more space around it, remembering the photos of the square in front of it where people were protesting, it just seemed larger. The Reichstag is right across the street, but I want to save that for when I go for the prebooked visit on Sunday.

Taking advantage of the nice weather (low 70s, sunny, blue sky) I decided to go a bit out of the way and see the East Side Gallery, which is the only permanent remnant of the Berlin Wall left. Artists had painted on the eastern side of the wall when the wall came down and they were all invited back to touch them up for the 20th anniversary a few years back. This segment of wall in a mile long and the art on it runs the gamut from tagging to Klimt or Picasso imitations to political cartoons. But each makes a statement about the wall, its short term and long term effects. I took seemingly a zillion photos and walked the entire mile long length of it.

After that I figured what the hell, I’ll go see Checkpoint Charlie then, so I did (bear in mind, all this navigating subways/trams and walking on now 24 hours of no substantive sleep!) So I made my way there, scoffing down a caramel coated shortbread I spied in a shop window to fortify me. This ended up being sort of kitschy but cool. The former border crossing is now a tourist stop, where fake soldiers will stamp your passport with former East German stamps or pose for photos. The guard shack is there as well as the “you are now leaving” sign and the photos of the Russian and American soldier. There is also a Checkpoint Charlie museum which I’d read from several sources that it was a big cluttered mess with a few interesting bits to get out of it, and that’s an understatement if you ask me. The museum tells the story of the Cold War, not just the border crossing, so room after room after room was floor to ceiling textual panels telling the story in a few different languages. Here and there, there was a photo. There were a few exhibits of how folks managed to get smuggled out with either clever disguises or usually by rigging the car somehow to hide the person escaping. That was all interesting to me, but they lost me with so much text over three floors. I think even not jetlagged, I would not have had the patience to read so much in one sitting.

After that, I was beat and it was 4:30. I headed back toward my hotel, aiming for dinner nearby. I shopped on Kudam a bit (Hard Rock Café and Starbucks). (We must discuss the “Apple Crumble Latte” that Starbucks has here. I WILL be trying it!) Then I headed to Dicke Wirtin’s for dinner. I’d seen this recommended in a few place I read and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s located off a pretty little square called Savignyplatz and it was a pub style restaurant serving “Berlin specialities.” I had potato soup, the wienerschnitzel over warm potato salad with a mixed green salad and a glass of Reisling and a shot of their homemade cherry brandy it was 28 euro and delicious. The schnitzel were two patties each about the size of a dinner plate and just yummy. I could only manage to eat one though! The soup was yummy, with a light creamy broth and big chunks of potato, carrot and sausage floating about.

I got back to the hotel around 7 and crashed. Not bad for a jetlagged first day. Looking forward to a nice quiet night in a comfy bed!

Random notes:

A lot of bikers here. Not bikers for recreation or fitness, but bikers who are using the bike as an important mode of transport.  This is more so than just about every other place I've been to in Europe, except Amsterdam.  And here, none of them wearing helmets, like they don't in Amsterdam either.

Everyone who wears glasses has awesome frames.  I have no idea how they got so chic, but every single pair of eyeglasses frames I've seen are heavenly cool.

Everyone drinks beer, whenever.  I saw more people having a midday day beer at the train station, at a street stand and everyone (but me, the non-beer drinker) at dinner drank beer.  It's kind of weird to look over at two old ladies out for dinner together with huge steins of beer in front of them.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Travel Tips, again

If flying Aer Lingus, I highly recommend doing web checkin and web bag drop.  I completely circumvented the check in line and was brought directly to security, which no one can avoid.  From there though, I came to the Aer Lingus lounge (membership has is privileges) and they say they will "take us up" to board.  Maybe there is a secret squirrel back door to the plane.  My only concern is getting my in-flight water en route.  Unless I scoff a handful of 8 ounce bottles from here....

Honestly, the total silence here is worth the price of admission.  Downstairs in Terminal E is a nightmare.