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 cafĂ© 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.

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