April 20 – 23, 2016
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Berlin is big.
I’d read that often enough while researching for this trip, but nothing brings an idea home like experiencing it.
I was in between jobs when I planned this trip for Dan and me. I thought that a nice, mid-spring trip to one of the cities on Our List would be a good idea. Then I got a job. I had one full week of work and said “Later guys – I’m going to Berlin!”
Our flight from Basel to Berlin was short and uneventful. As we took off we made a wide arc that gave us a full view of the Alps. Simply stunning and a tiny part of me regretted leaving Switzerland during such beautiful weather. The flight was fast – just over an hour – and I read the inflight magazine from cover to cover. It was one of the more interesting publications I’ve seen on a plane. The connection from Schönefeld airport to the heart of Berlin was easy and the train ride fairly quick – or at least interesting enough to make it seem quick.
View from the plane
I had tried on Dan’s boots while still in Basel, and even wore them around the park for a bit. They fit better than my own boots, so I thought that they would be perfect to tromp around Berlin in. I was wrong – very wrong. While walking from the airport to the train station in Berlin I noticed a slight discomfort on the back of my left heel. I didn’t think much of it, but by the time we had reached the door of our AirBnB accommodations, I knew that something was wrong. I would have to take care of this, as Day 1 hadn’t even started yet.
We found out later that we could have taken a tram for the last leg of our arrival, but instead we had walked. First along a busy road with many low-cost “discount” stores, and then we turned on to quiet, tree-lined streets with trendy shops and restaurants. It was easy to find our destination: it was a tall, brightly painted building with a busy bicycle shop next door. We rang the bell and waited, but before we could ring again, our hostess came walking down the sidewalk, a bouquet of fresh tulips in her hand. Whoops – apparently we were a little early.
A popular lending library
Our accommodations for the trip
Our room was in one of the older, original buildings that line Kollwitzstrasse, just one of the many fashionable streets of the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg (near Pankow). Wood floors, thick walls and incredibly high ceilings gave evidence to the rich history of the area. The ceilings were especially notable, as they were easily 12’ high. Our accommodations looked cozy and after a brief introduction by our host on the how-to’s of our apartment, we left to explore the area and find dinner.
Much graffiti throughout the city
We had so many restaurants to choose from, yet we still had trouble choosing. Dan wanted something unusual and interesting, and I just wanted something simple and good to eat. We passed by many restaurants, always with the comment “Let’s see what’s up ahead”. Finally, after exploring what seemed to be the entire Prenzlauer area, we ended up back where we started, a restaurant called “Hirsch & Eben” just down the street from our apartment.
The restaurant was small but the décor was interesting. It reminded me of something I’d find in Soho in New York City: trendy, exposed brick with natural wood trim and a limited yet specialized menu. I had the Pulled Boar sandwich and it was tasty, while Dan had the Portabello mushroom (also tasty). We were both happy with our choices, which was good, considering how long it took us to make it. As we finished up, we discussed finding somewhere to go afterwards, perhaps a bar to watch the local football match, but instead we found dessert in another cozy restaurant across the street. This one had a much more artful décor, with vestiges of Art Deco in every little detail. Sated and tired from our journey thus far, we retired back to our room to rest up for tomorrow: our first full day of Berlin!
Sunset on our first day
We figured that the best way to get to know Berlin would be to see it from the air. Therefore, we took the tram to the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz. We hopped on the first available tram and settled in for the short ride. At one point, BVB employees entered the tram car and called out for tickets. This caused a bit of commotion as some riders were traveling without having paid their fare. Dan and I were both surprised when the tram remained in place for about four minutes while the BVB employees questioned the offenders, even after having taken them off the tram. This would never do in Basel!
Yesterday at the airport we had bought a Welcome Card – this gave us unlimited use of Berlin’s transit system as well as discounts at various locations in the city. The TV Tower was one of those places. I highly recommend this card if you plan to tour Berlin on your own. Even knowing that we didn’t have to mess with buying tickets (and the correct tickets!) each time we wanted to travel on the train, tram or bus, made it a worthwhile purchase. And the discounts that we received meant that it pretty much paid for itself, too.
Because it was still early in the day, there was no line to get into the tower. We bought our tickets and were able to go directly up the elevator with no wait. The ride up was smooth and quiet, with the elevator operator following the limited dialogue that he had for the 40 second trip. The viewing platform at the top wasn’t overly crowded, either, although I still had to wait in order to read some of the informational placards. At least I could see out the windows – and what a view!
Looking west towards Teirgarten and Brandenburg Gate, with the Spree River
North, towards “our neighborhood”
The day was beautiful. A slight haze (or perhaps dirty windows?) tinged the horizon, but the city below me was clear and detailed. It is a big city! We spotted Brandenburg Tor in the distance, and looked at the Spree River flowing below us. To the north we found the neighborhood we were staying in, and to the east were the tall, unremarkable pre-fab houses (called “plattenbau“) of the Eastern Bloc. It would be impossible to visit it all on this trip, but at least now we had a better sense of scale.
Northeast (?) – its a big city
We descended quickly to the ground floor and made our way outside. The temperature was gradually warming and the sun was brilliant. Knowing the approximate location of Brandenburg Gate, we started off in that direction. I was torn at this point: despite the moleskin on my heel, it was still uncomfortable to walk, but I didn’t want to take the tram and miss seeing the shops and storefronts along the way. I decided that Berlin was temporary: I could heal (heel? Ha!) when I got home. We walked.
I saw the name Hackesche Höfe and recognized it from one of the recommendations given to me by friends. It is known as a popular place for evening events and as the website says, “…a vibrant urban quarter combing art, work, gastronomy and entertainment.” At this time of day there wasn’t much going on, but it looked like an interesting place to visit at another time. Instead, we continued until we reached the Spree River, with Museum Insel (Museum Island) visible across the water.
First view of Museum Insel, with the Berlin Cathedral
Museum Insel rightfully deserves its name, as it is home to five different museums wedged between the Spree River and the Spreekanal. The buildings looked fantastic, but we chose not to go inside. It is our modus operandi to not go inside museums on our first visit to a city, but save it for the return visit, once we are more familiar with what there is to choose from. So instead of going in, we took the time to check out the statues in the surrounding gardens. One in particular made us laugh, as it was of a centaur holding the foot of a nymph. Just that morning I was commenting to Dan that he doesn’t have feet: he has hooves. Nothing ever bothers his feet no matter what the conditions. Meanwhile, I often end up with sore feet or, in this case, blisters. And now, right in front of us, was a statue that perfectly portrayed our situation!
Statue of Dan and Colleen
Looking across the Spree to the TV Tower
Laughter aside, we continued to meander through the streets. We hadn’t done a lot of research and it showed. We weren’t sure where famous buildings were, or even what famous buildings we should be looking for. Instead we just chose streets randomly as they interested us and kept to a general bearing of Brandenburg Gate. At least until I saw the name for Unter den Linden. I had heard much about this area and wanted to see what was there.
Unter den Linden is nothing like what I expected. I think that due to the name, I expected some sort of treed park-like area, with maybe a couple of official and impressive buildings to one side. No, it was nothing like that. There was a large, open plaza with outdoor restaurant seating and impressive classical buildings were placed strategically around the plaza, each one exuding its own air of importance. People strolled around the open space and double-decker tour buses clogged the street that bordered the area.
Unter den Linden
We were hungry. Our breakfast had been non-existent and it was now well into the lunch hour. Dan preferred to sit at one of the outdoor seating areas, taking advantage of the sun and its warmth. I was doubtful of the food that we’d find but figured that the view would make up for it. It turned out that the food was ok, the prices were high and the wind was cold. But it was a pleasant experience and we enjoyed watching the people and buses pass by.
Our lunch spot
At this point I was ready to never take another step. The blister had been tamed somewhat by the moleskin, but the thin cushioning soles of the boots left something to be desired. I was once again envious of Dan’s hooves. We discussed taking one of the sightseeing buses at some point, but first we’d go to the Brandenburg Gate. It wasn’t very far from where we were, and the break for lunch had done me good.
We were on some side streets, mostly because the map that came with the Welcome Card was tiny and I didn’t bother to get it out. Because we hadn’t taken a more direct route, the gate appeared suddenly befor me. I had expected to see it for blocks, getting larger as we neared. Instead, since we came from a side street it was suddenly there. Boom! In front of it were lots of people taking photos, a couple of tour guides looking for customers, and horse-drawn carriages.
The Brandenburg Gate is an impressive sight and the statue on the top looked just as beautiful in person as it does in pictures. I was amused to find out that the statue with its four horses and chariot were taken by Napoleon as the spoils of war in the 1800s. It was returned years later when the Prussian Army captured Paris, where the statue had been stored. I took a moment to consider that this was the site of great political events over the years, and that at one point the gate itself was off limits to the people outside of East Berlin.
View of the Reichstag from the west side of the gate
Another memorial was close by, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Quite the name, right? I had seen pictures and it looked to be an interesting way to address the atrocities that had taken place during WW II. I led Dan along the edge of Tiergarten Park and across the street to the over 2,700 black stones sitting under the sun. This memorial is deceiving to the eye. As we approached it, it appeared to be a small hill, with the stones placed level as the ground rose. I wondered briefly why no one was sitting on the stones at the top of the hill, as they were on the ones along the edge of the park. Thinking that the view would be nice from the top, I set my goal in that direction.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Except that it wasn’t a hill. The ground, while undulating, remained at the approximate elevation as the street. It was only the stones themselves that rose up into the sky. The passageways between the stones was consistent in both directions, creating a grid pattern that was easy to lose yourself in. At one point I lost sight of Dan and figured that it would be ages before I would be able to find him here. Instead, I retreated from the towering stones and waited for him on one of the lower ones.
I found Dan!
Now it was time to head to Checkpoint Charlie. On our way we came across a display of “Buddy Bears.” This was (is?) a charitable program to support children around the world. If you want to know more, I suggest checking the link. Some of the artwork was amazing, and some of it was… not so amazing. It was interesting to see how each country chose to decorate their bear. Some were truly works of art. Others just made me wonder “Why?”
Buddy Bear display
China’s bear (I can’t help thinking of a bearded lady in a circus)
The Ultra-neutral Swiss bear
Many bears on display
We could tell that we were getting close to Checkpoint Charlie when the tacky tourist tables came into view, selling replica Cold War era hats and medals, pins and magnets, and other cheap souvenirs that loudly proclaimed “Checkpoint Charlie”. The crowds also thickened and then I saw it: a small white wooden guard house in the middle of the street with sandbags stacked up along the front. Three men in historically-appropriate military uniforms stood in front, posing with tourists as American flags shifted in the breeze.
Furry hat, anyone?
It felt like I had stumbled into Disney World. There was nothing somber about this symbol of repression that the Berliners endured for so many years. A McDonald’s was just behind the guard booth, a KFC on the corner and a Starbucks not far away. The West had clearly won this war.
Dan and I discussed The Wall and grappled with the idea of where we were. Former West Germany? Former East Germany? It had never been clear to us how Berlin had been divided up, and where we were in relation to the wall. Now that we were here, we decided that we should probably take the time to sort it out. I found this neat old map online that really helped us sort out where we were and where the East-West lines had been. I probably should have done this before we left Basel, I know.
Red is East Berlin; the other colors are for the US, British and French sectors
A red double-decker sightseeing bus pulled up. We had discussed taking one earlier and now that we had seen so much on our own, it was time to let someone else do all of the work! A bus from Top Tour Sightseeing pulled up and we hopped on, taking a seat under the sunshine on the open top deck. The wind was a bit chilly, but it really was a beautiful day to be outside. The 20€ fee included really cheap ear buds, so that you could listen to the pre-recorded informational segments as the bus drove around the city. I was excited to learn much more about Berlin and some of the buildings we had already seen!
My excitement was short-lived. The information given over the ear buds was short and shallow. Much of it I already knew, or was plainly obvious. Most of the time, I rode around listening to elevator music as “filler” between key points along the route. I had hoped for almost non-stop talking, filling my head with information, stories, and little tidbits of knowledge or anecdotes… not the same thirty seconds of music played over and over. It even gave us false information, at one point telling us that the US Embassy could be seen on the left, when it was, in fact, on the right side of the bus. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Top Tour Sightseeing.
A view of the locks. Which ones? I don’t know.
Derelict plattenbau buildings
It isn’t often you can see the sculptures being transported for restoration
The one advantage of the bus tour is the simple overview of the key attractions in the city. It may not have provided much information, but it did allow us to see some things that we normally would not have been able to see during our short visit. And some things it showed us left us wanting to know more. For instance, this church ruin in the KaDeWe-Breitscheidplatz neighborhood. As soon as I spied it from the bus I eagerly waited for the music to stop and the narrator to come back online and tell me about it. Nope. As they say, “the band played on”. So Dan and I got off the bus at the next stop, as it looked to be an interesting neighborhood anyway, and set about exploring. I found out later that the ruin is the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the structure nearby is the new church, built amid considerable controversy.
What’s this? If only the sightseeing bus would have told me.
KaDeWe is known for its shopping and we somehow got caught up in one of the malls. It was a nice mall, as far as malls go, but since we weren’t here to shop it didn’t interest me much. We found our way outside – after stumbling upon a practice session for an upcoming model show, complete with runway and seating – and continued our explorations.
You can rent this car and do your own tour!
Mall of Berlin
Dan, getting into trouble again
A better shot of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church
Regardless of my disdain for malls, I can never resist a LEGO shop and we went inside – three levels of blocky fun! There were larger-than-life LEGO statues of famous characters and many displays that showed completed projects. Best of all were the pit tables full of thousands of blocks for anyone to play with. Recently constructed designs sat on a table, no doubt the subject of someone’s task to dismantle at the end of the day.
What ever happened to just a big pile of blocks?
A curry wurst stand caught our eye and our interest, as dinner time was near and we hadn’t eaten since the light meal in Unter den Linden. I think that the plan was to grab a quick bite to eat and then have a proper dinner later, but honestly, we were both so full with the wurst that we never did have a “real” meal that night.
The longer daylight hours were playing games with us and it was later than we realized. We made our way back to the apartment, taking a leisurely tour via the S-bahn that circles the city. By the time we got back to our room we wanted to just kick back and do nothing. So we fired up a mini-movie on the laptop and watched it from the comfort of our bed.
Photo shoot for the BVB
Impromptu concert at a train station
Speaking of the “comfort of our bed”, I should note that it was anything but. While it looked nice – a daybed with the second mattress pulled out to make a full double – it was not comfortable. The mattresses were quite thin and were laid directly onto the wood beneath. The first night I blamed my discomfort on the fact that I was on the pull-out portion, which must be an inferior mattress. As Dan hadn’t complained, I asked him if we could switch sides for the second night. He agreed, but alas! It was the same problem. Between my tender blisters, my aching feet and two uncomfortable nights’ sleep, I was less than happy with how things were going when I woke up Friday morning.