March 27th, 2010
Note: this post was written on March 16 and posted after our return home. Also, I took no photos in Berlin, reasoning that I could leave my camera at the hotel so as to not worry about it, since I’m sure there are enough photos of the Brandenburg Gate in the world already. Photos on this story only are from others.
We’ve had a good time in Berlin — it’s been adventurous to be out on our own in an unfamiliar city with an unfamiliar language, but has gone well. I feel that I’m finally getting used to it a bit, and now tomorrow we move on to Leipzig.
Stepping off the train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, and seeing all those people connecting to all those trains, I had a feeling of excitement: here is a grand train station that is actively used by so many people. I got a sense of what the beautiful and enormous Kansas City Union Station once felt like, I think; that station at its peak served almost the same number of people in a day at Berlin Hbf does.
Stepping outside in the cold and snow to wait for our bus, I got the first sense that Berlin felt a bit more like an American city than did Lübeck: a beggar with a suspicious story was working the crowd with “Speak English?” (We saw many dressed similarly using the exact same tactic during our stay in Berlin.) Our bus ride to the hotel showed us some graffiti — a fact of life in many cities in the USA too.
Our hotel, the Circus, most definitely did not feel American. The staff was very friendly (I think I’ve only seen that level of friendliness and helpfulness at one hotel in the USA: the Portland Doubletree). The room was small (which we expected) but very nice. There was a fresh flower waiting, and a whole printout of information with my name on it waiting in the room: info about the hotel, restaurant, and a multi-page history of this part of the city.
They are very energy-conscious there. The hall lights automatically turn off, but you can touch your (apparently RFID-enabled) room card to any “switch” to turn them on for a few minutes. When in your room, you put your key card in a little holder that keeps it safe — and enables the use of the lights. They don’t put shampoo in the rooms, but have a selection free for the taking at the front desk: the rationale being that it generates waste when they have to replace it for people that don’t need it replaced. They are very environmentally conscious — with everything except the showerhead, which appears to use so much water that it would be illegal in the USA.
Here’s the obligatory “surprising to an American” comment about Germany: the complete lack of water drinking fountains. In the US, you can get a drink of water at any building of any size — airports, train stations, museums, shopping centers, and also in many public places such as parks. I may have seen exactly one water fountain in the Hamburg airport, but that was it. It is odd given the general sense of environmentalism here that so much energy is being wasted on bottling water, not to mention the expense of having to pay for it all over the place.
The bus ride to the hotel was interesting. I needed to buy two tickets from the bus driver. I didn’t know the German word for ticket, so I just guessed and went with “Zwei Ticket, bitte.” “Wohin?” “Rosenthaler Str.” Then the price came up. I believe that was my first completely successful German-only conversation. (Most Germans hear a couple of words of mine and quickly switch at least partially to English, which probably gets things done a lot faster, and saves me embarrassment, but doesn’t give me much chance to practice my German.)
We ate dinner Monday night at the Hackesche Höfe at Weihenstephaner, a Bavarian restaurant. It was a fun meal, and the tables were long and seated multiple parties. I tried out their special Bavarian beer, and of course had some Wienerschnitzel. I had noticed apple strudel on their website but not on their menu, so when it was time for dessert, I asked our waitress if they had apple strudel today. They did, and it was delicious.
Tuesday began with a walk to the Pergamon Museum. From our hotel, this was a walk of about a mile. We had been introduced to excellent German bakeries during our time in Lübeck. So, since we hadn’t had breakfast, when we spotted a bakery along the road, we went in. Terah got a croissant with chocolate on top, which turned out to also have chocolate inside. I found a couple of smaller rolls with various seeds and flavorings on top. All were excellent, and I believe we spent less than EUR 2 all together. We ate our breakfast of rolls as we walked towards the museum. It was a cold and somewhat windy morning, but it was also fun and exciting to be there.
The Market Gate of Miletus was also impressive, but the true highlight has to be the Ishtar Gate and processional way. Wow. It was built in 575BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II, and importantly was built out of glazed tiles, so the original artwork, color and all, still survives. You can walk through the processional way and get the feeling of kings and armies proceeding there. Truly spectacular.
After the Pergamon, we crossed a bridge to the east taking us off Museumsinsel (Museum Island). We walked down a quiet and somewhat forgotten back street and found a small restaurant for lunch. I had the “Berlin Wurst”, some excellent sausage with excellent and not-so-sour sauerkraut. Terah had some breakfast-type items with fruit. After that, we walked over to the famous Unter den Linden. It wasn’t yet spring, so the scenery wasn’t all that spectacular yet, but that — and the light snow — didn’t stop the tourists, or the tacky tourist shops, which appear to be a universal global feature. (“Berlin” flip-flops and t-shirts made in China, anyone?)
The destination of all this walking was the Brandenburger Tor, the famous Berlin icon. The Brandenburg Gate was immense, and the sense of history of standing there was impressive.
We of course walked through the Brandenburg Gate on our way to the Bundestag, which we intended to tour. We didn’t, though, due to the cold and very long line snaking out of the building. We then got on the train to Checkpoint Charlie.
We saw the outdoor “checkpoint” still in the middle of the street. We intended to visit the museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, but was so packed that it was difficult to even get in the door. We stood in line to buy tickets for a few minutes, but made absolutely no progress; meanwhile, it appeared that an entire school group came in after us somehow and was also waiting to pay. So we decided to go see Schloss Charlottenburg instead.
The Schloss (palace) was a baroque design, intended to impress visitors with the power and wealth of the owners. Only the old wing was open Tuesday, but we had about an hour and a half available to tour it: enough to see the whole thing, but not enough to linger and read all of the information. It was impressive and interesting. Particularly interesting was the chapel, which was this odd state/religion combination — decorated both with sacred symbols as well as symbols of the king.
After Charlottenburg, we had dinner at the Prussian Restaurant Marjellchen near the Savignyplatz S-bahn. We started with a smoked herring appetizer. Then I had the Königsberg meatballs, and Terah had creamed ham. Both of us really enjoyed our meals, and Terah’s reminded her of Verenike.
Wednesday started with an early rise, then we went to Mauerpark to see a remnant of the Berlin Wall. I am glad to have seen it, and was a bit surprised with how small it was at that point compared to my expectations.
Then we had a few minutes back in our hotel to munch on some rolls for breakfast; after that, it was off to the Hauptbahnhof for our train to Leipzig.