Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Colour coded pipes mar some views in Berlin, so I tried to make them art.
One of the perks for students at NJC is independent travel. If they maintain good marks and good attendance, they are permitted to plan weekends away in groups of three or more. Thank goodness these restrictions do not apply to staff, since Adam and I decided to plan an independent travel adventure on our own when we could not find a third person to join us. When EasyJet had a seat sale, we purchased tickets at a discount for a weekend in Berlin, a city neither of us had ever visited. In fact, Adam had never been to Germany, so this was an even bigger adventure for him.
Adam was keen to love Berlin.
Our late flight out of Geneva allowed us no time to see the city on Friday, so we decided to maximize our time on Saturday by touring the city on a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus. This strategy had been recommended to us by some of our students who had visited Berlin in the fall.
The Yellow Bus.
Through sheer luck, we had chosen a hotel a short ten minute walk from Alexanderplatz where we could board the yellow bus, and we were able to purchase tickets beforehand in our hotel lobby. Thus prepared, we headed off early Saturday morning.
I stand east of the Berliner Dom. The River Spree separates me from the Island.
Another view of the Berliner Dom
I had done very little research beforehand, but I knew enough to suggest that we disembark near the Berliner Dom on Museum Island first. This magnificent cathedral was completed in 1905, as a Protestant counterweight to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Although it suffered some damage during World War II, it has been almost completely restored since.
A close up view of the Museum of the Ancient World

Statue at the Museum of the Ancient World
Museum Island is a very impressive area. It houses five magnificent buildings, all of which would have been worth visiting if we had had more time. As it was, we barely had enough time to walk around the exterior of some of these edifices.
The Alte National Gallerie
The Alte National Gallerie stood out for us, perhaps because it is fronted by a lovely garden. By the way, the area is truly an island as the river Spree encircles it.

Interseting sculpture in front of the Alte National Gallerie
On the west side of the river, we came upon a street market where local artisans sold unique goods. We spent a few minutes there, and then it was time to return to the bus and see more of the city.
At the Brandenburg Gate
We got off a few stops later at the iconic Brandenburg Gate–naturally. This is where we asked a passerby to take our only photo together.
The Holocaust Memorial
Very close by was the Holocaust Memorial, with an expanse of concrete slabs representing the millions of lives lost, while a museum below ground told individual stories of some of the victims of the Nazi's Final Solution. This site is a credit to the Germans who have been so willing to atone for their past.
The museum portion of the Holocaust Memorial
After visiting the museum, Adam and I decided to take a break and find a German pub for lunch. We blindly chose Alt-Berliner Wirsthaus nearby, because it looked promising. What a fortunate choice it was! The food and the beer were delicious and baked potatoes, the specialty of the house, were wonderful creations. We chose one filled with creamed mushrooms to share. It would have been impossible to eat one on my own.
A massive baked potato in foil.
Back on the bus, we grabbed the front seat where we could have the best view during the next part of our tour. We saw many grand buildings beginning with the Reichstag which was originally built as the centre of government after the reunification of Germany in 1871. In 1933, it burned down, and fell into disuse until 1999, when fully restored, it again became the seat of the German government.
The Reichstag
The Hauptbahnhof
Nearby, we saw several structures that were much more modern, including the central train station (Hauptbahnhof) and many government and embassy buildings. Berlin has lots of open spaces in spite of its grand buildings. These features are directly connected to the devastation the city suffered in WWII. It has been rebuilt as a very modern city. Again, I found myself admiring the Germans, this time for their efforts to redesign their great capital city with such pride.
Moore Sculpture at Haus der Kulturen der Welt
A little further along our route, we passed a large hall with a Henry Moore sculpture in front of it. It is known as the House of World Cultures, where international art, theatre and dance are celebrated. The Moore work is called Large Divided Oval: The Butterfly. It is the heaviest bronze of all his works. The building sits in Tiergarten Park, an inner city area of 520 acres, Berlin's version of Central Park. Had the weather been warmer and sunnier, it would have been lovely to explore this space.
One of the many monuments in Tiergarten Park
A golden statue of Victoria sits atop the Victory Column
We saw the Victory Column shortly afterward, built to celebrate success in the Danish-Prussian War. It seems to have survived mostly unscathed since its erection in 1873. I say "mostly" since it was moved from its original location in Konigsplatz by Hitler to its current location on the Great Star, a large intersection which the Nazis envisioned would begin their "triumphal way" to the Brandenburg Gate. A scary thought.
Entryway to Charlottenburg Palace
Adam and I disembarked from the bus again at the tour's most westerly point, Charlottenburg Palace, built during the time of the Prussian Empire. Like most of the city's historical buildings, this 17th century edifice has been restored since the war. Our limited time allowed no chance to see the baroque features inside. We wandered outside instead, and then boarded the bus yet again.
Another view of Charlottenburg Palace
The next leg of our journey showcased Berlin as a centre of shopping. It was torture for me to stay inside the bus, but what could I do? The next time I see Berlin, I will have to spend some time looking into the shops.  KaDeWa, for instance, is the biggest department store in Europe. I have to see it one day!
The bombed out bell tower stands beside a modern church.
In the middle of the Kurfuerstendamm, the shopping area, we passed what remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a landmark that stands unrestored as a reminder of the devastation that occurred in WWII. The tower is a bombed out shell, while the rest of the church has been rebuilt in a modern style.
Berliner Philhamonie
Adam and I decided to make a quick exit from the bus at the Berliner Philharmonie building where maestro Simon Rattle conducts. I had seen him work his magic in Lucerne in 2014, so I felt a small personal connection to the man and the place.
Deutscher Dom
The more attractive music hall, in our opinion, was the Kontzerthaus on the Gendermenmarkt square, further along our route. It is neo-classical in style, and like so many other grand buildings we saw, it has been restored since the war. It is flanked by two equally impressive structures east and west of it, the Französiscer Dom (the French Church) and the Deutscher Dom (the German Church). The latter was the only building we visited. It has been made into a museum of German History.
The wall

Tourists pose at checkpoint Charlie.
Between one open area and the other, we passed remnants of the Berlin wall, and then made a brief stop at Checkpoint Charlie. We were crossing from the former West Berlin into the former East Berlin. Having grown up during the years of the Cold War, this reality fascinated me. This was a world that would have been forbidden to me at one time–and yet, here I was. Amazing.
At the end of the day, we returned to Alexanderplatz, having completed out tour on the bus. In this square, East German youth assembled in 1989 as the wall was being torn down. It is still a large gathering place, but now the draw is shopping.
Dinner here
Dessert here
That evening, we decided to find our way to Hackescher Markt for dinner, a neighbourhood that Louise had recommended we visit. Armed with a good paper map and Google Maps on Adam's iPad, we still managed to get lost, but eventually, we found a lovely restaurant with a name that spoke to the English teacher in me: Oxymoron. The continental food and service were outstanding, but we decided to choose another place for dessert in the market area we had been searching for since sunset.
The view from the bus on Sunday
The East Berlin Rathaus was visible but the radio tower disappeared in the clouds this morning. 
On Sunday morning, we woke up to rain, and to our dismay, it lasted most of the day. We had a tickets for the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus for a second day, but we soon realized that our time might be better spent inside the sights rather than seeing them through rain-soaked windows.

The view from the top of the Dom. 
Looking down into the church from the dome walkway. 
We decided to return to the Berliner Dom and ascend to the top for views over Berlin. It was a very grey day, but well worth the climb anyway. While up there, we spotted a Jewish synagogue and decided to head towards it afterwards.
These statues were not bothered by the rain.
It turned out to be a Jewish Museum. Like so many other places we saw, the original building had been badly damaged during the war. Its exterior had been restored but the interior had been transformed into a window on local Jewish history.
Adam inside the Jewish Museum

The exterior of the synagogue
From there, we wandered among more of the buildings on Museum Island and then headed towards Hackescher Markt again, where we boarded a tram back to Alexanderplatz, and then a subway south a few stops. Navigating local transit is a must in foreign cities. It adds a lot to the experience of travel.
Some of the delectable choices for lunch

Laura and I in front of Weinblatt.
Of course, we had a destination. We were meeting my daughter Jess' good friend, Laura, for lunch at a delightful Turkish restaurant. We had a feast of delicious food, and an even better visit with a Canadian who had been living in Berlin for a couple of years.
I loved Berlin.
All too soon, it was time for Adam and me to make our way back to our hotel to pick up our bags before heading off to the airport. We had packed a lot into our day and a half in Berlin and were reluctant to leave. This is a city that has something for everyone.
The Broken Chain sculpture
I entitled this post "Ich Bin Ein Berliner", because these were Kennedy's words when he visited Berlin in 1962 at the height of the Cold War. ("I am a Berliner.") It may not be the most beautiful city in Europe but it is likely the most important one, and I wanted to know it, to recognize its place in Europe. It contains so much recent history, much of it I remember. It is also a city that is very much alive in the present–a thriving, growing metropolis. There are symbols of civic pride and ongoing construction everywhere. What a great place!
Much of Berlin was under construction. It is booming!

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