When we decided to spend two months in Bratislava, Berlin became a foregone conclusion.
Fifteen years ago, I bought the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable and kept it on my bedside table. At night, I would play a game: If I were in Paris, where could I go next? From Lisbon? From Warsaw? From Barcelona?
If a bucket list had emerged over those years, the train route from Berlin to Prague, bifurcated by Dresden, was on it. From Prague, it’s an easy ride to Bratislava. With no further thought, I booked flights to Berlin and allowed us three weeks to make the journey.
Yet Germany makes me squeamish in a more-than-the-brown-food kind of way.
I’m a Cold War baby who was raised by World War 2 parents. My childhood—and even young adulthood—were influenced by Hogan’s Heroes, Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Springtime for Hitler, the Soup Nazi, duck and cover drills, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
To make matters worse, the German language had always sounded like our dog, Rizzo, choking up an ill-advised snack (Coincidentally, Rizzo is a German Shepard mix, yet I’ve heard this same gutteral sound from collies and poodles). Situationally, I realized the waitress probably did not say, “Halt! Who goes there?” but that’s how I heard it.
I arrived in Berlin with both Rick Steve’s Guidebook, and my mind, unopened.
Our first night, Pat set off to explore and I studied Rick Steve’s with a city map, constructing an hour-by-hour agenda that included every major and minor site in the city–plus two day trips to Frederick the Great’s palace, Sanssoucii, and the German concentration camp, Sachsenhausen. I researched opening and closing times and days. Should my calculations prove accurate, (And why wouldn’t they? I have a degree in mathematics) we’d have four hours left for “fun stuff.”
When Pat returned home, I told him, “Get a good night’s sleep. We have a busy two weeks.”
That night, in a keen state of jet-lag-induced hyper readiness, I bounded from bed at three o’clock and scratched off most of the agenda.
The next morning, I told Pat, “I have good news and bad news. First, we aren’t going to execute the plan. I just don’t feel like it.”
“Great. What’s the bad news?”
There was no bad news.
We began with an easy pacing of one major sight per day: The Berlin Wall Memorial. The Palace of Tears. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (their name, not mine) and The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under National Socialism (again, their name).
I found these sights emotionally exhausting and was happy to retreat by mid-afternoon to our flat in the formerly East Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. There we regrouped–both mentally and physically–in an oasis of coffee shops and restaurants, tree lined streets and free concerts in the church. The neighborhood was alive and vibrant and the perfect antidote to a city that seemed mired in tragedy.
Walking near our apartment one afternoon, we stumbled upon a craft beer shop. Pat selected four beers to take home. While we talked to the owner, he opened an already cold one and handed it back to Pat. We spent the next 30 minutes reminiscing about our favorite craft brews (“Beam me there now!” he said upon learning Pat had just sampled a Pliny the Elder from Russian River Brewery). A Russian man joined our conversation and sold us on the emerging beer culture in Moscow, “You need to go now! It’s cheaper than it’s been in years.” Before we left, the store owner wrote down a list of his favorite craft beer places.
I held the list aloft, “That will become one of my favorite travel memories.” We began to tick off others: Meeting John G. Morris in Paris. Traveling to Banska Stiavnica with Igor and Vlasta. Singing along with a sing-song in the Pier House in Courtmacsherry. Stumbling upon a road bowling game with Padraig on the West Cork headlands. “Do you realize,” I added, “Not one of my favorite memories was found in a guide book?”
I concluded that crossing off more than half the sights in Berlin really was the good news. We plodded through two weeks, enjoying every leisurely moment and embracing any interaction with a local: coffee with our landlord, a conversation with the Italian server at our favorite Italian restaurant, a discussion of her US travels with the person seated behind us at the symphony.
Over the course of our visit, I began to accept two things about Berliners: First, these people were not the guilty. And second, the division of Germany and Berlin after the war exacted a tremendous price from predominately innocent people. The Germans I met navigated a perilous divide between never forgetting and moving on–and they did it quite well, I thought.
Towards the end of our two weeks, we ventured to the western edge of the city to tour the 1936 Olympic Stadium. The interior had been renovated into a modern venue, yet the façade was untouched and reminded me of videos I’d seen of Hitler exhorting the crowd. Those visions made this a haunting place.
Our guide concluded the tour near a group of plaques that listed the gold medal winners. “Jesse Owen was a hero to the Germans. He loved his time here. It was only after he returned to the United States that he experienced true discrimination.”
It seemed an unnecessary (and potentially inaccurate) jab, but it also made me think. We each reach our prejudices from the shoulders of those who went before us and from within the echo chambers of our cultural influencers. Mine and his were different, yet each was decidely real.
Just as I finished this post, Pat came home and read a quote to me from Aldous Huxley: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” It’s fitting, I think.
For those planning a trip to Berlin–my favorite highlights:
Warning: I didn’t fall in love with the “top 10 Berlin” sights, but I found Berlin to be a tremendously livable city–one we hope to return to for a longer stay. That said, here are my favorites things we did (just make sure you leave time to relax in a neighborhood):
We bought a 24-euro, 72-hour museum pass that covered 50 museums and enabled us to drop in to see one painting or exhibit without fussing over the 12 or 14 euro admission fee. These are sold at any of the museums included in the pass. This worked well for us. I carved out three weekdays in order to avoid crowds (and in mid-September, attendance during the week was light).
My favorites: The Gates of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum. The Nefertiti mask and the Aleppo room at the Neues Museum. Pat went to the Museum of Photography (having a much deeper appreciation of Helmut Newton than I do. Hmm…) while I spent the afternoon at the Jewish Museum (Go, and don’t miss the Garden of Exile. Read the explanation just before you exit to the garden).
I have a goal to see each of the 35 Vermeer paintings in the world. Two are in Berlin at the Portrait Museum (the Gemäldegalerie Museum). This is next to the symphony hall, so we coupled a quick Thursday evening visit to Vermeer with an evening performance of the Berlin Philharmonic (Pat’s project is to see the great orchestras of the world).
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Make sure you walk through the monument which evokes a sense of helplessness, nearing panic, generated by standing in a tight space surrounded by 15-foot-high columns. That feeling is intentional.
The Original Berlin Walking tour. Our Northern Irish guide, Finn, had a PhD in German history and has lived in Berlin for 10 years. He and the tour were outstanding and covered most of central Berlin.
The BRLO BRWHouse which is very near the Gleisdreieck U stop (thanks to our craft beer buddy for the recommendation). This is not far from the Brandenburg Gate (Two stops from the U Stop at Potsdamer Platz). We went here after the walking tour.
The Berlin Wall Memorial: Free and the only place you can see the double wall system still intact. While here, go to the Prenzlaur Berg district (if you don’t elect to stay here, which is the better plan). A relatively expensive (albeit very good) biergarten choice is Prater Garten. The food and beer were outstanding.
The East Side Gallery with lunch at a dive at the far terminus: scheers schnitzel. The Berliners were thrilled to tear down the wall. As a consequence, little of the wall stands today. This is the longest piece.
The Palace of Tears—the border crossing hall that attached East Berlin to the train station where West Berliners could return home.
The 1936 Olympic Stadium although I would skip the tour. There’s nothing special about the locker rooms. Do get the audio guide and walk to the far end of the stadium.
The world’s largest chocolate store. (Pat is an expert on chocolate so I defer to his assessment. “Excellent.” Hot chocolate is served upstairs. Plus, free bathrooms!)
If you happen to be in Berlin during late September, watch the finish of the Berlin Marathon near Brandenburg Gate. Berlin attracts the best of the elites and is the course where seven (almost 8) world records were set. I saw the second and fourth fastest marathons in history and became a marathon groupie in the process. (For those who haven’t heard, the Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele won followed by the Kenyan Wilson Kipsang).
Categories: Western Europe