Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Berlin Part II: From posh to history

What is there not to say about Berlin?  What an amazing city.  We kept saying to each other that it was one of those cities that is just an "experience."  Many of the larger metropolitan destinations have a draw that lures people in: Paris has the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, for example; London has Big Ben; Munich has Oktoberfest... All of these cities are seeped in history as well, but few have undergone the same hardships and rebirths experienced by Berlin.  In many ways, the pride of the people has made this city come alive with energy.

I was able to find us a place to stay at Pension Peters, a bed and breakfast recommended by our favorite professional traveler, Rick Steves.  The accommodations were comfortable, but certainly not over the top; however, the service was kind and helpful, and the location was perfect (it was also incredibly affordable for Berlin).  The Pension is located in the Charlottenburg District in an area called Savignyplatz.  It was a very posh, hip part of town teaming with young professionals, families, and tourists.  Savignyplatz had boutique shops selling modern furniture and the latest European trends in fashion, there is a restaurant every other store front, and the train station sits conveniently in the center.  It reminded me of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. or Carrytown in Richmond (on a much grander scale, of course).

Food in Berlin was easy.  If you were hungry, you had many choices. That said, we never really had issues staying fed. We had decided right away that Berlin was a city we were coming back to, so we slowed down our itinerary and decided to just take it all in.  Not sure how little r was going to hang in there on all the exploring through historical neighborhoods and monuments, taking our time proved to be a much more sane approach.

Our hotel served a very yummy continental breakfast (German-style), and while eating breakfast our inn-keeper kindly provided maps and advice on where to go and how to get there.  We decided to use our first day to see Berlin by water since we had quite a few recommendations to experience the city from the viewpoint of the Spree River taking in a few sites on our way there.

Our first stop was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was nearly destroyed in WWII and left in its ruinous state as a reminder (as if the city needs any more) of the destruction from the war.  It was at the top of my list of "must-sees".  I left all the navigating to Big R. We would suffer much less agony and confusion that way, so I let him lead the way and followed without question.  Something wasn't right. We were standing at the site of the church, he knew we were, but we couldn't see it.  

Then he realized, we were looking right at it! It looked like a hideous skyscraper all wrapped in its protective sheeting as it undergoes a massive restoration effort.  

This was all we could see of the original structure. Oh well... hopefully it'll be completed when we make our way back to Berlin.  

Our inn-keeper gave us the great advice that the least expensive way to experience Berlin was to purchase a day pass for the transit system.  For about 6.90 EUR/day a piece (little r was free), you can ride on any train, subway, streetcar, or bus within the AB zone, which covers most of the inner city.  So, we purchased our daily passes and hopped on a train toward Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace), which is the second largest palace in Berlin and the only royal residence in the city dating back to the Hohenzollern family.  It is a beautiful palace that unfortunately was nearly completely destroyed in WWII and reconstructed.  We visited the gift shop (where Big R bought the little guy his very own Berlin "boo bus") and walked around the palace grounds...

This is by far my favorite picture from our trip.  
We managed to find our way toward the boat cruise.  It was pretty chilly, but we worked our way up to the top deck after having some unpleasant experiences with the waiter not wanting to serve us.  Very strange.  Apparently kids are scary to some people, who knows...
The tour definitely offered some alternative views of the city.  We took it all in as we snuggled up to stay warm.
Even little r was enjoying it despite the fact that his ears were cold because he refused to keep his hat on.  I mean, come on, so not cool, mom...

The boat cruise came to its end and we found ourselves walking through the heart of the museum district.  I found myself taking it all in - the people, the architecture, the mood... it was all very inspiring.  We must have been in awe at the area because Big R hardly took any pictures that afternoon.  Except, of course, a series of pictures of the beautiful Berlin Cathedral.
Our dogs were barking, so we caught a train and made our way back to the hotel room.  We decided it would be best for all three of us if we could catch some zzzzz's before heading back out for Big R's birthday dinner.  Big R located a "family friendly" restaurant and we had a wonderful dinner with probably one of the best servers I've had in a long time.  Our little bear ensures that we hit the sack early on vacations, and that was definitely a good thing.  (Although, we didn't anticipate the club music emanating from below - guess these Berliners really do like to party!)

I had reserved us entry into the Reichstag building, which is the seat of the German parliament or Bundestag.

The building has a really interesting history that I won't bore you with, but it's definitely worth looking into if you have any interest. (Here's a link to our good buddy Rick Steves' description of the Reichtag:  Most recently, a dome was constructed above the building in 2006 and has become a huge tourist draw.  Built in such a way to illustrate transparency within the government, the dome has a circular ramp that brings you to the top meanwhile proving 360 degree views of the city. Increased security last fall has translated into more strict entry requirements, which really aren't all that strict and instead just require a little bit of preplanning.  Our visit was schedule first thing in the morning.  If you can believe it, little r almost didn't wake us up in time!  It was pretty amazing to visit the Reichstag at an early hour with hardly anyone there.  I think we were the first tour, so we had nearly the entire place to ourselves.  Very cool.

Little r thought all the history was very amusing...

The center of the dome is a column of mirrors that gives an interesting dynamic to the views from the inside.

It also makes for some fun photography....

Here we are at the top.  Notice that little r is now reading his own book.  
Guess it didn't stay amusing for long!

The Reichtag sits just down the street from the Brandenburg Tor (or Gate), so we didn't waste any time heading that direction after we wrapped up our tour up the Reichtag dome.  It was still early morning, and it is such a rarity to be in this location with hardly another soul.  Here are a couple of pictures of the Brandenburg Tor in the morning sun.  These aren't Big R's favorite of the pictures we took at this site, but for some reason I really like these two photos...

We worked our way through the historic sites and memorials, and of course, found a demarcation of the Berlin wall and parts of the wall that were still standing.  I'm still completely blown away by what these people had to go through in 1961 when the wall was erected.  For no other reason other than politics, the city was split in two and families and friends were separated.  That would be akin to drawing a line down the center of D.C. and telling the east side they could no longer visit the west.  This was before technology allowed all these forms of communication we have grown so accustomed to now.  I really can't get my head around the impact that must have had on the people.  The history is still so recent as well, which is equally as troubling.  Lucky for me, Big R is a walking encyclopedia, so if there was anything I didn't understand or was interested in, he could tell me all the details. I highly recommend bringing a walking encyclopedia on your next adventure :)

And then here we have Checkpoint Charlie.  We made it to this historic location later in the day and it was a madhouse of tourists.  We were facing off gypsies and even opted out of going into the museum (something I hope we can put on our agenda for our next visit).  The brutal history that followed WWII continued here, and it is actually pretty awesome to see so many tourists posing for ridiculous pictures with men dressed like soldiers.  So many men and women died at this location, that it's a stark contrast, and an image of great humility to see where we are now.

My parents drove across Checkpoint Charlie in 1982 when I was just a little girl.  I don't suppose things could possibly look any different today than they did that day over 20 years ago.

Our trip to Berlin also included a visit to the Deutsches Tecknik Museum. Man, that place was uber cool.  Little r thought he had died and gone to heaven.  A museum full of planes, trains, and boats - oh my!

 No matter how hard he tried, little r just couldn't make this train move!
 The museum had acquired a rare Nazi train that was still in excellent shape.  Big R informed me that these are rare primarily because they became bombing targets during the last few years of the war.
And then, I don't know why, but I just thought this suit was hilarious.  I think the date on this suit was 1880's, which is remarkable to me.  Being that my prior life including a lot of scuba diving, I got a huge chuckle out of seeing this suit.

All in all, our trip to Berlin was amazing.  We had such a great time, and we can't wait to get back.  Even little r seemed to really enjoy it (especially staying up late with mommy and daddy, and riding trains and buses all day).  We are definitely going back. I just hope we get back soon :)

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