Berlin, Germany

Monday, July 23, 2018

Getting to Berlin

On our drive to Berlin, we decided to make a stop in Hamburg, which was (partly) on the way from the place we stopped for our son’s birthday. Jeremy has a fondness for hamburgers and wanted to see what a real hamburger was like, from the place where they (sort of ) originated.


A walk on the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken Pier was the first order of business.  The pier was lined with restaurants, shops, and food stands.  Quite fun!  The guide books recommended one of the harbor cruises that went out to the industrial piers, but we had both little time and kids who weren’t very excited about the idea, so we just saw them from afar, snapped a few pictures, and enjoyed the environment.


It was a little early for lunch, but we really wanted to say we ate a hamburger in Hamburg, so we bought one to-go that we all planned to share.  One bite revealed that “hamburgers” are not always made of beef.  What was that odd, weird taste in our mouths?  We debated between chicken or pork, raw, cooked, or partially cooked.  At one point, I even thought it might be fish with some weird seasonings, although Jeremy strongly disagreed.  In any case, no one wanted to take a second bite to evaluate it more.  Definitely the worst, or at least the most interesting, hamburger any of us have ever had.  Slightly disappointing, but very memorable.


We didn’t have a lot of time left, but Jeremy saw the “Hamburger Dom” on the map and we decided to go do a drive by photo shoot of the cathedral with a hamburger name.  As it turns out, Dom in this case did not mean cathedral, and we were again somewhat disappointed when we drove by a big fair with lots of rides, and some french fries on a big sign that said “Hamburger Dom.”  Where is the humor in that?  A cathedral with that name would have been much cooler.

Getting back in the car, we continued driving until the kids saw a McDonald’s that they wanted for lunch.  They wanted a real hamburger.  Oddly enough, it happened to be in the second German Wittenberg, which is in a completely different location than the Lutherstadt Wittenberg we were in a few days ago.  Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for me, the parking lot was completely full and there was a line almost out the door, so we got back into the car and drove on, eventually getting some snacks at another rest stop.

Once we made it to Berlin, we checked in to and dropped off our bags at our apartment-hotel at 3:30pm, then hightailed it to the main train station to return our rental car before our rapidly approaching deadline of 5pm.  After navigating a maze to get to the drop-off point, everyone felt relief.  While we really enjoyed the road trip, Jeremy was happy to be done with the car, and the rest of us were happy to be in our final destination before returning to the States.


We decided to walk the “scenic route” back to our apartment from the main station.  We started by walking by the Reichstag.  When we looked a few weeks ago, tickets to visit seemed plentiful if we booked a few days out, but by the time we knew which day/time to choose, the tickets ended up being gone.  John was disappointed, as the big glass dome looked super fun to walk around inside.  The symbolism of the government being transparent and open to the public was interesting to talk about with the boys, and started our dialogue on WWII that we will continue over the next few days.


Our next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, which was built in the 18th century, was used by various leaders in triumph, survived WWII, was closed off when the Berlin Wall was built, and is now a beautiful spot to ponder the impact of the Berlin Wall, which is outlined by a set of bricks that run where the wall used to be located.


We went to the nearby Holocaust Memorial, but we came away feeling that we didn’t really understand the structure of the memorial.  This Wikipedia article sheds more light on the symbolism when it talks about ordered chaos that makes little sense to an observer, and the unease that results from not being able to figure it out.  The unease is real, they succeeded in produce that emotion in me.

A few blocks from the memorial was Hitler’s bunker , where he directed much of his war efforts.  The bunker was mostly destroyed and what is left is sealed off from the public, and is now essentially just a parking lot.  All you can see is an information board with a little history of what happened here and a map.  The idea is to avoid making this a place that could be construed as glorifying to that epoch.  The insignificance of “just a parking lot” highlights that there was nothing good that this man did and that he does not deserve any sort of recognition for his deeds.  It is only the people that were lost that are to be recognized and remembered.

We returned back to Brandenburg Gate, then continued along Unter den Linden, a street lined with Linden trees that I am fairly certain that I am allergic to.  A lot of embassies are in the area.  The United States embassy here isn’t as ugly as those in some counties (e.g. the US embassy in Cairo looked like it was in the middle of a war zone) , but it looked a bit like a bit plastic box.  The British one was somewhat nicer.  But the Russian embassy looked the way an embassy should.  Beautiful stone walls, large, and formidable; all things that you want to convey to people from another country.  Of course it was built in a time when they had control over East Germany, so it adequately conveyed the powerful message they wanted to send to the people.


Eventually we came to the Humboldt University, where we had some interesting talks with the boys.  They were excited to learn that Albert Einstein was a professor here, but were sad to learn that the reason he moved to America was because he was Jewish and afraid to return to Germany when Hitler came into power.  We also talked a bit about Karl Marx who was a student here.  A few days ago, John had a “great idea” about a system where nobody needed any money, at which point we began some conversations about communism and what actually happens when you put those ideas into practice.  This was a good followup conversation.

The boys were particularly intrigued by a glass window in the ground that showed an empty library.  This marked the spot where one of the Nazi book burnings took place.  Conversations on the power of removing literature and ideas from the public was a bit harder for the kids to understand, given that they are unfamiliar with a world where everything can’t be accessed via a computer or a phone.

They also really liked the guidebook description of the nearby chapel as an “upside-down teacup.”  John said it looked more like an upside-down top.


We saw another building that a lot of other tourists were walking into, so we went in to investigate.  It turned out to be the Neue Wache, which was originally built as a guardhouse, but is now a Memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship.


Next was the Berlin Cathedral.  There is an entrance fee, so we wanted to save that for a day that we both had more energy and time to do it properly, but we found it to be very pretty and relaxing from the outside.  As we got closer, we noticed the bullet holes in the walls and had the opportunity to both talk about the amount of damage Berlin received in WWII, and the anger of the Russians when they finally arrived.  John has a strong sense of right and wrong and had trouble understanding how people who claimed to be on the side of right could get carried away and hurt/damage things/people that didn’t necessarily deserve it.  The cathedral walls really highlighted how someone might be so angry that they would shoot up a beautiful cathedral that belonged to people they considered evil.


We were quite hungry, so we decided to get dinner near Alexanderplatz and the TV tower.  Everyone is getting a bit weary of traditional German food, so we stopped at an Asian place that looked tasty.  Not bad.  Not like Asian food in California, but way better than some Asian food we have had in places that have very few Asians.


After dinner, we finished our walk to Alexanderplatz.  John liked that it was the site of a famous scene in Bourne Supremacy.  Of course, there were a few emergency vehicles there with lights on, people clustered in a crowd, and many more emergency vehicles coming.  Even though we left fairly quickly, his imagination got away with him, and he started coming up with real life versions of what could be happening in the square and talked about it the entire way back to our apartment.

We walked back along the Spree River, which was quite nice and took us through some lively neighborhoods.  We can definitely see why it is a popular place for college students to visit, but we find it to be an amazing place for people of all ages.


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

We started out our morning by walking to Checkpoint Charlie, which during the cold war was on the main ways to cross between East and West Berlin.  Once there, we pointed out a few of the major landmarks related to the wall, then entered the Wall Museum (Mauermuseum.)


The kids loved the museum!  When they realized that the first few rooms showcased border crossing escape attempts, they really got into both looking at the artifacts and reading the stories.  I don’t think I have ever seen them read so much while in a museum.  We ended up staying several hours, and the boys enjoyed almost every minute of it.  We did have to quickly shoo them out of a North Korea prison camp room (current conflicts section of the museum) that had way too much info and way too graphic of photos for elementary aged kids, but otherwise, the museum was perfect for them and fun for us.

Just outside the museum is the border between the Russian sector and the American sector, and of course there was a McDonald’s on the American side. The McDonalds helpfully had a sign on its door saying saying “Welcome to the American Sector.” So of course we had to go there for lunch.  Sigh.  But I had a Bacon Guacamole Burger that was quite good.  John also opted for something that looked like potato chips instead of fries, but turned out to be really tasty fries that reminded me of Arby’s curly fries.  Yum!  I wish I would have gotten those instead of a salad.

We also needed to get a picture on the line where the wall used to be:


We walked to the German History Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum), which was also quite good and much better than any of us were expecting.  John, in particular, loved the section on the middle ages.  There were tons of knight suits, weapons, and other exhibits to keep him happy for quite a while.  Getting into WWI, Jeremy and I started becoming more interested.  Then we hit the WWII section, and became very interested.  They did a good job showing Hitler’s rise to power and how the people were too complacent in allowing Hitler to do whatever he wanted.  A lot of museums seem to skirt this issue and avoid showing too many pictures, but Berlin seems like an appropriate place to get the facts on how he got into power and stayed there for so long.

By this time, it was after 4:00pm.  I don’t think the boys have every spent so long happily engaged in museums, although all of us were worn out by the end.  We decided to walk back to the apartment, stopping at a playground midway.  The city also seems to really like statues of bears.  Every few blocks we seem to spot one.  Closer to the apartment we picked up some bakery snacks for dinner.  Jeremy’s chocolate croissant turned out to be a hot dog in a croissant.  Sigh.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Today, I really wanted to go to the Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie), but the boys were really sick of art museums.  So, Jeremy decided to rent some bikes and ride around Berlin with the boys while I spent the day on my own.  Yay, husband!

I took a nice walk along the river and was about to walk into the art gallery, when I got a text from some German friends of ours.  It turns out that they were also visiting Berlin and had just seen one of our Berlin facebook posts!  Did we want to get together before they left after lunch?  Of course!  I got in touch with Jeremy, who had just picked up the bikes and was biking near Brandenburg Gate.

After a bit of back and forth, Jeremy and the boys decided a morning bike ride through the Tiergarden would be fun, I could wander around a bit then take the subway, our friends could drive over to Winterfeldplatz after they finished up what they were doing, and we could all meet for lunch.  Perfect!

Jeremy and the boys biked past the Reichstag and entered the Tiergarden, where one of their first stops was at the Siegessäule monument.


The roads in Berlin are very flat, which makes biking (especially with kids) very minimal effort.  There are plenty of sites that are a little far to walk comfortably, but for which a bike is a great match.  The Tiergarten was our first area to acclimate to biking in the area since there are also lots of bike paths and lanes.

One other thing we noticed is that there are many bike rental companies that use your phone to rental a bike on the fly, even for short periods.  That said, we opted for a regular bike rental place because we wanted bike helmets (not that common in Europe, but thought it was good with the kids).

After biking near the zoo, they continued by the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was purposefully left semi-ruined after WWII to help symbolize the futility of war.


When biking away from the zoo station area, James spotted some alpacas through the fence!  Although he was a bit disappointed that there was a double fence between him and them, and he compared to to the death strip of the Berlin wall.  Different, but glad that he is absorbing some of the concepts that we have been showing him the last couple of days.


They biked back into the Tiergarden, then met me at Winterfeldplatz.


I had arrived a bit early, since Winterfeldplatz was having a small market and I wanted to wander around it a bit before everyone else got there.  There was a nice playground next to the square, so once the boys and our friends arrived, we hung out for a bit, then went to lunch.  We learned the “German” way to drink wine on a sweltering summer day.  First you put ice in your cup, then a little white wine, then sparking water.  I was a bit dubious, but it was actually quite refreshing.  The kids played in the park a bit more, and we had a fabulous time catching up.

At this point, I returned to the Old National Gallery.  It was fun, and definitely worth a visit, but since it highlights German paintings, expect a lot of dark colors, which may not be fore everyone.  When visiting other art galleries, the German section is usually just a small portion of the museum, so it was a bit odd seeing the reverse.  There were some nice landscapes, probably my favorite section of the museum.  I also, surprisingly, enjoyed the portraits.  Usually I breeze past those, but for whatever reason, I really got into the expressiveness of the eyes and lips.

The boys continued their bike journey towards Potsdamerplatz so that they could bike along the remains of the Berlin wall.  The double row of bricks marks where the wall was at.


They passed by the Topography of Terror, but given the boys’ ages, Jeremy decided it would be unwise to stop.  They saw Checkpoint Charlie again, then followed an online map until they reached the East Side Gallery, which is a very large section of the Berlin Wall that was left intact and turned into an outdoor art museum.  The walls are coated with modern murals for a fairly lengthy way.


Part of the wall was right next to the river.  I’m a bit jealous I didn’t tag along, although I probably wouldn’t have liked the heat.  The air conditioning in the museum was nice.


They continued along the wall, past Friedrichshain, toward the TV tower and Alexanderplatz, where they were quite hot and decided to stop for some ice cream.


At this point, I was done with the museum and decided to walk along the river back towards the apartment.  Unfortunately, Google Maps was draining my phone battery (I was losing 5% every time I opened the map program), so I decided to try getting back without using it much.  For some reason, my brain said to turn left at the river, but it was the wrong way.  I enjoyed my walk, but didn’t realize it until about 10 minutes later when I still wasn’t at the “cute” section.

I turned back and texted Jeremy that I was going to be back at the apartment a little later than planned, and we discovered we were just a few blocks away from each other.  So, we met at the cathedral for a few minutes.


Jeremy pointed out the correct “cute” path, which was behind the cathedral.  I continued walking back to the apartment, while the boys went over towards Brandenburg Gate to return the bikes.  We then arrived at the bridge crossing to our apartment at the same time.  John was in shock that I made it on foot faster than they did biking!  (Well, they had to return the bikes.)  We picked up some bakery snacks again for dinner and came back to shower and rest.  The boys were amazingly dirty and actually asked to take showers before dinner.  Fun day!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

After a satisfactory hotel breakfast, our morning started with a subway ride to the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was similar in theme to the Wall Museum by Checkpoint Charlie, but different enough to be worth a trip.

We started with some of the outdoor exhibits. This had been the site of some apartment buildings in where the doors and apartments were in the East, but the back windows ran along a West Berlin street.  Eventually, the buildings were bulldozed, but when the wall was being built in 1961, people were jumping out the windows of this building to escape to the west (sometimes many floors up), with pictures on display. Apparently over 100 people escaped through this building before the East managed to seal it off.

We then walked by some sections of the wall. Our picture shows the eastern side of wall, with the guardhouse inside the “death strip” (there were two walls, both on the east side, with the middle being patrolled by the guard towers).


Next, we went into the documentation center, which was on the west side of the wall and had a lot of text (both German and English) and photograph displays.  Great for adults, but less so for kids.  The boys didn’t enjoy it as much as the Wall Museum, but there were enough escape attempt and espionage stories to keep them from getting too bored while Jeremy and I read the rest of it.  At the end, we climbed up to the top of the tower and got a look inside the death strip.


We continued to another section where we could walk inside the death strip.  It had some memorials commemorating some WWII victims who were buried there before the wall was built, were supposedly moved, but many of them weren’t.  All of their grave markers are gone, so there are a few scattered around to represent these people.  There were also a few exhibits showing sections of the wall that were moved there after it was destroyed, some pictures of a few of the people who died trying to cross the wall, some security artifacts, and a few other things.  We found it  quite interesting.

For lunch, we decided to go to Potsdamerplatz, but we were having trouble finding something that everyone was happy with, so the boys talked us into taking them to McDonald’s so that they could finish their collection of coca-cola cups (in six different colors) that the restaurant is currently giving out like happy meal toys, but for adult meals.  Fine.  Hopefully they survive the trip home.

We were going to take a subway to the Brandenburg Gate, but since we saw it in the distance, we decided to walk instead.  I enjoyed it until I overheated, then it was quite miserable.  We all bought a drink and felt a bit better.  We did manage to get a slightly less crowded photo than the ones earlier in the trip, so I guess it was worth it.


And the one from the back didn’t have the sun glare.


At this point, we thought about taking a subway back to the apartment until it cooled off, but I thought there was a reasonable chance that I would not leave again until tomorrow, so I said we should keep walking.  So we marched in the dreadful heat towards Alexanderplatz, which was lively, but we were hot.  There was an hour wait to go up to the top of the TV Tower, and I about cried at the idea of standing in the heat for that long, so we didn’t get tickets.  I am so thankful for my super lightweight long skirt that both protects me from the sun rays and keeps me as cool as possible.  It’s a fabulous travel skirt that unfortunately now has stains on the hem that are unlikely to come out, but I am still wearing it on this trip.  We found some ice cream in an air conditioned restaurant and felt better again.

A stop at St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) was next.  When Jeremy visited in 2000, this church was under renovation and had huge advertisements on the side. See the picture on the left, advertising water bottles, saying “Evian, the ultimate purity.”  Sigh.  Super funny, but why do churches sell themselves out?  Why would a church allow something like this on their building?

We walked back the same way we did the first day.  I really love Hackescher Markt and wish we would have been there around a meal time.  The walk along the river was also very peaceful, if a bit hot in sections.  We stopped at the playground for a bit, then came back to the apartment to pack and cool off.


Friday, July 27, 2018

In the morning, we debated between the DDR Museum and the observation deck of the TV Tower that we skipped yesterday.  Since the kids were museum-ed out, we decided to walk to the TV Tower.

We walked along the river again, enjoying the views.  Once we got to the TV Tower at 9:30am, we discovered that there was no line and we were able to go up immediately (yesterday mid-afternoon was an hour wait).  The elevator had a window on the top that allowed us to see the ropes and cables as we went up.  A bit freaky, but it felt slower than I was expecting.

On top, we had some amazing views of the city.  It probably would have been nice to go up the first day and get a better feel for the lay of the land, but it was also nice on our last day, since we were able to reminisce about the different places we visited and see where they were in relation to each other.  This picture captures most of the places in this post:


One interesting observation is that it is easy to tell the difference between East and West side of the city.  The East side is a lot more gray and Soviet style, West side has more color:

After the tower, we wandered around Alexanderplatz a bit.  The boys got some slushies that turned their tongues bright blue, but they wouldn’t let me post the picture.  We stopped by St. Nicholas Church, the oldest church in Berlin and now a museum, but didn’t have time to go in.  There was a nice bear statue in front of it:


We promised the boys that they could play in a playground near Alexanderplatz, so that was our last stop before walking back to our apartment to pick up the bags and head to the airport.  I really like that walk along the Spree river.

Berlin was a really nice last city to visit before going back to the States.  We really enjoyed our time here.  It is more international and less German, but there is a lot of history, it is lively, and a lot of fun.

Keep reading our travel blog for more posts from our Gap Year!

Here are some more posts from this trip to Europe:

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