Forget what I said earlier about us getting better at understanding the public transportation systems-- Berlin's public transit is a beast. There are international trains (ICE), regional trains (RE or RB?), S-bahn trains (local metro), U-bahn trains (another metro), and a tram system.
Naturally, we had to use a combination of all of these to get to our hostel in Berlin. At least my train pass covers 3 out of 5! After about an hour, we finally made it! Unfortunately, it was pretty dark by this point and the tram station was not in a particularly charming part of town. This was the first time that I've felt uncomfortable about safety since arriving in Europe, but th walking direction provided by the hotel were really good and we made it just fine.
The hostel was really small-- only 4 private rooms and no dorm-- and the hostel owner was really nice and was waiting for us when we arrived. We dropped off our valuables and ventured back out into the night to find some food. There weren't a ton of options, so we stuck to our old favorite-- the kebab! Three bucks buys you a huge pita filled with lamb meat, veggies, and sauce-- basically a gyro but called a kebab. This place was immensely popular with plenty of beer and slot machines to go around. Not exactly a relaxing experience, but the kebab was delicious.
We woke up and got an early start the next morning. In the light of day, our neighborhood was WAY nicer and seemingly-safe. We stopped in a little bakery near the tram stop and feasted on strudels and croissants. After riding the tram and the S-bahn, we arrived at Brandenburg Gate.
Nearly 100,000 Germans rushed through this gate in 1989 to get from East to West Germany, and it is the cite of a few famous speeches by Reagan, Clinton, and an assortment of other important people. The gate marks the head of Tiergarten (a huge park), so we walked all the way down the park to the other side to check out Siegassaule.
Siegassaule is a huge statue with a golden lady on top of it, and it serves as the ending point for Christopher Street parade for gay rights. Thus the lady is a gay icon. Berlin is very gay-friendly; the mayor of Berlin is openly homosexual. Berlin is not thriving economically like its Western neighboring cities, so the unofficial slogan during Klaus Wowereit's time in office is "Berlin is poor, but sexy."
Hilarious! It's really nice to see that Berlin has achieved such an open tolerance for gays, especially since Nazi/Soviet rule is such recent history. Way to overcome, Berlin!
Then we headed to a giant memorial to the Holocaust, designed by Peter Eisenman.
The memorial was really amazing-- a ton of giant concrete slabs of different heights set upon slightly uneven ground made for a very interesting final product (and photo opportunity).
Visible from the memorial (and from nearly everywhere else) was a massively tall Fernsehturm TV tower, which was built by the Soviets and detested for years until it was decorated like a soccer ball for the 2006 World Cup. Now, like everything else, it is a huge tourist attraction. It is also right next to Alexanderplatz, which is the station that we catch the tram back to our hotel from, so it is very convenient for geographic orientation.
After the memorial, we decided to cruise by the remaining section of the Berlin wall. The sun was in the worst possible place to view the extraordinary murals painted on the wall, so we decided to come back in the morning. So.. more about the wall later.
We went to the Jewish museum, which was really well done.
The guy who designed the building created it to be shaped like a broken Star of David, which of course was impossible to see unless you were in a helicopter or something, but it was still really neat on the inside. Most of the museum was dedicated to explaining the history of the Jewish people using various different visual and auditory displays, but there were a few art exhibits that were created as a memorial to the six million European Jews murdered between 1940 and 1945.
One particularly interesting exhibit was a bunch of iron faces all over the floor in a corner of the museum, meant to represent the faces of the lives that were lost. Not sure if there were 6 million iron faces, but there were a ton of them. I learned so much about Jewish history in this museum-- I won't even start trying to explain all the misconceptions/lack of knowledge I had about Jewish history, starting with the bible and ending with the current situation in Israel/Palestine-- it's too embarassing.
I'm not sure if I can blame it on a history education received in Texas public schools, or if I just didn't pay enough attention in history class, but there was definitely a huge void in my knowledge. Oh well, I guess it doesn't get much better than coming to Warsaw/Krakow/Berlin to learn about the conflict.
After the museum, we walked a little way to Checkpoint Charlie, the checkpoint where you could cross (with proper documents and permission, of course) from the American sector to the Russian sector during the conflict in Berlin.
The sign announcing the border was still standing, although it was probably a copy. There were huge walls in all directions with information about various different conflicts in history (Vietnam, etc.), but we were pretty tired/cold/hungry by this point so we didn't linger and read all of them. I guess Wikipedia will have to do.
We got two pizzas in a nearby Italian restaurant. Throughout this entire trip, table water has not been served at the restaurants-- you either have to buy a bottle or bring your own, and the bottles often cost the same as (if not more then) a coke or beer. Annoying. After dinner we headed back to the hotel.
On Sunday morning (5-1), we woke up early to revisit the remaining section of the Berlin wall (with better light). The wall, which was once representative of a very ugly relationship between East and West, is now a beautiful work of art remembering the conflict of the past. They call it the "East Side Gallery." The gallery is a little over a kilometer in length, but the original wall was nearly 155 kilometers long!
When the wall was breached in 1989, the Germany people hacked it to shit and the pieces were either sold or used to build roads. I took a picture of each section of the wall because the graffiti was so different from piece to piece. I'll post the whole series at the bottom of the blog for those of you that are interested.
Then we headed to Museumsinsel, which is a little island in the middle of Berlin that houses five of the cities most popular and renowned museums.
We bought a ticket that was good all day and visited four of the five. The buildings surrounding the museums and the museums themselves were stunning architectural masterpieces.
The Berliner Dom and the Altes Museum were along the sides of a big grassy square with a nice fountain in the middle of it. Along the street leading from the square was the Pergamonmuseum, the Neues Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie, and the Bode Museum (which we skipped).
We went to the Neues Museum first, which mainly consisted of Egyptian artifacts and sculptures from Antiquity. There was a really strange exhibit about the history of glass eyes that was very out of place in the museum, so I took a picture of some of the tools/glass used to make the prosthetics.Then we went to the Alte Museum, which was basically more of the same stuff but with a better museum interior. Next, we visited the Alte Nationalgalerie, which had exhibits more to my taste.
There were still a bunch of sculptures, but there was an exhibit of nice paintings by the most famous French impressionists (Monet, Van Gough, Gaugain, Renoir). I'll post some of the pictures from this exhibit at the bottom of the blog. We went to the Pergamonmuseum last, which housed some Islamic and Byzantine art, along with a very impressive collection of walls made of mosaic tiles.
After walking all along the wall and walking through four museums, it was pretty late and we were really tired.
We stopped in a biergarted, which is basically a huge outdoor cafe with lots of tables and lounge chairs. They serve beer and snacks, but it was sort of cold outside so we just stuck to snacks. Most of the cafes in the parts of town that have a bunch of tourist attractions have the bulk of their tables outside.
Obviously, this is useful during some parts of the year and rather unpleasant during others. Interestingly enough, most of the places have a stack of blankets in the corner that you can use if you get cold! Inspired, really. That way you can sit outside and gaze in awe at the Berliner Dom in the spring and fall as well as in the summer. Not sure if little fleece blankets would cut it in the winter though; they must have another system when it's really cold.
After our little snack, we headed back to the hostel and grabbed a few kebabs at the shop next door as our real dinner. Then we packed up all of our stuff for an early departure, and I spent a few hours Skyping with Mom.
Skype is a pretty awesome invention, but the internet connections don't really allow for a high-quality visual experience. Still, better than nothing!
In the morning (5-2), we woke up really early to catch the train to Heidelberg, which is on the opposite side of Germany as Berlin-- in the southwest near Switzerland. The train was a bit of a fiasco. We started at Antonplatz, took the tram to Alexanderplatz, rode the S-bahn to Haupbahnhof, then got on an ICE train to Mannheim (that continues on to Basel, Switzerland, but we get off early). Theoretically, we will take a regional train to Heidelberg from Mannheim, but we are currently on the ICE train. Learned a few lessons on this train-- since we are both using rail passes now, we didn't actually have to buy tickets, but we had the option to make seat reservations for 2.5 Euros per person. The reservations were not compulsory and it was an early train, so we sort of spaced the whole thing and figured we would get a seat no problem. It has not been a problem in the past... WRONG! The train is totally packed and everyone had the foresight to make seat reservations, so there was absolutely NO chance of us sitting together. We managed to find two seats somewhat near one another and snagged them, but some guy showed up at the next train stop and had a reservation for Dad's seat. So now I am sitting by some random dude who is asleep, and I have NO clue where Dad went because he disappeared after having his seat jacked, but I don't want to get up to find him because I don't want to lose the seat/leave any of my stuff in it/wake up this dude next to me. Oh well, I guess I have about four more hours on this train to figure it out. Definitely going to make seat reservations from now on if the train ride is longer than a few hours, especially when Adrienne shows up and two becomes three. Finding seats for 3 people in the same train car might be hard, and three within speaking distance would definitely be impossible. Anyway, tschüss for now!
We arrived in Berlin around 7 PM on Friday, April 29th. We talked to a really helpful Germain rail representative to try and figure out how to get around for the rest of our time in Europe, and she helped us figure out that a German rail pass for Dad was the cheapest option. So now Dad has 4 days of unlimited train travel in Germany, which we will use to get from Berlin to the Black Forest, through Bavaria and Rhineland, and eventually to Munich. By the time we finished with the rail pass, it was about 8 PM and nearing dark so we started trying to get to our hotel.