Thursday, February 21, 2008

Berlin: The Return

We left Dresden for Berlin, arriving shortly after dark at the huge, amazing and controversial Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We checked in at the Heart of Gold hostel, which was pretty clean (though Damon had some complaints about the men's room) and very conveniently located near the Hauptbahnhof, Bundestag/Brandenburger Tor, and in a generally cool neighborhood. It has a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy theme, and our room's wall was painted with some appropriate stencil art. Breakfast buffet there was only 3 EUR! (Suspiciously, drinks at breakfast were free the first day, but 50 cents the second day.)

We ate at the nearby Kanzler Eck, a restaurant which features the supposed favorite meals of German chancellors past and present. It wasn't too busy and we got to sit right below portraits of all the chancellors. Konrad Adenauer looked pretty badass. (I think my sister ordered his dish, Sauerbraten, out of fear of what he'd do if she didn't.) Willy Brandt looked smarmy, and Ludwig Erhart reminded me of my high school principal. Helmut Kohl was sort of jolly- and adorable-looking. How appropriate for someone from the Pfalz! His dish was Saumagen, which Damon ordered. I ordered the Roulade, the favorite dish of a physicist who came from the former East Germany. I hope everyone knows the name of that chancellor! The service at the restaurant was super-friendly and we even got a little free seafood appetizer. That happened to us last time we were in Berlin, too (and would happen again before we left this time!). Every time it happens Damon dreams up wild theories about how the staff think we are food critics or want to increase tourist business at their restaurant. I think we are just lucky (or it's some kind of Berlin thing).

After dinner we walked over to the Bundestag building and it turned out it was still open! So, we waited in line only 10-15 minutes, then got to go up inside the dome (thanks to an elevator operating dude who looked eerily like John McCain) and get a nighttime view over Berlin. Afterward we stopped by the Brandenburger Tor and the Holocaust Memorial (even creepier at night). Unfortunately all the photos we took here were also lost.

The following morning we walked through a bit of the Tiergarten, stopping to check out a Soviet WWII memorial and walk down a path with trees growing right in the middle of it! Then we passed through Potsdamer Platz and took the U-Bahn over to check out the East Side Gallery, a large section of the Berlin Wall that remains standing. The wall was decorated by artists at one point, but is now fairly covered with graffiti. Across from the gallery, a huge arena (O2) is under construction. It's a bit of a wasteland at the moment. We stopped for lunch at the Ostbahnhof - not really the coolest place to eat, but it was close and we knew it would have clean bathrooms. We actually got pretty friendly service there at a little sandwich/currywurst joint. Afterwards we walked past several landmarks, including the Fernsehturm in the Alexanderplatz, the City Hall, the Marienkirche, the giant aquarium (in a hotel?). We tried to go into the Berliner Dom, which Damon and I had seen last August, but discovered that there is now a 5 EUR admission fee, even though it was free before! We would have paid 2 and might have paid 3, but it didn't seem to be worth 5, knowing already how it was inside.

Berlin Jan 08

At this point the weather had really started to take a turn for the worse. What better time, then, to check out a museum? We thought we could only do one with any justice, and chose the Pergamon Museum. The museum has a couple of themes going on - one is the reconstruction of giant ruins that fill whole rooms - altars, gates, columns, facades - and the other is middle eastern and Islamic art, full of more beautiful things than you can shake a stick at. I absolutely recommend it!

We then took a look at the book-burning memorial in the Bebelplatz across from Humboldt University - an underground room full of empty bookshelves, visible through a glass pane in the ground - and headed off to Prenzlauer Berg for dinner. We'd read that a restaurant there called Nosh was good, but when we looked at it, nothing on the menu really grabbed us, so we passed it up for an Indian restaurant across the street, where the service was great (free pappadums and mango drinks!) and it was about half the price (no kidding) of the non-fast-food Indian restaurants here in Heidelberg. It was only 30 EUR for all three of us to have drinks, samosas, and entrees! It was around this point that Damon said he would never take me to a city again, because it just makes me cranky to go back to tiny, costly Heidelberg. Heidelberg has its benefits. Cheap Indian food and entire cool neighborhoods and interestingly-dressed people just aren't among them.

We wandered around and found a Rewe that was open until MIDNIGHT! That's like the Holy Grail of grocery availability. In Heidelberg, you're lucky if a place is open until ten. We stopped in a cocktail bar and I had a great White Russian. I suppose they are hard to screw up, but I had been trying to branch out in cocktails lately (mostly without good results) and hadn't had one in a while. They played a song from The Big Lebowski right after I ordered it. Coincidence? The drinks turned out to be way cheaper than they were listed on the menu. We used the menu to coach my sister on how much to give the waitress as a tip, since she wouldn't be able to understand the price when it was spoken. Consequently the waitress got a fat tip from 70%...heh.

The next day was our last in Berlin so we headed over to the Hauptbahnhof in the morning to drop off our bags in lockers for the day. It turns out there aren't any lockers there, as there are at pretty much all other German train stations. Instead there is a check-in service, which costs 4 EUR a bag! (This is a lot more than typical lockers.) It was really friendly, but sooo slow and expensive. I suppose they do this for security purposes (all the bags are x-rayed) but it's time-consuming and expensive, and hence kind of annoying.

We ended up spending the rest of the day wandering around in the vicinity of Kreuzberg, past the Jewish Museum and Checkpoint Charlie (this is mostly a mock-up for tourists, I gather), to lunch at a little Turkish joint, and down Oranienburger Strasse just looking at shops and stuff. My sister wanted to check out the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedaechtniskirche (we went past it last time we were in Berlin) so we went over there. This time we had time to stop inside and look around instead of just breezing past. The weather was once again terrible so afterward we found ourselves warming up in a cafe and wandering in bookstores to pass an hour or two before hopping on the train back to Heidelberg!

I guess I haven't talked too much about how I feel about Berlin but rather just keep blabbing about what we did. Well, I love it. It's diverse, exciting, and super-cheap. I can't really describe the feeling of being there because I suck at words, but I can say it's better than the feeling of being in Boston, better than the feeling of being in New York City, better by eons than the feeling of being in Munich or Frankfurt or Heidelberg. Unfortunately the economic situation in Berlin is not good so it's unlikely we'll ever end up getting to live there.

We were lucky enough to have booked tickets on a train called the Sprinter which goes non-stop from Berlin Spandau all the way to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof! We got a pretty good rate too. The only downside was that we somehow ended up in a quiet car so we couldn't really talk. A lady came through with free candy too. Cool! The train got up to 250 km/h. It seemed awesome at the time, but we were soon to be going even faster on our next trip!


  1. Actually, the Checkpoint Charlie museum is pretty cool. It's dedicated to telling the stories of people who escaped East Berlin. Some of the methods they used were really fascinating.

  2. I'm really happy that you enjoyed your time here in Berlin. It is a wonderful city, and it's great that you could see that in the short time you were here. Give me the world to chose from and I'll end up in the Hauptstadt every time!

    From your text I can see that you really got around and saw a bit of all the major touristy spots. Next time you come we should arrange a meeting and I'll show you some of the hidden treasures of Berlin.

  3. A "Quiet Car"?? That's funny. But I guess it would be nice if you just wanted some peace and... you know...

    Good writeup on Berlin! I had heard some not so great things about it so we didn't visit when we were in Germany, but thanks to your enthusiasm it is on the list for next time!

    : )

  4. I love Berlin. It is, to me, a lot like NYC a long time ago, when it was affordable, but much safer than NY was when it was affordable. I think you saw more in your weekend than I've seen in my 6 months (or at least what you saw was not so 4 and under oriented). Everything you mentioned is on my list for my upcoming tourist time(when the kids will be in school and I won't). I want to check out the Chancellor's restaurant next time we have a sitter!

  5. Christine: Thanks for the tip! Everything I had read otherwise just didn't say much about it at all, so I figured there wasn't much to it.

    Snooker: That would be awesome! Unfortunately the next time I am there it might be with my MIL in tow :( But, it might not!! I will definitely let you know.

    Michelle: I'm dying to know the not-so-great things that you heard!! Spill!!

    G: NYC? Affordable? Wow, wish I hadn't missed those days! I bet it was cool. NYC still has a lot of things going for it, but affordability isn't one...


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