A guest blog by Holly Melton.
The train trip from Prague to Berlin is beautiful. For the first 2 1/2 hours of the trip, the train tracks follow along a river through valleys, past quaint towns and idyllic villages. Just lovely and relaxing!
Berlin was Mark‘s choice of a city to visit – I had been to Berlin 35 years ago (winter of 1977) and while it was interesting, it was not particularly enjoyable, beautiful, or exciting – really it was kind of depressing to see the no man‘s land between the two Berlins.
I‘ll go ahead and confess now – Mark was right and I was wrong. I‘m glad I got to see the changes that have occurred since the fall of the wall. I really do have to thank Pepperdine for the experiences of our “semester“ trips during my year in Europe (Moscow & Leningrad, Berlin by train through East Germany, and Paris & the Louvre Valley). Who would have guessed that the Soviet Union would disband and that Germany would be reunited?
I‘ve told my family about my train trip across Germany to Berlin as a student. As soon as we crossed into East Germany, the landscape changed. While it was winter on both sides of the border, the landscape became more desolate immediately. We passed piles of rubble, damaged and destroyed buildings, and broken down, abandoned military equipment as we traveled along the railroad. The contrast when we arrived at the new train station this trip was very apparent. The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof services 1,000 trains a day, and was completed for the World Cup in 2006. It was clean, bright, and warm.
Inside train station:
A 5 or 6 story structure with shops and restaurants on each level – an upscale shopping mall with trains.
We spent the first afternoon getting settled into our new apartment – very sleek, modern, and monochromatic- think IKEA with no rugs. It was only the next day that I realized that the apartment was decorated for Christmas – a single glass vase with 3 pale gold Christmas balls and a double straw star hanging from the windowsill!
We went grocery shopping (always an adventure when you can‘t read the labels… did we tell you about getting liquid yogurt instead of milk for our breakfast cereal?) and found a copier shop to handle some business. We continue to feel like accomplished travelers once we have figured out the local train/trolley/underground/bus system. We are loving the “trust but verify” systems in Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany. You purchase a multi-day pass and stamp it the first time you use it. From then on you are able to just jump on the transportation – no turnstiles to be bothered with. Of course there are the occasional spot-checks. I understand that there is no forgiveness and a 40 euro fine, if you are found without a valid ticket. Mark got stopped in one underground, but once he showed the valid ticket, passed on with no problem.
We ended our first day in Berlin with dinner at a Croatian restaurant and watched this week‘s downloads of “Survivor” and “Top Chief”. (I mention this so you won’t think we have gotten too overly cultured by operas, ballets, and symphonies).
The next morning we woke up to a very windy snow storm. Here’s a photo from the balcony of our 8th floor apartment.
We jettisoned Mark’s well planned sightseeing excursion and hibernated inside for the day, coming out only for dinner and a symphony. Here are Mark and I after dinner, next to a Lego Santa Claus in the Sony Center, just a short block up from Potsdamer Platz.
This seems to be the appropriate time to mention how shockingly new (at least to Mark and me) Berlin is. We knew in theory that Berlin had been flattened during WWII, but in other cities that has meant a significant mixture of old and new. (I, of course, had the image from my student visit – dark, gloomy, broken down with soviet era apartment blocks on the east side.) In Berlin today, there was way less old – and a significant part of the “old” are almost complete reconstructions. In addition there seemed to me to be more “experimental” new. For example, here’s a link to architecture of the Nordic Embassies http://www.nordicembassies.org/felleshus/ and here‘s a photo of a piece of art work along a boulevard:
The Berlin Philharmonic building, part of the new cultural center area, is not so beautiful from the outside, but is very interesting inside.
The open and airy interior lobby area – a huge contrast to the theater lobbies we have been in recently.
The theater itself is amazing. Designed so that no seat is far from the stage and for the maximum acoustically effects, is different from any philharmonic theater I have been in – basically it’s a theater in the round. You can’t see it from this photo, but there are probably 15 to 20 mics hanging down over the center stage for recording the performance. The cameras are all around on the sides. The performance is simulcast to movie theaters in various cities in Germany.
The Berliner Phiharmoniker, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, was in top form. I would be hard pressed to choose between the Nutcracker in St. Petersburg and this performance, as to which was the most enjoyable. The program:
- Stravinsky’s Suite # 1 for small orchestra
- Schubert’s Symphony # 4 In C minor, D 417
- Stravinsky’s Suite #2 for small orchestra
- Beethoven’s Symphony #4 in B-flat major, op.60
Our last day in Berlin we went sightseeing full out, with the help of a hop-on/hop-off type bus tour. The weather cooperated fully as you can see. Here we are at the Brandenburg Gate:
A word about the Reichstag. If you look closely, you can see a glass dome rising up behind the front facade. Like everything else, the Reichstag was heavily damaged during WWII, and then not used during the GGR times (it’s located on the East Berlin side). When reconstruction was done after German reunification and the capital was moved back to Berlin, the old destroyed dome section was rebuilt with a new glass dome to shed light in the building and make the government transparent to the people – certainly optimistic and symbolic.
Mark at the Reichstag (German capital building).
A warning to other visitors: To go up in the dome for a view of the city, sign up online before-hand! While you can sign up on sight, it is time consuming and you must return later in the day. We gave up after 20 minutes in the first line, with no movement forward.
Below, the modern Gedachtniskirche is built adjacent to the tower of a church built between 1891 and 1895 in memory of Kaiser Wilhelm I. The church mostly destroyed during WWII, except portions of the tower, retained as a reminder of the devastation of war.
Here’s a section of the former Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin until the fall of the Soviet Union. Notice the round pipe shape on the top – barbed wire can be gotten through, but this rounded top made the wall almost impossible to and climb over.
Here I am in front of the sign for entering the American sector of West Berlin. I passed by this sign and through Checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin back in the day.
Mark in front of “Checkpoint Charlie”. This was the checkpoint used by all non-Berliners crossing between East and West Germany during the Soviet times.
Mark asked me more than once, “Do you recognize anything?“ The answer was no. It was only when we went in the Wall museum, next to Checkpoint Charlie, that I could point to the photos and say “that‘s what I remember“. As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the former east and west sides of Berlin, and it‘s all part of a thriving modern city.
Mark and I finally, enjoyed a Bratwurst on Brot for lunch we had been craving since Budapest. (Sorry, Hungary, but Paprika Wurst just doesn’t match up for us!)
Not wanting to miss a Berlin (or German?) “Must do“ the guidebooks talk about, we also tried the Currywurst. How would I describe it? A hot grilled sausage (with maybe a teeny, tiny amount of very mild curry inside), covered with cold tomato sauce, topped with a heavy layer of dry, very mild curry powder. It wasn’t bad, but a grilled brat is better!
As we were sitting, eating out dinner, it began to snow again outside. Perfect for wandering through the closest Christmas-mart. These are pictures from the Christmas Market on Poltzdamer Platz, though we easily saw 8 – 10 other Christmas Markets out of the bus today.
My Christmas fever started in Hungary, and each country has added to that (Austria, Czech Republic), but I got to say that Germany really does it up right! We’re on the train now to Amsterdam, and the Netherlands has big shoes to fill after Berlin. Mark may have had his fill of Christmas Marts, but I enjoy every single one of them! (Side note to daughters: I really looked, but have had no success in finding more of the apple garlands for our Christmas tree!)
Off to Amsterdam – a place I did enjoy during my student travels. Once again, we have run into a delightful fellow traveler, whose interesting life story and conversation has helped pass the time quickly. Ashish Jain is a software developer from New Deli. He’s been in Belgium since September on a semester exchange from his MBA program, and traveling on break. This is one last trip (to visit friends in Amsterdam) before heading home to India. We hope to meet up again in Santa Barbara next year!