Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Berlin, Germany (Three days, with a side trip to Potsdam)

Photos here: Berlin


I enjoyed Munich, even if it didn’t quite live up to Alan’s description.  I wondered how Berlin would differ.  I left my Munich hotel earlier than I had to, and caught the train to the airport.  As it turned out, the trains were a giant mess on this particular day.  I don’t know what was going on, but several people commented on it when I asked.  Luckily I asked a staff member whether I was waiting correctly, and she directed my to an intermediate train instead since my planned train was not running.  Had I not inquired, I might be still waiting on that platform for my S-Bahn train.

Airport security was once again very tight. I wasn’t groped this time, but the search process was quite thorough for everyone.  Perhaps Obama was in town again, following my travels.

In Berlin, I had booked the Grand Hostel, and they provided fairly detailed instructions on airport transfer.  Basically one takes a bus to the metro, and then gets off at the metro stop about 100 meters away.  I had to make a few inquiries at the airport to find the correct bus stop.  I didn’t know how far I had to ride the bus until I got to the right metro stop, and the driver was an unhelpful gruff.  Fortunately, the electronic signage helped, and I disembarked at the appropriate stop and got on the metro for the 30 minute ride.

My room was not ready when I arrived.  The Grand Hostel is one of the odder establishments.  It really is neither a classic hotel nor hostel, with lots of private rooms in addition to the standard dorm setting.  I’m not sure it satisfies either group as a result.  The clientele ranges from your typical college backpacker to the geriatric set who barely manage the stairs.  The location is not bad, but not ideal either, as it is on the fringe of the center of action.  In fact, the neighborhood looks like a newly gentrifying area, as there is a bit of “grit” along some of the close side streets.

The good news is that the Berlin mass transit system is excellent, once one figures it out, so all the tourist attractions are fairly accessible.

The older set may find annoying the noise from revelers returning in the wee hours, while the younger set may be put off by the senior citizens occupying the seats in the hostel bar.  In fact, one youngster bemoaned to me that this was the “least social” hostel of his entire trip, though I’m not sure why he was complaining to me.  Is that a compliment or insult?

I was a bit annoyed at check in at the hostel’s hidden tax and bed sheet charges.  I don’t recall that being flagged anywhere in the reservation sheet, and this practice differs from most other establishments which clearly highlight other charges.  I didn’t want to let this spoil the mood, so paid the bill upon arrival as they requested, and then left to explore Berlin.

I was very lucky in one sense.  Just as I caught a festival while in Salzburg, I had arrived in Berlin in the middle of a very large International Culture Festival, which took over a huge area very close to the hostel.  It was like being at a huge Spring Fling event in college, and not too dissimilar from Mardis Gras or a mini-Oktober Fest.  Crowds were about just looking to have a good time.

The staff didn’t give me the right area of the Festival, as I came across it immediately while on my way to somewhere else for lunch.  I went into the Festival and walked around briefly, seeing only a corner of it since I planned to return later.  It didn’t look that large based on this quick look-see; I was wrong.

The Jamaican barbecue pit smelled great, so I ordered some spicy jerked chicken for E5, plus a E1 plate deposit.  Huh, a plate deposit?  The BBQ stand didn’t use paper plates but worried about customers walking away with the ceramic ones, hence the deposit.  The chicken was pretty good, but the portions were smaller than I expected.

I walked around and liked the vibe, although I couldn’t understand everything, including some weirdos doing some kind of African exercise, guys rubbing sun tan oil on each other and lounging on the street itself, and a boy be-bop group doing one handed hand stands.

I decided to come back later and explore the Festival in greater detail.

The hostel staff had recommended exploring the Victoria Park neighborhood, describing it as “trendy.”  They also recommended two cheap restaurants.  The first was Mustafas, which offers Middle Eastern fare, but the line was crazy long.  Besides, I was headed later on this trip to Morocco.

The second restaurant was Curry 36, which served the ubiquitous curry brautwurst.  The stuff makes a weird combination, but is all over Germany as cheap fast food.  I had to try it at least once.  I found Curry 36’s version just OK, but it sated my residual hunger after the jerk chicken.

As I wandered the neighborhood after, I realized that Berlin, more than the other European cities, reminded me of NYC.  For example, this particular neighborhood could easily pass as an Upper West Side street.  Other parts of cosmopolitan Berlin ranged from high rised office towers, to grungy art areas, to chic tree lined neighborhoods.  There are some historic buildings, but there is no “Old Town.”  Nonetheless, each neighborhood seemed to have its own distinct feel and personality.  I knew immediately that I would have fun exploring the city.

I came across a market hall, and hoped that it would be like the crowded, hectic ones I had seen in Spain, but this too resembled more a NYC deli area than its Spanish counterpart.

The small Sunday flea market near Victoria Park actually had interesting stuff on display, but I wasn’t in the position to buy anything given my luggage limitations.  Still, I had fun spending part of the afternoon wandering the stalls.

It was late afternoon by this time, so I wandered back to the hostel to unpack since my room would be ready.

I then immediately headed to Brandenburg Gate, the key tourist attraction of the city.  To get there, I crossed first to Potsdam Plaza, where I wandered a bit and even saw bits of the Berlin Wall that had been moved here for display.

As I walked from there towards the Brandenburg Gate, I came across some kind of weird concrete garden.  It made for a good photo op, but my mood darkened when I realized it was a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe.

I reached the Gate, and like a hundred other tourists, snapped photos of the icon from a bunch of different angles.  I then walked to the Reichstag and the surrounding canals, exploring more of the picturesque city.

The walk eventually circled back to the Gate, where I got to witness a bunch of jovial (but drunken) Spaniards hit on a group of women who were partying it up bachelorette style.  They were politely rebuffed after a couple of good natured photos.

The Opera House area was very neat, but since it covers three separate buildings, it was hard to take photographs.

I sat for a bit to rest my tired feet before walking over to Checkpoint Charlie.  I am old enough to remember East Germany, the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Checkpoint Charlie symbolizes much of the Cold War, and there was a good exhibit that explained its history.  The checkpoint, itself, however, was hokey.  It seemed that some kind of cheesy company had taken over the place and dressed themselves up for tourist photographs.  Ugh.

The day was getting late so I headed back toward the hostel and the Festival.  I found another park on the way, but it was littered.  In fact, most of Berlin’s many parks seemed a bit garbage strewn, but this one was particularly bad.  I then really noticed that this area was not the greatest of neighborhoods.  I was definitely in the Lower East Side of NYC.

I went inside the nearby grocery store to buy some water, but was puzzled because the store was packed…with homeless people?  I then realized the homeless were inside the store to redeem glass bottles for the deposit money.  The long line of homeless ecologists snaked through the store, and a fight almost broke out between some of them for perceived injustices by their peers.  Still, all of them took pains to be polite to the store’s customers, no doubt because otherwise they would be banned by management.  The Festival, of course, was a boon to these recyclers with mounds and mounds of beer bottles strewn about.

I ended the day back at the Festival.  The music and the partying was infectious, I had a great time going from stage to stage, listening and tapping my feet to the music, and occasionally finding myself dancing along to it as well.  I might have looked silly, but I didn’t care.  It was dark, everyone else was drunk, and I was having too much fun.

My Festival dinner consisted of a steak-on-a-stick, and an awesome pita sandwich.  Perhaps due to my light hearted mood, but I found the food incredibly yummy.

Everyone was drinking and partying, and the Festival was turning into a mammoth crazy lawn party.  Clearly Berlin doesn’t have an open container law, but the thousands of people generally were well behaved even in their drunken stupor.  The place was a ZOO, but quite civil.  I had a blast.

As the night went on, I felt dead tired.  All that walking was getting to me, so all too soon, I trudged back to my hostel and fell sound asleep.

I ended up sleeping in the next morning, but the stupid maid woke me up twice.  Moreover, the hostel’s doors are loud, and the early risers (probably the geriatric set?) kept banging them as they made off for their efficient day of sightseeing.  I was hung over and grumpy.  Eventually, my bleary eyes opened and I made my way to the communal showers to begin the day.

A bright, gorgeous day greeted me.  I decided to spend the day as a tourist, and bought a day metro pass so I could roam as I pleased.  All that walking the prior day saved me a few euros, but my legs were now depleted.  I started back at Potsdam Plaza, and made the familiar short walk to Brandenberg Gate, retaking the photos in much better lighting.

I then hopped back on the metro to see the Space Needle.  At the square, there was a huge gathering.  I couldn’t make out what was going on, but eventually figured out that it was some kind of political gathering for the “Catalan Vote.”  The crowd was very happy, however, as a central figure in the movement was leading the festivities.  I had no idea what the “Catalan Vote” issue is all about, nor did I know who the handsome guy the girls were swooning over is, but I took photos like a good tourist anyway.  I later discovered the guy was Pep Guardiola, a former Spanish soccer star and the current manager of the Bayern Munich football club.

I walked along the river canal toward museum row.  I passed many interesting squares, including one with a church.  I puzzled over the pink waterwork pipes.  Were they functional, artistic, or both?

Along museum row, many people were out just sunning themselves and enjoying the beautiful day.  My hangover had passed and I, too, relished the gorgeous weather.  I had no desire to actually enter any of the museums, so contented myself with just enjoying the day and the outdoor scenery.

I left the museum row and walked over to Hackensher Markt.  The nearby park was interesting with people sunning themselves.  For some peculiar reason, many Japanese expats seem to like this park.  Nearby, a Jewish synagogue caught my eye, but I didn’t enter when I noticed that they charged a fee.

I continued to roam Berlin, and appreciated the abundance of small parks that dotted the city.

Eventually, I headed over to the larger the Mauerpark in the Eberswalder area, where they hold a popular outdoor flea market.  I found the flea market itself to be worthless, but I really enjoyed the park.  As a piece of greenery, the park leaves much to be desired.  However, really good musicians dotted the area.  I found an Aussie duo called Oke and really enjoyed just listening to them in the gorgeous day.  The duo basically travel the world “following the sun,” and play in public spaces for donations to pay for their expenses.  What an interesting life they must lead.

Within the park, I eventually found an outdoor amphitheater.  A band soon gave way to a loud guy who started singing very badly.  He then announced that this was open karaoke mic day, and invited members of the audience to come down and sing to songs he had loaded on his machine.  Almost all of the volunteers were terrible, but the crowd was in good cheer.  It was surprisingly loads of fun just hanging around and singing with these horrible performers.  I spent quite a bit of time there before reluctantly moving on, as there was much more of Berlin for me to see.

High on the list was the Berlin Wall itself.  The longest remaining stretch of the wall is in the eastern part of the city along the river.  I took the metro there, and discovered that the wall is now basically a large canvas for local artists, some good, some interesting, and some neither.  I took my time walking along the wall, thinking about its history.

Around half way, I came across a small square where I couldn’t help but notice a grandmotherly figure who was sunning herself.  She was attractive for her age, and she seemed to know it as she was “popping out” of her bathing suit.  A guy (who turned out to be her boyfriend) was fawning over her.  I struck up a conversation with them.  They were a delightful couple, even though she clearly lied about her age (there is no way she is only 50), but I humored her while she playfully complained that her boyfriend (who spoke very little English) was too old for her.  In her prime, she may have been a beauty, but it was a bit comical (and yet somehow sweet) to see the two of them engage in their antics at their age.

Eventually, I headed back to the hostel.  I am not a big fan of Greek food, but I really didn’t want any German fare and was too tired to wander too far.  The Greek restaurant across the street from the hostel did a vibrant business, so I ate dinner there.  It was actually fine.

The big hostel event for the evening was a pub crawl that would start at 11:30 pm, but I wasn’t sure I would be awake by then.  Besides, I had really enjoyed the Festival the prior night and wanted to return.  I made the right decision, as I had a great time listening to the music and bopping along with the crowd.  I met a bunch of interesting people, and I had a great (and sober!) evening.

As the night ended, I encountered some people who were not as sober.  These idiots decided to climb the tall light tower for kicks, and proceeded to do chin ups from 50 feet high to the cheers of the crowd.  They were lucky they didn’t fall, and that the tower held up to their weight, as the ending could have been tragic.  Ahh, drunken Germans.

I awoke the next morning very tired, as I didn’t sleep well.  The hostel’s breakfast is a bit of a rip off, but I had it for the second time as I was hungry and my options were limited.  I also used the hostel’s facilities to launder my clothes, some of which had started to ferment a bit in the laundry plastic bag.  I checked out, but my flight out wasn’t until the evening as I had the day free.

I headed to the nearby city of Potsdam for the day.  A short journey outside the Berlin, the historic town is a popular day trip.  I knew little about Potsdam, other than it had hosted the important Potsdam Conference at the conclusion of World War II.  The hostel staff gave conflicting and confusing information about the best way to get there, as they first told me to take the metro and then to take the faster regional train.  The online information offered little clarification.

I went to the main train station and inquired directly with the help desk.  They told me that the same ABC ticket would work either on the metro OR the faster regional ticket.  Unfortunately, I had just missed the next regional train, but since the travel time was substantially shorter than the metro (30 minutes versus an hour), I just waited for the next regional train.

Potsdam’s biggest attraction is Sanssouci Palace, the former summer residence of Prussia’s Frederick the Great, and the surrounding park.  I headed directly to the Park and spent the better part of the day exploring it.  I didn’t go into the palace itself or any of the other buildings, but their exterior fa├žade and the surrounding gardens were sufficiently captivating to occupy my time.

When I finished, I headed to Potsdam town itself, as the buildings had looked interesting from the train ride in.  I wasn’t sure quite how to get there from the park, as the maps were confusing, so just headed in that direction.  Eventually, I came across a tourist information booth, who informed me that my ABC pass was good for the local buses that would take me to the center of town.

I wandered about central Potsdam and took photos, before hopping back on the bus back to the train station.

I really enjoyed Sanssouci Park, but by this point, I was utterly exhausted and ready to head back to Berlin.  I caught the regional train, and almost missed my stop in my fatigue.  I got off at Zoological Gardens to see my remaining Berlin tourist attraction, the Memorial Church.  Much of Berlin was destroyed during the war, and its most famous church remains half destroyed.  The open air church stands as a monument both to the war and to the perseverance of Christianity, but I found it otherwise unremarkable.

The refuge sanctum immediately adjacent to the church was kind of interesting

I headed back to the hostel.  I had checked out that morning, but used the communal showers to freshen up before heading to the airport.  I used the metro-bus combination for my uneventful trip to the airport, but once again Air Berlin proved incompetent.  When I went to check in, the staff routed me to a different desk a long walk away at the other side of the terminal, since I didn’t have a boarding pass but had checked luggage.  I could have instead simply printed out a boarding pass from the kiosk right there in front of them, which I only realized when I had walked half way across the terminal.  Grrrr.

Despite Air Berlin’s incompetence, I left Berlin and Germany with a very positive impression.  For sure, Germany is rich in history.  More important, Munich and Berlin were both enjoyable cities to experience, with something for everyone.  Berlin also proved that Alan might be right after all about just having a fun time in the country.  As I boarded the plane, I wondered what it would be like to return for Oktoberfest.  Perhaps I could find out this fall?


Photos here: Berlin

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