The One with Berlin, Germany

Friday, October 17, 2014

Chris' parents flew all the way from Denver to visit us for about 10 days and just went back home on Tuesday. While they were here we took them to our little local villages, a day trip to Prague, and 4 nights/5 days in Berlin and Potsdam. I've been to Berlin before, 9 years ago, and was super excited to go back because I remember it being my most favorite city of all the places we visited while on that 4-month study abroad based in London.

When Chris got home from work we quickly packed the car and headed out on our 4 hour drive (5 hours with a stop for dinner at McDonald's) to Berlin. It was a beautiful day, as Margi and Tom pointed out multiple times :) We pulled into Berlin around 9pm.

We rented Stan's cozy apartment near the heart of Berlin on for about $100/night - two bedrooms and a sofa bed for Fox, bathroom with a tub (very nice with kids who don't take showers), fully equipped kitchen (sans microwave), free internet, free parking on the street, close to bus stops and an Underground, clean, and no toys or knick knacks for Fox and Jane to possibly break. Loved our stay here.

I had every minute planned out to the second, no time to waste, so we woke up on Friday morning and hit the ground running! When we walked outside we breathed in the fresh fall air and cool autumn breeze. Lovely! The apartment is in a beautiful part of town with tree-lined streets, a large, convenient, and very nice Rewe grocery store just on the corner with great hours, and a huge playground across the street. Win win all around!

I quickly fell in love with the architecture, for the second time around.

Love this Greek restaurant with its pops of blue and pink/red flowers in the windowsill.
Blumen (flower) shops on every corner.
This is the Underground station we used. So handy and a very convenient location to tourist attractions/points of interest.
Down we went!
The buses were soooooooo long!
Many different types of buildings and styles goin' on. Loved it.
The history of Berlin is long, fascinating, and takes up books! I'll try my best to summarize:

Berlin was a humble, marshy burg - its name perhaps derived from an old Slavic word for "swamp" - until prince electors from the Hohenzollern dynasty made it their capital in the mid-15th century. Gradually their territory spread and strengthened, becoming the powerful Kingdom of Prussia in 1701. As the leading city of Prussia, Berlin dominated the northern Germanic world - both militarily and culturally - long before there was a united "Germany." The only Hohenzollern ruler worth remembering is Frederick the Great (1712-1786). The ultimate enlightened despot, he was both a ruthless military tactician and a cultured lover of the arts. Frederick the Great left Berlin - and Prussia - a far more modern and enlightened place than he found it. When Germany first unified in 1871 Berlin was its natural capital. After Germany lost WWI, although the country was in disarray, Berlin thrived. The city was Hitler's headquarters and the place where the Führer drew his final breath during WWII. When the Soviet Army reached Berlin the protracted fighting (and vengeful postwar destruction) left the city in ruins. In the years following WWII Berlin was divided by the Allied powers: The American, British, and French sectors became West Berlin, and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. With the overnight construction of the Berlin Wall - which completely surrounded West Berlin - in 1961, an Iron (or, at least, concrete) Curtain literally cut through the middle of the city. 
While the wild night when the Wall came down was inspiring, Berlin still faced a long and fitful transition to reunification. Two cities - and countries - became one at a staggering pace. But in recent years the old East-West division has faded more and more into the background. Big corporations and the national government have moved in and the dreary swath of land that was the Wall and its notorious "death strip" has been transformed. Berlin is a whole new city - ready to welcome visitors.
No tour of Germany is complete without a look at its historic capital! Over the last two decades (and even still today as you'll see from my photos) Berlin has been a construction zone. Standing on ripped-up tracks and under a canopy of cranes, visitors can witness the rebirth of a great European capital. Berlin is one of Europe's top destinations: captivating, lively, fun-loving, all-around enjoyable, and easy on the budget. Berlin is huge with 3.4 million people. The city is spread out and its sights numerous so taking advantage of public transportation is a must - all modes of transportation are consolidated into one system that uses the same ticket: U-Bahn.

Rick Steves recommends getting a quick overview of the city, a lay of the land if you will, by going on a Hop-on Hop-off bus tour. And so we did! We headed to Potsdamer Platz to catch a tour bus and found a chunk of the Wall for our first Evans family in Berlin photo.
Potsdamer Platz is the "Times Square" of old Berlin, long a postwar wasteland, now rebuilt with huge glass skyscrapers, an underground train station, and - covered with a huge canopy - the Sony Center Mall. 
At Potsdamer Platz we found these dementor-like sculptures that the kids were eager to climb all over. Spooky dude!
Our bus!
We hopped on with the top on but about an hour into our tour they peeled the top off - woohoo! You can see so much more that way.
Janey listening to facts about Berlin.
We got a great feel for Berlin and became acquainted with streets and major sights we wanted to see.
Cranes galore - holy moly!
Crossing over the Spree River. 
We got stuck in major traffic. There was some hullabaloo going on with lots of police and official looking cars and we completely stopped. No one was moving. But, as fate would have it, the next item on my itinerary was to walk to the Victory Column and what-do-you-know we had stopped just a block away from it! Perfect timing, even though it meant we didn't get to finish the Hop-on Hop-off tour, we were nearly through anyway.
At the center of the Tiergarten (Berlin's "Central Park" that stretches two miles from Bahnhof Zoo to the Brandenburg Gate) is the newly restored Victory Column, built to commemorate the Prussian defeat of Denmark in 1864... then reinterpreted after the defeat of France in 1870. 
The lower three rings commemorate Bismarck's victories. 
Originally standing at the Reichstag, in 1938 the tower was moved to this position and given a 25-foot lengthening by Hitler's architect Albert Speer, in anticipation of the planned re-envisioning of Berlin as "Germania" - the capital of a worldwide Nazi empire. 

Margi and I climbed the 270 steps.
We were rewarded with breathtaking Berlin-wide views.
I spy Chris and the kids.
Looking up at the golden Victoria.
We found a cute little bakery and got some ice cream. Well, everyone but me :)
Fox and Jane enjoying their vanilla and chocolate ice cream.
I wanted to take a picture in front of this fun and colorful mosaic wall. But all I see is antennae haha!
Oh Jane. This is just so typical of her.
For lunch we ate at a bakery and local eateries by our apartment.
Then we rested and took naps. 

Time for dinner! We went back around the corner and got döner boxes. 
The flaming red vines growing on this building are AMAZING. And Jane is cute. That is all.
We got back on the underground and got off at Friedrichstrasse to walk down the street called Unter den Linden.
Unter den Linden is the heart of former East Berlin. In Berlin's good old days, Unter den Linden was one of Europe's grand boulevards. In the 15th century this carriageway led from the palace to the hunting grounds - today's big Tiergarten. In the 17th century Hohenzollern princes and princesses moved in and built their palaces here so they could be near the Prussian king. Named centuries ago for its thousand linden trees, this was the most elegant street of Prussian Berlin before Hitler's time and the main drag of East Berlin after his reign. Hitler replaced the venerable trees - many 250 years old - with Nazi flags. Popular discontent actually drove him to replace the trees.

This street was under heavy construction while we visited so we walked down it many times but I didn't take many pictures because of all the cranes and scaffolding. We did pass the beautiful German History Museum. It comes highly recommended, but we have to pass on many museums with our toddlers.
Look carefully at the photo above - bottom left corner - as we explored Berlin, particularly around Unter den Linden - we saw big and colorful water pipes running overground. Wherever there are big construction projects, streets are laced with these drainage pipes. Berlin's high water table means that any new basement comes with lots of pumping out. 

Large equestrian statue of Frederick the Great.
We passed an Ampelmann Shop. 
What's an Ampelmann Shop? Well, lemme tell ya. Ampelmännchen "little traffic light man" is the symbol shown on pedestrian signals in the former East Germany. Prior to German reunification in 1990, the two German states had different forms for the Ampelmännchen, with a generic human figure in West Germany and a generally male figure wearing a hat in the east. The Ampelmännchen is a beloved symbol in Eastern Germany, enjoying the privileged status of being one of the few features of communist East Germany to have survived the end of the Iron Curtain. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Ampelmännchen acquired cult status and became a popular souvenir item in the tourism business. 
You learn something new every day :)

There was a Festival of Lights going on - they were shining colored lights of artwork and such on the Berlin Cathedral and we paused to watch the lights change every few minutes.

We woke up to a wet and dreary Saturday. Wah wah. But, we come prepared on our adventures with umbrellas and stroller covers! We're impermeable! 
While waiting for the bus we got some treats at a bakery.

First stop: the Reichstag.
The parliament building - the heart of German democracy - has a short but complicated and emotional history. It was from here that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918. In 1933 it nearly burned down - the Nazis claimed it was a communist pilot who started it. Others believe it was Hitler himself. The Reichstag was hardly used from 1933-1999. More than 1500 Nazi soldiers made their last stand here - extending WWII by two days. On April 30th, after fierce fighting on the rooftop, the Reichstag fell to the Red Army. For the 101st birthday in 1995, the Bulgarian-American artist Christo wrapped it in silvery gold cloth. 
It was then wrapped again, this time in scaffolding, and rebuilt by British architect Lord Norman Foster into the new parliamentary home of the Bundestag (Germany's lower house). The glass cupola rises 155 feet above ground. Its two sloped ramps spiral 755 feet to the top for a grand view. Inside the dome a cone of 360 mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber below.
The environmentally friendly cone - with an opening at the top - also helps with circulation. It must get freezing in the winter when it snows and super hot in the summer with the sun shining through!
Because of a terrorist plot discovered and thwarted in 2010, the building has tight security and requires a reservation to get in - which I made a couple months ago and climb to the top of the dome we did! 
So much for good views though what with the rain! Oh well. Still pretty.
Fall is in full swing!
Walking through the trees to our next destination.
The Brandenburg Gate.
The historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest - and is the last survivor - of 14 gates in Berlin's old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. It's crowned by a majestic four-horse chariot with the Goddess of Peace at the reins. Napoleon took this statue to the Louvre in Paris in 1806. After the Prussians defeated Napoleon and got it back (1813) she was renamed the Goddess of Victory. The gate sat unused because of the Wall for more than 25 years. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy visited the Brandenburg Gate. The Soviets hung large red banners across it to prevent him looking into East Berlin. In the 1980s, decrying the existence of two German states and two Berlins, West Berlin mayor Richard von Weizsäcker said: "The German question is open as long as the Brandenburg Gate is closed." On 12 June 1987 President Ronald Reagan spoke to the West Berlin populace at the Brandenburg Gate, demanding the razing of the Berlin Wall. Addressing the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan said, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" On 2–3 October 1990, the Brandenburg Gate was the scene of the official ceremony to mark the reunification of Germany. At the stroke of midnight on 3 October, the black-red-gold flag of West Germany - now the flag of a reunified Germany - was raised over the Gate. So much history in this one place - gives me goosebumps!
On the east side of the gate is Pariser Platz or "Parisian Square" so named after the Prussians defeated Napoleon in 1813, was once filled with important government buildings - all bombed to smithereens in WWII. Now it's rebuilt and the banks, hotels, and embassies that were here before have reclaimed their original places. The American (see photo below), French, British, and Soviet (now Russian) embassies are all on or near this square.
Around the corner from the Brandenburg Gate is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 
This Holocaust memorial consists of 2711 gravestone-like pillars. It was the first formal German government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. The pillars are made of hollow concrete, each chemically coated for easy removal of graffiti. Notably, the chemical coating was developed by a subsidary of the former IG Farben group - the company infamous for supplying the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi death camps :(
The number of pillars isn't symbolic, it's just how many fit on this plot of land. 
Is it a labyrinth? A symbolic cemetery? Intentionally disorienting? It's entirely up to the visitor to derive the meaning while pondering this horrible chapter in human history.

We passed the Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) of Europe. 
Unveiled in 2012 after years of delays, the monument consists of a circular pool and an information wall. 

Riding the bus back to the apartment for lunch and naps. 
In the afternoon we headed to Museum Island. This island is filled with some of Berlin's most impressive museums. The first building - the Altes Museum - went up in the 1820s and the rest of the complex began development in the 1840s under King Friedrich Wilhem IV who envisioned the island as a place of culture and learning. The island's imposing Neoclassical buildings host five grand museums: the Pergamon Museum (classical antiquities); the Neues Museum ("New Museum" famous for its Egyptian collection and bust of Queen Nefertiti); the Old National Gallery (19th-century art); the Altes Museum (more antiquities); and the Bode Museum (European statuary and paintings through the ages, coins, and Byzantine art). A formidable renovation (intended completion date: 2015... a million bucks says it takes longer!) is under way on Museum Island. When complete, a grand entry and unified visitor's center will serve the islands museums; tunnels will lace the complex together; and this will become one of the grandest museum zones in Europe.

The Altes Museum. Pretty on the outside. Didn't go inside. 
The Old National Gallery. Also amazing on the outside. Didn't go in.
Waiting in line to buy tickets to the Pergamon Museum, Fox and Jane were hamming it up. The stroller came in handy - a guard saw us in the queue and let us bypass the über long line and go straight inside.
The main entrance to the Pergamon Museum is closed and under super construction. BUT, this is my very own photo from 9 years ago! So crazy going through my old pictures and seeing the same places.
Not only is the main entrance closed, but THE star attraction of this world-class museum, the fantastic and gigantic Pergamon Altar, is closed! What the what! Chris was mad, to say the least. I remember seeing it, here is a photo of it from 9 years ago:
Details of the Ishtar Gate. 
Market Gate of Miletus | Mosaic floor | Another detail of the Ishtar Gate | Can't remember...
We'll have to go back to see the Pergamon Altar. 

Then we crossed over to the Neues Museum.
Oddly, Museum Island's so-called "new" museum features the oldest stuff around. 
We headed straight to the famous bust of Queen Nefertiti, checking out old Egyptian artifacts and rooms along the way.
No pictures allowed, bummer, but I took one from faaar away and here's one from the internet:
In a room all her own sits the 3000-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti (the wife of King Akhenaton, c. 1340 B.C.) - the most famous piece of Egyptian art in Europe. Called "Berlin's most beautiful woman," Nefertiti has all the right beauty marks: long neck, symmetrical face, and the perfect amount of makeup. And yet, she's not completely idealized: she has fine wrinkles that show she's human.

Also on Museum Island is the century-old Berliner Dom - or the Berlin Cathedral.
Margi and I went inside. 
And boy was it beautiful!
Gorgeous everywhere we looked. 
We found the ornate tombs of Frederick I and his wife.
Then we climbed 270 steps (on super sketchy "floating" stairs I might add!) to the top of the dome for a deluxe view of Berlin.
It was a bit foggy, but still amazing.
Looking down at the Spree River.
Speaking of the Spree River, we wanted to go on a river tour next, but the timing was off so we went back to the apartment, watched some Sherlock, and went to sleep.

Sunday morning the adventures continued! 
The eternal Christmas store - Käthe Wohlfahrt. Every kid's dream come true!
Our destination: Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Of course half of it was covered in scaffolding. Grrrrrrrrr!!!!
So here's what it's supposed to look like:
This church was originally dedicated to the first emperor of Germany. Reliefs and mosaics show great events in the life of Germany's favorite Kaiser, from his coronation in 1871 to his death in 1888. The church's bombed-out ruins have been left standing as a poignant memorial to the destruction of Berlin in WWII. The church is actually an ensemble of buildings: a new church, the matching bell tower, a meeting hall, and the bombed-out ruins of the old church with its Memorial Hall.

After the war some Berliners wanted to tear down the ruins and build it anew. Instead it was decided to keep what was left of the old church as a memorial and stage a competition to design a modern, add-on section. The winning entry - a short, modern church (1961) next to the Memorial Hall - offers a meditative world of 11,000 little blue windows. 
The blue glass was given to the church by the French as a reconciliation gift. 
After our short visit to these old and new churches, we walked to the big Berlin Zoologischer Garten area and got some Dunkin Donuts for a morning snack. 
Then we took the subway to Gendarmenmarkt.
This delightful, historic square is bound by twin churches, a tasty chocolate shop, and the Berlin Symphony's concert hall. Wonderfully symmetrical, the square is considered by Berliners to be the finest in town. 
There was some kind of photoshoot with a legit model taking place on the red-carpeted stairs of the concert hall. So neat! Work it gurl!
The name of the square - part French and part German (after the Gens d'Armes, Frederick the Great's royal guard who were headquartered here) - reminds us that in the 17th century a fifth of all Berliners were French émigrés - Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France. Back then Frederick the Great's tolerant Prussia was a magnet for the persecuted (and for their money). These émigrés vitalized Berlin with new ideas and know-how and their substantial wealth.

Of the two matching churches on Gendarmentmarkt, the one to the south is the German Cathedral, and therefore the other is the French Cathedral. 
Our family at Gendarmentmarkt on Sunday October 12th 2014.
We peeked inside the German Cathedral and looked straight up into the dome - really cool-lookin'!
Beautiful square!
Then we walked to St. Hedwig's Church - this one is from the interwebs because there was so much construction going on I couldn't get a good view of it. 
This round, Catholic church, nicknamed the "upside-down teacup" was built by Frederick the Great to encourage the integration of Catholic Silesians after his empire annexed their region in 1742. When asked what the church should look like, Frederick literally took a Silesian teacup and slammed it upside-down on a table. 
Then we walked quickly to Bebelplatz to see Humboldt University.
Marx and Lenin studied here as did the Grimm brothers and more than two dozen Nobel Prize winners. Einstein taught here until taking a spot at Princeton.
I can't resist taking pictures of tree-lined walkways!
Or cute and quaint outdoor cafes!
Or cool buildings!
On the corner near the German Cathedral is Fassbender & Rausch - claiming to be Europe's biggest chocolate store. 
It opened at 11am and you can bet we were waiting outside the doors for them to open - along with a couple dozen other people!
After 150 years of chocolate-making this family-owned business proudly displays its sweet delights - 250 different kinds! - on a 55-foot long buffet.
The window displays feature giant chocolate models of Berlin landmarks as well as an erupting chocolate volcano.
We picked 15 mini truffles as a delicious souvenir. 
After the chocolate shop we went back to the apartment for lunch and naps. You know the drill :)

In the afternoon we took the bus to Checkpoint Charlie.
This famous Cold War checkpoint was not named for a person but for its checkpoint number - as in Alpha (#1, at the East-West German border, a hundred miles west of here), Bravo (#2, as you enter Berlin proper), and Charlie (#3, the best known because most foreigners passed through here). While the actual checkpoint has long since been dismantled, its former location is home to  museum and a mock-up of the original border crossing.
You can pay about $15 for a full set of Cold War-era stamps in your passport. Coulda shoulda woulda.
Lots of WWII and Wall relics and museums all around.
A school-bus turned food-truck. | Hot air balloon ride. And a currywurst stand. Apparently currywurst was invented in Berlin - and we didn't even get any this entire trip! Which is crazy because I LOVE currywurst! Next time.
Close to Checkpoint Charlie is the Topography of Terror Museum and a long section of still-standing Wall. 
The patch of land behind the surviving section of Wall was the headquarters of the Reich Main Security Office - what was once the most feaerd address in Berlin. These offices stood as the engine room of the Nazi dictatorship as well as the command center of the SS, the Gestapo, and the SD. 
The Wall has been completely chipped and stripped of almost all original painting - the pieces are now sold in souvenir shops.
While Tom and Margi visited the Topography of Terror Museum we went on a walk and passed a psychedelic building.
We found the Jewish Museum. I remember being fascinated by the design of this building 9 years ago. And it's still fascinating!
This museum is one of Europe's best Jewish sights. The highly conceptual building houses an overview of the rich culture and history of Europe's Jewish community.
This is the entrance to the museum - a stark contrast to the modern building next door.
Loved this mint green mini food truck.
Di"vine" :)
After reuniting with Tom and Margi we got dinner at a sit-down-and-order place called Andy's which was a nice change of pace.
After dinner we walked to the 1200-foot-tall TV Tower.
Built in 1969 for the 20th anniversary of the communist government, the tower was meant to show the power of the atheistic state at a time when DDR leaders were having the crosses removed from church domes and spires. But when the sun shined on their tower - the greatest spire in East Berlin - a huge cross was reflected on the mirrored ball. Cynics called it "The Pope's Revenge."

More of those creepy dementor statues at the base of the TV Tower! It must be some kind of art installation. Who knows. But they're freaky.
On the same platz is this big red brick building - the City Hall - built after the revolutions of 1848 and arguably the first democratic building in the city. 
I love how red it is. Red used to be my favorite color you know, for about 10 years! Everything we owned was red. Couch, dishes, clocks...
We meandered back to the apartment, stopping to get ice cream along the way, then went to sleep after a fun day. 

That concludes our wonderful time in Big Beautiful Berlin! The next morning we went to Potsdam - recap coming soon!


  1. Oh thank you for taking me back to Berlin with your great pictures!
    I just went there last spring and it was awesome city, I will definitely go back some day :)
    Love the way you photographed it! :)

    Have a great weekend Paige!

  2. What an awesome post! I love these recaps! Thanks!!!

  3. And now I have the Pet Shop Boys stuck in my head ... *wink* :) I loveeeeeeeee all the photos!! What a beautiful place!!!!!

  4. Oh gosh, what is with all those dementors! Too funny! And the festival of lights is incredible! What a great trip to Berlin!!

  5. The Festival of Lights photos are amazing Paige! And I love the mosaics and the beautiful bust of Nefertiti!!


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