Sunday, July 17, 2011

Being Berlin...Day One!

Willkommen to Berlin

Three years ago I was traveling through Germany and had plans to visit Berlin. But due to an unexpected obsession with Bamberg, we curtailed our time for Berlin and eventually cut it out of the itinerary. Why? Because I knew I would want several days to explore it and wanted to do it justice. Well, I am SO glad I made that decision! Yesterday morning I arrived at Tegel airport, Berlin’s smaller airport just outside the city. Now I know I’m getting older because the usual cross-Atlantic flight that I typically medicate (read: 2 glasses of wine and a Tylenol PM) and sleep through wasn’t quite as pleasant. Might have been the 7 foot tall man sitting to the right of me who desperately (and I didn’t blame him) needed part of my seat for leg room coupled with the darling and precocious four year old boy sitting to my left. He kept asking his daddy (from take off) in his darling English-German accent (father is American and mother is German), “Daddy, how many minutes left?!” Darling for the first hour, not so darling as he swung his legs kicking me periodically through the night. Sigh. One day I’ll be that parent so I only could feel for the dad who tried to answer constructively and not just muzzle him after hour five.

Anyway, I’m here and have had a full day already in this fantastic city! The weather yesterday was sunny, beautiful, no humidity, perfect temperature. The air was amazing to breathe in…not so NYC style. My hotel is a ridiculously German boutique – when I went to shower the water wouldn’t come out. Thinking I was just overtired, I called the concierge and he said in his fantastic German-twinged English, “Vell, the knob is like a joystick, ya? You have to svivvle it, nah?” Well, he was right. I svivvled it and water went everywhere. High comedy.

Before my room was ready, I had several hours to explore Berlin Mitte, which is the area where my hotel was and part of the former East Germany. It’s an absolutely darling and charming area with a lot of galleries, fantastic architecture, plethora of restaurants and stylish boutiques, and depth of history. Clad in my traveling clothes and sans make up (I was hot!), I ventured around Mitte visiting first the Hackeschen Hofe, a series of nine courtyards built in the first decade of the 1900’s to be a cultural center of cafes, stores, galleries, theaters, and cinemas with apartments above. They are amazing examples of my favorite style of architecture, Art Deco, with beautiful mosaic tiles decorating some of the exteriors and charming venues for relaxing with your cappuccino outside. From there I strolled up the Sophienstrasse, a wonderfully restored street, and headed north to the Berlin Wall Memorial. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Wall’s construction so there are many exhibits and ceremonies being held throughout the city. Having grown up studying World War II, The Holocaust, and all the ramifications of Hitler’s Germany, words can’t properly conceptualize a wall that once spanned 99 miles, separating two parts of one city from another. There was a wall of pictures memorializing some of the people who lost their lives trying to escape to freedom in West Berlin. Reading about the peril one faced attempting this feat, being caught in the "Death Strip", or trying to trick the guards to let you through under false pretenses and the repercussions, I could empathize at their desperation.

From the Berlin Wall, I meandered through the streets of the Spandauer Vorstadt neighborhood, one of the most predominantly Jewish areas during pre-war Berlin. The Neue Synagogue was completely destroyed during Kristallnacht and the remnants left as a reminder of the loss and destruction until finally restored in the late 80’s and re-opened as a museum in 1995. The Moorish style gilt and turquoise dome that punctures the sky-line of predominantly low rise buildings is magnificent and must have been even more unique back in the 1930’s.
Berlin Wall Memorial - Bernauerstrasse

I strolled past Tacheles, the pinnacle of the artist colony that is present in Berlin. The entire building and adjacent exteriors is an art project. Pretty avant garde for my taste, but a haven for artists from all over. Previously a shopping center in the 1910’s, the SS and the Nazi’s used it in the 30’s, and post war it housed a cinema and workspace for artists and is now overrun with the expressions of artists from all over.

From Tacheles, I went to Museum Island to see the Pergamonmuseum and the Alte Nationlgalerie, housing two distinct styles of incredible art. The Pergamonmuseum is renowned for displaying massive ancient Babylonian structures including the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate, both massive in size. It was overwhelming to see such works of extreme detail, workmanship, and style in person especially after studying them in Dr. Mauer’s Art History class. Walking across the island, I entered the beautiful building housing the Nationalgalerie, which contains the nineteenth-century section of Berlin’s state art collection as well as a selection of important Impressionist artists.

No visit to Berlin would be complete without a lunch of Currywurst and beer so after my morning of exploration, I sidled up to a great German café in Hackescher Markt and ordered up this specialty of pork sausage smothered in curried ketchup and served with fries. As with New York pizza, there seems to be a great debate over who has the best currywurst, but I’ll leave that for the sausage aficionados. Mine delighted me and although my first Pilsner was nothing to write home about my second Berliner Kindl Bock hit the spot. Lots of flavor, low on bitterness, and just the right hopiness.

The day was rounded out (I know, you’re wondering how I was still going…I got an hour nap in there somewhere!) by a trip over to the Schoneberg neighborhood where I visited the KaDeWe (short for Kaufhaus Des Westens – Department Store of the West.) Well, I certainly WISH we had a department store like this one. Each floor was teeming with everything from clothing to furnishings, jewelry to household goods, and the 6th and 7th floors were dedicated to a market that would impress even the biggest food snob. Take the Zabar’s, Fairways, Lund’s, Whole Foods, etc. of the world and ratchet them up a few notches and you get a small glimpse of the offerings of the KaDeWe. I spotted a Budweiser (the Czech original, not the stolen American brand) bar on the 6th floor that proffered a view overlooking the Schoneberg and Charlottenburg neighborhoods so I capitalized for a brief respite.

Rounding out the day, I took the wonderful advice of a friend and headed to the Café Einstein, an Austrian villa in Schoneberg that captures the pre-war Berliner Kaffeehaus culture. Located on a somewhat unassuming street, the villa is impeccably maintained and offers indoor dining, a fantastic old world bar, and a gorgeous garden, which is where I chose to sit and enjoy the evening hours. Since it was almost my birthday, I decided my dinner would consist of a homemade raspberry-pistachio tartlet and a short carafe of Reisling. Why not, right? It was scrumptious and beyond delightful to be in the know about such a classy and historical venue. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my first day in Berlin.

Now it’s day two and also happens to be my BIRTHDAY! Yippee for me…I swear I’m 22 again. I awoke to a call from my bestest friend in the whole world and a delivery at my door of beautiful flowers, breakfast in bed, and champagne from my wonderful boyfriend. What could be a better way to start my day?! Thank you both. Wish you were here with me. On the agenda today is a 5-hour bike tour of the sites followed by a visit to Schloss Charlottenburg and dinner and the US Women’s soccer team playing in the World Cup Finals here in Germany (watching it on TV as it’s in Frankfurt.) I’m thinking it’s going to be another spectacular day.

Please forgive the photos…they are from my blackberry. I sadly forgot the UBS cord for my camera so I’ll upload a selection from the trip once I’m back home (or find a camera store.)

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