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Trip Report Berlin Between Christmas and New Years: A Family Holiday

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Winter driving in Central Europe is not for the easily intimidated, as we learned on last year's post-Christmas holiday from Vienna (our home) to Prague; again for small stretches across the Italian Alps coming and going to Florence in February; and finally during the wintry slog across Slovenia on our failed spring break trip to Croatia, wherein we decided "We Should Have Gone to Berlin." (http://tinyurl.com/mvp8rel)

All of that said, for the winter break we took our own advice and headed to Berlin for a week on the day after Christmas. Much to our driving happiness (Fahrvergnugen?), the skies were blue and the sun shone for nearly the entire drive, affording us unobscured views of castle ruins sprinkled across the Czech Republic. In good time, and in good spirits we arrived at our rental apartment. http://tinyurl.com/psucpfd.

Any apartment boasting IKEA furnishings from top to bottom can never be called “luxury,” but for an ex-pat family (and their dog) trying to see as much of Europe as possible on a (relative) budget, the apartment generally met more than our basic requirements. Its location, practically atop an U-Bahn station with great connections, was ideal; and, as we discovered on our last evening in Berlin, the restaurant in the building served very good Italian and Mediterranean-inspired dishes. The management team was spectacular, as well.

Rather than provide a day-to-day report, though, I have organized the report into practical units for those interested.

Berlin Transportation. For us, the Berlin Welcome Card was perfect. Five days of unlimited public transportation in Zones A,B,C (to include Potsdam, although ultimately we decided to drive that day) plus discounts at various museums. On our sixth, and final day, we purchased a Tageskarte (day transit pass) for each of the adults (DS is 17, DD is 12 (free)). The pass, easy to purchase at any station (with cash or Bankomat), quickly paid for itself. The “Berlin Welcome Card” booklet, though, was not so easy to collect. Many shopkeepers were reluctant to hand over the (free) book for some odd reason.

Berlin Sightseeing. I had prepared and printed a half-dozen GoogleMaps with various thematic routes for our holiday (Berlin Mitte, Cold War History, Potsdam, etc.) Each map also included a few restaurants of differing cuisines, to help avoid the arguments that ensue when we become hungry, as well. Though we deviated as interests were piqued, the little maps, tucked securely into our outdated guidebook from a visit in 2002 offered options wherever we wandered. This little trick was my genius move.

Berlin: What We Experienced.

The Berliner Christmasmarkts near the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche, Gendarmenmarkt (our favorite), and the small markt at PotsdamerPlatz. All were lovely, but none compared to those in Vienna.

The Reichstag. Another genius move to reserve morning entrances. The queue was non-existent; the dome was quiet; and as luck would have it, the morning sun made for gorgeous photos. As we were leaving, lots and lots of people were waiting to enter.

The Brandenburger Tor. On our first visit in 2002 (DH and I), the structure was covered for restoration. On this visit close-up access was blocked with New Year’s preparations. A few photos were taken, but perhaps our third visit will be the charm.

The East Berlin "Ampelmann" turned pop star. T-shirts, cookie cutters, dog chewies and more can be yours at the Ampelmann Stores. Nothing like a little capitalism to help shake off the dust of years of Socialist oppression. DD came away with earrings, a t-shirt, and dozens of postcards to send to friends. And, we all admitted, the little green signal guy was pretty cute.

The VW bug at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum that helped 500 people escape from East to West. Also in the museum were columns of donated DDR passports, tokens of a time not worth remembering, but a time that will never be forgotten. We unfortunately arrived at the museum just as one of the HOHO buses disgorged a pile of rude camera-clickers (those who did not spring for the €2 photo pass, instead snapping away with their iPhones against the rules.)

A section of the (former) wall near the touristy Checkpoint Charlie (and Potsdamer Platz), trodden upon by tourist after tourist eager to pose with the fake "checkpoint" guards instead.

Wittenbergplatz, the U-Bahn station near our apartment and one of the oldest U-Bahn stations in Berlin. The plaque outside the station is a memorial that lists the concentration camps to which Jewish people were transported via the station. The inscription reads, "The location of secrets we must never forget." Berlin does not hide from its history.

Perhaps the most emotional was the Holocaust Memorial near the Brandenburg Gate. Beneath the 19.000 m2 space is a center that contains a list of all known Jewish Holocaust victims. For the ignorant, though, the undulating blocks of gray concrete above that they hopped across and sat upon (against the rules) were little more than Instagram fodder. For shame.

Quite possibly one of our top museum experiences of the holiday, the hour or so spent at the DDR Museum. More than just exhibits of "Ostalgia," the museum offered real, and sometimes interactive glimpses into life behind the wall. We all came away more informed, and humbled. (I took an interactive quiz in the museum to determine if I could rise in the "Young Pioneer" ranks. Let's just say my Levis-wearing, smuggled-Nivea-cream-from-friends-in-the-West-self would not have been promoted.)

As for “Berlin’s Top Museums,” we spent a morning at the Pergamon Museum (again, we arrived early and were thankful that we had.) An afternoon at the Hamburger Hauptbahnhof’s modern art museum amused all of us; another afternoon at the Gemaldegallerie, less so. The arrangement of the art in the latter just didn’t make sense to us; we wished we had gone to the National Museum instead.

Time spent walking the entire length of the East Side Gallery (and enjoying a fun American tailgate food lunch at nearby Ankerklause!)

Berlin’s Currywurst Museum. Discounted with the Berlin Welcome Card, this brief diversion was welcome in the midst of so much history. Informative and fun, and with currywurst samples at the end. What’s not to like?

Potsdam. Our day in Potsdam was wonderful. With DDog in tow, we spent the bulk of the day in the park. The sun was shining and the day was warm, all things being relative in late December. We did not tour the inside of Schloss Sanssouci. Call us Schloss Snobs, but after a while, gilded palace rooms across Europe all begin to look alike. The park, the Chinese Tee Haus and the Orangerie were more to our preferences.

In between we explored neighborhoods and stores and whatever else inspired us. DS found a cool used record store in Kreuzberg; DH found an English-language history book of interest; and DD and I found pretty things at a very-girly store in Charlottenburg. Not one of these happenings would have occurred with a rigid schedule.

New Years. The Viennese, cloaked in dusty Imperial protocol 364 days of the year, go bananas on New Years. The fireworks begin in the early afternoon and continue well into the New Year. As it turns out, Berliners are not that different. Our car had been parked on the street by our apartment all week; by late afternoon the amount of fireworks debris atop the vehicle prompted us to move it to a secure garage. ‘Twas a long and noisy night.

Berlin: Our Food Scene

The caveat. We live in Vienna; ergo, eating German meal upon German meal was not a goal on this holiday.

DD became an expert on currywurst, Berlin's signature street food. (Even I, a certified ketchup hater, had to admit that the marriage of the tomato-y sauce with curry spices, slathered over a grilled bratwurst was top-rate street eats.) And when paired with perfectly crispy fried potatoes and a Berliner Pilsner at the cozy Treffpunkt Alt Berliner it became a rather civilized street food.

Throughout the week DH and DS enjoyed simple but satisfying plates of Buletten, basically a large seasoned meatball served with a heaping side of potato salad. Lots of meat, lots of potato. Just as they like it. Their favorite happened to be at Treffpunkt Alt Berliner.

One evening we dined at the KaDaWe oyster bar, with a round of slippery Scottish bivalves to toast DS’s college acceptance, followed by a pricey but delicious supper of kabeljaus gratin (cod gratin). Vienna does not have a department store like the KaDaWe, so my evening there was a shopping highlight of the holiday.

On one afternoon our rumbling tummies were drawn to the Restaurant Shi-Mai, hidden in a food court-like setting near the Berlin SeaLife Aquarium. DH and DS rated their crispy duck with noodles "gut geschmeckt," and DD and I declared our chicken and pumpkin curry the most savory and spicy and delicious curry we've eaten in a restaurant since coming across the pond. (Vienna does not really embrace spicy food well.)

On another afternoon we wandered into a tiny and homey tavern (AltBerliner Weissbeirstube) near the Berliner Dom for lunch, wherein I stopped reading the menu at “cabbage roll in bacon sauce,” the house specialty. My selfish-self offered no one at the table a taste. Everyone else pronounced their meals equally as satisfactory.

On New Year's Day we ventured out for a later brunch/lunch at a most American sports tavern in the Potsdam Arcaden, Play Off. Burgers in a shopping mall sports bar. Doesn't get more American than that! (For the record, the burgers were really, really, really good.)

All but our final dinner we enjoyed at the apartment. After each day of sightseeing we returned to the apartment for our mittagspause in the late afternoon (an essential component of family travel.) We travel quite a bit around Europe and I take pride in my ability to cobble together a dinner in a rental apartment and with ingredients from a foreign grocery store (plus, we had to return to walk DDog) so together with a movie downloaded from our AppleTV (another essential component of travel), dinners were fun family affairs "at home."

On our last evening in Berlin, though, we tucked into a warm and inviting table at the restaurant in our building (Eterna). Italian food filled our table (including the grilled sardines that DD referred to as "French fries with a face!"), wine filled our glasses, and we toasted our wonderful holiday week.

Thanks for reading!

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