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Trip Report Berlin in March

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We visited Berlin for two weeks from March 3 to March 17, 2012. Why Berlin in March? It was on our list of places we wanted to see, my favorite US airline, Continental, had a sale on business fares, and the weather was said to be mild for the end of Winter (much of what we wanted to see was museums, so we were often inside.

The temperatures were in the mid to high 40's F, but for the last two days when it went up to the mid 60's, so we were pretty comfortable.

We stayed at the Hotel-Pension Bregenz near the intersection of Olivaer Platz and Kurfurstendamm, a convenient and quiet location since you can reach anywhere by public transportation from that intersection. It’s a family run small hotel on the fourth floor, with a lift that can easily handle two people and a lot of luggage. It is clean and quiet, with plenty of heat and hot water. Some rooms have balconies, but we enjoyed ours only a few days because it was a bit cool. Breakfast is included and the owner was friendly and eager to give us advice on what we planned. I knew that we needed passes including the C zone for only three days, and thought my best option would be pairs of AB weekly tickets, with extensions for the three days we would be going into the C zone. He suggested we get rather two one-week ABC passes and two one-week AB passes, as it would cost less than using the extension tickets. He also sold the passes, as is apparently common in hotels. The guidebooks say a one-day fare card is the best bargain, but if you will be there at least a week, the weekly pass is a better deal. The weekly AB pass costs 27.20; I can’t find my ABC passes, but I think they were in the range of 34 Euro. They demand cash, not credit cards, for these, as is common with buying from the government.

We took a cab to and from Tegel, because we have a lot of luggage. There is a bus that runs from Tegel to the Zoolischer garden, a major transportation hub, and would have been convenient to get to and from our hotel.

We ate primarily within a block of our hotel, as there was a good variety of small restaurants. One piece of advice on using local restaurants. While some will take a US credit card (one that lacks a chip) as do most of the larger restaurants, some will take only cash, and some will take only a card with a chip. Considering that the food was pretty good, and pretty inexpensive, I was happy to pay cash on occasion. Our favorite restaurant was La Vigna, half a block from the hotel, with excellent Italian food and wine, and service. Our tab there was typically about 65 Euro, with two entrees, two deserts, and a nice bottle of Sicilian wine. I’ve paid far more for poorer meals. We developed the habit of eating lunch at KaDeWe, which has a cafeteria are on the fifth or sixth floor (and a restaurant above that). The variety and quality of foods was excellent. We typically had 400 grams of salad (two selections of 100 grams each on each plate), a glass of wine and a small bottle of water for about 20 Euro. I’ve never had better salads, and the variety made it hard to choose.

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    One word about airlines. I am a picky flyer and won’t pay for business unless the plane has lie-flat seats. So I research carefully before buying a ticked. As most know, Continental is merging with United Air (hereafter sow’s ear airline), so I was flying UA and Lufthansa on the ticket Continental sold me. When I got to the airport and checked in, I noticed a change in our seats. I found a UA agent (not any easy task) and asked what had happened and were these still lie flat seats. She told me they had had to change the plane, but they were still business class seats. I asked again if they were lie-flat seats and she was very evasive and wouldn’t tell me. I also noticed that the ticket said tourist on the final Lufthansa flight, and asked why that had changed; she surmised that Lufthansa was using a plane that had no Business class seating. I returned to the lounge and did some on-line research and found that the plane they were using had no business lie flat seats. I asked my wife if she wanted to cancel, but she said since we had done so much planning we should go ahead. When we got to O’hare, we were loaded onto a badly worn 777 that appeared to have been found in a graveyard somewhere.

    We were late into Munich, and there were no UA agents around to tell us what to do. I found the Lufthansa service center, and they had already printed replacement tickets, putting us into business class. So we were a few hours late into Berlin, and I was a bit cranky from being unable to sleep. I should say that the onboard staff was very nice, but there were almost constant reminders that we were not on Continental, from seats that didn’t work well to antiquated in-seat power, to the menu.


    Coming home was worse. They had no crowd control at any of the gates, with one agent working and five or six standing around. At Munich, we crowded onto another tired 777, badly worn and lacking lie-flat seating. Again the cabin crew was very friendly and capable. On arrival at Washington (Dulles) we were unceremoniously dumped from the aircraft with no agent to tell is where to get our next flight, and a display board that did not include our destination. Only after finding our way to the distant gate printed that morning on our boarding pass (I’ve always been advised to check the display boards because gate assignments change). After waiting for our luggage to pass through customs, we found that two of our three bags had not made it. They gave us a note that got us through customs, and told us apparently two of our bags had gone to Chicago, but we should notify the people at Cleveland who would arrange delivery to our home when the bags showed up. The bags arrived safely in the middle of the night about 30 hours after we got home. That seems to me pretty good service.

    Sorry about the airline rant. I know the merger was only effected the day after we left, and the chief executive from Continental is heading the combined company, but it appears to me that there are some major problems, and they are going to have to make a lot of progress in a little time, or start losing customers.

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    But back to what was a pleasant time in Berlin. They have a number of companies that provide walking tours with a guide that speaks your language (I apparently wasted my year wrestling with Rosetta stone, because most people we dealt with chose to speak English). We picked Insider Tours and they were excellent. If you buy on-line and are old, you get a break on their prices. The owner of our hotel was familiar with them, and some other companies, and said they were all good. We started with the Famous Walk which covers a wide variety of sites. The guide, seeing our age, asked if we would be able to keep up, and we could, but it was a bit of a challenge; it is a four hour tour, but I think it went a little over, and a lot over if, like us, you choose a little extra sightseeing when it ends. I would plan one day for this and one for the next tour.

    The next tour was the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp tour, budgeted for 6 hours (before you start, the guide points our a couple of bakeries, and suggests you bring something to eat, but we found little opportunity to eat as there was so much to see. I know some people like to avoid such tours, but this was not morbid, but rather informative, and made you really think about how such events could happen in a civilized country.

    We were going to take the Potsdam tour, but they don’t offer it from November through March, so we did our own tour. Many of the sites were closed and the gardens were not in bloom, but we were still able to enjoy the area. We took a light rail to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof and swithched to a bus that dropped us off very near the Schloss Sanssouci. I got a bit lost and never did find the Neues Palais, but we enjoyed our wanderings and found a nice little place with pastries and coffee for lunch. The walking tour would have been a lot nicer as there is quite a bit to see in Potsdam. We found a bus back to the Hauptbahnhof as we were wearing down.

    We wasted a day walking around the closed Kulture forum as I misread their schedule. But after our Potsdam day, we went to Museumsinsel and bought a three day pass. This covers all state museums, not just those on Museumsinsel. We rushed through the historical museums, as we are mostly interested in art. The AlteGalerie was excellent, although parts of it were closed. The statuary and French Impressionist art on the second floor was open and well worth a visit. The Gemaldegalerie at the Kultore forum was excellent. It was so good that we spent two half days there; they have two Vermeer’s (my current favorite artist) side by side with a bench where you can sit and enjoy them at length. They also had a café with excellent food; some dishes far larger than what I expect in a lunch, but a nice assortment of salads we enjoyed a couple of times.

    We usually fly through modern art galleries and museums, not having developed an appreciation of that genre. We did visit the Dali Museum, but it was not as interesting as his museum and home near Barcelona.

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    There is a museum in Braunschweig that has a good collection, including a Vermeer. They are closed for renovation but much of their collection is being displayed in a castle in the old town, so we hopped on a train (I had prepurchased the ticket as they are about 50 percent less when prepurchased) and spent the day there. The art was great and the town was very interesting; Berlin has lost a lot of their old-town flavor and it was interesting to sample some.

    Visiting the Reichstag was interesting. You can make an appointment on-line, then show your passport and surrender your weapons (they held my Swiss army knife) to get in. The architecture is very interesting, and you get a headset that gives you a good tour as you climb the dome; it helps you see the lay of the land for quite a difference.

    Many of the platzs we visited were pretty inactive because of the cool weather. They became very active on our last day when the weather warmed. We visited a Puppet Theater and enjoyed a performance for children. We also visited a Puppet Museum, which had some interesting puppets, but were unable to attend a performance for children as they were sold out. These were more performing venues; the Puppet Museum in Munich had a more extensive display.

    Our last days were spent visiting Schloss Charlotenburg, apparently a very popular park area, but not too crowded on the day we were there. But Museum Berggruen (Picasso, Matisse, etc.) was closed while they build a new wing. Another day we went to Wansee to visit Pfaueninsel (just 3 Euro each for the short ferry to the island and admission to the preserved castle, but the castle was closed until April. It was very interesting to walk around the island looking for peacocks (we found sheep) but saw only one peacock free. There were some exotic birds in a caged building. As the weather was nice, we ate at a Weingarten near the ferry dock. Check the bus schedules if going there. They run only every two hours.

    We carried a DK Eyewitness Travel guide, which had a lot of information and maps. I couldn’t compare it to others because apparently with the contraction in the bookstore business, it is hard to find actual books, and you are pretty much limited to shopping on line.

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    The Vermeer painting, "Woman with a Pearl Necklace," at the Gemaldegalie is one of the most beautiful works of art that I have ever seen in my life, and I work for a major American auction house.

    When I was in Berlin, I got the shivers just looking at that painting. It entranced me and I could not forget about it for days and days.

    And I love the Food Halls at KaDeVe. They sell Hediard coffee! Yay!

    Did you visit the Food Halls at Galleries Lafayette on the Friedrichestrasse? Very, very nice and they have a Laduree concession.

    My fav thing in Berlin is the glass dome of the Reichstag Building.

    Tschuss,
    Pepper

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    We didn't get to Galleries Lafayette; we're getting older and don't cover as much ground as we used to.

    I do want to add one disappointment. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-Kirche is undergoing repairs and they have built a metal shelter around it during the work, so you cannot see the outside; the inside is open.

    And for photographers, almost all the museums allow non-flash photography; I think only one denied my request, but I have forgotten which.

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    I know a lot of people go to Berlin to see WW II and Communist era sites, but when we go, we plan to focus on the futuristic sites used for the movie Aeon Flux (starring Charlize Theron; the movie didn't go over well with the critics, but we loved the look). This site lists the main filming locations and showcases some of the fascinating and unusual architecture in and around the city (bits of Potsdam are also in the movie):
    http://german.about.com/library/blaeonflux_berlin2.htm

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