3 days spent in Berlin before starting Germany tour . . . trip report has pictures but they don't seem to copy and paste into the report.
Berlin, Germany: July 5-8, 2014
July 5th . . . finally, the beginning of our Berlin & then Globus Reformation tour, leaving from Atlanta and arriving in Berlin on the 6th, via an Amsterdam transfer. Our Berlin time was “on our own” but the following tour of Germany would be with Globus.
Taxi ride was about half an hour into our hotel, Arcotel John F, very near Museum Island in Berlin. We were able to get into our hotel room immediately and were surprised at the size of the room and our view – we could see the Berlin Dom (Cathedral). A beautiful small brick church with twin towers, Freidrichswerdersche Kirche, was directly across the small street, filling most of the window along with the construction site beside it that had destabilized the church foundation to such an extent that it was closed (even though it was listed in all our guidebooks as being a lovely small museum). This became symbolic for Berlin to us – construction cranes were everywhere. We were told that Berlin, especially the former East Berlin (location of our hotel) is a very active building market at the moment; apartments/townhouses were the construction that we were seeing but many of the churches and government buildings in this area were also still undergoing renovation.
We headed out immediately, bought a 3 day museum pass for 24 Euros. (Just a note – Berlin’s museum prices were expensive compared to Britain and France). We walked around Museum Island, a huge complex of buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s that has developed back into Berlin’s pride since the fall of the wall. Since it was a Sunday and crowded, we decided to start with one of the smaller museums on the island, Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), with a collection of 19th century paintings and sculptures. We saw some nice Monets and Manets, a streetscape by a German artist showing “our church”, but my favorite painting was by Max Lieberman, The Flax Barn at Laren. He was the leading German painter of his day but his works were removed by the Nazis.
It was a pleasant day outside so we sat beside the Spree River and ate an excellent roasted bratwurst on a hard roll, from a stand right outside the museums. (Alas, the stand wasn’t there our next two days and we never found a bratwurst as good or as cheap as that first one.)
We then took a narrated boat ride down the Spree River. I am still amazed at how beautiful Berlin is. . . not as charming as Paris but greener and less crowded. The Spree is a pretty river with lots of bridges. We passed by the huge Tiergarten, Berlin’s “green lung” that gives it quality urban air. We also saw the Reichstag, a very modern glass building, that I wish we’d had time to tour and other government buildings along the river. It gave us a bit of an orientation to the city. The East Berlin TV tower is visible from everywhere.
The Berlin cathedral called to us but we were too tired to do more; returned to the hotel room for a nap and then went out walking. Just a few blocks from our hotel was the Gendarmenmarkt Square, with 2 churches (the German and French Huguenot cathedrals) and a large concert hall. Guidebooks described this as most beautiful square in Berlin but it was so cut up with yellow construction tape and during the evenings so busy because of the free outdoor musical concerts that it is hard to judge. For our first evening, we ate in a little restaurant’s outdoor seating, just below the concert (but I could still hear the beautiful music). I had good meatloaf and potato salad (with apple in it) and we watched people, once observing the police completely close off an adjacent street for 10 minutes as a huge group of skaters came through. I’ve never seen so many people on bicycles, carrying dogs and babies, women pedaling in high heels, etc. We made our way back to hotel and watched the light finally fade from the sky about 10 p.m.
Monday, July 6th Woke up early enough to take a walk but was still disoriented from flight, strange hours. It was very bright with sunshine at 6:30 a.m. when I went out for a quick walk back to the concert/church square and to a big shopping street. At breakfast I drank 3 glasses of juice, 2 pots of tea, and finally started feeling normal again. In spite of drinking diligently on the plane, I felt like I was dehydrated and maybe a bit hypoglycemic, the juice helped more than the caffeine. The hotel had 5 kinds of juices: orange, grapefruit, carrot, mummy and fruit juice with whey. Carrot juice wasn’t particularly good but I became a big fan of the mummy (multivitamin) juice and fruit juice with whey. Only the Berlin hotel had the fruit juice with whey but the multivitamin juice was everywhere, seems it is a German product.
For breakfast, I had all sorts of “interesting” things: salmon, cucumbers, a tomato spread, ligonberries, a mixed fruit compote that was wonderful with their natural yogurt plus the usual bread, cheese, and eggs. (They had plenty of meat but that I could skip.)
We made it to the Berlin Dom, the church that was closest to the Hohenzollern palace (razed by East Berlin communists after WWII) and took general tour, then climbed the 270 steps up to the beginning of the dome, got great view of Berlin and the cathedral’s own statutes and bell towers from there.
We also tramped down to the Hohenzollern crypt, full of stone coffins, including that of Queen Sophia Charlotte, from 1705.
We headed then for the Neues Museum and the famous bust of Nefertiti was as beautiful as promised. Museum itself was interesting structurally, as it reopened in 2009 after wartime destruction with the rebuilding overseen by a British architect. (All of Museum Island was in East Berlin before wall.) There are hints of the original building from the time when Berlin was competing with British Museum but it has the feel of a new design.
I was touched by the Egyptian family statues; they were something new to me. Adult children were included but small sized, some of the statues had families with their arms around each other. Also collection of King Akhenaton era statues.
Most surprising though was the gold hat, both from an artistic and historic standpoint. It came from Central Europe’s bronze age when there was a widespread sun worshiping religion. Hat was encoded with astronomical & calendar information; probably worn by priests or kings during special occasions. Also nearby was a large bronze twist of horns.
Also enjoyed the exhibit from prehistoric early humans in Germany . . . the famous Neanderthal skull, a huge elk from Berlin itself, etc.
For lunch, we returned to same spot for another roasted bratwurst but stand had disappeared; must have been a weekend set-up. We ate lunch outside; I enjoyed a bowl of lentil soup and then we went on the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which was in a pink marble building by the river The museum was commissioned by West Berlin in 1985, to present German history in an European or international context, but museum moved to former Prussian Arsenal building after reunification. There was a good section on Martin Luther, with several famous paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and on the Napoleonic wars. The sections on WWI and Nazis/WWII were mostly text and photographs which were difficult for a tired, English language person to take in. The Nazi posters were compelling (the young Aryan beauty shrinking from the evil Semite), also the exhibit that included copies of the books burned in Berlin. Also the yellow stars with the word “Jude” . . . they were larger than I had imagined. There was a cloth with about 20 printed on them that made me realize it had to be sewed on all clothing.
There was a small section of the Berlin Wall preserved in museum, also an East German Trabant (car). And then on to the wonderful Pergamonmuseum, where we walked right into the Ishtar Gates and Processional Way from Babylon, perhaps the most beautiful thing we saw on entire trip.
Next we went through the Market Gate of Miletus (AD 120), which seemed very real and human, more so than the even bigger Pergamon Altar, which dates from 160 B.C. Both are from modern Turkey, I think, with Pergamon Altar being excavated in the 19th century.
We went to the Middle-Eastern Islamic collection also, stepped into a gorgeous, elaborate reception room from a Syrian merchant’s home during Ottoman Empire: Also was fascinated by several beautiful prayer niches, from homes and mosques, I think:
This wasn’t pretty but it was interesting & impressive, part of the palace walls from early Islamic days (740s) from Jordanian desert, the Mshatta Façade. Islamic textiles also beautiful and impressive.
We walked home to the hotel, dodging the water puddles, and then went back out, armed with umbrellas, to find supper again on Gendarmenmarkt Square. To our surprise, even though it was a Monday evening, the square was again crowded and again there were preparations going on for another outdoor concert. We grabbed a quick bratwurst again and ate on a church bench, next to the Franzosischer Dom (French Huguenot Cathedral). We explored some around the church, walked through to the Humboldt University campus (Einstein, Marx, Engels’ university). Their library was covered with construction boards. After briefly walking on Under der Linden, Berlin’s famous street, we managed to get ourselves back to our hotel’s street through one of the church courtyards just before rain started again.
Tuesday, July 7th
Woke up to steady rain but I slipped out for quick walk anyway, finding the Mendelsohn spot near our hotel. I watched the Berliners riding their bikes in the rain from our window for a while, had leisurely breakfast, and then when rain stopped about 9:15, set out for the Gemaldegalerie, in West Berlin’s Kultuforum, just past the very busy, very new Potsdamer Platz. It took us almost an hour to walk there, stopping to look around (Sony Center, markings in the sidewalk for wall, etc.). The Gemaldegalerie (“Old Masters Gallery”) was wonderful art museum; very relaxed and uncrowded. We had headsets but couldn’t spare the time, of course, to listen to everything. Daughter enjoyed their early art and I liked their collection of Dutch landscape artists and Vermeer. I think it is the best designed, easy to follow large art museum I’ve ever been in, it was planned in the 1980s as West Berlin’s counterpart to Museum Island.
I like the German artist, Albert Durer, and they had many nice pieces by him.
I They had several Rembrandts, including self-portraits (and the one of him in a helmet that is now thought to have been painted by someone else). I could stand as long as I wanted directly in front of their Vermeers, nothing was crowded.
They had several Caravaggios, which are always fun to look at, lots of Rubens, too, also several by Botticelli, who I really like.
We left art museum about 1:00 & then I spotted the public library, Staatsbibliothek, directly across the street. I had to go in; it was a busy, bustling place. I didn’t go past the security gates, just looked at the display areas, which included their retired card catalog and got daughter to take my picture:
Ate lunch as we were walking to the Jewish Museum (another outdoors bratwurst washed down with tap water in our water bottles). It was warm but also noticed threatening clouds . Jewish Museum’s crowds were a surprise to us after the quiet of the art museum. It was very much a “modern museum”, in design and philosophy. It covers 2000 years of Jewish history in the German areas, you begin in a beautiful old building and then head downstairs, symbolically and physically, to begin the tour. New part of building is designed as a fractured star of David, has many empty spaces.
The lives of the medieval Jews were so limited – often being peddlers and money lenders were the only occupations open to them. I am always impressed at the emphasis they put on education, even valuing literacy and schooling for girls. There was an impressive exhibit on Gluckel of Hamelin (1646-1724), an unknown name to me, a successful businesswoman (after husband died), mother of 14 children, and most important, a diarist who recorded details of her life that were preserved and published by her descendants.
I spent some time on the Mendelssohns exhibit, since our hotel was just around the block from one of their homes. Also was interested in Max Liebermann, after enjoying his paintings at art museum day before.
I’m interested in synagogues but old ones just don’t exist in modern Europe – I looked at the model for the ones in Cologne and then another for Breslau.
There was a big special WWI exhibit but we were short of time . . . a moving exhibit of things people took with them when they were exiled, very little about the Holocaust itself although that may have been covered in the “Garden of Exile” which we didn’t reach – always the limitations of time. I feel that we needed a guided tour of the museum to pick out the most important things. We saw tours being given by museum staff, most with children, but no English speaking ones at the time we were in the museum.
It was raining steadily when we left the museum but we walked doggedly back, passing Checkpoint Charlie and standing in the corner of its small museum, noticing also several little square cobblestones on the sidewalks for specific Jews taken from the neighborhoods, we would see these again in Berlin and also in other German cities. One thing that I noticed . . . many times they were for couples about the ages of my grandparents, born in the 1880s, so in their 50s and 60s during the dangerous times, an age when one is established and it is difficult to flee, to think of starting over, especially in another language. None were for survivors.
We reached the hotel about 5:45, quickly dried ourselves off, and headed downstairs for our welcome dinner with the Globus “Luther Reformation” tour that was beginning next day. Tthere were only 14 of us. Our tour guide, Scott, was American who has lived most of his life in Germany -- he turned out to be an excellent guide, funny & very practical about lunch spots, things to see, etc.
Wednesday, July 9th We set out at 8:30 for our Globus tour of Berlin with Burt, a local guide, after last breakfast at my favorite hotel of the trip. Stopped at the Brandenburg Gate, which still had TV screen from the big semi-final World Cup game the night before – saw the elegant Aldon Hotel and embassies next to it and tried to imagine it as the tense border between East and West Berlin. We drove past the beautiful Schloss Charlottenburg (summer palace built for Prussian Queen Sophie Charlotte). Also we stopped at Checkpoint Charlie, where we had been in the rain the day before. It seemed a cheerful place these days.
We stopped again at the longest stretch of the wall still existing, which incidentally is next to the new Topography of Terror Museum, the spot where the SS had its underground headquarters; no time for us to go in. Next door to SS was a beautiful pink art & exhibition hall building.
So hard to realize how completely the wall divided the city; guide would even mention “the street used to be blocked here by the wall”.
We then stopped at the new Holocaust Memorial (official name Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), dedicated in 2005 – it is a plaza of gray stele blocks, of varying sizes, arranged in straight lines. There were a couple of school groups, some tour buses and then just others on their own there but I have to say the mood didn’t seem to be sober. I had read about the memorial so I understood some of the meaning (emptiness, cemetery-like) but there was no text, no symbols in the area where we were – although I think there is a small building where the names of all the murdered Jews are read continuously. On one side there were green trees, on the other fast food type stands. Some younger people were climbing on top of the steles.
Our last stop was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was a moving anti-war memorial with a modern church built next to ruins of the elaborate church tower, right in the middle of a prosperous and busy area. Inside the tower was a Coventry Crucifix, made of nails from the English cathedral destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940. Also there was a Russian Orthodox cross, a post-War gift, and a memorial to a member of the church who was a deputy mayor of Berlin until deposed by the Nazis because he was a converted Jew (he was killed in 1945 in a concentration camp).
After a lunch of currywurst (much prefer the bratwurst) and a run through a department store’s grocery store (where we were baffled by “American salad dressing”), we headed out of Berlin for Wittenburg in early afternoon. Luther tour had officially begun! But so many places in Berlin that we didn’t have time for . . . hope to return one of these days. Berlin needed at least 5 days, not 3!
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3 days spent in Berlin before starting Germany tour . . . trip report has pictures but they don't seem to copy and paste into the report.