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Trip Report Trip Report: Berlin, Périgord, Cambridge

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After spending three weeks in Portugal, we continued our European vacation on a more family/friend basis. So this part will be much shorter than the Portugal section because we did not stay in hotels, ate many more meals at home, and spend a lot of time on non-tourist activities.

All our transportation, whether plane, train or car, was pre-paid from the States. We flew Berlin Air from Lisbon to Majorca, changed planes and continued on to Berlin. Our Berlin stay was a command performance for a major birthday.

My cousin had his big party at a local sports club, and fortunately there were enough guests who spoke English that we were not bored out of our minds. That took place two days after the actual birthday date, and on the actual date he took the family on a day's outing in the woods and lakes on the west side of Berlin. If anyone is spending more than a couple of days in Berlin, I strongly recommend a summer day in the country. We drove to Caputh where Einstein used to have his country house, stopped at a restaurant by the water next to the small car ferry and enjoyed an al fresco lunch while watching the boats glide by. After lunch we walked along the waterway, admiring the villas and gardens that the nomenklatura used to enjoy--and might still be enjoying. Figuring that the two little girls who were part of the entourage might be bored with adult activities, we drove to Tremmen where friends of his had restored an 1895 brick farm house and whose bitch just had puppies a couple of weeks before. My wife and I were more interested in the renovation of the farm house, had a nice discussion with one of the owners (the big farm house is now a triplex) and picked up a brick for a friend of ours in Paris who collects historical bricks. On the way to Tremmen we stopped by Brükenkopf which is interesting in two ways. It is a small village with a traditional village green, very much like New England villages, and it is clearly losing its East German dilapidation, being only 40 km. from Berlin and right on the water. Tremmen has not developed the same way because it has no obvious recreational facilities. From there we went back to the Cecilienhof where the 1945 Potsdam Conference was held. The palace, built in the middle of W.W.I in a Victorian/Craftsman style, is enormous; part of it is a fancy hotel. Nearby there is a former brewery right by the water which is now a restaurant and café. The café is self-serve, we got some wurst and beer and enjoyed the approaching evening by the water. This whole area is near Potsdam and, seeing all the bicycles, readily reachable from the S-Bahn station (bicycle are allowed on the S-Bahn).

When we were on our own we went to visit the Egyptian collection on the Museum Island. We were warned that Berlin museums would be a zoo because of the World Cup, but it turned out to be the opposite. The museum guards had so little to do that they followed us around as if we were criminals. But we did see Nefertiti in all her glory and with no one else around. There are two coffee shops in the museum, and the one on the upper landing has more interesting pastries of the Middle Eastern varieties. We also recommend the 3.5 hour round trip on the Landwehr Kanal and the Spree which gives a good view of Berlin old and new. The tour starts near the Jannowitzbrücke U & S-Bahn station. We had no reservations, and got the last seats on the boat. The commentaries are all in German, but we could have received a hand-out in English if necessary. The Landwehr Kanal goes through the old neighborhoods with their 19th century houses--although there are exceptions--while the ride up the Spree showcases all the brand new buildings around the government center. We also went to see the new central train station and walked around the Tiergarten, saw the outside of the Scandinavian embassies (an interesting complex of buildings) and had refreshments at the near-by beer garden across the street from the Spanish Embassy--the pizza in the self-serve section looked particularly appealing.

Berlin pictures, taken over a period of years: http://tinyurl.com/qglgg

As I overheard a young French woman speak to a friend upon arriving in CDG: Food is cheap in Berlin. We had decent Indian food with wine and other refreshments for about 100+€ for 11 persons, had a Doner Kebab (Gyros for the Americans) for 2.25€ at the Jannowitzbrücke station which was more than enough for lunch (decent fast food is available at most U & S-Bahn stations), had a businessman's plate that was bien cuisiné at the better restaurant in the main train station (upstairs SW corner) for 12€, and had a plain but good plate for 4.50€ at Pinelli's in the hallway of the Schöneberg S-Bahn Ring line station. That latter restaurant serves no alcohol during the day but has wine in the evening and functions as a jazz club.

From Berlin we flew to Paris (easy U-Bahn connection to Schönefeld--the U-Bahn with bus connection has a shorter walk than the S-Bahn connection). We stayed overnight in Paris and then took the train to Limoges. There we picked up a VW Golf diesel on steroids from Europcar and drove down to our house. Our stay in the Dordogne was a working vacation, so we have little to report relative to tourism. We did visit Fénélon castle and Souillac, both of which we recommend. Fénélon has good explanations and nice period rooms, and a beautiful view over the Dordogne valley. Souillac has a church worth a visit, with some interesting stone sculptures. It also has a museum of mechanical dolls that is fascinating and would probably be a joy for children. As for restaurants are concerned, two return trips were disappointing and a new venue was fabulous.

We had a birthday meal at the Moulin de la Gorce, which is near St. Yrieix, hence not in the Périgord but in the Limousin. It has the reputation of being a location for trysting couples. It is a Michelin one star restaurant which, in my opinion, is close to being a two star one, with prices to match (265€ for two, broken down as follows: 85€ & 95€ menus--the latter 135€ with wine pairing-- plus 2 kirs, mineral water and 2 coffees). The food was fabulous, the wine pairing a little less so. The staff tried a little too hard, scurrying about on the gravel (we ate outside, with a view of the pond which is part of the grounds of the restaurant/hotel, meaning that as the sun sets, the establishment has its own discreet lighting all around the pond). We were particularly aware of the scurrying because we were the first table along the pond and the staff had to pass us whenever they served the other tables. The hostess was a little cold, barely thanking us when I pointed out that they had forgotten to include the 85€ menu on the bill. But if the food is good, I am willing to overlook these small faults. Boudin was the theme of our trip this year (see the Portugal portion of the trip), as the meal started with tiny boudin and pork sausage amuses bouche the size of cocktail franks or even smaller. For the actual menu, go to http://tinyurl.com/hqko8, no. 13.

We had two disappointments. The first one was the Auberge de la Truffe in Sorges (230€ for 7), which I had previously recommended as a good restaurant. The food is still good if not particularly inventive, the AC appreciated, but it took them almost hour to bring us even bread on the table and to take our orders. We had declined apéritifs. We had made reservations for 8 p.m., arrived at the appointed hour, and the table was set for us, so it was not as if we were not expected or were a last minute add-on. The second one was La Tupina (60€ for two) which offered a tomato lunch (every dish was to have tomato in it). The lunch started fine with a good gazpacho and a tomato salad, but did not maintain the quality in terms of interesting dishes and the desert was not tomato based as we expected. It turned out that customers were not crazy about tomato ice cream so it was dropped and I had French toast instead--very good, but not part of the deal. I must admit that we previously had (5 years ago, and memory can play tricks) a fabulous tomato meal in Santa Cruz with the tomato growers in attendance, discussing their varieties of tomatoes and methods for growing them just as vintners would at a wine tasting dinner. That would have been difficult to match. But the service was not quite as good as during the two previous occasions; there was a certain je ne sais quoi missing. I would still recommend La Tupina, but only for certain basic dishes (kidneys, tripe, steak) and possibly regional specialties, but not their fried chicken which looked awfully pale when served at the next table. I also have the impression that the prices have gone up considerably.

On the subject of food: If living within commuting distance of Périgueux and needing to buy food, do not hesitate to go to Périgueux' Wednesday market. There is a fish stall in front of the cathedral (only on Wednesday) that has the best and cheapest fresh fish and sea food in the region. The fish seller comes from La Rochelle, but acquaintances who have a house in that area say that even in La Rochelle fish is not that cheap.

A warning paragraph about those dreaming of owning a house in the French countryside. This was a working vacation: I spent the three weeks painting the floors which had not been painted in 30 years, looking at carpeting to replace the carpeting that was there for 35 years, getting in touch with contractors to lay down the carpeting, applying anti-moss products to the roof line, getting a roofer to install a spout on a flat roof, getting an estimate from a gardening contractor to cut the grass around the house twice before our arrival in June, calling the plumber to fix a leak in one of the toilets. I needed to find someone to cut the grass because the person who used to do it no longer can for health reasons. It turns out that the contractor would charged 400€ for maybe a total of 3 hours of work. After a lot of hints and suggestions, the son of the person who varnished the wood in the house 35 years ago agreed to do the job on the side. But no price was discussed, and I have to rely on his honesty--admittedly there is a personal rapport with his parents. So while the gardener's bid was outrageous, the plumber came and fixed the leak for a total of 30€ and which would have cost a minimum of $75 in the States. I got two bids to put down the carpeting, both way over the top because they overestimated the cost of the carpeting even though I had given the exact price, and only one returned a second bid which was acceptable. Fortunately we have a neighbor who can give him a key to the house so that he can do the work while we are gone. When we came back home, we had a bill sitting in the pile of mail from a roofing contractor who had replaced the original flat roof. Two years ago I thought I was seeing new leaks and the roof was still under warranty. Apparently there were no leaks in the center, and the edges would not be covered because the edging was not up to code. So it was decided to add a spout (they call it a gargouille but the house is no cathedral) so that the water would not spill over the edge but would be channeled in a specific location. It took nine months to receive a bid, which I found a little excessive both in time and money, to clean the roof. So last summer I agreed to half the contract of a single cleaning that would include removing the moss from the roof's edge. This summer, I arrived and no work had been done on the roof as far as I could determine, to the point that I bought a sprayer and applied an anti-moss product myself. I then come home and find a bill of 600€ for work done on the roof back in January, but with absolutely no details. I have written back asking for a detail of the specific work done since the major part was not done. These are the joys of owning a house long distance.

Périgord pictures, taken over a number of years: http://tinyurl.com/ny76q

From Périgordshire (as some French now call it) we flew to Stansted to spend a week in Cambridgeshire. We were staying with acquaintances who had spent a week with us three years ago. They treated us royally, showing us around Cambridge and the surrounding area. But I will not try to compete with StephCar and will simply refer the reader to her report: http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34868609. We went to Ely on our own, but could not eat in the recommended place and had a mediocre cold fish platter in a pub. The cathedral is impressive, and had the Lady Chapel's stain-glass windows and statuary not been destroyed in the 16th century it would have almost rivaled the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. One day we drove around the countryside in the direction of Lavenham and Long Medford with cute wood beam and thatch roof houses. We were told that only people with money can have thatch roofs because they are expensive to replace and fire insurance for the houses is unobtainable. So as in the rest of Europe, the villages are not what they used to be, and the various hotel/restaurants we stopped in clearly were oriented toward the tourist trade. The next day we visited the Wimpole Estate, but only walked the grounds, and then stopped for tea at the Orchard in Grantchester.

Photos for this portion of the trip (unedited):http://tinyurl.com/fwh2t

From Cambridge we took the train to London and the Underground to Heathrow to return home.

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