Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vacation 2012, #7: Berlin

Berlin. This was probably the highlight of the trip for me (well, this and see the next post). To our great regret, Susan was fighting off a whopper of a cold for the two days prior to Berlin, and was just too sick for what promised to be a long, grueling day. She insisted I go, and I guess I'm glad I did, though I would have had much more fun with her.  

It's a 2.5 hour train ride each way from Warnemünde, where the ship was docked, to Berlin. They know this, of course, and so kept the ship in Warnemünde from 7:30 AM to 11:30 PM, giving us enough time to see stuff in Berlin before having to head back.  Holland America actually chartered a DB train from shipside into the Berlin Hauptbahnhoff, which is almost impossibly convenient, but I just couldn't stomach the $200 fee; going it alone couldn't be too tough, I reasoned. In retrospect I probably should have trusted them to have done a good thing with this arrangement, but I also love the prospect of just figuring out stuff on my own, especially travel stuff.  I was among the first off the ship, and I bypassed the workers getting into place to corral the coming flood of passengers toward the special train, and I went to the station and used the ATM-like machine to purchase a second class ticket. Turns out I'd need to change trains about 20 minutes down the line in Rostock. That wasn't too hard, after I inquired in Rostock which track to wait at (my train did not show up on the screens yet). My wait in Rostock was about 45 minutes (during which time I saw the chartered train pass about half full), and Rostock into Berlin took about 2:15 or so for a total of about 4 hours' time ship-to-city. By the time I used the bathroom in the Hauptbahnhoff--very nice, for your 1 Euro fee--and had a bite to eat (they had my favorite currywurst vendor from CGN and also the Kamp's bakery for a streuselthaler; how unimaginative I am) I emerged from the station around noon and was off for a walking tour.

My rough plan was to see Unter den Linden--literally, "Under the Linden Trees"--and branch out in a couple directions from both ends of the boulevard. At one end of Under Den Linden is the Brandenburg Gate, and between that and the Potsdamer Platz was where most of the Nazi government had its headquarters. This line between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz was the path of the Berlin Wall, with  the Tiergarten and most of the Platz on one side, the West side, and the Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden on the East side. With the wall now gone (mostly, not entirely) this has all been built over, and only the historical markers show how things were (so recently--this is big history just recently transpired). It sounds like the East side was always where stuff was happening in Berlin, and so it remains. The marks of the Soviet occupation are everywhere--mostly in ugly, blockish architecture--but the vitality of the city shines through. Potsdamer Platz itself is today a bustling place, surrounded now with high-buck architecture including the fabulous Sony Center with its huge dome covering what would otherwise be a large outdoor square full of cafes and fountains and open space. It seems this has become THE place to watch big football matches and the like, as huge, stadium-sized TV screens are trotted out for big events. What a fun thing that would be.

I walked a bit further beyond the Platz to the Philharmoniker, home of the famous Berlin Philharmonic, one of the world's greatest orchestras. On the way back I looked at the historical plaques between Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate showing the exact locations of the Nazi government buildings including the infamous Führerbunker where Hitler holed up for the end of the war. It was here he committed suicide as the Russians poured into a destroyed Berlin. The site is now an athletic field, and beyond the simple plaque at the entrance of the block no note is made of the place. Next door, however, is another matter. This is where the Holocaust Memorial is located. We call it that; the Germans call it the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It's a several-acre plot of land (where many Nazi doings were formerly located) now eerily filled with Volkswagen-sized gray concrete blocks set at varying heights on an undulating ground. The blocks are arranged in a perfect grid, so that as you pass each monolith you have a clear view to the sides and ahead, the path rising and falling in any direction. You walk between the blocks in a kind of open maze. You can see over many of the blocks, but in other places they tower above you and your visibility is restricted. The effect is cool, though I didn't spend enough time there to get a sense of the vibe. To contemplate the destruction of a people is the soberest thing, I think, but this monument doesn't bring this immediately to mind. I'd need to spend more time to get a sense of what the artist is trying to project.

From there I walked back to the Brandenburg Gate and Eastward down the length of Unter den Linden. This wide, tree-lined boulevard is lined with cafes and shopping boutiques, much like the major streets of any European capital. The street takes a slight left kink before crossing the Spree river by way of Museum Island. This is also the location of the Berliner Dom, a huge church that evidently survived the bombing of WW2, and one the existence of which I had no idea. I paid my 7 Euro and went inside. A spectacular and vast interior and a large organ up on one balcony. And *lo and behold!* the organ began to play. More than that, a kind of mini-concert of five or six pieces: Bach and Mendelssohn and such. This was evidently for another organized tour that went through before me, a group of Asian men sitting in a gallery up near the organ. Turns out the organ dates from 1905 and was built by the firm Sauer, and does an admirable job filling an immense space with sound. I had to buy CDs, of course, from the cathedral gift shop, on which the instrument sounds fine if unextraordinary.

I had limited time to see what I could before getting back to the train station for my 2.5+ hour trip back to Warnemünde, so I headed South and East along the Spree to a place I had seen in one of the guide books on the ship: the East Side Gallery. This was billed as a collection of the best graffiti on the old Berlin Wall, and it took me a while to find it. Turns out it's not so much a preservation of the wall's best art, but a preservation of the wall itself on which people are encouraged to paint graffiti. The paintings were of varying degrees of ambition, and none of them older than a couple years. Many of them were commentaries on divided societies and totalitarianism. I found the wall itself the most interesting, as it's such a brutal artifact of living history, a thing now just off the active calendar page that affected millions of people. So I'm glad I saw it.

This place was deep into East Berlin, and things really did look dirty and shabby and tired, though there is a vibration of life throughout. There is graffiti absolutely everywhere; maybe not as bad as Athens, but nearly so. And there is broken glass everywhere. You also see a lot of vacant lots everywhere, though they are different than vacant lots in America: they're not strewn with trash, most of them, and they're usually fenced off. But they represent some prime real estate and they really do give Berlin a half-finished feel. You have a palpable sense of the city as a work in progress. There is construction going on absolutely everywhere, and the adage that Berliners have little need of travel because the change occurs around them while they stand in place seems no more than the truth here. I expect by the time I get back here some years hence I'll hardly recognize the place. But the impact of so many vacant lots is that the place feels very un-New York: there's little density to the city overall, even if the big public squares are packed with people. Walking out away from the city center the place feels alive but quieter and kind of spotty. I wonder if individual blocks or small collections of blocks do not constitute strong neighborhoods in this way, since things vary so much street to street.

I made my way back to Alexander Platz by way of some residential sections, which was instructive. People were outside with their kids, women collected on apartment building stoops to chat while their kids played on a small patch of grass; radio and TV and conversations could be heard through open windows, and car traffic was light off the main drags. All of Europe seems to lean much more on bicycles than we do in the US, and there are big bike parking areas at every residential building. Most of the East Berlin housing I saw was apartment blocks, the older of which had a Soviet feel. Newer buildings felt more German, architecturally interesting with good windows and high-grade construction.

At the Alexander Platz I looked around a bit and found a bottle of water. This is a big shopping area, and all the brands were what I was familiar with from Cologne. I asked instructions and made my way onto the Route 100 bus that went from Alexander Platz to the zoo. We were told to take this bus by the desk clerk in Cologne, who hailed from Berlin, and by the guide books that say this is basically a sightseeing bus, this and the 200 bus.  I got the front seat of the upper deck and had a lovely view back down the Unter Den Linden, South to Potsdamer Platz and around the Tiergarten to the zoo. Only a 25 minute ride or so, but a lovely bit of sightseeing.

By now I was a little worried about getting back to the Hauptbahnhoff, but determined to walk the distance, and so I immediately set off. It was a fair distance, but I made it by about 5:15 or so. I actually didn't do my research very well about timing my return train, so I actually got a bit lucky not to have gotten stuck. In Rostock on the way into the city I heard another American from the cruise ship ask when the last train from Rostock to Warnemünde was, and the woman said 11:37 PM. Our all-aboard on the ship was 11:30, so I knew the trains would not be an issue: why would a train go from Rostock to Warnemünde at 11:37 if there was not a train from the city just beforehand to provide the passengers to carry? But when I got to the station in Berlin for my trip back, there was no Rostock train listed until 6:15, and that was the only one I could see. That train ended up being about 30 minutes delayed, and it was an ICE high speed train, so my ticket needed an upcharge. I paid this to the conductor on the train when he came through and checked tickets. Another 20 euros, for a total cost of 96 Euros round trip (still well shy of the $200 the ship was charging). The train was quiet and fast and not very crowded, and it went straight through to Warnemünde without having to change in Rostock. Nice. I was back on the ship by about 9:30, so I made it in plenty of time. But I wonder how many more trains there would have been that night?

In all, a fantastic day--the highlight of this cruise, I think. Like all these places I realize I only scratched the very surface of a large and vital place, but this scratch still seems much more than no exposure at all. This is a place I must come back to. Perhaps I'll get a long weekend layover in CGN and can train my way back up here; it'll be helpful to have some minimal sense of where stuff is now.

Next, a day at sea. And then Tallinn, Estonia.

(At the pier in Warnemünde.)
(The ship and HAL's chartered DB train. I wait on the regular platform.)

(A shot of old stuff along the tracks enroute to Berlin. There's a great deal of this.)

(Berlin's fabulous new train station.)

(The Reichstag.)

(Brandenburg Gate, from the West side. This is about where the wall passed.)

(Potsdamer Platz, with the Sony Center behind.)

(A section of the Berlin Wall, with a guy stamping passports with genuine East German stamps!)

(No, not a picture of this woman's leg--though her boyfriend was very skeptical of my taking this photo. The line below this section of the wall is being extended, two bricks wide, all through the city to mark the path of the Berlin Wall. Cool. Sobering, but cool.)

(The fabulous Sony Center indoor / outdoor meeting place at Potsdamer Platz.)

(The Philharmonie, home of the great Berlin Philharmonic.)

(Small plaque on In Der Ministergarten showing locations of official buildings from the past.)

(Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe.)

(East side of the Brandenburg Gate, the start of Unter den Linden.)

(Unter den Linden.)

(Berliner Dom.)

(Nearing the East Side Gallery.)

(The East Side Gallery, the backside of the wall.)

(Street side, where the art is. This extends for several hundred yards.)

(In the Tiergarten, making my way back to the Hbf.)

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