Happy Labor Day from Berlin!

6 Sep

So, in the last decade- possibly two!- I honestly can’t remember a Labor Day weekend that I didn’t spend it on the water, with family and friends, grilling out in the back yard, etc…Same is true for John.  And being that we’re most definitely creatures of habit, you can imagine how this holiday weekend, even spent in the German capital city, might have felt just a bit ‘off.’  On the flip side, it was our first trip to the north, our pal, Andy’s, last weekend in Germany, and Dulcie’s 1st birthday, so of course it was still a memorable adventure!

Starting with our drive northward, the first thing we noticed was the change in the land the further along we got- namely, you go from hills and mountains in the south (where we live) to wide open, flat plains in the north.  Still lots of farms, livestock, vineyards, solar panels and windmills (Germany’s answer to exorbitant energy costs!)…just on flat ground.

Driving northward on the Autobahn...

Town in the distance...

Very pretty, right?  As always, we enjoyed the scenery, although we didn’t find it as intriguing as our southern treks, especially the closer we got to the capital.  Those of you South Carolinians, think I26 from Columbia to Spartanburg…Now, it should be noted that our opinions could’ve been slightly biased by the UNREAL traffic we fought for the entire second half of our drive.  What should have been a 6 hour trip took us 11 hours.  That’s right, 11 freakin’ hours.  At one point, we went 9 km in 1.5 hrs., just to give you an idea.  You can tell the time lapse just from the sunlight in the pictures…

Nearing Berlin...Hot air balloon at sunset...

Getting closer...Smokestacks of a factory on the outskirts...

Almost to the hotel...Definitely a different 'big city feel' than any other city we've visited so far...

Other noticeable differences between northern and southern Germany…The food (much more emphasis on fish in the north), drink (beer of choice is pils in the north rather than weissen), language dialects, politics (southern Germany is more conservative, northern is more liberal) and the socio-economic structure (tourism plays a much larger role in the south).

OK, a quick ‘setting the stage’ for Berlin…

Berlin, the capital city of Germany, is also its largest with a population of 4.5 million.   It’s best known for its historical associations as the German capital, for its internationality and tolerance, for its lively nightlife, for its many cafes, clubs, and bars, for its street art, varied architecture and for its numerous museums, palaces, and landmarks.  Although badly damaged in World War II and broken apart during the Cold War, Berlin has taken great strides to reconstruct itself, especially with the reunification push after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. You can now see representatives of many different historic periods in a short time within the city center, from a few surviving medieval buildings near Alexanderplatz, to the ultramodern glass and steel structures in Potsdamer Platz. But because of its tumultuous history, Berlin remains a city with many distinctive neighborhoods.

Berlin is a relatively young city by European standards, dating back only to the thirteenth century, and it has always had a reputation as a place filled with people from elsewhere. Someone who has lived in Berlin for ten years will see themselves as a ‘true Berliner,’ looking down on the person who has been there for only five!  It’s nearly impossible to find someone born and raised here! This is part of Berlin’s charm: it never gets stuck in a rut. 🙂

A certain uneasy ‘detente’ still exists between some former residents of East and West Berlin (and Germany). Apparently, after reunification, the West Germans automatically assumed the way they did things was the right way, and the way the Easterners should start doing it, too. Westerners got a reputation for being arrogant. They saw the Easterners as stubborn Communist holdouts interested only in a handout from the “rich West.”   Luckily, most of the younger generations do not share such biases.

So…I’m torn here as I don’t want to delve too deeply into our impressions of Berlin, at least not without allowing you to form your own opinions.  On the positive side, I will say that the old adage, ‘different strokes for different folks’ applies here, as well as the notion that it all depends on what you’re interested in (it’s perfect if you’re into nightlife!)…For us- who are not club folks- we didn’t care for Berlin.  Yes, there were ‘pockets’ of beauty…spans of interesting architecture…some unique historical buildings…But for the most part, I, in particular- though John, too- found it ‘ugly.’  Now maybe that’s not the perfect word for it…Maybe something more like ‘cold’ or ‘desolate’ or ‘too masculine’ for my tastes.  Lots of graffiti, lots of nondescript apartment buildings, lots of just…city.

Walking to city center...

So many buildings look like this at street level...

We needed something to make us smile 🙂 'Buddy Bear' is the symbol of Berlin and they're found all over the city...Andy and John were good sports to humor me!

Part of the Berlin Wall in front of apartment buildings in East Berlin...

Behind the Wall...

Entering the business district...

The buildings in Berlin don’t have nearly the charm of what you would find in Paris, Rome, or even other smaller cities in Germany.  There are some nice residential areas, some pretty tree-lined boulevards, some occasional 19th century masterpieces, and scattered sleek contemporary successes, but here is lots of 1950s-1980s mediocrity.  There are nice river settings, but for the most part, the city doesn’t use its waterfront especially well.  Many streets or plazas in the East remain huge cavernous monstrosities, devoid of Jane Jacobs-like inspiration (if you’re unfamiliar with her, she’s definitely worth researching!).  As one urban developer put it, ‘It’s nice enough that you can tell yourself it’s not ugly, which perhaps is a sign of its ugliness.’

OK, enough with the potential negatives…on to the good stuff!  The business district begins with Potsdamer Platz.  This district was one of Europe’s biggest private-sector urban construction projects and was planned a team of international architects with the idea of creating one of the world’s most state-of-the-art, modern areas in the world.  Today, it accommodates 10,000 jobs, and its varied facilities are used by nearly 100,000 people every day. Potsdamer Platz now has 19 buildings, 10 streets and two plazas.

Potsdamer Platz

What a neat modern building!

Section of the Berlin Wall still standing in Potsdamer Platz...

Although most of the Wall is gone, every place it stood now has its 'footprint' as a reminder...

Let me talk for a second about the Berlin Wall since it’s the centerpiece of our next stop…From 1949 to 1961, East Germany was controlled by Communist Russia.  During that time, more than 2.6 million East Germans escaped to West Berlin (and Western Europe) in search of a better life (conditions in the East were bad, and steadily worsening).  The East Germany government saw no other way to prevent escaping to the West via Berlin than by closing the border. The Berlin Wall was erected the night of August 13, 1961.  It was a weekend and most Berliners slept while the East German government begun to close the border. In the early morning of that Sunday, most of the first work was done: the border to West Berlin was closed. The East German troops had begun to tear up streets and to install barbed wire entanglement and fences through Berlin.

Footprint of the Berlin Wall. We were standing in East Germany.

The Wall at Checkpoint Charlie...

Ten days after closing the border on August 13, 1961 tourists from abroad, diplomats and the military personnel of the Western Powers- the Allies- were only allowed to enter East Berlin via three crossing points, the third being Checkpoint Charlie, opened by the US Military.  Why was it called ‘Charlie?’ Simply because that’s the third letter of the phonetic alphabet. 🙂  The main function of the checkpoint was to register and inform members of the Western Military Forces before entering East Berlin. Foreign tourists were also informed but not checked in the West.  The German authorities in West and East Berlin were not allowed to check any members of the Allied Military Forces in Berlin and in Germany.

Picture of a picture...Checkpoint Charlie in 1965.

Checkpoint Charlie today...Standing in the East, looking toward the West...

Crossing back into the East...

Checkpoint Charlie. Does anyone else think it detracts from the whole experience having the Golden Arches within spitting distance??

Next, we continued our trek across the city, this time in search of the Brandenburg Gate.  We found plenty of neat stuff along the way…The Holocaust Memorial is 4.7 acre site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs, one for each page of the Talmud (main Jewish text) arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. The slabs are roughly 8′ long by 3′ wide, and vary in height from 1-16 feet.  According to the designer, the slabs are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.

John at the Holocaust Memorial...

The American Embassy (yes, that's a Buddy Bear dressed up like the Statue of Liberty)

The Brandenburg Gate was commisioned by Friedrich Wilhelm II to represent peace. The Gate was designed by Karl Gotthard Langhans, the Court Superintendent of Buildings, and the main architectural design of this landmark hasn’t changed since it was first constructed in 1791. Ironically, the Gate was incorporated into the Berlin Wall during the years of Communist government. Today, the Brandenburg Gate is the most well-known landmark in Berlin and now stands as a symbol of the reunification of the two sides of the city.

Brandenburg Gate

Huge plaza at the Brandberg Gate...lined with fountains and cafes...

I was just too impressed with these pretzel vendors! How can they manage to ride around, through the throngs of people, keep all their pretzels AND stay upright?!

Continuing across the city en route to Alexander Platz (supposedly the prettiest place in Berlin), we came across lots more interesting sites…

Humboldt University...Einstein taught here and 27 Nobel Prize recipients graduated from here...

LOVED this artist street market! Grandma, I found one of your birthday gifts here 🙂

Crossing over the river to Museum Island...

The Berlin Dom (Cathedral of Berlin) is the largest church in the city, and it serves as a vital center for the Protestant church of Germany.

Berlin Dom

What kind of trip would it be without a self-portrait?! 🙂

What a wedding venue!

With a Buddy Bear 🙂

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Alexanderplatz was one of the busiest squares in Berlin. By the Middle Ages, it was the center of the city, but  most of the buildings on the square were destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. After the war, it became the center of East Berlin and was used as a showcase of socialist architecture, resulting in some plain bulky buildings and a huge television tower, the Fernsehturm, one of the tallest (1197 ft.) structures in Europe.

The Fernsehturm

Alexanderplatz

Well, it may not seem like alot of walking…but it was!  We ended up nearly 10 miles from our hotel, so as dinner time approached, we decided to make a quick bakery stop (remember that old German tradition of ‘cafe und kuchen?’ ha!) and catch a train back.  In honor of Dulcie’s 1st Birthday (WOOHOO!), we got her her very own pink (cherry) pastry 🙂

Happy Birthday, Dulcie!

Not too many pups get to celebrate in Berlin!

Sharing with her brother 🙂

Of course, the rain moved in by that night, so we opted to drive to dinner.  Lit up at night, Berlin looks much like most other huge cities…very twinkly and colorful…

Now, you know I couldn’t do a post without at least one meal.  We found a scrumptious little hole-in-the-wall, authentic German place.  With the menu being totally in German (as most are), it’s always a bit hit-or-miss for us.  Don’t get me wrong, we’ve learned many of the basic words like (meats, basic veggies, etc.), but past that, it’s a little murky.  Granted, this hasn’t been much of a problem for John- or Andy during his visit- as they’ll eat just about anything…Me, on the other hand…well…

I thought I ordered Tenderloin over Red Cabbage with Bread....Um, no. I ended up with Pot Roast, load of gravy, hot kimchi and two softball size dumplings...*sigh*

Andy's breaded pork with fried potato hash...

John's (impressive) half Swabian duck with red cabbage and dumplings...

So that was it- our Berlin adventure!  No, it wasn’t our favorite European city, but it was definitely good times and a worthwhile trip.  You’ll be happy to know that we made it back ‘home’ in half the time it took us to get there, leaving us plenty of time to catch up on some episodes of Dexter (great series, if you haven’t checked it out!).  The Birthday Girl and her brother were glad to get out of that car, too 🙂

Tuckered out 🙂

One Response to “Happy Labor Day from Berlin!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Week In Review « Thomas, Party of 4… - September 10, 2010

    […] Dulcie’s 1st birthday was technically Saturday- and we did get her her own pink pastry in Berlin!- we wanted to throw her a little party just like we always have for Betsy and Max.  No, we […]

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