An extra benefit to the tour was being able to scout out places that we wanted to come back to, so we decided to head back to Museum Island. We started at the Old National Gallery, which was supposed to contain impressionist and expressionist paintings. There were actually not that many of either, but instead a lot of portraits and landscapes by German painters.
There was one impressionist section which had a few Monet’s and Hanna found one of her new favorite paintings. She found it surprising that it was Renoir, since she doesn’t usually like his stuff, but she gazed at it for quite a while. There was also what we assumed was a copy of Rodin’s famous The Thinker, but after listening to the audioguide we found out it was actually the original. It was much smaller than the famous larger sculpture, which was in reality a copy of the smaller one. We almost walked right by it.
This museum had an attendant in pretty much every room (more than the Louvre), and we were surprised when one of them suddenly burst out in song. She was a tiny blonde woman who sang in an operatic tone. I guess it was supposed to add to the ambience of the room, but after about five minutes she would stop singing and say something quickly in German. She continued to repeat this cycle the entire time we were on the floor. It was very strange.
After that we went to the German Historical Museum, which made me very excited and made Hanna want to hang herself. It featured the permanent collection, basically explaining German history from 500 B.C. to present times (Hanna looked at the old clothes while I read the information, everybody wins), but more interestingly it featured the first exhibition on Hitler ever in Germany.
It may seem surprising, but I guess they’re careful to keep their distance from the Fuhrer. Surprisingly the exhibition wasn’t just about how evil Hitler was. It focused on how the state of Germany after WWI and the German people allowed Hitler to rise to power and carry out his heinous regime. It contained lots of old memorabilia such as uniforms, posters, and buttons, and was incredibly interesting. Once again, Berlin was a much different experience than any of the other cities.
Outside the museum we found a stand selling delicious sausages, potatoes, and mushrooms so we picked some up and headed to Alexanderplatz (kind of like a shopping district). We hung out in the mall, picked up some smoothies, people-watched, and got some food to take home for dinner.
Even though our time there was more of the historical/depressing variety, I’ve heard that Berlin is actually a great city for nightlife. Take for example the advertisement in our discount book for the club, Matrix:
Matrix parties—that’s your life—every day ecstasy—all together—life is the Matrix—you mix it every day, see the flow, feel the flow, flow the flow—right in your heart. Parties on up to 6 floors.
It’s stop #1 on our next trip to Berlin.
Hanna and I aren’t normally ones for guided tours, but a combination of good reviews and a lack of time in the city made the “Berlin Insider’s Tour” particularly attractive. It was a walking tour of Berlin and, with the discounts we received for buying 48-hour transport tickets, it only cost us 8 euro each. We met outside the McDonald’s in West Berlin (that wasn’t part of the tour) and bought our tickets for the “Famous Walk,” which basically hit all the historical hotspots in the city.
We bought our tickets at about 9:45 for a 10:00 tour, and the lady who sold us the tickets and seemed to be in charge said, “Ok you’ll be with Kenny.” She paused for a second then turned to one of the other guides and said, “Where is Kenny?”
Turns out Kenny had just gotten back from “holiday” in Egypt and hadn’t gotten a chance to look at the schedule. The guides made some phone calls and finally we were told to follow Pilar to the train station. She was a guide for one of the Spanish tours, but she would be taking us on the train so that we could meet up with our guide, Heidi, at the East Berlin meeting point. We got there and met up with about 15 other people going on the “Famous Walk”, but no Heidi. About 10 minutes passed and suddenly a frazzled, dark haired woman who looked like she just woke up came running from the train (Hanna was speculating from the name “Heidi” that she would be a drop-dead gorgeous blonde…I saw her smile when the real Heidi emerged).
She didn’t pull any punches and told us that she had, in fact, woken up about 10 minutes ago. She fumbled around with her words for the first couple minutes, but other than that her lack of preparedness was hardly noticeable.
We started off at Hackescher Market where, in the late 1800s, 50 Jewish families were invited to live. Our tour guide noted the unprecedented openness of this move at the time and proceeded to tell us that Germany was much friendlier to Jews than England or France at the time. Things changed a little.
Next we went to Museum Island, where the outside is still literally covered in bullet-holes. This prompted Heidi to tell us that “if there aren’t bullet-holes in it, it’s not original.” Apparently the Battle for Berlin took a huge toll, as 70-80% of the entire city was flattened during the war.
Next we headed across the street to the museum (called “Museum”) and a huge protestant church that looked Catholic. Across the green was where the old Palace used to stand. As we walked over to it, Heidi showed us a picture of Hitler walking on the exact same path as us surrounded by thousands of Nazi supporters. That was the first of many times on the tour that we got some serious goosebumps.
The old Palace was demolished by the Soviets after WWII and replaced by a more efficient communist building, which was in turn demolished by the new German government after the wall came down. Currently it is a big empty space, but is in the process of being re-built. She mentioned that the people got to vote on what would go there and that people in Berlin vote on absolutely every government decision. Not only that, but the Parliament building is open from 8 am to midnight and the public is free to hang around as long as they like. Obviously the current German government wants everything to be transparent and clear to the people. It makes you wonder if, because of all the horrible things that happened in the past, Germany could become the new paradigm of modern democracy. I guess time will tell, but apparently they’re doing pretty well.
That was a recurring theme on the tour. So much of Berlin is still being renovated nearly 70 years after the end of the war. We would pass things and Heidi would actually say things like, “That statue just went up yesterday” or “the roof of that building will be finished next week.”
We saw tons of things that will have to be relayed in person, and I’m so glad that we did the tour. It was very informative and added a lot of detail to a city full of stories and history. Appropriate for the subject matter, this was by far our coldest, dreariest day of the trip. We used all the layers we had in our backpacks and were still shivering at times. Remarkably, there was a girl from Hawaii who was wearing flip-flops for the entire four-hour tour. I swear I’m not kidding. Her little toes were as red as Currywurst.
Speaking of currywurst, we got some for lunch after the tour. It’s a local specialty and was referred to by Heidi as “wartime food” which usually means it’s terrible. Hanna bravely ordered it for her entrée while I just got the “tapas-sized” version. The sausage itself wasn’t bad but it was covered in a “special sauce” that was basically curry-flavored ketchup. Hanna managed to put aside her hatred of condiments and get through most of it, but I can’t imagine she enjoyed it too much.
Afterwards we went to the Topography of Terror, which is a museum next to one of the few remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall. It is in an open-air museum in what used to be the basement of the SS building where the interrogations (aka torture) were held. It was quite extensive and we actually couldn’t get through it all before it got dark.
After that we went to the Haus dam Checkpoint Charlie Museum which was located, appropriately enough, right next to Checkpoint Charlie (the old passport station between East and West Berlin). The museum gave history about the Wall, but was mostly about all the ways in which people attempted (sometimes successfully) to get over, under, around, or through the Wall.
There were tons of stories: cars modified to fit people where the engine should have been, homemade airplanes, two families that came together to make what was, at the time, Europe’s biggest hot air balloon with no prior knowledge of the subject.
It was all amazing and truly unbelievable, but our favorite story had to be this one: a man and his wife were separated, the man in the West and the woman in the East. The man started dating a girl in the West that looked a lot like his wife. He then traveled with her to the East (as West Berliners were legally able to do). While in the East, he arranged a meeting with his wife, ditched his “girlfriend”, and took her passport. His wife then used it for safe passage back to the West.
The guy was later caught and sentenced to 7 months in jail, which I’m sure he was more than willing to serve given the fact that his wife was now safely in the West. Hanna remarked about how often these stories of remarkable escape are tied to love.
We left Nuremberg, hoping to find a place where Hanna could get some of their famous gingerbread on the way to the train station. Luckily enough, there was a stand selling it in the station on the way to our train and, not only that, but they were giving away free samples. Hanna tried some and noted the differences between it and our gingerbread (theirs was more like a cake and covered in chocolate whereas ours is hard). She liked it, but wasn’t impressed enough to take home a 6-pack so she decided not to buy any.
We boarded the 12:33 to Berlin, had a rather uneventful 4 ½ hour trip, and disembarked in Berlin. We quickly found the tourist information booth where we bought our transport tickets and asked how to get to our hotel. The guy told us to “go across the street to the yellow building and get the bus from there.”
We crossed the street to find no yellow building, but rather a series of about 6 bus stops within a three-block radius. We found one that looked like the right one, waited there for about 20 minutes, and watched as the bus we were trying to board turned down the street right in front of us. Quickly we ran to try to catch it, but it was too late. Turns out there was another bus stop behind the corner on a dark street where absolutely no cars went. Who knew?
Finally, we boarded the right bus and we got to our hostel. It wasn’t in the nicest of areas, but nobody seemed to be dangerous. On the walk there we scoped out dinner options and settled on “Sudhaus.” It looked like a brew-pub type place so we figured it would be standard bar food.
We arrived at our hostel to find a group of about 6,000 German teenagers hanging out downstairs. They were drinking beers, playing ping pong, using the computers, but most of all they were talking very loudly. Considering that Hanna and I always look for the hostel with the lowest “Fun” rating, we were quite alarmed by the amount of “fun” people seemed to be having. “Fun” for them means long, sleepless nights for us.
Hoping for the best, we checked in then went to drop our stuff off in the room before heading back to the Sudhaus for dinner. Turns out that it’s right next to a squash court facility and we didn’t see one person in there that didn’t have a squash racket. Besides that the place seemed alright, other than the fact that there was one waitress. Let me clarify, actually. She seemed to be the only person working in the entire restaurant. There were two floors—a bar on the first and the restaurant upstairs. This poor woman had to serve the drinks to the 6 or 7 people at the bar, seat people for dinner, take orders, bring drinks from the bar upstairs to the customers at the restaurant, and bring the food from the upstairs kitchen to the diners. There was a light that would go on outside the kitchen from time to time, and she would quickly run in after. This led us to believe that she was cooking the food as well.
The food was average and it took about three hours, literally, but we tipped liberally considering the demanding conditions.
When we got back to the hostel, we used the free wireless in the lobby to check some emails and post some articles. Hanna used the pay phone to call and wish her mother a happy birthday (she had to do it quickly since her money kept running out). We headed up to bed at around 11:30, where we would have one of the strangest experiences of our lives.
It was around midnight, and I was just about to get into the shower. Hanna was in bed and we had some music playing softly in the background. Suddenly, we heard a knock on the door.
“It’s reception. Can you please open the door?” said a male voice.
“Open the door and I’ll tell you.”
Even if we hadn’t adopted the “trust no one” mentality for this trip, there’s no way we would have opened the door. It sounded like a line from a bad horror movie where you scream at the television “Don’t open the door you moron!”
So we both immediately screamed “No! Tell us what you want!”
At that point we heard our door beep and the handle start to turn. This asshole actually opened our door and started to walk in! Since I was up I ran to push the door closed and said, “Woah! What are you doing!” Hanna was screaming similar things from the bed, but they were edited to maintain her dainty, lady-like façade.
Through the crack in the door he said, “I would like to tell you that now is the time for you to turn your music down.”
What!? All this because he wanted us to turn the music down. I made the obvious statement: “You could have just told us that through the door. You didn’t have to barge in here!”
To which he replied, “Yes, but that wouldn’t be very polite.”
Apparently Germans have a much different set of manners than we do. We closed the door, turned down the music, and Gerry-rigged our door closed using the two desk chairs and the open bathroom door.
We started off our day in Nuremberg by heading back to the Old Town. Quickly we realized that we picked the wrong day to visit. It was a Sunday and therefore pretty much everything in the town was closed. We found a little café for breakfast and after that checked out this sculpture depicting the circle of love. It starts with two people falling in love and ends with the woman and man, both depicted as skeletons, strangling each other…with lots of stuff in between.
After that we headed to the old church (closed) and saw that the famous fountain outside was covered by some kind of house. The Nuremberg tourism department was kind enough to leave us with a life-sized black and white photo of what the fountain is supposed to look like…so it’s basically like we saw the real thing.
We continued walking past the Christmas shop (closed, which elicited Hanna’s most endearing puppy-dog face), and onto a different fountain that we could actually see. It is called Beautiful Fountain (those Germans really get to the point quickly) and it was pretty nice, despite the juvenile delinquent attempting to scale it as his parents watched with pride (probably American).
Finally we went up to the castle, which was very cool. The castle in Prague was mostly renovated, but the one in Nuremberg actually looked like it belonged in the Middle Ages. We checked out some old horse equipment, weapons, and armor in the museum then lined up for the guided tour.
The tour was entirely in German, but since we had a few English speakers (Hanna and I were the only ones who raised our hands when she asked if anyone didn’t understand German but more mysteriously appeared once the tour started…cowards), she agreed to go over the highlights with us after she was done with the German explanation.
This was extremely kind of her considering English was her fourth language. She told us that every guide has to know two languages besides German, but hers were Italian and French, so she apologized profusely for her mangled English. Of course she spoke much better English than most of my tenth-grade students last year, but we couldn’t help but think we were missing out.
For example, when we got to the well house, which contained an extremely deep well, she gave a 15-minute explanation in German and at one point everyone in the room erupted in laughter. When she was done she turned to the English speakers and said, “The well is 35 meters deep.” Either the Germans have a very different sense of humor or she left something out.
After that we went to a place called Hutt ‘N, which served food and famous Nuremberg beer. We waited for about 10 minutes before being seated in the same booth as three Germans. After a few minutes of very awkward silence one of them, an Indian-looking man, asked us where we were from.
From there the conversation flourished as we discussed everything from American politics to David Hasselhoff (seriously). All of them (two men and a woman) were old buddies from architecture school. The Indian one (Navin) is now a zoo-keeper in Munich (he showed us pictures of his elephants on his phone), the other man (Nico) works as an architect in Stuttgardt, and the woman (Steffi) is an architect in Nuremberg. They seemed genuinely interested to talk to us, disposing of the myth that Germans are unfriendly. I guess the myth-busting went both ways since Steffi remarked at one point, “You know I generally think Americans are assholes, but every one I meet is actually very kind.” Thanks?
We looked down at our watches and realized that about 4 hours had elapsed along with countless beers and five glasses of pear-flavored schnapps. The two men had to catch a train so we took that as our cue to exit. It was cool to talk to people from the country we were visiting to get a different perspective.
Since it had been a while since we had actually eaten (we had some sausages, sauerkraut, and potato salad between beers), we picked up some food from an Italian take-out place before heading home. There we watched the MTV European Music Awards (which we had been seeing advertisements for since Rome), and I drank about four gallons of water.
The show was ironic because out of all the people who appeared on stage and/or were nominated for awards, I’d say one (a British rapper/singer named Plan B) were actually from Europe. The show was hosted by Evan Longoria and took place in Madrid, which prompted Eva to come out at one point dressed as a piece of ham (I wish I was kidding). She shouted out “JAMON IBERICO!” and the crowd went nuts. Having tasted our fair share of jamon iberico in Spain, Hanna and I had trouble figuring out why people were cheering.
After a good trip to Prague, we set our sights on Nuremberg. When we planned the trip, we knew we wanted to see a city in Germany besides Berlin, but we weren’t sure which one. Hanna had already been to Munich and Hamburg was pretty far out of the way, so we consulted our handy travel books.
After looking through a couple of cities, we arrived at the heading for Nuremberg: Beer, Gingerbread, and Toys. Needless to say we looked no further.
The train from Prague was relatively uneventful. We got another sleeper car, although it wasn’t as nice as the Austrian OBB. It was kind of weird when three police officers in full riot gear (shinguards, batons, plastic shields) boarded our train, but after a cursory glance in our cabin we never heard from them again. When we got into Germany we got a visit from the passport control officers (the nicest yet) who seemed quite impressed when they looked through Hanna’s passport. She balked when they asked, “Where is Dobova?” but I quickly remembered that we got our passports stamped in Slovenia even though we didn’t get off the train. “Aaaaah, Slovenia!” they replied in unison. They smiled and handed our passports back.
We arrived in Nuremberg (or Nurnberg as it is called in Germany) at around 17:00, only to find the train station filled with people dressed in red with scarves and jerseys on. Most of them were drinking so I figured that they were either on their way to or on their way back from a soccer game. Sure enough we asked the lady at the tourist office and she said there was a game earlier that day. We were trying to guess whether they won or lost and we concluded that since nobody was rioting they probably lost.
After a 10 minute walk in the rain, we checked into our hotel and headed across the street to the Aldtstadt, or Old Town, to look for something to eat. Pretty much everything was closed, so we decided to go with a reliable shwarma stand in what seemed to be a Muslim part of town. It was predictably good, and we headed back to the hotel to eat and plan our route for the following day.
In the hotel we were treated to some spectacular German programming. First we saw a special about sex scandals, sex tapes, revealing clothing, etc. on German MTV. It seemed pretty standard until, in the span of about a minute, we saw full-frontal male nudity and several female breasts. That was our first indication that German television was slightly less reserved than its American counterpart.
Our second indication came when we stumbled upon “Das Super Talent,” basically the German version of “America’s Got Talent.” First there was a pole dancer (who remarkably kept her bathing suit on throughout her routine) and she was followed by a crazy-haired middle-aged white man from Zimbabwe who proceeded to perform a strip show. His grand finale was when he, standing completely naked, took a firecracker, shoved it up his rear end, and lit it on fire. When it went off he ran around the stage singing something. The best part was that he actually got a vote to move on to the next round.
After that we found this German talk show hosted by an older German guy with blonde hair. He seemed to be interviewing German celebrities until suddenly, out of nowhere, Denzel Washington came on stage. The host spoke to him in German, which was then translated for him in an earpiece, then Denzel’s response was dubbed into German for television. It was all very strange, but got even weirder when they handed Denzel a piece of paper and he read something in horrible German that ended with “Miley Cyrus!” The camera panned to the stage where Miley proceeded to perform her smash single “Who Owns My Heart (is it love or is it art?)” We were trying to figure out how this random German talk show managed to get Denzel Washington and Miley Cyrus on at the same time. Finally we gave up, realizing that it was much better than any of the other options.