Sunday, March 27, 2005

ICEing it to Berlin

Friday morning, Lance and I left for Berlin. It’s a huge city, and two days doesn’t even begin to cover it, but we chose it so Lance could have the experience of riding the high-speed train (known as the ICE, or InterCityExpress), something he’s talked about doing since we got here.

The high speed train left a lot to be desired. We were unable to secure seat reservations for the 4-hour ride going into Berlin, and that turned out to be a pain. We paid good money to ride the train, and spent most of the time sitting in the section between train cars. This is where the restrooms are and constant traffic. So we didn’t particularly enjoy the trip, although overall, I would say that riding the ICE feels a lot like riding an airplane. It’s just a bit quieter and you’re a lot closer to the ground.

We arrived in Berlin around 2, and dealt with the confusion of trying to figure out how to get from point A (the Berlin Zoo, which is where the train station is located) to point B (our hotel). The route required two trips: the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz, and then the S-Bahn to Anhalter Bahnhof (essentially, they are both subway systems). We made it to Potsdamer Platz and jumped on the S-Bahn, only to discover that we couldn’t get off at Anhalter Bahnhof in the direction we were going…there was construction! So we had to get off at the next stop and take it in the opposite direction to Anhalter Bahnhof. Finally, we got there, and were happy to find out that our hotel was literally right across the street from the S-Bahn station.

So we checked into our hotel, and it was very nice. Reasonably priced, clean, comfortable, microwave, mini fridge, separate bath and shower (really nice DEEP bathtub!), and they left chocolates in our room. It was about a 10 minute walk to Potsdamer Platz, 15 minutes to Brandenburg Gate, 10 minutes to Checkpoint Charlie.

We spent the afternoon after our arrival just walking around the immediate area of our hotel. We came across a section of the Berlin Wall, still in its original location. Right next to it was the “Topography of Terrors” exhibit, located at what used to be Nazi headquarters. We didn’t see that because it was really crowded. But it was essentially a pictorial of Nazi horrors.

We walked up to Potsdamer Platz to check out that area. All the development in the area is really recent. It’s ultra-modern and contains several cinemas, 2 of which are IMAX, a casino, a theater (currently showing Blue Man Group), hundreds of restaurants, and the Arkaden, which is a huge 3 story mall. It’s essentially one of the major areas of town and crawling with tourists.

After our walk, we decided to get dinner at the Italian restaurant right next door to our hotel. Then we walked down the street for some ice cream. We decided to call it a day. Most of the museums were closed around dinner-time and we weren’t sure if the movie theaters had any English language films (we found out later that they did).

We woke up Saturday morning, ate the hotel’s crappy breakfast (just one plain croissant for each of us, and tea for me). We decided to take a city bus tour, one of those “hop on/ hop off” deals. We figured that was the only way we were going to get to see most of Berlin’s sights. We had some time to kill, so we walked around the Arkaden again. Since I had a rather insubstantial breakfast, I went to a bakery and got a “pudding kirsch plunder,” which is this lovely flaky thing with custard and cherry filling. We found the pick-up point for one of the busses, bought our tickets, and waited for it to arrive.

And so the two-hour bus tour began. It was foggy and damp, so it was hard to see things. We were also enclosed, so there was no good way to take pictures. I did manage to get a few good shots through the glass that didn’t have too much glare, but there was so much more that we saw than what I could photograph. We decided that we wanted to get off at Charlottenburg Schloss, which is this huge palace on the edge of town. It was destroyed in WWII but rebuilt and restored to its original splendor. The bus was supposed to stop there, and it did, but not long enough for us to even get off. They announced that they were stopping, Lance and I got out of our seats, and no sooner did we do that than the bus started up again. So we decided to take the S-Bahn back there later in the day. Unfortunately, we never made it back. By the time we saw the other things we wanted to see, it was close to closing time. Too bad too, because there are breathtaking gardens there as well as the interior of the palace.

We got off the bus tour at Potsdamer Platz, got lunch in the Arkaden, then walked up the street to Brandenburg Gate. It’s perhaps the most famous landmark in Berlin, but there is road construction all around it, so our tour bus didn’t even go by it (they claimed that they couldn’t, but other tour companies were taking people there). But we got to actually walk under it and take good pictures, which is better than seeing it from a bus window. After that, we decided to hit Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie was interesting. But it was also extremely crowded, so Lance decided against going to the museum. We just walked around and snapped a few pictures. Lance checked out the booths selling old Soviet artifacts. He almost bought a Soviet Army hat, but for some reason he talked himself out of it. After that, we decided to hit Potsdamer Platz again to get some breakfasty items and some food to eat on the train. Lance had blisters by then and we were both a little sore, so we just went back to the hotel for the night, only running across the street to the Turkish place to grab dinner to go.

This morning we checked out of our hotel and took the S-Bahn and then the U-Bahn back to the zoo. We wanted to walk around the zoo for awhile, but we weren’t even sure it would be open on Easter. Fortunately, it was, and we spent two hours walking around. Berlin’s zoo is AMAZING! They have giant pandas, which is really exciting (and I got a really great shot of Bao-Bao, which took a lot of time and patience). Their ape house is incredible. They have a special dark exhibit for all their nocturnal animals (I got to see bats actually doing more than just hanging upside down!). They had a seal enclosure and the seals were doing jumps. It was so neat. I think Berlin’s Zoo is one of the best I’ve ever seen. And the grounds are just beautiful – lots of sculptures and statues and fountains. The buildings housing the animals are pretty amazing too. I think I probably took more pictures at the zoo than anywhere else.

Around noon-ish, we went back to the train station and got our luggage out of the locker. I ran into the bookstore to buy some reading material for the trip home ($11 for a freaking English-language magazine…are you kidding me?), we stopped in a grocery to get some drinks (everything is open in the train station on Easter Sunday, apparently). We waited for our train to Dusseldorf. This time, we had assigned seats, so we found our seats and had a quite comfortable trip. I got some sleep. I did a lot of reading. It wasn’t bad at all. It took 4 hours to Dusseldorf and then an additional hour from Dusseldorf to Geilenkirchen, and then we were home.

Anyway, enough of my babble. Pictures! There are 45, so brace yourselves. Again, some of them have glare because I took them through windows, but I did the best I could do. I am quite pleased.

Pictures here

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