Monday, 7 July 2014

Travel Post: Berlin, Germany

Berlin was relaxing, moving, emotional, educational and fun. It definitely deserves it's reputation as a cool city - one third of it's space is 'green', it's incredibly pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and everywhere you look are tattooed, pierced, shaved-headed groups of people (not just teens, either!). We've never seen so few cars in a city!

We stayed at the Ramada Hotel in Alexanderplatz - the staff were really helpful and lovely, the hotel breakfast was incredible (yoghurt, toast, cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, cold meats, cheese, fresh fruit...) and the gym was ideal for a basic workout. The room itself was spacious, with a copy of Berliner magazine, a comfy chair, desk and little hanging wardrobe, and the bathroom had a waterfall shower! 

I was warned before we went that Germany doesn't have the best choice of food for vegetarians, but thankfully I didn't find this the case. Near our hotel was Dolores cafe, which does the most delicious vegan, vegetarian and meat burritos, and in the Alexanderplatz station was a Backwerk shop, which has a delicious selection of pastries, fresh bread and sandwiches. We also went to Cafe V in Kreuzberg. So, no problem on the food front. 

I've really struggled to decide which are my top 5 places to visit, as everything we saw was worth seeing. However, for the sake of making this a blog post and not a sermon on the merits of Berlin, here they are...

The Topography of Terror

This sounds like a miserable place to visit, and while the information boards are harrowing and saddening – they detail the rise of Hitler through to the end of the Nazi regime, including the punishment of SS officers and high-up Nazi officials – the place itself is clean, spacious and modern. The Topography of Terror is a memorial site, which people are asked to remember when visiting, so it is peaceful and gives the opportunity to reflect. It doesn’t seem right to say I ‘enjoyed’ going here, but it’s in my top 5 because the experience was poignant - the boards ran along the length of the site, parallel to a length of the Berlin Wall, almost like a double reminder of the effects of dictatorship. As well as describing the devastating history, there are also tales of hope, of people who fought against the Nazis.
Checkpoint Charlie is right next to the Topography. We visited the Black Box museum, which cost just 5 euros each, and saw an alarming video on exactly how the Berlin Wall defences worked. I don't know a lot about the Cold War, but this museum broke it down into easily understandable events.

checkpoint charlie
The Topography of Terror

The German History Museum
The museum itself is a wonderfully pink building, with several temporary and permanent exhibitions, but we went specifically to see one about WWI which was advertised in Berliner magazine. I was curious to see how the war would be represented, and was impressed with how neutral the exhibition was - neither the Allies or Germany were blamed. It was completely absorbing, with thorough descriptions of specific battles, propaganda displays, and artefacts. After this, we went to see the permanent exhibition on Germany under the Nazis - I was quite upset by some of the photographs, particularly of Auschwitz victims. Again, I admired how the museum didn't shy away from this ugly part of its history.
Berlin Cathedral is in front of the museum. The cathedral's museum has some impressive and detailed models of its development from the 19th century until now. As well as being able to climb to the top and look out over Berlin, you can also visit the crypt. We were offered a discounted entry of 4 euros because we couldn't visit the main area of the cathedral, however the service finished while we were there so we got to go in after all.

history museum berlin
German History Museum

Schloss Sanssouci
'Sans souci' translates to 'without worry' in French, appropriate given this was Frederick the Great's summer residence. Situated in picturesque Potsdam, 30 minutes on the train from Alexanderplatz, this royal palace was obviously extravagant, but was much smaller and therefore seemed somewhat homelier. The intricate ceiling designs and floral furniture were truly breathtaking, but the palace was small enough that you didn't become desensitised to the surrounding splendour. Situated a few hundred metres from the palace was a windmill, so we explored that too - I've never been in a windmill before!
There are hourly tours at Sanssouci - you will be told the next entry time when buying your tickets.

sanssouci potsdam
Schloss Sanssouci

Schloss Charlottenburg
Unsurprisingly, this was named after Queen Charlotte! We underestimated how long it would take us to walk from the Reichstag to here, but we finally arrived one rain shower and two hours later. On the way, we saw the victory column which Hitler wanted to place at the entrance to Germania, the city he was planning to build, so the walk itself was pretty if not exhausting. Anyway, the palace was beautiful - the silver table decorations and china plates were priceless, but my favourite part was walking through the gardens and relaxing by the lake. Several ducks and little birds came over to enquire if we had any food, and a heron flew over the water while we were looking out - it was a perfect end to the palace visit. I also enjoyed seeing the mausoleum; it was bigger than I thought it would be!

charlottenburg potsdam
Schloss Charlottenburg

Schloss Cecilienhof
Styled like a Tudor house, this was the last palace built by the Hohenzollern family, who ruled Prussia and Germany until Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication in 1918. It is most famously known for being the location of the Potsdam conference in 1945, where Stalin, Churchill and Truman decided Germany's fate after WWII. It was really special to be in the room where hugely significant political decisions had been made 70 years earlier. There is a peaceful and scenic 2 kilometre walk through Neuer Garten to reach the house, which I'd recommend, as it has woods on one side and a lake on the other.
On the road by Cecilienhof is a bus stop which takes you back into Potsdam in about 15 minutes. 

potsdam conference
Schloss Cecilienhof

Useful tips:
You will need to buy a photography permit - 3 euros per time - at most of the historic buildings and houses.
Most places, including cafes, charge 50 cents to use the toilet, so carry change in case you get desperate.
Specify that you want tap water, or you'll end up paying over 3 euros for a small carafe!
The transport is always on time, easy to use and inexpensive.
You will need to book well in advance to visit the Reichstag. We couldn't visit it because there were no free slots until the week after we'd left.

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