Monday, October 5, 2009

Heading home

We were mostly packed from the night before, but still woke up nice and early so we wouldn't be late for our flight.  Even though we had plenty of time, we were feeling a bit lazy and decided on taking a cab.  Beyond general laziness, our suitcases were getting very full and heavy!  I have to admit, we did start the trip with large suitcases, but by now they filled to the brim with souvenirs... especially since most of the souvenirs were heavy beer steins!

We got to the airport plenty early and had time to catch one more German breakfast before boarding the plane.  So after a nice breakfast, we checked in and start the long trek home.  We had a nice direct flight to start the trip, but on the way back home we connected through Amsterdam and Memphis before getting into Chicago.  The entire trip was an unbelievable experience, and I think both Kirstyn and I are already thinking about when we can get back to Oktoberfest!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Last full day in Berlin and of vacation!

The morning's goal was to go to see the Reichstag.   We started off with our traditional stop to Balzac to get coffee and breakfast along the way.  As we walked to the government building, we passed by the Brandenburg Gate again and were in for a treat.  Because of the Unity festival going on, there was an visiting performance by a French Marionette group named Royal de Luxe.  This was amazing to see.  The marionettes were over 20 feet tall and took cranes and mass groups of people to work them.  Our first pass by them, they were still "sleeping" from the previous night (meaning the performance for the day hadn't started yet).  So we progressed onto our original morning destination.

We got to the Reichstag basically early enough to avoid the mass crowds.  We still had to wait a little bit, but it could have been a lot worse.  Security was extremely tight, but we finally got in and could ascend to the top.  Much like the dom cathedral, there were amazing 360 degree views from up top.  Once up there we also decided to wait around a bit to see if we could get a good view of the marionettes from the nice height. Unfortunately, they weren't quite moving for us yet, so we decided to move on ourselves.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped along some shops and did a little last minute shopping.  This was a good choice though because I was finally able to find a stein that liked.  I wasn't quite sure if I was going to pick one up or not on the trip, but luckily Kirstyn was nice enough to convince me to do it :) 

Our last tourist stop was one of the coolest of the trip.  We went on a tour of a German FLAC tower from WWII.  This tower was the blown up remains of a fortress that the Germans used to shoot at Allied aircraft during the war.  After Berlin was taken, the towers were blown up in a controlled manner... or at least attempted to be blown up.  The tower we toured was about half left standing and the interior was a twisted mess of huge concrete slabs, re-bar, missing floors, and mounds of rubble.  The tour was fantastic and unbelievably interesting.  It was a great way to finish out our tours from the trip.

Now that all the sightseeing was gone, I was set on finally seeing a Bears game over seas.  And thought I had my answer when I found a bar called Belushi's!  What could go wrong??  Well, we finally found the bar but the Bears game wasn't televised.  Once again, they didn't make international prime time.  So, not wanting to finish our trip eating crappy bar food without a good reason, we decided to make our way back to Sophia's.  The funny thing was that we ran into Frelgy and Cristina there too!  We were both thinking the same thing.  And it was just as good as our first trip there and this time we even tacked on a phenomenal dessert too... homemade German apple strudel... yum

Saturday, October 3, 2009

There and here

We were both still a bit tired and decided to sleep in a bit.  Then our late start, got even later because we found an English broadcast of the 2016 Olympic selection, in which Chicago was a finalist.  We were both curious if Chicago was going to get the bid, so we waited a round a little bit to see what was going to happen.  They were still a ways off from narrowing it down from 4 to 2 cities, but we at least got to see both Daley and both Obamas' speeches.

After we pried ourselves from the TV we started on our official plan for the day which was to venture out to see Postdamn Palace.  It's a little bit on the outskirts of the Berlin PT, but still seemed fairly accessible without a guided tour.  Does this sound familiar?  Yup, just like our "out-of-town-tour" in Prague, we once again failed.  What we didn't understand on the train schedule, is that that line we tried to take out to Postdamn, did run all the way there when we we're trying to go.  So we got to the end of the line for our train and deiced to call it as day.  We could have backtracked a bit a picked up a different train, that seemed to go out where we wanted, but at this point we figured it wasn't meant to be and headed back to the hotel.

After a brief nap, Kirstyn wandered a bit with Christina and I did the same myself.  We met up back at the hotel after a short while and got ready to head out to a German Cabaret for evening entertainment.

We found the Cabaret without any trouble, which was nice after the morning debacle!  It was set up in an enclosed outdoor tent, and like most outdoor settings in Berlin, it was plenty warm in the tent!  The event was packed and nearly every seat was full when we go there.. and we weren't even late!  Needless to say, Kirstyn and I didn't get to sit next to Fregly and Christina, but we did get placed next to a nice couple visiting from Vienna.  The were fun to talk too and the husband was pretty fluent in English.  And the performance however, was entirely in German!  We knew this going in, but still read that it was a fun show.  So while we couldn't understand most of the words, the actors expressions and the orchestras music seemed to tell the tale very well.  Overall, it was a very fun and very worthwhile experience, even with the language barrier.

I didn't really eat dinner tonight, so by the time we got back near the hotel (and had a couple bottles of Riesling :) ), I was pretty hungry.  Luckily, there was a little pizza shop open near our hotel and we grabbed a quick bite.  Not quite what we get back in the states for pizza (especially coming from a great pizza city like Chicago), but it hit the spot!  Now it was time for a good night's sleep!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Another busy day

Another morning and another trip to Balzac! And this morning it served as our gateway to the Dom Cathedral.  It was a little cool and damp, but a nice walk non-the-less.  We did take a bit of an unintentional detour on our way there, but saw some nice sights.  Especially while crossing a couple bridges over the river.  As we approached "a" dome, we quickly realized that the dome we were seeing was in fact a synagogue.  It wasn't too far off from our original destination though and we quickly made it to the Dom we were looking for.

The Dom Cathedral was quite beautiful and large inside.  While exploring in interior, we were serenaded by the huge pip organ.  Thanks to the Rick Steves book that Kirstyn had, we knew that we could walk up the stairs and tour the upper area and a small museum.  The book also told us that there were over 300 steps we had to climb to get to the top which almost deterred us from the ascent.  After a quick back-and-forth we wisely decided to make the climb.

Upon nearing the top, there was a brief stop a the base of the dome on while still inside, which provided and nice view of the inside up high.  The real reward occurred a little later after we got to the top of the outside and were able to walk around the exterior of the dome.  This provided us an extremely chilly yet stunning 360 degree view of Berlin.

As we exited the cathedral we made our way to the Deutsches museum, aka, the German History museum.  As soon as you enter you are treated to a fairly large relief map on a floor display showing an area including what is now Europe, parts of Asia, and parts of northern Africa.  What made this so cool is that they had a projector above displaying regions overlay-ed on top of the map which changed every few seconds.  What is showed was what people "owned' of the different regions throughout time.  Very, very interesting!

The rest of the museum was cool too, but by the end a bit overwhelming!  I found the medieval armor and weapons very fascinating... especially how small the sets of armor were!  I know that the men that wore them were fairly young, but i also think it shows how much smaller people were back then too.  Another particularly interesting display was a mask that we both thought looked like a Tuscan Raider (aka, "Sandperson") mask from Star Wars.  Apparently, it was a mask used by doctors who were treating plague at the time.  The mask has an odd "beak-shaped-nose" that would contain vinegar soaked rags to allow the doctor to breath cleansed air.

A little past the halfway point we stopped and got lunch.  The nice part here is that I was able to get a good Pauliner beer and some white veal brats!  Yum!  Again, not nearly as good as in Munich, but still filled a food void I've had since then.  After lunch we were both getting a little tired and perhaps a bit overwhelmed at the breadth of the museum.  So we picked up the pace a bit for the remainder and made our to our next attraction.

Once at the Brandenburg Gate we saw the start of the setup for the unity day festival.  This turned out to be a great place to grab some more authentic German sausages, that were pretty close to what we got in Munich!  The festival was small in comparison to Oktoberfest, but still covered a lot of ground.  As we continued on, rain started to come down fairly heavy.  We switched to walking on a nearby park path that  paralleled our planned route for the most part.  Our hope was to get a little bit of cover thanks to the trees.  This worked fairly well and although wet, we made it to the Victory Column.  At last, we were closing in on the train station too, which would keep us dry on the last leg of our sightseeing adventures for the day.

Our last stop of today's self tour was to see the remains of a cathedral that was bombed out during the war.  The decision was made to leave it "as is" after the war as a reminder of what happened.  It was pretty unreal to see.  The little bit of the interior that is standing and open for people to visit had pictures and models of what the cathedral looked like both before and after the bombings.

Today was a long day of  walking around so we took an easy route of heading back the indo-fusion place for dinner.  After a quick stop there we went back to the hotel room to relax a back and watch a movie.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wandering around Berlin

Our morning journey started off with trying to find ourselves some breakfast.  There was a coffee shop a couple doors down from our hotel, but decided to walked a little farther and found a place called Balzac.  On our way across the street to Balzac, we got our first exposure to the communist era "Walk/Don't walk" signs.  A very unique part of Berlin that it is intermixed with standard, modern walk signals and the communist era walk signs that Kirstyn and I ended seeing and really enjoying!  The coffee at Balzac was very good as well as their breakfast sandwiches... this quickly became a standard start too our mornings.

One of our first official stops was going to be the Jewish museum which was recently renovated with the design done by a well know architect (Kirstyn was particularly excited to see the space).  Although it ended up not being one of Kirstyn's favorite works by this particular architect, we both thought the design was still well done and moving.  It really portrayed a sense of uneasiness and wandering which seemed appropriate based on what the Jewish people went through in Germany during WWII.

Next, we continued onto Check Point Charlie.  This is one of the more famous checkpoints that existed to allow (or not allow) people to travel between communist and free Germany, aka East and West Germany.  They still have the remaining checkpoint building, complete with a person in a replica soldier's uniform.  Also, depending on which side of the checkpoint you are on, there is a large picture of a young American or Russian soldier.  Nearby, there is a museum dedicated to Checkpoint Charlie which was quite fascinating.  Not only was there interesting facts about post WWII Germany, but there were a ton of stories of people escapes from East to West Germany.  Complete with actual props, photographs and eyewitness accounts.

Beyond the museum and the old checkpoint, there are still makings of where the Wall once stood.  It is quite surreal to stand over the markings and to think what was once there.  In fact, there are still some parts of the Wall still left standing as a reminder too.  This led to an outdoor museum about the SS called the Topography of Terror.  This outdoor structure however is only temporary until the permanent indoor structure is finished.

From here we made our way to Potsdamer Platz.  Postdamer was a nice place, with a mix of German corporate and consumer culture.  Upon arrival we spent some time walking around trying to find some warmer gear for Kirstyn (a hat and scarf in particular).  She was pretty torn on some of the stuff she saw there, but eventually found a hat to help keep her warm.  Postdamer Platz is also home to a Lego Store and the Sony European headquarters, and it's always fun to walk around electronics stores... at least for me!

With all the walking we were starting to get hungry and were lucky enough to find a German pub which had currywurst on the menu!  So we stopped in and split a wurst and a couple beers.  Not as good as we had in Munich, but it definitely hit the spot for the time being.

After getting back to the hotel we wanted to try to find some authentic German cuisine and our concierge was extremely helpful.  She recommended a place called Sophia's which was a short 15 minute walk from the hotel.  The restaurant was filled with locals but also ready for the occasional tourist (which means, like most German places, the staff speaks English and has an English menu!).  The food and atmosphere here was exceptional and this wouldn't be our last visit!

Day of visit: 10/1

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

First night in Beliln

After the great train ride into Berlin we were instantly blown away by the city at night.  Even the train station was amazing.  It was immediately apparent how different this part of our trip was going to be from our other German leg of the trip in Munich.

There was a very helpful gentleman in our train compartment along the way.  He gave us some tips about Berlin and Germany in general.  He was also kind enough to show us the way via PT to our hotel.  However, we were beat from our travel and ready to just hop a cab to the hotel (after finding a place in the station to change in our Czech Crowns for Euros).  The cab was really nice too.  In fact, it was a Mercedes, and the only time I've been in cab as nice was in Japan when we got a ride in an Infiniti M45!

We definitely liked our in Berlin, and it was fairly comparable to the feel of the hotel we liked so much in Prague.  We were up on the 5th floor and had a really nice view out of our window.  At first I was under the impression that there wouldn't be free internet (based on the hotel guide in our room), but then talked to  the receptionist and found out that it is free.  There actually wasn't wifi, but they give out cables to plug your laptop in with.  Yeah! :)

We weren't expecting Fregly and Christina until tomorrow since they were scheduled to be in Prague an extra day.  However, after a handful of minutes in our room, someone was knocking on our door... guess who!  Yup!  They decided to bail a day early and eat the cancellation fee from their hotel.  In fact, they even ended up on an earlier train into Berlin than us!

After the surprise greeting, we all went across the street to a Thai/Indian/Somalian/(and probably a few other things) fusion restaurant and got some dinner and wine.  This place hit the spot and even though the night was getting quite chilly, we were all very warm sitting outside near the heat lamps... even Kirstyn!!!  The outdoor area with heating lamps theme seemed to be quite popular in Berlin and I wish Chicago would take a queue from them!  And keeping with other themes of the trip, the wine at our late dinner got us off to a slow start the next morning :)

I can't belive the last leg of the trip is hear!

Feeling pretty good myself after a good night's sleep, but Kirstyn thinks she's coming down with something.  Hopefully it will pass and not affect the tail end of the trip for her. 

We made it down to breakfast with plenty of time and are enjoying being able to take our time and relax.  The only thing on the agenda before the train is to head out to see the dancing building by one of Kirstyn's favorite architects.

We got paced and cleaned up before proceeding to check out.  Like most places they were nice enough to hold our bags for us while we meandered a bit before leaving the city.  The "Fred and Ginger" building (as it's also known because it looks like two people dancing, ie Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts) was pretty cool.  We didn't stay long, but did get some good pictures.

One our way back to the hotel to get our bags, we stopped in a pub and got lunch.  We found a good place relatively near our hotel and had some Czech potato soup in a bread bowl.  Yum!  The service was also very good and was a nice way to close out Prague with found memories.

We had a bit farther to go this time to the train station because the train to Berlin doesn't depart from the same station that we arrived in (which is the main station in Prague).  It was a little cool out but we decided to walk it still, even though we had our heavy bags bags with us.  We arrived with plenty of time, but couldn't see anything about trains to Berlin!  We quickly realized that although we were in a different station than the main Prague station, we still were in the wrong one.  Oops.  At this point we needed to hop a cab to get us to the right place, and luckily found one in time.  He quoted us a price up front which put us a little at ease, but the path there was quite a mess of zig-zagging streets!  With out a set fair I would have been convinced that we were getting taken advantage of.  He was good and we there with about 10 minutes to spare (and we definitely wouldn't have made via foot or PT at that point either).

The train ride to Berlin from Prague was beautiful and the most scenic route of the trip.  At the time of writing this we've only got an about an hour and 1/2 left and we'll be there!