Let's not forget Liechtenstein or Austria!
20.07.2012 - 26.07.2012 34 °C
From Hildesheim, Germany we headed east toward Berlin. We took a small break in Brandenburg, then arrived at our next Couchsurf host, located in a very lovely neighborhood outside the center of Berlin (Falkensee). Lots of solar panels, bicycle paths, trees, narrow, cobblestone streets. It was hard to believe we were within a 30-minute train ride of 'downtown' Berlin.
We stayed with another wonderful host family with two children (ages 17 and 12) along with an exchange student/friend from Canada. We took over the third floor and remarked that if felt a bit like a "souped up" version of Harold's place outside of Canterbury, England. We joined the family for home cooked meals and our host was so helpful in telling us where we should begin with our 2-day sightseeing tour of Berlin. Of course 2-days is hardly adequate to see the sights of Berlin, but that's all we had.
It is truly amazing how little we all know about Berlin, or Germany, except for the very small bits we learned in our world history books. We bought a group train ticket and worked our way into the center. First stop: Potsdamer Platz and the Sony Center. Then, we walked to the Brandenberg Gate, which symbolizes the unity of peace of not only the former east/west Berlin, east/west Germany, but of all peoples. We first entered the 'room of silence and tolerance', then watched street perfomers and soaked in the positive energy.
On the way to the Gate we noticed a monument and memoral dedicated to homosexual persecution in Berlin and Germany during the Nazi Regime. I've never seen anything quite like it.
There is also a museum in Berlin dedicated to the persecution of homosexuals, but unfortunately we did not have a chance to see it. To me Berlin feels like a place of reconciliation and healing. When one hears a certain name of a city (for example Dachau) it's very difficult to not associate it with war atrocities. It feels to me like the city of Berlin feels a deep responsibility - an obligation - to have memorials, museums and monuments, as well as being a beacon of human rights. From the Brandenberg gate we walked back through the Holocaust Memorial. There are two parts to the memorial, the steely gray concrete blocks (that are meant to depict barren, despair and confusion and emptiness amist closeness).
The bottom part is a museum with stories, photographs and video. As the sign said "not recommended for under 14", we decided not to go in. One has to have knowledge of that horrific past and be ready to bear witness to the atrocities committed before entering and seeing it all. There is plenty of time for Marleigh to learn about this dark and disturbing time in history.
We went back to Potsdamer Platz and headed to another historic monument - a small section of the Berlin wall with an interpretive section.
We quickly realized there was a narrow set of bricks on the ground outlining where the former wall used to be. We followed it all around, until it took us to a longer section of the wall, and now a monument), called "the topography of terror". This is a substantial section of the Berlin wall (perhaps 200 meters) with lots of 'pick marks'. On the other side are remnants of the former S.S. headquarters - Hitler's headquarters. The site is now a memorial, monument and museum and provides an overview of the entrance of the Nazi party into the German government, it's dominance, expansion, oppression and repression, the war, holocaust and aftermath, and the cold war and division of Berlin.
From there we walked a short distance up to see the remains of "Checkpoint Charlie" and now all the tourism that has ensured. I have to say that for all the historical significance of Checkpoint Charlie during the cold war, I was disappointed with its' current presentation. There is too much tourism and selling of "pieces of the wall" and former Soviet Union and Russian chachkas, instead of presenting this important portion of the wall with more historical context.
We stopped in for a glance at the Trabi musuem which contains a collection of Trabant cars. The cars work and are ready for a tourist sight-seeing adventure.
We found our S-bahn stop and took the S-bahn back to Falkansee to the CouchSurf host for the evening. The next day we returned to the center of Berlin and started with a walk along the eastside Berlin wall gallery. A 1200 meter section of the wall (the largest remaining intact section) which has been converted into a mural art gallery. Local artists and artists from around the world came to leave their everlasting impressions.
As it was the first day of warmth and sunshine we'd experienced in several weeks, we spent the majority of the day walking around the center, peeking into shops and exhibits, watching amazing street musicians and enjoying the atmosphere.
One thing we all commented on is the vibrant nature of Berlin. It is a mix of old and new and there are construction projects everywhere. There is modern and bold architecture mixed in with classic and historic. It is also remarkably clean. As I commented before and I wsill frankly state it again, I (we) know surprisingly little (okay, I'll just say it - I (we are) am ignorant of the rich history and culture of Berlin, Germany and every place we have visited (or plan to visit). We left Berlin zentrum at 5:00 pm and returned to a family bbq at the CS host family. They had purchased vegetarian bratwurst (is that ever an oxymoron!) for us. We met family members and friends and learned much more about life in Berlin and Germany during WW II and the cold war.
On July 23rd we bade farewell to Berlin and headed off for another grand adventure - Prague, Czech Republic. Our CS host suggested we stop in Dresden. All we knew about Dresden is that it was bombed heavily in WW II. A bit of advice (perhaps this is lesson #4 in Couchsurfing): when a local makes a suggestion about a place to visit, take them up on their suggestion. First we went to the neustadt (new city) and walked around. Then we saw a postcard of the river and saw some incredible buildings. We were told that was the altstadt (old city). We drove over a bridged, parked the car and walked around for just over an hour. It was absolutely fantastic and we made a mental note that Dresden deserves much more than an hour+ to explore.
GERMANY TO THE CZECH REPUBLIC
As we neared the Czech Republic border, the GPS unit started freaking out. Fortunately we were somewhat prepared as we had tried to put in the address of the pension in Prague the night before and the GPS didn't recognize it. Although the GPS unit is supposed to work worldwide, I don't think the Eastern Europe maps were ever loaded up. So, we used our old fashioned road atlas Europe and a paper copy of Google map directions to make our way...but they failed us miserably as we entered into the Czech Republic. We missed an exit and got hopelessly lost in a small town, where no body spoke English. As we were unable to comprehend one single workd in Czech, we resorted to pointing frantically at the map.
We finally found ourselves in the northern sector of Prague (Praha 8), but could not find our way to our hotel. Fortunately we found a gas station, bought a wonderfully detailed map/atlas of Prague and within moments navigated our way to the Pension Sparta. Earlier on we had arrangements with a Couchsurf host, but for a number of reasons needed to change our plans. The Pension Sparta was a fantastic find; we had two rooms (one for Andy and I, and one for the girls), included was a full breakfast for a total of 81 euros/night. Equally our dinner, metro tickets and general merchandise was considerably cheaper than what we've experienced in the western European countries we've visited.
On July 24th, after an amazing breakfast of eggs, bread, cheese, jam, chocolate, tea, coffee, juice, we walked first to a grocery store, then to the tram station (the day before when we were hopeless lost, we purchased some snacks with euros and received Czech koruna (25 Kč = 1 euro) which we needed for our tram tickets. Although the manager of Pension Sparta more or less told us which tram station to take to get to the center of Prague, it really was 'all Greek" (okay, all Czech) to us. It is a very odd feeling to have people speaking and have absolutely NO clue what they are saying...not a single word...nada...zippo...zilch. Nonetheless, we got off in the Centrum and wandered the streets of Prague. First stop - an ATM machine where we received a wad of Kč (which really wasn't much money).
As we walked the streets, the girls "mall radar" kicked in and they spotted the Palladium, a very large indoor mall that is situated over the remains of
foundations of 12th-century structures. The medieval structures and walls have been incorporated into the architecture of the mall. We promised the girls we would return after we did a bit of sightseeing of Prague. We went to the Old Town Square and walked up the the Old Town Hall Tower & Astronomical Clock. From there we had a fantastic view of all of Prague.
As it was quite hot (we just weren't used to the heat and sun), we ducked in and out of souvenir shops. By mid-afternoon it was time to head back to the Palladium mall and find some food. Shortly there after we took a tram back to Praha 8 and relaxed in our pension.
For our second day (and last) day in Prague, we started our adventure in a slightly different location. We crossed the infamous Charles Bridge (it took quite a long time as there were artists, vendors, musicians and a lot of people crossing the bridge).
We wandered the streets and walked our way toward the Prague Castle. On the way, we wandered into a cathedral called St. Nicholas, built in a baroque style. WOW! Perhaps the most ornate and impressive cathedral we've ever seen!
We didn't pay to enter the grounds but walked all around. Marleigh had her eyes on a little mole character (in Czech originally called Krtek, or Krteček (little mole)) which was a popular TV cartoon character. Unfortunately this little mole was kind of expensive.
We obviously didn't spend enough time in Prague and I think this is the kind of city where going with a guided tour, or tour bus could be very, very useful. So, we'll add this city to the growing list of cities to return to.
We left Prague on July 26th and had a very long drive ahead of us. We actually left our pension fairly early, but got terribly lost leaving Prague. When we finally left Prague and were on the highway toward Germany - Austria - Switzerland, it was nearly noon. This was a day of driving..quick stops...driving...quick stops, etc. Finally, at about 7:00 pm we arrived at our next couchsurfing destination in Sargans, Switzerland.
SWITZERLAND, LIECHTENSTEIN, ITALY AND BEYOND -- and for the next blog entry
While we still have plenty of adventure left, we are also coming to the end of our European travels and life abroad. Travel is exhilerating; travel expands the mind; but travel is also exhausting. We are all winding down and looking forward to settling in back home and not living out of a suitcase and not having to wear the same semi-stinky clothes each day. For us, we'll get a chance to re-collect ourselves back in Plasencia, Spain and hopefully connect once again with all the friends we've made this past year. We'll be coming into Plasencia on August 14th (late afternoon) and will be there until August 19th (early afternoon). We'll have lots to do, but also want to spend time socializing and catching up.
Until the next entry...
Abrazos, Shari and family