Category Archives: Germany

On the train from Berlin to Gdansk

Despite some lingering concern that flooding in Germany is still disrupting rail service, my train left Berlin’s impressive new train station (hauptbahnhof) right on time, in true German style. Now we are zipping across fields of corn, wheat and some other shimmering yellow crop, through forests of spindly fir trees, stopping at the occasional village with red tile roofs and, sometimes, wind turbines, between Berlin and Gdansk. God is there anything better than a train ride to a brand new place, listening to music on an iPod, feeling decades younger than You are. Probably but I do love the liberating feel of riding a train. Never feel that way on a plane or a bus. Sometimes I feel it in a car but I’ve still got to drive or sit in a confined space. I am in a six person compartment with a sliding door and three young women who seem a little less enthralled by the ride.

What I could use is one of those computerized maps on airplanes so I knew when we are in Poland. I wonder if there will be some telltale signs…beyond signs in Polish. Not sure I know the difference but the latest sign sure looked Polish and some of the young women in my car said we are indeed inPoland and have been for the past 30 minutes or so. Who knew?

My last day in Berlin was pretty laid back. I wandered around Charlottenburg, the gentile neighborhood near my hotel, past elegant buildings and attractive cafes. I browsed around KaDeWe, an opulent department store akin to Harrod’s, although the food halls didn’t have as enticing food. near my hotel in Wilmersdorf, I stumbled upon a quiet well tended residential street (Duisberger or Dusseldorfer Strasse) with a plaque at the corner explaining that this was where Charlottenburg’s Jews were relocated before their ultimate grim destination, the death camps. Took me aback. Reminded me of a conversation I overheard during my first day in Berlin. The dad kept pointing out to his two little kids this sight and that sight but his son kept asking “are there any concentration camps here?” Dad tried ignoring his question but finally said gently, “No, this is a city that is coming back and has all this cool stuff.”

Just arrived in Gdansk and some kind young people here for a big music festival helped me find my hotel, tucked in the old town, a house circa 1451. Two of our favorite bands are playing at the festival, turns out. The National and The Kings of Leon! Who knew? Below are some photos from the train journey!

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Berlin by bike…the way to go!

I wanted to be one of those cool Berliners (or tourists) breezing through the Brandenburg Gate on a bike and today I was. What a kick! For six euros (less than a 6.50 transit day pass) I rented a sturdy thick tire bike from a bike shop near my hotel and pretty much rode from 11 a.m, until 7 p.m. I rode all over the place, checking out new places on my list and revisiting others I had already seen. And I was impressed at how well laid out this city is for cyclists. There are bike lanes all over the place, some in the street, some in the sidewalk (it took me awhile to figure this out but I just followed other bikes along a narrow corridor in the sidewalk that apparently is for riders.) I had a vague sense of where I was going (mainly east and then south) and when I occasionally had no idea where I was, another helpful tourist information sign would appear (ex: Alexanderplatz 1.2 and an arrow pointing the direction).

The best part is that I could cover so much ground in a few hours, see so many things and get a feel for how different parts of the city connect with each other, something you don’t get when you are popping and out of the U bahn (underground subway). From my Wilmersdorf home base I rode east through the Tiergarten, sort of a Bavarian Black Forest version of NYC’s Central Park or even of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with lush green lawns, lots of trees, dirt paths to ride, a lake or river in there somewhere, although I never found it. Next stop, Brandenburg Gate which was even more packed with tourists than yesterday, if that’s possibly. Along with the tourists were fashionistas attending Berlin Fashion Week nearby. (My new geriatric German sandals, bought today at an orthopedic shoe shop located, as fate would have it, around the corner from my hotel…would make the fashionistas shudder. See photo below, along with yet another photo of the view from the roof where I have been enjoying my late evening meal.)

Onto the Holocaust memorial and then Checkpoint Charlie where this time I found another “wall” documentation center of sorts, focused on “terror.” Next stop, a return to the other worldly Alexanderplatz and its Jetsonesque tv tower and famous lumpen world clock. This time I found Karl Marx Allee, famous for its drab communist era concrete high rises. Then I suddenly found myself in Kreuzberg, a bohemian bordering on seedy at times neighborhood with a big Turkish population. I ate donar kebab and drank chai at a well known Turkish restaurant, Hasir, and stopped for a Turkish pastry at the equally well known Turkish bakery Melek Pastanesi nearby. Then onto the East Side Gallery, another stretch of remaining wall that has dozens of bold murals by various artists on one side and more of berlin s remarkable graffiti on the other side. Both sides were well worth a look.

I returned to my neighborhood and had a soda at a little cafe where the owner asked where I was from. “You’ve probably never heard of it, Iowa,” I said, fully intending to give my standard explanation, I.e. near Chicago. But instead the guy responded with a knowing smile, “des Moines?” Turns out he had visited dsm several times, in his previous life in Computer software. So glad I decided to come to Berlin!

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Prenzlauer Berg… The soho/village of Berlin

So my ankles are aching and I have begun to bore a hole in my sandals which I fear may not make it to Poland. But Berlin is worth it. Today, on a perfect sunny day, I set out for Prenzlauer Berg, a trendy neighborhood with leafy pocket parks, pretty architecture, fun boutiques, and one enticing restaurant after another. Sort of reminded me of a mix of the east and west village of NYC. I hAve been using a somewhat outdated but still useful guidebook my London friends lent me, called 100percent Berlin, which has six walks. Beyond the fact that they are longer walks than my feet can handle, they steered me to some good spots, including Kulturbrauerei, a sprawling complex of art venues in an old brick brewery complex; the shops around Kollwitzplatz, And shops along Kastanienallee. Some boutiques didn’t take credit cards, which is a bummer. Alone took visa but not MasterCard; another took MasterCard, not American Express. I bought a few high design little paper journals, a retro Berlin tea towel, and two little cardboard VW buses that you assemble (the whole store was these ingenious cardboard things that you assemble, from boxes to waste baskets). (See http://www.werkhaus.de) The paper store was called Georg Buchner Buchladen.

I had the best chicken schawarma hummus I have ever had at Babel, a popular Lebanese place on Kastanienallee. Lots of people were eating at picnic tables there, which did turn out to be a good sign. Each slice of chicken had a crispy crust full of flavor but the meat was still moist. How can that happen? I also had a delicious chocolate bottomed macaroon at Lindner, one of the many pastry shops.

I went on to the Berlin Wall Documentation Center which gave me a far better understanding of the wall and what it did to Berliners than sites like Checkpoint Charlie. First of all, you get it visually because a section of the wall (or walls since there were actually two walls facing each other across a grassy no man’s land) remained. And stretched out across a long corridor of grass where remnants of some a building and church that were knocked down to build the wall. There were also displays with photos and recordings and old home movies showing how the wall tore families apart (one in particular showed a couple getting married on one side of the wall while the bride’s parents watched from a window on the other side). There were also photos and movies of people jumping out of windows in buildings lining the wall so they could get to the west…including a nine months pregnant woman. And then there were photos of people being evicted from these buildings and the building windows being bricked up to stop the jumpers.

From there I went to the grand Neue Synagogue which was built to resemble the Alhambra in Granada in the 1800s, but didn’t survive the war, nor did most of its community, of course. Some parts have been restored and there is an interesting exhibit about jewish life now and then, plus you can schlep to the dome for great city views. Definitely worth a visit.

On the way back to the s Bahn I picked up at excellent pork Vietnamese Bahn mi sandwich (hey, I am nothing if not a reform Jew, and an Iowa transplant, hence the love of pork) at Babane, a “banh mi deli” which I am eating at a table on the fifth floor roof top patio of my lovely hotel in Wilmersdorff. On the way back here I stopped to people watch for awhile at the Brandenburg gate, which is awash in tourist of all stripes. my favorite site was two veiled middle eastern women taking a photo, as requested, from a guy in a cowboy hat! I took the other scenic bus west, the 100, which did not disappoint.

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Mitte South, Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, gendarmenmarkt, artemisia

Greetings from Berlin where my biggest frustration has been trying to get Internet access on my iPad. I had the same issue in London at my friends house but finally got it. never had any issues in Peru, when I last used it in a foreign land. I did go to a computer store nearby and the guy pressed one button and charged me 15 euros. I thought he was joking. But no.

Anyway, I walked myself silly today and although I made several wrong turns, after awhile I started to understand the lay of the land, literally, and how the various u Bahn and S Bahn trains connect, plus the 100 and 200 Buses, which are cross town buses, doubledecker no less, that offer a great respite from walking long straight streets and some terrific scenery.

I am still trying to work out where “the wall” ran and what is east vs. West Berlin. But it was intriguing to see bits of the wall here and there – the bits by the now super modern Potsdam Platz appear to be covered not only with graffiti but wads of chewing gum. A lot of Berlin requires a better imagination than I have so you can see ugly wall where there are now huge modern buildings and Hitlers bunker where there is now what appears to be an apartment block. ( Right across the street from the other women only hotel I was thinking of staying at, Intermezzo.) while Berlin has its imposing older monuments, the Brandenburg Gate, the post WW2 communist architecture and the 21st century monuments, most notably the Holocaust memorial (which got me choked up as I found myself wandering deep inside the maze of bar slabs of grey stone, laid out in a dizzying number of fluctuating heights) are really the most captivating. Anywhere else, say Chicago and its Cabrini Green housing complex, these bleak concrete slab buildings might be knocked down. But here they are a source of fascination, maybe even pride, a historical record of the brutality of communism. This seemed particularly the case around Alexanderplatz, with its famous bizarre Jetsonesque tv tower and strange mosaics and painted murals on occasional communist era buildings. I also find myself looking at the graffiti differently, as another historic artifact. So that is interesting because architecture I would gave dismissed and graffiti I would have disdained at home, is here in Berlin a surprising source of fascination.

So far, I am enjoying staying at this women only hotel. As I type outside on the fifth floor rooftop overlooking the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorff area, three women in their sixties, from Canada, Germany and Australia are talking about life, carrying for elderly parents, their adventures as retirees, where to eat dinner, which U and S bahn stations have the most stairs.

I did have my fix of grilled Bavarian coarse fried sausages, mashed potatoes and sweet cooked cabbage that I remember eating in Munich and even had a midday (Augustiner Hell) beer at Augustiner Gendarmenmarket, a lovely reconstructed square. When in Rome. But I cannot seem to bring myself to eat curry wurst…which looks even worse than I thought: sausages served with curry powder and then, even worse, ketchup. Ick.

Other interesting sights: a guy juggling while riding a unicycle in front of traffic stopped at a busy intersection (when the traffic started, he put out his collection hat and got out of the way);eight or so tourists riding some awkward contraption that they sat atop in a circle and peddled; tons of cyclists and tourists on bikes, which seems the best way to see everything. Hope to do that!!

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Filed under Germany, London

Thoughts on leaving…

Clockwise:Charlottenburg Palace, Fernsehturm Berlin, Reichstag building, Berlin Cathedral, Alte

So as I’m rushing around trying to do all the last-minute errands  and tie up  work projects before leaving on a three-week trip to Berlin and beyond, I find myself feeling surprisingly sentimental about the calm, comfortable, everyday life I’m shelving briefly. Maybe that’s an unexpected bonus of travel, suddenly appreciating what you’re leaving behind and will soon return to!

Des Moines, Iowa
—  City  —
City of Des Moines

Clockwise from top: 801 Grand (Principal Financial Group), Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, Kruidenier Trail bridge, and the Iowa State Capitol

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Lessons learning while buying train tickets for Eastern Europe

Deutsche Bahn AG
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Who would have thought it would be easier to buy train tickets online for  Peru than for Germany  and  Eastern Europe? Okay, I’m not willing to say that’s true yet. But buying tickets online for train trips this summer through Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic was harder than expected. I managed to find some of the train schedules on the DB Deutsche Bahn website (a German company http://www.bahn.com) but the site didn’t always list  the fares – or indicate when or if the tickets could be purchased online. (In some cases, it looked like I’d have to buy them by making a phone call to Europe.)

Rail Europe Logo

Meanwhile, on the site that I could buy at least some tickets online – Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com) – I couldn’t always find schedules or fares. I finally had to call Rail Europe and pay a $15 fee for phone assistance – which turned out to be worth it, even if I had to leave my name on an answering machine and wait for  an hour for Rail Europe to call me back (better than lingering on hold I guess.) Here are some things I learned through this process:

– If you can find a train schedule but NOT the price or when/if the tickets can be purchased via DB Bahn, email their help line (Sales@bahn.co.uk) and you will get some if not all the information. (This is helpful especially if you’re trying to see if it costs more to take the train or fly.)

– If you can’t figure out how to buy the tix online via Rail Europe, call and pay the additional fee ($33 all toll when you add the processing fee, which includes the cost of mailing the ticket – which are paper and not available for online printout.)  I was told that it would have been very hard  to do-it-myself online because the three train trips I needed to book are unusually complicated. They’re not the typical Yank tourist routes (Berlin-Gdansk anyone? Not to mention Gdansk-Krakow and Krakow-Prague). And they involve three different countries with varying ways of selling train tickets. (The Poles, for example, won’t let you buy your ticket more than a month in advance but I could buy the tickets involving Berlin and Prague about two months in advance.) I also found help by emailing service@raileurope.com.

– Figuring out the price and booking a sleeper for an overnight train is tricky because the countries we’re visiting – unlike some others, apparently – require that you buy two separate items for each journey (a ticket, which  gets you on the train, and a reservation, which specifies a seat or compartment on the train, – as I understand it.)

– A Eurail  pass, which   we’ve used in the past, didn’t work for this trip because of our particular schedule and because we’re taking two overnight trains. Oh well. I liked the ease of the Eurail pass – but then I was traveling for months, not weeks, when I used one on several occasions.

– Read the fine print – especially to see how many stops the train makes! There’s also various classes/speeds of train. I never really figured this all out.

– The Polish Rail website wasn’t much help.

– Rick Steves’ website also has some good information on train travel http://www.ricksteves.com/rail/

– Trains vs. Planes: Sometimes flying is comparable in price to riding the train (ex: Gdansk-Krakow) but not always (example Krakow-Prague where flying was much more expensive.)  Planes of course are a lot faster – for Gdansk-Krakow flying takes 1.5 to 2.5 hours (direct vs. connecting flight) while the direct overnight train takes  11 hours. But we went with the train 1) because we so seldom get to ride a train, especially an overnight train and still find this romantic (that may change.) 2) the times of the direct planes didn’t work well with our schedule  – one was 6:30 a.m. and the other 5:30 p.m.   3) It’s often a hassle to get to the airport vs. the train station. 4) we  do save money by taking an overnight train and not paying for a hotel that night, for what that’s worth.

– I did opt to fly (EasyJet) from London to Berlin rather than take trains. (way too complicated…)

– Paper tickets. Apparently I can’t print tickets out online. And the paper tickets won’t be mailed out until a few weeks before our departure date (even though I bought them two months in advance) because the Polish ticket can’t be issued until a month before we travel. Grrr… Here’s hoping it all works out.

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Filed under Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, public transportation, train