Friday, January 9, 2015

Berlin

Cityscape of Berlin with Berlin TV Tower from the roof of Park Inn.At this point it has been more than a month since we came back from our vacation to Germany and Austria and we have yet to put down our thoughts on “paper” — it’s always hard to decide how to go about it. In short — it’s been great. We had a chance to truly relax, see a lot of great things and try a lot of delicious things from local cuisines. And of course we drank lots and lots of beer.

The Flight


Lufthansa.The flight itself was pretty uneventful. It was a red-eye trip via Lufthansa on Boeing 747 with a changeover at Frankfurt. Because it was a red-eye flight it was rather hard on us. We’re not used to not sleeping for that long, and due our general inability to sleep on a plane we were just falling in and out of consciousness, yet not sleeping everywhere, including during our wait for our plane to Berlin at Frankfurt.

Arrival


Streets of Berlin.When we got to Berlin we went through the passport control quickly, got our bags and were on our way to catch a taxi. Now Germany turned out to be probably the only country that has a higher concentration of … wait for it … German cars than Brighton Beach. I supposed there must be some kind of tax breaks that German car makers get that makes their cars affordable for pretty much everyone.

Berlin streets.All taxis were for the most part made by Mercedes Benz. They were all beige in color too. We got into one and asked to get us to Hilton Berlin. Since there is only one Hilton in Berlin driver knew were to go. The only notable thing that happened during the ride was the driver who was of non-German origin stopping in the front of one of the plain looking buildings and saying: “This building is typical Nazi architecture. Like it?” We had no idea how to respond to that, so we just stayed quite.

TV Tower.During our drive through the edges of the city we saw a lot of empty and beat up places and structures. We also noticed huge quantities of construction cranes all over the city from one edge to another. But the city looked quite unwelcoming until we got to more central parts of it. There everything looked clean, new and pleasant. The city is quite modern, which probably is a result of it being leveled during the war.

Enormous ex-Soviet, now Russian embassy. It was huge.The ride from the airport took about 20 minutes. When we got to our hotel Alёna got out of the car while I was paying the driver. When both of us got out of the car we saw that Alёna has pulled out two 50 pound suitcases out of the trunk by herself. The driver’s eyes doubled in size and he proclaimed: “Whow, strong woman!” I have no idea what possessed Alёna to do that, but it was quite hilarious.

First Night


Our suite.Hilton welcomed us as Hilton often does. They put us on a high floor and upgraded our room to an executive corner suite with a spectacular view of a square right across the street from the hotel with German and French churches and apparently one of the famous markets which exist all over the place, especially close to holiday seasons — Gendarmenmarkt. Alёna kept referring to our suite as an apartment because it was indeed quite big. They also gave us a bottle of champagne on ice and congratulated us with our anniversary.

One of many markets.We thought that when we get to Germany we will be totally like zombies and the only thing that we’ll want to do would be sleep. That’s what happened to us in Italy. However here for some reason we got a second wind and went out exploring the nearby area. We walked around the square where Gendermenmarkt was located, but the market on it was closed. They were preparing it for the holiday season and it was in a construction mode. It did open a day later. And we found a lot of similar markets all throughout Germany and Austria later on.

Hilton Berlin.Eventually we settled on the dinner in a place that we were passing by called Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt. It was packed with people and it was about 4:30pm. When we came in nobody paid attention to us. As we later noticed it was the case everywhere and while in US you expect to be seated by a hostess in Germany people just come in and pick their own table.

East Berlin traffic light.Eventually one of the waiters came by and we asked him for a table. He looked over the notes of reservations and said something about 3 hours in broken English. We were quite disappointed to find out that we had to wait for 3 hours. He asked if we wanted to sit down now. We said, sure, that’s why we’re here. He mentioned 3 hours again. We were very confused by now. Eventually we figured out that we actually could have a table right away, but we had to be done with our dinner in 3 hours since the table had a reservation for 7:30. Yeah, I think we could finish our dinner in 3 hours.

West Berlin traffic light.For our first dinner we ordered two entries — two different kinds of wursts with sauerkraut and cabbage. And of course there was mandatory beer. Everywhere we went we ordered wheat beer with our meals. Beer in Germany is served in at least half a litter glasses in majority of places and that’s what we stuck with. They also serve it in the properly marked glass with a logo of the beer that you’re drinking and they give you a bierdeckel (a cardboard coaster that you place your glass on) that we ended up collecting. Our dinner was delicious and atmosphere of the restaurant was great.

Berlin bear.As you can imagine we consumed quite a large quantity of beer. We also did a lot of sleeping. We were going to bed early and to our surprise we were waking up quite late — 8-9am. We slept at least 10 hours every day. So that’s exactly what we did next. We went to our hotel and got into the bed. That’s pretty much how our vacation went — we saw a lot of cool things, walked a lot, eat and drank a lot and rested. It was great.

Berlin Day One


Checkpoint Charlie.The location of our hotel turned out to be perfect. Imagine a triangle with Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate on one corner, Checkpoint Charlie on another, Fernsehturm (TV Tower) on the third corner and our hotel and Gendarmenmarkt at the center. Those are the places that we wanted to see during our first visit to Berlin and it couldn’t have worked out better.

Museum.We got a great night of sleep, ate breakfast at our hotel and set out to see Checkpoint Charlie. This place was a border crossing from Soviet part of Berlin into an American controlled one. There is a sign next to it warning people in large letters that they are about to leave American territory. Also there is a museum dedicated to bad life of people in DDR (Soviet Germany) and how many people tried to escape to the west. We walked around and maybe we’re cold hearted, but we just could not feel bad about those people considering the events that lead to the split of Germany in the first place.

Brandenburg Gate.After that we set out to see the Brandenburg Gate. As I said before the city seemed quite modern and there wasn’t much of anything old left. The gate itself was nice to see as it is such a famous monument. The gate is located next to Teirgarten — Central Park like place. I read somewhere that there was a monument to Soviet soldiers not far into the park, so we set out to find it. It wasn’t far from the entrance. The monument was huge. It had several large columns dedicated to different parts of the army, a huge Soviet crest and a statue of the soldier. Everything was written in Russian. It felt weird to see such a monument to somebody who conquered your country some time ago. I think it’s very nice of them to preserve this piece of history.

Monument to Soviet soldiers.Reichstag — the government building — was also nearby. But one needs a reservation to actually go inside for a tour, which we luckily have made on our last day in New York. I somehow missed this piece of information, but Alёna spotted it just in time. However the availability was limited therefore our reservation was for the next day. We walked around, took some pictures and went back to the hotel.

Reichstag.The weather was not very cold and it was the only sunny day that we had. On the first day Alёna has spotted that Berlin is covered in wooden bears. They have some art project going and they were all over the place. All similarly shaped, but each one had a different paint job.

Berlin bears.After a nice rest at the hotel we were ready for a second half of the day. The day itself was special — it was our 8th wedding anniversary. We had planned ourselves a nice dinner at the top of Berlin TV Tower at the rotating restaurant in the sphere. We paid €50 ahead of time to reserve a table by the window and a-line-free ride up the tower. The sun has already set down by the time we got up the tower, so the pictures weren’t very good. Also there is no open air observatory up there.

Berlin street with TV Tower in the background.We sat down at our table. The view was great. Dark blue sky over the city full of lights. The special dinner was going to be memorable. The restaurant was indeed spinning. After about 15 minutes of sitting down Alёna said that it appears to be making her dizzy. We decided to switch places, so Alёna would be facing forward. That didn’t help. After 20 minutes our waiter didn’t show up and Alёna was getting dizzier. We decide to leave. We wanted the evening to be memorable good, not memorable bad. So we figured, fine, we’ll just find a nice non-spinning restaurant closer to earth somewhere.

Berlin TV Tower.We walked out of the tower, but before finding a restaurant we decided to checkout Park Inn. In my pre-trip research I was looking for a place that would let me take bird-view picture of the city with a tower as the centerpiece. Park Inn was not far form the tower and from what I read it had an open deck on the roof accessible by tourist. The only “but” about this place was that access was granted to those who wanted to bungee jump from the roof for €70. I was hoping to convince them to let me out there for pictures for a smaller sum of money, but most importantly without having to jump off the roof at the end. We were happy to discover that one could get to the roof for picture taking for just €3 per person. By now it was too dark, but we decided to come back the next day for the sunset.

Anniversary dinner.After that we started walking back to our hotel while looking at the menus of various restaurants that we were passing by. Near one place that were considering we ran into a guy who asked us for a light in German. When we responded that we don’t speak any German he detected our Russian accent and switched to Russian. He saw us looking at the menu and said that it was a very nice and popular spot. For some reason I thought that the guy was the owner and the last thing I wanted to do is eat at a Russian restaurant in Germany. We have plenty of those in Brooklyn.

Our 8th anniversary.And we walked away, but then decided to give it a look inside. It turned out to be somewhere below the ground level, but the place looked very cozy and was packed with people. The guy that we met outside was sitting at the table and was one of the customers. And that’s how we picked the place for our special anniversary dinner — Gasthaus Mutter Hoppe.

View from the tower.We ordered two glasses of wheat beer (half a litter each) and some herring appetizer which turned out to be quite delicious. For the main course we ordered wild boar and sauerbraten — sour roast meat. Wild boar was excellent. Sauerbraten was OK, but our local German place in Brooklyn serves a better, softer version of it. All in all we had a great dinner and have a “spinning” story to go along with it. We also got a nice stack of beer coasters given to us by the waiter when we asked for a clean pair of the ones we were using.

The gate.We got back to our hotel, spent some time in the executive lounge where I found some excellent sour cherry juice among many other things and went to bed at about 8pm. It was a great first day.

Berlin Day Two


On the roof.On our second day we woke up not so early. The plan for the day was simple — tour the Reichstag in the first half of the day and get up on the roof of Park Inn for some cityscapes. The morning was rainy. We were thinking of a place where we could buy a pair of umbrellas as we forgot to park ours. When we asked at the front desk if they could point us in the right directions they said they couldn’t, but would happily land us a pair. That’s how we ended up with a pair of nice, large Hilton branded umbrellas.

Reichstag roof.We made our way to Reichstag via some different streets and were inside the government building rather quickly. We got up to the roof and inside the glass dome which also had walkways leading to the very top of the dome itself. It was really nice and allowed us to look at the city from a different high vantage point. Inside the glass dome there was a large circle of photographs about the history of the building and Germany in general. For the WW2 era the photos note that the country was under a hard dictatorship. I imagine that modern German people think of Hitler as a normal Russian person thinks of Stalin.

Inside the dome.In the second half of the day we were on the roof of Park Inn as planned. Sadly I didn’t take my tripod with me on the trip and this was one of the few places where it would’ve come handy. The open area was not on the edge of the roof. If I were to rest my camera on the guard rail for an HDR burst a large portion of the roof itself would’ve been in the shot. There was a also a metal net, but it was actually a net, which was not stable, therefore I couldn’t mount the camera higher either. So I ended up taking all the shots hand held, yet I’m very happy with a couple of shots that I walked away with.

Glass dome.For the dinner we went back to our hotel area and found another German place called Lutter & Wegner. We ordered an excellent beef goulash and a much better sauerbraten that we ate on a night before — just like we know it — soft and delicious. The only problem with this place that it was the only eatery we have discovered in Germany that had an only one kind of beer. It was some pilsner and itwas too bitter for our taste. It was also the only place that had beer glasses that were smaller than half a litter. But as I said, the food was great.

Another view from Park Inn.And that was our second and last full day in Berlin. As you can see we took it really easy, ate great food, explored some sights, drank great beer, slept a lot. By the end of our Berlin stay I already felt relaxed and it really felt like a vacation.
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