Germany, Day 21: Don’t Worry About a Thing

Today we headed out to the suburbs of Berlin, to the town that houses many palaces and a lot of charm (and apparently a really excellent film museum): Potsdam.  We went to Potsdam because Pa wanted to check out the summer palace of Prussian king Frederick the Great.  Frederick wanted a palace that he could go to to get away from the hustle and bustle of Berlin, so he had Sans-Souci (“Without Cares”) built in Potsdam in the mid 1700s.  Luckily for us, Potsdam was only a half hour on the S-bahn and a 10 minute bus ride away from Berlin.


Sans-Souci is probably most famous for its gardens, and as we had little interest for the inside, we decided to forgo the 10 room interior and explore the extensive gardens with the fountains, temples, sculptures, woods and terraces.


The gardens are extensive and we had to grab some shelter when a rain cloud rolled in._mg_8202

There was a wedding shoot being done on the grounds, so naturally I had to be a creeper.


After spending several hours in the gardens and dodging the weather, we found a beer garden across the street so we had a delicious lunch of hot chocolate, beer and bratwurst.  We got back on the bus and S-bahn and headed back to our hotel to get a final load of laundry done.


Dinner time rolled around so we hemmed and hawed and settle on a literal hole in the wall called Cafe Schwarz, a hip and vibrant place that serves all day breakfast and has an extensive cocktail selection.  We dined on scrabbled eggs, bruschetta, toast, beer, bitter lemon, apple strudel, banana cake and whisky before walking home and turning in.

Germany, Day 20: I Hear a Symphony

Today we woke up to a grey and dreary Berlin.  We had breakfast and decided that we weren’t really in the mood to get soaking wet and we still had a bunch of sights we wanted to see, so we read up on hop-on/hop-off buses and bought tickets – that way we could see most of the sights and get off when we wanted to.  We hopped on a few blocks down from our hotel, on the busy shopping street called Kurfurstendamm, known by locals as Ku-Damm.  We got seats on the top deck of the bus and off we went.  As it turned out, our commentator had an extremely dry sense of humour and we really liked him, so we decided to do one full loop on his bus, then when the loops started again we would get off at the sights we were interested in.

We all wanted to see a part of the Berlin Wall that is still intact and adjacent to an open-air museum called the Topography of Terror.  The museum was great – interesting and comprehensive.  I learned a lot about the Wall and the horrible division between East and West Berlin.  I was young when the Wall came down, too young to really know how much people suffered.


The rain let up so we walked towards “Checkpoint Charlie”, a reproduction of the American/Soviet checkpoint at the wall.  First, it was time for a snack so we tucked into a coffee chain we noticed here, Kaffee Einstein.  We warmed up with hot chocolates, apple strudel and cookies and followed the kitsch towards Checkpoint Charlie.


I’m not going to dwell on this for too long, but I have to say this is one of the cheesiest tourist traps dedicated to poor taste that I’ve seen.  They’ve erected a giant banner, one with an American soldier facing one direction and a Soviet soldier facing the other.  Two (what I presume) actors in American uniform stand there saluting with American flags and an array of Soviet hats that you can put on and have your photo taken with.  Incredibly, they also have “passport stamps” that people have actually had their passports stamped with, rendering them invalid.  Kitschy, tasteless, tacky, and nope.


We hopped back on the bus and headed back to our hotel so we could make a decision as to where we wanted to go for dinner, as we needed to make ourselves look as presentable as 3 road-weary travellers could for our engagement with the symphony.

We picked out a pub translated into English called the Fat Innkeeper.  The food was good and the decor was entertaining.  We hustled back to the hotel, got gussied up, hailed a cab and headed towards Herbert-Von-Karajan-Strasse, where the Berliner Philharmonie stands, home of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Going to see the Berlin Philharmonic was a big deal for me.  When we decided we were going to Germany, I started looking into tickets right away and marked in my planner when the 2016/2017 calendar would become available and when I could order tickets.  In April the calendar was released and in May I could order tickets, so I ordered 3 tickets for Saturday, October 1st, 1900hrs, Section Recht C, Row 10, Seats 1, 2 and 3.  We would be seeing Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck conduct Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8, Honeck’s specialty.  Finally, that day had come and I was buzzing with excitement.  The building itself is a work of modern asymmetrical art – seemingly randomly protruding balconies and M.C. Escher-like staircases.  Our seats were far back, but central and we had a full view of the orchestra.


The auditorium quickly filled up and the concert started almost right on time.  The first half was a Fantasie from Dvorak’s opera Rusalka and then a few Schubert and Strauss lieder sung by a baritone with a rich voice.  The Fantasie was like magic, electricity through my body.  The Philharmonic was like nothing I had heard before – dynamics, phrasing, punctuation, emotion, warmth, depth – artistry.  I got goosebumps from my toes to the top of my head.  At one point, a single tear rolled down my cheek.

At intermission I checked out the gift shop and picked up some postcards while all the finely dressed concertgoers milled about, drinking their aperitifs and eating their pretzels.

The second half of the concert was Dvorak Symphony no. 8, one that I’m not terribly familiar with, but a fun one, and again, pure magic from the musicians.  It was the most exhilarating classical music experience of my life and I grinned the whole cab ride back and as I tucked myself into bed.


Germany, Day 19: First, We Take Manhattan

This morning we got up, packed our bags for the penultimate time, ate some breakfast and said goodbye to Dresden, hopping on a train making its way from Prague to Berlin.  The train ride was a little different from our previous ones on the trip – because it was an EC (Euro-City) train, we got our own compartment, which I find to be one of the most romantic things in travel.

After 2 uneventful hours on our blue train we rolled into the enormous Berlin Hauptbahnhof at around 1330hrs.  We hired our cab and thankfully no one was killed on our 20 minute drive to the Charlottenburg area of Berlin.  We decided to go boutique for our last hotel on the trip and chose Homage a Magritte, a family run walk-up themed in the paintings and art of Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte.  The owner’s daughter Sofia greeted us and led us to our room.  The hallway walls are adorned with different paintings and themes of Magritte’s, and our room featuring Le Blanc Seing.  We then grabbed our necessities and hit the town.

The area of Charlottenburg is beautiful – long streets and laneways lined with cafes, boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, book shops (one coffee/stationery combination shop!) and all very nearby to the s-bahn (like German skytrain) station of Savigny.  We had some soup and sandwiches at a nearby cafe and then headed for Unter Den Linden.

I have been so excited to see the Brandenburg Gate for a while now – I just think it’s the most powerful and poetic landmarks, the four horses, chariot and Lady of Peace bursting off the top.  I was ecstatic to finally see it, be near it, take photos of it.  I was, however, a little disappointed that a giant protest was happening almost right in front of it, and that you weren’t allowed to walk through.  It turns out, Berlin is also hosting German Reunification festivities and have roped off that part.


The moved on and decided to peak at the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament.  Beside the building, was this touching monument, a memorial to the politicians murdered by Hitler.  Each of the 96 stones lists the memorialized’s name, dates, which party they were with and where they died.


We then had a sit on the broad lawn in front of the Reichstag, dodging photo takers and other protesters while finding a good spot.


Pa and I decided it was probably getting close to beer time so we walked back to the bahnhof, not before looking at the memorial to those who tried to cross over the Berlin Wall.  We also got to witness some sort of drunken Russian homeless screaming match, but no one seemed perturbed so we moved on.


Outside of our train station we found a cute looking pub with a beautiful leafy beer garden and tucked in – delicious Italian food, sublime desserts and cold beer were the name of the game and we indulged before taking the stroll back to our hotel.


Germany, Day 18: And She Shows You Where To Look

Today is our last full day in Dresden before we leave tomorrow morning for our final leg on this German Odyssey – Berlin.  We’re pretty sad to say goodbye to Dresden because it’s a beautiful, vibrant and sumptuous city, perfect for exploring, relaxing and people watching.

I love all the different spires of the city, so on our way to Dresden’s “Green Vault”, I decided to indulge myself:


We entered the palatial complex called the Zwinger that houses the Green Vault – a series of rooms that their 18th century Prince Elector, Augustus the Strong filled with different treasures and delights.


There is only a certain amount of people allowed inside the Green Vault at the same time, so you have to buy a ticket for a certain time.  Security was the tightest I’ve ever experienced at a museum as we had to lock up ALL bags (including Ma’s tiny purse), cameras and phones.  You then line up at two sets of doors that a guard lets you in, two at a time, you wait, then the doors on the other side open.  Everything is alarmed and behind glass, but it is easy to see why – all the rooms are different themes (amber, ivory, jewels, sculptures, bronze, coat of arms, silver) and contain many priceless treasures, big and small – ornate crystal drinking vessels, paintings, amber chess sets, diamond-hilted swords, etc.  After an excellent hour-long audio tour, we decided to embark on one of our favourite travel events, the self guided Rick Steves walking tour.


Before we started the tour we had to get to the starting point, and that meant cutting through the Zwinger’s stately gardens.


The tour started at Dresden’s Opera House, known as the Semperoper as Semper built it.  It burned down twice – once in the 19th century and then again, sadly, in 1945 as did many many other of the fine structures and treasures in the city.


The last opera performed at the Semperoper in 1945 was Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber and the first opera performed when it was rebuilt almost 40 years later, so they honoured Weber with a statue in front of a cafe.


We crossed back into the Zwinger’s gardens and marvelled at the beautiful fountains and stonework.


Part of our instructions were to cross from the fountains into the main garden through an orangery, but we noticed that this glassy atrium sold beer and pretzels and it was lunch time, so we stopped and had a beer overlooking the gardens before moving on.


The Zwinger gardens are also home to this beautiful glockenspiel, outfitted with porcelain chimes that emit a much sweeter sound that the usual brass bells.


We left the Zwinger and headed north towards the river Elbe, reading stories of Augustus the strong and some of the pre and post war history of the city.


One of our favourite pieces was this 250 foot long porcelain-tiled mural showing a parade of the rulers of Dresden.  This piece miraculously survived the 1945 firebombing.


Our walking tour ended along the river on a balcony walk that overlooks the Elbe.  We decided to have a sit and watch all the activity at the other side of the river.

It turns out Dresden is setting up a huge party – it’s the anniversary of Germany’s reunification and every year a different state’s capital hosts the bash – this year it’s Dresden’s turn as the capital of Saxony.  Huge white tents are set up everywhere as well as sound and lighting systems.  The festival starts this weekend, in time for us to just miss it.


We found a beautiful river-side cafe where we treated ourselves to ice cream confections and fizzy water, ambling back into town where we bought our mandatory post cards and fridge magnets, grabbed some coffees, relaxed in the old market square before headed to dinner.  Again, Dresden spoiled us as we ate a delicious dinner on a beautiful sunlit square in the shadow of the majestic Frauenkirche while the local busker serenaded us with Leonard Cohen classics.

Germany, Day 17: Town Without Pity

Today we took a day trip to Leipzig.  I was really excited to check this city out because for many years it was the home base of the father of modern music Johann Sebastian Bach.  Bach was the cantor at the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) and is buried in the floor there.  Leipzig is also the hometown of Felix Mendelssohn (meh) and an easy 1 hour train ride from Dresden on the ICE train (express train).  We got in to Leipzig and it was cloudy and blustery – definitely started feeling like autumn.  Once we got on the correct tram, we headed into the old city, and I’m sad to say it lacks the easygoing character of Dresden and the cute factor of some of the other cities we visited.  We went right away to the Thomaskirche because I was REALLY excited to see that Bach stuff.



From the outside, the Thomaskirche is quite different from a lot of the churches and cathedrals we’ve already seen, probably because it’s Lutheran.  We turned the corner and there he was, JS Bach in front of his favourite instrument (pipe organ) and roll of music in hand.


We moved inside the church and gawked at the TWO beautiful organs and quickly made our way to Bach’s grave.  Turns out, it may or may not be Bach’s actual remains – because JS wasn’t super popular in his actual day, he was buried in a modest graveyard.  When people discovered that he was actually a musical genius, they dug up what they think was his remains and re-buried them in the floor of this church.


We then moved across the lane to the small but thorough Bach Museum.  Of course I had to buy some Bach goodies in the gift shop and then Ma, Pa and I moved into the “Treasures Room” – ACTUAL handwritten Bach manuscripts!  There was not photography allowed of that room, but had there been I would have taken ALL the photos of those manuscripts.  The museum had a lot of really cool features, including a room that played a Bach piece and you would press different buttons to isolate the different instruments in the piece, a room that had organ pipes suspended from the ceiling and if you clutched one and put your ear up to it, it would play you a Bach piece.  My favourite room was what I can best describe as an opium den for Bach fans: couches with screens and headphones affixed to them.  You put on the headphones and commandeer the touch screen where you can pick exactly what kind of Bach piece you would like to listen to – Sacred organ works, secular cantatas, etc.  We must have stayed there about a half our and all listened to our own streams.  Before we knew it we had walked through the whole thing and it was 1330hrs – time for lunch!


I wanted to go to a place called Coffe Baum for lunch as it claims to be the oldest coffee bar in Europe still in operation.  We decided to brave the winds and sat outside.  Unfortunately, our server was not only completely disinterested/hated her job, but it’s the first time I have actually felt that a server hates me and everything I stand for.  Like, the kind of hate where she would have vandalized my car in high school or spread shitty gossip about me at the office, not because I’ve been mean to her, but because she’s awful.  Despite her terrible attitude, lunch was very good.


We decided to call it a day in Leipzig and walked past the Thomaskirche, heading back to the tram station in order to catch the 1631hrs ICE train back to Dresden.


We got to the train station at 1530hrs, so we went to Starbucks and had a coffee before heading to our platform to catch our train.  1631hrs rolled around and our train hadn’t come yet.  Pa then noticed the sign for our platform stated our train would be 3o minutes late (the stereotype that German trains run on time is a myth).  After the 30 minutes passed and still no train, we checked again – this time the board said 40 minutes late, and we noticed no other ICE trains had entered the station.  At 60 minutes, Pa noticed that the board had taken the entire train info down, so we made the quick decision to run a few platforms over and take the regional train.  The ICE train is a super fast express train and would have taken a little less than an our and the regional train makes all the stops and ended up taking 1 hour 40 minutes.  We got into Dresden at 1945 hours, over 2 hours later than we expected to be.  We headed to a pub for some pan fried potatoes and beers, headed back to the hotel and called it.


Germany, Day 16: Slow Train A-Comin’

Today we got up early and said goodbye Franconia, hello Saxony.  We were leaving Nuremberg for Dresden, but in order to get there we had to survive a 5 hour train ride (with a transfer in Leipzig).  We had the foresight to reserve seats on the train so we didn’t have to elbow anyone out of the way to get seats together.  After breakfast we taxied to the train station and stopped in at our favourite train station shop Yorma’s to buy some drinks, baked goods and gummies (we’re been really into gummies on this trip since we learned that the gummi bear was invented in Bonn by the guy who created the company Haribo).  The train ride was actually really nice as the scenery was gorgeous – green hills and mountains, slow moving streams and brooks, herons, gardens, church spires, sunflower fields all entertained us and made me think of Goethe and his Romantic poetry about the German countryside.  We transferred trains in Leipzig and had an uneventful 1 hour train the rest of the way to Dresden.  We grabbed a cab that took us to our hotel in the old town, dumped our stuff and headed out to explore prior to beer time/dinner.

Dresden is old/new.  As I’m sure many of your know, Dresden was firebombed and completely devastated by the Allies in 1945 and 25,000 people died.  75% of the old town was destroyed, including an important Lutheran icon to locals, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady).  I read somewhere that it is like the St. Paul’s for Lutherans.  The Church was reduced to rubble and because Dresden was in East Germany during the DDR days, the Church was not rebuilt until recently, construction being completed in 2006.  I was really excited to see this Church and was not disappointed.


The inside of the church does not allow photos, so I will have to describe it – it’s light and bright, using a lot of lighter woods and white stone with a giant black and gold Baroque alter in the front and centre.  We soon discovered that we arrived in Dresden in the middle of their Bachfest, so if we’re up to it, we may try and catch an organ concert.  Also inside they have on display the original cross from the top of the church.  It fell and was covered up by rubble after the firebombing.  It’s a strong and somber symbol to the tragedy and heartbreak of war, as well as the resilience of a people who endured a horrendous event.  In a show of friendship, the man who forged the new cross for the cathedral in Coventry (a town in England that was flattened by the Luftwaffe) also forged the new cross for the Frauenkirche.


We did a little more poking around, but as we have a whole day dedicated to exploring Dresden’s old town in a few days, we decided it was time for a sit and a drink.


Dresden is historically a friendship city with Prague, so there is a lot of Czech and Bohemian influences in the city, including the beer and cuisine.  We found a pub directly beside our hotel (how convenient!) and Pa and I drank some Czech Pilsner, Pa and Ma had some delicious goulash and I had chicken and vegetables.  Soon it was time for coffee, cake, and boots off.


Germany, Day 15: Words Are All I Have

Today I was very conflicted.

Today we went to the Documentation Centre on the former Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg.  A lot of the unfinished rally grounds and buildings still stand, including a giant congress complex (where the Documentation Centre is located) and then Zeppelin field where the Nuremberg Rallies were held (google a photo, you’ll know the one I’m talking about).  I hemmed and hawed about bringing my camera with me because I was unsure as to whether was going to/felt comfortable enough to take pictures of this infamous structure.  I ended up bringing my camera just in case, but didn’t end up taking any photos, so I will just describe what’s going on there.

We had taken the tram to the Centre, and it’s hard to miss.  A giant colosseum made of brick and mortar dominates the lake side.  Architects who made the museum decided they wanted to build it inside of the abandoned and damaged centre, but added some jagged metal design pieces, in effect to throw a spear into Speer (the architect who was complicit in using slave labour to build the structure).  The Documentation Centre calls its exhibit “Fascination and Terror” and aims to show how it was that Hitler came to power and how something like the Third Reich can be prevented in the future.  We grabbed our handheld audio guides and headed into the labyrinthian behemoth.

The exhibit is excellent, exhaustive and clinical, starting at the National Socialist party’s beginnings, their rise to power, their horrifying reign and their demise.  The exhibit also documents the rally ground and complex itself and how it was built and the role it and Nuremberg played in that time.

Exiting the exhibit on the metal ramp down to the lobby, a break in the brick work shows a few lengths of railway.  Strewn in and around the railway ties were metal chips that each bore a name, a birthdate, a death date, and which extermination camp they were murdered in.  Heavy, heavy, heavy.

We left the Documentation Centre and headed towards the Zeppelin field.  Halfway between the Centre and the field was a brewhouse and we noticed how hungry and thirsty we were, so we had a beer, tried some of Nuremberg’s own sausages and were back on our way.  The rally grounds at the Zeppelin field have fallen into disrepair – plants are taking the structure back, people have left their garbage and broken bottles on the steps.  You can climb all the way to the pulpit where Hitler would give his speeches, but I felt weird about it and chose not to.  We sat for a moment, looked over the field and roadway and decided it was time to go.

We got back on the tram and headed to Nuremberg’s old town.  I was especially excited about this because Nuremberg’s old town is where the stationery giant Staedtler’s flagship store is.  We wandered along the cobblestones and watched the bustling market vendors and busy sidewalk cafes, definitely the busiest old town we’ve been to so far.


We found the Staedtler store and I immediately started getting sweaty palms.  Pens, pencils, mechanical pencils, erasers, fountain pens, highlighters, pencil crayons, felts, fancy limited edition ballpoints – all so glorious.  Ma and I picked up some goodies and we were on our way.


Ma wanted to find a certain church that was at one point a synagogue (there is a Star of David in the floor).  Luckily, giant churches are not hard to miss.


I had mentioned in a previous blog post something about wanting to wander into a giant church and have the organist bust out some Bach and today that came true!  This young man was playing away, fully immersed in fugue, feet moving madly across the pedals.


We grabbed some dinner at one of the restaurants in the square and watched the sun go down, reflecting on a profound day.  After some ice cream we headed back to the hotel to pack, on our way to Dresden tomorrow.