As we step to the boundary between West and East, it is immediately clear that scenic beauty will now take a back seat to the human landscape of history and culture. We begin in Berlin. It’s been 25 years since the wall came down. The joy and shock of release have long since settled into simple relief. The scars remain. It’s hard to imagine that Berlin was ever beautiful, and half a century of communist rule over the eastern part of the city didn’t help. Berlin is dirty, noisy, smelly, graceless, and feels like a vast construction zone. It is also exciting, hip, edgy. The energy is spikey and angular. Food and housing are cheap. It’s a great place for young people with rebellious energy that needs an outlet.
Karel and I were tired and famished after a day of travel, but salvation was just a few steps away from our hotel in the busy center of the city. We had a late lunch of currywurst, a bizarre mish-mash of cuisines that is an iconic food of Berlin. We later learned that it originated in the early days of the Berlin airlift, when sausage, curry, and ketchup were some of the only foods and seasonings available in abundance. Along with a delicious beer, it really hit the spot, and it cost less than $5! That was a welcome change from the high prices in Norway.
But there are much better options for good food in Berlin. We took an evening, “Taste of Berlin” bicycle tour through parts of East Berlin, where we learned some of the history and sampled some of the cuisine. The nice thing about a tour, of course, is that you have an expert to guide you to the good stuff, and if you’re on bicycles, you can zip quickly from place to place and have time for food, drinks, and stories. You always have to take the stories with a grain of salt, however. The guides like to please their customers, so scandal and shock value will triumph over truth every time. Nevertheless, here are some of the things we “learned” about Berlin, which may or may not be true.
Berlin is built on a swamp. If you want to build or repair something, you have to continuously pump out your construction site. That’s why Berlin is festooned with big, above-ground pipes. They’re carrying swamp water to the river. They’re painted pink, purple, blue, and red, but mostly pink, because if you can’t hide it, flaunt it. There is also a lot of unexploded ordinance from WWII in and around the city (this part is true), which makes excavating a dicey proposition. For this reason, we were told, new sewage pipes also have to be installed above ground. We couldn’t validate that, but that could explain the smell.
The whole swamp issue makes it hard to repair buildings damaged in the war or during the communist era. At least one building was deliberately allowed to flood by the Nazis out of spite, we were told, just before the Allies arrived. The abandoned wreck was taken over by an artists’ cooperative and transformed into a famous nightclub. But the building continued to decline and is now too unsafe to use.
When the Berlin Wall went up, it happened literally overnight. People who happened to be on the wrong side of that boundary when they woke up in the morning were stuck where they were, for good. Families were separated, people were left suddenly homeless and jobless. Hundreds were killed trying to escape, and there are many poignant stories. After several years, it was possible for western Berliners to visit the east side and return home, as long as they had the right paperwork. One particular married couple were inadvertently seperated, the man in the west, his wife in the east. After a long time, the lonely man began seeing another woman. They decided to go on a holiday weekend together, over to East Berlin, where prices were cheap for westerners. They went out to dinner and got very drunk. At some point the girlfriend staggered off to the bathroom. When she returned, her paramour and her purse—with her passport, ID, and visa—were gone. It turns out she had a strong physical resemblance to the man’s stranded wife, and the couple were reunited in West Berlin before morning. It took the abandoned and exploited girlfriend months to finally get home. Or, so the story goes. I wonder if she spent those months plotting her revenge.
When you visit a major European city, of course you must make every effort to go to the museums, which house the greatest art and archeological collections in the world. We had only two free days in Berlin before departing with our tour group for the first half of a month-long trip through Eastern Europe. On Sunday, we went to the natural history museum, which has an extraordinary taxonomy collection, as well as very good exhibits on planet formation and evolution. I love that stuff! Unfortunately, on Monday, most museums and other big attractions are closed. Karel had done some research and determined that two of our top choices—the national museum and the “new” museum—were open, but when we arrived the wait on line to get in was several hours for each.
We still had our bicycles (Karel’s tendonitis wasn’t much better), so we rode off in search of a good hotel concierge. For an extra €4 per ticket, we could go in the VIP entrance, as long as we committed to a particular time slot. No problem! We zipped back to the museum district and enjoyed 5 hours of plunder from Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Some things are worth the extra money.This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe