To the Wall

In recovery mode from Oktoberfest, we hit the open road (and more specifically, the Autobahn!) in seek of a place to relax for a night in between Munich and Berlin. Bautzen fit the bill. This charming medieval town was lovely, what with its many towers and cobblestone streets and all. Though it was extremely quiet. Like, we walked out of dinner (at our practically empty restaurant) around 10pm on a Thursday and all the shops were closed, all the streets deserted. Despite having the place practically to ourselves, we enjoyed dinner at Mönchshof, a fun restaurant where all the waiters are dressed as monks. We tried the local beverage specialties: a red beer, a wine and honey concoction (meh), and beer with banana juice. I had to taste the latter, knowing it could be one of those things that sounds utterly disgusting, but somehow is this amazing thing you suddenly realize you can’t live without. It was neither, but it was surprisingly tasty. Kind of like a beer based piña colada.

Our next and final stop in Germany was Berlin. Despite arriving on a misty, cold afternoon, we put in an impressive (and long!) walk around some of the city’s major highlights.

We walked from the train station past the gorgeous Reichstag building and on to the Brandenburg Gate.

While we didn’t actually go inside any museums, we walked over Museum Island to admire the intricate buildings.

We didn’t get to very much of the war/Jewish/Holocaust stuff, but we did see the impressive Neue Synagogue. It’s quite beautiful, and I actually thought it was a mosque when I saw its blue and gold dome from Museum Island. Probably because of its “splendid eastern Moorish style and resemblance to the Alhambra,” per Wikipedia.

Hackescher Markt was a nice square filled with restaurants, though it was somewhat dead given the spotty weather. And in further proof I am as easily entertained as a dog, I took approximately twenty pictures of the city amidst a street performer blowing giant bubbles.

But cooler yet was Hackesche Höfe, a super funky courtyard covered in artful graffiti. There’s also apparently a monster tour that originates here. I’m not entirely sure what this entails, but sounds interesting enough?

We eventually walked back through the Gendarmenmarkt, which is a splendid square with French and German cathedrals and the Konzerthaus (a concert house…see, German’s not so hard is it?).

I think Alan and Jack had the most fun at the Weber Grill store, which is part store, part shrine to barbecuing. I did not know that looking at grills could arouse so much enthusiasm. Now I know.

We ended the day of bang-out sightseeing with a visit to a must stop for tourists: Checkpoint Charlie. While there is little to actually see at this well-known historic wall crossing point, the display was very informative, and Jack took advantage of the photo op with the fake soldiers. Apparently, they’ll actually stamp your passport if you remember to bring it!

Overall we were wowed by the number of grand buildings throughout Berlin (I kind of pictured much more ugly, plain, communist era buildings), and the sheer number of cool galleries and cafes.

We stayed in the trendy neighborhood of Kreuzberg, rife with above-mentioned cafes. While one could argue that the whole city of Berlin is hipster, Kreuzberg is a mecca of hipsterdom, and it’s a really lovely area to hang out in.

Our one full day in town, the weather cooperated and we enjoyed a sunny day exploring Berlin. There was a super cute farmers market nearby our flat, I think on Südstern.

And there were tons of cobblestone streets with wide sidewalks, lined with beautiful big trees. Felt like a perfect fall day in the city walking through these parts.

Despite being a European country with one of the best reputations for efficiency, Germany is strangely anti-credit card. And getting by in English wasn’t always seamless. This is what happened when we tried to order eggs for breakfast in German:

And for my final exhibit of weird things that happen in Germany: as we were walking through a park later in the afternoon we were propositioned by the most forward and unabashed drug dealers I’ve ever encountered. And we’ve traveled to some avant-garde places. There is a little strip of the park in which no fewer than 20 men jumped up to ask us if we wanted any number of drugs they had on offer for us. And they followed us out the park, determined to make a sale. I don’t know if this happens to everyone or if we really looked like we could use a fix? I’m telling you, strange things go down in German parks: drugs, nudity and surfing, at a minimum.

Once we made it through the whack-a-mole of drug dealers, we enjoyed some Berliners at Freischwimmer in a happening waterfront bar area. This little alcove of bars and restaurants is the perfect place to laze away a sunny weekend afternoon.

Just in time for magic hour, we made it to the number one must-see of Berlin: the wall itself! The East Side Gallery is one of the few places where you can still see the original wall. I know it’s just a wall, and again like the Great Wall, I kind of tempered my expectations, but visiting the Berlin Wall was actually one of my favorite things we did here. It’s covered in graffiti, some of it politically driven, some of it beautiful and other parts just downright weird.

With only about a day and a half, we covered just a tiny part of this seriously big city, but of what we saw, we were big fans!

Practical Info 

Berlin is a huge city with fascinating history, some beautiful buildings, a diverse population and next-level hipster vibe. There is a large Turkish (and Middle Eastern) population, especially around Kreuzberg and Neukölln where kebab shops seem to outnumber traditional German places. Mitte seems to have a lot of the museums and upscale hotels, etc. There were many cafes and galleries around Auguststrasse and Rosenthaler Strasse.…Kreuzberg and Neukölln have lots of cafes, bars, cobblestone streets etc. We enjoyed walking around Bergmannstrasse, Kortestrasse, Dieffenbachstrasse, Falckensteinstrasse, etc. But again, this is a big city so do some research and be prepared to walk a while. It is harder to just show up and wander into the cute and lively areas.

An interesting note about Bautzen, where we stopped between Munich and Berlin: there is a community of Sorbs here, and per Wikipedia Sorbs “are a Western Slavic people of Central Europe living predominantly in Lusatia, a region on the territory of Germany and Poland.” Who knew?

Transportation: We drove from Bautzen, where we spent the night en route from Munich, and we dropped the car at Hertz at Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). We walked a lot in the city and took a taxi once, which was reasonable, but this city is very large. It would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with public transport, which I think is extensive. Renting bikes might be a good option, given the vastness and that bike lanes are ubiquitous.

We departed on a train for Prague, which takes ~4.5 hours. I purchased tickets on the bahn.de website (second class, €39 each), and we left from Berlin Südkreuz (instead of Hauptbahnhof) because it is closer to where we stayed. As it turned out, this meant we had to cross the Berlin Marathon route (so finding a taxi was tough and the circuitous route cost €20) and the train was quite crowded when we boarded. Had I realized the format of these trains, I probably would have paid the extra €4.50 each to reserve seats and maybe even the extra money for first class.

Accommodation: We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kreuzberg on Arndtstraße. The apartment was very large and not so expensive, and the location was good if you want to be close to Kreuzberg and somewhat close to Neukölln. Many of the tourist sights are in Mitte, so some might think it preferable to stay there. I don’t know much about Monbijou Hotel, but the location seemed quite good and the lobby/bar have a nice boutique feel. There were also a couple docked boats at the East Side Gallery (don’t think that’s in Mitte, but cool to be at the Wall) that seemed to be hostels.

In Bautzen, we stayed at Villa Antonia. It was a fairly easy walk to the old town area, the downstairs pub/restaurant looked nice, and the included breakfast was fairly good. Our attic room was huge, but WiFi didn’t work too well up there.

Food and Drinks: White Trash Fast Food is something of a compound with indoor and outdoor space, live music at times, a tattoo parlor, etc. The burgers were great, and the veal ribs were solid. Jack and I had sushi at Cube (near our apartment), which was very good and beyond reasonable. We had plenty of food plus some drinks for €40. Coffee at The Barn is good, and Kenny gave high marks to Pic Nic (a small Italian spot).

Sunny Saturday drinks at Freischwimmer (on a canal by the River Spree) was nice, and there was at least one other bar directly across the canal (closer to White Trash Fast Food).

Currywurst is a local specialty, and especially in the area we stayed (but also all over) there are countless kebab shops. Mustafa’s Gemuse Kebap is well-reviewed.

I would also note that Berlin is famous for its clubs and techno scene. Much to Jack’s chagrin, we never made it. But I think Berghain is one of the famous spots.

In Bautzen, we had dinner at Mönchshof, a medieval/monk themed spot in the old town. It has its own tasty beer (Rother Abt), an extensive menu and ample portions.

Activities: Being the museum-o-phobes we are, we mainly walked around the city. The first day we started at Hauptbahnhof, walking by the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, east on Unter den Linden (which was covered with construction as they are building a new train line), over Museum Island (worth seeing for the Berliner Dom and more, even if you never enter a building), past the Neue Synagogue, along Auguststrasse, and into the Hackesche Höfe complex. Then we headed towards home, passing through the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt before spending a while at Checkpoint Charlie (but not the Wall museum there, which was closed).

Our second day we strolled more through Kreuzberg and Neukölln, visiting such charming streets as Bergmannstrasse, a strong little farmer’s market on Südstern, Kortestrasse, Dieffenbachstrasse, Pannierstrasse over a canal before crossing through Gorlitzer Park. I’ve never been offered drugs so repeatedly and openly as during this short passage. Then we had drinks at Freischwimmer, walked along Falckensteinstrasse and crossed the bridge to the East Side Gallery. This is one of the few places where you can still see the original Berlin Wall, and it was very cool. You get to see both sides and there are a couple bars there. We left too early on the prime day, but Kenny said Mauer Park on a Sunday was probably his favorite thing to do in Berlin.

There are lots of museums, war/Holocaust memorials, etc. in Berlin. Nearby Potsdam may also be worth visiting.

September 26-28, 2014 (Friday-Sunday)

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