First Time in Berlin

This past weekend, Lisa and I took a train from Warszawa Centralna to Berlin Hauptbanhof to spend the weekend in Berlin. For both of us it was our first times there, though I am sure it will certainly not be our last. What a wonderful city!

We started out trip very early in the morning, a quick breakfast of instant Tchibo coffee and strucla, then a last minute check over everything before heading down to the tram stop. A few stops down to Centrum, then a short walk over to the Warszawa Centralna train station, we arrived with a good amount of time. After a short wait before we got on the train, we got ourselves situated and then were on our way to Berlin.

The train ride was quite pleasant: a little nap, good reading, a coffee from the attendant pushing a cart who came around periodically. From Warsaw to Poznan then to the border, where border guards came on and checked everyone’s passports. We got our stamps, the train entered Germany, then on to Frankfurt/Oder and then to Berlin.

Arriving at Berlin Hauptbanhof was a world of difference from Warszawa Centralna: the station was quite new and beautifully architected, organized and clean. We got off the train, guidebook in hand, and started out on our weekend in Berlin.

The first impressions walking away from the Berlin Hauptbanhof are really quite stunning: we walked by the Reichstag with all of the amazingly beautiful modern buildings around, then down beyond the Brandenburg gate, stopped by to the Jewish Memorial, then on to Potsdamer Platz. There we took a break to grab a small bite to eat, then on to our hotel which was nearby to check in and drop off our bags.

Neither of us really knew how big Berlin was until we got there. I think realizing how large and full a city it is, we got the impression that there was a lot to see in little time. Using our guidebook we decided our evening would be to do the Kreuzberg walking tour that was listed, which we enjoyed very much.

I think whenever we come into contact with a new experience, our first reaction is to compare it with known and familiar experiences, and I found myself this past weekend often doing this. For me, traveling around Kreuzberg reminded me very much of Brooklyn in the way the buildings felt, but also of San Francisco in terms of the feeling of the people; it’s hard to explain but that was the sense I got. The area seemed filled with neat boutique shops and a very relaxed and conscience atmosphere. We walked quite a bit, stopping by shops, looking at landmarks, and taking in this neighborhood. We ended up near the Kotbusser Tor U-Bahn station and had dinner at an Indian restaurant (our first time having a fish curry: delicious!), then a ride on the U-Bahn back to the hotel.

The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast at the hotel and then got started on a very full day of exploring the city. Our first stop was at the Reichstag, the building where the parliament convenes. The building, very old, has an incredible modern glass dome-sphere installed at the top which is open to the public. After a bit of a wait in line, we went through security and got to the top, then walked to the top of the sphere on a spiral platform to get a fantastic view of the city. In itself the dome was quite fantastic, and the view was a great way to get our bearings and to get a sense of the city.

Afterward, we briefly cut through the Tiergarten to get to the Brandenburg gate, then headed down the street to Friedrichstrasse to check out the shopping there. We had an opportunity to check out the Galeries Lafayette there with it’s wonderful center sphere shape that went through all of the floors, as well as took a brief look at the buildings next to it. From there we went over to Markgrafenstrasse to see the Hedwig Cathedral and Bebelplatz (where the books were burned in WWII), then on to Unter den Linden.

Unter den Linden was filled with remarkable buildings: universities, museums, and churches amongst the many other buildings. The street itself is gorgeous: very wide with a long view down the street. While walking we stopped for a moment at the Berliner Dom, then watched as a protest march went by. It was very interesting to watch as I had never seen a protest march where the air felt so full with genuine anger: quite a sight. From there we went behind the Berliner Dom and crossed the river to end our walking tour near Hakescher Markt. Walking around here we found a Camper Foodball restaurant==which I had read about in the States and was happy to find–and enjoyed an all-organic rice ball meal.

After lunch we walked over to Alexanderplatz to explore a little bit around there, walking by the art center Tesla (unfortunately closed at the time), then took an S-Bahn back over to Friedrichstrasse to go to Dussmann to check out books and CD’s (very happy to have found a copy of “Computer Music Currents 13”!). After Dussmann, the day already full and starting to get dark, we walked down the street to go our last stop that evening: Checkpoint Charlie and the Museum of the Berlin Wall.

Now, not having the richest sense of history, I was really quite amazed once I learned the history of Checkpoint Charlie to have been standing there looking at that place; I was most taken aback by the photo of the standoff between the Russian and American tanks, and standing there imagined the incredible scene in front of and around me. The museum was amazing in telling the history of the Wall, of all the people who tried to escape and the ways in which they did it as well as the politics of the Wall in its creation, maintenance, and eventual destruction. Thinking of the Wall made me think back to my visit to the DMZ in Korea years ago, how sad it is to see a people divided…

Now late into the night, we made one final stop at a Doner Kebab shop (although very tasty, I think I prefer the ones in Warsaw; maybe it’s just a matter of what I came across first), then back to the hotel. A very long day, exhausted from all of the walking, we watched a little television (strangely enough, there was a German two-part drama on the last days of the Nazi’s, depicting Hitler in the bunker…), then headed off to sleep.

Sunday we woke up early once again and had another fantastic breakfast at the hotel before packing up and checking out. We started our final day in Berlin with the Jewish Museum. We had heard from a few friends as well as the guidebook that it was certainly something to be seen, and it really was quite amazing. The building, architected by Libeskind, was quite disorienting at first to walk through. The Holocaust Tower was an incredible experience: the humbling darkness and near silence, only a faint ray of light and whispers of traffic outside… going through the ground floor and reading all of the incredibly sad stories of the people lost in WWII was heartbreaking (very interesting to see a German presentation of this after having seen Auschwitz and Birkenau in the past…). Walking up to the exhibit floors, it was really quite fascinating to learn about the very early history of the Jews and about their culture and and how it developed over time in the context of European history. We spent quite some time taking in the information; after two and a half hours we had only gotten to the late 19th century, but with little time left and the time period being much more familiar, we took a quicker pace through the rest of the museum.

After the museum we took the U-Bahn over to the Zooligischer Garten station, went to see the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche(a bombed out church), then with little time left, a nice lunch, then an S-Bahn ride over to Berlin Hauptbanhof. It would have been great to explore more of Charlottenberg, as well as the rest of Berlin, but with so little time, I was happy in just getting to see what we did.

Being in Berlin was an excellent experience with much to think about afterward. After being in Warsaw now for a few months, I think going to another city in another country with another language was very refreshing, both in experiencing something new, but also in coming back and noticing new things about Warsaw and Polish culture. I am sure that before we leave in April we’ll go to visit Berlin again to get to all the things we didn’t have a chance to check out this past time, as well as just to enjoy a wonderful city.

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