Friday, February 15, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner

I spent some time in Berlin last week, Alexanderplatz to be precise. It was my first time in Germany, (that reminds me that I'll have to update my travel map on a country that I had always planned on visiting. Now I must say that I do like history and war time history especially. I do hate to say it but that is what attracted me to going to see Germany in the first place. Although I'm sure people in Germany would rather that not be the case and would rather I'd been attracted to the country and culture as it is now. As it turned out I didn't get to see many places that would be associated with happenings during WWII but mainly things that came about as a consequence of the war, i.e. the Berlin Wall.

I knew going over there that the Berlin Wall has largely been removed but I wasn't aware of the extend to which this is true. We only saw two separate 10/20 meter stretches of the original wall. One part had actually been striped so badly (in the quest for an original piece) that it was fenced in lest it fall on some unsuspecting passer by. I did find out that they left the trail of the wall marked with two bricks all through Berlin. So when driving along a road if you pass over where the wall once stood you will actually feel a bump in the road. I though it was a nice touch and a good reminder of how things were. I was also struck by the thinness of the wall. I was under the impression that it would be at least a meter wide, capable of withstanding a tank attack or something but it is actually only several inches thick. I suppose if you have manned gun towers every few hundred meters you don't need that thick of a wall.

Getting away from the wall for a moment there were other very interesting sites to see. The Brandenburg Gate is spectacular and the statue on the top is far bigger than I imagined it was. You really need to be up close to see how large it is. I never realised that the Gate was actually in no-mans land while the wall was in existence. Just down the road from this is the Reichstag building the current seat of power in Germany and home to the famous dome by Sir Norman Foster. I can see why when the design was unveiled it caused controversy. The Dome with all it's glass would be striking in any location but it is absolutely jarring when juxtaposed with the old building that is the Reichstag. I don't dislike it, in fact I think it is very cool. What wasn't cool was the hour long wait to get up into the Dome but hey it was free so I can't complain too much. It was worth it though for the fantastic views of Berlin and just to see the genius that went into designing the thing. One feature we loved was the fact that as you use the walkway to walk around the Dome and make your way up you don't meet anyone coming down in the opposite direction. It is like an optical illusion but there is a separate walkway that is intertwined with the one leading up, very cool.

Actually before we'd seen both the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag we were at the Holocaust Memorial. It is a striking piece of art. With 2,700 blocks of granite all protruding from the ground, which is actually very uneven. This means as you walk through the memorial some blocks will tower above you or you above them. I'm not sure how it represented the Holocaust as these things in art are usually lost on me but I know what I like and this I liked. We used a hop-on/hop-off tour bus around the city, which as I'm sure you know can be very hit and miss depending on who the guide is. I don't think the tour was as good in Berlin as I've experienced in other cities like Paris or San Francisco which is a shame because it is not like they have a lack of things to talk about. I did pick up some interesting facts -

  • Berlin lost more buildings during the war than were ever built in Munich.
  • The department store KaDeWe is the biggest in mainland Europe.
  • Turkey has land for an embassy but no embassy it is just a small woodland.
  • They are very proud of Berlin and will denigrate Munich or Bonn at the drop
of a hat.

Having stayed in Alexanderplatz I'm not so sure why it is labelled as a great tourist attraction. It is in a fantastic location for traveling to other sites, the Reichstag is within walking distance but there is little to see in Alexanderplatz itself. I stayed in the Park Inn Alexanderplatz and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone coming to Berlin. Again that reminds me to submit a review to Staying on the 18th (out of 39) floors gives you a fantastic view, depending I suppose on what side of the building you are on. We were looking directly out onto the Fernsehturm. The rooms are really clean and modern but I would like to sound a note of warning. Do not stay in the same room as someone that you are not intimate with or at least familiar with their bodily functions. For more on this see the many reviews on The lounge/bar in the hotel is great with brilliant service and the most comfortable of couches to just sit an relax with a cocktail or Irish coffee. Ahhh, the memories.

I think at this point I should bring up the issue that caused me the most concern, the food. Before I start on this I should say that I like my meat to be well cooked. If I'm getting stake I will ask for it well done, nothing pink or bloody for me. Period. It all goes back to a bad episode with Salmonella. Anyway, the first night I order a pizza as does my wife. Nothing risky there you might think. The pizzas arrive and my wives' is topped with pork, strange but hey, we both like pork so no big deal. What is a big deal is that it isn't cooked properly. In fact a very large chunk of it has clearly never been even near a cooker in its existence. It is totally raw and it is sitting there on top of cooked food. We complain and they offer to reheat it! As they say on many a message board, WTF?

So we hit the idea of reheating raw meat on the head and re-order and get a lasagna, which they promptly nuke in the oven but at least it is cooked. The following night in a different restaurant we encounter similar problems. I order a steak well done and it come out very pink and a bit bloody. After a quick retreat to the kitchen it returns a little less pink but certainly far from well done. I know people eat it like this and even less cooked but that is what I asked for and surely the customer is always right. So thats another dinner ruined. The third night (another new restaurant) I decide to play it safe and get the fish option. I plump for salmon, which looked great when it arrived until I noticed that my potatoes had been soiled with large amounts of cheese. I shipped those off to my wives plate for consumption and cut into my salmon. The result? Well it was very red and runny in the centre. Now I'm no chef but that didn't look very healthy to me so I left it, too exasperated to even bother sending it back to the pond or kitched or from wherever it came. The results of three nights of eating garnish led us to the local Burger King. Oh, the shame of it and even there I didn't risk the meat and stuck with potato wedges.

I should mention our trip up into the Fernsehtrum. It was actually EUR9.50 to go up but it was just about worth it I think. Although, if I had know in advance how long we would have to queue I would not have bothered. It was, without exaggeration, about an hour and a quarter. The queue was small enough outside but it continued inside and it was winding up two sets of steps. Once we got up the top though it was good, with amazing views obviously enough. There was a small bar in the view deck too where we got something to drink and look out over Berlin. I got a cappuccino which was pretty weak actually so if your there you might want to avoid the cappuccino. There is a restaurant there too but we didn't bother with that. I nearly forgot to mention that we visited Checkpoint Charlie. It was nice to see the exact recreation they have there for the tourists. It is hard to imagine the importance those posts would have held not so very long ago and that world war three very nearly started in the same spot.

So that was how my little stint in Berlin went down last week. It was a good city to visit and I'm glad I did but I won't be rushing back to Germany in a hurry. In summary I'd say that the culture is great but culinary skills not so.

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