Berlin – City of Cities! (Part II)

At some point during this trip I visited my friend in the Oranienburger Street, which is a quarter that still has some milestones of German history. He pointed out to me that there were certain stones called Stolpersteine (roughly translates to “stumbling blocks”). Engraved on these stones were names of former Jewish citizens, their DOB as well as their reason and date of death. Hadn’t he pointed these out to me, I would have most likely just walked past them without knowing much about them. He also showed me how at many corners you will just find a blank piece of land and told me these were once corner houses. The buildings standing on the corner of a street were common targets of air bombs during WWII and ever since then some corners have not been rebuilt.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial
Jewish Holocaust Memorial

Berlin has a pretty interesting history, come to think about it, and I am glad that I was able to take in so much of it. Such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe, which we visited the other day: An entire field with nameless gray stones of different heights dedicated to the Jewish homicide. I find the idea great but was appalled by the amount of disrespect people showed by just climbing the stones and posing for good pictures on top of the memorial. I would have found it better to personalize the memorial with names of the deceased but of course this must be an impossible project so I find the concept of nameless stones good in a way but also unimpressive at the same time. Such is the case sometimes with modern art – and the Holocaust Memorial has only existed for the past 8 years.

Back to my first day: After visiting the museum, we went on to snap pictures of the Wall, which consisted of two walls with a narrow walk way in between (some things you have to see until you believe them!). I heard there is a great piece in a different part of Berlin and Liz from JustBe.LoveAll.LiveLife has artfully captured the Wall from this part of town in her post out & about in Berlin (see the very last picture!). You can see how it is artfully decorated by graffiti and paintings from famous artists of the city. My local friend told me later-on that the city wants to build a huge mall on the spot where this remnant of the Berlin Wall stands. She has even joined a protestor’s group to prevent this from happening. In any case, the Wall would be hopelessly destroyed – a piece of history never to return. Small chunks of the Berlin Wall are still sold throughout the city, so I was glad to snag a few for friends overseas (the price is relatively cheap compared to the kind of history you are paying for).

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was right around the corner and with it huge amounts of tourists. I thought this picture to be very funny and moment-capturing: A group of Turkish tourists posing with costumed soldiers re-enacting American and German militants. What was especially humorous was that at first it was only two people taking a picture but when the posers said it’s €1 for one picture, the entire family moved in (what a great way to get your money’s worth). There is a Checkpoint Charlie museum which we successfully avoided we found a bit too overpriced for what we were getting out of it. Plus the tourist masses in front weren’t really inviting in terms of waiting time.

After a coffee break and waiting out the rain inside, we ended up at a beautiful, peaceful spot: The Gendarmenmarkt in the middle of Berlin. It is here that you see several different churches all at once in addition to small tourist groups, street performers, and kids performing bike tricks.

Gendarmenmarkt
Gendarmenmarkt

And finally we got the see the Brandenburger Tor, which is pretty much the epitome of Berliner tourism and a symbol worth checking out. Just as we were in front and contemplating which way to go next, a random car stopped in front of us and a party of 12 people exited, carrying a Meditarrenean bride along. She was dressed in a lovely white dress – obviously belonging to a wedding party performing some sort of ritual. Someone turned on the music in the car and the group began dancing in a circle for the length of one song. Until now we have no idea which country this group originated from and what tradition exactly they displayed but if anyone can come up with anything, please let me know. Regardless, this tradition is simply lovely and must be one of the highlights of a wedding when marrying in Berlin.

Brandenburger Tor
Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor
Wedding in front of Brandenburger Tor

The next day we made our round towards the one and only Reichstag right next to the Gate. Then back towards the Museum Island, while walking along a street called “Unter den Linden”. With fancy souvenir shops, a great Nivea crème store, and lots of embassies on our way.

[For more pictures on Berlin, go to Days Spent in Berlin (II)]

Berlin – City of Cities! (Part I)

Berlin Brandenburger Tor
Berlin Brandenburger Tor

My urge to see Berlin had been strongly manifested in the past 5 years. Ever since I’ve visited Paris, New York, and London, I’ve been yearning to check out what my OWN capital is up to. Not enough that living in New York brought with many, well, err embarrassing revelations. “Oh, I love Germany. Berlin is such an awesome city” was the phrase of most Americans I talked to during dinner parties or normal bar chats. New Yorkers love to find something in common with you as soon as they find out where you are from. “Berlin? Yeah, I’ve never been there. How is it?” was my usual response to it in the beginning. As the time went by, I merely swallowed this last remark and played it simple by smiling and nodding whenever Berlin came up. After being back home for two times already and not being able to scoop in a trip to the Hauptstadt, I just knew that this time was the trip of all trips: Time for some Berlin fanciness and me bathing in it!

I was ready to devote 4 full days to my capital and chose those to be at the very end of my trip. So after taking a train up to Cologne and then flying over to Tegel, here I stood: Among the bustling vibes of one of the most notable airports in the German country. From Tegel I went on to Charlottenburg, which is a district that stands for new extravaganza, hipster restaurants, and the one and only Charlottenburg Castle (which unfortunately I did not get to see during my trip! Booh!).

Our first night out was a culinary experience at a simply delicious Vietnamese restaurant. SaiGon Today offered an array of healthy looking dishes and a variety of even healthier fruit drinks. Cocktail-inspired drinks containing no alcohol – they were yummy to say at the very least. And this is where the first surprise came in handy (or rather, no surprise, as I’ve heard of it before): Berlin is cheap! Dirt cheap! Food, drinks, necessities – you name it! Especially if you are into Döners (Turkish delicatessen with lamb meat), you can get these for as cheap as 2 Euros in Germany’s capital. Everywhere else in Germany you’d be paying 3 Euro and up (Trier’s infamous Kepabhouse sold its stuffed bread for a whopping €4.50 on a Saturday night). For a dinner with drinks we paid less than €10 – not bad, folks, not bad at all!

Saigon Today - worth checking out!
Saigon Today – worth checking out!

Saigon Today Berlin healthy drinks

My first full day in Berlin was devoted to catching up with a dear friend I hadn’t seen in almost 5 years. The main reason this city was so much fun was because I got to see so many people I hadn’t met in ages – exactly what I needed at the end of my trip to Deutschland. Together we went sightseeing for the first two days or so. And our first stop? Breakfast at the Cafeteria Skyline right around the corner from the Tiergarten. It belongs to the Technical University of Berlin (TU) and goes all the way up to the 20th floor, where you have a great view over the entire city. What else is there to wish for than an excellent panorama showing it all? Thanks to my local friend, I’ve discovered this hidden gem and can only encourage you to go check it out and have a rockstar breakfast for €5 only (coffee and bottled water included).

View from the cafeteria from high above
View from the cafeteria from high above
5 Euro breakfast!
5 Euro breakfast!

We then continued our tourist day and visited the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), which is a rather posh store, reminding me of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s with a touch of Saks Fifth Avenue, right in the middle of the city. Of course we also had to walk up and down the Kurfürstendamm – the most popular street in Berlin as it hosts tons of souvenir stores for tourists but not much else, as I am disappointed to point out.

After buying a few souvenirs, we hopped on the subway, not without difficulty when searching for an ATM for my friend, who has an account with one of the biggest banks in Germany. For some reason, all of the bank ATMs were underground and looked rather shabby than trustworthy. At the Potsdamer Platz we were able to snap a picture of the oldest clock in that spot (probably from the 60ies, since the entire area is relatively new) before we took off to the Topography of Terror. This is a museum-like building right next to the remnants of the Berlin Wall. It shows the history of the Nazi-terror during WWII and the prosecution of the Nazis after the war. It also has some bits and pieces on the Roma & Sinti and other groups who were persecuted by the Nazi regime.

After spending an hour staring at the pictures and descriptions beneath and listening to tour guides discussing this dark piece of German history, I simply had enough. I think we certainly entered overkill mode on this topic when looking at the endless amount of outrageous and brutal pictures which were exhibited. Which made me come to the conclusion that Berlin is most likely the only city in Germany that displays this part of history so accurately. It has an array of museums, history pieces, and other exhibitions on Nazis and Jewish culture during WWII, an era seemingly forgotten in other cities of the country. Since 90 percent of the city was destroyed during the war, Berlin also has a relatively new flair, including buildings and culture. Other tourists consider this city very hip whereas I found it at times rather bland and unappealing than attractive.

Clock at the Potsdamer Platz
Clock at the Potsdamer Platz


[For more pictures on Berlin go to Days Spent in Berlin (I)]

Vianden Castle: Majestically Overlooking a Small Country

Vianden town
Vianden town

What is great about Europe is that you have so many countries bordering each other and that the cultures you find existing so close to one another can be as opposite as day and night. Traveling can be a great adventure, as you can cover short distances and land in a whole new world.

When I was back at home, I stayed in the Eifel area for a good one and a half weeks of my trip. The Eifel area is about as rural as it can get: Farmers sowing their fields, children visiting schools with 200 students or less, and villages inhabiting anywhere from 60 to 1,000 citizens. Yes, very rural! The Eifel is adjacent to Belgium and Luxembourg, and where I stayed it was only a good 45-minute-drive to the border of each. Needless to say that I took advantage of the proximity and was in Luxembourg at least once during this momentous trip.

Now Luxembourg by itself is not a big country. In fact, you can drive through it within 2 hours by car, and that’s when you don’t drive particularly fast. Growing up close to the border of this country, I’ve come in touch with many Luxembourgers and the language they speak. Letzebuergesch sounds like a mix between French and German and is the national language of the country, even though it is dying out for several reasons.
First, the country only has 500,000 citizens, who learn French and German in school from the early beginnings. Then, the high amount of immigrants from other countries is determining the country’s culture more and more over the past decades. Currently, it is filled with lots of Portuguese people and I am sure the demographics will change over the years. Finally, Luxembourg of course stands for one thing: International trade and finances, similar to and nearly as wealthy as Switzerland. Meaning, speaking other languages than Letzebuergisch is highly encouraged when working in this business and the capital. Some of my friends from school have applied for jobs in Luxembourg. They told me that during their interview they were asked how many languages they could speak. French was always a plus, but if someone spoke an unusual combination such as English or Russian, this was even better. So I believe any language other than the nation’s mother tongue is greatly encouraged in the working world of this country.

Having a job in Luxembourg means that compared to German standards it will pay a high amount of money. Therefore, what most employees do is simply commuting from Germany to Letzebuerg each and every day. Trier, for instance, is only a 30-minute-drive from the nation’s capital. The real estate prices in Germany are much lower than on the other side of the border so that even more and more Luxembourgers are increasingly moving to this borderline area of Deutschland because they want to save up on money.

As you have probably gathered, the part of the Eifel I grew up in has been subject to an intercultural exchange: Germans drive to Luxembourg to buy gas which is 20 Eurocents cheaper by the liter (about 75 cents cheaper by the gallon). Luxembourgers drive to Germany to shop at the local supermarket or to go out to clubs and bars. Germans, on the other hand, work in and explore Luxembourg City on a daily basis.

Now, this might all sound more exciting than it actually is. But it does make for quite the cultural mix. For example, the Eifel has a dialect which is called Platt. I also call it the farmer’s language. However, people who speak Platt are able to understand Letzebuergesch and vice versa. I don’t speak either but I do understand it and after some hearing practice I was able to understand Letzebuergesch after years of not being exposed to it. I guess that’s another language skill I should add to my resume.

Similar to the Eifel area, Luxembourg consists mostly of small towns and villages; aside from Luxembourg City, which has around 90,000 citizens. Vianden is one of these smaller towns but beware, it hosts more international flair than most towns in the adjacent Eifel do. Vianden has the oldest castle in the entire country of Luxembourg. It is one of those towns that come into existence from late spring to early fall, as it is based on tourism and people traveling here from the surrounding countries. When I visited Vianden, it was a bleary, gray day (yet, another one!). No one was walking around outside and only a few shops were open. On our quest to find a nice café or restaurant, we miserably failed. “How do people survive during the winter when their joints are closed?” is all I could wonder about. This question remains a mystery to me, so in case you know or have a theory to share, go ahead!

Vianden Castle on its rocky fundament
Vianden Castle on its rocky fundament

Luckily, the castle was open for business and that was the main reason we had come here, anyways. Vianden Castle overlooks the town from a rocky monument. It is believed to have been built from the 11th to 14th century, as the first mentioning of a Count Vianden was around 1040. Built on Roman fundaments, it has risen to a medieval beauty and to date is still being restored by its current owners. A big part of castle life are the knights who once went in and out of their “home”. Therefore, every year in the summer Vianden hosts a Knight Festival for 9 long days in and around the castle. During this time, people perform shows, such as fights, songs, and beautiful birds of preys (who were part of daily life back then). Even a medieval market is open to public, which has food, products and other necessities inspired by the old times (to find more about Vianden Castle, go here).

I would highly recommend visiting this small little town if you are in the area but most likely it is more fun to do during the summer months, as you will find many more attractions open to public, such as the chairlift (catapulting you high up in the air). Oh, and possibly a nice café that is not closed!

[For more pictures on Vianden Castle, go to A Picture Every Day: Vianden Castle and Surroundings]

Time Spent Up North

Between all the get-togethers and the wedding, I had one full day at my grandparents’ house to catch up with stories unheard of in the last 24 months. I hadn’t seen them once ever since I left for New York. So two full years had indeed passed until I got to visit them in their home up north. They live a good 4 ½ hours from us – depending on car and autobahn traffic. I was fascinated by the places we drove by. Cologne, for one, and its well-known telecommunications tower Colonius. Then the industrial area of Germany called the Ruhrgebiet. More of my relatives actually live here, but we didn’t have time to stop by and say hello.

The further up north you drive, the flatter the land becomes and the greener it seems. We drove close to the Dutch border, as my grand-parents live less than an hour from it. It is also here that I passed signs to a water-castle and indications pointing out that the prairies used to be duff. Gloomy moorlands that turned into wonderful green grass over the course of centuries. I can imagine pictures from my old history book in which people were bent over sticks and picked duff to make a living.

The time spent at the house was a trip back into the past. My grandfather had stacks and stacks of old pictures from the 19th and 20iest century. We weeded through them and I found an interesting photograph from 1911 (estimated time), supposedly an aunt of my grandfather’s mother. Isn’t she beautiful?

I can basically see how an old movie would convey the way of living way back then, before both wars and before technology came around. I sometimes contemplate how life had been on both continents – how it had been similar and how it had differed.

In our quest to create an old family tree we ran across many more of these. I really hope that my mother one day completes her book on her father’s side of the family and I hope her good intentions will not be forgotten in the depths of procrastination…

During the talks about old times and life in Deutschland during a difficult era, it sorta hit me. Being apart from my country for so long has made me forget the obvious. Experiencing firsthand how Germans are still viewed among foreigners and also among Jews has sometimes made me feel rather ashamed of my heritage than proud of my country. But we cannot be misled by false thoughts and by misrepresented views of small-minded people or folks who have never left their own country to get to know other cultures. And life back then was not how life is right now. Most of my generation will never be able to comprehend the mentalities, the personalities, and the motives of the people that have lived 100 years ago. So judging these events from a perspective of today will always be shadowed by the obstacle of time and change.
I am just glad I never had to experience a war up front and that most of my family is healthy to a point I don’t have to worry about them. And that is the most important thing you can hope for in life.

Aside from an old-school-evening filled with memories, we also ate splendid food and drank good wine. My grandmother still cooks wonderfully well, even at a high age of 77. Her green bean salad is one of my favorites. Her cake is also indescribable. I told her that she could open up a cake shop in New York and make a lot of money off of her cheese cake and Black Forest Tart. She just laughed and probably thought I was joking. Maybe one day I will do it for her!

Despite a short time planned from the start, those 24 hours went by way too fast. I hope to see them sometime soon. Most likely back at home, in good old Germany!

Magical Times at Schwetzingen Schlosspark

Heidelberg by itself has a lot of history and several interesting cultural sites. I am not trying to take away the beauty of this student city to anyone who has never been or who loves it there.
But another good thing I have come to appreciate about Heidelberg is its proximity to other amazing villages, towns, and cities. Take Frankfurt International Airport for example. It’s a one hour drive away, and so is the Schwabencapital Stuttgart. Mannheim with its historic castle, high nightlife, and other attractions is a rough 20 minutes by car (depending on speed and traffic).

And then there is a small town called Schwetzingen right in between. It takes you only 10 minutes at the most to get there. When I had actually lived in the area, I hadn’t known too much about this town. I used to go there to have my hair trimmed and maybe stop for a scoop of delicious Italian ice cream in its cute pedestrian zone, since I was there anyways. For some reason I had walked past its castle (Schloss) many, many times before but had miserably failed to check it out or notice its beautiful assets hidden to my one-sided mind.

The castle! Surprisingly familiar to more people than one would assume at first for the popular German soul band “Söhne Mannheims” (Sons of Mannheim) with the well-known singer Xavier Naidoo have performed here on several occasions already. They call their acts “Wettsingen in Schwetzingen” (this is a funny German word pun roughly translating to “Singingly competing in Schwetzingen – it rhymes in German) and their beautifully composed songs reverberate from the historic halls of the Schwetzingen Castle. If you’re interested, check out this video, it conveys the gist of it all. Just seeing their performance can give you goose bumps. They are a great band!

When I checked out Heidelberg during my last visit, I also dedicated some time for a day-long stay in Schwetzingen. Now eight hours are surely not enough to meet up with friends, visit a flea market and see the entire castle, which closes at a certain time on Saturdays. However, eight hours turned out to be enough to meet up with friends, visit a flea market and see a small portion of the unique castle garden, which is open until 11 o’clock in the evening. We happened to eat at a restaurant right across from the castle. For those who are into Schnitzel with Cordon Bleu (really tasty French blue cheese) and good German beer, I can highly recommend this spot.

Italian ice cream
Schnitzel and Beer

While indulging in our typical German food, we got the idea of pretending to be complete tourists and doing some sightseeing. How much could we scoop into this quite sunny late-summer day (remember, we are still in the first week of September)? Well, the castle garden seemed like a great compromise since it was already past 6:30 PM and, as we found out, the entrance was half-priced in the evening, meaning it cost €2.50 per person (usually it costs € 5.00, which isn’t too bad, either).

So we entered through the old-style metal gates and stepped into a world which had been hidden from our eyes for too long already. What a great time we had here! I will let the pictures below speak for themselves, but before I do this, I will give you some interesting facts and figures:

The garden was designed under the supervision of several kings but notably it attained its biggest influence in the second half of the 18th century by a landscape architect called Nicholas de Pigage. Rumors have it that the many side entrances and the maze that can be found in the garden were intended for hide-and-seek-games with the current king’s mistresses. The entire gardens measure 30 km (19 miles) in length, so it would take you forever to walk this piece of Eden on earth. I am not sure if you can rent a bike or bring your own, you might want to check into that, as it facilitates matters. Many hidden paths and other beautiful ornaments revealed themselves to our curious eyes when we stepped off the main path and we got to see at least three wedding couples on this day – one of them who was shooting a video and who will probably have us in the background, sadly.

Despite us walking for almost three hours past some carefully designed flower beds and fountains, we didn’t really get to see much of the Schwetzingen Castle Gardens, maybe an estimated 10 percent. I find it a great place to work on your photo skills and to shoot pictures of unforgettable value.

And Schwetzingen not only has a castle, medieval churches, stores, and tasty Italian ice cream, but it is popular for its asparagus, too. White asparagus, that is. Asparagus season is only for two months each year, and if you miss it, then you won’t be able to eat freshly planted, local goodies. I believe asparagus season in the Southwest of Germany is from the end of April until the end of June, but this can vary, of course, depending on how warm spring season starts off.

Asparagus statue in Schwetzingen

HeidelBERG not HeidelBURG

This is the deal (sorry Makya, had to steal that!). Most Americans, Europeans, and tourists from countries other than Germany get the name of this city mixed up. Heidelberg means a city with mountains and hills (-berg), whereas Heidelburg (which doesn’t exist, by the way) refers to a city with a castle (=burg). Short introductory German course, here. To complicate matters, aside from Heidelberg having a few hills it is also popular for its medieval castle. For some reason especially Americans always think lovely H-town is called Heidelburg; but I believe this slight misunderstanding can be led back to problems in pronouncing German words. You want to know the right way of intonating this city’s name? Hide-l-bark.

Anyhow, Heidelberg is one very beautiful town. I used to spend 2 and a half years in this city because I completed my school degree there and have come to love the town instantaneously. It’s a mix of people, geography, historic sites, and of course the weather that has fascinated me from the very first week I moved here. You should know that the warmest spot in Germany lies only 30km (half an hour drive) away, thus making Heidelberg a truly sunny, warm, and sometimes humid spot during the summer while casting a relatively mild climate onto the city during winter months. Now I am no one to complain about German weather. But after living in Florida and then in Heidelberg for an extended period of time, I do wish I could be around this weather a bit longer, especially from December to March.

Aside from the climate, Heidelberg offers unique bits and pieces of history. It is home to the oldest university in Germany, which was founded in 1386, and its campus is spread all over the old parts of town and the Neuenheimer Feld, which you can reach by bike when you pass the bridge.
The Altstadt is my favorite part about Heidelberg. You find many historic churches, museums, small entry-ways, cute cafés, fountains, and other statues here that make it hard to choose what to take in first. Much history lies in those few streets, and I recommend going off the beaten paths. The Haupstrasse is the longest continuing shopping street in Germany (the longest, not biggest!), and it leads past many shops, restaurants, theaters and souvenir shops. Don’t hesitate to take that left or right turn and to sneak down a seemingly empty cobble street to see what could and will surprise you.

Heidelberg's pedestrian zone
Small cobble stone side street leading to another historic church

Now to the castle: Built before 1214, it has been ruined from the 16th century on by natural disasters and wars, and its remains continue to look impressive on top of its hill, which is a slope leading to another historic site called the Kaiserstuhl. Germans happen to differentiate not only between a hill and a castle but also between different sorts of castles: Schloss and Burg. Since the English language does not make a significant difference between either, I’m struggling to explain it to you. A Schloss has more ornate elements, is beautifully made up, and was invented for purposes of pure representation while a Burg is a rough-looking building simply meant for defense and was built a few hundred years before they came up with the idea of a Schloss. Here are two pictures emphasizing the difference:

Schloss Schönbrunn in Wien/Vienna
Burg Eltz at Koblenz

As you might not be able to tell, Heidelberg has a Schloss, not a Burg, but it looks like a Burg because its Schloss was ruined during various ages which have left it destroyed to a good amount of deal. So every summer the city celebrates its castle with something called the castle illumination (Schlossbeleuchtung) for three whole times from June to September. The castle looks quite beautiful when glamoured up by a fake fire inside its ruins and firecrackers breaking the silence over the old bridge. I consider this event a magical moment.

Heidelberger Castle during one warm summer day

Aside from the hills, the town is also likely to be called the Philosopher’s Town for many poets, writers, and thinkers have made it out here at one point in their lives. There is a path called the Philosopher’s Walk which leads around Bergheim all the way on top of a hill and from there you have a beautiful sight onto medieval churches, old buildings, and the aforementioned one and only castle of Heidelhill. I hiked this path once with my friend who was visiting me and who was eager to do the walk. I don’t think I’ve ever been in so much pain when slouching uphill before. But the scenery unfolding in front of us was really worth the battle! So if you ever want to do something you might feel proud of, do this!

My time in Heidelberg was limited during my last visit. I only had four days of time to meet up with old coworkers, old friends, old students, and folks I didn’t know existed until I had to bitter-sweetly say my good-byes again. We managed to go out on almost every night I was there, even on a Thursday, which I had rarely done before. I guess the party is happening where we are because we had an excellent evening filled with fun events. I managed to visit my old work in the Rohrbach part of town and was happy to see how things had changed and how they had stayed. Since I had worked in the wine industry, my former boss even gave me a good bottle of wine, which I happened to forget at my pregnant friend’s house, but she will surely use it to celebrate her baby’s birth. Or so I hope!

I didn’t think I would have such a good time in the old city and I cannot wait to go back for another visit, maybe for a bit longer the next time! Among the towns to see in Germany, I consider this to be on the very top of that list (after Munich and Berlin perhaps) because it offers so many historic sites on one spot.

Heidelberger Bismarckplatz
Streetperformer
Random street

The Old Bridge

And who knows? Maybe one day you will lose your heart in Heidelberg… And get a student kiss or two! Mwah!

Heidelberg Student Kiss retail store
Apfelstrudel
Historic tram at the Bismarckplatz