Sunday, 22 August 2010


Ampfelmann again
I (Sara) have decided to make a start on this blog, because Nat doesn't know where to start. Understandable, because Berlin has been our favourite city so far, but I figured I'd make a go at it and he can finish up - now that it is all finished, you get to play who wrote what.  Oh what fun!

Matilda on the train
In June, we attended the Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) annual meeting, which, to our great fortune was in Berlin this year.  Since transport and two nights accommodation were already covered by the AvH Foundation, we took the opportunity to stay a couple of extra nights so we could at least get a proper taste of what the fabulous city had to offer.

Berlin was my first trip on an ICE that I was awake enough to remember. We were lucky enough to get a family compartment which comes equipped with a little rocking horse and games board for kids. We would definitely try and book these again, as it made the whole trip a lot easier. We now know that the onboard restaurant serves more than just very expensive cake, but had to learn this the hard way. Lunch on the way home was the much cheaper Nuremburgers and a bread roll option.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and spent the rest of the day just browsing the shops and being blown away by how much people are prepared to pay for ghastly fashion items (skull belt for €1500 anyone?) and laughed at by shop attendants as a result.  In the evening we finally rendezvoused with Catherine K, our faux-au pair, who’s now based in the UK (and was stuck with Sara during the Iceland eruptions), and, almost as a hazing ritual, we went in search of traditional German fare for dinner.

The hotel in all its glory
We went for meatballs (Catherine), stuffed cabbage leaves (Nat), and, inevitably, Schwein Hax’n for Sara.  All in all, it could have been a surprisingly great, if rather heavy, meal (stuffing of my cabbage leaves? pork), however it turned out to be the saltiest meals of our three lives, and that, for me (Nat) at least, includes eating muttonbird.  Everything was salty, including the beetroot accompaniment to Catherine’s meatballs.  It was a pity, ‘cause it was otherwise a pleasant evening, and Matilda got a complementary World Cup teddy bear.  C’est la vie though I suppose.

The Hotel Bogota's interior (and a couple of bums)
For our extra two nights, we stayed at the Hotel Bogota, on the Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and I can thoroughly recommend it.  Even though the Hotel was used as the Ministry for Culture during the Nazi regime, it survived WWII unscathed, and oozes kitsch and charm in equal amounts, having been a regular haunt for a wide range of entertainers throughout the 20th century.  It’s cheap too, even though it lies in the heart of Berlin’s commercial district (Gucci, Prada and  Yves Saint Lauren all within 5 minutes walk), which was a definite added bonus.  Our stay came with the standard German breakfast of bread, cold meats, salads, cereal and eggs. There are a little fresh fruit thrown in for colour which was nice!  We opted for the 'shared facilities' option because neither Catherine or I realised what Nat had booked us in for. Suffice to say, it's been a long time since I took a shower that was affected by the flushing of toilets next door.  Shared bathrooms made it not-quite-perfect, and curtains thick enough to block the 4:30 a.m. sunrise would have been a bonus, but we’d certainly consider returning if/when we get the chance.

Outside the Riechstag, both looking rather 'special'
Sunday we did our best to do some sight-seeing, starting with the Reichstag, Germany’s central parliament building.  The highlight of this grand building is the giant dome on top of it, which contains an internal walkway that spirals you rather cleverly up to the top and back without you ever seeing anyone coming in the opposite direction.   Amazing views of the city as well, but super busy; I recommend you take someone elderly, physically disabled, or an infant with you if you want to beat the crazily long queues to get through security and get in – Matilda certainly has her uses.

The Holocaust memorial
As Berlin is the home of currywurst, this was naturally our choice for lunch. Sadly, we went for the first stop we saw, and the wurst wasn't as good as it could have been.  From here it was onto the Brandenburg Gate and then the Holocaust memorial. The memorial was beautiful and simple.  The Memorial was completed about five years ago, and has been described as a wind-blown concrete field of wheat, amongst other things, and I think it’s a rather apt description.  The pillars all stand at slightly different heights and angles, a function at least in part of the undulating ground beneath, and makes the walk through the memorial all the more interesting.  It’s a solemn and reflective place in the middle of an insanely busy city, and as tragic as the circumstances of its conception were, it’s now a must visit.

After lunch we checked out the Topographie des Terrors. The museum is built beside an underground foundation wall from the Gestapo headquarters. Although the headquarters have long gone (so as not to create a shrine for Nazi-ism), the underground wall remains. The site also happens to be below the section of The Wall they have left standing.  Like the Holocaust Memorial, it’s a very dignified tribute to the horrors of World War II, and much more forthright and honest than one has any right to expect. There’s even a section detailing just how many Nazi war criminals managed to re-establish themselves as persons of influence following the War.  Again, utterly recommended.

Watching the football (or rather posing for a photo during half time)
Saturday afternoon, NZ took on Italy in the World Cup, so we found ourselves a nice little Italian restaurant to watch it at. We came away with a free bottle of sparkling water, and I'm not sure if it was a) an oversight, b) because we had to ask for the bill 4 times or c) because they were feeling generous. We took along our small support crew of NZ toys, thanks Matilda for the loan.  Dinner was at a great little tapas restaurant (thanks again Lonely Planet), where a jug of sangria and a glass of pedro ximenez was enough to make Catherine and I more than a little tipsy.

Checkpoint Charlie sushi
Monday heralded the beginning of the Alexander von Humboldt meeting, of which the opening highlights included a terrific presentation by a Nobel Prize winning physicist and a performance by a 15 year old violin prodigy, but before all that, we had a stroll along the remnants of the Berlin Wall and took a trip to Checkpoint Charlie and its museum.  The Museum was very cool and had exhibitions showing the way different people had managed to cross the wall. My (Sara's) favourite was the two hollowed out surf boards stuck on top of each other. Sadly, no photos as you weren't allowed cameras. Lunch was sushi, the awesome looking deep fried one in the photo was called 'Checkpoint Charlie' so we had to order it. Yes, it was as good as it looks. We had hoped to walk through a couple of churches in the afternoon, but we now know that most aren't open on Mondays.

After lunch we moved into the swanky hotel we were staying at for the next couple of nights. The only un-swanky thing about the Hotel Berlin was it did not provide cots. Between a husband that sleeps diagonally, and a baby that sleeps which ever way she just happened to wriggle to, I (Sara) didn't get much sleep. Nat was whisked away for the evening to the aforementioned event, which was only for Humboldt fellows and partners who didn't have children. Matilda and I were fed at the hotel, in what would have been a lovely evening except for how late it went. We were given a three course meal, which meant we didn't need to struggle with a smorgasbord and children, but it took so long to serve everyone, that there were a whole lotta grumpy, tired children by the end.

Cruising down the river Spree
Day Three was all an Humboldt affair, which turned out to be much more about networking (ie boozing) than it was about research etc.  The day began with a reception at the President's personal palace, where we got to listen to the acting President of Germany speaking about something we can't report, as it was all in German and our Deutsch is nowhere near up to scratch. The reception was followed by a cruise (and on-board lunch) down the Spree. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and we spent it hanging out with an Aussie and American, who were great value.  We finished the day with another nice dinner, this time for everyone which meant eating was a lot easier for me (Sara)!
One of the great thing about the Humboldt foundation was the amount of booze they feel they need to provide.  Everything was open bar, and there seemed to be lots on offer to choose from.  Having the football playing the background, and getting to watch Nigeria play with a bunch of Nigerians and Argentina play with a bunch of Argentines made the day even better.

'Art' on the Spree (this was huge, you can use the car as a guide)
Day Four we headed home, on a trip that took a lot longer than it should have. First, we missed our original train due to a late bus and rush hour traffic.  Second, the ICE train we caught was running late, so we missed our connection at Saafelds (sp?) and decided to head to Nuremburg to catch a train up from there.  Third, an 'unattended' suitcase meant we couldn't get into Nuremburg until it had been cleared so we missed our Bayreuth train. All in all the trip took 5 hours longer than anticipated! Fortunately Berlin was so awesome all the travel hassles were soon forgotten; almost.  Next time we'll drive!

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