Tuesday, July 22, 2008


In preparation for our move out of Europe, we decided to risk a city break with two small children and visit Berlin for 5 days. While it is fully reasonable to argue against the wisdom of this choice, I have to say we managed to do quite a lot without doing quite a lot. Make sense? There is so much to do and see in Berlin that even doing the little we did at Ellie's pace and interest was still impressive. The weather was fairly unpleasant (drizzle every day, although not constant). We would say it was gross, except we returned to find it FAR WORSE in Holland. Here it was cold as well as rainy and windy on our return, so by comparison, the weather in Berlin wasn't so bad. An occasional cool breeze and rather inconvenient drizzle there, the weather did affect our visit and limit us a little. You will see lots of umbrellas in the photos, though we did get some good sun on the zoo morning. We visited the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate), the Siegessaeule (Victory Column), Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag dome, the Fernsehturm (landmark TV tower), and the Pergamon Museum. We took a boat tour. We strolled through parts of the large Tuingarten (Berlin's equivalent of NY's Central Park) and past numerous architectural sites, including the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), the Deutscher Dom and Franzoesischer Dom (German and French Cathedrals) and Schauspielhaus/Konzerthaus (concert hall) in the Gendarmenmarkt. We quickly scanned shop windows in the Hackesche Hoefe and found a few fabulous spots to eat scattered through Mitte. And of course, we spent time at the Berlin Zoo, where Ellie discovered the greatest playground of her life (far more interesting than *yawn* polar bears, panda bears, big cats or *double yawn* the well-designed nocturnal exhibit). Who needs wildlife when one can BE wildlife? Without further ado, let's take a look at the highlights in the order we tackled them. As always, there are TONS more photos in the flickr sidebar for those interested.

First stop, the Brandenburg Gate, a landmark Berlin structure. Perhaps most interesting about this site is the close line-up of the US, British, French and Russian embassies, all very nearby. The US Embassy is just to the left of the gate, as you see in the picture. History is history, and it's amazing all that has happened in Berlin in a time that is really not so long ago. The Berlin Wall used to run behind this gate, but there is a road there now (a section of the wall was left intact as a memorial, but we'll get to that later). Ellie liked this site tremendously because we bought her an ice cream nearby. At this rate, we will have an impressive photo album of her sampling ice cream in fabulous locations worldwide. I just know she'll appreciate that someday.

Close to the gate is the Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament. Recently renovated, it features a fabulous glass dome on top from which you get an amazing panoramic view of the city. Secret bonus feature: VISIT WITH A STROLLER. In a rare and precious discovery, we learned that visitors with small children in stroller get to skip the snaking line out the door and go to the handicapped entrance (where there is no line) and board the elevator to the dome first. Who would have thought? VIP treatment for parents of small kids is a rare and beautiful thing! Thank you to whomever came up with that lovely rule!

The next morning, we took advantage of sunny weather and headed to the Berlin Zoo. Well laid-out among the trees and green, the Berlin Zoo has an impressive collection of animals and lovely grounds. Yet, so spoiled without realizing it, Ellie found nothing extraordinary about the lovely zoo. After all, this is a girl who visits Blijdorp nearly once a week. Even the rare panda couldn't grab her interest. She had brought her own and was too busy feeding it bamboo to look at the live one in the enclosure. But the playground...oh, the playground! A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and this is true of playgrounds. Whoever came up with that playground knows kids. There is a section for kids ages 3-6 and a section for kids up to age 14. Of course, the older section is more enthralling and has high slides AND trampolines!

I think the biggest tantrum poor Markus has ever witnessed was thrown as we tried to pry Ellie from the playground after an hour so we could head back to the hotel for naptime. She could have stayed there forever and would have had it not been for her most unreasonable parents.

Unfortunately, we missed nap time that day so we headed out again in the afternoon for Jennifer's favorite German tradition (kaffee und kuchen) and new sights. We found the best spot for coffee and cakes! There is a little cafe hidden away in an inner courtyard among little galleries. There they make delicious butter cookies (house specialty) and delicious cakes! Amazing almond cake and The Best Cheesecake EVER. Of course, it's not in our guidebook and I lost the card I took away with me, so I don't have a name for you. If I find it, believe me I will post it in the food blog with pictures. Needless to say, we went there more than once.

Having selected a hotel in Mitte to be close to the major sights, we decided to walk to the Fernsehturm to test accessibility with the kids. Is it better to take the metro or walk? We had to know. The answer is metro, but the walk was nice (though tiring!) anyway.

We made our way up to the Alexanderplatz, the Rotes Radhaus (Red City Hall) and the Fernsehturm. From there, we took the metro to Checkpoint Charlie, an overly touristy spot but one that should not be missed for historical value.

This brings us to the end of day 2. As usual, I have no ability to tell the short version of the story. Apologies to those of you with better things to do than read this lengthy blog about our trip. Skim through the pictures and be happy.

We woke up on day 3 to mucky weather, so we opted for the Pergamon Museum and its famous altar. On our way there, we passed by the Berliner Dom across the street from what was once the royal palace and is now a construction site wasteland (palace destroyed during East German rule, replaced with concrete government monstrosity which has now been torn down as well).

The museum was hugely disappointing. The guards responded to our entrance with Ellie as if we'd brought in a blaring stereo and several cans of neon spray paint. They were glaring at her, talking on their walkie-talkies about her, and following our every move. I must point out that Ellie is exceptionally well-behaved in museums as a rule, so we were incredibly offended by this hostile hovering and left within minutes. I want to see the art, but I don't want to see it that badly. Losers.

Not wanting a repeat of the previous day's lack-of-nap misery, we made sure Ellie got a good rest in the hotel before heading out again.

We got such a late start that it was back to our fabulous-find of a cafe for snacks and then on to explore some neighborhoods in search of cool kiddie spots. We came across a built-by-kids playground.

There are many of these scattered throughout the city. I had read about them in an IHT article, but I hadn't seen one before this trip. What a brilliant idea! The city provides the space and the materials are available on a check-out basis from a supervising adult. Kids build it up themselves. The report I read claims that there are far fewer injuries reported on these playgrounds than on traditional playgrounds, presumably because kids perceive the danger in saws, hammers and nails and are more cautious. This place was hopping with the pre-teen set, and I would have been happy to join them had I been allowed. What fun! Ellie was very sad she was too young to go in.

Our wanderings took us past an apartment building with these little plaques inlaid in the sidewalk out front. A touching, tiny monument to the struggles people endured in this place. Beautiful and sad.

The next day, we found a playground for Ellie in the Tiergarten. We strolled along and found a lovely picnic spot at the base of a monument looking across to the Victory Column.

That afternoon, we opted for a boat tour. The weather was lovely when Ellie awoke from her nap, so a boat tour seemed just the thing. How could we have known it would start pouring 10 minutes into the trip? Of course, we hadn't brought raincoats or umbrellas to face the clear blue sky when we left the hotel. Alas. The first part of the tour was quite pleasant. The English translation was SAD SAD SAD. I'm glad I could catch snippets of the German, because the English translation was pathetic. My favorite part followed a three minute German explanation of some features to be translated as: "On your left is the Red City Hall, so named for its color." That was it. Oy.

Our last day only allowed us a few hours before our trip to the airport, so we went to see the Berlin Wall Memorial. The city left a piece of the wall intact, including the wall barricading people from the actual Wall with the open "death corridor" in between the two.

The barbed wire and guard stations are gone, but the impact remains. That site made me terribly sad. It drove home how hard it must have been to be trapped on the East Berlin side of the wall, especially right next to the wall. This section went right down a street, so that people who lived in a building with the door on the East Berlin side looked out their windows on the West Berlin side. Some jumped to freedom; others weren't so lucky. It's amazing how recently that was reality. And we've been there. The end.


Karly said...

I personally love the lengthy description of your trip...thank you! A little later, I will peruse all of the pictures on the other site, because I love that as well. Thanks for sharing, glad you guys had a good time!

gail said...

I love your narratives and photo journals :-)

I visited Berlin in January '99 and remember quite vividly the experience of walking from West to East on foot and the stark contrast between the two, even ten years after it was dismantled.

the dipe squad said...

Thanks, ladies! And thanks for hanging in there through the lengthy post. I know it was a trek. ;)