Wednesday, December 19, 2007

See you next year!

The holiday rush has prevented us from posting about our Prague trip. Check back shortly after the holidays. This pic is from our daily blog.

Happy Holidays and thanks for visiting!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Back to Berlin

Berlin is nothing if not a city of contrasts ... old/new, east/west, clean/dirty, relaxed/uptight ... one could go on forever. But that's what makes it such an interesting town. We met friends Jon & Scott there for a sightseeing-packed extended weekend. We last visited Berlin 8 years ago ... at that time it was a city of construction cranes, so we weren't surprised to see that a lot has changed since then.

The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is one of the city's most familiar landmarks. We didn't go inside during our previous visit, so the beautiful ceiling mosaics were a new sight for us. The church was a symbol of German pride, constructed in the late 1800's with intricate mosaics depicting the life of Kaiser Wilhelm I. All that was left standing after the April 1945 bombing was a portion of the tower.

Pictured: Kaiser-Wilhelm church and mosaic (click to enlarge any picture)

There are, of course, many signs still around the city of the war and the divided city. Although there's not much left of the Berlin Wall, there are segments on display in the Postdamer Platz. And if you look closely at many of the old buildings you can see the scars of war.

Pictured: Berlin Wall segment; damaged building

The Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum are new since our last visit. They're both very moving, but in different ways. The Jewish Museum follows the entire history of Jews in Germany. Inside is a Holocaust tower ... only a few people are allowed in at a time, and when the door is closed you are standing in a tall, windowless space ... almost completely dark except for a shaft of light at the top. The interpretation is left to the visitor, but clearly it is a space for reflection.

The Holocaust Memorial (technically, the "Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe") is topped by thousands of concrete slabs, of different height and on an uneven surface. Again, walking through this space is clearly designed for contemplation. The exhibit portion is underground, and consists of different remembrance rooms with stories told in a very personal manner. Several times I noticed people trying hard not to totally break down. It was a very moving experience.

Pictured: The concrete "stelae" and an exhibit in the letters room (click to enlarge)

Such sobering sights are contrasted by the new signs of life throughout the city. Walking around the Unter den Linden area (literally translated, Under the Trees), you can see the revitalization that's happening throughout Berlin.

Above: evening stroll on Unter den Linden

After waiting for the train strike to end at exactly 10:00am, we took the train out to the town of Potsdam. Here we visited two sites: the Sans Souci complex with its multiple palaces and gardens, and Cecilienhof, where the Allies met to decide the fate of postwar Europe.

Above: The "New Palace" and Sans Souci
Below: Cecilienhof and looking into the conference room with the flags of the U.S., Great Britain and Soviet Union

Berlin is really a top-notch museum town. We visited the Pergamonmuseum, with the amazing Pergamon Alter, Ishtar Gate and Mschatta facade. The Altes Museum currently houses antiquities from Greece, Rome and Egypt. And the Gemäldegalerie had a fantastic collection of art from gothic to baroque.

Pictured: a frieze from the Pergamon alter, and a panorama of the Ishtar gate

A morning visit to the Berlin Zoo was a nice contrast to the hustle & bustle of the city. It wasn't very crowded early on a beautiful autumn day. We noticed that the Germans are not shy about sex education, at least not as far as the zoo animals are concerned.

Pictured: some of the zoo occupants and more than you needed to know about asian wild horses

A trip out to the Olympic stadium was a worthwhile detour. Newly renovated to host the '06 World Cup soccer championship, it is still an impressive structure. It's amazing to think that it has hosted numerous sports events, as well as Hitler, Jesse Owens, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, and the Pope.

Pictured: the entrance to the Olympic Stadium and a panorama from the interior

Having lunch at the Reichstag/Bundestag is a great way to avoid the very long line of visitors waiting to go to the dome at the top. It's a great way to see around the city; unfortunately the day went from sunny to overcast in no time, which doesn't make for good photos from inside the dome.

Pictured: Reichstag exterior, and the mirrored center of the dome.

On our final day we paid a visit to the Berliner Dom. It's another imposing structure, but the inside feels much smaller than you'd think. Perhaps it's because of the space the massive organ takes up on the inside. In the basement are the tombs of the Hohenzollern dynasty. We featured one of the memorials in this post from our daily blog.

Pictured: Berliner Dom

Of course, inbetween all of the sights we had our fair share of food, wine & beer. From german to italian to thai to sushi, Berlin has it all. So you can go from a sobering experience to a not-so-sober state of mind. Just part of the contrasting character of Berlin.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Octoberfest (but not Oktoberfest): Münsterland and Düsseldorf

In October we found ourselves traveling to Germany three weeks in a row. We didn't make it all the way to Munich for Oktoberfest, but that's not a problem in Germany because they don't seem to have a problem enjoying themselves no matter where or when you are there.

The first trip was a quick journey over the border into the Münsterland area. It's known for the many moated castles/estates that dot the area. Here are a few shots from our visit.

Pictured Above: Schloss Lembeck has nicely landscaped grounds including a rhododendron garden.

Pictured above: Schlosspark Nordkirchen is called "the Versailles of Westphalia." It now operates as a business school, but the grounds are open and include a large formal sculpture garden.

Haus Havixbeck is still a private home.

Above: The Kreislehrgarten in Steinfurt. We featured it on our daily blog.

Our final stop was in the town of Xanten, known for its medieval town center and roman ruins. The town center was very active for a Sunday (many stores were open, so they have the tourism thing down pat).

Above: Xanten town center, and inside the St. Viktor Dom (construction started in 1263).

The next weekend we were off to Düsseldorf. We planned this weekend back in May, when tickets to the Police concert went on sale. Were it not for our stop in the tourist office on Saturday, we wouldn't have known that the concert was cancelled. It seems that Sting developed a sore throat ... wimp! At any rate, that gave us more time to enjoy the town. We were pleasantly surprised ... knowing that the town was heavily damaged during WWII, we didn't expect much. But it is a vibrant town, with an intriguing mix of old and new.

Above: looking back at the Altstadt (old town), and the old Town Hall.

Above: around the TV tower and "media harbor," home to some unique modern architecture

Above: one of the streets in the old town--this one packed with tapas restaurants, and fall goods at the market

Above: from the Düsseldorf city monument; we featured it on our daily blog.

During our stay we saw a wedding in the old town (above), and some characters on the street (below, street performers and a stag party).

Perhaps the thing we'll remember most is our stop in a tiny little bar in the old town (pictured above). It was packed, but a woman sitting on the bench moved over enough for us to squeeze in. She was drinking the local liquor called Killepitsch. We ordered a round, including one for the nice lady, and managed to get by with broken german and gestures (we know how to say "cheers" in many languages now).

She started to tell us a story, and a guy standing at the bar was kind enough to translate. Her story was about how the Americans bombed the city after the fighting had stopped. And there were two guys that were buried beneath the rubble but survived. And to celebrate their survival they made a special liqueur and called it Killepitsch, which meant something about being killed.

Now, you have to understand that this woman looked like she was old enough to have lived through the war. And we all had a good laugh ... it didn't seem like she was telling us this story to make us feel bad. But frankly, we thought that she was either making it up or maybe the 7 or 8 shots she had before ours had taken their toll. After all, the drink is a really dark red color, and it's 84 proof!

However, the makers of Killepitsch are nice enough to have translated their story into english, and darn if it isn't pretty close to the story we were told. So if you're ever around Düsseldorf, be sure to stop into the tiny pub in the Altstadt and see if you get told the same tale.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Back to Brussels

Last month we found ourselves hopping on the train for another quick weekend trip to Brussels. One of the reasons we went was to see the Royal Palace, which is only open only during the summer. The "Heaven of Delight" room is quite a sight ... you can't take pictures inside, but you can see some at this site. The ceiling is covered with thousands of wings from Thai jewel beetles ... truly bizarre.

We spent some time exploring Brussels' art nouveau architecture. Here you see the Musée des Instruments de Musique. We went up to the top floor cafe to see the view of the city, but decided we'd leave the exhibits for another visit. Another stop was the Musée Horta, the home and office of one of the most influential art nouveau architects, Victor Horta. The outside is deceivingly simple; the inside is another matter (click on the museum link to see indoor pictures).

We also did a lot of walking around, taking in the Grand Place (which you see poking up in the vista) and the Marolles market. We really like the statues of various guilds in the Place du Petit Sablon ... like this guy -- got the wine & the fish, let's party!

Speaking of party, we seem to be on a roll in seeing stag parties wherever we go. The chicken groom-to-be even stopped for a photo with the two of us (which we'll keep for our private collection). And in a repeat of our last trip to Brussels, we saw a marching band again, this time in a military/veterans procession to the Grand Place. Add to that a couple of drinks at our favorite Brussels witch-themed bar, and some great Belgian food, and it made for a perfect weekend escape.

Come back in about a week for our next post from our recent travels to Germany.