Discovering the Romance of Berlin

When I was nine, my fourth grade teacher held up a small velvet pouch.

“Inside this bag is something very important,” she said.

The class was entranced. What was in it? Gold? Money? Chocolate?

She reached into the bag and slowly pulled out…a rock.

Our faces screwed up in disappointed confusion. A rock? Half of us could have turned out our pockets to reveal the very same thing.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Mrs. Trettin said. “What’s so special about a rock?”

Our interest was piqued. That was exactly what we’d been thinking. Mrs. Trettin’s mind-reading capabilities kept our attention where the rock couldn’t.

“This rock came all the way from Germany. It’s a piece of the Berlin Wall.”

Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall.

She went on to explain how the Berlin Wall had been formed and subsequently destroyed. I was fascinated. It was like the imaginary line I made in the living room that my little sister couldn’t cross, but real.

For the next 18 years, Berlin existed in my mind as a city full of rubble, war-torn and grey, host to an atrocious leader and military enemies.

I was wrong.

Berlin holds a special kind of romance. It’s not obvious, like the gondolas of Venice or a sidewalk café in Paris. It’s gritty but beautiful, scarred but alive.

Where I expected blandness and institutionalism, I got elegant architecture, archways, and mint-green rooftops. I wanted to stay longer than three nights; I wanted to rent an apartment and spend the whole summer there. Berlin has layers that can’t be peeled away in a few days.

The history is what made Berlin shine, and I’m not a history nut by any means. But when I stood in front of the remnants of the Berlin wall, I was fully awed. I love that pieces of the wall still stand as a silent acknowledgement of the past, twisted with metal and fractured by time.

Berlin church
Beauty in Berlin

Berlin’s romance comes from the way the German people have built towards the future without erasing the past. There are gorgeous old churches and museums to gape at, mysterious sculptures to stumble upon, and colorful murals in unexpected places.

It seems odd to call a place with such a tumultuous history ‘romantic,’ but it is. The city gets in your soul. In the Bebelplatz, formerly known as Opernplatz, the Nazis burned 20,000 books one night in May 1933. I stood there, 75 years later, staring at the memorial embedded in the ground. Unlike coming face-to-face with other pockets of history, like the coliseum or Gettysburg, this felt real. Right there, at my feet, history happened.

I remembered being nine and learning about Berlin for the first time; being introduced by a humble little rock. Mrs. Trettin told us about the burning books, and I was as horrified as a fourth-grader can be; who would have the audacity to burn books? I never imagined that one day, I’d be standing there in Berlin, seeing it for myself.

Berlin invokes feelings of nostalgia, love, and loss, even for someone like me who wasn’t there to experience any of it. The city still stands, vibrant and modern, yet somber and worn, ready to teach us all a thing or two about what it means to be romantic.

Unexpected artwork

Munich and the 3rd Reich

We had a wonderful time in Munich. We drank lots of beer saw Bavaria’s version of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, watched the world cup and even slept in a day or two. The history of Bavaria though, it´s close relationship to World War II, was not lost on us.

We took a quick day trip out to the Dacahau concentration camp just on the cusp of the city itself. Accessible via the city’s metro system and a very short ride from downtown, we were transported in time to one of the most feared concentration camps of The Holocaust. This camp was the first camp established by the Nazi party and the only one in use through the entire war. At first the camp was used as a work and incarceration facility for German nationals with dissenting opinions but this soon grew to include all manner of non-Aryan undesirables. The camp also served as the center for many of the Nazi’s infamous medical treatments.

There is a reason though, that the first and most feared campis located so close to Munich. Munich, it seems is, was in every sense Hitler´s old stomping ground. He wasn´t born there and he didn´t grow up there either, but it is where his small and insignificant Nazi party suddenly grew to national prominence. This was called the Beer Hall Putsch when Hitler landed himself in jail during an attempt to seize power. His time in the Bavarian prison system allowed him to gain some serious national attention and after serving a mere 8 months of his 5 year sentence found himself the leader of a now very large movement.

Touring Munich it was interesting to see the site of the Beer Hall Putsch as well as memorials and monuments left to those who stood up to the Nazis as part of the student-led White Rose movement. The large cathedral was one of the few buildings from before the war left standing so that allied pilots could use its towers to orientate themselves to the ground below. Squares and public areas, some used by kings to preach against democracy, some by Hitler to speak similar sentiments, and some used by others to plot assassination attempts. The city was certainly at the center of all the action.

Watching the World Cup…in Europe

No matter how exciting March Madness and the NFL playoffs might be, they simply do not compare to the pandemonium that is the World Cup. The only thing that comes close, for us as Americans, would be the summer Olympics when we all check the paper each morning to review the updated medal count. Even still though, the Olympics are diffuse with more sports than anyone can name, different a different sports hero to match each person’s taste. The World Cup is nationalism at an entirely new level.

As we traveled through Germany during the start of the World Cup we watched as all of the people we met prepared and posted their brackets, naturally all showing Germany going all the way. It was the first time, many told us, that they felt they could cheer for Germany and show their national pride….the first time they were allowed to put it on display and be excited together.

When Germany trounced Australia in their first game the honking horns could be heard miles away.

As we’ve continued traveling, the Cup has been in our faces 100%. Walking into Prague’s central square for the first time we could see the Aussie fans holding on for just one win while the rest of the crowd was clearly pulling for Ghana. The next night we didn’t even need to be able to see the enormous screen to know when Brazil scored each of its 3 goals against the Ivory Coast.

When the US lost its fateful match to that same Ghana team, people in Budapest stopped us on the street when they heard our accents to commiserate with us. One British man was getting ready to watch his big game against Germany. His wife was German. One of them was watching in Buda, and the other watching in Pest, they were not watching together. (Yes, Budapest is actually divided in half!) We caught the score as we walked past a giant screen at the entrance to a shopping center, we were going to buy groceries.

We don’t have very many ‘rally round the flag’ events in the US. We are so big and so diverse, we handle most of the competition within our borders. Think of the last time your team (if you come from Florida and have the Miami Hurricanes and Florida Marlins, this is an easy task) was in the race to win and you joked with that guy at work who roots for the Yankees because he doesn’t know any better. A third co-worker was a Boston fan anyway and a fourth didn’t care. Now put all of those people for the same team, with everyone else you know, watching all the games together, in public places with beers in hand. Rooting and cheering and hooting and hollering. Add a few vuvuzela’s and that is World Cup.

Foodie Friday: Beer

Yes, that’s right. This week we dedicate our food post to what Benjamin Franklin called: “Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!”

Franklin himself spent two months in Germany, and although his love of beer is legendary, I’m curious what kind of beer he actually had on his trip to the country. I say that because everywhere we go, each of the 16 states, (Länder in German) each city, each town, and seemingly each house, has its own kind of beer. In some places it is a re-bottling of a familiar taste under a new label and in others the choice of beer is as important as the language you speak.

We started our time in Berlin drinking Berliner amongst other things. Generally a pilsner like beer but not from the Czech region by that very name…it gets a pass in my book on enjoyment factor….especially given that as we drank them at room temperature no one (including your two favorite bloggers) realized that they hadn’t been refrigerated.

Next up, in Cologne, the kingdom of Kölsch we learned that the local brew—Kölsch—is not only the local brew but also the name of the original dialect of German spoken in the region…making it the only language in the world that you can both speak….and drink! Any beer not produced within Cologne city limits cannot, by definition, be considered Kölsch. On that note of classification, all you porter fans should know that if a beer has sugar…it’s not a beer… :(

Munich would be the place to put our beer drinking skills to the test. After being in town only a few hours we found ourselves seated inside the infamous Hofbrau Haus with one of our hiking mates from Mt. Kilimanjaro. She and I each had a liter of the local Augustiner while Jill went for a smaller and more refined hefeweizen, later deciding to go for a second half liter in order to catch up. She somehow combined the German word for one (Ein) with the Spanish word for more (mas) but quickly learnt that ‘masse’ in German is the word for ‘liter’ instead of ‘more’….needless to say she needed a little bit of support to finish her ein masse (one liter) which was not hard to come-by.

The beer doesn’t end with Germany though, in fact it merely just continues everywhere we go. In Prague, passing through the town of Plzen we caught a quick glimpse of the Pilsner Urquell brewery on our way to Prauge. We later learnt that Pilzner Urquell literally means “original source of pilsner“ in German…not even Czech.

The most important brewery in the Czech Republic—to an American—is not its biggest exporter; in fact this brewery is able to export to a mere handful of countries. This is because the of a pioneering American by the name of Adolphus Busch, who visited the city of Budweis in the Kingdom of Bohemia, in 1876 and came home and set to work using the name and the style of beer in his home country. Budweiser is known to all of us in the States but tasting the true namesake was a special treat. The best part was the style in which it was served to us; a light pilsner styled beer mixed (as if they’d stirred a black & tan) with a darker lager. In Czech this is known as a ‘rezane’ and by all accounts was absolutely fantastic…certainly having nothing to do with the word Budweiser on the glass….

Castles, but where are the knights?

From modern Berlin we headed out to the rest of Germany to visit friends, castles and medieval fortresses. Perhaps there were pretzels (called brezels here), beer and chocolate as well.

First stop on our magical castle tour was the region of Westphalia. Home to Roman ruins, Medieval ruins and chocolate, Cologne was a fabulous place to start heading back to the future. Although our first stop in Cologne should have been the chocolate factory, we went first to the Cologne Cathedral to check the cultural and architectural box off the itinerary for the day. After a long walk through old Cologne, including a Roman excavation site in the middle of the city, we made our way to the Lindt chocolate museum and factory. Yum. Just for the record Danny attempted to eat his 5 euro entrance fee in free samples, as you can imagine he succeeded without a problem!

We arrived at Schlossburg castle, a medieval complex situated in the hills overlooking the Wupper River. With it’s dungeon still in tact (complete with some plastic skeletons!) and lots of armor, helmets and swords, the only thing missing from completing the perfect medieval castle look were a few knights. None were to be found, but we did find some criminals, who of course had to be locked up.

Schlossburg castle has been renovated and repaired, but many in the surrounding countryside haven’t been as lucky. The view over the Rhine at Schloss Drachenfels outside of Bonn, was spectacular. A long, steep uphill hike to the top, we couldn’t believe how dense the forests were despite being so close to a major city. From the hilltop and castle remains you can see the cathedral in Cologne nearly 30 kilometer’s away. Hiking through the woods back to the car, we seemed to be deep in an enchanted wood, that was until we saw the beer garden.

Perhaps the most famous castle in all of Germany is Neuschwanstein outside of Munich. Doesn’t sound familiar?  You may know it better as Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disney Land. (Danny’s Note: Not to be confused with Cinderella of Disney World fame.) Yes, that’s right, the King of Bavaria copied Walt Disney, or maybe it was the other way around. I wish I could continue the fairy tale and tell you how beautiful the castle was from the outside, how its an ancient site on a hill top, but only the hill top part would be true. Yes, the castle is beautiful, but it was raining the day we went and alas there were no Disney-worthy views to be had. And unfortunately for all you medieval history buffs, the castle was actually built in the late 19th Century by King Ludwig II, who by all accounts was rather eccentric. Upset that the medieval ages were over and he didn’t have the absolute power his forefathers had, King Ludwig II built himself a palace that can only be called…errr rather kitsch? The over the top Romanesque style reminds you of every fairy tale castle you’ve ever seen in a movie and while indeed it is beautiful, it was never really used as a castle nor is it old. Frankly its no different than if I had decided to build a castle in my hometown. Hmmmm… now there’s an option. The inside is beautifully decorated though, and the tour guides are rather dry, but amusing (imagine a hunchback named lurch from Transylvania and you’ll get the picture) which makes the castle interior tour well worth it.