Whistle Stop Europe: 2.5 Days in Berlin

[posted after getting to my Prague hotel tonight, but written earlier in the day]

10:46 a.m. I have just bid adieu to Berlin and am writing this on the train to Prague. I thought that this nearly-five-hour train ride would be a good time to write about my last few days in Berlin.

Getting to BerlinI took a Norwegian Air red-eye from JFK Tuesday night — the cheapest flight I could find run by a reputable company. I had a great experience flying Norwegian Air (Dreamliner).  I watched The Imitation Game, which was entertaining but nothing amazing. Forgoing sleep, I arrived in Berlin Schoenfeld Airport at 2 p.m. local time after a brief layover in Oslo.  I took a taxi for 40 euros to the Generator Hostel in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin (very clean and safe, and the location was perfect for exploring the city). In retrospect, I wish I had taken Berlin’s excellent public transportation to get to my hostel, which would have been significantly cheaper (3.3 euros) and probably even faster.

Berlin Itinerary.  I knew very little about Berlin before I started planning for this trip, other than its place in the history books. I ended up enjoying the city very much.  I thought that two and a half days — which included a half-day trip to Potsdam — was the perfect amount of time to see all of the main sites and get a good feel for the city. My itinerary for these two and a half days is below.

Day One (Half-Day):  The first thing I did after landing in Berlin was to take a free walking tour of Berlin with Sandemans at 4:00 p.m., which I highly recommend. I find walking tours to be a great way to get oriented in a new city, especially when there is limited time to explore. The tour lasted 2.5 hours. It started at Pariser Platz and the iconic Brandenburg Gate, commissioned by Frederick II of Prussia in the 1790s. Among other historic events and speeches, the Gate formed the backdrop of President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech.

We then walked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — a vast field of towering gray monoliths hammered into the ground at slightly different angles and different heights, through which visitors could walk and interpret in their own way. The Holocaust museum lay underneath. The tour guide led us to the next street over to a car park and apartment complex — which she revealed sat on the site of Hitler’s bunker.  A few more streets down, we saw the austere former Luftwaffe headquarters (one of the very few Third Reich buildings still standing and now home to the Finance Ministry) and caught our first glimpse of a standing portion of the Berlin Wall next to the Topography of Terror museum (sitting on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters).  We passed by Checkpoint Charlie, one of the most famous crossings between East and West Berlin (and tourist trap) and the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt public square.

The tour concluded at Bebelplatz, where Humboldt University stands on one side and the State Opera House (currently under heavy construction) stands on the other. Most infamously, Bebelplatz is the site of the book burning of May 1933, when 20,000 books went up in flames. An 1821 quote from German playwright Heinrich Heine is engraved on a plaque in the square: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” (in English: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”). Near the plaque, a window on the floor of the square opens into a white room below containing rows upon rows of empty bookshelves — large enough to hold 20,000 books.  I returned to each of these sites on my own over the course of the next two days.

Following the tour, I walked up the Unter den Linden (think German Champ-Elysees) from Bebelplatz to admire the Berliner Dom (Cathedral of Berlin) and then back in the other direction to the Brandenburg Gate to watch it light up after dusk.  For dinner, I had a delicious Kalbsroulade at Lokal, near my hostel.

Day Two:  In the morning, around 8 a.m., I headed to the Reichstag — the seat of the Bundestag (German Parliament) — to see whether there were any last-minute tickets to tour the dome (normally, you need to book months in advance).  I got lucky!  They had ample tickets for the next day, and I booked a visit for the very next morning (note:  you must bring your passport with you to book tickets).  I then took a day trip out to Potsdam and Sansoucci Palace, the summer residence of Frederick the Great (also known as the “Versailles of Potsdam”).  (Tip:  Get an all-day ABC Zone ticket for 7.80 euros).  The train took about 30 minutes — I got off at the Park Sansoucci stop (with the help of a graduate geology student at Potsdam University). The stop was a short walk from the Neues Palace, which stands at the opposite end of the park from the Sansoucci Palace. From there, I took my time meandering through the park (which is made for meandering — a myriad of rambling paths criss-cross the park, dotted with the occasional bust or gazebo) until I reached Sansoucci Palace.

Following lunch, I went to Cecilienhof Palace, which was the site of the Potsdam Conference in 1945, attended by the Big Three – Churchill (later Attlee), Stalin, and Truman – and took a short tour there for 6 euros. The highlight of the tour was definitely the conference room in which the leaders sat to hammer out the Potsdam Agreement.  I got back to Berlin a little past 4 p.m. (so I spent a total of seven hours in Potsdam, which included the travel to and from).

Back in Berlin, I walked through Potsdamer Platz, where the few skyscrapers in Berlin are clustered, to the Topography of Terror museum, where I spent two hours reading up on the chilling history of the SS and how the Nazi party came to wield such total power and control. I had a currywurst dinner (one of the foods Berlin is known for) at Curry 36 and ended the night walking up Friedrichstrasse (the equivalent of Fifth Avenue) and seeing the Gendarmenmarkt lit up — though, inconveniently, all while attempting to dodge and wait out the intermittent pouring rain going on all evening.

Day Three:  I began the day with a self-guided audio tour of the Reichstag dome, which I thought was absolutely stunning (there needs to be a Mission Impossible or James Bond scene set there!).  It also afforded some great views of the city.  After an hour there, I walked over to the Bundeskanzleramt (the personal office of Angela Merkel) and cut through Tiergarten, the big park in Berlin. I particularly enjoyed the Beethoven-Haydn-Mozart memorial and Lowengruppe monument. Emerging on the other side of the park, I walked a short distance to Bendlerblock and the courtyard in which Claus von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of the July 20, 1944 attempted assassination of Hitler (Operation Valkyrie) were shot. It is now the site of the German Resistance Museum (free), which I browsed briefly.

I walked back through Tiergarten to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and spent 1.5 hours in the museum portion underground. The exhibit that hit me the hardest was a room containing excerpts of correspondence from Holocaust victims to their loved ones, inscribed and lit up on the floor. One postcard was from a 12-year-old girl, Judith Wishnjatskaha, to her father — apparently written moments before she was murdered. “Dear father!” she wrote, “I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly. Yours, J.” I had to take a few moments to compose myself after reading this one.

After this sobering visit, I headed to Museum Island (Museumsinsel) and the Pergamon Museum, where I saw its awe-inspiring reconstruction of the Gate of Ishtar and Processional Way. (Note:  The main attraction of the museum, the Pergamon Altar, is closed to visitors until 2020). Following the museum, I continued my way up Unter den Linden to the Cold War-era TV tower (constructed by East Berlin to demonstrate prosperity) at Alexanderplatz to rent a bike from Fat Tire. For 7 euros, I got a bike, helmet, and lock for 4 hours. I biked down to the East Side Gallery, a 1.5 mile portion of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti art.  Artists from all around the world were invited in 1990 to paint on this portion of the wall, the most famous painting of which is that of U.S.S.R. leader Brezhnev kissing East German leader Erich Honecker (based on an actual photograph, I learned; I actually always assumed it was satire). From there, I biked across the Oberbaumbrucke bridge — great view of Berlin at sunset — to the Brandenburg Gate and then back up the Unter der Linden to Alexanderplatz to return the bike. Biking was a fantastic way to explore the city, and I’d highly recommend it!

I spent the rest of my final night in Berlin writing postcards. I slept in the following morning, had a delicious traditional German breakfast at a nearby cafe in the Mitte, and headed to Hauptbanhof (the main Berlin station) to take a 10:46 a.m. train to Prague.

Whistle Stop: European Edition

Today, I embarked on a four-week train trip of Central Europe, which seemed to me like a good excuse to resurrect Stone Soup. Three years earlier — almost to the day — I took a six-week train trip around the United States, which I also blogged on this site. Like then, I’m blogging now to capture memories for myself and to share practical advice to aid those planning their own trips to these regions.

I’m beginning my trip in Berlin, where I arrived earlier this afternoon. From Berlin, I will journey entirely by rail, staying primarily in hostels. My itinerary will take me slightly behind the former Iron Curtain, through Prague and Budapest (I’ll save Russia and the former U.S.S.R. for another day), to the one-time seat of the Habsburgs in Vienna, the hills of Salzburg, Munich (in time for Oktoberfest), followed by Milan, the French Riviera, Provence, and Paris. I’m particularly looking forward to visiting key locations from World War II, opera, Mozart, and (of course) the Sound of Music, among other personal areas of interest. But I am also acutely aware of the fact that while I tour Europe for my own edification, tens of thousands will be making their way through these same cities driven by necessity and hope for a better life. I arrive at the Budapest Keleti station next Monday, September 14, where our paths will likely cross for the first time.

Whistle Stop: Coda (Itinerary for Days 1-25)

As I dust off this blog for my upcoming train trip around Europe, I discovered half a dozen never-published posts from my Amtrak train trip around the United States three years ago.  I’ve now collected these half-written posts into two posts detailing my itinerary for that trip, which has made for a wonderful trip down memory lane.  While a lot of the itinerary is personal to me, I also make a special effort to include useful information such as the time frame for activities, my hostel experiences, and transportation options for the benefit of those trying to plan their own trips to these regions.

That six-week trip — which turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life — took me through seven national parks and seven major cities: NYC –> Toronto –> Niagara Falls –> Chicago –> Glasgow, Montana –> Glacier National Park, Montana –> Seattle, Washington –> Olympic National Park, Washington –> Crater Lake, Oregon –> Lassen Volcanic National Park, California –> San Francisco –> Los Angeles –> Grand Canyon / Flagstaff / Petrified Forest / Painted Desert, Arizona –> Independence / Kansas City, Missouri –> St. Louis, Missouri –> Chicago –> NYC.

Day 1 (Thursday, Sept. 6):  I kicked off my trip by taking a super-cheap Megabus out of NYC around noon.  (The Amtrak USA Rail Pass doesn’t cover Canadian segments of Amtrak train routes).  After eleven surprisingly painless hours, I arrived in TORONTO.  I’d been to Toronto before, so this visit was less sight-seeing and more friend-seeing.

Day 2 (Friday, Sept. 7):  My friends and I spent the day walking around downtown Toronto, including St. Lawrence Market (once named the world’s best food market by National Geographic in April 2012 — the Montreal bagels and Peameal Bacon sandwich are must-tries!).  [Note: Closed on Mondays.]  We then took the ferry ($7 RT, 15 mins one-way) out to the Toronto Islands, which afforded great views of the city skyline.  For more on Toronto, see my previous post.

Day 3 (Saturday, Sept. 8):  We visited Pacific Mall, located in neighboring Markham, Ontario, which holds the distinction of being the largest indoor Asian mall in North America.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit this mall, it could be a good rainy day activity if you like Asian food.

Day 4 (Sunday, Sept. 9): On the way to NIAGARA FALLS, we stopped by some wineries on the Niagara Peninsula (or Niagara-on-the-Lake). We reached Niagara Falls State Park (U.S. side, $10 state park entrance fee for vehicles) at around 3 p.m., where we did the Cave of the Winds tour, which fits you with a poncho and lets you walk right up to Bridal Veil Falls.  Following the Cave of the Winds, we enjoyed an evening stroll around Goat Island along the illuminated rapids. I boarded my first Amtrak train at BUFFALO Depew station at 11:59 p.m. for Chicago. For more, see my previous post.

Day 5 (Monday, Sept. 10): After arriving in CHICAGO a little before noon (on the first day of the Chicago teachers’ strike, incidentally), I walked from Union Station to Chicago Hostelling International to drop off my stuff. The hostel was only $33/night and, for my first hostel, exceeded expectations — it’s very professionally-run and secure, with 3-4 levels of swipe access required to access your room; the staff was extremely friendly and provided invaluable tips on exploring the city.  I spent the entire day on foot, hitting up Buckingham Fountain (much better at night though!), Millennium Park, and the Loop area (architectural landmarks at every turn — pick up a guide first!).  I had a an early Chicago deep-dish pizza dinner at Giordano’s before walking across the Michigan Avenue Bridge to see the Centennial Fountain (nothing special, but the riverside walk was nice), Chicago Tribune Building (its facade contains pieces of famous structures from all over the world, e.g., the Great Wall of China, Hagia Sofia, Berlin Wall, etc.), the Magnificent Mile (Fifth Avenue equivalent), and finally John Hancock Tower for the sunset (tip: skip the pricey observation deck and go straight to the Signature Room to enjoy the same view over a drink).  After nightfall, I lounged around Cloud Gate (the Bean), watching security guards zoom around on segways.  For more, see my previous Chicago post.

Day 6 (Tuesday, Sept. 11): I spent the morning at the Art Institute (the setting for one of my favorite movie montages and home to one of my favorite paintings, Nighthawks) then headed across the street to the Chicago Cultural Center.  [Tip: Visit this first!  It’s both informative for tourists and a beautiful attraction in its own right.]   Then I took the Metra (which I’m told is preferable to the Green Line, safety-wise) down to the University of Chicago to see the campus and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.  At night, I enjoyed a Chicago-style hot dog at Portillo’s and walked down La Salle Street (which ends with the Chicago Board of Trade building) while recalling the Dark Knight scene.  I ended the day by admiring the Chicago skyline from Buckingham fountain, where I was treated to light shows accompanied by cheesy renditions of patriotic songs on the hour.  At around 10 p.m., a crowd of Chicago teachers swarmed the fountain in protest. I wandered the Lake Michigan waterfront area for a bit before calling it a night.

Day 7 (Wednesday, Sept. 12):  To kill time before my early afternoon train, and at the suggestion of one hostel staff member, I rode the Brown Line ‘L’ train from Adams/Wabash to Armitage for a view of the city and back again. The round-trip took a little less than an hour. [Tip: Ride in the last car so you can look out the back window.]  I departed Chicago Union Station at around 2 p.m. on the Empire Builder line for Glasgow, Montana.  This was my first major train ride of the trip: a whopping 24 hours from Chicago to Glasgow, a small town of 3800 in eastern Montana where my cousin lives. I passed the time chatting with Mennonites and other rail riders.

Day 8 (Thursday, Sept. 13):  I arrived in GLASGOW, MT around noon, where my cousin picked me up.  One thing that struck me immediately about Montana: everyone has so so much land.  And horses.  Everyone has horses.  My cousin took me to the pastures where her family keeps their two horses — left behind by a family that had moved a few years back.  After spending over an hour tracking the horses down on the land, I rode the tamer one bareback while my cousin led me around.  She also took me down to Milk River, named by Lewis and Clark, who followed it for a portion of their journey.  For dinner, I had wild elk that my cousin’s husband shot last year. .

Day 9 (Friday, Sept. 14):  My cousin’s husband, a professional hunter and writer, took me out for an abbreviated round of dove-hunting in the morning (the only kind of hunting permitted in mid-September; only bow-and-arrow hunting was allowed for everything else).  No luck finding any doves, but I shot at cans with a .14 caliber rifle.  We then visited Fort Peck museum, where I learned about the trove of dinosaur fossil discoveries in Montana (home of the Tyrannosaurus Rex) and the Depression-era PWA construction of the Fort Peck Dam to channel the Missouri River.

Day 10 (Saturday, Sept. 15):  I departed Glasgow at noon for Glacier National Park, located in the western part of Montana and part of the Rocky Mountains.  The trip was eight hours.  I arrived at the WEST GLACIER stop (the western entrance to Glacier National Park) at around 9 p.m.  Montana is more or less flat, open space up until the Rocky Mountains, which shoot up out of nowhere.  Aboard the Empire Builder, I enjoyed commentary from a Trails & Rails volunteer about Glacier National Park.  The railroad and Glacier National Park share an intertwined history, with Glacier marketed by the railroad as the “American Alps” and also advanced for national park status by the railroad.

Day 11 (Sunday, Sept. 16): I took the eight-hour Crown of the Continent” Red Bus tour, which starts at West Glacier, traverses the entire length of the famously scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road (featured in the opening scene for The Shining and Forrest Gump’s run across America) and loops back around.  Glacier National Park was actually the reason I moved my trip up by two weeks, as Sept. 16 marked the last day that all of Going-to-the-Sun Road was open.  [Tip: Check on the accessibility of Going-to-the-Sun Road — and all national parks in general — before you visit.  One thing I learned on this trip was that most national parks are essentially only open in their entirety for three months of the year — mid-June to mid-September — due to snow.]

As with the railroad, the Red Bus company, which dates back to 1938, has a long and storied history intertwined with the park’s.  I enjoyed the tour very much and would highly recommend it, as I imagine it would be difficult to drive the winding mountain roads and appreciate the views at the same time.  After enjoying a slice of huckleberry pie with huckleberry soda (huckleberry is the big thing here), I departed at 11 p.m. for Seattle.

Day 12 (Monday, Sept. 17):  I woke up when my train was deep in the Cascades.  After reaching the coast, the train followed Puget Sound all the way down to Seattle.  Shortly after arriving in Seattle, I took the Olympic Bus Dungeness Line — the only transportation to the Olympic Peninsula that I could find ($69 RT, 3.5h) — to PORT ANGELES.  I arrive in Port Angeles at around 4:30 p.m., rent a car, check into my Super 8 motel, and drive up to Hurricane Ridge (a 17-mile, mountainous drive for a stunning vista of the mountains) just in time for the sunset.

Day 13 (Tuesday, Sept. 18):  I wake up early and manage to hit up Lake Crescent (where I do the popular and short Marymere Falls hike), the Sol Duc Falls hike, Hoh Rain Forest (Hall of Mosses Trail), and the First Beach at La Push (the westernmost point of the contiguous U.S. — a classic Pacific Northwest beach complete with driftwood, fog, and rock outcroppings) all in the same day.  The Hoh Rain Forest — a primeval rainforest — was my favorite part of the Olympic Peninsula.  I check into a Forks motel for the night (see previous post on Forks).

Day 14 (Wednesday, Sept. 19):  In the early afternoon, I boarded a bus back to Seattle from Port Angeles.  After checking into the Seattle Hostelling International, I took the Bainbridge ferry out and back for sunset views of the city.

Day 15 (Thursday, Sept. 20):  From my hostel, I walked to the Seattle Public LibraryPike Place Market, Olympic Sculpture Park (great view of the Space Needle), and the Seattle Center (where the Space Needle is).  From the Seattle Center, I walked uphill to Kerry Park for a magnificent view of the Seattle skyline.  After that, I took the Seattle Monorail back to downtown Seattle and my hostel.

Day 16 (Friday, Sept. 21): I took an early morning train out of Seattle for KLAMATH FALLS, OREGON, the closest Amtrak station to Crater Lake National Park.  Two Trails & Rails volunteers between Seattle and Portland talk about Mount St. Helens and the Cascades mountain range.  I arrived in Klamath Falls at 10 p.m. and checked into Maverick Motel, a 7-min walk from the station.

Day 17 (Saturday, Sept. 22):  I took the 9:30 a.m. shuttle provided by Crater Lake Trolley up to Crater Lake ($25, boarding from the Amtrak station).  Once there, I decided to do the two-hour Crater Lake Trolley ranger-guided Rim Drive tour as well (another $25).  After the Rim Drive, I hiked Garfield’s Peak, an easy trail that alternated between stunning views of the lake and of the Cascades (highly recommend!).  At 10 p.m., I departed Klamath Falls via Amtrak for REDDING, CA, where I would meet up with a friend to explore Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Day 18 (Sunday, Sept. 23):  I arrived in REDDING at 3 a.m. and walked 7 minutes to Thunderbird Lodge to join my friend.  In the morning, we took a quick detour to see Calatrava’s Sundial Bridge (the most notable attraction in Redding). Then we made our way to Lassen, where we first hiked Lassen Peak before going down to Bumpass Hell for geothermic activity.  We ended up stargazing in the parking lot to Bumpass Hell before heading to a hotel in Chico.

Day 19 (Monday, Sept. 24):  We stopped by Sacramento on the way to San Francisco, where we wandered around Old Sacramento and toured the State Capitol building.  We arrived in San Francisco in the early evening.

Days 20-25 (Tuesday, Sept. 25 to Sunday, Sept. 30):  I spent the week in San Francisco with friends.  This was my halfway recharge point.

Part 2 coming shortly…