Berlin (Part I) - July 27-30
Jul 30, 2010
|July 27, 2010
Today we were leaving Prague and heading back into Germany and to Berlin. We had a good time in Prague but were also really looking forward to Berlin. After breakfast, we helped ourselves to some additional bread, ham and cheese and made ourselves some sandwiches for the journey before setting off to the station, just a 10 minute walk from the hotel. At the station we had a short while to wait for our train. I hadn’t realised we had allocated, reserved seating on this train so had suggested we get there a bit early to ensure we got a seat. We soon found out though that we did have reserved seats and despite not being in exactly the right place, we were at least in the correct train carriage. We made ourselves comfy and settled in to watch five hours of scenery go by. We were quite surprised, actually, how picturesque it was with lots of rolling hills and open green pastures. It was completely different to the journey from Munich to Prague which we had expected to be scenic but wasn’t really at all!
Once at Berlin’s massive main train station, we searched around for the tourist office and there we purchased our museum passes for the next three days. They were just 19 Euros each which is a good deal when most museums are 8-10 Euros each and we should be able to do at least 4 or 5 in the next three days! We hopped on the efficient and quick S-Bahn to get to Ostbahnhof, the closest station to our hotel, and we were soon faced by a huge multi-coloured building. We are staying in a hotel/hostel which is styled like the old East German (DDR) buildings and houses used to be. The reception area was so kitsch and looked really authentic it was like we’d really just crossed the divide between West and East! We were in a 14-bed dorm room but it actually turned out to be four 2-bed rooms and a larger room with six beds and we were lucky enough to have a smaller room to ourselves. The décor is great with nasty, bright yellow spiral wallpaper along one wall with a typical 1960s German mirror in the middle. Complete with a black and white picture and a couple of red and blue old style lockers, the room certainly looks the part.
After plotting and planning which museums we wanted to visit over the next three days, we headed out for dinner. We’d picked up a brochure for a German restaurant advertising 100 beers and we thought that was a good place to start! The brochure and attached menu were both in German but we could understand beer and we could understand currywürst! After riding the S-Bahn to get to the restaurant we were pleasantly surprised that is was on a quieter street and was not touristy at all. The restaurant, called Mommsen-Esk, was really pleasant and we were able to sit on the terrace outside and watch the world go by. We both tried new beers – I went for the house speciality, the Mommsen pilsner and Elizabeth tried a weissbeer. I can’t remember the last time I had a bad beer so it goes without saying we enjoyed these, too! For dinner I actually skipped the currywürst in favour of the XXL Cheeseburger which was indeed XXL and very tasty, too. Elizabeth went for the currywürst and was surprised how different the Berlin style was to the Munich one. The sauce here was more tomato based than curry and she didn’t like it quite as much although she still managed to clear her plate!
After dinner we strolled around and found some of the more upmarket areas of the city and were grateful we weren’t paying these kind of prices for food. We found the Hard Rock and bought a magnet (I won’t tell you quite how much it was but it sure made me consider how many more we’ll get!) before jumping on a train back.
We had a bit of an issue getting back as one train line was closed but we didn’t find this out until we’d waited nearly 10 minutes for a train, it had taken us one stop and then kicked us off! Thankfully, the station had other lines going through it so we quickly changed, altered direction slightly and were soon back in our 1960s kitsch bedroom, ready for some sleep. It’s strange how these days when all you do is travel seem to make you so tired – in essence we sat on a train for 5 hours today and did hardly anything else.
July 28, 2010
We didn’t have breakfast included at the hostel and we didn’t want to have to pay the 6.50 Euro cost they were charging for the buffet they offered. We decided to grab a quick bite at the station and we were able to find a little bakery and I was able to get a cherry pastry for my breakfast and Elizabeth got a sweetbread thing.
Armed with our museum cards, we headed for our first museum. All of the major museums in Berlin are located on Museuminsel (Museum Island) which makes them easy to find. The first was the Neues Museum and the most well known of the museums in Berlin. We were advised yesterday to get a timeslot ticket, too, which guaranteed us entry at a certain time with no queues. We went for 10am as this was when the museum opened and we thought we’d have some quiet time before too many people turned up. We got in easily, dot on 10am, and headed straight for the museum’s main attraction – the bust of the Egyptian queen, Nefertiti. Along with one older gentleman we’d been talking to outside, we were the first people into the room and we had plenty of time to walk around and look at the amazing sculpture with not a single other person bothering us. The bust had been given a room by itself, accompanied only by a bust of the gentleman responsible for the archeological find. The statue is something Elizabeth and I had seen many times in pictures during our time not just in Egypt but elsewhere, too, so it was really amazing to see it first-hand. The Egyptians have been arguing to have this returned to them but given how well presented the statue was, I think the Germans are right to keep it. The colours on the bust were really vibrant and the lines on the face gave the queen a really beautiful look. It was just great to see and in such solitude, too.
Having seen the main thing we wanted to, we continued our tour around the museum. It has displays and exhibits from a wide variety of eras and all are excellently presented, if lacking a little in English explanations (we’d decided against the audio guides). The exhibits started with the Stone Age and worked their way towards the modern day going through, most significantly, the Bronze and Iron Ages, focusing on the area around Northern Europe and the city itself. There was also a small section on the ancient city of Troy and some of the artifacts excavated from the area where the city is supposed to have been situated. Along with some more interesting Egyptian pieces, the museum was really well laid out and even as it got busier later on, it was still pleasant enough to see everything without too much hassle. It was the main museum we’d wanted to see and it did not disappoint.
For lunch we walked off of Museuminsel and had a walk around some of the nearby areas. We had a restaurant in mind for a lunch break but when we reached it they had decided to shut until August so we were out of luck. Thankfully, we’d passed many good looking places along the way and decided to head back to the Indisches Restaurant where we tucked into some decent curries with rice, salad, naan bread and coke. I mention the coke just so you know we’re not just drinking beer but I would like to point out, too, that this was one of the few places where coke was actually cheaper than beer!
Back on Museuminsel, we headed to the Alte NationalGallerie. This museum was the main art museum in Berlin and claimed to have a lot of impressionist art. Of course, lots of the impressionist art was by German artists and I think Elizabeth was a little disappointed that the French stuff was confined to just a single room in the gallery. Amongst that we saw a version of Rodin’s The Thinker, Manet, Monet, Gaugain, Pissaro and Cezanne as well as a van Gogh which didn’t look like a van Gogh. We’ve seen a few of those! Amongst the other paintings were some which really caught our eye and were quite interesting and amusing. The first was a portrait of an artist which at first seemed like just a regular portrait. However, next to it was a still life done by that artist and on second glance the still life was visible in the background of the portrait itself. This artist, whose name I have of course forgotten, had also painted another plain looking still life but on closer inspection you could see he had painted his reflection in the glass that stood on the table. This wasn’t the only painting where the artist had made use of reflections as later on we saw a depiction on the large fountain which stands outside the main cathedral here. The marble on the fountain has been polished so that it is very reflective and the artist has shown the reflections of lots of people in his picture. Given the curves on the fountain these reflections are not all mirror images but some upside down and some bending around the edges. It was a really clever piece of artwork.
Having done two museums and feeling a bit of museum overload, we headed on the S-Bahn back to Ostbahnhof and checked out the station. It was much larger around the front than we’d imagined and there we were able to find a post office to buy stamps and a Lidl supermarket to buy some drinks and lunch for tomorrow, as well as some cheap Chilean wine to keep our alcohol levels topped up! I’m sure you English people reading this will appreciate the trashy element of shopping at Lidl but needs must!
For dinner we headed to one of the Turkish areas of town for, basically, a kebab. The restaurant was called Hasir and we were pleased to find it and find it busy. The walk there had been through a quite dodgy area of parkland which had a number of cars, trucks and caravans parked along the roadside with people seemingly living out of them. Combined with a large number of dogs, it really seemed like we’d walked into the heart of gypsy Berlin, not Turkish Berlin! Anyway, we made it safely to the restaurant and ordered our shish kebabs, mine being lamb and Elizabeth having minced lamb. They were really tasty and came with a load of salad which made a change from other meals we’ve had. Even accompanied with kebab meat, it at least seemed like we were eating a little healthier! We decided to get the train back to our hostel because Elizabeth was a little bit scared of walking back the same way in the dark. It was quite cold and quite a long way, too, so I didn’t argue about that!
July 29, 2010
This morning was day two of the museum pass extravaganza and we headed for the Helmut Newton Foundation, also known as the Museum of Fotografie. The first floor was a memorial to Helmut Newton himself and showcased his life and his photography as well as that of his wife June, who used the name Alice Springs for her work. Newton was known for his shots of models, many of them nudes and it was interesting to see some of the pictures he had taken. Unlike so many pictures of models nowadays, his models seemed to be actually having fun and enjoying the experience. How many times do we see pictures of supermodels nowadays with a smile on their faces? As well as pictures of him during his life and some of his works, it also had his old cameras there and a wall dedicated to the letters of condolence his wife received after his untimely death from a car accident. Many of these were from household names like Versace and from editors of major fashion magazines – even if you hadn’t heard of Newton, you would undoubtedly have seen his pictures many times.
The second floor of the museum was for the work of Alice Springs and included mostly portraits of famous people. It seemed strange that a foundation which was setup by Newton just before he died would now be used as a showcase for the pictures of his wife. I suspect that many of his own works may be copyrighted having been purchased by magazines and the like during his lifetime but why can’t the remaining space be given over to a wider variety of photographers, particularly up and coming ones? Many of the other pictures displayed here apart from the portraits were also nudes, as it seemed the wife and husband shared the same passions! Elizabeth thought some of them were quite racy, including a series of pictures of two women who seemed to be enjoying the company of each other, but I thought they were quite enjoyable! There was a picture where one of the two girls was trimming the others pubic hair with scissors and I think this was a step too far for Elizabeth! Just to show it wasn’t just women who we saw naked, there was the odd picture of naked men, too, including one of a really old man which was more disturbing than anything else. I have to feel a bit sorry for Elizabeth – whilst I got to see naked models, she got to see wrinkly old balls. The top floor was an exhibit of photos from around the world which spanned the last 150 years with the earliest being from around the 1850s. Some of the earlier pictures were amazing and didn’t look any different in quality to those you see today. Given the technology and equipment they were using, the quality is outstanding. The pictures were of a wide variety of places from around the world, taken mostly by German photographers, and Elizabeth and I were really interested to see how many places we could identify from our travels. It’s a really great feeling seeing amazing pictures of the places we’ve been to and knowing how much we’ve seen and learnt along the way.
From there we got the train back to Museuminsel and enjoyed our home-made lunch (salami and cheese sandwiches) in front of the Berlin Dom, the city’s main cathedral. The view across the open square was lovely and just to our left was another of the museums here. In front of it was the fountain we had seen so wonderfully depicted in the Alte NationalGallerie yesterday, although I’m not sure the reflections were quite as bold in real life!
We had headed back to Museuminsel to visit the Pergamonmuseum. The main attraction here was a huge altar pieced together from remains found at Pergamon. The room was massive and the altar had been setup how it originally looked and in an attempt at a similar setting, complete with columns, pillars and a marble staircase. It did look a bit out of place in this fairly modern building, however, but it was still amazing to see what pieces they did have. It is such a shame that much of it is incomplete. The Russians took a lot of German artifacts at the end of WWII and most of the museums here make harsh statements about the fact these were illegally taken and should be returned. Covered in irony, these statements also show a lack of a thorough thought process given, firstly, how many of these items were taken illegally from their place of origin initially and, secondly, how many of these places have requested items are returned to them but have had their requests refused. This isn’t a situation which just relates to Germany either as the British have had many requests to return items like the Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone, etc. but it seems hypocritical of the German authorities to complain about illegal plundering of precious, historic artifacts.
We were also able to see the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way of Babylon. This huge mosaic gate and wall decoration was brightly coloured and must have taken a lot of time to so intricately reconstruct. The gate dates back to the 6th Century BC and as well as being significant as a fortified gate, it also depicts scenes of religious inscriptions. The top floor was Islamic Art and, like similar instances viewing these pieces, I found little I liked or found interesting. The styles are often over the top with colour and confusing patterns and many seem to blend together after a while. They did however have a large piece called the Mshatta Façade which was gifted to the German Emperor by an Ottoman sultan. The façade shows a detailed triangular pattern with rose-like shapes within each. The detail is amazing and it was interesting to see it so close.
I did see one thing at the museum today though which really made me think and it was nothing directly to do with an exhibit. In one room, a man was leading his blind wife around and as he was describing items to her, he was running her hand over some of the ancient stones. At first I thought it was another situation of petty ignorance but as I realised the situation it didn’t bother me so much. Of course, it was only a matter of time before a guard told them off and the gentleman tried to explain his wife’s condition. For the next couple of rooms, my route and theirs seemed to clash and so I could see the man trying to cautiously let his wife touch stuff without being seen. It was really strange as I’ve been to places before where I myself have told people to stop touching things but here I sort of felt it was right to allow her to “view” the items in her own way. I know that is not the right answer, really, as if everyone did the same there would be nothing left for future generations. It does raise a question though for museums as to whether they do have items and can create exhibits that are a little more interactive and hands on, not only to the benefit of the blind but also to enable children to get a closer grasp on history. When I told Elizabeth what I had seen and mentioned how difficult it must be for the lady and her family, we both agreed that it would make sense for museums to be more open to such conditions but not at the expense of such valuable, often unique, artifacts.
We had a walk around after the museum and headed towards Alexanderplatz where we bought a couple of postcards and a small magnet before spotting the Brauhaus Mitte – a bar I had seen a few times from the train. There we were able to get a nice big glass of refreshing weißbeer and watch the afternoon go by.
After getting the train back and getting some more lunch supplies, we both had a nap in our room before heading out to dinner. We had picked to go for Indian food based on a small flyer we had offering 2 for 1 main courses so in true bargain hunting style it was too good to miss! We walked out to the restaurant and this took us past a 1.2km section of the Berlin Wall, now known as the East Side Gallery. The sections of the wall had been painted by various artists from around the globe and depicted a variety of different scenes. With hunger taking over though, we decided to come back another day when I had my camera to take a proper look and get some pictures, especially as it was just a 5 minute walk from our hostel.
After viewing the wall we crossed the river and seemed to be venturing into an area every bit as seedy as that we walked around last night! However, we soon came upon a crossroads with restaurants on each corner and our Indian choice was one of those. Once we were seated we were given a free coconut-flavoured drink and some popadums and chutneys to enjoy while we looked at the menu. Ordering a Lamb Rogan Josh for me and a Chicken Madras for Elizabeth, we were soon tucking into a really good curry, a proper naan bread and some tasty-as-ever Franziskaner weißbeer. At the end the bill was around $20 which was a real bargain for what we had eaten and compared to anything else we’ve had here, too. We decided to walk back and get some exercise, feeling it might be the only way we ever walk off our beer and food excesses of Europe.
July 30, 2010
We had a bit of a lie in this morning before we ventured out for our final day of museum viewing and our museum passes. Today was a bit different though as we started off at the modern art museum, called Hamburger Bahnhof. As with all modern art museums the exhibits were a variety of weird, wonderful perplexing and utterly garbage. The top floor had two exhibits which were under the overall title of Model Experiments. The first attempted to show some similarities between a series of plastic bug models (intricately produced in graphic detail by a guy called Alfred Keller for the Natural History Museum here) and plastic containers (cups, vases, jugs, etc). The second exhibit focused on toys and childhood and included a variety of turntables full of toys which were lit to show a shadow theatre on the wall behind. This was contrasted to a short film called Toyland, which has won an Oscar. It is about a couple of children in WWII Germany and the persecution of the Jewish. One boy is due to be transported to a concentration camp and the other boy is told that his Jewish playmate is going to Toyland, a ploy to protect his innocence. The film is very well made and very touching.
On the bottom floor we were met by room after room of weird Joseph Beuys exhibits. We have seen a few of his things elsewhere but here they had more than anyone could ask for. Or want, quite honestly. Amongst the interesting exhibits was a room which was full of massive blocks of animal fat. Originally displayed in a cold, concrete warehouse, the fat was supposed to signify comfort and warmth whereas my initial reaction was the exact opposite and one of distaste, too. The smell in the room was like you would imagine a fridge full of lard would smell like. Most of the exhibits made no sense at all, even with the artist’s explanations – most of these were nauseatingly pompous to such an extent you got the impression he didn’t really want you to understand them too much and was sticking a finger up in your direction!
There were a couple of quite amusing exhibits which spring to mind, too. The first was a “musician” who was wearing two miniature TVs as a bra. While she played various instruments, including a cello, the TVs played random TV clips. The props that were used were to one side and the video of her musical attempts and TV boobs was playing on a full-size TV to the other. I’m not sure whether it was funny, weird or both. Probably both! The other exhibit was a whole range of items laid out on the floor including skis, bicycle wheels, TVs, radios and lots more. As we walked around it, we realised there were sensors along the way which triggered the items to life and Elizabeth jumped quite a bit as she passed the first sensor, causing the skis to go up and down and pedal the bicycle wheel around. Nobody else in the museum seemed to be walking around the back and sides of this exhibit so I wonder how many other people were caught out like Elizabeth!
The rest of the main exhibit consisted of a number of pieces by other famous artists like Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly. The Warhol pictures included his depiction of Chairman Mao, complete with purple Mao images on the surrounding walls. I can’t claim to really “get” Warhol or like the person he was, but I can’t help but be amused and interested in his pictures. I don’t think they are amazing and deserve the critical acclaim they appear to receive but they are certainly topics for conversation and “easy” viewing. At the beginning I mentioned utter garbage and more latterly, Cy Twombly. One such “painting” linked the two admirably as an entire wall in the museum was given aside to three pieces by Twombly which to me resembled scribbles on a large piece of paper, the likes of which I suspect my niece could do. And for clarity, I mean my 10 month old niece, Charlotte, not the older Phoebe! It is difficult to explain quite how horrible these pieces are so I have included pictures of one of the three pieces but would also urge you to try and Google a 1977 painting by Cy Twombly called Thyrsis. As much as I detest text speak it surely isn’t a coincidence that an anagram of Thyrsis is “sry shit” (“sorry shit” for those of you unable to translate!).
Elizabeth and I had a discussion after we left the museum about such pieces of “art”. You do have to wonder if the artist is laughing at the idiot who paid for that picture and whether the joke is also on us, having paid to get into a museum to see it. Beuys’ explanations and Twombly’s “sry shit” definitely encompass and give added weight to such an idea.
After a brief stop for lunch on a bench in the museum gardens, we walked a little further down the road to the Museum für Naturkunde, or the National History Museum. Here we were greeted by two things – more children than I care to spend my days with but more interestingly the world’s largest mounted dinosaur skeleton. The skeleton of the Brachiosaurus is over 13m high and has a place in the Guinness Book of Records! As well as this, there were some really good and large skeletons of a variety of other dinosaurs. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the rest of the museum but we did whizz through each of the rooms stopping and looking at the odd bit here and there. The exhibits covered lots of other things including the planets and solar system, minerals and large collections of stuffed animals which strangely made me want to go on a safari or wildlife trek again. The minerals collection was interesting as it had an amazing range of various precious stones and metals some of which bore stunning colours and patterns. I also learned that the speed of light in a vacuum (presumably, a Dyson) is 299,792,458 metres per second. Beat that.
It was still pretty early once we were done with the second museum of the day so we went to try and find one of the beer halls we head found out about but it had closed and nowhere to be seen around the address we had. After looking around, we fortunately ended up at the bar of an Italian restaurant where we stopped for a relaxing and cheap beer. We also had a sneak at the menus and on seeing that they did pizzas for just 3 Euros we decided to come back for dinner tonight!
We walked back to the hostel from there and in doing so we went along the East Side Gallery again and I was able to get some pictures. The artwork was really impressive on some of these and looked fairly recent. We had wondered last night why many of the paintings were labeled “1991-2009” and it appeared that when the wall came down in 1989, artists from around the world were asked to decorate a section which would be used as a gallery promoting peace, friendship and the like. These were originally done in 1991 but over time they had faded and worn so the artists were asked to come back during 2009 and renovate their own works. As a result, many included the dates as above on their pieces.
There was also a little shop built into the wall part of the way down and here I actually learned something about the wall I had never actually known. I had always assumed that the wall had run through Berlin and just split the East from the West. Never having really considered the geography of East and West German and the situation of Berlin, I was surprised to read that the entirety of Berlin was within East Germany (which makes sense now, of course) and that the wall completely surrounded West Berlin and the West Germans living there. One day, the people passed backwards and forwards as they pleased and the next, East Berliners weren’t even able to cross the divide to get to work. This was in 1961 and continued until the fall of the wall in late 1989. In that time, a number of people had been killed trying to illegally cross the wall and even families that lived either side of the wall couldn’t see each other until later when special permits were approved for people in such situations. I’d always known of the existence of the Berlin Wall, I’d known of the demonstrations and the historic date in 1989 when the gates were opened and the wall “came down” but I had never really understood the nature of the wall itself, probably to my ignorance. As it turns out, we have spent the majority of our time in the old East Berlin, including most of the museums, and mostly ventured into West Berlin for dinner!
After grabbing some further lunch supplies, having a laze around and writing some of our travel journals, we headed out for dinner. We’d been quite good on our budget so far in Berlin which was a surprise as we don’t have breakfast included nor do we have any kitchen facilities. A combination of a cheap pastry for breakfast and a home-made sandwich for lunch has meant that we can eat reasonably in the evenings. After our 2 for 1 curry last night, we couldn’t overlook a 3 Euro pizza each and even after feeling pressured into leaving a tip we still came out from dinner having only spent around $15! In the larger cities we often struggle to eat good, cheap food and still have some variety but here we’ve done a good job so far!