We and the Schaals had only a limited amount of time to explore Berlin - two nights in our apartment before taking off for Stockholm - so we wanted to make the most out of it. We arrived at the prettiest train station I've seen yet, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof in the mid-afternoon. As we walked from the station to our apartment, we immediately noticed how perfectly clean everything was. The Germans really take pride in their cities and it shows! As we walked we took in the sights - the Reichstag that now houses the government, and its gorgeous glass dome that signifies the openness of the government, rather than the lies and darkness that were kept in there during the Nazi and Communist regimes; the Brandenburg Gate, an international symbol of Berlin. Our apartment was minutes away from most of the major attractions - perfect!
The apartment itself was wonderful - two spacious bedrooms with really comfy beds, a large living room area and a fully functioning kitchen (with a stove and oven!). The place had modern decorations, all furnished by Ikea, and was one of many units rented out by the gigantic apartment complex it was in. Apparently, this huge complex (which spans about 4 blocks), rents out apartments and acts like a hotel. When we checked in at the office, many other guests were checking in and out. Despite not having that personal touch that someone's real apartment would have, we appreciated the ease of the check in/out process, and how clean and uncluttered the unit was.
We got settled and immediately found food - I was code red starving and determined to find currywurst. The four of us enjoyed our sausages, smothered in curry sauce, and fries before heading out to explore. Up first - the Rick Steves Audio Europe walking tour, of course! With Rick in our ears, the four of us learned about the memorial to the members of Parliament who were murdered by the Communists, the memorial to those who tried to escape to West Germany and were killed in the process, the chestnut tree lined Unter Den Linden Street, and walked by Museum Island to Alexanderplatz. While walking down the street we all heard a loud BOOM - it sounded like an explosion.
We looked around at each other, and looked around at strangers on the street. No one seemed to be hurrying away, no one was worried. So we pushed whatever scary thoughts Fox News was trying to put in our heads and kept heading down the street. When we came to the intersection, we noticed smoke billowing down the street. It turns out that a parked taxi had burst into flames (like my car did last year!), and was completely engulfed in fire. The tires were popping and air was squeezing out of engine parts. Jake and I wandered over to the blaze to take a few pictures - we'd never really seen a car on fire before. It was a bad day for that poor cab driver...I hope he had insurance!
Other than the burning car that was not part of Rick Steve's tour, the two most interesting sights he did talk about along the way were the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and learning that our apartment was built where Hitler's Bunker used to be. The memorial is one of the most interesting I've seen - 2000 casket sized concrete slabs line a city block. They are all of varying heights, and the ground is a bit hilly, making them look like an ocean of gray. As you walk through, you lose sight of the sidewalks, people disappear and reappear around sharp corners, sometimes it seems as though you could get lost and the only escape is up. We wandered through the concrete forest for several minutes, each taking a different route and trying to find one another (which often proved to be quite difficult), before emerging out the other side. One block away was a gravel and dirt parking lot with an information sign on the corner, and our apartment building. This was the sight of Hitler's bunker, where he and his wife killed themselves in the final days of the war. The Germans, being extremely careful in how they display information about Hitler in order to dissuade any lingering neo-Nazism and ensure that people do not memorialize him, did not turn this site into a major tourist attraction. The bunker was destroyed, filled in, and covered over. There is nothing to see other than the sign that shows what it had looked like. It was strange to all of us to think of all that happened 10 meters underground where we were staying.
After our walking tour, Tom and Beth set out to find a bite to eat in one of the many adorable neighborhoods of Berlin, while Jake and I made our way back to the apartment for a light "appetizer dinner". We weren't very hungry after our currywurst, so we made a meal out of veggies, cheese, salami, bread, and wine, and headed to bed. Good thing we rested up, because the next day was a doozy! I had read about Prater Garten, the oldest beer garden in Berlin, and just had to check it out. It was about an hour walk from the apartment and nestled beneath giant trees in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. The streets reminded me of San Francisco - trendy coffee shops abound, restaurant patios decorated with flowers and old bicycles, families with strollers and hipsters with beards covered the sidewalks. I loved it. The four of us spent the next several hours sitting under the big shady trees, enjoying the cooler weather and the excellent beer. I discovered that I love kristalweizen beer - a filtered wheat beer that was much more citrusy than regular unfiltered wheat beers. To go with our brews, we all shared pretzels (with incredible sweet mustard), sausages, and plum pie. It was a perfect afternoon.
As we left Prater on our way to dinner we noticed some people holding pretty good looking ice cream cones…the best kind of advertising, like I said in Heidelberg. We made a quick stop at Eis Bar to see if the ice cream tasted as good as it looked. While it was a bit icier than I prefer, the flavors were truly out of this world! The dark chocolate might be my favorite dark chocolate anything I've ever had, and the marzipan was to die for. That’s right, they had MARZIPAN ICE CREAM! Geniuses, I tell you. Geniuses!
We all needed a bit of a break from standard sausages and sauerkraut, and popped into a crowded Italian spot filled with local couples and families and shared some caprese, two pizzas. Sitting outside, watching the pizza man methodically stretch out pizza dough, and listening to kids running around and laughing on the nearby lawn - the evening was perfect. We were full and a bit tired, but not quite ready to head home yet. Besides, it was still light outside (even though it was nearing 10pm)! So we headed off to find another beer. I don't even know the name of the bar that our feet carried us to, but it was outside under the soft streetlamps, next to a small green space - a perfect spot for a nightcap. Before long, Jake and I were ready to head home to crawl into bed. Tom and Beth were craving some late night ramen, so we parted ways. On our walk home, despite how tired we were, Jake and I took a detour - the night before, Beth and Tom stumbled upon a lively restaurant with music and dancing next to the river, the dance floor full of incredible dancers lit by strands of bare bulbs and the reflection of the light from the river. We didn't go in, but watched the dancers spin and twirl around the dance floor for awhile from the sidewalk before heading back to our neighborhood. The night was cool and quiet, so we took advantage of the stillness for a bit of night photography. We took our time around the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, and finally the concrete Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Jake snapped his last picture and we called it a night, starting our walk down the block to our street. I looked to my right - two kids caught my eye, emerging from the darkness of the memorial, and something wasn't quite right. One boy had his arm carefully placed around the other taller boy, whose head was low and his shoulders crouched. I thought that maybe they had a fight, perhaps he had some bad news and his friend was consoling him. Then the street lamp shed enough light on the rest of him for me to realize his hands were covered in blood, coming from his wrists. Jake and I immediately changed direction to find the security guards that keep watch over the memorial day and night, to tell someone what was happening. We found a group of 5 policemen standing in a circle, laughing and enjoying the quiet night. I approached and asked if anyone spoke English. They all pointed at one another, jokingly, probably thinking I was lost and needing directions. I told them what we saw and the smiles immediately left their faces. It was clear that they all spoke English by how quickly they sprang to action. Within moments they all had gloves on and set off to find the boys I described. Jake and I turned back the way we had come, on the other side of the street, and found that he was being tended to by another policeman. I burst into tears as we continued our walk home. I really hope that kid will be ok, and I'm glad that the other boy, friend or stranger, was there to help guide him out of the darkness. It was 1:30am by the time Jake and I got home. Tom and Beth had even beaten us back. We crawled into bed, exhausted from the day, and not excited to get up early to pack.
The morning came all too soon, as did my raging hangover (drinking beer for 5 hours always seems like a better idea than it really is). We had to be out of the apartment by 10, so we packed up quickly and made our way back down to the office to hand over the keys. Since the Schaals weren't flying out until 7, and our night train to Stockholm was even later, we had the day for more exploring. Tom and Beth headed out to find coffee and a park they'd heard about (note to future travelers, apparently don't bother seeing Teltow Plateau, they were horribly disappointed!), and we wandered out to see Checkpoint Charlie. When we approached the small checkpoint, a replica of the original, we were also terribly disappointed. The small building was a tourist trap - stupid souvenir shops lined the street, and two men (not Americans) were dressed in old US Army uniforms, holding American flags, standing in front of the checkpoint house. Tourists were waiting in line to take pictures with them standing at attention, saluting, and giving thumbs up. The men were also hoisting ladies up onto their shoulders and pressing their faces into the chests of giggling women, and kissing them on the cheek. We were grossed out by it all, and I felt like they were being very disrespectful to the US. We took a few shots of the building and turned to walk back. As we crossed the street we noticed a Berlin Wall exhibition, with a piece of the wall still standing inside. We took our time reading the signs with information about the scary tank standoff that occurred at this very intersection, and looking at pictures that show just how large the checkpoint grew to be. While Checkpoint Charlie itself was disappointing, the information about The Wall was really interesting.
For our last few hours together, we and the Schaals headed to another beer garden in the Tiergarten Park at Café am Neuen See. We nursed a couple of beers, and shared a few pretzels as we sat by the lake under the big leafy trees, the rain coming down around us. It was pretty chilly, especially compared to what the temperature had been for several days prior. We watched couples try to make a romantic time out of their rowboat rental as the rain poured down on their heads, and puppies shaking vigorously to dry themselves off. Happy and exhausted, we decided to have a coffee instead of another beer before saying our goodbyes. We moved inside to the restaurant and sat in the sunroom-like dining room - giant floor to ceiling windows were outlined in distressed white paint, a dozen candelabras stood on the window ledge, each candle lit, the view nothing but green trees and water. The four of us recapped our time together, laughing about ridiculous things (#deadandbarren), and sipped our coffee before loading up our backpacks and heading outside to say goodbye. We hugged and ran away before anyone started shedding tears- the Schaals wandered to the busy street to catch the bus, and we disappeared into the park to walk back to the Hauptbanhof.
Belin was a pretty neat place, full of little hidden gems like beer gardens on lakes and bars where you can ballroom dance under the stars. I'm so glad that we got to experience both Prague and Berlin with Tom and Beth, and am so honored that they came all that way to see us. See you in six months! :)
Jake and I grabbed one last currywurst in the train station before starting our long journey to Stockholm. The first train, an overnight from Berlin to Malmo, had to cross the Baltic Sea by way of ferry! We had no idea how that was going to work - the ferry must be huge, or the train must be short! It was a little of both. The train was probably only 6-8 cars long, and the ferry was the size of a small cruise ship. The train was boarded onto the boat around 10:30pm and we were free to walk around. Having never been on a ship of that size before, I was mystified. The train was on the second to lowest level, and the doors to the stairwell only opened if you hit a button. I just kept thinking about the Titanic, and how I would have had no idea how to get out of steerage if the ship were going down - I kept pulling at the doors, which wouldn't budge, until Jake hit the big green button releasing them. We climbed up to the social floors to find tons of people sleeping all over the place. "Why are they all sleeping on the floor?" I asked Jake. He reminded me that the ferry is also full of cars, lots and lots of cars, and these people didn't want to sleep in their cars. Small families occupied corners, laying in sleeping bags, their small dogs curled up beside them. Others were eating in the food court, others were buying groceries and booze from the small market on board. It was all so fascinating to me! After spending a little time on the deck, noticing how fast the boat was going and shivering in the wind, we went back down to our sleeper car. I was grateful for my, albeit small but comfortable, place to sleep.
We woke in Malmo! It was the best sleep I've gotten on a night train, probably because the train was actually stationary on the boat for 90% of the trip. We sat in the brick walled Malmo station for about an hour and half waiting for our next train to Stockholm. It must be scout field trip season in Sweden right now, because we saw several scout troops, dressed in uniform, coming and going with their backpacks, lounging on the floor of the station singing and dancing to a guitar. We boarded our final train, another full one, for the five our ride to our last stop in Europe. To pass the time we napped, played on our computers, and had breakfast in the adorable dining car.
After 18 hours of traveling, we finally arrived in Stockholm. Since we had less than 24 hours in the city, we had few goals regarding exploration - 1) get some smoked/salted fish, 2) walk around the Old Town. After checking in to City Backpackers Hostel (which was super hipster - decorated with skateboards and old camera gear - and very clean, we recommend it), we set out on foot.As we wandered down the main shopping street towards the Old Town, we noticed a crowd gathering on the steps of T Centrale, the main metro station. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something, so we joined the ranks, eager to see what might happen. In the quad below, a group of people wearing dark clothes and lots of makeup were waiting for something, too. We soon noticed a cameraman and a guy running behind him holding a stereo.
Someone yelled what sounded like "Action!" and the scene sprang to life - we were watching a rap video being shot! The dancers started jumping around, waving their arms at the camera like Jay Z in Big Pimp'n, people in the back opened cans of blue and orange smoke (sweet special effects), and different front men took turns rapping along with the music to the camera. Who knows, maybe we'll be in the background of the video when it gets released. Be sure to watch the TV for a random rap video shot in Stockholm...
After our musical interlude, we walked through the small island of Gamla Stan and watched tourists take pictures with the guards at the palace, and large tour groups bustling through the tiny main square. To celebrate the end of our European adventure, we stopped for drinks at Erik's Gondolen, a swanky restaurant bar atop the Katarina Lift, that boasts the best views of the city. When we arrived at the bar, that's built out onto a platform that connects to the old elevator, and surveyed the city below, the first thing we noticed was all of the construction. No less than 14 cranes dotted the skyline, making our pictures not all that great. We both agreed - the city is neat, built on several islands that each of their own personality, but it wasn't very pretty. Jake enjoyed his draft beer, and I loved my grapefruit and gin cocktail (I haven't had a cocktail in ages, and it tasted amazing!). Good thing we both liked them so much - this little celebration cost $23! After sucking every last drop from our glasses, we headed off to dinner at Pelikan Restaurant, an old Swedish beer hall. Well, beer halls in Germany are VERY different than beer halls in Sweden - this place was kinda fancy! The walls and ceiling had intricate murals, the lights were dim, dark wood panels covered the walls up to your chin, the napkins were cloth…it was not exactly what we were expecting, but we were excited because the food was supposed to be amazing. I'm happy to report that it did not disappoint! This dinner might actually make our list of favorite meals!To start, we shared the "skagen toast", basically light shrimp salad on a small toast. With a little squeeze of lemon, the flavors mixed together were out of this world. For entrees, Jake got meatballs with gravy and the creamiest, smoothest whipped potatoes ever, and I satisfied my craving and got the cold salted salmon with roasted new potatoes in a cream dill sauce. Everything was, quite simply, perfect. Maybe it's because we haven't had seafood flavors in a really long time, or maybe the food was really just that incredible…the world may never know. We were quickly reminded that we were in one of the most expensive cities in the word when we paid the bill - about $100 for those three dishes and two beers. Ouch!
On our last morning, we set out for one last little excursion to the Ostermalms Saluhall, an old market building that Beth recommended. She and Tom also spent one night in Stockholm before flying home, while we were on our night train. They said it reminded them of the Ferry Building in SF, so I had to check it out. We wandered around the old hall right when it opened at 9:30, and practically drooled over the amazing looking food that was set out, tempting passers-by. Open faced salmon and shrimp sandwiches, all kinds of cheeses, perfect chocolates and tarts, glorious pieces of meat ready for you to take home and whip up a gourmet meal. The stall signs above each vendor each had numbers written in old curly font, and the soft yellow/gold walls made the whole place look and feel warm and welcoming. Beth was right, it was freaking adorable.
Before too long it was time to head to the airport for our 11 hour flight to Bangkok. Even though it was 10:30am, we decided to finish one last bottled beer that we had brought with us from Berlin, a Paulaner Dunkel Hef. We sat in the courtyard of the hostel as others around us smoked cigarettes and drank coffee, and soaked up the last bits of familiarity provided by Europe. In a few hours we would be off to a part of the world we know very little about, that speaks languages that we cannot even begin to comprehend.
Asia, here we come!