After saying dag and au revoir to Belgium, we headed for Berlin where we’d rented an apartment for two weeks. Our choice to stay that long in Berlin had less to do with the city itself so much as felling the need to sit still for a bit, combined with proximity to where we were and availability/affordability of accommodations.
All told, maybe Berlin wasn’t the best choice for such a long stay. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice city but, since 85% of it was destroyed during WWII, it doesn’t have a lot of beautiful old buildings like most European cities do and those that remain are badly scarred by war damage. Add the fact that half the city was then under Soviet control for decades (let’s face it, the Communists are not known for their beautiful architecture) and its many reminders of the worst things that people are capable of, and Berlin can seem a little bleak at times. The city does have a youthful, bohemian attitude, though, and in that respect it actually reminded me a lot of Montreal.
We got our bearings (and a history lesson) with a four-hour walking tour led by a really good guide (an Irishman with a PhD in history) that took us to the key historical sites of Berlin including Checkpoint Charley, the site of the Nazi book burnings, the Holocaust Memorial, the site of Hitler’s suicide (or, more precisely, the parking lot that is now overtop of the bunker he died in – the bunker itself is sealed off) and a section of the Berlin wall. When we got to the wall we overheard a teenage girl say to her parents “Is that it? I thought is would be more impressive.” We didn’t get a report on whether she was more impressed when she found out about the second wall and the “death zone” in between with its barber wire, land mines, and armed guards ordered to kill anyone who set foot in it.
One the subject of the wall, we also visited the East Side Gallery, a section of the wall covered in murals. It ends at a bridge that connected East and West Berlin over the river which now has neon signs on it that make the East and West play Rock Paper Scissors all night long.
The Berlin Zoo was also really good and we were able to get quite close to the animals, which was nice. It was definitely one of the more fun things we did and a good way to help get over a bit of travel burnout.
In Berlin I also got to try a German sauna for the first time. Germans take their saunas very seriously and a visit to the sauna can last hours, heating up, cooling down, relaxing, and socializing. The place I went had a bar, a library, two lounge areas, and a small garden. The sauna was a whopping 90˚C (194˚F) and periodically someone comes in and pours scented water over the rocks making it extremely humid.
The thing that deters a lot of North Americans from visiting German saunas is that most are mandatorily nude and are gender-mixed (meaning men and women sauna together). I’m sure my niece will be horrified by this since she was shocked to hear that the Japanese visit onsen nude (see this post for more about that). While this may seem strange to North Americans and Brits, it’s a normal part of German culture and it’s common for Germans to sauna nude with friends, family, and business associates. Having tried it, I can tell you that there’s really nothing awkward or sexual about it. Nobody stares or judges or even takes any notice at all. Being naked is literally the most natural thing in the world.
It did make me laugh, though, that the locker room (which was also mixed, as was the shower room) had a picture on the wall of the two old guys from the Muppet Show who sit in the balcony making wisecracks. While the Germans, who obviously have way less body-image issues that North Americans do, probably think nothing of it, to me it was the perfect image of why most North Americans are uncomfortable with public nudity: fear of hecklers.
After Berlin, Pia went back to London and I spend a couple of days in a little medieval town called Quedlinburg before joining her (after 10 months of spending almost all our time together, we figured a couple of days apart would be healthy). Quedlinburg is a cute, quiet little town near the Harz mountains with narrow cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings. The whole thing has a very Brothers Grimm quality to it. I mostly just wandered and soaked up the atmosphere. While I didn’t manage to find a good hike like I’d hoped (they don’t get a lot of non-German tourists, so English tourism resources were hard to come by), I did manage to take a long walk into the countryside.
Next, we’re jetting off to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding (at which point we’ll have circumnavigated the globe). I know, it sounds crazy, but the flight was at least cheap, now we just have to deal with how long it is!