Welcome back, Blog Fans. We've just returned from a well-deserved and interesting "holiday" in Berlin and Prague. Though the calendar says Spring, it certainly didn't feel like it. However, we were well prepared for the cold so it didn't alter our plans.
We took a 2-hr flight from Birmingham the Thursday night before Easter and spent 5 nights (4 days) in Berlin. We then took a train to Prague where we spent 4 nights (3 days) before flying home on Saturday. Two new countries for most of us (Kuk had been to Germany for work) and a nice contrast to some of our other destinations--certainly more of a 20th century feel for Berlin.
Though it won't seem like it, I have trimmed the pictures down but it will be a long entry. Hopefully I won't bore you to death -- feel free to skim the photos and come back another time. As usual, I will be going chronologically, which will seem a little more haphazard that normal since we went back to revisit some sites in more detail in both places.
Note, all the foodie bits are at the end for those interested.
Friday, March 29
I've gotten pretty good at this travel planning thing, if I do say so myself. Part of that is experience -- learning where to look for the information that is helpful. Just as important, though, is learning what works well for us as a family.
One thing that works well for us is an overview walking tour in a new city. We actually went a little heavy on that this trip with 3 walks in total. On day one, we took the Discover Berlin tour from Original Berlin Walks.
And so we begin . . .
Menacing statue in the museum complex. Decidedly under-dressed for the snow.
Memorial to The Fallen Soldier -- fittingly covered in snow (there is an opening in the top of the building)
Humboldt University -- also the site of the infamous Nazi book burning (more on that later)
iconic Brandenburg Gate
This is the unique Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe -- 2711 uniquely shaped concrete slabs. Purposely abstract and thought provoking. Rather treacherous with ice on this day.
from the inside looking out
the Reichstag in the distance
Saturday, March 30
Berlin 20th century sites
had to get the one cheesy shot it
up top and outside the dome
Views from the dome. Berlin is not a pretty city. The reason to visit is for the history and the sites.
outside Brandenburg Gate from above
infinite Nicoles in the elevator mirror on the way down
side by side of the iconic crossing lights in East Berlin
leftover Communist Propaganda on government building
happy book burners (from the outdoor display)
photo of book burning
I didn't take too many photos inside but this one from Auschwitz was really creepy. Party time, really?
The museum was a good overview of how the Nazi's came to power and what they did when they had it. Recommended.
Outside of the Brandenburg Gate and no-man's land.
Checkpoint Charlie, then and now
photo of inner/outer walls and no-man's land back in the day
Sunday, March 31
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
We thought we would take the time to visit a concentration camp given the opportunity -- another worthwhile learning opportunity for all involved. We decided to do a tour with Berlin Walks (again) and glad we did. We've heard of many of the atrocities over the course of our travels but seeing it is something else altogether.
Sachsenhausen was the closest camp to Berlin and was in fact where the concentration camps were managed. It was a "working" camp rather than an extermination camp (like Auschwitz) but to say it was anything but horrible would be untrue. It started as a camp for political opponents to make sure all that challenged the Hitler/Nazi way were removed. Then, with complete power, the purification plan could be put in place.
The message that stuck with me the most was how off-balance the prisoners were kept. Try as they might to follow the rules; the rules would always change. They had no control and it's amazing any survived at all.
main entrance gate through which prisoners would march
work will set you free (if only) -- the concentration camps were billed as rehabilitation centers early on
a few rebuilt barracks on the other side -- the camp seems more open now than it would have then with all the buildings still standing
bunks inside the barracks -- tight quarters as you can imagine
Today was more a day of reflection than photos. It's hard (impossible?) to imagine what it must have been like.
Berlin -- Museum Island
Berlin also has some fine museums that showcase things prior to the 20th century as well. Monday was our day to see those.
back to Museum Island with the Berlin Cathedral in the distance
Zeus having a go as well
and another -- don't recall which one this was
a mosaic from the upper room
in another room -- the Market Gate of Miletus (95' x 55')
Nebuchadnezzar II's Ishtar Gate (a reconstruction from some original elements)
colorful wall/temple in the Islamic art section
Next was a quick visit to the Neues Museum (Kuk would say too quick). The star of the show was this 3000 year old bust of Queen Nefertiti. [No photos allowed unfortunately -- this is from the web.] It really is an amazing sight and seeing it in person was very impressive.
For additional information on how it came to reside in Berlin (and the political tangles since), see the Wiki link.
After a quick lunch break, it was off to our third museum of the day: the German History Museum. I knew this museum would take some time (and energy) and was why the Neues Museum unfortunately got the short shrift.
The museum was well laid out and described German history from the early years through the 20th century. We tried to get to WWI since we've got the 20th century bits from other sources. Unfortunately, it was a little much to take in and neither Kuk or I felt like we "got it". I bought the museum book/guide to read up further. [The kids were disinterested by this point and mainly just walked from seat to seat to wait it out -- oh well.]
various shields from the Middle Ages
Luther nailing his 95 thesis against the church
On the Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther, 1521
early bible - by the time of Luther's death, 1 million bibles had been printed in Germany
figure of Victory (Napoleon's defeat) -- she is the one riding atop Brandenburg Gate
model of Carl Benz's first motorcar
Otto von Bismarck -- "We Germans fear God, but nothing else in the world" (1888)
Tuesday, April 2
travel to Prague
The train ride from Berlin to Prague takes 4:45. We turned it into a day of rest by leaving around 10:30 and not doing much besides checking into our B&B in Prague. It was good to refuel the jets.
Prague is an interesting city. It has a certain charm that we all liked. Its "doors" have been open a short time (since the fall of communism in 1989) while it has quite the medieval connection with its "castle" high on the hillstop and it cobblestone streets in Old Town relatively unscathed from WWII.
Fortunately, the exchange rate inched up such that it was 20:1. Makes the math a little easier. These big bills seem like monopoly money though and it's easy to lull yourself into thinking you aren't spending much when you could be. So the bills shown are equivalent to $50 and $10. The 50 and 20 CZK coins are $2.50 and $1 respectively (more or less). The coin on the right is 1 euro for reference.
Wednesday, April 3
Prague Overview -- Personal Tour
PragueWalker company for just a little more and get an individual guide. In fact, we scored the ultimate scoop and were able to book the owner Katka Svobodova herself. What a wonderful way to spend the (half) day. This was the highlight of the trip for me.
It was great to get a tour of the city with Katka and her immense knowledge. More importanly though, she shared with us what it was like to live through the huge changes in her city. Imagine becoming "free" while going to school? and to see the changes that has brought to Prague? For instance, she went from having to learn Russian in school to switching over to English -- her teacher was learning on the fly and was basically one lesson ahead!
I can't recommend her enough. Even if you don't get Katka directly, I'm sure others in her company would also be rewarding.
[The red carpet, alas, is not for us. The President of the European Commission, Jose Manual Barroso, was making a historical visit to raise the EU flag for the first time in Prague.]
warning to those who would try to attack?
in the courtyard of the castle is the massive St. Vitus Cathedral
another impressive stained glass facade
Royal Tomb, including the first Habsburgs to rule Bohemia (Ferdinand I, Maximilian II)
Okay, back outside on the tour -- a rare family shot in front of (one side of) the castle
close up of the mosaic of the Last Judgment on the south exterior wall
panning to the right and the Charles Bridge
Looking back up at St. Vitus and the caste
Tyn Church through a passageway
After saying our thanks and good-byes to Katka, we wondered a bit on our own:
entrance/gate/tower to the Charles Bridge (Old Town side)
on the bridge with castle in the background
After a short break to rest our weary feet, we were back out. Aiming for the unique, we went to the Communism Museum (tucked in next to a casino of all places). Very informative and interesting. We particularly liked the short video that showed how demonstrators were dealt with over the years (it was police training footage).
Ah, a little Communist propaganda . . . all is good.
victory in sports = food for the machine
chemical warfare protection against the evil capitalists who could strike at any time
scenes from the 1968 protest that drew Russian tanks (wiki link) -- over 100 killed
street signs were destroyed to confuse the invaders
gathering in Wenceslas Square
Note from Wiki: Saint Wenceslaus was Duke of Bohemia in the 900s until his assassination. His martyrdom, and the popularity of several biographies, quickly gave rise to a reputation for heroic goodness, resulting in his being elevated to Sainthood, posthumously declared king, and seen as the patron saint of the Czech state. He is the subject of Good King Wenceslas, a Saint Stephen's Day carol written over 900 years later, in 1853, that remains popular to this day.
[Our guide, Katka, wasn't aware of this song until she heard it in England! Wenceslas is known as Václav in Czech.]
and looking back down the "square"
the art noveau Grand Hotel Europa along the square
night shot of the castle from Charles Bridge -- not bad for my point and shoot
Prague Day 2
Additional St. Vitus photos were shown above.
Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out the window, evidently.] This one, from 1618, was the second official one and involved anti-Hapsburg aristocrats tossing out the pro-Catholic, Hapsburg supporters (literally out the window). It lead to the Thirty Years War.
another interesting thing in the palace were these large, ceramic heaters
symbolic map of Europe, 1592
early bible (I think)
the "Philosophical Hall"
the "Theological Hall"
another shot looking back at Prague
same view with family
back up at the monastery
I liked the angel on the right pointing (and saying check this out)
and this guy asking "why is there a donkey in my tomb?"
an idea of the size of the wall
iconic water wheel shot from the Charles Bridge -- Kampa Island on the left
nearby Art Noveau Municipal House -- we stuck our head in for a quick peek
this night's performer "played" water-filled crystal
night shot of the Church of St. Nicholas (just about from our B&B)
Friday, April 5
Prague Day 3
Final full day in Prague. We decided to head back to Old Town to walk around and see a few sites. Prague is more about the walking/observing than the sites, but there were a few good ones too.
Next up was probably our favorite site in Prague. We took a short, guided tour of the Old Town Hall and Clock Tower. The Old Town Hall, which houses the Astronomical Clock shown earlier, dates back to the 14th century.
three variations of the coats of arms over the years
our excellent tour guide for the hour in the ballroom of the Old Town Hall
a view looking up and the now closed off (and below ground) window
Czech mosaic -- this was plastered over when the Nazis came to town to save it
Prague Castle again -- too bad we didn't get any sun while we were here
Church of St. Nicholas and the Strahov Monastery
street towards the Charles Bridge
the other Church of St. Nicholas and "Paris" Avenue
continuing around with a glimpse of the square
the Old Town Square -- an Easter market was set up while we were there
Enough of the sites, now on to:
As I mentioned (way, way) above, I've learned a few things along the way in terms of planning these trips. One of the key items is that we like to eat. In fact, Kuk's happiness is through her stomach (okay, mine too). The spontaneous approach just does not work. It pays to research ahead of time. In fact, I actually booked all but one meal prior to our leaving for Berlin.
. . . and it worked great. We ate well and didn't break the bank. Success all around. I even expanded my normal radius and had a few "destination" meals, particularly in Berlin.
Top to bottom, Berlin had the better food but Prague had the best restaurant. In chronological order:
Georgbraeu House -- good German "pub grub" a short walk from our hotel. Traditional look/feel. Kuk's little lager and my larger dark one. Pork, cabbage and dumplings for the kids. Sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes for the adults.
Gugelhof (Alsatian -- i.e. German/French). Piglet Pork Knuckle with cabbage and dumplings for me. Sea bass for Kuk. Both good but I really liked mine. Reminded me of "suckling pig" in Segovia. The photo of my dark beer was poor (the beer wasn't) so the local pilsner will have to do.
Asador (Argentinean Steak House). After our great experience in Amsterdam and the yearning for good, reasonably priced, streak I sought this restaurant out. Very, very good. My filet (above) had a garlic sauce. Kuk's had a redwine sauce and Nicole's rump steak had a mushroom sauce and all were very tasty.
Marjellchen (traditional "Prussian" / German). This was about 5 miles across town (two U-Bahn trains there, we took two buses including the touristy 100 on the way back). Great place -- our favorite in Berlin. It has a personality and charm about it in addition to the great food.
Kuk's girlie beer w/ some green liqueur and mine from a bottle. My roasted duck was outstanding. Kid's creme puff dessert and our crepes also shown.
On to Prague . . .
Lokal (Lesser Town) -- traditional Czech food and a huge vat of Pilsner Urquell. Like our first meal in Berlin, we opted for a close, convenient pub. Not up to the same standards, but not bad. Goulash, sausages (hot dogs) and pickled Camembert.
The Prague Beer Museum -- me, me, me. With approval, I made this selection purely based on the beer. I e-mailed ahead of time to see if the kids could come and that they served food (yes and yes). It was a longish walk across town but oh, was the beer good. Czechs are known for their beer but unfortunately, any given restaurant is aligned with a single provided (e.g. Pilsner Urquell). Not this place -- 30 on tap. And they have these little taster glasses too. So, I got to try
Pasta Fresca (Italian) -- wow. This was our favorite for the trip. Fresh pasta, great flavors, excellent service. I could go on and on. Outstanding. Calamari (not fried) for a starter -- we had two since the kids wanted in as well. Kuk's stuffed pasta w/ sea bass and a white wine sauce. (I had soup and helped the kids finish their separate pastas so I got to try all 3).
Tri Stoleti (fancy Czech) -- I wanted to give Czech food another try since the earlier pub wasn't outstanding. This place was stumbling distance from our B&B and highly rated. It was fine but not spectacular like I was hoping (perhaps unfairly). Service was top notch.
Kuk had a smoked salmon starter; I had a Greek salad. Kuk and the kids each had goulash and I had duck.
Well, I'm sure only my mother has read this far (Hi, Mom) but it case any others have skipped to the end . . .
I'm glad we did this trip. It went well and was low stress. We got to see a different part of the world and learn some history and a few cultural tidbits along the way. It's true that these cities don't compare to London, Paris and Rome but I'd rather visit them for the first time than a repeat visit to the others.
I've probably not done a good job conveying how neat it was to mix in the more recent history of these cities with the more "ancient" history of our UK (and other) travels. WWII was not in my lifetime but it wasn't that long ago. The Wall and the communist regime coming down was though. Imagine, freedom when you had none. It's easy to take for granted but I bet far fewer do in these two cities.
Thanks for reading. Take care everyone.