Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Berlin and Beyond

The Brandenburg Gate
This trip was very special, as I visited the small town that my father's ancestors came from. But more on that in a bit...

I went to Berlin with my co-expat friend Marion, who was born and raised in Germany, but has lived in the U.S. for many years and is married to a co-worker of Tom's here in Rauma. It is always great to visit a country with a "native," so to speak. For one thing, they know what to see and how to get around. And in small towns like we visited, the language skills are wonderful.
The Reichstag Dome

Fresh-baked and delicious!
I have always been a World War II buff, and Berlin has long been on my "must-see" list. I thought I was mainly interested in Hitler and the war, but I found that once there, I actually wanted to see and learn more about the after-effects of WWII -- the splitting up of Germany, the Cold War and the infamous Berlin Wall. This chapter in history was made even more interesting, since Marion was born in Leipzig (which at the time, was part of East Germany). Her family moved to West Germany a year after she was born, but they still had relatives in East Germany and East Berlin. I also bought a book on the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, so I could learn more about it, even though I also grew up during that time. Of course, I remember that Germany was divided, but at the time, I didn't know anyone who was personally affected by it.

We had wonderful weather, and we visited all the top sights: the Reichstag (where Parliament meets), the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the nearby museum, Charlottenburg Palace, the Berlin Cathedral, the Pergamon Museum (the Ishtar Gate is amazing), the Memorial to Murdered Jews, the TV Tower, Potsdamer Platz, and of course, the remaining bits of the Berlin Wall. We took the Hop-on, Hop-off bus ride and a boat ride on the River Spree. We shopped at central Europe's largest department store, KaDeWe.

The famous sign at Checkpoint Charlie
I was actually surprised at how much of the Berlin Wall still exists.The wall started out as a line of soldiers and barbed wire in August 1961, then progressed over the years to tall cement structures, topped with more wire. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was full of information about the Wall and the Cold War: escape methods and attempts, the political situation (the U.S. government initially approved of the Wall, since that meant the Communists had no intentions of invading and taking over West Berlin -- they just wanted to stop the massive exodus of East Berliners into the West), the protests, how the citizens coped, etc. It was very impressive.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall

After Berlin, we rented a car and drove south, stopping in Leipzig, then heading to the town of Erfurt, where we spent two nights. The next day, we drove to Bad Langensalza, home of my ancestors. I couldn't have asked for a more picturesque town! We went to the Rathaus (town hall), where Marion talked to the archivist, who spoke only German. The archivist is going to search the written records and try to find out more about the ancestors before Andreas Hildebrand, who was born in 1598. His three sons emigrated to America in 1690. By the way, the prefix, "bad," is used as an official designation for a spa town. Sulfur springs were discovered in Langensalza in 1811, and salt and mineral water springs in 1996.

Of course, we had good beer and food on the trip. All the German beers I tried were excellent; I ordered only pilsners, because I'm not a dark beer fan. I had sausages and sauerkraut, too. Marion had schnitzel, which I tried. Two weird things: Our bread in our hotel restaurant in Erfurt was served with a tiny pot of bacon lard to spread on it (I did not care for this at all!). The other thing that appalled me was at the Reichstag Restaurant, where we stopped for coffee and dessert after our night-time tour of the building. On the dinner menu was this item: marinated, braised horse. I know a lot of cultures eat horse meat, but this is the first time I have ever seen it on a menu. No, I did not try it, and I never will.

Bad Langensalza -- the town dates to 932 A.D.
Germany is a beautiful country, and Germans are some of the nicest, most helpful people you will ever meet. I've been to Frankfurt, Munich, many German small towns, and now Berlin, and I recommend any of them as a vacation destination. I hope all of you get the chance to visit sometime.

Here is the link to the pictures. I swear I tried to delete a lot of them, but I just couldn't get rid of too many!

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