Sunday, February 14, 2016

Berlin beyond the Wall

 An early morning train took us from Prague through eastern Germany countryside to the city of Berlin.  My brother and his wife had been stationed in Berlin when they were in the US Army back in the 70s.  I wish they could have been with us to see the changes! The city was divided then, of course, and I have always wanted to see the remains of the "Iron Curtain" Wall that separated East from West during the Cold War. 

Looking at the tourist information we realized that all the "cool" things we normally would want to see in a city are located in what used to be East Berlin.  Here is the beautiful Berliner Dom, the cathedral first built in 1465 and rebuilt several times; the last change was to make it look like St. Peter's in the Vatican.  

The cathedral is located on Museum Island, which is literally filled with art museums.  

Image result for museum island berlin

This one is so beautiful, but I couldn't help but remember this scene in all those history movies with Hitler yelling from the steps and those tall columns filled with nazi flags...

Our arrival day was sunny and warm - we found an outdoor "bar" to have a German beer and soak up some sun, all looking across the river to the museums.

Our hotel was very crowded and expensive (even though it was just a Courtyard by Marriott).  We just figured that was Berlin... but then we saw all the signs and realized we had picked the weekend of the Berlin Marathon!!  Lots of roads and parks were closed...but that didn't dampen our fun.

Our friends, Bronia and Andy joined us and we proceeded to celebrate Oktoberfest.  (Of course you know that the real German Oktoberfest is always celebrated in September, right?)

First on most tourists' list is Checkpoint Charlie, the one border crossing/guard house that has been left to show us what it felt like from 1962-1989.

The Wall used to define Berlin, but now it is bustling and totally free.  There are a few spots in the city which focus on the wall and the injustices done to the people who wanted freedom. But now the area around  the Checkpoint is a fun place to get your photo taken, and to have a beverage on hte "beach."

And a bunch of Trebants, the East German cars... now cute and bright-colored...

And a tribute to our son!

One area that is several blocks long is now a park filled with memorials to those who died.  Where there were mines, dogs, guards with machine guns and spotlights, there is now grass and movingly portrayed with photos and sound.  See more at

And another day we visited MauerPark, which is literally, Wall Park.  They have a big chunk of the wall where graffiti artists paint, and then a large park with a Flea Market (I loved that!!), cafes, live music (anyone who wants to can entertain you), frisbee, dogs, fun!!!

One afternoon we visited a Singaporean composer living in Berlin with his wife, whom he met in Japan...the world is a small place!  Bronia had met him in Singapore and we saw his work at a gallery at The Barracks, a modern art complex in S'Pore.  They took us to a new park near their apartment, former airport Tempelhof that has been left to the neighborhood (rather than developed land)  It was delightful to see biking, gardens, kite-flying, walkers, re-claiming the runways and grassy areas.  (We recognized the airport when watching Bridge of Spies)

Since reading In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson, I have looked forward to seeing the Tiergarten, which is a very large wooden park in the center of Berlin.  Because of the Marathon, the park and surrounds were closed until our last day there.  We took a lovely walk and John climbed the massive obelisk Victory Column, built in the 1870s.  Covered with amazing mosaics that look brand new.  Some photos:

Gold mosaics just visible here...

Monument to Bismarck:

And the favorite Kaiser Wilhem Kirche, nearly destroyed by bombing in 1943.  They left part of the spire standing as a memorial to peace.

Not to be missed, the Holocaust Memorial.  It covers a whole city block near the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate.  It is a sea of concrete blocks of varying heights and depths, with alleyways, shadows, a few trees of hope, and silence.  Very moving.  It was especially poignant to be there with our friends who had lost many relatives in those horrific events.  (Nearby is the bunker where Hitler is not a tourist site, located under apartment buildings and supposedly filled with dirt and concrete.)

And at last the Brandenberg Gate, but it was the conclusion of the Marathon, so we only got to see it from afar.

I will conclude with this modern statue called "Pieta."  It is the only figure in a museum; it represents mothers from all time and all countries.  She is holding her son...
Let there be Peace on Earth.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


Fodor's Travel website introduces Prague perfectly:

One of Europe’s best-preserved cities, Prague has a romantic riverside location enhanced by graceful bridges and a magnificent skyline punctuated with medieval church spires. Its historic Old Town follows a plan laid out 1,000 years ago, with ancient squares and winding cobblestone streets. Haunting Prague Castle looms large across the Vltava River, rising above the exquisite Charles Bridge. Add extravagant, fairy-tale architecture; memorable classical music; and, these days, good food and drink, and it’s easy to see why Prague charms everyone who visits.

We had 3 1/2 perfect days to explore the city, so we stuck to the historic district and enjoyed every minute.    Using travel websites, we found a little hotel smack-dab in the middle of the old town called Hotel Cerny Slon (the Black Elephant)  Since my maiden name is the Slovenian equivalent ot Cerny, we had to try it.  

See the window with the dormer on the roof?  That was our room...5 floors up (about 14 steps for each floor), no elevator; but then I felt much better about all the beer and Czech food I ate!  Here is our room and our ceiling:

The view down from that window:

And across the street, at the Black Elk:

Down that alleyway next to the building is the city square....

The double-spired church there is the one right next to our hotel - it is a museum now, of course, but has Masses a few times a week.  Many of the churches are being restored, but are usually meant for tourists and for classical music concerts.  

We took a free city walking tour - we have found these in all of the European cities and they are great.  The tour guides are proud locals with lots of history and fun stories to share.  They expect a tip at the end but no high pressure.  We always pick one with high ratings on tripadvisor.

Here is our guide sharing events that happened in the city square - the most fascinating facts were about both Nazi and then Soviet occupation.  He says this is the BEST time in Czech history - freedom, education, culture, food, beauty, and really great beer.

In a 12th century courtyard, he pointed out his statue of St. John of Nepomunk.  He is always depicted with that halo of stars behind his head.  We will see him later on the bridge...he was thrown off the bridge by order of King Wenceslas; traditionally, the reason was that the monk would not tell the king what the queen had confessed to him.
We had a lovely Italian dinner that night in an outdoor cafe just below this statue.

An ancient Black Madonna - if he had not pointed it out, we never would have noticed this pretty icon. It is perched on the corner of the Black Madonna House, an oft-referred to example of architectural Cubism in Prague..

Continuing in the Architecture part of the tour:

The Opera House, where Mozart debuted several of his works:

Just another pretty lintel:

Fred and Ginger, the Dancing House  (which is available for lease)

Wenceslas Sqaure

Looking down from the top of the square

The Powder Tower, a piece of the old city wall.  Absolutely Gorgeous.  

View from the Powder Gate:

There is a large Jewish Quarter with ancient cemeteries, several Synagogues, museums, etc. which we visited but didn't get a photo permit, so I only have this one photo of a restored synagogue.
 Look this site for great photos and descriptions:

We heard about the Czech heroes from WWII who succeeded in the only assassination of a Nazi top official.  After the deed, they holed up in the basement of a church but were caught and killed there. (In retlation, the Nazis then killed a whole Czech village)   Here is the memorial, with the bullets holes still there:

THE CHARLES BRIDGE is probably the most famous site.  It is lined with amazing statues of saints, biblical and mythological scenes.  Some have been restored and some are covered with black from pollution.  Crossing the bridge is an event in itself - musicians, artists, crafts, acrobats and LOTS of people.  We were happy we were there on a drizzly September day...I can't imagine how crowded it would be in the summer!

Fabulous musicians:

The Bridge leads up to the "castle on the hill," the place of government even today.  On the grounds inside the wall is the St. Vitus Cathedral.  (I can just hear my mother admonishing us to stop fidgeting and doing the St. Vitus Dance)

One side of a silver monument to afore-mentioned St. John...this is only one fourth of it:

Cool Medival Memorials:

Coffee with a view!!!!!!

And the guards:

Medieval shop houses on the castle grounds:

I had to buy some Christmas ornaments...

My mother had a special devotion to the Infant of Prague...many Catholics will recognize the toddler-age Jesus with a crown and elaborate gowns.  We saw the original in a small church (Our Lady Victorious)  below the castle hill;  the statue was given to Prague by Empress Maria Theresa in the 18th Century. (You can just see the little guy among all the gilt and silver)

The church includes a museum to all the outfits given to the statue...

and a beautiful Jesus hidden in the stairway

Now a bunch of photos of amazing sites:

A special note for travelers:  We took the tram and city buses with no trouble.  Very easy to use!

Kafka monuments:

The stone streets are Art To Walk On:

An Abbey Brewery that featured a new Zombie craft beer:

Just a spot at the train station:

Lots of great beer

Outdoor market lunch for the local businesspeople

Look it goat or pig or lamb??

Live, really good JAZZ every night in little local bars:

And a fun waiter:  (notice the "Typical Czech Restaurant" with Mojito San Francisco  :)  )

Off to Berlin in the morning!!!