Thursday, June 30, 2016

Our Baltic Cruise: Warnemünde and Berlin, Germany

Yesterday in this space, I told you about our visit to Oslo, Norway. Todays post takes us to the port of Warnemünde, Germany and our further excursion to the city of Berlin on Friday, June 17th ...

The Regal Princess docked at Warnemünde at 6:45 AM under skies still heavily overcast and rain still drizzling down.

We had signed up for a tour called "Berlin on Your Own," which involved a two-hour chartered train trip from Warnemünde to Berlin and a bus ride to the drop-off point at the Gendarmenmarkt, from where we could go where we liked ... as long as we were back to meet the bus at the appointed time for the return to the ship.

The day got off to an unfortunate start when our train departure from Warnemünde was delayed by an hour and a half when one of the elderly passengers suffered a heart attack after boarding. An ambulance came howling alongside the train, followed by the arrival of a emergency doctor (Notarzt) by helicopter, and we sat on the siding for quite a while as the doctors worked to save the unfortunate man's life. When we eventually pulled out, the ambulance and helicopter were still there, and we could see the team of doctors in the back of the ambulance still doing frantic CPR.*

We were fortunate enough to share a compartment on the train with Pierre and Mary, a delightful Canadian couple with whom we enjoyed conversing about every topic under the sun while the flat North German Plain rolled by outside. Mary was planning to celebrate her 70th birthday in St Petersburg, and Pierre was an avid artist, photographer, and cinematographer who happily traded shop talk on PhotoShop and imaging techniques with Agnes.

The train trip flew by and we soon arrived at the Berlin-Ost train station (Bahnhof), where we separated from the group - Agnes's friend Andrea had hired a car and driver for the day, and met us at the station, so that we didn't need to take the bus to the Gendarmenmarkt drop-off point. This necessitated some exchanging of cell phone numbers with the two tour escorts (Catherin and Lena) so that we would be able to locate the rest of the group when it was time to depart later in the afternoon.

We hadn't seen Andrea since December of 1982 - she'd been Agnes's witness at our wedding, and we had lost contact with her over the years until we finally reconnected by e-mail a few months ago. A joyous reunion ensued in front of the Dunkin Donuts shop in the train station**, and we hopped into the car Andrea had hired for a fast tour of the city we hadn't seen since the Wall was still up.

We concentrated first on the eastern half of the city, which was more-or-less off limits to me back in the day. The amount of new construction was staggering, as was the traffic. Most of the infamous Berlin Wall had been torn down and relegated to museums and displays around the world, but a few sections of it still remain as memorials ... including this one with a bit of sarcastic artwork ...

The image is of former Soviet Premier Brezhnev and former East German leader Erich Honnecker, and the inscription at the bottom says in Russian and German, "My God, help me survive this deadly love affair."

We visited the newly renovated areas around the banks of the river Spree, which was once part of the fortified border between East and West Berlin ... reminders of that unhappy time are still there in the form of memorials to people killed by the East German border guards as they tried to swim the river to escape to the West ...

We drove all over the central portion of the former East Berlin, through the Nikolaiviertel (the reconstructed center of old Berlin), down narrow streets now full of chic restaurants and shops, and by the famous Museuminsel (Museum Island), although we didn't have the time to actually visit any of them***. Of course, we had to see the standard tourist landmarks of the Brandenburg Gate

and the Reichstag

along with the fabulous Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom)

Although the street beneath the Brandenburg Gate is technically open, Andrea told us it's almost always closed off for some festival, concert, demonstration, or other activity ... hence the ugly temporary fencing around the base. Likewise, the beautiful greensward and gardens in front of the Reichstag were fenced off to try to protect the new plantings.

Because of our time constraints and uncertainty of schedule, we weren't able on this visit to go inside the Reichstag, which is open to visitors with reservations. It's possible to go high up into the glass dome, which is said to offer wonderful panoramic views of the city.

We stopped along the way, as aging tourists will do, for a pit stop at one of the big hotels, and saw this amazing display - a huge, cylindrical aquarium with a glass elevator going right up through the center. I wonder if this is where you can select your fresh fish dinner for the hotel restaurant ...

We stopped for lunch at the Lutter & Wegner Restaurant (established in 1811)

where Andrea and I had a wonderful steak tartare, Agnes enjoyed an enormous Wiener Schnitzel (the menu said it was the "small" portion), and we toasted our reunion with a glass of champagne. 

Thus fortified, we continued on to other locations we remembered from our days in Berlin, as well as others that had previously been off-limits ... like the site of Adolf Hitler's Führerbunker (leadership bunker), now demolished, sealed up, and buried under a parking lot ...

Our last major stop was at the Holocaust Memorial, which is of an unusual and unsettling design ...

It consists of a very large (about 4.7 acres, or over 19,000 square meters) field dotted with more than 2,700 concrete slabs of varying heights, many of them tilted at odd angles and arranged in rows designed to produce an unsettling and confusing atmosphere and a supposedly-ordered system disconnected from reason. It works. There is also a large museum underneath the memorial, but we'll have to visit it another time.

By the time we'd wandered through this memorial it was getting late, and we needed to get back to the Gendarmenmarkt to reconnect with our tour group for the trip back to Warnemünde. We had time for a nice coffee at a cafe on the square before saying goodbye to Andrea - hopefully we will not have to wait another 35 years to see her again.

The weather had been chilly and raining most of the morning, but a bit of sun had come out and the rain had stopped after lunch, so we walked to the appointed spot to meet our bus ... which was not there. And, of course, it then started to rain again! A flurry of text messages went back and forth between yours truly and tour escorts Catherin and Lena, and we finally located our bus ... on a cross-street about a block from where we'd been told to meet it. At least it was dry!

We took the bus back through miserable traffic to the train station where we boarded for the trip back to Warnemünde. Happily, we ended up in the same compartment we'd had on the trip down, with the same Mary and Pierre, so the trip back was quite enjoyable.

And that was our visit to Berlin, a city we love that has changed tremendously since we departed all those years ago. I took lots of pictures (far more than I've inflicted upon you in this post) and wrote six pages of commentary in my travel journal so that we could remember everything. It was a nice, if damp visit and a great chance to renew our friendship with Andrea.

The Regal Princess sailed at about 10:00 PM (they'd extended the departure so that those of us delayed in our departure for Berlin could have our full day) for a day at sea prior to our next port of call, Tallinn, Estonia ... which we will visit in this space next week.

Have a good day. See you tomorrow for the naming of July's Right Cheek Ass Clown. Be here!


* We never did find out what happened to the poor gentleman and his family, who stayed with him when the train departed.

** Because where else would you meet someone you hadn't seen in almost 35 years?

*** Back in 1981 or so I had the opportunity to visit the fabulous Pergamon Museum, which is still there although under renovation.


Gonzo Dave said...

I'm so glad you got to reconnect with Andrea! I'll bet that was one of the trip's highlights!

Anemone said...

The Berlin pictures were beautiful and solid.

John Hill said...

Great pics!
The aquarium made me think of the warp drive on the Starship Enterprise!

eViL pOp TaRt said...

That was a nice and interesting place to visit, Brandenberg Gate is so classical in its style,