(Continuing to catch up on last semester's adventures...) My university's study-abroad schedule includes two 10-day breaks for independent travel. While my students mostly took the the "if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium" approach to the first break in early October, Tim, N., and I spent the entire ten days in Berlin. We'd never been and didn't know much about it before going, but we really loved our visit there.
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. Prenzlauer Berg reminded us of Park Slope in Brooklyn: family-friendly but also very hip, filled with charming historic buildings, parks, and lovely little shops and cafes. We spent one day just walking the neighborhood, looking at various landmarks and buildings such as Mauerpark, the Kulturbrauerai, the Wasserturm (a water tower that was used as a prison by the Nazis and is now apartments), the park at Kollwitzplatz, etc. We met up with a former student of Tim's who now lives in Hamburg and she took us to the Prater Biergarten for our first Berlin bratwurst! We loved this neighborhood.
One of the main themes of our stay in Berlin turned out to be history, especially of the mid-twentieth century. Everywhere we went, we encountered important landmarks in World War II and Cold War history, which we were constantly talking about with N. There are many kiosks on street corners identifying local sites associated with Berliners who had been persecuted or killed by the Nazis. We went to a train museum (of course!), the Deutsches Technikmuseum, where the (troubling) role of railroads in German history from the Prussians through World War II was carefully explained. We saw Checkpoint Charlie. We saw fragments of the Wall throughout the city, and especially at Mauerpark. We walked down Karl Marx Strasse and read plaques about the Communist architectural ambitions that informed the look of the grand avenue. We saw an exhibit at the Deutscher Dom about the bomb destruction and eventual restoration of Gendarmenmarkt and a similar exhibit at the Berliner Dom. We went to the Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park. We walked down Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and looked at the restored Reichstag building. We went to the 1990s Potsdamer Platz and the 1960s Kulturforum. I was proud to see how much of city's complicated history N. absorbed as we made our way around the city. It was confusing and sometimes overwhelming and he worked very hard at trying to understand the significance of what we were seeing.
We only went to two of Berlin's many art museums; we wished we could have seen more, but it was so fun to explore the city that we were loath to spend a lot of time in art museums. N. loved the Pergamon Museum with the reconstructed Pergamon Altar, the gorgeous blue Ishtar Gate, and massive Assyrian sculptures. And we spent several hours in the Neues Museum among the ancient Egyptian sculptures and Mediterranean objects, lingering especially at Nefertiti! In both museums, we not only encountered amazing ancient art, but were forced to think about questions of looting, cultural appropriation, war, and the role of archeology in the rise of modern Germany. At the Neues Museum, placards note the absence of objects that were taken to Russia and are still being held there "in violation of international law." These objects themselves of course were taken by Germans from their Mediterranean or Egyptian contexts in the nineteenth century. The recent restoration of the Neues Museum keeps the war ever-present in the museum's history; the building was damaged extensively during World War II. The bullet-pocked facade has not been smoothed out, and the partial, faded nineteenth-century murals and ceiling paintings in the galleries have not been retouched.
Music was another recurring theme of our visit to Berlin. We went to the Musical Instrument Museum one day and spent a long time ogling old harpsichords and strange early pianos. We went to a Chopin concert at the Franzosischer Dom (Dmitri Demiashkin played Chopin's 1st and 2nd piano concertos with soloists of the Berliner Camerata). We went to a candlelit baroque concert at Schloss Charlottenberg (the musicians were wearing 18th-centuryish costumes -- it felt manufactured for tourists). We went to a bizarre and unforgettable performance of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream (in German!) at the Komische Oper. And, most exciting of all, we heard the Berlin Philharmoniker at the Berlin Philharmonie (with guest conductor). N. loved going to these concerts, even though the succession of late nights brought challenges as the week wore on!
Trying out new foods is one of the pleasures of travelling, of course. We loved eating bratwurst and varieties of German cheese, buying fresh warm pretzels from vendors after music concerts. It wasn't easy to find restaurants specializing in German food, however! We had one splurge Italian dinner, two falafel lunches, two bratwurst lunches, various German pastry snacks, and one amazing vegetarian lunch at a fabulous place called Seerose. We had fun decoding the local grocery stores and cooking most of our meals in our flat.
So, Berlin was a revelation for all three of us, and we found ourselves at the end of ten days eager to learn more about the city, the German language, and Germany itself. It was especially rewarding to travel there with N. He was so interested in everything he saw and his enthusiasm lent an extra intensity to our experience. I don't think I would have learned half as much on this trip without him.