Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

Calling in the good luck of Il Porcellino: Florence 2018

The trains out of Paris were on strike for the second time in my travels over the last couple of years, so we were rerouted on a coach bus. There were several things that would come to light relatively quickly about this part of our adventure: the ride would be overnight into Milan, the seats could not recline if there was a normal-sized passenger behind you, and the bus would make frequent stops all night long. The stops ended up being roughly every two hours. Sleep was not really something any of us got much of that night.

When we arrived in Milan, we had breakfast at a restaurant in the train station. It was a pre-arranged deal, and I, a diabetic for nearly two decades, was taken aback by the amount of carbohydrates heaped onto my tray. There was a sugar donut, a ciabatta roll with olives nestled into the top, a giant croissant, and some other piece of bread. I nibbled on enough to get by, and we headed out to catch our train to Florence.

As we awaited the train, I looked to find one headed to Florence, but it was not on any boards. I quickly realized that the Italians do not spell Florence the way that we Americans do- it is Firenze in Italy. We boarded the train and that’s the last I remember. Sleep gripped me with the force of warriors.

I woke up and we were nearing the station in Firenze. Our luggage was picked up by a local company, and my pal Stephanie was dubbed the one who would go with the luggage carrier to make the drop off and meet us back. We put her location in our “WhatsApp” so we could track her and hit the ground- headed for our first stop which was at the Piazza Della Signoria. This square became a central meeting place for our time in Firenze. In the center of the square stands a giant statue of Cosimo de Medici- a statue of power that reminds everyone of the most powerful family in Florence history.

Whoever said that the best things in life are free must have visited this Piazza Della Signoria. This open-air, free museum in the heart of Florence is a bustling area of coffee shops, cafes, and art. There are all sorts of sculptures and statues around, including a replica of Michelangelo’s “David”. It was interesting to learn about Michaelangelo. He lived to be 89 years old, and he was a fascinating character. So fascinating, I think I will reread the Agony and the Ecstacy again soon. Apparently, the government felt that the nose on his famous statue was too big. When they were watching, but not carefully, he pretended to chop off parts of the nose, holding decoy scraps of marble in his hand, and dropping them on the ground to simulate the cutting back of the nose. When he was done, he asked the officials if it was better, and, low and behold, they said it was now perfect!

Running along one side of the Piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an area where there are a host of statues including “Perseo”, who is holding Medusa’s head, which I found to be really gripping.

From the center of town, we moved through a narrow street to the Leonardo Leather Works, where we watched and learned how leather products are made. I found it so interesting to learn about the process, and I now know how to tell the difference between real and imitation leather.

Just as the leather presentation was wrapping up, I was summoned by our tour guide, Simon. “Heidi!” He motioned. “I need to see you out here immediately.”

His tone was absolutely not the jocular wit I’d come to appreciate, and I rushed to meet him outside the shop.

“Have you heard from Stephanie?” He asked.

“No,” I answered. “I just tried to call her but I didn’t get an answer.”

“This is not good,” he said, frowning and looking intently at his phone screen. “I’m tracking her location and it seems that the driver is taking her miles outside the city! We must get in touch with her!”

At this point, the thoughts going through my mind were absolutely frantic. I envisioned her being kidnapped by the luggage handler- drugged unconscious, and headed for some sort of scary din that I couldn’t fathom. I texted her again… “Are you okay??” “Where are you?” Nothing.

Just when I thought we would need to call the authorities, Simon heard back from her. She had simply gone on a bit of a sightseeing route back to us. When she finally showed up, I hugged her with more relief than I’d care to admit!

We took a fantastic walking tour of the city next. We made our way through the streets, where our guide pointed out all sorts of interesting things. I was versed on the impact of the Medici family, and realized quickly that their “stamp” was all over the city. They have a family “crest” of sorts, that is adorned with six balls, known as the Medici balls. Five of them are red and one is blue. Once I saw one, I saw them everywhere. While numerous folklore exists about what those balls represented, the most acceptable story seems to be that they represent the medical background of the Medici family- they were doctors and the balls represent pills.

We saw large, cast iron loops along many of the buildings. These were places for people to tie up their horses when they came into the city.

We wandered to the Ponte Vecchio, otherwise known as the Old Bridge. This is the bridge that crosses over Firenze’s Arno River, and is the only bridge to survive the natzi’s during WWII. As we walked to the bridge, strolling through the shops, we learned that this place of expensive jewelers was once a street filled with tanners, meat venders, and smelly fish shops. In the early 1500s, Ferdinand I thought it was too smelly and said that the only shops he wanted in the area were goldsmiths and jewelers. The view from the bridge was lovely, and I knew staring out at the river, that I would have to return to this place of art and romance. One day…

After the walking tour we had a wonderful cheese fondue lunch at a local cafe. They delivered a basket of bread and Brooke, another traveler on the trip, was excited to share the mouth watering delight. Simon couldn’t believe the size of the bread basket, and asked, “do you think you have enough bread?” I told him I hoped so. I think he had to have been impressed with our fortitude when the basket was emptied!

After lunch, we had free time to wander the city. I opted to hit the shopping market and the Duomo. The markets were literally brimming with leather goods. Leather is to Italy what lobsters are to Maine. The vendors were all willing to make deals, and it felt like stepping back in time to be there. One market we strolled through, the Mercato Nuovo, housed a very special sculpture- one that I was thrilled to discover because it was sure to bring me luck. It was a replica of the “Il Porcellino”, which means “the little pig”. The original bronze boar was sculpted in 1634 by an Italian named Pietro Tacca. The pig, according to legend, brings good luck to those who rub his snout. If you put a coin in the boar’s mouth, and the coin makes it to the drain below, it means you will return to Firenze. (Apparently the money collected is donated to a homeless shelter for children.) I am pleased to announce that my luck should be good and I’ll be returning to Firenze!

Stephanie and I decided to spend our last hours at the Piazza del Duomo, home to Il Duomo Firenze, which translates to the Cathedral of St. Mary the Flower.This towering cathedral, the Duomo for short, was built in 1206 and designed by Filipino Brunelleschi. It is the longest Christian church in the world, and the third largest. The grandeur of the dome can be seen all over the city, which makes it, according to Simon, “very difficult to get lost.”

The outside of the church is a mix of pink, white, and green marble. The pink, a light shade of red, stands for charity, the white stands for faith,and the green is hope; all of the marble colors are also the colors of the Italian flag. It is possible to climb the 476 steps into the Duomo for only 8 euros, but we didn’t have the time or the gumption with only a couple hours of sleep the night before. I would love, another time, to attempt these steps to get a closer look at the amazing frescos at the top by the artist Giorgio Vasari.

It is free to enter the Duomo, but the line an be up to two hours. We got lucky and made it in with only a thirty minute wait. Outside, there were plenty of scarf peddlers for those who forgot to cover their shoulders. The Italian churches demand the covering of skin for those entering their holy places.

Our evening ended with a dinner in a little back street at a place called Osteria dei Baroncelli. The food was good, but the tiramisu was devine! The Italians know how to please a palate. Back at the hotel, sleep took over until I awoke to our next day, which had us on the road to Rome…

One can never have too many gargoyles… Paris, France 2018

I’m a sucker for gargoyles. I know that my affinity for these little winged gutter spouts would not be the desired response of the cathedral builders, but I find them irresistible. I told myself, as I neared the city, that I didn’t need to buy any Paris goodies since it was less than two years since I last visited my favorite city. I knew, however, as soon as I saw the tiny, spitting gargoyle, that he would have to join my growing flock of gargoyles at home in Atlanta. In the early days of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many believed that the gargoyles scared away evil spirits. If this is true, why WOULDN’T I want to line my house with them? can one ever have too many gargoyles?

We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar train from London. Once we got on board, the trek was swift and seamless. Getting on the train with all of our luggage, however, is a major hassle. Hoisting my suitcase up the stairs practically killed me, and I had to schlep it to another train car because the one I was assigned was completely full. Needless to say, if you travel by train- less is best.  It was interesting to

We left the train station by coach bus, and rode into the city. I felt a smile working it’s way out of my soul as we made our way into my all-time favorite city. There is a special vibe in Paris that just sits right with me. It is like no other city. I don’t know if my love of Paris stems from my French roots or whether it is my love of the food, music, and art- but there will never be a day when I’d turn down a trip to Paris.

We passed by all sorts of wonderful landmarks-des Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Dome Des Invalides & Tomb of Napoleon. For some reason, I can’t see the Champs Elysees without breaking out into song… “Oh… Champs-Elysees!”. (Later in the trip I irritated Simon by singing “Istanbul was Constantinople” each time he spoke of Turkey.)  We got out of the bus along the backside of the Place de Trocadero, and were able to get some beautiful (and comical) photos of the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit hazy, but we were happy that the predicted rain stayed away.

We walked back to the bus and I noted the trash cans that contain clear bags. These trash cans were the solution to keeping bombs out of trash cans. Some cities have simply pulled trash cans all together- seems like this is a better way of keeping the streets clean- and safe!

The second part of our day was a tour of the Palace of Versailles.  This place is amazing. Once a mere hunting lodge, Louis the XIII decided that he wanted it to be his residence, so he expanded it to the size it is now- a palace of 2,300 rooms! It remained a palace until The French Revolution. During the Revolution, much of the art was stashed in the Louvre. Once the war ended, the art was returned to Versailles, which, for a while, was a storage facility. Eventually, Versaille transitioned into it’s next and final phase: a museum.

Before we began our tour of the garden and the palace, we went to lunch at a little outdoor cafe next to the Palace. I ordered the French Onion Soup and it was perfect. After lunch we got ice cream, and headed to tour the gardens. It was 120 degrees (hyperbolic- yes), but I was eager to explore.

When we walked toward the gardens, I honestly had no preconceived notion about what we would see. I knew that there would be vast gardens, but certainly didn’t realize that they would span as far as the eye could see. The gardens were immediately surrounding the Palace, and the park stretched back from the fountain for what seemed miles.  Apparently, Louis XIV was so proud of the gardens that he even welcomed the public in to enjoy them.

The fountains, which were not turned on when we were wandering through, had all sorts of interesting statues in the centers. My favorite was the angry fish… probably because it is almost gargoylesque! The gardens contain 221 works of art, making it the largest open air sculpture museum in the world, according to the Chateau Versailles brochure.

Inside, the rooms are clad in beautiful art, with busts and full figure statues at every turn. The Hall of Mirrors was not only beautiful, but also was cutting edge. The idea of using mirrors along the walls of a room was originated at Versailles. It enabled them to use dim lights, and those lights reflected in the mirrors to light the room.

After Versailles, we headed back to the city to enjoy a river cruise down the Seine River. Travel mate Stephanie skipped the Versailles experience to meet up with her cousins. She texted me to ask which dock we were meeting at, and I asked Simon, who said it was directly under the Eiffel Tower, and added, “It is blindingly obvious. Even an amoeba from Saturn could find it.”

She found us, and said a teary farewell to relatives she doesn’t see often enough.

After a disappointing cruise down the Thames in 2017, I was not expecting much from our evening cruise down the Seine. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the views and experience! The cruise was amazing! It was a gorgeous night, and local Parisians were lining the river bank enjoying wine and cheese. These locals waved to us as we passed by, and the students on board waved and even got a “wave” going after going under each bridge.

This video shows the excitement the kids had on board the river cruise! What an excellent part of our adventure!

 

Our hotel was far from convenient to the city… it was located all the way out by Euro Disney. The check-in process was a complete nightmare and took well over an hour, but Simon, our guide, kept his composure and didn’t give up until we were all taken care of. The view out our hotel window was really nice, and the windows opened all the way, so we slept with the fresh air of France filling our airways… (Brooke and Donica, anti-bug people, finally gave in and enjoyed the fresh air after realizing there was no working A/C).  There were several restaurants within walking distance of this hotel, one that sold me a delicious crepe after 11:00pm! Crepe avec sucre et beurre… DELICIOUS!

The next morning we headed to the Louvre. Since this would be my third visit in three years, I was determined to find new art to appreciate. I wandered and found all sorts of works that I had not noticed before. The Death of Cleopatra was one that really stood out… what a shocking piece when you focus in and realize that it is a snake biting her nipple. Not sure there’s much realism in her expression- I don’t think a woman would be so calm in that instance… Was it that women had to hide their emotions? Never let on what sort of pain you might be hiding? Or was it that the artist thought there might even be some sort of pleasure here? The title, however, reminds us that Cleopatra WAS killed by a snake bite, so this is really a sad piece.

I also enjoyed taking a closer look at the The Department of the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The sculptures represent the thoughtful nature of the ancient civilizations. Not only do they seem to represent thinking and focusing, but they also represent a need to understand how things work. Truly fascinating.

Of course no trip to the Louvre is complete without beholding the Greek goddess Aprhodite, better known as the Venus de Milo  (the woman with no arms), and the Mona Lisa. The middle statue below is La Pallas de Velletri- a statue of Athena. This one is a famous replica of an original from Naples, Italy.

We had lunch in a wonderful cafe- Le Marmiton de Lutece. I had a three-cheese fondue that absolutely melted in my mouth! We sat outside and enjoyed the people watching and the atmosphere. I snapped a photo of the inside when I went to use the toilets (never called bathrooms or rest rooms).

The toilets seem to always be found in the cellars at the bottom of tiny, often winding stairways…

One of my last highlights in Paris was a visit to the historic “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore. There was a line to get in, and I enjoyed a well-practiced accordian performance while I waited. Inside, I found lots of interesting selections, and really wanted to bring home the book detailing the history of the store, but my brain went back to the weight of my suitcase and the struggle I had getting it onto the train. In the end, I came out of the store empty-handed…

We met back at Notre Dame to meet up and board the bus that would take us to Italy.

Our train to Milan was cancelled due to yet another Paris strike. (My train was cancelled due to a strike in 2016 when we were headed to Barcelona, but that year they rerouted us via airplane.) This year, we were assigned what would become the world’s longest bus ride. It was an overnight ride, so we needed to sleep… but when that bus pulled into the train stop in Milan, Italy, no one on board had more than a couple hours… Simon was quick to tell Stephanie to “stop faffing”, and the bus driver had to stop every two hours.

Au Revoir, Paris… until next time!

-HC

Next up: A Taste of Italy…

Last day in Berlin 2018

As I sit down to think about my last day in Berlin, I’m already on the plane home. One sentiment continues to resonate for me- some of the first words that our tour guide Daniel uttered when we arrived: “Berlin isn’t a beautiful city, but it’s an interesting city.” After spending three full days touring the city, I have to say I agree.

And while on the subject of our tour guide- Daniel was phenomenal. He was a perfect blend of historical knowledge mixed with wit and high energy. When pronouncing the names of the train stops we would need to remember he would say, in his heavy German twang, “you will get off at the Gesundbrunnen stop. That is G-E-S-U-N-D… and more letters!” A clever way to shorten the long names that the Germans seem to attribute to most things.

After breakfast and a final training workshop, we had all afternoon to explore on our own!

I made plans to go up to the top of the TV Tower with two buddies I’d met on the tour- Tim- a special ed teacher from New Mexico and David-an art teacher from south Chicago. These guys wanted to do all the stuff I wanted to do- which was the tower and a half day of what David called an “urban hike”. Several other groups were going shopping and trying to stay out of the below freezing temps, but I wanted to explore and see more of what Berlin had to offer!

We ordered tickets in advance for the tower tour, and made our way to the subway. The Berlin subway, by the way, is called the U-Bahn when it runs underground or the S-Bahn when it comes up for air.

We got on the train that was supposed to be headed for the famous Alexanderplatz… Tim asked what the “Platz” stood for and David responded “you know- Platz [pronounced PLAYTZ]. Like you eat dinner off your Platz!” (Just a small example of loads of laughs in the day!)

The train we were on, totally going in the direction we needed, had other plans. It actually stopped in between stations and reversed directions! We backtracked to the previous station, where we got off to figure out how else to get to our destination in time to meet our 1:00pm tour time! We were down to seventeen minutes!

Tim found a train that we could take that was leaving in ONE minute, so, once again- in Amazing Race-style- we ran down the stairs to the lower level and met the train just as the doors opened!

We successfully made it to the Alexanderplatz stop and headed straight for the TV Tower… known locally as Fernsehturn. There were strict guidelines about bringing food and water in, so David had to scarf down the sandwich he smuggled out of the hotel breakfast and gulp down one of two water bottles. He hid his second, unopened water bottle behind a bench, hoping to retrieve it when we came out of the tower.

The lines to get in to the tower were long and we couldn’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. We had “fast track” tickets, so we managed to move past the non-moving masses.

We got in the elevator, with more people than a fire code would appreciate, and headed up. We went up so high my ears popped. The tower observation deck is 207 meters up, which calculates to about 680 feet. (The actual structure, including the needle, soars a whopping 368 meters: 1207 feet. Taller than the Eiffel Tower!) In fact, our guide told us that it is the highest building in Europe that is open to the public!

Once at the top, we were able to wander around the circular observation area and look down on the entire city. There were excellent markers in front of each window that described landmarks and where to find them. It was exciting to note the places we had already seen and take note of the places we wanted to hit whilst wandering through the city.

I was excited to see that St Mary’s Church was an easy walk from the tower- I was eager to see the inside.

The white building with the mural all around it is a building called the Haus des Lehrers, which, Daniel explained, means ‘house of teachers.’ The building, he said, was built in the early 1960s by the GDR- the German Democratic Republic, and the architecture resembles all the other buildings built in the same time. Daniel described these buildings as “LEGO block buildings all over the city.” The mural, which is actually a mosaic that encompasses close to a million tiles, is a symbol of the New Berlin- the future of the city.

The tower was a great experience. It allowed me to really get a perspective of the scope and area of the city, and where things were. I recommend doing this after you have been in the city a couple of days, as it’s exciting to spot the places you’ve seen!

After making our way back out of the tower, David walked over to where he hid his water bottle… just as a man with a backpack had scooped it up. He somehow managed to communicate with the local man enough to get the man to reach into his backpack and hand back the water bottle. Point for David!

Our first stop was at St. Mary’s Church. We had walked past this on our first day, but had not gone in. We walked in and completely missed the glassed in exhibit showcasing the “Dance with Death” , a fresco painted in 1485. Inside, I was confused because there was a three panel mosaic that had skeletons dancing with people… but Then I remembered it was a fresco. We toured the church, and admired the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit.

On the way out, we were looking for stairs to see if the famous mural was upstairs, and that’s when we realized that the mural was right there- just inside the front doors! This church, a Catholic turned Protestant Church, is the second oldest church in Berlin.

We left St. Mary’s and began walking in the direction of the Neptunbrunnen, otherwise known as the “Neptune Fountain”, which is in a piazza (not sure what the Germans call this open area?) around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

This turned out to be a rather intense area, as there was a group of Syrian demonstrators who were highly charged. They all waved flags from their country and they had draped additional flags around the necks of some of Neptune’s women. They set up a jail cell, and they brutally threw two men inside the cell- both wearing masks. I could only see one of the masks but it was a Putin mask. Running around the outskirts of the demonstration were three men dressed in white clothes and head bands smeared in blood. I wasn’t sure what their role was. Although tempted to stay and watch a little longer, the German SWAT team arrived, and I knew it was a good time to keep on moving!

Our next stop was at the oldest church in Berlin- Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas’ church. The experience at this church perhaps started a downward trend of how the locals responded to us… the woman at the door glared at us. We went in, and another man glared at us. We saw that if we wanted to enter and take photos it would be 16.00 euros. I wasn’t up for spending that, and neither were my pals. David tried to head out a side door and got yelled at by the eagle-eyed man. We left in a bit of a hurry.

We ventured back out into the absolute biting wind, but were still eager to fill our time until dinner. (Did I mention the temps were in the twenties??)

We found our way across a very busy street and wandered around the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche Ruins. This was once a church, built in 1250, that was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1945. There were giant blue pipes built inside that seemed to serve no purpose, so I’m guessing it was some sort of modern art. I felt like it really took away from the beauty of the ruins, if I’m being honest. It was, modern art aside, a good visual of the destruction that truly flattened the city… and what remained.

At this point in the day, we decided to find a pub to warm up and have a rest. We had passed what we thought seemed the quintessential German pub, so we decided to find it, since we had an hour and a half to kill before meeting the group for dinner.

We passed a few other interesting sites on our trek to the pub…

Once we got into the toasty warm pub, we were told to stand, as the waiter pointed to a tiny chair-less table. We ordered pints and stood, enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes, a tiny little booth in the corner opened up, so we carried our drinks to the table to relax for a minute. Well, this was apparently a sin of monstrous proportions, as the woman behind the bar began flapping her arms, rolling her eyes, and glaring at us. Since we had no idea what she was saying, although I certainly could have guessed, we just stayed where we were until we had finished our drinks. I may have also quietly rung the little bell that was on my table on the way out. While the service was rather alarming, the company and the pub feel made it a great stop!

We met the large group back at Alexanderplatz and headed out on a ten minute walk to dinner. On the way to dinner, we passed through the Kreuzberg neighborhood. This was a Jewish neighborhood before the war. Daniel explained to us that the church in the area was where many Jewish people were captured and taken to the concentration camps for being 1/2 Jewish or a 1/4 Jewish. They were actually worshipping in a Christian Church, but Hitler, with murder and hatred literally seething from his pores, found them and killed them.

We stopped to look at the ground outside the church and saw many “Stolperstein” (translates to stumbling) stones. These are stones that are mini monuments, with brass plates on each one that name the victim and the dates of their lives. Hitler murdered these people, and the modern Germans want visitors to honor them and never forget these innocent human beings.

Dinner was in this historic Jewish neighborhood at a place called the Grand Bar, and it was delicious! My vegetarian option was a delicious breaded goat cheese with veggies marinated in something wonderful. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to pack. Our wake-up call came at 2:30am! Ouch!

What a trip. Thanks to EF Tours for providing this amazing opportunity for the forty teachers who were on the tour!

-HC

Fear and loathing on the Berlin trail… Day 2

I woke up this morning and headed to breakfast. Wow- was I impressed! They had everything anyone could want on numerous separate stations! Cheeses, meats, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and even hard boiled eggs… and fruits, yogurts, and homemade breads that rivaled a bakery. I ate with a few teachers, and as I cut my kiwi into quarters, I surveyed the group as to whether or not they eat the skin of the kiwi. Every single one of them said no. And I think they decided that I’m a bit of an odd duck.

I did waste two different cups of God only knows what on the coffee machine which didn’t have English subtitles. I finally clicked the golden button and got some mega-bitter coffee that was sure to wipe any last fatigue from my body!

After breakfast I had a two-hour training class, and then we had ten minutes to bundle up and load the tour bus. And I was ever so thankful today to have so many cold gear articles… because it was 30 degrees with a few hours of snow! (One guy from New Mexico called it blizzard conditions!)

Our first stop on the bus was at the historic East side gallery. No one visiting Berlin should miss this- even if it is below freezing and windy. This gallery is actually a series of murals painted on a remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, murals which were put up to celebrate all that was joyous and peaceful and free about the Wall coming down. The Wall has 101 different paintings- some very abstract, others more pop art style. One of the most famous is the “kissing dictators”, which says at the top “God help me stay alive” and at the bottom “among this deadly love”. This is, according to our tour guide, the longest outdoor painting in the world.

There was a fellow playing his instrument in front of one of the panels… this instrument was like the chitty-chitty bang bang of instruments. It made these funky gurgling, seven-horsepower motor sounds that were not very musical to my ears, yet I was fascinated! I bet I could make one of these?!

We got to see St Mary’s Church, which is one of the few buildings to live through the war. This church was actually built in 1270, according to our tour guide, who also said that the tower was put on it to make the church appear smaller. All the guides we’ve had stress the lack of interest the Germans have in religion. So much so that, according to today’s guide, 80% of Germans are self proclaimed atheists. “We have in Germany a religion tax,” the guide explained. “But if you sign a paper declaring yourself an atheist- you don’t have to pay it.” Hahaha

We we made another stop where I visited what must be the most famous chocolate shop in Berlin. In return for free facilities, I bought some chocolate and wowed over the chocolate creations. This Rausch shop smelled like heaven.

As we made our way to Potsdam, we passed some interesting modern monuments. The one with the curved, spaghetti-like appearance is actually a Kaiser Wilhelm memorial. According to our guide, the locals call it “aluminum worms” or “dancing in spaghetti”!

We got a chance to get out for lunch around the corner from the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first Catholic Church to open its doors to the Potsdam community after the war.

We ate lunch in Potsdam, which our guide explained was “Berlin’s more beautiful sister.” For lunch we made our way down the Main Street in Potsdam and found a local sandwich shop. I had a delicious spinach quiche and they had a free WC (bathroom) which I’ve come to appreciate.

One of the most interesting sites we saw before arriving at the “New Palace” was the famous “Steam Engine” building, which is located along the Havel river. This place was built to look like a mosque, but inside it is home to a mega steam engine. According to our guide, there are 2000 Syrian refugees who come into Berlin each year and go there to pray. What a surprise when they find it is not a house of worship!

Our next stop was at the “New Palace”. This palace was finished in 1769 and was pretty much a 200-room summer place for king Friedrichstraße II. The rooms were lined with silks, silver, and gold, the floors were cut from the finest marble, and the art was jaw-dropping. Before I include photos of the palace, I want to describe the “not-a-palace” that was across the street. With sweeping circular stairs on the front, this was simply built to be something beautiful to look at- and was, according to our guide, “where the kitchen was.” This photo below is just a kitchen. Freddie’s diner!

The palace, across from the kitchen, is sprawling and impressive as well. When we arrived, the snow wasn’t sticking, but by the time we left, the grounds were white!

Inside the palace was historic beauty, fortunately preserved; saved from the destruction of World War II.

The porcelain chandeliers were the first of their kind, and they all had porcelain musicians built in. Much of the art was inspired by mythology and the caretakers of the palace have even kept the graffiti that was drawn on the walls during the war.

After a potty stop that cost me 70 cents, we were on the bus and headed back to east Berlin. Our next stop, and final tour stop, was the “Topography of Terror” exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is lined with a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This place is the exact site where the Third Reich housed the SS and the gestapo. Outside, visitors can see the remnants of the cells that the SS used to hold prisoners- those who were tortured endlessly in preparation for their execution. This is why the loathing had to be in this blog’s title.

Inside the museum, there are hundreds of photos that depict the historical atrocities of Hitler’s bloody, sociopathic reign. Many of the photos are painful to look at, but serve as a true, accurate depiction of the horrors of the time.

After leaving the museum, we found our way to dinner somewhere near checkpoint Charlie’s. I enjoyed a creamy mushroom risotto and a glass of German wine called Weissherbst. My dinner mates both had schnitzel!

The ride back, without our guide, was comical and I almost felt like what the contestants on the amazing race must experience! We didn’t understand the language, and had yet to fully comprehend the Berlin subway system. With only one wrong train, we corrected ourselves, had some laughs, changed the proper number of train lines, and got back to the hotel! The Estrel hotel, I might add, is really quite something at night!

Excited to see what awaits tomorrow- my final day in Berlin!

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!