Berlin in a Whirlwind

One of the best and worst things about being a teacher is your ability to wake up early. I’ve regularly gotten up at 6 am in order to get to school early; however, I was largely hoping to sleep in for most of the conference. It was not to be. On the third day of the conference, Abby and I agreed to a 7am breakfast in order to try and get 8 am tickets to the dome of the Reichstag. Unfortunately, the 8 am time slot was already filled, but we were able to get tickets for later on in the day.

IMG_0391  IMG_0393  IMG_0395Undeterred, we set our feet in another direction. When we walked to Brandenburg Gate two nights before, one of the Fulbrighters had taken us to the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under the National Socialist Regime (Germans are not fans of short memorial names). The memorial happens to be almost next door to the Reichstag, so Abby and I thought we’d stop by and see the memorial during the day.

The memorial is located in the Tiergarten and is actually quite calming. It was designed by Dani Karavan and is supposed to be deprived of everything except tears, which are represented by the fountain in the middle of the memorial. The stone in the center of the fountains has new flowers placed on it each day and the stone rises and sinks over the course of the day, deliberately concealing and revealing the flowers. According to the information pamphlet, this is supposed to serve as a way to remember the tragedy anew each day. There is also recorded Sinti music playing in the background, which only adds to the ambience of the memorial.

IMG_0396  IMG_0398  IMG_0400IMG_0402  IMG_0405  IMG_0409Once we were done, we headed past Brandenburg Gate, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial was officially dedicated in 2005, and is perhaps better known as the Holocaust Memorial. It was built by Peter Eisenman and is made of 2,711 concrete slabs. From a distance, the memorial doesn’t seem very tall, but the street actually dips down and begins to undulate, making you feel slightly off kilter when you walk through it. While it might seem a bit impersonal, it is certainly powerful. It grows more and more disorienting the longer you stay in it.

IMG_0411  IMG_0414  IMG_0416IMG_0422  IMG_0424  IMG_0427From there, we took a short walk through the gorgeous Tiergarten and appreciated the early morning sights and sounds. After a bit of a wander we stopped by our last World War II memorial, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the Nazi Regime. The memorial is very nondescript. It was designed by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset and when you look into one end of the cube you’re able to see a looped video of a gay couple kissing.

IMG_0429  IMG_0438  IMG_0431IMG_0439  IMG_0444  IMG_0449Although our memorial tour made for a sobering morning, it was interesting to see how the Germans have grappled with and taken ownership of their history. While the memorials to the gay community and the Gypsies were not nearly as grand as the Holocaust memorial, it was still nice to see these other persecuted groups recognized in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

But, because Abby and I were on a bit of a tight schedule, we didn’t dally too long in the park. We rushed past Brandenburg Gate in the hopes that if we were quick enough we would have some time to go do the Berlin Cathedral before the start of the day’s conference events.

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Luckily the two of us are quite accomplished power walkers. We made it to the Cathedral with 30 minutes to spare before the day’s first event. Now before Abby and I rushed in, we had to stop and laugh at the door. The two of us are both around 5’3” (160 cm) and the door handle to the church came up to about our eye level. Now I like to think that we would’ve been considered tall back when the church was completed in 1905, so I find the height of the door handle a bit surprising, but oh well. The door didn’t stop us for long.

After we purchased our tickets, we took a quick walk around the center of the church before rushing up stairs to the dome. Although we were in a hurry, we did manage to slow down and appreciate the view from the top of the cathedral. It was a pretty neat sight, especially since this was our first sunny day in the city.

IMG_0476  IMG_0482  IMG_0480IMG_0486  IMG_0490  IMG_0492IMG_0493  IMG_0496  IMG_0497But time was ticking and we had to tear ourselves away so that we could make it to that morning’s first panel. Still, we were still pretty happy to get so much in in just two hours.

Our first event of the day was at Rotes Rathaus, or Berlin City Hall. It is currently the home of Berlin’s Senate and mayor, though historically it used to be the town hall of East Berlin. The first thing on that morning’s agenda was a “European Dimensions Panel,” where people residing in more out of the way countries got a chance to present. The countries represented were Andorra, Bulgaria, Finland, Turkey, and Spain. The presentations really ranged in their content, but it was generally interesting to hear from each representative. If anything, it convinced me that I should explore Andorra at some point.

I will also say that the arbitrator stumbled a bit since he habitually called Sweden, Denmark, and Finland Scandinavian countries. This left the Norwegian crowd a bit confused as to when we had been dropped from Scandinavia and the Finns a bit confused as to when they had been added. For the record, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway comprise Scandinavia, while Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland make up the Nordic countries. But overall, things went quite well for this set of presentations.

After that, there was a short coffee break before we heard a welcome speech by Mark Rackles, the State Secretary for Education. Rackles oversees the Berlin education system in particular, and allowed time for questions at the end. Unfortunately for Rackles, he was largely overrun with questions that were a bit beyond the scope of the Berlin education system. For example, he was asked to provide information on Berlin’s Olympic bid and when the new airport might finally be finished.

But all’s well that ends well. Before too long the questions ended, and Abby and I were off to make our appointment for the Reichstag dome. This ended up being my favorite stop of the day. We had to get there slightly ahead of our 1:30 appointment for security purposes, but once we cleared security we were taken into the building and whisked up to the top floor in an elevator. Once we stepped out we were given an audioguide and told that we could walk around the dome.

Now I’m generally not a huge fan of audioguides. I’m often just too impatient to wait and listen to all that is recorded. To my surprise, the audioguide was excellent. There was no need to press any buttons, and the audioguide started once you began your walk up the dome. The guide also managed to monitor your walk, and if you happened to travel past whatever the audioguide was talking about, it smoothly transitioned into the next track, allowing it to consistently give you relevant information.

IMG_0512  IMG_0513  IMG_0514IMG_0523  IMG_0517  IMG_0519IMG_0535  IMG_0529  IMG_0538As for the building, here are some of the more important events that were mentioned in the audioguide:

  • In 1894, the Reichstag was completed under Paul Wallot.
  • In 1918, Philipp Scheidemann declared Germany a republic from the Reichstag.
  • In 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire shortly after Hitler came to power. The search for the arsonists was used as a way to end parliamentary democracy and begin the persecution of political opponents.
  • In 1945, the Soviet flag was flown over the building to demonstrate victory over National Socialist Germany.
  • In 1961, the building was restored, although it was later reconstructed by Sir Norman Foster.
  • In 1995, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the building in fabric. The building’s unveiling marked the start of the building’s reconstruction under Sir Norman Foster.
  • In 1999, Sir Norman Foster presented the President of the Bundestag with a symbolic key to the building and the Bundestag moved in.

After walking up and down the dome, Abby and I took some time to enjoy the view before heading out for some chocolate.

IMG_0527  IMG_0532  IMG_0544IMG_0548  IMG_0560  IMG_0545IMG_0565  IMG_0563  IMG_0570IMG_0571  IMG_0572  IMG_0573That’s right, our next stop was a chocolate store, but not just any chocolate store. We went to the Ritter Sport store. Not only did it provide us with excellent chocolate, but had we chosen to stick around, we could have purchased our own customized chocolate. Unfortunately it takes 3o minutes to create and process your own chocolate, so Abby and I decided to give it a pass. We did not leave empty handed though, and we were able to snack away on our walk to the Pergamon Museum.

IMG_0580  IMG_0581  IMG_0583Now you if take a look at the picture above, you can see a few cranes. That’s because the Pergamon is currently undergoing renovations. But the museum was still open! Lucky for us, there are still about two floors of the museum that are accessible to the public.

I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect of the Pergamon, but boy was I blown away. The Pergamon has a number of famous antiquities, notably the Pergamon Altar, Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon, and the Mshatta Facade, and these things combine to help make the Pergamon the most visited museum in all of Germany.

I knew none of this going in, so I was pretty stunned when the first thing that I saw was the Ishtar Gate. Unfortunately it was too large for me to capture on my camera, but you get the idea.

IMG_0584  IMG_0587  IMG_0588The gate itself is only a small part of what the original would have looked like. The gate was originally part of Babylon’s northern city wall and was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The animals that decorate the gate are bulls and “dragons.”

Right through the gate is the Market Gate of Miletus. It’s a spectacular recreation of a Roman trading town in what is now Turkey.

IMG_0589  IMG_0591  IMG_0590Now I thought that we had actually reached the end of the museum at this point. Due to the reconstruction work, we had entered the museum back to front. Normally you would enter through the Market Gate of Miletus, and then pass through the Ishtar Gate. Abby and I quickly figured things out and did a U-turn. It was only then that we noticed the Processional Way. It was hard not to be blown away at this huge Babylonian walkway. I admit, if I had been an ancient invader, I would have been thoroughly intimidated by the wealth on display.

IMG_0597  IMG_0601  IMG_0598The remaining sections on the ground floor were also impressive. Thanks to Jenny Bionda, Abby and I were told that if we kept our eyes peeled we’d be able to see replicas of some of the artwork that ISIS has been destroying in Iraq (see below). Unfortunately, while much of what was on the ground floor was impressive, there were definitely a number of pieces that were replicas, including the Iraqi pieces below.

IMG_2912  IMG_2910  IMG_2913Once we finished with the ground floor, we moved up to the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Museum of Islamic Art. There was a wonderful array of Islamic art with plenty of paintings, carpets, and ceramics, on display. The most impressive thing however was probably the facade of the caliph’s palace of Mshatta. The facade was made in the 8th century and was originally located in Jordan. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II gave the facade to Kaiser Wilhelm II as a gift after the king expressed interest in the palace. Family and friends take note, your gift giving could be improved.

Another impressive room in the museum was the Aleppo Room, a reception room of a 17th century Christian merchant. The wood paneling and the design work was absolutely fabulous.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the Pergamon has a large number of magnificent reconstructions.

IMG_2925IMG_2917  IMG_2921  IMG_2924IMG_2916Now you might think that Abby and I would have called it a day at this point, you would be wrong. We actually powered through to another museum. Yes, our feet were dying at this point. But that didn’t deter us! Our next stop was the nearby DDR Museum, a museum that focuses on the GDR and life for East Germans.

The first thing I noticed about the DDR Museum was that it was crowded. Remember, even though I live in Norway’s third largest city, its population is only around 172,000 people. I have now become completely inadequate at handling large numbers of people.

The museum is also clearly designed for families, and is thus highly interactive. Maybe too interactive. The museum had a lot of really interesting information, but unfortunately it was unclear how you were supposed to walk around the museum and you often had to open up special compartments and drawers in order to read any of the information plaques. In short, it felt a bit disorganized. I did learn quite a bit however, and here are a few of the facts that I found most interesting:

  • A nudist movement developed in East Germany despite the displeasure of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Even though the Germans were repeatedly asked to “spare the eyes of the nation,” the trend continued until about 80% of Germans swam naked. Lucky for them, only about 10% of the population was uncomfortable with such blatant nudity. According the the museum, this trend came out of a desire to do something forbidden, not a desire for sexual liberation.
  • The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was in dire economic straits due to the way that they organized their economy.  The GDR was forced to import raw materials and often didn’t have the necessary cash to pay for them. In order to generate the money to pay for these materials, it was forced to sell basically whatever it could lay its hands on–including the cobblestones! To make matters worse, Western countries wouldn’t buy East German products, and everything that could be sold was sold at the cheapest possible price. Because of this trade imbalance, it was often difficult to buy things in East Germany, creating a huge black market.
  • Because the SED marginalized the church, it became a political rallying point, eventually attracting thousands of people in the 1980s and helping launch peaceful revolution.
  • Interestingly enough, the GDR has a claim to fame since it was technically the greenest state in the world. Provisions for the environment were written into the constitution in 1968, although in reality the government was far from green.
  • Although I didn’t learn this fact at the museum, I thought this would be an appropriate place to put it. The traffic man, or pedestrian crossing signal in Berlin, more fondly known as ampelmännchen, was actually from East Germany. It attained a sort of cult status and is one of the few things that survived from East Germany.

IMG_0749                                                                                                   IMG_0751After that, Abby and I finally made our back to the hotel for dinner. However, we weren’t there for long. Thanks to a recommendation from Alix, our Norwegian Fulbright group had signed up for a classical concert at Piano Salon Christophori. Thankfully Alix warned us that it was in an old S-bahn station and a bit difficult to find. With her warning ringing in our ears, we didn’t get too discouraged when we had a few problems finding the appropriate door to the salon.

We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the salon, but I would say that it would best be described as in artful disarray. There were old instruments haphazardly stacked around the salon, with a space cleared for seats and for the performers. Because we made a reservation beforehand, we had a row of seats reserved towards the front of the room, and were able to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the concert. It wasn’t the best concert that I’ve ever been to, but it was nice to just sit down and appreciate the music. To make things even better, drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, were provided and we all felt very Berliner. Once the concert was over, we made our donations (the concerts are all donation based) before heading back for an early night at the hotel. 

Church on Sunday

Sunday was my last full day in Rome, and because I was a bit travel weary I decided to take it pretty slow. My initial plan was to spend the majority of the day across the Tiber River. I had yet to visit the Vatican or Castel Sant’Angelo so I was planning on visiting both sights that day. Plus, it seemed appropriate to be going to the Vatican on Sunday.

Unfortunately, I got a bit of a late start in the morning, so by the time I walked across the river, had lunch, and arrived at Castel Sant’Angelo it was early afternoon. I had read online that the castle closes at 2 pm on Sundays, and when I took a look at the line it was pretty clear that by the time I managed to get inside the castle would be closing. So instead of getting in line, I snapped a few pictures before heading off to the Vatican.

IMG_8305  IMG_8309  IMG_8312IMG_8322  IMG_8333  IMG_8332IMG_8330  IMG_8347  IMG_8318Iman was feeling better today so she met me at the Vatican. Now remember how I said I didn’t book any tours? This still holds true for the Vatican, though it’s the closest that I got to taking a tour in Rome. I’ve had a ton of friends give really good reviews of Rick Steves’s Walking Tours so I decided to test one out while I waited in line for Iman. I didn’t get far in the audioguide, but what I heard was pretty good. Here’s a bit of what I learned: St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site where St. Peter was crucified and buried, and the current church was created in two stages. The old church was left intact while St. Peter’s was built around it. Once the newer building was complete, the old church was knocked down and moved out. The columns in front of the Basilica are built in a circular shape since they are supposed to represent the welcoming arms of the church. Basically it’s supposed to be a big hug. The statues that adorn the columns are ten feet tall and each represents a different saint. Originally it used to be quite difficult to see the dome since when you approach the church the facade hides the dome (see below). It wasn’t until Mussolini closed off the street leading up to the Vatican that people were able to get a good view of the entire structure.

IMG_8356  IMG_8368  IMG_8371IMG_8374  IMG_8375  IMG_8377IMG_8389  IMG_8410  IMG_8405Although the line to the Vatican was long, I have to give them credit and say that it did move pretty quickly. Without too much ado, Iman and I were let inside the church after about thirty minutes. It was well worth the wait. It was stunning.

IMG_8419  IMG_8416  IMG_8421IMG_8467  IMG_8438  IMG_8451IMG_8473  IMG_8431  IMG_8454After we walked around the church, we took stairs down to the catacombs and saw what we think was the grave of St. Peter. We’re still not entirely sure since talking was not encouraged in the catacombs and all of the signs were in Italian. The grave of Pope John Paul II was towards the exit and we paid our respects before leaving.

After that all that was really left for us to do was to climb to the top of the dome. Now there are two options for the ascent. You can either climb the whole way to the top (around 550 stairs) or take an elevator up about halfway and then take the remaining set of stairs (around 350 stairs). Considering that Stephansdom in Vienna was around 340 stairs and I found that to be plenty, I was happy to pay the extra two euros and pass the first 200 or so stairs on the elevator. After a bit of a wait, we caught the elevator and were whisked up to the base of the dome. From there you could get a really good view of the dome’s artwork before continuing up to the top.

IMG_8485  IMG_8482  IMG_8489IMG_8493  IMG_8500  IMG_8497There were two things that surprised me on our way to the top. First the complete lack of handrails. When I mentioned this to Iman she just laughed and said something along the lines of “Welcome to Italy.” The second thing that surprised me was that the stairwell actually curves to match the curve of the dome. This means that you couldn’t stand up straight as your approached the top of the dome, otherwise you would risk hitting your head on the curved ceiling. But soon enough we were at the top. The views were great and were enhanced due to the fading daylight. We had inadvertently timed our ascent with sunset.

IMG_8503  IMG_8505  IMG_8507IMG_8508  IMG_8511  IMG_8510IMG_8518  IMG_8519  IMG_8521Once we were done we began the descent back to street level.

I did have to laugh at the public toilets at the Vatican. Based on their signs it’s clear that the male dominated church has only recently had to include female restrooms.

IMG_8535  IMG_8541  IMG_8538IMG_2294  IMG_8556  IMG_2296Now one of the great things about Sundays in Rome is that apparently sights that are run by the city (usually things like museums) are free. My original plan was to go to the Capitoline Museums, but cold symptoms made me decide to cut my day short. Overall I had a great day though. I don’t happen to be religious, and going to a Lutheran school from a young age means that I am definitely not Catholic, but it was it was really nice to go to such a holy place. Even though I don’t share the beliefs of many of the visitors, it was still very touching to see how much St. Peter’s meant to them.