Spring Break Pt. 2: Berlin

20 April 2011
We caught our train out of Amsterdam bring and early from Central Station around 8:30am, and arrived in Berlin in the early evening. We got our transport tickets and found our hostel, Grand Hostel Berlin, without a problem and soon discovered that it was an amazing hostel. It was nicer than many hotels I’ve stayed at, had a bar with €1 beer Happy Hour, offered tours of different sites in the area, and is the cheapest hostel we booked for the entire trip. Amazing.

It wasn't bad looking, either.

We went out to dinner at a nearby traditional German restaurant to get our fix of the local cuisine, and after ordering two frankfurters with kraut and a beer, I realized that Europe isn’t actually all that expensive — I had just been visiting some of the most expensive places in Europe. Go figure. We were all pretty tired so we went to bed early, and were excited for our plans for the following days!

21 April 2011
We got to sleep in a little bit and enjoy a nice breakfast in the hostel lounge, then left with a tour group from the hostel to see Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp 35km north of Berlin. The camp was mainly used for political prisoners and Russian POWs from 1936 until it was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, but also held Jews, homosexuals, and common criminals. It was used to train SS officers who went on to posts at Dachau, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, and has been estimated that 30,000 some prisoners died from exhaustion, malnutrition, and pneumonia, or were executed. After the end of the war, the camp was used as a Soviet prison for criminals and suspected fascists. In a word, the entire place was kind of eerie.

The worst part was the quiet.

We saw everything in the camp, from where prisoners worked and slept to where they were executed and buried. It definitely wasn’t the most fun experience, but it was fascinating and I’m really glad we did it.
After the tour was over, we took the train back into Berlin and went to the Pergamon Museum, which is basically a building full of stolen buildings. The museum boasts many finds from various excavations including the entrance to a 3rd century marketplace from modern day Iraq, the walls and gate from the entrance to the city of Babylon, and the Pergamon (for which the museum is named), an entire Greek temple cut out of a hillside in Turkey.

It's not stealing, it's borrowing. Forever.

It was very cool, albeit a little bizarre, to see these amazing structures in the middle of Berlin. We went back to the hostel for Happy Hour and got Döner kebaps for dinner from Mustafa’s kebap stand, which had been recommended by every single staff member at the hostel, and turned out to be amazing despite the fact that I’m still not completely sure what a kebap is.

22 April 2011
After our meatless Good Friday breakfast, we set off an a rather indirect route to the Berlin botanical garden, which happens to be the 3rd best in Europe, and was absolutely beautiful. From there we rode the train to the Brandenburg Gate where we had planned to join a free walking tour. I was impressed with the gate, though it is a lot smaller than it tends to look in pictures or on TV.

Still awesome.

We found the walking tour we were looking for, though it unfortunately was made up of easily 150 people. Since we had a pretty detailed map with all the landmarks we wanted to see, we went off on our own walking tour. We saw one of the many Holocaust memorials, the “Topography de Terror” (the largest remaining original piece of the Berlin Wall which has an outdoor museum chronicling the history of Berlin from the rise of the Nazis to the fall of the wall), and Checkpoint Charlie (the third and final checkpoint travelers had to go through to cross into Berlin from East Berlin). From there we went to Alexanderplatz, home to the radio needle, Neptune’s fountain, and the Alexanderplatz world clock (featured in the Bourne trilogy).

Jason Bourne, however, did not have to deal with Topography de Terror.

We grabbed a quick lunch (sushi!), then Danielle and Libby went to see the Berliner Dome, and Anders, Kelsey, and I went to the DDR Museum, which does not detail the history of foot-based video games, but rather the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) under Soviet rule. It was a very interesting and interactive exhibit that chronicled nearly every aspect of life during that time.

Afterwards, we came back to the hostel to say good-bye to Danielle, who was leaving to meet Ashley in Paris. We all got packed up and went to bed early, all ready to leave for Prague in the morning.

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