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On the cobblestone path of the Berlin Wall (we are facing south; west is on our right hand, east is on our left)
Getting out of Praha was even more difficult than getting in. On the morning of March 29th, we left at 10:00 AM in order to visit Lidice, 50 km to the west. Unfortunately, Praha has neither a modern road infrastructure nor a useful system of directional signs to guide anybody anywhere. As a result, we drove vaguely west, made several wrong turns, and ended up several kilometres in the middle of nowhere. We finally pulled into a gas station, where a very nice man (who spoke no English) drew us a map of how to get to the letítĕ (airport). From there we were able to get onto a dálnice (autobahn), follow signs towards Kladno, and finally reach Lidice.
If you were trying to get to "Berlin" on the "E55," which route would you take?
After Lidice our next destination was Berlin, and unfortunately we were told that the best way to get there was to go back into Praha. It took us two full hours to get back into Praha, sit in city traffic, navigate the completely useless road signs, make several wrong turns, then finally get onto the correct dálnice towards the German border. The border itself was a marvelous cultural experience. As we headed higher and higher into the mountains between the Česká Republika and Deutschland (Germany), the terrain became covered with snow. At the Czech border town of Teplice, we saw a dozen "ladies of the evening" plying their trade in the cold on the side of the road (there was even a small café where two bikini-clad ladies gyrated behind the plate-glass window to attract customers). At the border itself, we waited in the longest automobile line of any frontier so far.
Part of our cultural education at the Czech frontier
Once inside Deutschland, our cultural education continued as we drove directly north through what was once East Germany. It really does look like all of the stereotypes: old, drab gray-colored boxlike tenement buildings sit in ordered rows on the horizon. We passed through Dresden (once one of Europe's most beautiful, historical, and cultural cities until it was completely leveled by bombs in WWII) and finally pulled into Berlin at sunset.
Our accommodations were at the Pension Alexis near the Bahnhof Zoo (short for "Bahnhof Zoologischer Garten," the train station near the Berlin Zoo). Rick Steves says that this accommodation "more than any other Berlin listing, has you feeling at home with a faraway aunt." The description is accurate. Elderly Frau Schwarzer -- who speaks precious little English --- rented us two rooms in her 19th-century apartment, furnished and decorated just like grandma's. Despite our extreme weariness, we walked to nearby Savignyplatz and had dinner out at a Chinese Restaurant.
On March 30th, after a breakfast of rolls, jam, and cereal at the pension, we devoted the entire day to sightseeing under a beautiful and warm sunny sky. Our highest priority in Berlin was to see die mauer -- the infamous Berlin Wall (or rather, what is left of it) -- and the coming together of two halves of a city that has been physically, politically, and architecturally divided for more than 50 years.
Our pension is located in old West Berlin, so we began our explorations here. Rick Steves recommends taking the bus through West Berlin, but we chose to walk instead. Our first stop was Breitscheidplatz, where we saw the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche (Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, a once-beautiful 19th-century cathedral that was almost completely destroyed by WWII bombs), the new church next door (built from 11,000 pieces of blue glass donated by the French after the war), and the ultra-modern Europa-Center (Berlin's gigantic shopping mall).
Breitscheidplatz: the bombed-out shell of the Gedächtniskirche, next to the Neukirche
We continued down the Kurfürstenstrasse and along the Landwehr Canal until we reached Potsdamer Platz, through which the Berlin Wall once ran (with reunification, the Potsdamer Platz has become the new commercial center of Berlin). A cobblestone trail along the ground marks the long and winding path of die mauer, and even today -- more than ten years after the Wall fell -- there is a marked contrast between east and west. While West Berlin is populated with sleek, modern skyscrapers, East Berlin is covered with construction cranes.
We followed the path of the Wall (barely avoiding oncoming traffic) to a point where a portion of die mauer has been left standing as a permanent memorial. Here, among the excavated ruins of the old Gestapo and SS buildings, a "Topography of Terror" outdoor photo exhibit tells the story of the Nazis (it was interesting how many young German people were visiting here). Further east, we found Checkpoint Charlie (the famous border checkpoint between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin) where there is now a museum devoted to the Wall.
Die mauer was erected in 1961 by the Soviets to stop the blatant flow of people fleeing from east to west. Once 100 miles long and 13 feet high, it was the site of more than 250 deaths... as well as a number of spectacular escapes. At the absolutely fascinating museum, we learned how people escaped hidden in car seats, car petrol tanks, and concert speakers; along pulley lines; and even in hot air balloons (more than 500 of the 5,000 documented escapees were East German guards themselves). We also relived the euphoria experienced when the Wall came down in 1989.
(The museum also contains several hundred pieces of artwork depicting die mauer and its subsequent destruction. Back at home, one of the only pieces of original art we own is a Bill Sienkevich collage of the Wall, and the boys were very impressed to realize that it could have been displayed here in a museum instead of in our living room.
Joss -- with his western democratic upbringing -- was also extremely confused as to why a government would treat its people so badly. He and Cameron became involved in a long philosophical discussion that went on for more than an hour. "Okay, Joss, pretend that your stuffed animals didn't like being in your room, but you didn't want them to leave...")
We walked all the way from the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie back to the Europa-Center, where we tried to grab dinner at Kaufhaus des Westens (the biggest department store in Continental Europe), whose fifth-floor contains the biggest delicatessen we've ever seen. After deciding that we couldn't afford KaDeWe's food, we settled for KFC back at Breitscheidplatz. By now the platz was full of people, street performers, and musicians; and we had a wonderful time people-watching while we ate. We watched the break dancers and trick skateboarders; and we walked down lively Ku'damm (Kurfürstendamm), admiring the dozens of painted bear sculptures that adorn Berlin's main drag. All in all, we estimate that we walked 12 miles today.
Back at Breitscheidplatz: people watching over KFC
Although we are not leaving Berlin until Monday -- two days from now -- much of the city will be closed down for the next two days for the Easter holiday. On the other hand, tomorrow is also Joss' ninth birthday, so we will still have plenty to do.
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