I had quite a busy month in October, and it went by very quickly! A very large part of the time was spent traveling; throughout the month I really only had two full weeks of class.
After midterms on Friday October 4th, my fall break began. Directly after my tests I went to the main train station Berlin and took an ICE fast train to Duisburg, and then transferred to a regional train to get to the town Wesel, near where some family friends of mine live. They met me at the train station and took me to their farm near a very small town called Drevenack. They have several large fields for their two horses, with public trails in the woods beyond, and a very large, tastefully decorated house. The house, like many traditional German farm houses, is connected to the barn where the horses are.
Over the weekend, we visited around the area, including Scholoss Raesfeld, a picturesque castle protected by a moat, and Xanten, a small town originally settled by the Romans. The town has an impressive cathedral and parts of its medieval walls.
Monday morning I left early for the Dinslaken train station so I could take a train to Amsterdam. It took about 2 hours to get to Amsterdam by ICE train. After I arrived at the main train station I went to find my hotel. I only traveled with one backpack, which made it really easy to carry my luggage from place to place (although I had to pack carefully.) I stayed at Hotel the Crown, which was very cheap and light on accommodations, but at a good location right along the canals. I didn’t need to use public transportation at all in Amsterdam because I was able to walk everywhere. Most of the locals seem to use bikes to get around—there were bikes everywhere, often making had to walk on the sidewalks where they were parked, and on the streets where they were zooming around silently, not yielding to anything. This made the traffic pretty chaotic at times.
The first day I went to the main square of town, Dam Square, with the royal palace and a famous church. I also walked through the Anne Frank house, which was different than I expected; the house was left totally unfurnished, but the walls were original. I sampled some local cuisine at Restaurant Moeders, namely “Stamppot,” which was mashed potatoes blended with spinach and served with sausage, bacon and a meatball. I walked a few hours along the beautiful canals, which as night came looked even more beautiful reflecting the lights on the houses and bridges.
Amsterdam is clearly a city that prefers the night life to the morning commute. The narrow streets, packed the night before, were pretty much empty in the morning, aside from the trash that was left about everywhere, being cleaned up by street cleaners. Most of the stores were closed, too. I had a Dutch Waffle with strawberries for breakfast and took a canal tour on a boat, which was a neat experience. After the boat tour I walked to the flower market, famous for selling tulips, and stopped at a cheese store where I bought a hunk of Dutch goat cheese, perhaps the best cheese I ever had. I ate some of it for lunch on my way to a famous market, Albert Cuypmarkt, and some of the famous bridges in the city. After some souvenir shopping, I had a dinner of Dutch “Bitterballen,” or fried balls of rice and cheese, at Restaurant Greetje.
The next morning I went to a laundromat to wash my clothes; since I was traveling just with my backpack, I only brought enough clothes for half of the week, and planned to do my wash on Wednesday.
Afterwards I took a commuter train to the airport to catch my flight to London, which left around 5:00 and only lasted 45 minutes, and was the cheapest way to get there. I landed at Gatwick Airport, which is far south of the city, and had to travel to my hotel north of the city, which was somewhat confusing because of the ticket system in London. For dinner I had a Cornish Pastry which I picked up at the train station; it was basically a stew wrapped inside a folded pie crust, and was very good. I got to my hotel, a Best Western in the suburb Ilford, late that evening and stayed there for the rest of the night. Although far from the center of town, the price for the hotel was good, and it was right near a train station.
The next morning I bought a day ticket on the London Transport Network and headed to the Tower of London. I went into the grounds and got a tour from one of the royal guardsmen, commonly known as “beefeaters,” who gave an overview of the history of the complex. The castle was originally built by Normans in the 1100s, and used by the British Royalty for centuries afterwards. I was able to tour inside the building and go into the museum where the crown jewels are stored.
After the Tower of London I went to the nearby Tower Bridge, which is a famous landmark over the River Thames. I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral later; I didn’t have a chance to go inside, though, because there was an event going on at the time. Next I took the Tube to Westminster where I saw Westminster Abbey cathedral, Big Ben and the Parliament Building; around this time it started to rain (as it often did as I was there). However, after the storm passed, there was a very pretty sunset on the clouds behind Big Ben.
I went to Piccadilly Circus, a major square reminiscent of Times Square at dusk and did some souvenir shopping, before going back to see Big Ben, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge at night. Then I headed back to my hotel, which about a 20 minute ride.
The next day, Friday, I went to tour the reconstructed Globe Theater, which is was Shakespeare’s home theater where he premiered many of his plays. The original theaters that stood near that location (actually a few blocks away) burned down hundreds of years ago, but the reconstructed replica does its best to be historically accurate. The theater is round with a stage in the middle and three floors of seating surrounding it. The middle is open-air, and intended for standing room, where the poor people watched the play in Shakespeare’s time. Because it was the end of the season, all the shows were sold out, so I wasn’t able to see one performed there.
After the Globe, I went to the Charles Dickens House, which has been restored to its Victorian appearance when Dickens lived and wrote there. I toured the building before heading back out into the rain and going to a traditional Pub, where I had fish and chips for a late lunch. Also that day I visited Buckingham and Kensington palaces, but didn’t have enough time to go inside because of my busy schedule. I wish I could have had more time in London—there was just so much I wanted to see and do. Even with the time I had, however, I was able to get a good sampling of what the town has to offer.
On Saturday I made some brief stops at Baker Street where the Sherlock Holmes Museum is, Leicester Square where the big British film premiers are, the National Gallery area and the MI6 Building where the British Secret Service is housed. I tried to get to Abbey Road where the Beatles recorded as well, but was unable to get there due to limited time and Tube closures. The next day, Sunday the 13th, I had to leave early in the morning for the airport, sad to leave London behind, which is certainly my favorite place I’ve visited so far, aside from Berlin itself. Yet, after so much travel, it was good to be back in Berlin.
While the leaves had been green in London, they were peaking in their fall colors when I got back to Berlin. While September was very cold, October was relatively warm, as far as fall temperatures go. On Tuesday the 15th, my friend Robyn, who is studying in Spain this semester, came to Berlin for the week. That week was also the “Festival of Lights,” during which huge projectors project lighted designs on many of the landmarks in the city. Greg, my friend from high school who is also studying in Berlin, and I took Robyn to all the major sites in Berlin, including some like Checkpoint Charlie and Tiergarten that I hadn’t been to yet myself.
On the evening of the 17th, for German class, I sat in the audience of the Maybrit Illner Talkshow, a famous political TV program in Germany. That Friday our school group had a trip to Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi (Secret Police of Communist East Germany) prison. We toured the complex and saw the poor physical conditions in the prison cells and learned about the mental abuse the Stasi used to get information from the people they imprisoned.
That evening I went to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra perform selections from Mozart, Heydn and Beethoven, including Beethoven’s entire 6th Symphony. Saturday I spent with Kayla, also here from LVC, souvenir shopping, looking at an art show and going up the famous Fernsehenturm tower in the middle of Alexanderplatz; the wait was very long, but it was worth it for the experience. Unfortunately it was dark by the time we got up there. Sunday I went out on my own and toured the Berlin Olympic Stadium from the 1936 Olympics and visited KaDeWe or Kaufhaus des Westens, one of the largest and most famous department stores in Germany.
Before the semester began, our group of about 200 students was split in half for our major week-long excursion, and we were given the option to be in either the group that went to Strasbourg and Paris or Hamburg and Copenhagen. I chose the former option, because I wanted to see the famous city of Paris.
Friday we took a train from the Berlin main train station at 10 AM, arriving after one transfer at 6:15 in Strasbourg. We found our hostel and split into rooms. The first night we didn’t really have time to go into the city, but Saturday I spent the whole day in town, exploring it on my own. Strasbourg was originally a German speaking, culturally German city, which changed hands between the French and Germans many times over the last 100 years, along with the Alsace region of which it is the capital. Today it is a part of France but is right on the border of Germany. Its medieval cathedral was once the tallest building in the world, and still towers high above the narrow winding streets of the old town. With all the old buildings, Strasbourg had a charm that I really enjoyed. I walked to major squares, went along the river and over a famous medieval bridge, listened to street performers, and climbed the towers of the cathedral. I also sampled local food, including Beackoffe, which is three meats in a Riesling sauce with potatoes and carrots, and the area’s wine, which is sweet Riesling wine.
Sunday we went as a group on a bus to Verdun, a major battlefield during World War I for the Germans and French. We had a private tour guide who took us to major memorials, a destroyed village, and several bunkers. Though only shallow remains of the trenches survive, the entire landscape is extremely hilly and bumpy due to all the shells and bombs in the war. It was interesting to learn the history of the area and see what it still reflects today.
Monday morning our group went and toured the European Union Parliament building, which is in Strasbourg. It is a very modern building with over 700 seats in the Parliament chamber. Afterwards, we took a train about 3 hours to Paris. Our group’s hostel was nicer there; we got free breakfast and dinner, and a larger room that was better designed for groups.
The morning of Tuesday the 29th, our group had a boat tour of the Seine River in Paris, which was quite disappointing because the boat was very large and overly crowded, and it was hard to see anything worthwhile. I had a much better time when I went out on my own touring the city later that day, visiting the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumph, and Notre Dame. It was interesting to see these monuments, particularly Notre Dame. More impressive than the cathedral itself was its age, dating from the 1100s. Just as I entered, a mass began, and the singing and organ gave a very ancient feel as I walked through the large chamber. That evening I headed back to the hotel early to get dinner, as I did most of the nights I was there. I stayed out late enough to see the church lit up at night, though.
Wednesday we were given a ticket to the Louvre art museum, which is one of the biggest in the world and housed inside what was once the city palace of the French royalty. It was impressive to see so much art from famous artists such as Michelangelo and Da Vinci, including the Mona Lisa which was surrounded by a ridiculous crowd. However, it was hard to navigate, and got a bit redundant after awhile. I spent about five hours there, which was more than enough. Frustratingly, unlike museums in Germany and Prague, there were no English explanations at the Louvre, despite all the international tourists there; everything was in French. That afternoon, I visited Les Invalids where Napoleon’s tomb is, getting in free with my student ID, and then went to the Eiffel Tower until dark. I enjoyed seeing the tower lit up at night, especially when it sparkled with hundreds of strobe lights every hour.
On Thursday our group visited Versailles, the later palace of the French Royalty, which was very lavish and large. We had our own audio tours, so we could move at our own speed and see what we wanted. That afternoon I visited Pere Lachaise cemetery, where many famous people are buried.
Our last full day in Paris was free. In the morning, I went to a mass at Notre Dame; it was interesting at first, but was a special service and lasted more than an hour and a half, and since I couldn’t understand any of the French, it got a little long. Afterwards I went to a traditional French restaurant, Ambassade D’Auvergne, and had what was my best meal in France: a country sausage with Aligot. Aligot is a style of mashed potatoes blended with cheese until it’s thick enough that you have to cut it with your fork. The price wasn’t too bad, but the restaurant was very classy, and in an old building with a nice atmosphere. After lunch I visited the Luxembourg Gardens, which were colorful for fall, the Pantheon, a famous tomb, and the La Défense business district with its skyscrapers and plazas. The last thing I did in Paris was climb the Eiffel Tower at night. The weather had been nice all week except for Friday, so the line for the Eiffel Tower was finally short enough that I decided to wait. I climbed the steps, which weren’t too bad, but didn’t go all the way to the top; only to the second observation deck.
On Sunday, November 2 we left Paris by train, which lasted 8 hours and had one transfer in Mannheim. For what everyone makes Paris out to be, I was a little disappointed. It was a neat city, but was very “glitzy,” lacking the down-to-earth feel of the other towns I’ve visited. Historical landmarks like the Tower of London or the Berlin Wall, felt more “real” to me—they were places where history actually happened, whereas in Paris the landmarks were dominated by monuments, which felt larger-than-life, but not exactly authentic. Also, building projects in the 1800’s tore down most of the medieval districts, so even the oldest parts didn’t have the charm of smaller cities like Strasbourg and Prague. There were a lot of swindlers in Paris too—at most every major monument, there were people who pretended to find a ring on the ground, and would try to use it to start a conversation to get money from you. I wasn’t a huge fan of the public transportation network there either.
On the upside, Paris had great crepes, which I snacked on often while touring, and the Eiffel Tower at night and Notre Dame in general were very impressive landmarks. It was definitely worth visiting, and I’m glad I went there. However, given the choice to go back to Paris or London or Berlin, London or Berlin would definitely be higher on my list.
All the traveling this month has been a bit exhausting, and it’s good to be Back in Berlin for awhile. Next month, my last full month here already, will contain weekend trips to Hamburg and Vienna, before it’s back to the US!