Monday, May 31, 2010

Beach Season

As it is the last day in May, tomorrow marks an important day in Donostia: opening of the beaches. With three beaches in San Sebastián, it is a day to look forward to.

Considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, La Concha always steals the show for best beach in the city. Shaped like a Conch shell, it's namesake, this beach always fills up quickly with tourists and locals alike. When I first arrived it was the first beach I went to, the one I took the most photos of, and most important - the one I tanned topless at first. Topless sunbathing here is quite normal and now I don't bat an eye, but by golly the first time I did it I felt quite awkward.

Starting tomorrow one can take advantage of the parasols and sun beds that take over a good majority of the beach. Available every morning for rent, only a few special people get a permanent laying out spot all summer. These coveted spots are won with either a very high price-tag or a raffle. Each year, x amount of spots are raffled off and as I have been reading in the newspapers lately, of the 282 people that entered the raffle, there are only 52 spots open. People lined up for what seemed like miles on the day of the raffle to put their name in to win one of these small parcels of sand with a cute blue and white striped umbrella for the entire summer.

I didn't even bother entering because while the Concha is the most gorgeous beach in the city, I am more in love with the Zurriola Playa. Set in my old neighborhood of Gros, this beach is popular with a younger crowd and of course the surfers. With big waves and a huge sand area, San Sebastián's youngest beach is my favorite and where I will probably spend most of my sunbathing days (don't worry Grammy, I'll wear sunscreen). On a side note of the Zurriola - I am trying to convince myself that I should take a surf class this summer for a week or so. You sign up and they give you the surfboard and all you need, but for some odd reason, even after living in a surf-crazy city, I still have no desire to learn how to surf. Maybe with hot weather and no work in the summer I will change my mind and sign up.

The last beach in San Sebastián is named Ondaretta and is mainly for families and grown-ups. It seems as if each beach in Donosti has it's own personality and for me, this one is the one I relate with the least. Still, it is a lovely beach and it's positive point is that it is located closest (when the tide is out) to the small island of Santa Clara that sits in the center of the Bahía de la Concha (Bay of the the Concha Beach). As you can see in this photo, the island is but a short swim away from the beach and makes for a fun afternoon activity when the waves are calm and and you have the whole day to kill.

While it is predicted to rain tomorrow, the lifeguards will start their watch in the morning regardless donning red shorts or swimsuits. With wooden look-out towers (think Baywatch) San Sebastián's beaches will soon morph into tourist destinations and my favorite place to relax. In a city that loves the summer, it is just one of the indicators that summer is almost here!


Friday, May 14, 2010

'Berlin is Poor by Sexy' - Part 3

The next day we decided to scale back from our super touristy lifestyle of the day before and decided to head to another neighborhood we had heard good things about – Kreuzberg – and hopped on the metro. The Berlin metro system works like this: you buy a ticket and then you validate it for that ride. Well, because we are daredevils we bought the tickets but didn’t validate them. Crazy us! We decided we would just play dumb tourists if we got asked by a subway worker, and play dumb is exactly what we did! A coarse-looking German came up to us as we were looking at our Spanish guidebook and said ‘tickets’ in German. I, of course, don’t remember that word. We kind of looked at him blankly and he asked us if we spoke English. We said we did (and I kind of chuckled to myself) and he asked in English for our tickets, so I pulled out the two unvalidated tickets from my wallet and handed them over. He asked us why they weren’t validated and we pretended we didn’t speak English so well and were smiling and kept saying ‘yes, our tickets!’ He was rather annoyed but explained to us that we needed to validate them and told us that at the next stop we needed to get off and do it, which we did – such good tourists we are! After validating, we only waited a few minutes for the next metro and were laughing the whole time. Such good fake English speakers we made! And, we saved quite a lot of money! If we were to have bought metro tickets every time we rode the metro, we would have spent a good sum, but instead we just carried the two unvalidated ones around until we HAD to validate them. Good travel advice if you were planning on going to Berlin!
Across the River Spree from Kreuzberg, stands the longest intact part of the original Wall that has since been named the East Side Gallery. Painted in 1990 and artists from all over the world contributed to this international monument to freedom with 100 paintings on parts of the Wall. The paintings vary drastically from one to the other, but all have an underlying theme of enjoying freedom and reminding anyone who looks at it that a free world is a good world. The painted side of the wall faces old East Berlin and the west-facing side is not painted and just looks at the river. Almost 1 mile long, we slowly walked and admired each painting - some more creative others more professional but all impressive. Of all the things in Berlin, this was what I had wanted to see the most, so I was quite content when we finished and crossed the bridge into Kreuzberg for an iced tea. I couldn't pick just one favorite work so instead I will post a bunch of the paintings, and hopefully from my large bunch of photos you will decide on one you like, because let me tell you, its almost impossible to pick the best!
Although Kreuzberg has many things in the tourist guide book to do, we actually didn't do a single thing. We had been extreme tourists and now just kind of wanted to live like Berliners - going to local cafés, bars and shops. We had decided to head to this part of Berlin on this day because we thought the local Turkish outdoor market would be in full swing but when we finally go to the spot it should have been we found out its only two days a week - which was not that day. We decided the next best thing was to continue along the river and just check out the neighborhood. We were blessed with sunny skies and were content walking together from one end of Kreuzberg to the other. Along the way we came across a huge gathering place in such an unlikely place - a bridge! Used only for bicycle traffic and foot traffic, the locals make it into somewhat of a cement park. Scattered groups of people sitting eating, smoking, playing cards or the guitar or just reading it was great to see such a diverse mix of people all on the same bridge. It is a place that you feel like if you lived there, that is exactly what you would be doing on a sunny afternoon too. We decided to join the cause and got a tuna pizza (yea, I had never heard of pizza with tuna fish but Joseba assured me it was going to be good, and he didn't steer me wrong - it was quite tasty). We popped a squat and slowly ate our pizza and soaked in the atmosphere. Apparently it isn't illegal to carry around glass bottles of beer so when we sat we made sure to not sit on a sliver of glass!
Since Spring was springing in Berlin the trees that lined the river were just starting to bloom and created a gorgeous view as we continued along towards to west side of Kreuzberg. Our tour guide mentioned to us that a small group of blocks in that side of the neighborhood are the most well-preserved buildings from before WWII and that they sustained no damage during the war. He lives around that area and told us that movie crews are constantly setting up shop there to film. Only around since the 1860s, Kreuzberg became a neighbhorhood to accomodate the growing population of the industrial boom in Berlin. The streets were quiet when we arrived, barely a soul to be seen and in a way it felt like we were on a movie set straight from Hollywood. After seeing many buildings that were put up after the war damage it was a stark difference to see these beautifully preserved places. After WWII, the East Berlin government wanted to quickly and cheaply put up housing for the residents. As a result you now see a lot of bulidings that resemble Legos. Sheets of cement pasted together in the form of an apartment building with some random colors are one of the less desirable housing options in Berlin. Because they were built so fast and used such low-end materials, residents often complain that they can hear everything their neighbors are doing. But, if the East German government didn't build a new building they would normally just leave the crumbling damaged buildings as they were. So, it was not the best choice - new, crappy and thin as crackers building or old, falling apart, hope the roof doesn't fall on me building.
When I decided I was done being a Hollywood star in an old war movie, we headed North towards Mitte where a lot of bars and cafés were. Our guide had recommended a place called Bierhimmel - which literally means Beer Heaven. As tempting as Heaven sounded we didn't see it immediatley when we got to the street and instead saw a cute bar and decided not to waste time searching for a bar we might not even find when in front of us stood a great location. With our light and dark beers agagin, we sat on a bench facing the street and with the large windows swung open it was almost as if we were sitting an outdoor café but in reality we were sitting on furniture that looked like it came from a great-grandma's house - a hodgepodge of chairs, tables and decorations on the walls. A lone tulip spruced up our rickety table and we spent awhile just watching people pass by - alternative teens with bright green jeans to businessmen on bikes with baskets full of groceries. It seems like after such a dark period of no tolerance that Berlin, or atleast Kreuzberg embraced anyone and everyone for who they were.
Dinner consisted of a traditional German meal - an entire chicken, fried and served with bread. Think KFC but better and instead of legs and thighs, you have a whole chicken sitting on your plate. The skin was doused with some delicious spices and seasoning which made the plain chicken quite tasty but nonetheless an entire chicken for dinner struck me as kind of weird. Well, we were living like Berliners I suppose. Speaking of living like Berliners, we finished the night at the same christmas-lit bar as the night before, with of course some more beer!
The next morning we decided to head to a different part of the city - Potsdamer Platz. Bombed during WWII and left to sit in rubble for the Cold War, this popular square has just recently come to life. The main attraction is the Sony Center, which only opened in 2000, is an outdoor forum filld with shops, a lego-land, an IMAX theatre and restaurants. Set under the illuminated and color-changing ceiling, it was full of people - tourists and Berliners alike. Near the Sony Center was the Berlin Philharmonic. We decided to pass by, just to see if they happened to have an upcoming concert for a deal that we might go to. There were big groups of people standing outside, which we found somewhat curious. We joined the crowd and eventually entered the concert hall. We wandered around, confused as to why people were inside but obviously not dressed up for a performance. We asked the clerk at the info desk and she said that today was a dress rehearsal for a concert the next day and that it was free if we wanted to stay! What luck we had! The 3-hour show was a unique peek into what a professional choir is like. Dressed in plain black clothes and sometimes interuppted by the director, it was quite interesting to see the show being performed but at the same time still being tweaked.
The lady we were renting the apartment from mentioned that on Thursday night, all of the museums on Museum Island were open for free to the public from 6pm on. We hopped on the metro (again, with unvalidated tickets this time with some sandwiches from a very unfriendly food-stand employee) and visited the first musem we came to - the Neue Galerie. Filled with so many pieces of art that we had no idea even where to start, I was quite suprised at how strict the guards were. I have a purse that goes across your chest and lays on your hip, but every single guard we passed kept telling me I had to have my purse hanging in front of me. Odd. Am I going to steal a peice of art in my small purse? If that wasn't enough, Joseba got very close to a painting and consequently set off an alarm. Calm and cool he acted like nothing happened and a group of Asian tourists next to us thought they had set off the alarm and the guard explained harshly in German something about not getting to close to the paintings. This museum was not for us, so we left without admiring much. We then decided we should see the 1st museum that was on the island - Altes Museum. Famous for housing the Bust of Nefertitti, we were sorely disappointed that her bust wasn't on display for the free day and raced through the museum. We somewhat proved we are not the most art-appreciating intellectual tourists.
We decided to go back to what we did best - drink beer, eat and listen to music. On our tour we passed a bar with live music on Thursday night that we thought looked good. Neither of us wrote it down nor really remembered the name but by some stroke of luck we managed to find it. Zosch, as it was called, was in a building that survived the war. We ordered a hearty dinner and after we were full headed downstairs to see the live jazz concert. The concert took place in the basement and while the music was good and the beer tasty, the place had quite a lot of history as well. The old brick walls told the story that the bar used to be a gathering spot for the tenants during air raids. From the floor to the ceiling you could see random bricks that had been carved out of the wall to hold candles. The Germans were convinced that these air raids would eventually lead to bombs of lethal gas that would pollute the oxygen so that they couldn't breathe. The candles were lit and were clues to see the quality of the air. If the floor candle went out, parents picked up thier kids. If the candle around waist-height went out parents would prop kids on their shoulders and so on until possibly the shoulder-height candles went out and then everyone would have to get out. Knowing this gave the dimly light basement a whole new feeling.
With the soothing jazz music we headed to bed and woke up the next morning on a mission - see the Turkish Market on a day it was actually open! We arrived back in Kreuzberg, this time with a bit of orientation, and wandered up and down the half-mile stretch of booths that took over the road that ran along the river. Packed as expected, women were pulling carts full of fresh fruit and children were running behind them holding bread and sweets. If food wasn't your fancy, scarves, shoes and other trinkets were being sold. We didn't feel like actually buying anything from the market to go home and cook and thought that the next most authentic experience would be to get a Turkish kebab. Now, this is a neighbhorhood known for thier kebabs, but as soon as we decided we wanted to eat one, it was almost impossible to find a shop, but finally we lucked out and ate up quickly then headed to a new neighborhood - Friedrichshain.
Listed in the book as a good spot for cafés, bars and second-hand shops we kind of stumbled onto the main street - Simon-Dach-Straße - the one with the most bars! It's like we were meant to drink a beer! In the 1990s, this neighborhood was home to many artists and lower-income rooms, so the streets are colorfully decorated and graffiti - be it on a shop or a house - wasn't shocking to see. We started out looking in random second-hand stores and odd shops and then started looking for a beer spot. We checked around the streets, all full of chairs and tables just waiting to be sat in, and in the end decided on a small wooden bar. Next on the agenda was dinner - and we wanted something we knew we could never eat in San Sebastian, so we ended up eating Sri Lankan food. It was something I had never tried but it was similar to Indian food and was delish. After dinner we decided to do something we also knew we couldn't find in San Sebastian - go to a bar that was having a Funky Soul night. I think that poster we saw actually advertised it as a 'Hot and Heavy Funky Soul Explosion'. We spent the night drinking Berliner beers and dancing funky with a discoball and velvet wallpaper, which provided a few good laughs.
The last day was quite rainy and we slept in, cooked breakfast and were pretty much lazy all day. For our last German lunch we went back to Der Imbiss, the place where we reluctantly went on our second day and ordered our same dinners and of course the cheesecake again. Between napping and eating we managed to check out some boutiques in our are and when 10pm came we still hadn't learned that we should eat dinner at 6pm like Germans but ended up finding a cute Italian restaurant on our street. We both ordered from the 'specials of the day' menu, not really understanding the menu but taking a chance and were happy in the end. While it didn't seem fit, our last drinks for the night were wine...not very German!
It's funny because although we managed to see all of the most touristy spots in Berlin, the thing I will remember the most is just the feeling that we belonged in Berlin. With the apartment and our little neighborhood and only one day of sights, we really got a chance to live like the locals, and in the process we really fell in love with the city. I really feel like the mayor's ''poor but sexy'' comment lived up to it's word. (If you look closely at this photo you can see the lady has a tattoo that says the quote). The city wasn't glitzy but nor was it expensive, but it had an energy and a vibe that you couldn't help but feel. And, I have travelled around the stein-drinking south of Germany - Munich and other small villages - but I am going to have to vote Berlin as my favorite German place. As JFK said once: All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!" I agree.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Berlin is Poor by Sexy' - Part 2

With a lot of WWII history in our minds, we continued on our long day tour to see another one of Berlin’s most notable sights – the Wall. Like I had said earlier, a gold line runs through the city, showing everyone where the line that used to divide the city stood, but not much remains of the actual original wall itself. We came to a point that looked as if it were crumbling before our eyes. Across the street from the wall was a large office building, and our guide told us of an escape story of a man who once worked there. Apparently, this worker had an office with a window and contact with someone in West Berlin. One day, he snuck his family into work and they stayed there until night fell and escaped out the window. It seems almost impossible to have managed to make it to West Berlin from the complex defense system that the Wall had. While everyone talks about the Wall, the Berlin Wall was actually two walls set apart from each other. The first wall acted as a barrier, but if you managed to get past that you were confronted with spikes that you would land on after jumping over the wall. Next you would have to make it past the armed guards with flood lights and if you were tricky enough to avoid death until then you needed to sprint through a narrow field with pointy-teeth dogs waiting to attack. Only then could you make it to the other wall and attempt to scale that and finally if you could hoist yourself over that you were in West Berlin, free from the Reds. With all that in mind, it is quite amazing to hear about success stories.

If you didn’t attempt to put your life in the hands of Nazis and dogs and barbed wire, the only other way to walk across the border was through the Tränenpalast – the Palace of Tears. So named because it was once an immigration stand that separated East and West and was the sight of many tearful goodbyes. When the Wall was built, it was built practically overnight. People went to sleep one night and woke up the next morning trapped in East Berlin. Because no one planned on waking up to a wall, many families were apart the night that the wall went up. Anyone who woke up in West Berlin became a West Berliner and for the unfortunate who woke up in the East, they were doomed to be Easterners. West Berliners could come and visit East Berlin for the day, to see family, shop, etc, but East Berliners couldn’t do it the other way around. So, families would come to see relatives on the East side and at this Tränenpalast is where they would eventually have to say goodbye. A large building of glass windows, the people could watch their families enter the Palace of Tears and see as they passed through immigration to free land, and they couldn’t do anything but stand there. Not like going through immigration to West Berlin was a piece of cake – many Germans were interrogated for long periods of time when crossing back in small rooms with intimidating guards. One story we heard involved a West Berliner who came to East Berlin for the day and got in a fight and had a broken nose when he tried to leave. Obviously his face looked a bit different than his immigration photo and the guards held him for multiple days because they thought he was an East German trying to escape.
A different way to pass through to East German was through the Allies checkpoints. The most famous in Berlin is Checkpoint Charlie (alpha, bravo, charlie – it was checkpoint C). Still standing in it's original spot as when the Wall was up, the soldiers that passed through to East Berlin needed to check out of West Berlin and did so at these checkpoints. Posted next to the booth is a sign stating that you are leaving the American sector, in English, Russian, French and German. It is only a replica now but with an actor standing guard, we got a good idea of the way that it used to be crossing over.
Staying in East Germany we finished our tour on Museum Island - you guessed right - an entire island in the middle of the city dedicated to Museums! We popped a squat in front of the first museum that was built on the island in 1830 - Altes Museum. Our guide mentioned again that Germans aren't the most creative when it comes to naming things, but instead use extreme accuracy (like street under the linden trees). This museum used to be called only 'museum' but the GASP another museum was built and they had to figure out how to name two museums. Hence, this became Altes Museum (Old Museum) and the second museum became Neues Museum (New Museum). Imaginative, I know.
Kiddy-corner from the Old Museum sits the Berliner Dom (basically Berlin Cathedral). Known as a Cathedral since it was built, it was actually a Protestant place of worship until 1930 when the Holy See created a Catholic diocese in Berlin. The biggest church in Berlin it is a massive building that has only re-opened in the last 15 years after terrible damage during the war.
Through our 8-hour tour we really saw that Berlin, in debt up to its ears, is rather a poor large city, but as the mayor had said before, it is sexy. From new buildings to old, half-crumbling ones, to massive churches next to little cafés, the tour showed us a whirlwind tour of the enchanting city. The tour finished in the sunshine on the grass and Joseba and I picked the guide's brain for some good spots to see in our neighborhood and also other surrounding neighborhoods that we were planning on visiting in the coming days.
Exhausted from so much walking we caught the metro home and took the required Spanish siesta. However, since we took a late siesta, when we finally woke up and got around we had successfully missed the German dinner time again and were back in the same situation as the day before. This time we passed up the 3€ pizza and decided on a place called Der Imbiss, a bright orange restaurant that used the McDonald's 'M' upside-down as their logo. We weren't expecting much from the little place that could only hold a few tables, but were hungry and thought we'd give it a try.
When we got back to Spain I looked up what Der Imbiss means in German, and it actually means ‘take-out’. We didn’t take the food to go though, we decided to eat in, and from the German menu with some pretty bad English translations we decided on a ‘Popeye’s Cigar’ and a ‘Burrito’. I was quite anxious to see what would come out of the little kitchen. Much to our surprise the meal was delicious. My burrito took me back to my Arizona days and Joseba’s ‘Popeye’s Cigar’ made spinach and cheese the most desirable combo ever. When we finished, we were very satisfied but decided to press our luck on the New York cheesecake. In Spain, maybe they just don’t know how to make a NY cheesecake, but I have basically given up on finding a true American cheesecake in the entire country, so when Joseba suggested trying this one at Der Imbiss I was skeptical. Just like our dinner though it was amazing and actually spot on. I was excited to finally taste a rich cheesecake again and Joseba was delighted to finally try a real New York cheesecake with someone who could verify it was true to its word!
With full bellies and tired feet we were very tired but decided that we were in Berlin and we should be drinking some beer! That’s what Germany is all about right? Haha. Well, we found a random bar that had mis-matched Christmas light balls hanging outside and ordered a light and a dark beer for me and Joseba (respectively). That was the last straw though, and after one beer we just had to go home and get some rest, but were rather impressed with what we had accomplished in 12 hours!
More to come on our less-touristy adventures in Berlin coming soon!

'Berlin is Poor by Sexy' - Part 1

After only an hour and half flight from Riga, I grabbed my suitcase and hurried out of the luggage area because I was excited to see my boyfriend, Joseba (pronounced yo-say-buh), who had arrived in Berlin about an hour before me and was waiting in the greeting area! After not seeing each other for two weeks it was great to be back together and in a new place. Joseba had never been to Germany and I although I'd been to Germany I'd only been in the south and had no idea what to expect from Berlin.

We took a taxi ride to our 'apartment' for the week. Instead of doing the hotel or hostel route we decided to rent an apartment for a week - live like Berliners live. We decided on a studio in Prenzlauer Berg - a neighborhood in East Berlin just north of the Mitte ('center' in German). We found the apartment on craigslist - kind of like an online classifieds - and contacted the owner and showed up on faith that she would be there and that we would have a place to stay, and it worked out. We were living in East Berlin for an entire week!

With flights and time changes, we spent the first day just poking around our hip little neighborhood. Full of little botiques, cafes and random restaurants, we were happy just getting lost among the pastel apartment buildings. We made our way to the center of Berlin, trying to orient ourselves with the city. We had a Berlin guidebook that I had found at a book exchange in a bar here in San Sebastian, so we had some idea of where we were, but what we wanted most was to find a good walking tour for the next day. In the center we stopped off at a small café, packed with tourists, and looked up a few of the tours the guidebook suggested. With our Spanish cell phones, it is quite expensive to call another country from another country so we opted to call the number to find out the times and prices from, get ready, a payphone. Like the top bunk 'feeling' from Stockholm, I again can't recall the last time I used a payphone. I see them in Spain and kind of wonder why they still exist in a world saturated with cell phones, but apparently they are still there for people like us haha. We rang up Brewer's Berlin Tours. I was convinced that it was a company that offered Brewery tours - basically just drinking your way through the city - but as it turned out, it was an 8-hour walking tour (with stops of course) with a guide for only 12€! Such a deal! With that plan in mind for the next day we considered our day productive and continued wandering around.

Around 10pm we decided it was finally Spanish dinner time. However, I guess we should have figured it out sooner, the silly Germans eat dinner around 6pm! We had passed so many delicious looking restaurants but when the time came that we were hungry, the majority of them were closed. We resorted back to the main street in our neighborhood - Kastanienallee - because when we strolled down it earlier, there were lots of places so we thought atleast something would be open, and luckily we found a little place with 'alles' pizza - meaning all types of pizza for only 3€. Again, we had found a good deal and shockingly the pizza was quite good. The funny thing was that the water we ordered was actually more expensive than a pizza! Note to Amanda and Joseba - bring your own water or order beer (it's cheaper!)

The next morning we woke up to sunshine and quickly got around to make sure we left ample time to get lost on our way to the tour guide meeting spot. I mean, we had a map, but its such a big city and not all the roads are perfectly straight, and half of them have names that include like 10 letters, so getting lost wasn't so farfetched. Luckily we arrived and seemed the one of two couples waiting for the tour. Right on time, the guy showed up and introduced himself and of course asked us all our names and where we were from. The other couple was from Australia and a few more people came - England, New Zealand and a mother and son from Los Angeles. When I introduce myself I usually say I'm from Seattle because I feel like it's the most known city in the NW and no one is ever going to know where Kelso is, but this guide happened to be from Oregon so he asked my city and I said Kelso and he was from Astoria - so throughout the tour we had some good banter between WA and OR. Such a small world!

The tour started with this blog's namesake - 'Berlin is poor, but sexy'. In 2003 the mayor of Berlin said these lovely words about his city, and we were soon to find out that it is true. While it wasn't the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life, it had something about it that gave it its appeal.

The first main building we stopped at was the New Synagogue. Built in 1866 with the capacity to hold 3,200 worshipers, it quickly became a symbol in Germany. During Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), Nazis took to the streets by destroying Jewish property - burning shops, smashing windows and robbing left and right. They attempted to break the windows and torch the New Synagogue, but by the grace of one local police officer, they were turned away. The lone officer told the Nazis that this synagogue was a city building and not private property like the other buildings and shops they were damaging and that they would be punished if they harmed the synagogue, and by these orders the Nazis left, leaving the gorgeous building intact. Sadly it didn't survive as easily throughout the entire war, and in 1943 was hit by a bomb, but the facade stayed pretty much the same. Now, after repairs, we were able to note which bricks and parts of the building are new and which are from the original facing and marvel at the onion domes (both of which are from after the war). If you look closely at this photo, you can see that there are parts of the building that are a brighter yellow (this is the newer part of the building) and the parts that are dark brown and aged, are from the 1866 building.

Walking along Oranienburger Strasse we came to a building that was set far back from the road. Turns out that the front half of the building was bombed during the war, but that the building that was bombed actually used to be quite a cool place. When the telephone was invited, it seemed like all Berliners wanted to own one, but obviously they were very expensive and only reserved for the elite. Some smart Berliner took note of this and made a restaurant that had a bunch of telephones. Each booth had a phone, and you could call from one table to the next, or place your order over the telephone to the kitchen. People were in love with the idea of the phone and so excited to be able to be talking on the phone! It sounds like a fun idea, something that would have been a good night out back then, but now a vacant courtyard stands in front of the entrance to the old kitchen of the restaurant that is now used as a bar.

At this point I kind of got lost. We had been wandering through courtyards and down streets we hadn't walked on the day before and before I knew it, I was completely turned around. I did appreciate the gorgeous courtyards though and didn't really worry that I had no idea where I was. When Berlin was set up as a city, many large apartment buildings were built in the interior area of the block and then a large courtyard separated the packed apartment buildings from the apartments that line the streets. The interior buildings obviously house many more residents and are less glamorous than the exterior buildings, but it seems they also have the benefit of not have the street noise in a city of 3 million. No matter which side of the courtyard you live in, everyone can equally enjoy the tree-decorated and sometimes even grass-covered open spaces between the two worlds. With small curious shops set up in the first floor of the buildings, these courtyards were a great reason to wander in and out of streets.
Carrying on on the tour, we headed back towards the center of town, to see one of the most iconic places of Berlin – the Brandenburg Gate. When the Wall came down, this ‘gate’ was the scene of East Berliners rushing through to West Berlin to find family or friends or just because they finally could. We walked the long wide street leading up to the gate – Unter den Linden, which means Under the Linden trees. Our tour guide made sure to point out that along the tour we would see many things that the Germans named that aren’t very creative but instead very accurate. This street was named Unter den Linden for the precise fact that the street lies directly below some Linden trees.

The Gate was one of the 18 gates that used to lead into the city and was used as a toll house and a place to pay taxes. Atop the gate sits Nike, Goddess of Victory. In 1806 Napoleon defeated Germany took Nike as his war prize back to Paris for all to see. However, a few years later, in 1814 she was returned to Germany and a few things were changed. Originally, Nike held an oak wreath, symbolizing peace, but after she was hoisted back on the gate, this time it was with an iron scepter symbolizing victory. The funny thing is that she stands tall and looks over Pariser Platz (Paris Square) and her victory scepter actually now points directly at the French Embassy. I’m sure the Germans love that the goddess of victory is always there reminding the French of their loss. While talking about the history of the Gate, our guide passed around some old photos of the Gate as it was over 50 years ago. It is kind of surreal to look at a photo that was taken during a time of war when the Gate stood for something so different than it does today and to be standing in the exact same location. It kind of gives you chills to know that if you were standing here 60 years ago it would have been because you were a German trapped in East Berlin, gazing across your country to West Berlin whereas now, we coolly stood there and were able to freely walk through it.

And because we could, we crossed over to West Berlin, easy as that, for a short part of the tour. Throughout the city runs a gold line that shows where the Wall used to stand. We took some time to jump from East to West Berlin and see if we could feel a difference. I didn’t. Haha. Right across the Gate was the House of Parliament. Past the government buildings we walked towards Tiergarten – a garden area larger than Central Park that used to be the hunting grounds of the Royal Family. I don’t know if all Germans are as bad of hunters as the Royal Family were, but when they used to go ‘hunting’ in this massive park, the aides would pre-trap the animals and then empty them out into a small part of the park for Royals to easily shoot them. I guess when you are a King or Queen you have that luxury.
After some time of walking, we had tired legs and had worked up an appetite and stopped at a kebab shop to eat. Before going in the kebab shop though, our guide wanted to show us something I guess you wouldn’t normally read in a guide book and he took us down in the metro station near the restaurant. There, in this random subway stop were walls covered in gorgeous red marble. It seemed like any other metro stop, although it was quite ornately decorated, until we found out where the marble was before. As it turns out, the marble used to be in the building from where Hitler ran the Nazis. When the building was demolished they retained the marble (because I mean, it is quite nice) and now it is in some non-descript underground place. Kind of strange but I guess recycling is good right?

After a disappointing kebab and sparkling water, which both Joseba and I hate, we learned that if you want water in Germany, it’s most likely going to come as gas water. Shame. Regardless, we were full and headed towards our next Berlin stop - the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A city block full of different-size cement blocks, the artist, when asked about what the memorial is meant to symbolize, said ‘nothing’. He said he wants it to mean something special to each person and for that, he created it with no meaning in mind so that each person can have their own reaction to it instead of being told what it means. With undulating pathways that create a wave-like appearance of the cement blocks, to me it somewhat created a reaction in me of anonymity. During the war there were some many wrongful deaths of Jewish people that no city block could ever be big enough to have a block for each person lost, but walking amongst the blocks – some taller than me some not – it seemed to me that the blocks could be any one of the nameless people that were victims of the war. Before we started, our guide didn’t tell us what the statues were part of, so Joseba and I kind of walked through unknowingly, but when we met up with the group again, he informed us of why it was constructed and allowed us to walked between the blocks again, this time with new eyes. Even more eye-opening was this interesting and conflicting information: because the blocks are made with cement, they are an easy target for graffiti, so the artist contracted a chemical company to create a clear paint that covers each block and makes paint unable to stick. So, when people graffiti on the monument, it makes it easily cleanable and it quickly goes back to new. Sounds good, except that the chemical company that made this dream product is also the same company that made the chemical used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps. Unsettling to say the least – and kind of ironic that the company that contributed to so many deaths of Jewish people is now using a different chemical to honor them.

With that in our head to ponder, we continued with the WWII theme and walked to the place where Hitler committed suicide. Now it is a bunch of apartment buildings, but during the war, it is where Hitler spent his last days - scared, paranoid and unable to believe Germany was going to actually lose the war. When he learned that defeat was imminent, he asked his doctor what was the best way to commit suicide and was recommend cyanide with a shot to the head to finish him off. On April 29th, he married his girlfriend Braun and about a day later they committed suicide together when they heard the news that the Soviets were close and they didn't have enough ammunition to survive the night. In a way I think it was somewhat appropriate that the man that brought fear and death to so many people died in similar fashion.

On that note, I will close this blog - have much more to tell you but an 8-hour tour and 6 extra days in Berlin are way too much to fit into one blog! Hope you enjoyed a short little tour through a 'poor but sexy' city - and don't worry there is definitely more to come!


Saturday, May 8, 2010

The new place!

Well, I have officially been in the Old Part for a week now - and I am settling in very easily. I like the flat and the girls are very nice, so its been a good move, I think. As promised, I took some photos so you can get some sort of idea of where I am writing you from.

The apartment is rather small, but its all we need. I live on the 4th floor and thankfully we have an elevator. The odd thing about the elevator is that when you get in, it speaks to you - tells you what floor you are on. That's not too weird, but it's in Basque, so I never know what it is saying. Being on the fourth floor, I know it is something like the number 4 in Basque which is Lau (rhymes with now). And after it says some word similar to that it says another word, which I have no clue what it means. Basically I am going to be come an expert at saying 4th floor - completely useless vocabulary ha.

When you enter the flat right on the left we have a small bathroom. Then to the right is Maider's room and straight ahead is Monica's room. At the end of the hall you can go left or right. If you go left you walk into the kitchen which is connected to the living room. If you go right, you go to my room! It's not as big as my other room, but still large enough for a big girl bed. I kind of wanted a change from my last flat and saw a photo online that someone had made a 'headboard' out of photos of their friends. Instead of friends, I decided to print out some of my favorite shots of some of the places I have been that are colorful and have some meaning for me.

The name of my street is Calle de la Pescaderia - basically the fish market street. At the end of our street is the old fish market. Basque Country has a very rich history with the water - be it sailing, whaling or fishing. A document from all the way back in 670 mentions the sale of whale blubber from a Basque trader. Also in the history books is Magellan's tour around the globe. When Magellan was killed, the journey was completed at the mast of a Basque sailor. Not only were Basques great sailors and whale-hunters, but they were also experts in ship-making and are even said to have invited the rudder. All of this sea experience and expertise makes it easy to understand why Donostia, located right on the ocean, was a booming fishing area. Only built in 1928, it is quite a grand building but sadly no longer sells fish. Instead there is a cinema and a food court - probably not was the Basque fisherman who proudly brought their catches to the market would expect nowadays!

Only a few minutes walk from the famous La Concha beach and even less to my Zurriola surfer beach that I love, it's right in the heart of the city. I didn't really realize how much I missed living in the Old Part until this week when I was back. It's so great to meet your friends for a coffee or a beer and be able to leave the house 2 seconds before meeting time. Or if you are bored you just walk around the area and you are bound to find someone playing an instrument or a small festival or a new shop. With the outdoor market one minute from my house, I always make sure I have a bouquet of fresh flowers in my room, which is enough to keep me happy. I am pleased I am done moving and feel comfortable finally - it always takes awhile for a place to feel like home.

I hope you are having a great weekend. Go out and buy yourself a little bunch of flowers - I find it really brightens not only the room but puts a little smile on your face as well.