Planes, Trains and Sausages
One of the first thing than any decent European guide book will tell you is that only a sadist visits Europe in the peak of summer. Well, it doesn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I read it. Why? The heat, for one. Having grown up in the American South and attended graduate school in Florida, I like to think I know a little about hot. Texas has the kind of heat that generates seat-belt buckle burns and instills a sixth sense for locating the coldest air-conditioning. Florida does the same but adds a general swampiness that makes it feel like you’re living in an overweight joggers belly button. European summer heat is a bit of a different animal though, especially experiencing it as a tourist. Want some cold water to cool down and hydrate with? Maybe even an ice cold Coke Lite? Good-fucking-luck finding any of that. What you will find is puppy-breath warm fizzy water and hot ass sodas.
Second, the crowds. It’s almost as if no-one even bothers to read these guide books (except my friend Martha, but I’ll get to that in a later post) because the shear mass of mouth-breathing humanity that vacations here during the summer can be overwhelming.
But you can’t always pick the absolute perfect time to vacation, and there’s a strong argument to be made for going whenever you actually can go. So I packed up and headed to Europe for a few weeks with my good friends Larissa, Mike and Martha (of www.trekfortwo.com fame).
Our first stop was Berlin, the German capital, a city with a tangled history. We stored our luggage at our hostel* and hit the town. Memories of Berlin’s traumatic and fascinating past linger everywhere, from the Berlin wall to the Holocaust Memorials to the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin is generally a walk-able city and we ended the day exhausted from the overnight flight and furious site-seeing.
My first impression of Germany is…okay. I can’t say I’m swooning over Berlin, but it’s a clean, history packed city with great museums like the Neues, which holds the famous bust of Nefertiti, a contested treasure Egypt has been demanding the return of since 1913. Seeing it was Martha’s idea and I’m glad she insisted – the bust, along with the entire museum, is wonderful.
The East End Gallery, a sprawling memorial to freedom, has a long section of the Berlin Wall covered in paintings from over a hundred different artists. It’s a great place to walk off a sausage-laden lunch and reflect on the complexities of modern politics. Or just enjoy the cool art.
We lucked out and were able to get tickets to tour the dome on the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament, and one of the best spots to see 360 views of Berlin – for free! The dome was built to symbolize reunification following the Cold War and has rightly become a landmark and major tourist destination.
Maybe we would have gotten a different feel for Berlin if we had experienced the famous nightclub scene, but the thought of being surrounded by sweaty, leather and mesh clad Germans was a little too much. We return to Germany later in the trip, so maybe my view of the country will evolve. Next stop – Czech Republic**.
*My feelings toward hostels have always been, ahem, hostile. Which, for the most part, is totally unfounded. Especially when you consider I haven’t actually, you know, stayed in one. We stayed in the Berlin Meininger Hotel Hauptbahnhof and it started out exactly as I always expected a hostel -don’t let the name fool you- to be: the air-conditioning was a window that didn’t open (the manager finally opened it after we convinced him we wouldn’t be throwing anything out of it, including our own bodies), the lights were out in the bathroom, and it was positively filled with grim-encrusted backpackers. But after the window was opened and the lights fixed, things improved greatly and it ended up being a perfectly reasonable, affordable place to stay in a great location. Still – hostels. Meh.
**Note about the train to Prague from Berlin. It’s pretty damn miserable. They over-book the train during the summer (the crowd issue, previously mentioned) leaving people to stand or squat or lean wherever you can find space. After an hour I asked a German woman standing near me if she thought things would open up a little after the upcoming Dresden stop. She replied “abandon all hope”. When a German on a train tells you to abandon all hope, you should probably listen. Sure enough, all the seats remained packed. On the bright side, we did have a lovely picnic in the small space we carved out for ourselves next to the bathroom door, so it wasn’t all bad. We managed to grab some seats the very last leg of the trip but it didn’t make up for several hours of being gently rocked into an uncomfortable stupor, breathing in train bathroom fumes.
Where we stayed: Meininger Hotel Berlin Hauptbahnhof
What we did: East End Gallery, Neues Muesum, Reichstag building, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Holocaust memorial