What We Did On Our 2018 Summer Vacation, Day 5 (Fear and Loathing in Berlin)

By | December 23, 2018

Sunday, August 19 was the first full day of our nine-day Baltic cruise, and when I say “fulI” mean full.

It was one hell of a long day. We docked in Warnemunde (the port of the city of Rostock), on the coast, and took a train three hours south to Berlin. We were driven all over the city in a motorcoach (with frequent stops to get out and poke listlessly at things) and then…

Well, that’s the fun part of the story.

Our second to last stop on the route was the Kurfürstendamm, the area of former West Berlin that has all the shops and that served (kind of) as “downtown” when West and East Berlin were still separated. Only it was Sunday. In Germany, everything closes on a Sunday. Why’d they schedule a stop in Berlin on a day you couldn’t do any shopping? Well, the Norwegian Cruise Lines Baltic Nine-Day Cruise lasts, um, nine days … and the cruises are scheduled back to back to back, so I guess it was inevitable that one of the cruises would have its Berlin stop on a Sunday. When the stores are all closed. But… that didn’t stop our tour guide (a otherwise lovely woman) from telling us we had an hour and a half to “explore”.

But then we went off to the train, right?

No. Then we went to a park that wasn’t on our itinerary, a park dedicated to the history of the Berlin wall, and hung out there for a bit. Then we got back on the motorcoach and headed off to the train. Or did we? No, we drove in big circles through Berlin neighborhoods and eventually wound back up at that same park. Our guide says “Isn’t it wonderful? We get to spend more time here!”

At that point I stuck up a hand and said “Um, is there a problem with the train or something?”

And she flushed and said “well, yes.” She had been trying her damndest to keep us happy since she (like a lot of tour guides) got a lot of her income from tips (she didn’t say that directly, but we inferred it), but she could only do so much. It turns out that our train from Berlin back to Rostock was stuck behind another train that had a mechanical problem, and who knew when our train would finally get to Berlin?

We finally made it back to the central train station at 6:30 pm or so, naively thinking now we’re gonna get on the train and decompress only to find out the train was still an hour out. We didn’t actually get to board our train until something like 7:30 pm and we weren’t back in Rostock, at the ship, until close to 11 pm. Thank God we’d booked our excursion via the cruise line; they’re contractually committed to holding the ship until all their excursions are back. (Which turned out to be, oh, most of the ship. A couple thousand of us, from the looks of things, got off that train.)

We were all absolutely exhausted. One wouldn’t think that riding around all day on a motorcoach would wear you out, but it’d been a hot sunny day and a long one as well. (The ship kept the buffet-style restaurant up on Deck 14 open well past midnight to take care of all the late-arriving passengers, by the way.)

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So, okay, did we enjoy our time in Berlin? Did we see anything interesting? Yes. For the most part we did.

Dozens of tour groups exited the ship, all wearing little stickers with numbers identifying which tour group you were with. We all took the same train south. One group got off at a concentration camp; the rest of us continued on to Berlin. Our group was #11… the exclusive Best of Berlin tour group. We signed up for the exclusive Best Of… package of shore excursions which cost more, but which came with a guarantee that our group would not exceed 15 people. That sounded good and all: fewer people competing for the guide’s attention, fewer people to wait for at the end of each stop. What we hadn’t counted on was the sheer press of other tourists from our ship and from other companies, meaning that every stop, even the “quick” ones, turned into an elaborate production complete with shoving and cursing in multiple languages. (Yes, we know that we were tourists too. We tried to be nice.)

It was a hot, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky — and that made it a bit more tiring than it would’ve been, but we certainly saw lots of interesting things. The glare of the sun made it hard to take photos; the sun always seemed to be directly behind whatever I pointed my camera at.

We started at the Berlin Wall — a remaining section (see map) of it, that is, on the Mühlenstraße. Zillions of tourists and dozens of buses were all there to see the legendary barrier between the two Berlins. The Berliners have turned a large remaining swath of the wall into a public art exhibition called the East Side Gallery. You could also go around behind the Wall to a large grassy area between the Wall and the river Spree… which took on a bit of a different light when our guide said “Yes, during the Cold War this was all a minefield. To escape, you’d have to go over the Wall” (she pointed east) “then make your way through the minefield with the guards shooting at you” (she pointed where we were standing) “and then cross the Spree” (she pointed at the river). At that point in the border, the Spree was the actual boundary between the Soviet and Allied sectors of Berlin; the death belt between the river and the Wall were all on East German territory.

We moved on from the Wall to Checkpoint Charlie. You’ve never seen such a testament to who won the Cold War and who lost. Checkpoint Charlie was the single “legal” crossing point between the Allied and Soviet sectors after the construction of the Wall. After the Cold War ended and the Wall (mostly) came down, capitalist market forces swarmed in, erecting t-shirt shops and fast food restaurants as far as the eye could see. Actors set up camp at the (reconstructed, 1961-style) checkpoint booth with props and Cold War military costumes and charged tourists for photo ops. Visiting the Checkpoint (and, frankly, a lot of other areas in Berlin) was like visiting Times Square in New York City on a busy summer Friday afternoon. To us, it was an important historical site; to the Berliners, it was a valuable commercial opportunity they weren’t going to idly ignore.

Then we had lunch at a nice little sit-down restaurant called the Hopfingerbräu where we got a hot meal, beer (if we wanted it) and a chance to chat with our fellow passengers. We wound up having lunch most days with the exact same people — American tourists from the West Coast, for the most part — thanks to the whole small-group Exclusive Best Of… thing. It was all arranged in advance by the tour company; the restaurants we went to for lunch each day obviously had a standing contract to provide X number of tables and meals per day for tourists.

Then… what’d we do next? Let’s see: we went to Bebelplatz and saw the monument to the 1933 Berlin book burning. The monument was in the form of a library with empty shelves, set below the plaza and visible through a window set into the cobbles. We saw the Brandenburg Gate (complete with mobs of mindless tourists; we of course paid attention to where we were going and never got in anyone’s way) and some other random impressive-looking buildings that our tour guide went on at length about without our really processing it all. We moved on to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has to be seen to be believed. It’s an intentionally stark multi-acre complex of 2,711 concrete slabs of varying heights. The memorial has received praise and criticism for its non-traditional attempt at commemorating something so utterly evil that words and traditional forms can hardly do justice. We had heard about tourists by the thousands climbing the slabs to take selfies, but thank heavens, nothing that incredibly tasteless was happening while we were there. We would have liked to spend longer there and view the underground interpretation center, but we were in the “we have to be back on the bus in 20 minutes” mode by that point. We stopped at the Reichstag, the pre-World War II home of the German parliament which was burned by the Nazis in 1933 (as a pretext for suspending the German constitution) and which was severely damaged during the war and left un-used until reunification. Beautiful building, extensively renovated and with a crystal dome designed by famous architect Sir Norman Foster after reunification… but we didn’t get to go in. No time. Had to keep moving.

We drove by the Berlin Victory Column (but didn’t get to stop), spent a few minutes at the Charlottenburg Palace (long enough to use the bathroom and buy a couple of sodas in the palace gift shop), and then headed to the Kurfurstendamm for our “final stop” and “shopping expedition”. Only nothing was open except for a few restaurants and a shop selling Christmas decorations. We were both hot and cranky and tired by this point and would have dearly loved to have been able to just drive back to the ship and take a swim and so on. Too bad about the whole “being three hours from the ship via train” and the “train can’t even get here because there’s another train broken down in its path” thing.

So, yes, we saw a lot of interesting stuff and got a limited sense of what Berlin is like as a city, but obviously, not a very complete one. We’ll have to come back some day and tour around under our own power, not limited by itineraries and tour guides and the lovely folks at the Deutsche Bahn (the German rail system, which, unfortunately, isn’t as efficient as one would hope).

Back at the ship at last after the lengthy delays, we were both very glad that the next day, Monday, was scheduled as a “sea day” where we’d be transiting the waters between Rostock and the Gulf of Finland. Our next stop would be Tuesday, in Tallinn, Estonia.

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