Day 21: Berlin

Today was all about wandering and looking. We headed off for our local train station, only to find that the trains weren’t running (we think it was something to do with a death at a station down the line). So we used Apple’s new transit maps to catch two buses to Potsdamer Platz, where we had finished our wandering the previous day.

We wandered along the remnants of the wall in the direction of Checkpoint Charlie. We stopped about half way at the site of a preserved section of wall that also contains a really detailed history of how Berlin was involved in WWII – with lots of stories about the people and places – both Jews and Nazis. The display is called the Topography of Terror. It started out as a temporary installation and is now permanent.

The Topography of Terror and the Wall.
The Topography of Terror and the Wall.

Checkpoint Charlie is one of three checkpoints installed in the American sector of West Berlin after the wall was put up in 1961 – i.e. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie – and has become something of a tourist attraction.

IMG_4358
Stand off between Russian and US tanks in 1961 at Checkpoint Charlie

The East / West divide is the weirdest thing, and something I didn’t fully understand before I got here. I had a vague idea that the Berlin Wall divided East and West Germany, but in fact, the wall contained the city of West Berlin within East Germany. The city was divided in two, and the West half was entirely contained within East Germany – you had to fly or catch a train to get from West Berlin to the rest of West Germany.

The wacky world of post WWII Germany
The wacky world of post WWII Germany

The wall was put up by the East years after the East/West split happened to prevent defections – over 3 million people left East Germany via West Berlin before the wall was erected overnight in 1961.

It seems like a wacky idea to me to divide the city in half like that – if you lived in one half and worked in the other – too bad. If your parents lived on the other side, also too bad. What if you didn’t want to be a communist? To bad – if you live on the communist side of Berlin, you’re a communist now.

And then there is the fact that West Berlin (and West Germany) was actually three sectors – French, English and American. Immediately following the war, and after they’d agreed on the split with Russia, the Allies divided the West part of the city and country up and each nation ran their own bit of it. So when you think about it, ‘Germany’ after the war was actually a coalition country made up of France, Great Britain, USA and Russia.

East and West Berlin
East and West Berlin – one city, four countries

And this split happened because the Russians managed to make it to Berlin first as the war was ending. Politics is strange, to say the least.

Anyway, back to the wandering. We meandered our way through the city, past the Berlin Cathedral, Museum Island and various other points of interest (we were using a very helpful and informative audio walking tour). We paused at the Berlin Museum to learn more about the rest of Germany’s history. The museum has an excellent display of history beginning around 200-300BC and going right through to reunification in 1990. Stephen was in shield and armour heaven. I liked the maps – Germany has changed its borders a lot in the past 1000 years!

This map particularly amuses me  – an East German map of Berlin. The bit in the middle is West Berlin.

There be dragons
There be dragons

We stopped briefly for food then rounded out our walking tour at the Alexander Platz – a lovely square that was originally in East Germany, and contains the Fernsehturm TV tower. This is the second-tallest building in Europe (some other TV tower in Britain is taller).

Second tallest in Europe. Build by the East Germans to show the West how awesome they were.  1000 steps from bottom to top - but there is an elevator you can catch up to the revolving restaurant in the bubble.
Second tallest in Europe. Build by the East Germans to show the West how awesome they are.
1000 steps from bottom to top – but there is an elevator you can catch up to the revolving restaurant in the bubble.

Then on to more serious things – a visit to the Apple store – where there were people camping out waiting for the iPhone 6S – due to be released in two days. They were actual camping, with tents. We also found a Haagen Dazs across the road. Perfection.

After a quick train ride we were back at base camp – a late night for us tonight, we didn’t get home until about 9pm. Frankfurt tomorrow!

Day 20: Geneva – Berlin

We were up and gone from our hotel at 4.30, and proceeded smoothly through check-in and security at Geneva airport – there was no passport control at either end (a bit strange!).

We arrived in Berlin at about 8.30am and stopped at the airport for coffee and regrouping. We’ve learned the hard way that a new city, new country, new language can be discombobulating, and the best thing to do it take some time to get the lay of the land and figure things out. A strong coffee later, we had the trains and the language all sorted.

We found our hotel only a 20 min walk from the central station and in a lovely area by the river. We dropped our gear and went out for an explore. The hotel is very close to most of the things we wanted to see, so we headed straight for the first of these – the Victory Column

It was built in the 1860s to celebrate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian war. The monument was enlarged moved to its current location (at the end of a long avenue, the other end of which is the Brandenburg Gate) by Hitler in 1939 – the Nazis needed the space for some other grand buildings. You can climb to the top and get a great view of the city. What struck me was that the base was covered in scars from bullets….it obviously saw some action in the war.

We started a city audio tour at this location, which took us past the Chancellory (not that interesting, built in 2002), the Riechstag (the current government offices, the Berlin Wall used to run right past the front of it), the Brandenburg Gate built in the late 18th century, badly damaged in WWII and restored in the early 21st century.

All the while we were wandering back and forth between the old East and West Germany. There is so much history in this place! Our walking tour took us next to the Holocaust memorial – called the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – and information centre. The memorial is a group of 2711 large stones that kind of look like big gravestones, but they are all different heights. I think it’s supposed to express the simultaneous order and chaos of the time.

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The information centre was extremely emotional and powerful. It focussed on the people – lots of photos and as much as possible, details of who was in them, what was happening, and the stories of the people behind the numbers. And the numbers are just staggering. I think I’ve become used to the idea of 6 million Jews dying in the war, but the centre really personalised this for me. I noted to, that the language used was very direct – the words murder and genocide were used, making the point again and again that the Jewish people didn’t just die, they were murdered.

We emerged from the centre reeling a bit, and so wandered along to the Potsdamer Platz – important for the part it played during and after the cold war. The original square (platz) was the old heart of the city, and the central train station. It was destroyed in WWII (along with most of the rest of Berlin), and then had the Berlin Wall running right through the middle of it, so all the buildings in the Platz are now shiny new. In 1989, this was one of the first places that the Berlin Wall was breached, and was the location of a concert that was held here celebrating its removal (I remember this concert!). It was so cool to see such a long history in one place, but a history that included important events that I remember!

We stopped in at the Haagen Dazs store for a treat before jumping on a train back to the hotel about 6pm. It had been a long day and we were done for now! We will pick up again in the morning at Potsdamer Platz and continue our tour of the city.

Day 19: Geneva II

We were on a mission today – to see a Swiss castle! We took an early train from Geneva to Montreux and then a bus to Chillon to see the 12th century castle there. The castle is built on a solid rock island just beside the mainland, and was the main defence of the area against those living on the other side of the lake.

Chateau Chillon is incredibly well preserved – in some rooms the wall decorations are still visible, and in the crypt there are still some of the original wooden battens in the vaulted ceiling from when they were installing the vaulted stonework. Amazing.
We spent a good couple of hours poking around in the castle, with a very informative audioguide to keep us company.

It was a stunner day too.

From here, we back-tracked to Lausanne and then went on to Bern. What a weird and wonderful experience that was. I went to Switzerland expecting that we’d be speaking German, but in Geneva the primary language is French (it’s practically in France), but somewhere along the way – about when you leave the lake area, the language changes to German. It’s very strange and disconcerting! Also, I am somewhat familiar with German, but I found Swiss German all but incomprehensible. It turns out that Swiss German is quite different to German German. So interesting!

Anyway, Bern was lovely. Little and cute and very walkable. We had a wander around, visited the Munster and found some interesting spots of history here and there – like Einstein Haus – where Einstein lived when he was writing about the theory of relativity while working at the local patent office. I had a childhood fascination with Einstein, so this was pretty cool to see.

Einstein Haus
Einstein Haus

We hopped on a train back to Geneva about 5pm – it’s a 2-hour journey, stopped in at the train station for dinner supplies and then went back to the hotel for the night. Big day tomorrow – we have to be up at 4am to catch our flight to Berlin.

Day 18: Geneva I

It turns out that Switzerland is quite an expensive country – I guess they have high wages, so the cost of everything is higher here – food is OMG expensive! So we decided to make the most of our $40 hotel breakfasts, and ate as much as we could before setting off for the day.

First stop, the Relay shop for a power adapter, and then Starbucks where they were happy for us to plug in for a while…

Our buddy the power board
Our buddy the power board
Our adapter has an adapter (Swiss to European, European to NZ)
Our adapter has an adapter (Swiss to European, European to NZ)

Today we decided to take a walking tour of the old city of Geneva – you can download an app that has city walking tours and this one was really good. We took in the sights of the old city, including a very interesting history relating to the reformation.

As a sociologist, the Protestant Reformation is something I studied and then taught at university, so it was very cool to be in the city where it was so important. There is a huge monument in the city garden that commemorates the 400th anniversary of the movement in Geneva.

Calvin, Farel, Beze and Knox (our Knox Church is named for him)
Calvin, Farel, Beze and Knox (our Knox Church is named for him)

The city tour had us meander through the old city, giving us great information about the buildings along the way. We took in the second longest seat in the world (the first longest is in Britain).

It's a pretty long seat
It’s a pretty long seat

We stopped the tour when we got to St Peter’s Cathedral. This church was originally Catholic (built from 1160 to 1252), and was made into a protestant church during the reformation – John Calvin preached here! We were planning on having a look through the museum and archaeological site (underneath the church) but decided to have a wander down to the lake and find a bus home instead. After a while, museums can be somewhat samey, even when they are interesting.

That's a bloody big front door! At St Peter's Cathedral
That’s a bloody big front door!
At St Peter’s Cathedral

I hadn’t really noticed before, but all of the shops were closed in the main shopping area by the lake – it’s the law that they be closed on Sunday. Only small cafes and main tourist venues are allowed to be open. Good job too, at least everyone gets a day off! So we jumped on a bus with our free ticket (complimentary from the hotel, gives us free travel on buses, trains, trams and boats) and went back to the hotel to recharge.

Our recharge eventually turned into staying in for the evening. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant, and then passed a very pleasant (slightly tense) hour-and-a-half at the bar watching the ABs beat the Pumas with some Australians and French. I think the French guys were cheering for the Pumas, but not very loudly!

Day 17: Milan – Geneva

We weren’t catching the train until 12.25pm today, so we luxuriated in our hotel room until about 11.30am, then went across to the train station for a snack before we boarded the train.

Has pack, will travel.
Has pack, will travel.

The first class carriage was rather nice on this Swiss train (the Italian first class carriage was a bit average). We journeyed in style and comfort from Milan to Geneva. The border crossing was very uneventful – not even a passport check!

It was quite nice having some time just to stare out the window at the countryside, and interesting to see it change from flat farmland to hilly then mountainous.

Nothing to do except admire the scenery
Nothing to do except admire the scenery

We arrived in Geneva about 4pm, and didn’t get to the hotel from the train station until about 6pm – it should have been a 15 minute journey. It was an adventure! First of all, it started POURING with rain just as we pulled into the Geneva station. Rather than taking the sensible option of going straight to the hotel, we opted to stick to Plan A: Do Laundry, and got very wet in the process. After getting to the laundromat and realising that we didn’t have any local currency, we aborted Plan A, and went with Plan B: WTF Are We Doing.

Somehow it escaped our attention that the Swiss have not adopted the Euro, so we had to get some Swiss Francs. We could not find an ATM anywhere in the train station (there are dozens of them, we just couldn’t find one!) so we abandoned Plan B and went with Plan C: Eat Pasta Until We Feel Better. That worked a treat, and so slightly less wet and a lot poorer ($80 for two plates of pasta, OMG!) we found an ATM, got some money, purchased a train ticket for the Airport (where our hotel is) and found our way to our home for the next three nights.

The hotel is lovely – super comfy room, fast internet, a great restaurant, and it’s a quick walk to the airport where the train takes us to town.

We still needed to do laundry, so after a brief regroup, we headed back into town to the laundromat. While sitting waiting for our washing to dry, it dawned on me that the girls sitting outside the laundromat were not in fact waiting for their washing to finish. There were about 10 working girls lined up on the street outside the laundromat, and we watched them come and go from the building beside us. Awesome, we found a laundromat in the red light district.

How to spend a glamorous Saturday night in the red light district
How to spend a glamorous Saturday night in the red light district

We eventually made it back to the hotel about 10pm, only to discover that the Swiss have different power plugs from the rest of Western Europe! First stop tomorrow will be the Relay store at the airport to buy a new adapter…

Day 16: Milan

We had a lazy morning this morning, and headed off to the Duomo at about 9am. It was getting warm even then, and eventually got to 28C! Such a lovely day for sightseeing.

The Milan Duomo is magnificent. It is massive, with something to look at everywhere you look. It’s bristling with decorations and statues and finery.

The Milano Duomo
The Milano Duomo

It took us about three hours to see everything, including climbing the stairs to the tippy top for a grand view of the city.

After this we stopped for lunch in the Piazza del Duomo, and then did a quick tour of the Duomo Museum. They have a LOT of expensive looking religious art in there. It’s a bit overwhelming…

For something different, we decided to spend the afternoon at the National Science Museum. It has some very cool displays – food science, space, telecommunications, computing, transport (including an actual submarine!), and a fabulous collection of Da Vinci models, constructed based on his drawings. Very cool.

Highlights from the Science Museum
Highlights from the Science Museum

It was so hot and we were so tired, we stopped at the supermarket on the way back to the hotel for snacks, and had a snacky dinner in our hotel room and an early night.

Fancy Italian snacks!
Fancy Italian snacks!

Day 15: Avignon – Milan

Avignon-Milan

We were catching the train at midday today, so that meant a lazy morning. We mooched and had breakfast, and were packed and gone by 11.30am. Most of the hotels have a 12pm check-out time, super-helpful! It was bucketing down most of the morning, and the clouds parted just as we were checking out – phew! We knew we’d be okay though, Stephen had already tested his rain poncho over his pack. Sexy as.

The journey today involved a local train from Avignon city station to Avignon TGV (fast train), then a change of carriage at Marseilles (whoops, that was our fault), this one took us through to Nice. Then a quick change at Nice for the Nice-Ventimiglia leg on a local train, then a TGV fast train from Ventimiglia to Milan. OMGosh! It was a bit stressful – with turnaround times of about 10 minutes each change, we needed to find the new platform and get on the train quickly. We didn’t really think about food until we were on the last train for the day – at around 4pm. The French trains have a buffet car, so we assumed the Italian ones did too. Nope. I ate all my snacks and was still feeling a bit hungry when we arrived in Milan at 9pm. Going 12 hours without proper food must be some kind of a record for me! By 10pm, once we’d purchased our Milan-Geneva train ticket and checked into our hotel, we were feeling rather hungry. The easiest option was McDonalds in the train station. Yuck, but it will tide me over until breakfast.

Day 14: Avignon

We had a late start this morning – didn’t get up for breakfast until 9am. After availing ourselves of the full buffet breakfast we set off for the Palais des Papes. This is the reason we came to Avignon, and we were not disappointed. It is HUGE. It housed nine popes in the 14th and 15th century, starting when Benedict XII, the first French pope, was elected. During its construction, it was the biggest building site in the Western world. The main building took 20 years – so fast for the size of it! It took us three hours to take in all of the Palais. So much to see! We even had a brief stop at a café right at the top of the tower at the top.

The Palais de Papas (Palace of the Popes) is magnificent
The Palais des Papas (Palace of the Popes) is magnificent

We followed this up with another visit to the Pont Saint-Bénézet  and then the Musee du Petite Palais – which houses a massive collection of religious artworks. Extremely impressive.

An 800-year-old bridge!
An 800-year-old bridge!

After about five solid hours of touristing, we were happy to sit down for a while. The high for the day was 28C, so just a bit warm. We selected one of the many cafes in the main street and had a delicious meal (as usual!). We went back to the hotel for some R&R after this. About 8pm we emerged again, in search of ice cream. It was nice to be out for a stroll at dusk, the temperature was a bit more manageable. We didn’t linger though, as we were sharing the streets with a lot of homeless people at this point.

We seem to have settled into an eating routine that suits us. We eat a big breakfast (I have cereal, fruit, yogurt and toast, Stephen has some variety of bacon, eggs, sausages and pastries). That sees us through until about midday when we have coffee and I have snacks. Then we are ready for lunch/dinner around 3pm, and that’s our main meal. Then sometimes there are more snacks later if needed. I try and have a ready supply of tasty treats and fruit that I carry around in a big ziplock bag.

Snacks yo!
Snacks yo!

Day 13: Paris – Avignon

Paris-AvignonWe had to be on the train at 7.30am, so we made sure we were there nice and early to validate our Eurail pass and ended up with plenty of time for breakfast and finding the right train. We had decided to get the Metro to the train station, challenging but much more fun than a boring taxi!

The trip from Paris to Avignon was quick, with not much to see – mostly just tunnels and embankments, with some countryside.

We arrived in Avginon around 11am, so dropped our bags at the hotel and went to explore. It was warm and sunny – a nice change from the Paris rain. We wandered through the city centre, stopped for something to eat, and then found our way to the Pont Saint-Bénézet. We had a lovely time just laying on the banks of the river watching the world go by (and Stephen had a nap). To wake us back up, we walked the rest of the way around the city wall back to the hotel. We found a supermarket on the way, so got dinner supplies.

Once we hit the hotel, we were in for the night. We are staying at the Novotel – it’s comfy, and very close to the city and the train station. Weirdly, it has exactly the same décor as the Novotel we stayed at in Stevenage. Nice décor though, so I’m not complaining!

Day 12: Paris III

We didn’t have to be at the Arc de Triomphe until 10am today, so we had a leisurely breakfast and hit the Metro about 9am. We encountered commuter traffic, so a very busy train and it wasn’t until we got off that Stephen noticed his wallet was missing out of his front jeans pocket. We immediately called the bank and cancelled the cards. Not much else to do except be a bit annoyed. They got no money, and the most inconvenient aspect will be having to replace the driver license.

We’ve tried to sort out our money in a way that makes it hard to get ripped off – all of our money is stored safely away in the bank where it can’t be accessed by card (not without a PIN) until we need it, then we transfer it to our two credit cards. Then we use the OneSmart card to draw out cash each day, so we never have more than 50-100 Euro cash each. I also keep my cards in different places in my bag – one in a zip pocket, one in my wallet and one in my phone cover. That way if any of the cards are stolen, there isn’t much money on them to use, and we can still access our money.

We managed to get to the top of the Arc de Triomphe in between rain showers for a great view of the city.

View of the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe
View of the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe

We had a wander along the Champs-Eyleeses and decided to go to the Sacre Coeur since the weather was improving. It’s a lovely Catholic basilica (no photography allowed inside!).

The beautiful Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) basilica
The beautiful Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) basilica

We were sitting at the Metro waiting for a train to Bastille when Todd messaged that they were finished at the Louvre and ready for lunch, so we went to meet them. The sun was shining and we sat in the Louvre park and had a baguette. Delightful! The rain clouds were looming so we went back indoors and to the Metro. Todd and Kylie went off to Notre Dame and we went on to Bastille (nothing much to see there!).