Category Archives: berlin

Berlin Part 2: Berlin is… Complicated

Berlin Part 1: Getting There

Berlin is… complicated. So it should come as no surprise that my feelings about Germany’s capitol city are similarly complicated.

The history of Berlin during the 20th century is a story of many things – much of it horrific. The century began with a jubilant rush to war that ended in bloodshed and devastation. The Weimer Republic then gave way to Hitler’s Third Reich and his bloody tentacles spread across Europe; the fall of Berlin saw half the city plunged into captivity under the Iron Curtain. Berlin in the 20th century is a story about the worst parts of humanity – a story that is deeply personal for me.

My maternal grandparents were one of the lucky few who managed to escape Poland in 1941 with visas for Curacao via Japan. They spent the war years in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto, while most of their relatives were slaughtered at Hitler’s hands.

It is hard to walk down the streets of Berlin and not feel angry. The city is teeming with history – for better and for worse. Everywhere you look, everywhere you walk, it smacks you across your face. It is not subtle, but intentional.

Germany does not whitewash the past. It embraces it in all of its horribleness. Some of the history is horrific; some euphoric; some sobering. Berlin is a city that murdered six million Jews; a city that brought down Communism; a city that insisted its way to freedom; a city that is a living breathing cautionary tale; a city that rose from the ashes of hatred into a modern international metropolis. We can’t change the horrible things that happened, but we can internalize them, witness them, learn from them.

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A sign marking the spot of Hitler’s bunker

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A piece of the Berlin Wall outside the Topography of Terror museum

Berlin is also ugly. And that is part of its complicated history. Bombed to a pulp during World War II, Berlin was then cruelly ripped in half – the east governed by the Soviet Union and the west by the Allied powers. Now, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is united, but the reminders of its destruction and subsequent separation are everywhere. It is a city cobbled together with the pieces of mismatched lego sets – soaring modern buildings, next to monolithic Soviet-style boxes, next to restored baroque museums, next to plaques that remind visitors of the buildings that once were.

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Example of ugly Communist-style architecture

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The former and famous Checkpoint Charlie – an entry-exit point between East and West Berlin

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A marker indicating where the Berlin Wall used to stand. You can find these all around the city

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A piece of the Berlin Wall

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Brandenburg Gate was rebuilt after World War II. It stood as a dividing line between East and West Berlin

Reminders of the city’s ugly past are ubiquitous: Stolperstein (literally stumbling stones) mark the spots where murdered Jews used to live; graffitied pieces of the Berlin Wall decorate bustling streets; memorials to countless victims dot the sprawling city; and the cheerful ampelmannchen adorn the city’s traffic lights – one of the few lighthearted remnants of Communist East Berlin.

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Stumbling stones remind us of the Jews who were wiped out

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenman

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A piece of the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz – a bustling area that used to be a wasteland and a death strip under Communist rule

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Berlin’s famous ampelmannchen – traffic men

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An external basement wall of Hitler’s Gestapo – all that remains outside the Topography of Terror museum

Throughout our four and half days in Berlin, I found myself at once furious, sad, hopeful, joyous, tickled, and provoked. Not all trips are like that, but some trips should be.

Berlin is not for everyone. It is not wrapped up in a nice package with the flourish of a pretty bow. It requires unpacking the corse layers, giving in to the anger, celebrating the heroes who fought for freedom, hoping that the Jenga pices of this historical city make us better as human beings and as a society.

 

 

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Berlin Part 1: Getting There

We flew United business class from Washington D.C. to Dublin, and then economy Aer Lingus from Dublin to Berlin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and while there are better business class options – flying United cost 57,500 miles versus the pricier 70,000 mils required for United partners.

First, the United lounge in Dulles airport. Dulles is not slated to get a new Polaris lounge until 2018 or 2019. The current version is not the best lounge, but also not the worst. Comfortable, free wifi, plentiful snacks… it’s hard to complain.

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United’s Boeing 757-200 doesn’t have the fancy new Polaris hard product that some planes do, but at least we didn’t get stuck with United’s terrible 2-4-2 business class configuration. With a 2-2  configuration, the seats were perfect for traveling couples like us, with lie-flat seats and plenty of space to get comfy.

The service was friendly and accommodating. The new Saks Fifth Avenue blankets and pillows worked great (though I’m not exactly picky), and we managed to sleep for a couple of hours.

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Once in Dublin, we settled into the Dublin Airport Executive Lounge thanks to our Priority Pass card. I was exhausted so I curled up into a ball and fell asleep. But first, I took some pictures.

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What’s Next: Central Europe

The traveling circus is off to Europe again in two weeks, making this our third trip to Europe this year. Not that I’m complaining.

This trip began like a lot of our trips: me playing around on the computer, randomly looking up flights, and saying “Hey babe, you want to go to Berlin?”

Basically, there was a ton of United award availability to central Europe and we had replenished our points accounts since Amsterdam. So Berlin, Prague, and Vienna – here we come.

How did we do it?

Flights: I splurged on business class tickets to Berlin in the hopes that we will arrive well-rested and can hit the ground running (fingers crossed). We will fly United Polaris (sadly not the fancy new United hard product) to Berlin with a stopover in Dublin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and flying United requires less miles than United partners like, say, Austrian Air. Total IAD – TXL for two people: 115,000 United miles and $16.80.

On the way back, we’ll be flying economy from Vienna to D.C. for 30,000 United miles each. Business class would have been nice, but at 70,000 miles per person it was too much. At least, the flight is non-stop. Total VIE – IAD for two people: 60,000 United miles and $178.32.

Hotel – Berlin: Picking hotel rooms is my favorite part of traveling. I know, some people like the sightseeing, the food…whatever. I love the hotel analysis. It takes all kinds, right? Since I have diamond status at Hilton, my heart always gravitates there, and I had racked up a ton of points thanks to work travel. Berlin was easy. The Hilton Berlin is smack in the middle of the city, with easy access to major sites. I booked five nights, taking advantage of Hilton’s five for the price of four deal. Total Hilton Berlin for five nights: 161,000 Hilton points.

UPDATE: I occasionally check on my already-booked hotels to see if prices have gone down. Lucky me, the Hilton Berlin was going for 139,000 points for the same five nights. I chatted Hilton and they immediately redeposited 22,000 points into my account!

Hilton Map

The Hilton Berlin is the red icon, just a few blocks south of Berlin’s main drag, Unter den Linden.

Hotel – Prague: I had a free IHG night I needed to use before it expired in November so it made the Intercontinental Prague an easy pick. It’s not the best value for my free night, but it’s better than not using it all. In the end, because prices were relatively cheap, I paid for two nights with cash, one night with points, and one night with a free night award. Total Intercontinental Prague for four nights: 40,000 IHG points and $302.56.

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The Intercontinental Prague in the city’s old town. Super excited about the location and the proximity to the Jewish sites.

Hotel Vienna: This was a tough one. Vienna hotel pries are more western Europe than eastern Europe, and we were fresh out of Hilton points. It came down to Starwood vs. Marriott. Starwood offered a slightly better location, but my gold status with Marriott gives us more bang for our buck. So I transferred a bunch of SPG points to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio and booked the Vienna Marriott, where we got five nights for the price of four. Total Vienna Marriott for five nights: 160,000 Marriott points.

Marriott Map

Most of the key attractions in Vienna are located inside or around the ring. The Marriott is directly on the ring road. Looking forward to the lounge here.

Trains: We booked two trains from Berlin to Prague and from Prague to Vienna. Thanks to Seat 61 (the best website for anyone attempting train travel), I was able to find cheap prices on the Czech Republic train site. Total Berlin – Prague for two people: $65.63. Total Prague – Vienna for two people: $53.72.

So that’s how you do two weeks in central Europe on the cheap without slumming it.

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