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.


A sign marking the spot of Hitler’s bunker


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.


Example of ugly Communist-style architecture


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


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


A piece of the Berlin Wall


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.


Stumbling stones remind us of the Jews who were wiped out


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenman


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


Berlin’s famous ampelmannchen – traffic men


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.


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.


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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Holland Part 7: Hotel Reviews in Amsterdam

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam
Holland Part 3: Snapshots from The Hague
Holland Part 4: Meet Mondrian
Holland Part 5: Welcome to Leiden
Holland Part 6: Thanksgiving in Leiden

Since this was a last minute trip, I had to cobble together points for the Amsterdam portion of our stay. It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. The first couple of nights, we stayed at the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel (Marriott) for 40,000 points a night. A stone’s throw from the central train station, I loved the location. The rooms were not huge, but not closets either. As a Marriott gold, I often find the “upgrades” are not really upgrades. But gold gave us free breakfast, which more than makes up for the standard room.

2017-05-30 18.05.362017-05-30 18.05.372017-05-30 18.05.392017-05-30 17.48.002017-05-30 17.48.042017-05-30 17.36.522017-05-30 17.36.58Our last night in Amsterdam, we tried out the new Hyatt Regency on the other side of town. Only a couple of weeks old, I thought the hotel was lovely, but I definitely preferred the location of the Marriott. The hotel is situated right on the Singelgracht canal, and our room had a view of the water. Two other positives about the Hyatt: 1) It’s a block away from the Weesperplain subway stop; 2) As a category 4 hotel, it qualifies for the anniversary free night for holders of the Hyatt credit card – a rare thing for western Europe!

2017-06-03 12.50.212017-06-03 12.50.442017-06-03 12.51.162017-06-03 12.51.522017-06-03 12.59.412017-06-03 13.38.452017-06-03 12.58.562017-06-03 12.58.582017-06-03 12.59.03The view from our room:

2017-06-03 12.59.18

Both are great hotels, but my Marriott status and my location preference made the Renaissance the clear winner. See the below map with the Marriott in Red and the Hyatt in purple. The blue pins represent classic Amsterdam sights.

Hotel map.jpeg

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Holland Part 6: Thanksgiving in Leiden

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam
Holland Part 3: Snapshots from The Hague
Holland Part 4: Meet Mondrian
Holland Part 5: Welcome to Leiden

It was June when we visited Leiden, but this post is particularly timely as we approach Thanksgiving.

What does the small city of Leiden, Holland have to do with American Thanksgiving? Everything apparently.

Many early Americans, including the Pilgrims, lived in the Netherlands before they journeyed to America. With its religious tolerance and proximity to England, Holland was a natural place for the religious dissenters to settle.

According to The Smithsonian, a group of Pilgrims settled in Leiden in 1609 and lived there until 1620 when they boarded a ship called the Mayflower. Some suggest that the holiday of Thanksgiving is based on a customary Dutch feast in October commemorating the lifting of the Spanish siege of Leiden in 1574.

We were able to see a piece of that history at Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church), a looming gothic building where John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ pastor, is buried.


We also stopped at the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, a tiny and quirky museum dedicated to the Pilgrims’ life in Leiden, run by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs. Bangs is an American who has lived in Holland for over 30 years.

The two-room museum sits in a typical Dutch home from the Pilgrim time period (although not one that actually belonged to one of the Pilgrims) and contains a hodgepodge of artifacts, relics, and books related to the Founding Fathers.

IMG_0879IMG_0442Bangs wrote his own tome dedicated to the Pilgrims’ life in the Netherlands.

IMG_0449This is an example of the kind of books the Pilgrims would read about the New World as they investigated options for a new home.

IMG_0452The first room is made up like a 17th century Dutch home.

IMG_0497Here is Bangs showing M a map of the New World.

IMG_0530IMG_0621IMG_0769The second room next door contains an assortment of antiques like these plates and jugs.


Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading! As I write this post – now nearly six months old – M and I are back in Europe and enjoying Berlin. Updates to come!


Holland Part 5: Welcome to Leiden

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam
Holland Part 3: Snapshots from The Hague
Holland Part 4: Meet Mondrian

After The Hague, the Holland tourism office took us to Leiden, the birthplace of the De Stijl movement where Theo van Doesburg founded the De Stijl magazine in 1917. Leiden was, and still is, a university town. Only a half an hour south of Amsterdam, it has its own charming canals and waterways.

I spent some time walking around on my own and some time joining M on the official itinerary. I found Leiden to be a very enjoyable city.

***IMG_0981**IMG_0198**IMG_0926*IMG_0918*IMG_1009****IMG_0955****IMG_0966This modern building is influenced by the De Stijl movement.

*IMG_1000Just like The Hague, Leiden got in on the De Stijl fun. A young girl plays a piano dressed up like a Mondrian painting.

***IMG_1026The Holland tourism office took us to a an outdoor art exhibit, all in the De Stijl style, of course.

**IMG_0236*IMG_0218*IMG_0231Around the corner, M and I found the school Rembrandt van Rijn attended as a young boy. Rembrandt is arguably Holland’s most famous artist (and one of M’s favorites).

**IMG_0283**IMG_0288**IMG_0265I love these quaint cobblestone streets.

**IMG_0292**IMG_0290**IMG_0296Afterwards, the tourism office took us on an amazing boat ride through Leiden’s canal system, stopping along the way to watch De Stijl-inspired performances. This included a short skit in Dutch that I did not understand… see on of the actors below.

*IMG_1038We also watched a digital, musical light show on the face of building.

*IMG_1056And the finale was a love story told through acrobatics (again in Dutch).

**IMG_1109On our walk back to our hotel, I snapped a pretty picture of the lights reflecting in the canals.





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Holland Part 4: Meet Mondrian

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam
Holland Part 3: Snapshots from The Hague

While I’m not the art buff or enthusiast that M is, I did enjoy the opportunity to see some unique exhibits. This includes the largest collection of Mondrian paintings in the world at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

*IMG_0066*IMG_0071I was familiar with Mondrian’s famous red, yellow, and blue paintings thanks to a college art class and rudimentary knowledge of popular culture, but like most people in the world, I had no idea that Mondrian started out as a traditional and prolific Dutch painter.

IMG_0097IMG_0098IMG_0103IMG_0106As Mondrian’s painting career progressed, his paintings took a turn for starker, bolder imagery.

IMG_0114IMG_0117And then a hint of what was to come.

IMG_0118Finally, the paintings that made Mondrian famous.

IMG_0119IMG_0122IMG_0125IMG_0126IMG_0128This is Mondrian’s final masterpiece, Victory Boogie Woogie, inspired by the musicality of jazz music. When Mondrian died in 1944 in New York City, this still unfinished piece was his final legacy.

IMG_0130IMG_0133.JPGA model of Mondrian’s New York City apartment when he died.

IMG_0136If you didn’t know about Mondrian before, start paying attention. You’ll start to see the famous composition in TV shows, movies, and basically everywhere. We were given gifts of Mondrian socks by the Holland tourism office (which M wears all the time!), and you can even purchase a Mondrian inspired dress (but not cheaply!)



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Holland Part 3: Snapshots From The Hague

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam

If Amsterdam is the Netherland’s New York City, The Hague is its Washington D.C. The Hague is a short one-hour train ride south of Amsterdam. While M went off to look at art, I strolled The Hague and played photographer.

Let me take a moment to remind you that the whole reason we were on this trip was because M was invited to visit Holland’s exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the De Stijl movement – and one of its founders, Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. If you don’t know the iconic red, blue, and yellow paintings Mondrian is famous for, you will shortly when you see how The Hangue decorated various buildings and landmarks in the spirit of Mondrian’s stark composition.

These buildings included our hotel, as well as the construction paneling surrounding the train station.

**IMG_0052As you walk through The Hague’s center, you will pass many government buildings, including the Department of Justice…

*IMG_0037…and a protest in front of the Department of Justice.

*IMG_9708**IMG_0038Finally, I hit the beautiful Binnenhoff, a complex of buildings that houses the States General of the Netherlands, the Ministry of General Affairs, and the office of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. The castle-like buildings were built in the 13th century and became the center of Dutch political life in 1584. It is the equivalent of Washington’s Capitol campus.

***IMG_9798***IMG_9835Even the Binnenhoff got in on the Mondrian fun with red, yellow, and blue squares in the Hofvijver lake. Apparently, the pigeons loved Mondrian’s squares so much, the squares quickly turned white from all their pooping. A weekly cleaning of the squares was quickly arranged.

***IMG_9882**IMG_9871I was surprised to discover that the banks of the Hofvijver are covered in sea shells.

IMG_9887I turned into town and explored the narrow streets and cute shops. I even bought myself a pair of colorful socks.

**IMG_9910The Hague’s version of Chinatown.

*IMG_9934An indoor arcade and shopping mall.

***IMG_0021Another fine example of The Hague getting into the spirit of the De Stijl movement.

*IMG_9955IMG_0001M joined me and we did a quick stop at the Church grounds where the famous Jewish (and excommunicated) philosopher Benedict Spinoza is buried.


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Holland Part 2: Jewish History In Amsterdam

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam

Apologies in advance for the marathon post, but it seems fitting to group the Jewish sites together. Together, they tell a story of Jewish prosperity and extermination in Holland. It is not a pretty story, but a story that must be told.

M an I visited a number of important Jewish sites throughout our time in Amsterdam. While some are beautiful, most are sobering, a reminder that Amsterdam’s once prosperous Jewish community came to an abrupt halt on May 10, 1940 when Nazi Germany descended on its neighbors to the west.

We started with a  self-tour of the Portuguese Synagogue (Esnoga) in Amsterdam’s old Jewish center, a stunning historical building that should be on your to-do list.

While many European countries persecuted and evicted the Jews throughout the Middle Ages, Holland’s relative tolerance made it a safe harbor for many Jews, especially Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing devastating pogroms and the infamous Inquisitions.

In 1665, the Jews of Amsterdam built a new synagogue that was, at the time, the largest in the world. Finished in 1675, the synagogue still looks the same as it did more than 300 years ago.

**IMG_9356The building itself is huge, so huge I had trouble capturing its size on my camera.

*IMG_9347The main sanctuary is beautiful, just beautiful.

***IMG_9396***IMG_9409***IMG_9422***IMG_9424***IMG_9435We made our way upstairs to the women’s section (men and women sit separately in Orthodox synagogues.)

***IMG_9486***IMG_9487***IMG_9491***IMG_9512**IMG_9508**IMG_9514***IMG_9522We made our way back outside to tour the grounds and the library of historical treasures. The below picture is a sukkah – the hut-like structure Jews eat in on the holiday of Sukkot.

**IMG_9528A small sampling of the synagogue’s many silver and gold treasures.

**IMG_9578*IMG_9470Here we are touring the synagogue’s candle room. If you are fortunate to attend services in the main sanctuary, you can see all the candelabras lit up. M and I attended night services, but it was held in the much smaller and newer winter sanctuary (the 300-plus year old sanctuary does not have heat).

*IMG_9540Below is an outdoor washing station for the kohanim (priests) to wash their hands during services.

*IMG_9543Below is the mourning room for funeral services.

*IMG_9544*IMG_9545Our last stop was the treasure chambers, where we saw many stunning historical relics, including Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other ritual items.

*IMG_9561*IMG_9569*IMG_9570*IMG_9571After our visit to the Portuguese Synagogue, we made a quick stop at the Jewish Museum across the street, which is constructed out of four old Ashkenazi synagogues. We only had an hour, so we did a quick tear through the exhibits, including a history of the Jews in Amsterdam and an array of Jewish relics.

*IMG_9597The history of Holland’s Jewish community has a tragic end, like so many other Jewish communities throughout Europe. The exhibit walks you through the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland, and the subsequent annihilation of the Jews.

In the early 1900s, Amsterdam’s Jewish community totaled approximately 60,000. By the start of World War II, it had more than doubled to 140,000 Jews. Six years later, in 1945, only 30,000 traumatized Jews remained.

*IMG_9599IMG_9602We caught a glimpse of the main sanctuary of one of the four original synagogues.

*IMG_9608In the basement of the museum, there  are a handful of intersting artifacts and paintings.

*IMG_9638*IMG_9641*IMG_9642*IMG_9650*IMG_9657*IMG_9661*IMG_9663*IMG_9669Later in the week, we stopped at Hollandsche Schouwburg (the Holland Theatre), the National Holocaust Museum, and the Anne Frank House, possibly the most popular tourist spot in all of Holland.

The Hollandsche Shouwbrug was a Dutch theater that was turned into a Jewish theater after the Nazi occupation in 1941, and then served as a deportation center. Today, it is a small museum and memorial, worth a bit of time if you are interested in Jewish history.

According to the museum:

Built as a theatre in 1892, the Hollandsche Schouwburg became the main playhouses in the district… In September 1941, as one of the many anti-Jewish measures introduced by the occupying forces, its name was changed to ‘Joodsche Schouwburg’ (Jewish theatre). From then on, only Jewish musicians and other performing artists were permitted to perform here – to an exclusively Jewish audience… On 20 July 1942, the occupying forces seized the Hollandsche Shouwburg as an assembly point for deportations. In total, over 46,000 Jews were imprisoned within the theatre’s walls prior to deportation to the transit camps Westerbork or Vught. From there, they were deported to an almost certain death in the concentration camps and extermination camps in Germany or Occupied Poland.


The names of all the Dutch Jews who were murdered by the Nazis


An outdoor memorial dedicated to Holland’s Jewish community


A memorial wall


A tulip memorial with hand written notes


A note in Hebrew


The front page of the newspaper the day Germany invaded Holland


A photo of Dutch Jewish children with their obligatory stars


A photo of Dutch Jews being rounded up

The National Holocaust Museum is across the street, and still undergoing finishing touches when we visited. The buildings used to house a nursery and a Christian Culture School. During World War II, some of the adults snuck Jewish children out of the nursery when the tram rolled by obscuring the Nazis’ view across the street. According to a plaque at the museum:

Across the street from the Kweekschool is the Hollandsche Schouwburg, where in 1942 and 1943 more than 46,000 Jews were held captive while awaiting deportation. Jewish children were confined to the Creche next door to the Kweekschool, from which they were sent on to Westerbork transit camp and later deported. In January 1943, Johan van Hulst consented to an illegal plan to bring children from the overcrowded Creche into the Kweekschool daily for an afternoon nap. Gradually, the Jewish employees of the Creche and Director Van Hulst established a bond of trust, and they were able, starting in April 1943, to arrange for many Jewish children to escape through the Kweekschool to safety. Some 600 children from the Creche were saved.


View of the museum with the tram running by

IMG_1178The first floor had an array of photos and items from children who perished in the Holocaust.


Edith Rolef (b. 1926) and her twin siblings Ilse  and Gerd Rolef (b. 1929). On May 28, 1943, Gerd was murdered in Sobibor. On February 11, 1943, Edith and Ilse died in Auschwitz.


Drawings the children sent to their parents in Germany


The museum’s backyard serves as a kind of memorial

IMG_1210The downstairs space is reserved for special exhibits. During our visit, we were lucky to catch a exhibit celebrating the recently discovered photographs of the husband and wife team, Annemie Wolff-Koller (1906-1994) and Helmuth Wolff (1895-1940).

Helmuth was Jewish, while Annemie was not. The couple fled Munich for the Netherlands in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power. They built a successful photography business until the fateful day on May 10, 1940 when the Germans invaded Holland. Five days later, the couple attempted suicide, assuming the end was near. Helmuth died, but Annemie survived, and continued with her photography throughout her life. During the war, she was active in the Resistance, and took many portraits, many of Jews. Some of these portraits were used for forged ID papers or applications for certificates of non-Jewish descent. Annemie printed the latter photographs with blonder coloring to help substantiate her clients’ case.

These photos were thought to be lost for decades. It turns out, all of Annemie’s negatives were saved and recently found. For the first time, they are available for public viewing.



A portrait of the couple



The couple at a photoshoot on the beach


Examples of the Annemie’s many portraits



From the description: Ruth’s mother Marta asked Calmeyer’s bureau to certify her daughter as ‘half Jewish.’ She claimed that Ruth had been born from her relationship with an ‘Aryan’ Dutchman who often traveled to Germany, and who submitted a statement to the same effect. It was a lie, but when Ruth had her measurements taken by the German anthropologist Weinert in the Hague, it had been concluded that she had ‘Aryan’ features. Ruth survived. 



A view of the theater from outside the museum

We also toured the famous Anne Frank House, but photos are not allowed. It is a sobering but fascinating exhibit of life for the Franks during Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. If you are planning on visiting, I highly recommend purchasing tickets well in advance, or you will be stuck waiting in this line that wrapped around the block and then around the next block.

IMG_1284.JPGM used his press pass to get us press tickets so we were able to skip the line and go right in at our appointed time.

All in all, there are plenty of important and interesting Jewish sites in Holland. As I walked through these sites, it was hard not to ask myself “What if?” What if Hitler never came to power? What if Anne Frank had survived instead of dying a mere couple of weeks before liberation? What if the Portuguese Synagogue had been bombed to smithereens like so many other Jewish synagogues?

There are no answers. There are just the stories of all the people and places that came before us. It is a a story of persistence and struggle, life and death, and the undeniable truth that these stories are part of our stories. History is the preamble to our lives.

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Holland Part #1: Falling for Amsterdam

Going to Holland one week after we got back from Iceland and Ireland was a crazy idea. But what’s that saying about all the best ideas being crazy ideas….?

Our Iceland/Ireland trip was long on the books when M got invited on a press trip to Holland to see an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of theDe Stijl movement.

M couldn’t pass up a free press trip to his favorite country, and I had never been to the Netherlands. So even though I knew I would be exhausted, I used my Chase miles to book a KLM flight via Flying Blue.

We planned a couple of free days in Amsterdam on either end of the press trip, and joined up with the Holland tourist office on a jam-packed itinerary that took us to The Hague and Leiden – two key cities of the De Stijl movement.

M promised me I would love Amsterdam, and he was right.

Amsterdam is a unique city with its own culture, feel, and architecture. Of course, there are the famous canals. I did not adequately appreciate how pretty they would be or how much I would love exploring the maze of streets and waterways.

Our first day, we walked all around the city, covering nearly seven miles of canal ogling. We had no agenda, no museums, no exhibits, just pure exploration.

Amsterdam mapWe started at our hotel, the Renaissance Amsterdam (Marriott), and made our way to Dam Square – Amsterdam’s historical center just south of the central train station. It’s a great place to people watch, grab a snack, or snap pictures, like I did of this street performer.

***IMG_9006***IMG_9027We continued south, looping around the Singel canal to the floating flower market, enjoying the sites along the way.

**IMG_8913**IMG_8897**IMG_8946**IMG_9045**IMG_9119@IMG_9162The floating flower market is exactly what it sounds like. You can buy all kinds of plant seeds, flower bulbs, wooden tulips (which we already have plenty of), and other souvenirs, including your own cannabis starter kit. Because who doesn’t need a cannabis starter kit?

***IMG_9062***IMG_9066***IMG_9072*IMG_9083*IMG_9087*IMG_9092*IMG_9094*IMG_9095M suggested that we check out an old-fashioned Dutch windmill at the Eastern Docklands, so we continued southeast along the Amstel canal. We passed de Schaduwkade monument, a memorial to the 200 Dutch Jews who lived in the neighborhood before the Nazi occupation.

**IMG_9133Nearby you can check out Magere Brug, a narrow historic bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.

**IMG_9117We stopped to watch the biggest boat crossing we have ever seen.

*IMG_9174We continued to Oosterpark, which turned out to be a beautiful surprise.

***IMG_9206**IMG_9194Okay, so this was weird. In Holland, if you’re a man (and super lazy), you can just pee outside in an outdoor urinals. Let me just tell you from personal, first-hand experience, they do not shield as much as you might think.

**IMG_9200Finally, we made it to our windmill at the Eastern Docklands, and enjoyed a breather  at a Dutch beer garden (beer for M, water for me).

**IMG_9260***IMG_9241I love the geometric architecture.

***IMG_9254**IMG_9272After that, we made our way back to the hotel. Of course, there were more pictures.

**IMG_9690Here is the view of the central train station at dusk.


Our first day in Amsterdam was tiring (starting with a flight snafu that involved a last- minute refuel stop in Brussels and an hour-long wait for our luggage), but awesome. I can’t believe it took me so many years to visit this incredible city.



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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.

intercontinental map

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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