Berlin Part 5: The Jewish Quarter

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall
Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

We’ve gotten our vacation division of labor down to a science. M spends hours in museums. I spend hours doing anything but spend hours in museums. So far, it’s working outs splendidly for us.

That’s how I found myself wandering around Berlin’s Jewish quarter one evening. East of Museum Island on the other side of the Spree River, the neighborhood is a hodgepodge of hip restaurants and shops, important Jewish sites, small galleries and residential housing.

Today, this area is home to two Jewish synagogues, a couple of Jewish restaurants, the remains of the old Jewish cemetery, and the ever-present stumbling stones that remind us of the people who use to walk these streets.

As I walked down Rosenthaler Strauss, I popped into what Berlin calls Berliner Hinterhöfe” or backyards.” This one in particular – Hause Schwarzenberg –  is home to two small museums, one dedicated to Anne Frank and one to Otto Weidt – the owner of a workshop for the blind and deaf who fought to protect his Jewish workers. It is also filled with interesting street art.

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Another “backyard” with awesome architecture.

**IMG_4035I made my way to the old Jewish cemetery. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the area was crowded with thousands of Jewish graves, but in 1943, it was destroyed by the Gestapo. Today, there are few relics and a gravestone memorializing Moses Mendelssohn  (it is not the original).

**IMG_4672**IMG_4681**IMG_4704***IMG_4742***IMG_4713Finally, I made my way to the New Synagogue. Built in 1865, it was largely destroyed during World War II. After the war, the community rebuilt the synagogue to look like the original. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tour the interior because it was closed for renovation.

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Berlin Part 4: Never Forget

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin Is… Complicated
Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

It’s impossible to go to Berlin and not contend with the gruesome history of the Third Reich. Berlin makes a valiant effort of telling that story and memorializing its victims. There are many important sites to see to make sure we “never forget” the horrors of the Holocaust. Some are major tourists sites; others are less well known and barely noticeable. We didn’t get to all of them, but managed to spend time seeing a couple of important ones.

On our first day in Berlin, we visited the Topography of Terror on the site of the former Gestapo. You can walk along a piece of the Berlin Wall and the remains of the Gestapo’s external basement wall.

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Once inside, the first floor hosts a detailed history of Hitler’s Third Reich, told primarily through photographs and text. Many of the photos are chilling.

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Another important site is the Jewish Museum of Berlin that tells the story of Jewish history in Germany throughout the centuries.

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Not far from Brandenburg Gate, you’ll find the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a sobering construction designed by architect Peter Eisenman.

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Finally, we took the S-Bahn to the Grunewald subway stop to tour a little-visited memorial called Gleis 17 (Track 17). From 1941 through 1942, trains deporting Berlin Jews to Nazi concentration camps left from Track 17. Today, the abandoned track is adorned with simple plaques that commemorate the date and the number of Jews deported. It is an oddly beautiful and infuriating memorial.

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These sites were not enjoyable in the typical sense of the word. How can the constant reminder of the murder of six million Jews be “enjoyable”? Most of the time, I felt the anger rising in my blood and my thoughts. So many people who never got a chance, so many stories that will never be told, so many generations obliterated. It is supposed to be infuriating.

 

 

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2017 in Review

2017 was an eventful year that included one wedding, two apartment moves, and a whole lot of travel. 2018 is an election year so that means more work and fewer vacations until November, though we have a trip to Israel on the horizon for my sister-in-law’s wedding. I’ve also introduced M to the world of miles, business class, and airport lounges – which he claims he didn’t know existed. Happy new year! Here’s to an exciting 2018!

2017 in numbers:

0: New state visited. I have still visited 39 out of 50 states.

5: New countries visited – Iceland, Ireland, Holland, Czech Republic, and Austria

3: New credit cards. This is very low for me, but we got five credit cards for M so it balances out.

8: Countries visited, including the U.S. (Iceland, Ireland, Holland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Canada, and the U.S.)

11: States visited, including Washington D.C.

42: Flights – nearly double last year’s.

50: Nights spent in hotels.

41,437: Number of miles flown – more than double last year’s.

306,000: Number of miles redeemed. (Five flights from D.C to New York City or vice versa; one flight from D.C. to Nashville; two economy seats from Dublin to D.C.; two business class seats from D.C. to Berlin; two economy seats from Vienna to D.C.; one economy round-trip ticket from D.C. to Amsterdam.)

548,000: Number of points redeemed at hotels, including one free night due to credit cards. This is way more than I’ve ever done – the perks of having a husband I can get credit cards for. This includes four nights at the Hilton Nordica in Reykjavik (points + cash), one night at the Park Inn Keflavik (points + cash); one night at the DoubleTree in Dublin; one night at the Crowne Plaza near the airport in Dublin; one night at the Renaissance Amsterdam; one night at the Hyatt Regency in Amsterdam;  five nights Hilton Berlin, two nights at the Intercontinental Prague; five nights at the Marriott Vienna.

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Berlin Part 3: Where To See The Berlin Wall

Berlin Part 1: Getting There
Berlin Part 2: Berlin is…Complicated

Confession: I am obsessed with the Berlin Wall and Communist era history. I was intent on seeing as much of the Berlin Wall as possible – and M dutifully followed me around.

Berlin has many reminders of the Berlin Wall’s 28 year history. Throughout the city, there are plaques marking where the wall used to stand, as well as bits and pieces of the actual wall. There are a couple of key spots to really appreciate the wall and what it meant for Berlin.

(1) Potsdamer Platz: Today, Potsdamer Platz is a bustling area with modern skyscrapers, cinemas, museums, hotels, and restaurants. In 1989, when the wall came tumbling down though, Potsdamer Platz was a wasteland. For 28 years, it operated as a death strip where Soviet guards would shoot down desperate East Berliners trying to make the escape to freedom. Today, you can touch pieces of the wall, and read about its history while you gaze up at the closest thing Berlin has to a skyline.

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M relaxing at a Starbucks in Potsdamer Platz

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Slabs of the Berlin Wall covered in gum

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A piece of the Berlin Wall covered in graffiti

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A reflection of the old subway sign at Potsdamer Platz – a stop that was completely vacant during the split

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A map of the wall and the remaining pieces

(2) Checkpoint Charlie: Checkpoint Charlie was the entry and exit point between East and West Berlin, used primarily by foreigners. Today, there is a mediocre museum and some replicas that are great for tourist pictures. While the museum is not particularly done well, it tells an important story abut the toll the wall took, the people who risked their lives to flee and help others flee, and the unrelenting hope for freedom. While Checkpoint Charlie was not the largest checkpoint, it became a symbol of the Cold War, serving as the site of a major showdown between America and the Soviet Union in October 1961.

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An outdoor exhibit gives you a sense of what this spot used to look like

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There are plenty of original wall pieces to marvel at

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Pictures of the crossing

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A replica of the original checkpoint for tourists to take pictures

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The original sign that used to stand at Checkpoint Charlie can now be seen inside the museum

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Thousands of Berliners watched as the original checkpoint booth is airlifted out of the spot where it sat for nearly 30 years

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On September 9, 1948, 300,000 Berliners gathered to protest the division of the city

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After WWII, the Soviets set up “special camps,” often repurposing the Nazi’s concentration camps, to house thousands of people who were indiscriminately arrested. Between 1945 and 1950, 43,000 detainees — out of approximately 123,000 — died in the camps. The German Red Cross organized a list of those people and you can now search through the binders at the museum

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From June 24 1948 until May 12 1949, the Soviet Union blocked the Western allies access to West Berlin. In response, the allies organized the Berlin Airlift to bring food, medicine, and other supplies to the people of West Berlin. It was a massive undertaking that required building a brand new airport in only 90 days

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A Cold War-era map of Berlin

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The ground floor of the museum

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This car shows how people used to carve out stowage space to hide East Berliners in the trunks of their cars as they crossed the East-West border

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The many passport pages of John P. Ireland – an American studying in West Berlin who had the genius idea of modifying a Cadillac to hide East Berliners in the trunk. Ireland ferried 10 people to freedom, usually via Czechoslovakia and Hungary where the border checks were less aggressive than East Berlin

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An example of what it was like to hide in a car in an effort escape to West Berlin

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A replica of a hot air balloon constructed by electrician Peter Strelzyk. On September 1, 1979, two families launched themselves into the night sky, landing in West Berlin at 2:40 a.m. They hugged the police officers when they were told “You’re in the West.”

(2) Brandenburg Gate: There aren’t actually pieces of the wall at Brandenburng Gate because the Gate itself served as a dividing line between East and West Berlin. In the early years of the Cold War, Brandenburg Gate was a checkpoint between the two sides. After 1961, the Gate was closed and became a major site of pro-freedom protests on the West Berlin side. It was famously, the site of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Berlin – requiring the Soviet-run GDR to put up curtains on the East Berlin side of the Gate so no one would catch a glimpse of JFK. On November 9, 1989, thousands of Berliners gathered at Brandenburg Gate to celebrate the fall of the wall.

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(3) East Side Gallery: East Side Gallery is a 4,317-foot strip of the Berlin Wall located between the Berlin Ostbahnhof and Warschauer Strauss train stops. The gallery contains 105 paintings by artists in 1990 after the fall of the wall. Sadly, today, many of the paintings are covered in graffiti and required heavy restoration. Some were entirely repainted by the original artists.

IMG_4603IMG_4606IMG_4609The artist of this painting actually painted it three times as indicated by the date at the bottom.

IMG_4600.JPGIMG_4616IMG_4620IMG_4628This is my favorite piece of art from East Side Gallery.

IMG_9566IMG_9578IMG_9595This painting, entitled “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” is probably the most famous of the East Side Gallery paintings. Painted by Dmitri Vrubel, it reenacts a famous moment between Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and GDR head Erich Honecker in 1979.

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(4) Topography of Terror: The Topography of Terror stands in the spot of Hitler’s Gestapo, which was razed to the ground after the war. Today, it is a free museum that retells the history of Nazi Germany from its rise to its fall. I’ll talk about the museum later, but outside the museum, you can walk a long a long strip of the Berlin Wall as well as small piece of the basement wall from the Gestapo building.

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There are several other places to see remnants of the Berlin Wall including Mauerpark and the Berlin Wall Memorial, which we did not have time to get to. Seeing the Berlin Wall was on my to-do list for a long time, and I highly recommend at least one of these stops if you’re in Berlin.

 

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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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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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