Sunday, June 26, 2016

Berlin: Schnitzel, Strudel, and Sightseeing

Back in April, we used Giorgio’s business trip to Munich, Germany as an ideal excuse for some European sight-seeing adventures.  We only had a few days and Stephanie had never been to Germany before, so we decided that exploring the capital would be the priority.  Further explorations of Deutschland have been saved for a future trip – hopefully there’s another machinery conference in Munich soon!

Giorgio had previously visited Berlin, making Stephanie worried that we would be repeating much of his prior visit.  Those worries only increased when she laid out a proposed itinerary for our visit and he claimed that he had already visited all of the listed sites.  It turns out, however, that without Steph to plan the trip, he had actually missed many of the highlights and we had a wonderful time exploring a new city together.

Our visit to Berlin was essentially a greatest hits tour of the metropolis.  We wandered through the city to take in its sites, occasionally stopping for a currywurst or German beer.  We also made sure to make plenty of stops for wiener schnitzel (although we do realize it’s a traditionally Austrian dish).

A visit to Berlin is a bit like taking a walking history class, with constant reminders of WWII and the Cold War - whether you’re looking at a fragment of the Berlin Wall...

...stopping in front of Brandenberg Gate...

..or pretending to cross from West to East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie.

On a lighter note, we also made sure to hit some of the sites we had seen on the most recent season of Homeland, such as Potsdamer Platz where Steph pretended to be Carrie waiting to meet Saul...

The city has definitely evolved since the fall of the wall in 1989.  There is construction going on everywhere and almost all of the portions of the wall have long since been removed or transported to another part of the city for exhibition.

For some reason, Steph had the erroneous idea that much of the wall would still be standing and/or that the delineation between East and West Berlin would still be obvious.

That, however, is not the case – Germans seem to have taken unification very seriously, eliminating many of the most obvious reminders of the city’s decades-long division.  Even the ampelmännchen or the "little traffic light men" (the famous East Berlin pedestrian traffic signs) can now be found throughout the unified city.  Berlin also seems to be changing at a rapid pace; Giorgio remarked that he barely recognized the city he remembered from his visit only ten years earlier.  Maybe he didn't actually miss the "greatest hits" last time, but the city has changed so much the list itself has changed.

Berlin is home to a plethora of museums showcasing different eras of its history, making it impossible to visit everything in a short period of time.  Regardless, we definitely recommend a visit to at least a few of the key sites, starting with the Museumsinsel, or Museum Island.  In April, the island was mired in construction, making it difficult to appreciate the beautiful architecture and location of the five world-class museums housed on the island.  Regardless, we still visited the famous bust of Nefertiti, the perhaps less famous (but more interesting?) “golden hat,” and most of the contents of the Pergamon Museum, other than the Pergamon temple itself.  The Pergamon temple, originally transported from what is now Turkey, is meant to be breathtaking, but that portion of the museum is currently closed.  That doesn’t stop the German government from charging the full entry fee to the museum, though, and apparently isn’t noteworthy enough to note upon purchase of a ticket.

Germany’s more recent history can be contemplated at the aptly named Topography of Terror, housed on the site of the former SS headquarters.  En route to the Brandenburg Gate, a walk through the sobering Holocaust Memorial is an important detour.  At the Mauer Museum, located adjacent to Checkpoint Charlie, we learned everything there was to know about the Cold War and the horrifying (but quite ingenious) methods of escape from East to West Berlin.

For a somewhat lighter take on this historical era, we visited the DDR Museum, which has on display anything and everything from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, also known as East Germany.  Among other things, we got to pretend we were part of the stasi as well as “drive” a trusty East German Trabant (which is not quite as easy as driving a West German Volkswagen).  The various artifacts provided a fascinating view of daily life in the communist country.

Finally, we visited the Reichstag building, home to Germany’s unified parliament since 1999, for an intriguing look into the country’s history as a democracy.  If you’re not interested in listening to the unusually polite (and informative) audio guide tour, there are also some fabulous views of the city and a great spot for a sit-down lunch (as long as you reserve in advance).  Aside from the views, the building itself was quite beautiful.

We usually like to explore new cities on foot, and strolling around Berlin was particularly easy - streets were clean and well-signed.  We had read that jay-walking was frowned upon in Germany and were surprised to realize how accurate this advice was.  We were flabbergasted as we watched law-abiding Germans stand interminably at street corners waiting for a green walk signal, in spite of the empty streets devoid of any traffic.  At the very least, it inspired us (or shamed us) enough to do the same and wait for the green ampelmann on more than one occasion.

Still, Berlin was much too big to walk everywhere.  Lucky for us, Berlin boasts some of the best public transportation we’ve ever seen.  We quickly mastered the U-bahn, S-bahn, strassenbahn, and bus system as we marveled at the German honor system used for tickets.  There are no turnstiles or other entry points to check your tickets.  You simply hop on the train or bus, with the possibility that someone might eventually check your ticket.  Of course, since Steph is a big fan of following rules (much like Germans), we bought tickets even though the chances of having them checked seemed slim.  We were surprised after dinner one evening to see one of the transport employees board our train and check all the tickets.  Only one of the passengers in our car had failed to purchase one and was promptly escorted off the train at the next stop and presumably issued a fine.

On our last day, we hopped on the commuter rail (tickets in hand) and headed to Potsdam, about an hour outside the city.  The imperial palaces of Sansoucci Park, with their ornate Rococo interiors and vast wooded grounds provided the perfect respite from the city.

For anyone planning a visit, we recommend avoiding the crowds by taking the train past the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof and getting off at Potsdam Park Sanssouci instead, which is walking distance from Neues Palais.

We had purchased in advance a timed entry for the afternoon to Schloss Sanssouci and had the entire morning to explore the other palaces and grounds, eventually making our way to Sanssouci at the opposite end of the park from the Neues Palais where we had started.  Even though a lot of the smaller sites were closed for the winter, we loved our meandering walk through the picturesque palace grounds.  (Particularly during the summer, tickets to the palaces sell out well in advance – we recommend purchasing them online before taking the train trip all the way out of the city.)


Monday, May 9, 2016

Hiking Easter Island: Getting off the Beaten Path (Literally)

As we previously noted, Easter Island is not large, so we left our rental car behind from time to time (only once with the keys locked inside it) to hike across a large swath of the island.

One afternoon, we set off to hike to the top of the highest point on the island.  Maunga Terevaka, at 511 meters above sea level, is not actually that high, but it promised 360-degree views of the entire island and surrounding ocean.  As soon as we pulled into the nearby parking lot, the sky opened up and the rain started to pour.  We huddled in the car as the rain streaked down the windows, attempting to reach our best meteorological assessment of whether the rain would let up anytime soon.

As we waited, several dripping wet stragglers appeared, hiking down the trail out of the fog.  Eventually, the clouds cleared and we decided that it was as good a time as ever to start our three-hour trek – Stephanie, at least, had planned ahead and brought her raincoat.

We headed up the trail, winding through fields and even a few patches of hardy trees.  Soon enough, we were caught in yet another torrential downpour and a cloud bank obscured the trail.  Somewhere along the way, we managed to turn onto the wrong trail (there are seemingly no trail markings on Easter Island).  We eventually decided we were on the wrong track and turned around, but not before leading a family of Dutch tourists who had followed us astray.  Despite confessing our mistake, they kept heading up our original path and we never saw them again...hopefully they made it home safely.

We kept our heads down to escape the sideways rain and wind, occasionally asking one another where the top of this supposed mountain might be.  From the top of one volcanic crater, we could see another higher peak, and continued on our way, encountering a few lost Spaniards en route.  (Not only were the Spaniards lost, but they had made the questionable decision to hike in their flip flops.)

Once we finally reached what we determined to be the top, we thought we would just have a picture of the clouds to post on the blog, much like our visit to the Grand Canyon.  However, as we waited, the ocean surrounding us on four sides gradually became visible.  We were finally certain that we had reached the highest point on the island.

Hiking to Rapa Nui’s highest “peak” was simply preparation for our second hike, tackling the remote northwest corner of Easter Island.  Armed with an imprecise map and some comments from a TripAdvisor forum, we set off just prior to sunrise from Anakena Beach for what would be an almost fifteen mile expedition.

For the next several hours, we felt like the only people on the island as we followed the rock strewn “path” along the coast.  (Fun fact: Rocks cover the surface of Easter Island, primarily because they were once used for lithic mulching, a form of farming in nutrient-poor soil such as that of Easter Island.)  Along the way, we encountered several wild horses and various unexpectedly menacing cows.

We were also constantly on the lookout for archaeological artifacts.  We’re sure there were several objects we overlooked given that Easter Island’s archaeological wonders tend to blend in with the plethora of regular rocks dotting the landscape.  Regardless, we found remains of villages, toppled moai, and petroglyphs.

For the better part of the day, we followed horse and cow paths along the coast, diverging from the path only to avoid the most menacing bulls guarding their territory.  We climbed over or under various sections of barbed wire, although it was not clear what was being fenced in (or out) in the desolate landscape.  We were glad that we had started our day early since there is limited shade on Easter Island (an unsurprising result of deforestation).  We even welcomed the occasional rain shower and brisk gust of wind, as well as multiple stops for peanut butter and jelly and Daim bars.

The hike offered a magnificent sense of solitude as well as gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean.  The lack of a clearly marked path brought an added sense of adventure, particularly when we suddenly found ourselves at the edge of the island staring down a vertigo-inducing precipice.  Fifteen miles was a bit farther than we had imagined and we were definitely happy to see the roof of our bungalow in the distance as we approached the end of the day.

If you’re interested in completing these hikes yourself, here’s our advice.

Maunga Terevaka:  Park your car at Ahu Akivi and head up the trail.  Although there’s a sign at the beginning of the trail, there won’t be any further directions for the rest of the hike.  Whenever the trail splits, pick the side that looks like a walking path and ignore the paths that look like they have been made by tires.

Northwest Coast:  Have a taxi drop you off at Anakena and follow the dirt road that dwindles to a path to the left/west of the beach.  Keep following this path, such as it is, all along the northwest coast.  It’s practically impossible to get lost with the ocean constantly on your right.  You’ll eventually reach signs of civilization at Te Peu, an archaeological site on the west coast north of Hanga Roa.  From there, you can take the dirt road to Ahu Akivi to catch a taxi back to town or keep hiking south toward Hanga Roa.  Many guides and books tell you to do the hike the other way around (starting at Haga Roan and ending at Anakena) so you can end the day with a swim at the beach.  We opted to do the hike the other way around so we could have the sun on our backs instead of up front.  Also, doing the opposite of what most travel books recommend tends to result in a more solitary experience rather a hike full of other tourists.

Hiking is a great way to explore Rapa Nui.  And regardless of the route, we can guarantee you will find a moment when you will get to appreciate exactly how in the middle of nowhere you are, with nothing but the Pacific Ocean in every direction.