My original thought for this year's vacation was to go to Boston, since we haven't been in a while, and we were frequently there in February, which is kind of miserable for walking around. For a variety of reasons, though, we decided to move up the Europe trip that I had kind of penciled in for our 20th anniversary.
I went to Bavaria and Austria for a week in high school, and I took four and a half years of German classes, so going to northern Germany was not as intimidating for me language-wise as, say, France or Italy might have been. We decided to tack on a couple nights in London at the end.
So, here's where we ended up going:
We drove down to JFK to fly over. I think I've driven in all five boroughs of New York City at this point. I got a ticket on the way because my rear license plate was peeling. (I was going to just replace them when I renewed my registration in October, but it was apparently bad enough he decided to ticket me.) We had plenty of time to get to the airport, though, and watching the estimated arrival time on Google Maps while I was waiting on the ticket, we didn't lose any time being stopped on the side of the road for 5-10 minutes. NYC traffic is kind of weird like that.
So our flight left on the 21st, but it landed on the 22nd. We flew into Tegel (TXL) in Berlin--
Okay, typing the airport code has made me want to go pull OCLC library codes and airport codes and do some kind of correlation lookup so you can find out which airport your library is.
Anyway, we landed in Berlin at 11 a.m., which was of course 5 a.m. back in New York, so we were a bit punchy. I got maybe two hours of sleep on the flight, and I don't think my husband got much more. We were planning just to use public transportation in Berlin, though, so we got tickets at the airport, and eventually figured out where to get on the bus to get to the subway.
The subways in Berlin are kind of amazing compared to the others I've been on (NYC, Washington, and now London). They're barrierless - you just buy your ticket at the entrance and then get on. I think this is partly enabled by the ability of the police in Germany to just collect fines on the spot; if you don't have a validated ticket, they can just fine you 60 euros on the spot. So there's no going through turn-styles or gates or anything. They're very efficient; you push a button to open the doors to get on or off, so the doors only open if needed.
So we got on the subway and went to our hotel, then promptly crashed and slept a couple hours. I slept more than my husband - he couldn't wake me up, which not an uncommon problem with me.
Once we did get up, we got on a bus to head up Oranienstraße to the yarn shop I had scoped out. We went there an to a nearby bookstore, then had dinner at Stiege. I had picked out a bunch of possible restaurants for us based partly on whether they took credit cards, so we wouldn't have to hit an ATM for more euros. In retrospect, I had picked an Italian restaurant for our first dinner in Germany, but I got a breaded chicken cutlet with an amazing mushroom cream sauce, and my husband had calamari in a red sauce, so I think it worked out.
After dinner, we hit an Aldi for still water, as my husband had run into the proliferation of sparkling water in Europe by this point.
On the travel itinerary I had made for us, the 23rd was just labeled "tour Berlin," with no details. We started off by getting on the subway and heading up to Alexanderplatz, partly to change trains and partly to stop at the Birkenstock store there. They didn't have the shoes I wanted there, but we did pass the TV tower (Fernsehturm) on the way there:
We were changing trains at Alexanderplatz to take the line up to the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße.
The memorial has fragments of wall spaced along the memorial, with informational signage about the construction of the wall and the escape attempts that occurred along that stretch. The Wall coming down is the first major world even I remember seeing on TV. Metal posts mark the line of the wall along this stretch:
A marker represents one of the guard towers:
The cross from the top of the church which was in no-man's land was on display:
After the Wall memorial, we took the train back down to the Friedrichstraße to get lunch and go see the biggest tourist photo opportunity in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate:
It was fairly warm, and we were getting a bit tired of walking around, so we just got distance shots of the Reichstag:
We had dinner at Maximilians, which was huge. We got the platter for two that had wurst, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, dumplings, pork roast, and a huge roasted pork knuckle. I felt like we should have made two friends on the way there just to be able to eat it all.
May 24Based on the plans we had made for the rest of our tour in Germany, we got a car to leave Berlin. Part of those plans, of course, were so my husband could have a chance to drive Very Fast on the Autobahn. Luckily there was a stretch of unrestricted highway between Berlin and Hamburg that he could drive while I tried not to have a heart attack. The drivers in northern Germany seem to be fairly good about following road rules, and the roads are very well maintained, so it wasn't too bad.
There are power-generating windmills all over Germany. I'm not sure you can go anywhere there without having a view like this somewhere on your horizon:
The other frequent Autobahn view is this, the Stau:
We switched drivers (to me) when all the other drivers started getting out of their cars to smoke. So while on the Autobahn you can frequently go very fast, this was also not uncommon:
The car was neat because it would tell you the current speed limit and put it both on the speedometer and on the windshield in front of you via a heads-up display. We saw signs like these a couple times, telling you how much longer the congestion/construction was going to last:
This was the car, a Volvo with a diesel engine. It sounded like a tractor when you turned it on, but it had good pickup for passing on the Autobahn. Huge, though, and a bit annoying to park, especially in parking garages.
Once we made it to Hamburg, we went and found another grocery, then had dinner at the hotel. It was asparagus season, so more than once we ran into specials at a restaurant centered entirely around it.
May 25So Hamburg had the main thing my husband wanted to see on the trip, Miniatur Wunderland, a model train museum. It's located in Hamburg's Hafencity, which is the district along the Elbe made up of a bunch of little islands and canals that were once all involved in the harbor functions.
The Wunderland has a variety of themed train settings, mostly around Germany and the U.S. It's also set up to cycle through day and night; here's Las Vegas at night:
I was really impressed with how they portrayed water in the models:
This was portraying a town flooded for a hydroelectric dam, so they filled it full of ghosts:
They had a series of caves set up like for Bond villains:
You can hear this volcano going off through about half of the museum - it sounds like a thunderstorm. The lava is a light effect:
The dragon flies around this castle:
After the Wunderland, we drove over to the other side of the harbor (and discovered the first flaw in the car's GPS, as they were doing construction and had changed the traffic flow at an intersection) to go to Hafenmuseum Hamburg, the harbor museum. This was a slight oops on my part - all the displays were only in German, and my husband's understanding isn't much past basic greetings and a bit of food, so while I understood chunks of the placards, a lot of it was just random objects for him.
I hadn't really picked out anywhere to eat in Hamburg for dinner - we had lunch at the Wunderland - but I had mentioned driving up to see the North Sea, and had picked out a town, Büsum, that looked big enough to find somewhere to eat. We ended up at Am Ankerplatz, a little seafood restaurant inside the dike in what turned out to be a little seaside resort town. I may have inadvertently ordered cold herring, which had a good flavor, but the texture was definitely new to me. Büsum being a resort town was handy, since they had a boardwalk (well, a paved walk) along the top of the dike that gave pretty good views of the water:
They have a little lighthouse in town, as well:
May 26The tour plans for the 26th were part of why it made more sense to get a car than take the trains for the whole trip. We drove from Hamburg down to the Bergen-Belsen memorial, stopping at a Burger King along the way for lunch. (That was interesting - the menu is Burger King enough to be recognizably Burger King, but it's like it's from a parallel dimension.)
At the memorial at Bergen-Belson, we visited the museum and the memorial, which is past all the mass graves. I had read that they had turned the grounds into a cemetery, but I hadn't really realized in what capacity until we were walking along the trail and came to the first mass grave, and I translated the grave marker (I think it was "here rest 1000 dead") for my husband.
There are several memorials in the memorial area, from Britain, from Israel, from Poland. There's a grave marker for Anne and Margot Frank, who died there, along with more than fifty thousand other people.
That speed limit symbol on the speedometer means it's an unrestricted section. Anyway, the reason we were going to Wuppertal and its adjacent towns was this:
The Schwebebahn is a suspension railway - the cars hang from the track. Large sections of it are over the Wupper, and the western sections are over city streets. The area is rather scenic to just ride the train for a while, and Bayer still has a presence in the area. We had dinner at Wagner am Mäuerchen before our ride.
Afterwards we drove to Bonn to spend the night.
May 27Continuing on the "why we rented a car" theme, we drove on the 27th from Bonn to Burg Eltz:
After Burg Eltz, we headed to Ingelheim am Rhein. This stretch of driving took us down into the Mosel valley and across the Mosel; the valley walls here were heavily terraced, with vineyards at incredibly steep angles up the hills. You can kind of make the terracing out behind the church ahead of us here:
This drive, once over the Mosel, took us up a switchback road with great views of Burg Thurant for a good part of it. Going up a switchback road to get up a mountain means you have to go down the other side, of course, and the road on the other side had warnings of a 15% grade as we came back down into the Rhine valley.
There's a decent view of the town from the top:
Parts of the walls of the original hall are still standing:
May 28On our itinerary, May 28 was blocked out entirely for the train trip from Frankfurt to London. I had taken Cologne off the itinerary when we found a hotel in Bonn, but taking the train through the main train station takes you past the Kölner Dom, which is the only thing I had really wanted to take a picture of anyway:
The trip took us through Brussels to change from Deutsche Bahn to a Eurostar train through the Channel tunnel, ended up in St. Pancras station:
May 29Having assumed we would be starting to get tired by this point in our trip, we had planned in advance to just do one of the bus tours, ultimately going with the Original Tour. Since it was raining most of the day, this turned out to be a good move. We did get off the bus at Buckingham Palace, walked over to take pictures, and froze the whole way. (The weather forecast in the morning said it was going to be 75; it ended up topping out at around 65.) After that we stayed on the bus until St. Paul's, where there was conveniently a McDonald's where we could get a snack and use the bathrooms.
Anyway, St. Paul's:
The buses had an audio tour that you could listen to via headphones, which was nice, since we mostly didn't get out. This picture of the Tower Bridge kind of illustrates just how much it was raining:
I did get a clearer shot out the back of the bus:
I don't know if this ever got explained on the tour; it was just past Piccadilly Circus; Google Maps tells me it's the Swiss Glockenspiel:
To get back to our hotel, we switched back over to the Kensington route for the tour; I took a picture of St. Stephen's church on the way past because it looked neat:
We were going to try Bumpkin for dinner, but their kitchen was out of service that day, so we ended up going to Shikara instead.
May 30Since my husband wasn't feeling well, we took a black cab to Heathrow instead of attempting the Underground again. I was impressed - I haven't taken a lot of cab rides, but the car alone was really nice. The driver got us to Heathrow faster than the subway would have, and we didn't have to deal with manhandling luggage on the train.
The drive home from JFK was interspersed with stops at the rest areas on the Thruway for naps - we had a mostly empty plane for the flight back, but a toddler who spent a solid four hours either screaming or crying for their father, and apparently toddler screams are the one sound that gets through the airline-provided earplugs, so we didn't get much sleep on the flight back.
ReflectionsOne of the interesting things about driving in Germany was the traffic lights. They don't just turn yellow before they turn red; they also turn yellow before they turn green. The heads up that you're going to get a green means everyone is pretty sharp on them. You also don't see anyone running red lights - the traffic in the other direction knows they're going to be getting a green.
The Autobahn was an interesting driving experience in that, at least in the northern part of Germany, they follow the 30 km/h overtaking speed pretty seriously, and you only infrequently see a car or truck slowly passing someone. The further south you get, at least in the areas we were, it seems like the drivers get more laid back.
We could have taken trains and bus services pretty much everywhere we went, except maybe Burg Eltz. It would have been a bit slower, since we would have had to have stayed overnight in more places in order to not be taking our luggage everywhere, but it's actually feasible there.
Apparently street signs are a rarity in London? We had to figure out what street was what partly by Google Maps and comparing what businesses were present and partly by the street names printed on buildings with their numbers. I don't know how anyone knows how to get anywhere there.