Berlin: History & Rebirth

I did not fall in love with Berlin at first sight–but I’m warming up to it and it’s growing on me.  We are staying in the eastern part of the city and upon arrival at our hotel, I initially thought we were in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the architecture either.  We had just come from a six hour train journey in first class which wasn’t quite the upscale ride we had anticipated and then, there was that short, but steep flight of stairs up to the hotel entrance.  We are not bare bones travelers and our two bags are a bit heavy so, it was a less auspicious beginning. However, our room is simply lovely, very spacious and quiet, and the breakfast each morning is a lavish spread of hot and cold meats, cheeses, eggs, soft and hard-boiled, smoked salmon, cereal, several kinds of bread and pastries plus various condiments. Hard to go wrong with this start to your day!

Breakfast spread at Myer's Hotel
Breakfast spread at Myer’s Hotel

The next day we discovered that we are about 5 minutes from the subway (U) and another 5 minutes in the other direction from a tram line (S) and there are lots of small family-run restaurants in the surrounding blocks which we’ve been sampling.  Yes, the architecture is rather stark and drab, and yes, the streets are grittier in this part of town, and yes, there is a lot of graffiti, but it has its own charm.  (I have been puzzling about the graffiti and wondering if it’s being kept deliberately as some sort of statement or if there just aren’t funds to clean it up.)

You do notice a difference when you get into what was West Berlin–cleaner, wider streets, more department stores, more chains, more big hotels (Intercontinental, et al), and more tourists.  That said, some of the biggest attractions are in the former eastern part so after awhile, I stopped thinking so much about which part of the city I was in and just appreciated the history that was all around me.

I suppose if one came to Berlin just to shop, that person could be unaware of its pivotal role in history.  But, having come here to explore both its museums and its history, we have been doing just that.  We first mastered the subway–once you find the English button on the automatic ticket machine, the process gets simpler–and then validated our day-long tickets.  Unlike on the London subway, once you validate the ticket, you just ride and never have to tag in or out.  Also I never saw anyone asking for or checking people’s tickets.  Honor system, perhaps, or perhaps like MUNI, we just haven’t encountered any inspectors.

Sign at Checkpoint Charlie
Sign at Checkpoint Charlie

After stopping briefly at Checkpoint Charlie, we went on to examine the section of the Berlin Wall that was left standing.  It has holes in it and markings and is a reminder of this divided city; it would have looked even grimmer on a gray day.  November 9 this year marks the 25th anniversary of the coming down of the wall and the city is getting ready for a big celebration. Preparations are underway at the Brandenburg Gate.


Remaining section of Berlin Wall
Remaining section of Berlin Wall

The Topography of Terrors is a small museum that provides a comprehensive look at the Nazi apparatus, all the units, the SS, the Gestapo and others, and the key individuals who were responsible for so much death and destruction.  The museum is an open gray space with large windows and panels suspended from the ceiling.  I was struck by how baldly the events were presented and by the comments from historians who offered insights, but not excuses.  Seeing panel after panel, each one a different country that was occupied by the Nazis during the 1940-45 period, brought home to me how the experience of the Dutch people was just repeated over and over elsewhere.  I also learned that some of the perpetrators went on have political careers and others are believed to have assumed new identities.

The Berlin Wall and the Topography museum are both sobering venues so it was cheering to continue on to the Reichstag and to gaze upon this re-built and refurbished parliament building which was out of commission, due to damage and politics, for many years.  Parliament met here again for the first time in 1999.  The dome that was designed by architect Norman Foster is stunning and echoes in basic shape, but not materials, the original dome.

My husband is a good planner and a great tour guide, and he had discovered that by going online at home and reserving a table for lunch at the restaurant on the terrace level (bottom of the dome), we could avoid a long line to get in and simultaneously enjoy a lovely lunch. This was all definitely worth it!  It was a warm sunny day and the skyline view of Berlin from the restaurant was spectacular and walking the spiral ramp around and up the dome was great.  At the bottom of the dome, there are panels around the circle giving the history of the building and its rebirth.

So much to see and do!  More to come on Berlin.




Dome on the Reichstag
Dome on the Reichstag





Booknote: Robert Peace

One of Jeff Hobbs’ roommates at Yale was a young black man from outside Newark, NJ.  He was smart and personable, but kept to himself.  He also dealt drugs the entire time he was a science major.  Robert Peace lived a bifurcated life; he grew up on poor and mean streets without a live-in father and learned how to survive there and not call undue attention to himself.  But he was also smart and talented so his stalwart mother worked several jobs and stinted for herself to make it possible for him to get a good education at St. Benedict’s.  Later, he caught the attention of a wealthy donor who funded his 4 years at Yale.

Rob Peace’s life ended too soon and Hobbs takes it upon himself to dig deep into Peace’s childhood, his family, his friendships, his relationships with women and all the people who comprised his world from his youth through college and beyond.  The book is The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.  It is a heartrending account of wasted talent and it lays bare how extremely difficult it is to overcome being poor, being black, and having no stable role models—and how one can physically leave one’s home neighborhood, but remain emotionally and mentally tied to it.  I think Hobbs’ book is overly long and sometimes too detailed, but I don’t regret investing the time to read it.

Amsterdam: City of Bikes

This is my first visit to Amsterdam and we arrived by train from Brussels.  Oh, the bicycles! Exiting the train station, I was immediately struck first by the 3-level parking garage for bikes and then the people on bicycles everywhere!  You see more bikes than cars and they go whizzing along seeming as if they will never stop for anyone, but they do. People ride close together and zig and zag in and out of any wayward pedestrians.  They will stop for a true red light, of which there are few, but if you are crossing an intersection, you better beware and either move quickly or wait.  Bike lanes exist next to sidewalks or else they share the road with the few cars and motor scooters.  Biks are locked in place along the bridge railings and there are usually one or two bikes parked outside every building.  Most have baskets or paniers and people do their grocery shopping and other errands on their bikes and bike to work.  It makes for a very quiet city.

After the bikes, there are the canals.  They are lovely and quiet; moored alongside you will see houseboats and rowboats and cruising almost stealthily down the middle are the tour boats–long and sleek and slightly rounded on top, designed to slide comfortably under the arched bridges.  The canals are arranged in rings out from the older section of the city and with all the many bridges linking the city from one canal to the other, it is easy to get turned around and perhaps even lost.  Our hotel staff advised us to always count the bridges we crossed.  But, even so, you can walk on the wrong or a different side of a particular canal and get confused that way.

Cheese Museum

Amsterdam is also a city of museums we discovered.  There seems to be a museum for every subject or object.  Examples include the Cheese Museum (really a cheese shop with some history about cheese making), a diamond museum, the Sex Museum, the Electric Lady (a museum of fluorescent art),  and the Amsterdam Tulip Museum.  The latter is a small museum in tight quarters, but they provide an informative look at the history of tulips in the New World and the tulip industry.  The front of the museum is a shop, the first thing you come to, and they sell tulip and amaryllis bulbs as well as all sorts of tulip memorabilia.

Midst this surfeit of museums, we visited the Rijks Museum which is a grand and glorious art museum including an depth focus on Rembrandt.  And just across the way from the Rijks, we also toured the Van Gogh Museum.  In both cases, these were popular sites and, even though we arrived moments after opening, they both filled up quickly with lots of visitors.  The galleries are smaller in the Van Gogh Museum and so the crowds sometimes made it difficult to get close enough to see the smaller works or to read the labels.  Fortunately, both museums have English on their labels and signs as well as Dutch.

Rijks Museum atrium
Rijks Museum atrium

On our last day, we walked from the center of town all the way out to the National Resistance Museum which is across the street from the zoo and near the botanical garden.  It was well worth the trek.  This museum provides a detailed picture of life in the Netherlands from 1940-45 under German occupation.  It was a brutal, painful and uncertain time.  While Jews were specifically targeted for mistreatment, deportation or death, all citizens suffered food and fuel shortages, constraints on their movements, and an overall lack of control over their lives.  Our next stop is Berlin and this museum experience adds another facet to how we will approach it.

Hotel Sebastian’s where we stayed was wonderfully helpful with restaurant recommendations for dinner and we ran the gamut from fish (Lucius) to Indonesian (Kantjil & de Tijger) to tapas to elegant continental.  At  Belhamel, an old house overlooking the canal, we not only enjoyed our meal, but made friends with the couples on either side of us.  The middle-aged couple to our right were from Manhattan and so we traded notes about New York and staying in Amsterdam.  Later an older couple were neighbors on our left. They live in Shewood Forest in the UK and had come over on the ferry to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.  They were lovely and he regaled us with his Trip Advisor statistics and all the various cities and countries he had visited and spent time in in his corporate life (including New Jersey!).  We shared how long we’ve been married and then when a new couple arrived on the right–younger and residents of Amsterdam, we learned they were celebrating 13 years. We didn’t find out how long couple #1 had been married, perhaps they weren’t.

Belhamel Restaurant




Eating in London: Some Favorite Restaurants

One of the delights of a being in a big city is choosing from a wide range of restaurants and cuisines.  London is one of the best places in the world in which to do this; there is everything from traditional British pub food to Indian and Chinese plus Lebanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, French, and the list continues.  While here, we indulged in some special places, but also returned to old favorites from seven years ago.  Here’s my list of where we dined on good, and occasionally great, food.

Norfolk Arms (Russell Square)–This gastropub was just introducing Spanish tapas when we lived here and they were delicious! They still are and we made it a point of booking several lunches here.  Highlights were the choice of sherries to start, the mounded blue cheese and walnut brushetta with a drizzle of honey, the blistered Padron peppers, and the delectable meat platters—ham, chorizo and the like.  And if you simply must have your Sunday roast, that’s available too.

Benares (Mayfair)–This Michelin-starred Indian restaurant is superb!  The space is elegant, the service attentive, and the food Indian with a contemporary twist.

Hutong (LondonBridge)–Located on the 33rd floor of The Shard, the view from the window tables is spectacular.  This is London with the twisting Thames and the rippling rail yards splayed out before you and St. Paul’s looming on the horizon.  The food is similar to what you would find in Beijing and good, but not exceptional.

De Amicis (Notting Hill)–Small, family-run Italian restaurant that is most welcoming with good food.  We’ve enjoyed their veal preparations (one with fresh porcini) as well as the chicken cacciatore–so much so that we ate here several times this visit!

Mall Tavern (Notting Hill)–An upscale pub that gets very lively most every night (not for those desiring a quiet tete-a-tete), but which offers a sophisticated menu. Reserve ahead and you may be able to sit on the non-bar side which is somewhat quieter.  We liked the hake with fennel and the smoked salmon in particular.

Kettner’s (Soho)–Many years ago my grandfather gave me a copy of Kettner’s Book of the Table, published around 1880 with  recipes and tips supposedly from this renowned restaurant. We had walked by on a previous visit, but never eaten here.  This time we closed the loop and enjoyed a pre-theatre dinner.  Kettner’s is known for its selection of champagnes and has a pre-theatre menu. We chose neither preferring instead to order a la carte.  It was good and very acceptable as a pre-theatre meal. Kettner was the chef here, back in the day, and had cooked for Napoleon.  But he didn’t write the book–someone else did!


Produce at Borough Market
Produce at Borough Market

Borough Market (Southwark)–I don’t know how we missed out on discovering this marvelous maze of food stalls and produce and meat purveyors on past visits, but we did.  This 100-year old market complex is worth the price of the Tube ride with lots of options of ingredients to cook at home, international dishes to takeaway and several sit-down restaurants.  We opted for lunch at Fish! which offered a wide range of choices and an excellent fish soup with rouille.  We first tasted this smooth, perfect for a nippy day, comfort food in Ajaccio, Corsica in the late 1970’s.  It became a favorite then and still is.

Waitrose (everywhere, but especially The Brunswick in Bloomsbury)–I was amazed and impressed with the selection in this supermarket when I came here from Pennsylvania.  After having lived in San Francisco for some years, I remain impressed. Waitrose, and even the other food chains (Marks & Spenser and Tesco) do ready-to-heat prepared foods far better than their American counterparts.  These items occupy a significant amount of shelf space and the range of cuisines from which to choose is mouthwatering.   We purchased several curries this time, which didn’t happen to be from Waitrose, and they were very good!

Just a sampling of prepared foods offered at Waitrose
Just a sampling of prepared foods offered at Waitrose