Christmas Travels, German Style
‘Tis the holiday season. Our first in Spain and our first outside the U.S., thousands of miles from our families and the celebrations that normally come with this time of year. Seeking the holiday spirit and that feeling of coziness that doesn’t seem to come with winter in Valencia (no offense, Spain!) we took off for (cue drumroll), Germany! But why Germany, you ask? Well, Germany just happens to be the king of the Christmas Market.
Berlin is a modern city. Partially by choice, partially not. Barely 25 years after unification, the city’s sprawling landscape is dotted with reminders of its tumultuous past, set amidst a culture of reinvention. Innovative and cutting edge, the city is at the forefront of environmental initiatives, and was recently named the sixth most sustainable city in the world by Arcadis, a leading global sustainable design and consulting firm.
Our first day in Berlin and we're doing pretty much nothing thanks to a 6am flight from Bergamo (near Milan). We're beat and spend the afternoon limping around our new neighborhood on the outskirts of Neukoelln, a trendy young area in the southwest of the city. But after a good night's rest we utilize the omnipresent public transportation system to take in Berlin's best. Two U-Bahns and an S-Bahn later and we're at the central station, a few blocks away from the Reichstag building, Germany's government headquarters. Famous for its melding of classic and modern architecture, the Reichstag features a massive glass dome with a spiral ramp that twists to the top, offering both views of the city and downwards to the government floor. A reminder of this country's very turbulent history, the view onto the government chambers is symbolic of the people of Germany keeping a close eye on their leaders. While tourists climb to the top (make sure to book an appointment ahead of time) Berliners picnic and play games on the grassy expanse in front of the building, an area that was once used for political demonstrations. To the south, the center tip of Tiergarten, the city’s famed 2-square mile park, makes way onto Brandenburg gate. We snap a few photos, but move along quickly, out of the way of the hordes of tourists.
After taking in a few of the "required" sights, we're off to enjoy a much more relaxed German tradition, the Biergarten. Though traditionally more closely associated with (and rightfully so) Bavaria, Berlin also has its fair share of incredible beer gardens. Many are tucked within one of the city's 2500 parks. We stop at the well known and a bit touristy Weihenstephaner near Hackescher Markt. In all truthfulness, the moment we actually arrive in Germany is the exact moment we sit down in the warm afternoon sun at a long wood table and quickly drain two tall half liter glasses of Hefeweizen. Feeling a bit buzzed and ready for the next "garden" we take off south, making the long walk back to our flat, our minds awash with visions of even bigger glasses of this unfiltered amazingness.
The next couple days lead to more exploration, including the famous Checkpoint Charlie and the brutally informative Topography of Terror. But at this point we're addicted to the beautiful, almost gratuitous, and awe inspiring parks of Berlin. While the Tiergarten and Friedrichshain are wonderful, we can't get enough sunsets at Tempelhof Field. Originally an airport that served as the center of the Berlin Airlift during the Cold War, it was recently converted to a massive park. We find it just before the sun goes down on our third night in Berlin. Cyclists ride amongst the former runways, crowds gather to take in the eclectic sounds of a German reggae band and groups of friends barbecue as others spread out among the expansive community garden, filled with upcycled benches, tables, and decks. In a park with so much open space and mass, the thousand (or so) people feel like a few dozen, and we happily people watch as the sun goes down.
Berlin does summertime well. With average temperatures in the winter months bordering on freezing, getting out and enjoying the sun when it’s available is a must. As we pass from neighborhood to neighborhood, a few truths about Berliners become evident. One, they enjoy their kebab. Two, they really enjoy their beer. If it’s afternoon and the sun is out, people will be drinking beer. Old men on benches, college students, twenty somethings, thirty somethings… everyone has a beer in hand. And why not? It’s beautiful outside, there’s plenty of public transportation to make your way home, and the plethora of absolutely fantastic parks offer the perfect place to kick back and drink a few with friends.
Throughout the next few days we manage to explore a large portion of the city, yet we pack our bags feeling like there’s so much more left to see. Berlin turns out to be everything we had read - multicultural, hip, spirited, and modern, all in spite of (or maybe as a result of) the not-so-distant past. It was a mix of Hefeweizen, blankets in the park, sightseeing, learning, and reflection. A highly charged and busy visit, blanketed with an air of relaxed summertime energy. One thing is certain… it was too short and we will be back.
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