Germany

Heidelberg’s Old Town with the castle looming above

I’ve wanted to come back to Heidelberg for a very long time. I came here first in the mid-1970s when I was in the Navy stationed in Naples and my brother was in the Army in nearby Wiesbaden. I remember it as this beautiful old college town on the Neckar River.

Fast forward forty-plus years and I finally made it back. I certainly didn’t see anything that I remembered as it’s at least possible that things change over the decades. It is, though, still a beautiful old college town. The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386 and thus is one of the oldest universities in the world. Its nearly 40,000 students account for a quarter of Heidelberg’s residents and as a result the city has a wonderfully youthful sense about it.

Mat & Mark sitting along the Neckar River

From my perspective there were two main attractions here, the old castle and the Philosophers’ Walk. The old castle looms over the city. Built originally in the early 15th century it was variously expanded and destroyed as peace and war alternated in the 16th and 17th centuries. When the local prince tried to rebuild the castle in 1764 lighting struck – literally – and ended any efforts to restore the castle. Today the ruins are evocative and even romantic. So romantic, in fact, that while we were wandering around the gardens a guy next to us knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend! (She said yes….)

Mat & Mark up in the remains of the castle

The other highlight was the Philosophers’ Walk. Across the Neckar from the old town but on the university side of the river, the pathway offers great views of the city and castle and is supposedly where the ancient university’s scholars would walk and talk. Today the path leads to the top of Heiligenberg, the hill opposite Heidelberg proper, to ruins of an 11th century monastery. It made for a wonderful climb on a summer afternoon.

The view of Heidelberg and the castle from the top of Heiligenberg (Saint’s Mountain)

Not such a highlight was the University. I was expecting to find some campus with beautiful old buildings that had withstood all the turmoil Germany experienced in the 20th century. Maybe it’s there somewhere, and there are pictures on the web I can find of beautiful old buildings, but the part of the campus I found was as ugly as anything one could imagine. Just these horrible 1970s- or 1980s-era buildings with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Sad.

Some of the ugly buildings on the University’s modern campus

One more view just to show I’m not exaggerating

The Old Bridge across the Neckar River

A view of the town and river from the castle

Up in the castle stands the world’s largest wine cask. That’s Mat above it, looking pretty small in comparison.

Mat & Mark in the town square

We can always find good food, including this lovely summer salad

Mat had his first burrata cheese in Heidelberg. It was a hit.

Pretty fancy, huh?

En route up the Philosphers’ Walk

And an old tower at the very top

One more view of the river and Old Bridge

As we were leaving Heidelberg we came across this window display. Perhaps the strangest ever.

The first sighting of the Kölner Dom from inside the train station is gasp worthy

The most rewarding responsibility of being a gruncle (that’s great uncle) is exposing your nephew to his first travel experiences in Europe. And we’re on a roll now.

One surprisingly modern window lets brilliant light into the cathedral

From Mat’s first European destination of Amsterdam, we took him on his first international European train adventure to Cologne, Germany. And that’s where we had the chance to see his first great European cathedral, the Kölner Dom. (I’ll admit, we almost studiously avoided the relatively austere Protestant churches of Amsterdam so the first one would have maximum impact.)

Our guidebook calls the Kölner Dom “the Mt Everest of cathedrals.” With its soaring towers of gothic stone tracery, it is a stunner. Mat actually let out something of a gasp when he first sighted it through the panoramic windows from inside the train station. And he gushed appropriately at the cavernous interior. And struggled for breath as we climbed the hundreds of steps to the viewing platform in one of the towers.

We’ve had a lot of firsts on the food and beverage front, too, and Mat is really a trooper when it comes to trying new things. He is willing to try anything. And he ends up liking most things. And being pretty crazy about a surprising number of the odd things we are sending his way. Aside from lots of Dutch and German specialties, we’ve already been through Argentine, Italian, and Lebanese meals as well. We intend to throw quite a bit of other new cuisines his way. And we haven’t even gotten to France yet!

The imposing facade of the cathedral dwarfs everything else in central Cologne

Made it to the top of the tower climb

Looking up toward the tips of those incredible stone towers

First German beer! And it was a little bigger than we expected, but don’t worry, he didn’t finish it.

In German this is the Rathaus, perhaps an appropriate name for City Hall

Cool public art

Coffee break with dramatic cathedral backdrop

A wonderful bike ride along the Rhine on a beautiful summer day

And a night shot of the Kölner Dom

That glorious facade one more time

The Brandenburg Gate viewed from the West Berlin side during Mark's visit here in 1984. It was in the no-man's land along the Berlin Wall and thus utterly abandoned.

The Brandenburg Gate viewed from the West Berlin side during Mark’s visit here in 1984. It was in the no-man’s land along the Berlin Wall and thus utterly abandoned.

Mark in front of the restored Brandenburg Gate, this time standing in the former East Berlin

Mark in front of the restored Brandenburg Gate, this time standing in the former East Berlin

Berlin. The Cold War. Museums. Nefertiti. Four days was no where near enough; we will definitely need to go back for more time.

When we started thinking about spending a couple weeks in Germany before heading to Greece, the flight to Munich was the best option and we almost decided to just mosey around in southern Germany and forgo Berlin. Thank goodness we didn’t. This might be the first city I’ve come to in the two-plus years we’ve been traveling where I thought “We should come back here for four or five weeks to do it right!”

For me there were three highlights: spectacular museums; great neighborhoods, bars, & restaurants; and the unique situation of having been two cities in separate countries at the center of the Cold War less than 30 years ago. Altogether it was quite the package.

You're walking around and just kind of randomly see something like this, memorializing the Berlin Wall. In retrospect, given how prominent it was and how permanent it seemed, it's surprising to be reminded that the wall stood for only 28 years.

You’re walking around and just kind of randomly see something like this, memorializing the Berlin Wall. In retrospect, given how prominent it was and how permanent it seemed, it’s surprising to be reminded that the wall stood for only 28 years.

The museums are really the main attraction. Berlin is the home, Wikipedia tells us, of 138 museums. For $24 Euros – under $27 today – you can get a three-day pass that lets you in to maybe 50 of them. Of course, you can’t really tour 50 museums in three days so you have to be selective. That’s facilitated by the decision made many decades ago to put five of them, five world-class museums, on one tiny island (conveniently called Museum Island) near the center of the city. Today, the five museums collectively are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well-deserved as any UNESCO site could be. In our all-to-brief four-day stay we made it through four of them, but the lines at the Old National Gallery with it’s collection of 19th century masterpieces were just too long. We’ll go back, and next time we’ll reserve a time slot weeks in advance.

A professional photo of the stunning Nefertiti, the most beautiful 3,300-year-old woman ever.

A professional photo of the stunning Nefertiti, the most beautiful 3,300-year-old woman ever.

Amusingly, the museum that I enjoyed the least was also the one that I enjoyed the most. The New Museum was built in the mid-19th century and heavily damaged a century later in World War II. The ruins were left to decay for decades until in 1986 the East German government started to make plans to rebuild the museum, but then after reunification the plans were put on ice again. Finally in 1997 rebuilding got underway and the new New Museum was reopened in 2009 at a cost of some $400 million housing the Egyptian and Prehistory and Early History exhibits.

Since then the museum gets great accolades for the architecture and the way they incorporated pieces – literally, individual bricks and so on – into the new building. The problem for me was that for the most part I didn’t think it did a decent job at all of telling a story of Egyptian history. To be fair, my knowledge of Egyptian history is pretty weak, so to work for me the exhibit would have had to have been pretty basic. Instead it was all just a jumble of stuff, with no flow from one room and one era to the next. Descriptions of various pieces on display would talk about how it fit into the architecture of the museum and who funded its purchase and so on, things that just didn’t seem that important to me.

A bust of Cleopatra. She captured Julius Caesar's heart, (probably) bore his only son, and later coupled off with Mark Antony who ended up losing the big civil war to the guy we now know as Augustus. I had read a few years ago that she was powerful and alluring, but not necessarily classically beautiful. I mean, compare this to Nefertiti!

A bust of Cleopatra. She captured Julius Caesar’s heart, (probably) bore his only son, and later coupled off with Mark Antony who ended up losing the big civil war to the guy we now know as Augustus. I had read a few years ago that she was powerful and alluring, but not necessarily classically beautiful. I mean, compare this to Nefertiti!

But – and it’s a huge but – the museum included one room that had the iconic bust of Nefertiti dating to 1345 BC. Over the years we’ve seen a lot of great art, a lot of old masterpieces, but this one took my breath away. The colors, the shape of her face and neck, the intensity; the history of her unusual status of ruling with her husband. It all looked so real, so current, even modern. And just so beautiful. Stunning, really. I didn’t really like the museum, but that one piece made up for a lot.

(Worth noting: at one point early in the exhibit, the official description of some items noted that the Russians looted a bunch of stuff when they took control of that segment of Berlin after the war. At no point in the room dedicated to Nefertiti did they note that the Egyptians think the Germans took Nefertiti inappropriately and want her back.)

We enjoyed the other three museums on Museums we made it through enormously. The Pergamon Museum houses original-sized, reconstructed monumental buildings, and was built originally to display the Pergamon Altar, a massive structure built in modern-day Turkey in the second century BC. Unfortunately, last year the authorities decided it was time to renovate the Altar and redesign the space where it is displayed so there is a sign outside noting that the Pergamon Altar will be closed to the public until 2020! Still, there were some pretty spectacular pieces still there, including the gate of Ishtar and a piece of the processional entrance from Babylon, and the Islamic Art exhibit.

And then there were lots of other great things to see. The Old Museum – the first to be built on the island – houses a great Greek collection on the first floor with Romans up on the second. It seemed a little strange to be touring the Greek antiquities just days before flying to Greece, but it was a pretty good introduction.

A second-century Roman sarcophagus telling the story of Medea. Part of what I loved about this museum was that the descriptions were really helpful, showing how each character there is doing something to demonstrate a particular part of the story.

A second-century Roman sarcophagus telling the story of Medea. Part of what I loved about this museum was that the descriptions were really helpful, showing how each character there is doing something to demonstrate a particular part of the story.

I could go on, but you get the point. We never made it into the Reichstag, where apparently you should reserve a time weeks in advance. We stayed just a few blocks from the Brandenburg Gate and from there could walk into the peaceful 500-acre Tiergarten, where several lovely afternoon hours were spent reading. Just walking around the city you would notice little plaques showing where the Berlin Wall had stood, and you could observe that parts of the formerly Eastern quarter was still just a little grittier, a little less happy, than over to the west. Which, of course, also made them more interesting.

So that was it. We loved Berlin and will most certainly going back in a year or two for a more extended stay.

We toured the Berliner Cathedral and then I decided to relax in the amusingly named Lust Garden in front and "read." Mark took this on his way back to the hotel, noting that I hadn't even made the pretense of getting out my book before falling asleep.

We toured the Berliner Cathedral and then I decided to relax in the amusingly named Lust Garden in front and “read.” Mark took this on his way back to the hotel, noting that I hadn’t even made the pretense of getting out my book before falling asleep.

The Berlin Cathedral in all it's glory. We climbed to the  top for some great views. And yes, that's a tiny speck of me "reading" in the grass afterwards.

The Berlin Cathedral in all it’s glory. We climbed to the top for some great views. And yes, that’s a tiny speck of me “reading” in the grass afterwards.

A small sample of the great stained glass inside the Berlin Cathedral

A small sample of the great stained glass inside the Berlin Cathedral

Babylon's fabulous Gates of Ishtar from the Pergamon Museum (photo shamelessly copied from Wikipedia)

Babylon’s fabulous Gates of Ishtar from the Pergamon Museum (photo shamelessly copied from Wikipedia)

A piece of the Processional Way up to the Babylon's Gates of Ishtar

A piece of the Processional Way up to the Babylon’s Gates of Ishtar

Another massive installment at the Pergamon, in this case the Market Gate of Miletus

Another massive installment at the Pergamon, in this case the Market Gate of Miletus

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, consisting of the remains of the late 19th century original, severely damaged during the war, and the 1960s new construction in front

The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, consisting of the remains of the late 19th century original, severely damaged during the war, and the 1960s new construction in front

I wasn't crazy about the exterior of the new church but the interior was pretty stunning. The Jesus figure was a modern take on the ancient subject, and we were able to enjoy a choir practicing while enjoying the view.

I wasn’t crazy about the exterior of the new church but the interior was pretty stunning. The Jesus figure was a modern take on the ancient subject, and we were able to enjoy a choir practicing while enjoying the view.

Berlin graffiti. Not at all sure what Obama, Merkel, and Putin have in common, but it was amusing.

Berlin graffiti. Not at all sure what Obama, Merkel, and Putin have in common, but it was amusing.

And finally, the traveloholics themselves atop the Berlin Cathedral, overlooking Museum Island

And finally, the traveloholics themselves atop the Berlin Cathedral, overlooking Museum Island