Germany

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

The view across the Elbe River to Dresden's exuberant, rebuilt old town. Note the great biking & running trails along the river!

The view across the Elbe River to Dresden’s exuberant, rebuilt old town. Note the great biking & running trails along the river!

Dresden. Wow. All I knew about Dresden before we got here was the fire bombings of World War II. And even then, all I knew was that there had been some serious bombs that pretty much wiped out the city. At least I got that part right. In mid-February 1945 American and British pilots dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs and “incendiary devices” on the city, killing perhaps 25,000 people, mostly civilians, and leveling much of the city. While there is a plausible case that Dresden’s military and industrial significance warranted this level of death and destruction, it seems clear that the intensity – savagery, really – had as much to do with German psychology as with military needs narrowly defined.

The ruins of the Frauenkirche from Mark's trip to Dresden in 1984

The ruins of the Frauenkirche from Mark’s trip to Dresden in 1984

And the glorious Frauenkirche today, with that dark piece on the left the last standing part reincorporated into the new building

And the glorious Frauenkirche today, with that dark piece on the left the last standing part reincorporated into the new building

Whatever the moral and ethical implications, Dresden was wiped out. As late as 1984, when Mark was here on a college trip, the city was still a bombed out mess. Today? Wow. After German reunification – Dresden had been part of East Germany – the investments came and many of the grand old buildings were rebuilt. The museums are world class. The restaurants are great. Cool hip neighborhoods. The running trails along the Elbe are heavenly. (OK, that’s idiosyncratic, but they have great biking/running trails for miles and miles along the river. Truly heavenly.)

A little quick history is worthwhile here since it’s pretty interesting and I knew nothing of it before we came. Dresden was long the capital of Saxony, one of many German states that made up the Holy Roman Empire (which was, of course, not holy, Roman, or an empire, but whatever). The Duke of Saxony was a Prince of Europe, but he was much more than that: he was one of just four lay Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, along with three spiritual Electors. The role of Elector was highly prestigious, even though by the 15th century the Emperor had become an inherited role in the Habsburg dynasty. Electors ranked above all other Princes and just below kings in terms of royal hierarchy. In fact, the electors’ title was Elector rather than Duke or Prince or whatever and, amusingly for me at least, their wives were called Electresses. Kind of like calling Michelle Obama the “Presidentress.” I wonder if we could get that to take off?

Finally, when Napoleon dissolved the empire in the early 19th century he raised the state of Saxony to a kingdom. Thus Dresden was a Very Important City over hundreds of years of European history. (And I should note that, looking a little further back, Saxony is also where those Saxons who crossed the English Channel to mix with the Angles and give the world the Anglo-Saxons came from. Being there was like finally being home.)

A small piece of the old Zwinger Palace, now a glorious museum of great masters

A small piece of the old Zwinger Palace, now a glorious museum of great masters

So now fast forward through World War II, the bombing, the emergence of the Cold War, and the dreary “recovery” experienced by Dresden and the rest of East Germany. Finally 1989 arrives, the Iron Curtain falls, Germany is reunited, and Dresden is rebuilt. The Catholic cathedral, the Frauenkirche, the Zwinger Museum, the Opera House, the Palace, and much more all rebuilt and beautiful. So today it is again a rollicking example of baroque and rococo masterpieces. What fun!

Bernardo Bellotto, aka Canaletto, spent several years in the mid-18th century painting landscapes of Dresden. This one, on display in the Zwinger Museum, would have been drawn from quite close to where our hotel is today.

Bernardo Bellotto, aka Canaletto, spent several years in the mid-18th century painting landscapes of Dresden. This one, on display in the Zwinger Museum, would have been drawn from quite close to where our hotel is today.

This is a part of a huge frieze in Dresden that almost miraculously wasn't destroyed in the War. It tells the tale of the Electors from the late 16th century through the 17th century, reflecting the changing styles and fashions over the years.

This is a part of a huge frieze in Dresden that almost miraculously wasn’t destroyed in the War. It tells the tale of the Electors from the late 16th century through the 17th century, reflecting the changing styles and fashions over the years.

The interior of the baroque Frauenkirche. Finished just 10 years ago, the church was rebuilt to the extent possible with rubble from the old ruins and based on pictures, plans, and memories of the original.

The interior of the baroque Frauenkirche. Finished just 10 years ago, the church was rebuilt to the extent possible with rubble from the old ruins and based on pictures, plans, and memories of the original.

Our hotel was on the right bank of the river, in what's called the "new" town, where most of the cool neighborhoods and restaurants and hotels are. I loved this lively fountain that was on our walk to our favorite places.

Our hotel was on the right bank of the river, in what’s called the “new” town, where most of the cool neighborhoods and restaurants and hotels are. I loved this lively fountain that was on our walk to our favorite places.

And speaking of great restaurants, this was one of the best Caprese salads I've had outside of Italy

And speaking of great restaurants, this was one of the best Caprese salads I’ve had outside of Italy

One more picture of the still-devastated Dresden from Mark's 1984 trip

One more picture of the still-devastated Dresden from Mark’s 1984 trip

And one more picture across the Elbe to the old city. I really loved this place!

And one more picture across the Elbe to the old city. I really loved this place!

The lovely Frauenkirche overlooks the main market square in Nuremberg

The lovely Frauenkirche overlooks the main market square in Nuremberg

Nuremberg is the second largest city in Bavaria and the largest in the region of Franconia. It is a lovely German town with an outsized and ugly history on the world stage.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the region provided the strongest base of support for Adolf Hitler’s rising National Socialist Party. Given Nuremberg’s strong historical connections to the Holy Roman Empire and its geographic position in the center of (then) Germany, Hitler chose the city as the site for huge Nazi Party conventions in 1927, 1929, and annually from 1933 to 1938.

To show off the might of his party and his nation, Hitler commissioned a massive complex of parade grounds and monumental architecture just outside the city center. The best and brightest soldiers from across the country were rewarded with trips to Nuremberg to march in massive rallies here in front of the Führer. These rallies are the iconic images of a defiant and hugely militaristic Nazi Germany.

The crowd looks toward the Führer's box at the center of the insanity at the Nuremberg Parade Ground

The crowd looks toward the Führer’s box at the center of the insanity at the Nuremberg Parade Ground

Jim stands in the Führer's box in what is left of the Nuremberg Parade Grounds

Jim stands in the Führer’s box in what is left of the Nuremberg Parade Grounds

During our visit we noticed something else quite peculiar about Nuremberg — an unusually strong presence of Christian proselytizing. Everywhere we looked little groups of people were pressing hands against each other’s shoulders and praying conspicuously. Or standing next to banners about the bible and handing out leaflets. Or strumming guitars and singing those really bad songs about how awesome God is.

We kept asking each other, “What on earth is going on here?” We eventually learned that Nuremberg that weekend was hosting a huge international Christian concert of some sort. Eager evangelicals had flocked to town from all over Europe to talk Christian talk, listen to those bad songs, and inundate the town with their sunny Christian demeanors. For us it was a truly bizarre juxtaposition with the history of mass brain washing already on display here.

After World War II came to an end, Allied troops chose Nuremberg as a fitting venue to prosecute leading Nazi war criminals. In the first and most famous round of the Nuremberg Trials, 24 leading Nazis were tried. A few were acquitted, several were given prison sentences, and 12 were sentenced to death by hanging. Of the 12 sentenced to death on October 15, 1946, only Hermann Göring escaped the hangman by taking a secret stash of cyanide that night. The other 11 went to the gallows the next day.

The unremarkable entrance to Courtroom 600 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice

The unremarkable entrance to Courtroom 600 at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice

The Nuremberg Palace of Justice today looks just like it did then. After visiting a lengthy exhibit about the trials, you can then visit Courtroom 600, which also looks exactly like it did the day those trials took place. And somehow the history feels even more real because it’s not just a museum, it’s a real courthouse. And real trials of real criminals still take place in Courtroom 600 today. Walking into that courtroom felt a lot like walking into the one in Monroe County, Michigan where my uncle used to preside — except you could instantly recognize the very spot where Hermann Göring sat day after day. That place really made history come alive for me.

Courtroom 600. In the newsreels of the Nuremberg trials, you see the defendants escorted each day through the little wooden paneled door on the far left and then seated in that box, with Göring in the leftmost corner.

Courtroom 600. In the newsreels of the Nuremberg trials, you see the defendants escorted each day through the little wooden paneled door on the far left and then seated in that box, with Göring in the leftmost corner.

The Congress Hall at the Nuremberg parade ground was never quite finished

The Congress Hall at the Nuremberg parade ground was never quite finished

While exploring Nuremberg we stumbled upon these musicians practicing in St. Sebaldus Church. It was wonderful to sit and listen. Even better, because it was just practice, it was free, and we could just get up and leave whenever we felt like it -- my ideal kind of entertainment.

While exploring Nuremberg we stumbled upon these musicians practicing in St. Sebaldus Church. It was wonderful to sit and listen. Even better, because it was just practice, it was free, and we could just get up and leave whenever we felt like it — my ideal kind of entertainment.

Beer, check. Sausages, check. Sauerkraut, check. Life is good in Germany.

Beer, check. Sausages, check. Sauerkraut, check. Life is good in Germany.