Sunday, May 17, 2009

Berlin - Rathen - Dresden


I have a new favorite European city. I LOVE Berlin! We spent 5 beautiful days in Germany's capital before venturing south to Rathen for a short hiking trip and taking the train to Dresden.

We saw Berlin from above and below - literally. We went up on the TV tower to get a panoramic view of Berlin and on an underground tour of a defunct part of the U8. The "Berlin von unten" guided tour was unsual in that the 2.5 hour tour led us through dark tunnels of the underground and ended in a WW2 bunker in which part of a hallway was blocked off by an original piece of the wall. For this tour, we had to bring a bright flashlight and wear rubber boots (boots were provided for us).
While many tourists head straight for the museum island, we only saw two museums - the Dali museum on Potsdamer Platz with a large collection of Dali's drawings (no oil paintings) and the DDR museum, which provided a glimpse into what life was like in the former East Germany.
The weather was picture-perfect so we took a boat tour on the river Spree which is lined with cafes and beergardens.

We then took the train to Rathen, a little town on the Elbe river known for the "Bastei", or sandstone rock formations, towering over it. Hiking in this area is just breathtaking and trails of varying degrees of difficulty lead through woods, towns, meadows and - inevitably - the next beergarten. We booked a room in a 13th century "burg" with a beautiful view over the river valley.
Our last part of the trip was spent in Dresden. We went on a special 2.5 hour guided tour that took us to Kurt Vonnegut's famous "Slaughterhouse 5". Vonnegut was a POW in WW2, survived the decimation of Dresden in the meatlocker of this slaughterhouse and later became a celebrated American author. Our guide, Grit, did a great job explaining the architecture of Dresden, its history and its ties to Vonnegut's novel.
Dresden is an eclectic mix of architecture - what's old is new and what's new is old. We were fortunate also to catch part of the Dixieland music celebration on the river. Dozens of dinner boats and a few real paddlewheel steamboats float up and down the Elbe while people listen to the music onboard and from the shoreline. The evening culminated in fireworks over the river.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To the Tulips

The Netherlands

We spent a weekend seeing Delft, Amsterdam, the tulip fields and gardens and the seaside town of Volendam. A boat tour of Amsterdam gave us a glimpse of the maze of canals and leaning buildings that line them. Also saw a tiny little bit of the red-light district.

What Disney World is to kids, the Keukenhof Gardens near Lisse, the Netherlands, is to tulip and bulb flower lovers around the world. Millions of bright-colored tulips and, apparently, no deer anywhere near them because all the bulbs and plants were intact. A must-see for any expat, just like the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.

We did a little shopping in Volendam - some Dutch specialties are sirup waffles, salty licorice and many different versions of wooden clogs.