August 21, 2018

Berlin part 2: Reunited and It Feels So Good

by Steve W

AMPELMANN, the Berlin Walking Man and symbol of the city
Coupled with the many monuments and references to World War II and the Communist regime, Berlin can be depressing if that is all one wishes to see. However, there are also many beautiful parts of Berlin to enjoy. Much of the city has been rebuilt after the bombings of WWII, but there are some older buildings still standing.

Built in 1791, one of the older sites that remains breathtaking is the Brandenburg Gate, a former symbol of a divided city. Remember that the City of Berlin was surrounded by Communist-controlled East Germany. To get into West Berlin from West Germany, one had to drive through East German territory and pass through the Brandenburg Gate. Shortly after the city was divided by the Allies (U.S., France, England and the Soviet Union), in mid-1948, the Soviets ordered a blockade of all forms of ground transportation (trucks, trains and boats) to West Berlin, cutting off the city from receiving supplies. The Western Allied powers organized an airlift that flew into West Berlin that was so successful, the Soviets called off the blockade less than a year later. But it highlighted the political differences of this divided city. After reunification, the Brandenburg Gate became a symbol of unity.

The Berlin Victory Column was designed to commemorate victory in the Danish Prussian War and was initially completed in 1873. Later, a bronze sculpture, "Victoria", was added at the top. The Nazis moved it from its original location in front of the Reichstag to a major five-way intersection, which probably saved it from destruction when the Reichstag was bombed during WWII. It stands 67 meters (220 feet) tall.

One of the most impressive newer structures is the Berlin TV Tower, the tallest building in Germany at 368 meters (1200 feet) high, with an observation deck at 203 meters (666 feet) high. Built by the German Democratic Republic (the Communist-controlled East German government) in 1969, the Tower can be seen from many parts of the city. Ironically, despite the anti-religious stance of the Communists, at certain times of the day the sunlight reflects off the globe at the top in the shape of a cross.

There is a mix of old, rebuilt old and newer modern buildings throughout the town.

Twin churches: one for the German Lutherans, one for the French Huguenots.

The Reichstag

There are also some world class museums, like the Pergamon Museum, which houses the Ishtar Gate from Babylon, created in the 6th century BC.

And this is only part of it!
There is also a Prayer Niche from the Beyhekim Mosque.

Berlin also has the Gemäldegalerie, which includes works by Peter Paul Rubens and Botticelli.

St. Sebastian, by Rubens

Venus, by Botticelli
As in many European cities, there are statues all over town celebrating persons of note from various walks of life, such as:

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels



General Bismarck
There is also a Museum of Musical Instruments that features keyboards and string instruments 400-500 years old.

Berlin has so much to see that we spent two weeks exploring the city and still did not see everything we had hoped to. As a major European capital, with a lot of history (both good and bad), Berlin should be on your list of places to go.

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August 16, 2018

Berlin Part 1: Destroyed by War and Torn Apart By Politics

by Steve W

Berlin was the capital of Nazi Germany, and even today there are many reminders of that horrific time in Germany's history. The Nazis destroyed many of the historic buildings in Berlin and many others were destroyed by the Allies bombing the city. Today, many of those buildings have been rebuilt in a style similar to the original buildings, but in some areas entirely new structures have gone up, some since the Communist regime ended in 1990.

In many places, there are monuments and memorials to those killed by the Nazis during the war. One of these is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. An entire city block contains dark grey concrete slabs to commemorate to loss of so many lives. While none of the blocks include the names of any of the victims, it is a stark reminder of the horrors of this war.

In a park-like setting is the Block of Women memorial to the non-Jewish women of Berlin who successfully protested the deportation of their Jewish husbands to Auschwitz.

Outside the Reichstag, the home of the Weimar Republic government prior to the war, there is a Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag, those 96 officials who attempted to stand up to the Nazi regime and were killed as a result.

There are also small brass plaques with the names of people who were killed after being transported to concentration camps. These small stones (called Stolpersteine or "stumbling stones") are placed in the sidewalk near the last known address or workplace of the victim.

Note the date of birth, date of deportation and date of death in a concentration camp.
A vacant lot, a parking area, and a sign are all that is left to mark the spot of Hitler's bunker, where he and Eva Braun, his wife of 40 hours, killed themselves. Or as Ricky Gervais once called it, "the world's worst honeymoon".

In recognizing the horrors caused during WWII, the Germans are intent on living up to the slogan "Never again".

The history of the city of Berlin since the end of World War II is a complicated one. After the defeat of Germany by the Allies (US, France, Great Britain and the Soviet Union [yes, the Soviet Union was on our side during WWII]) , the city was divided into four sections, each controlled by a different country. While the Soviets controlled East Berlin, West Berlin was controlled by the US, France and England. Adding to the complexity is that the city itself was surrounded by East Germany, controlled by the Soviets.

As might be expected, the Soviets erected a memorial to their soldiers killed in the Battle of Berlin.

For many years, there were no restrictions on travel between East and West Berlin and many East Berliners moved to the West for better living conditions and a better political climate. To prevent this, in 1961, virtually overnight, the East Germans built a wall around West Berlin, i.e., the Berlin Wall. Not until 1989 was the wall removed and free travel allowed families to be reunited. Soon after that, East and West Germany also reunited into modern-day Germany.

In many places around the city, there are reminders of the Wall. As we exited the subway near our hotel at Potsdamer Platz, one of the first things we saw was sections of the Wall.

All over town,there are bricks in the road or on sidewalks showing where the Wall used to be.

There is a long stretch of the Wall called the East Side Gallery where artists have been invited to paint sections with messages they felt were important. Some are whimsical, some are reminders of the past, and some show hope for the future.

Each rose on this picture represents a person killed trying to escape over the Wall

One of the most famous images on the East Side Gallery is titled "My God, Help Me To Survive This Deadly Love", showing a kiss between Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, and Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of the German Democratic Republic (i.e., East Germany).

There is also a Berlin Wall Memorial, where there are sections of the wall with signs describing the "kill zones" between the barbed wire fencing and the actual Wall, where people were shot trying to escape, and stones laid in the grassy areas showing where tunnels were dug for attempted escapes.

A small section of a larger display of photos of people killed trying to escape East Germany to the West.

Stones showing the path of a tunnel used to escape.
If Berlin was nothing but the scenes and locations above, no one would want to visit there, but the city is actually quite beautiful, as will be shown in our next post.

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August 6, 2018

Waltzing Through Vienna

by Rosemary

There are some things that simply must be done in Vienna. One is to visit the cafe at Hotel Sacher, where the famous dessert, Sachertorte, was created in 1832.

Black limousines are always lined up outside the hotel.

It's great with whipped cream.

The other thing we absolutely had to do was get dressed up and go to the opera.

Outside the opera house, Vienna has its own "walk of fame," dedicated to famous composers, conductors, musicians and opera singers.

Music and the people who make it are honored all over town. This gilded statue of Johann Strauss II (placed here in 1921) is one of the most photographed sights in the city park.

Literature is also remembered, with statues of many great writers throughout the city.

Like other German-occupied cities during World War II, Vienna was subjected to heavy bombing. Twenty percent of the houses were either completely destroyed or left uninhabitable, and thousands of people were homeless. Today, juxtaposed with the plain, hastily-constructed postwar housing, there are still many beautiful older buildings that survived.

There are modern buildings, too. The Haas House, a 1990 glass and concrete shopping structure designed by Hans Hollein, stands across the plaza from St. Stephen's cathedral, a Gothic church from the early 15th century.

St. Stephen's was undergoing a much-needed cleaning while we were there.

One of the church's many whimsical gargoyles.

Another church undergoing restoration was St. Charles Church (Karlskirche, dedicated in 1713). We were happily surprised to find that the construction elevator was available to tourists, for a rare opportunity to get a close look at the ceiling frescoes.

Outside, the church has two Roman-style columns wrapped with scenes from the life of the church's namesake, Charles Borromeo.

Inside, scaffolding supports the elevator that rises into the elliptical dome.

From the ground, this looks like a sculpture, but it is actually a painting.

From the top of the scaffold, it is possible to see details that are not clearly visible from the floor.

Near the Albertina Museum is a small plaza called the Monument Against War and Fascism, which recalls the years 1938-1945, when Austria was under Nazi rule. One of several sculptures here is "The Gates of Violence". Two large marble blocks are carved with images of war and horror. In front of the gate is a block of stone salvaged from the Mauthausen concentration camp, carved in the image of a Jew forced to scrub political slogans from the street. The monument was designed by Alfred Hrdlicka and dedicated in 1988.

The barbed wire seems to symbolize the figure's bondage, but it was actually added a few years after installation, to keep idiots from sitting on the statue.

The monument stands in contrast to the traditional sculptures and fountains that decorate the museum's exterior.

The Albertina Museum, once a royal residence, houses a collection of art from the Middle Ages through the 20th century.

Albrecht Dürer's "Hare" (1502) inspired some large, brightly colored figures that decorate the nearby streets.

"The Great Circus" by Marc Chagall (1970)

"Woman in a Green Hat" by Pablo Picasso (1947)

"Slender Bust on Plinth" (1954) by Alberto Giacometti

Another former royal residence is the Schönbrunn Palace, where the Habsburgs used to spend their summers. The main house has over 300 rooms. It is surrounded by over 460 acres of gardens, which contain fountains, sculptures, a maze, an orangerie, and the world's oldest operating zoo.

The "Roman Ruins" fountain.

The Habsburgs did everything big. In the center of town, near the huge imperial palace complex where the royals lived most of the year, is this huge monument to Empress Maria Theresa, surrounded by her generals and and the cultural leaders of the time.

We spent many hours walking around the city, viewing buildings, monuments, and scenery of all kinds. Vienna's traffic signals reminded us: Cross the street holding hands with the one you love.

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