Berlin

Traveling from London to Berlin was a long, puzzle solving day. We left our London hotel at 8:30am and arrived our Berlin hotel at 5:30pm (w/ 1 hr time change). The journey included the London “tube” to the train station, a train to London Luton airport, a bus from the airport train station to the terminal, a flight from London to Berlin (easyJet) and a taxi from Berlin airport to hotel. We figured it all out, step by step!

Day one in Berlin was a bit of a ‘down’ day, only in that we didn’t have anything planned. We needed to find new SIM cards for our phones so we could be able to communicate outside of WiFi. We also needed to square our transport to Warnemunde for the cruise on Friday. Thankfully, the hotel staff was able to point us in the direction of the grocery store across the street from the hotel where we could find the best price. We walked a few blocks of the city, into 3 cell phone stores, just to check that the grocery price was the best. It was. While at the grocery we picked up some food for lunch, which we ate in the hotel lobby while researching the Berlin to Warnemunde travel puzzle. Google Maps has been a best friend of ours. It does a great job of helping us get from ‘point A’ to ‘point B’, including underground train name, bus number, foot path, time of travel, time of next bus/train, etc. It’s a wonderful tool and we use it everyday. The travel to Warnemunde was the most complicated thus far primarily because of the language barrier. We tried working with the concierge, a nearby travel agent, and the website (which couldn’t hold it’s English translation) and still couldn’t get the tickets booked. I also tried calling the customer service number but couldn’t get through. We worked on this all afternoon, Monday. It was overnight in the US, so we couldn’t reach out to any of our friends. I sent an email to Patrick who responded early his Monday morning. By the time I saw his response I realized I was misdialing the customer service number by using the country code. <sigh> What an idiot! The customer service rep was very helpful and, by the end of the call, we had our round trip bus tickets to/from Warnemunde.

Tuesday we ventured out to the city. We stuck with our typical M.O. of a “Hop On Hop Off” bus, this time a 2-day ticket. We found the stop just around the corner from the hotel and started our tour. The full route was just under 2 hours. The tour recording points out specific historical landmarks throughout the city. Tours in Britain & Ireland identifies historic landmarks hundreds of years old. The history in Berlin is more recent, specifically 1933-1945. Berlin approaches it’s role in the Second World War very apologetically. The language used is humble and with shame. It’s quite remarkable.

The places of interest on Tuesday were the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial. The gate is one of the most popular sites in Germany and was once the main entrance to the city. On this day, however, we were unable to get too close to the gate. A large fence wrapped around it with a large staging area was set up behind. Unbeknownst to us when we established the itinerary, we are in Berlin on the 500th anniversary of The Restoration, also known as National Church Day. Also unbeknownst to us, President Obama spoke at the ceremony along with Angela Merkle. This explains the staging arena also set up across the street from our hotel.

 

Because there wasn’t much to see at the gate site, we walked over to the Holocaust Memorial site. I had no idea what I was seeing when we walked up. Vickie had been here before and she knew. It was the kind of thing you don’t see right away. It sort of unfolds the more you look at it. A full square block of concrete blocks in various heights. A very powerful site commemorating the tragedies that took place in this country. Beneath the ground is a bunker-style museum that unfolds the timeline of 1933-1945 in Germany. Facts, photos, and personal stories are on the walls, floor and other structures throughout the maze. It was so quiet in the museum. No one spoke in a regular tone, even the many high school kids that were clearly there for a school event. Powerful.

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We reboarded the tour bus with the intent of riding it back to our hotel. We didn’t realize, though, that the tour ended at 6pm, regardless of where the passengers boarded. At 6pm, the bus pulled into the nearest stop. The driver spoke through the speaker on the bus and told us, in broken English, ‘the tour has ended. get off the bus. see you tomorrow. thank you.’. We were in an instant ‘adventure’ in trying to figure out how to get back to our hotel. Another puzzle we were able to accomplish. We both think it’s fun. And, we made it back in time to Skype with my Gram.

Our Hilton “Diamond” status has really paid off this week. Not only do we have a very nice room, we have access to the Executive Lounge where we’ve eaten dinner every night. It’s usually some sort of soup, finger sandwiches, and bread along with beer, wine, and mixed drink ingredients. In addition to dinner in the Lounge, we get complimentary breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The food and savings have been great.

We decided that Thursday’s points of interest would be Checkpoint Charlie and the Wall. Both were within walking distance of the hotel. We took our time, walking along the bricked path where the Wall once stood reading all of the information displayed. Seeing and standing this place where so much happened is surreal. At the place where the actual wall remnant stands also stands the remains of a brick wall originally built for an elementary school in 1905 but then used by the leaders of the Gestapo. The site is appropriately called, “The Territory of Terror”.

When we’d taken in all that we could take, we found a little Turkish cafe and had a plate of Currywurst and a plate of Schnitzel. Currywurst is simply a hot dog with ketchup and curry powder. Schnitzel is a flattened mean, usually chicken or pork, breaded and fried. I love schnitzel and this place did it well. After lunch we found the tour bus and hopped on for another ‘spin’ around the city. When we boarded the bus, we were thinking of about an 1-1.5 hrs for one more look at this beautiful, historical city before being dropped near the hotel. However, because of the holiday and dignitaries in town, we spent 3.5 hrs on the bus only to be dropped again at some random location left to fend for ourselves back to the hotel. Another adventure.

We had planned to do laundry on Thursday so we could start the cruise with a clean slate of clothes, but after the craziness on the roads on Wednesday, we began to rethink the decision. The laundromat was 1.5 miles from the hotel but I was worried we would spend an hour in the taxi with the meter running. We thought maybe we’d just have the hotel do our laundry instead but then found out that, because of the holiday, there was no laundry service on Thursday. Of course, they would be happy to send it out for us… for double the cost. Um… thank you… no. We had already confirmed that the laundromat would be open on Thursday, so I decided to be there very early, before the city was awake, and save on the taxi cost. It worked. I hailed the taxi in front of the hotel at 6:15. No one was on the streets. It cost less than 10 Euros to get there. I was the only person in the laundromat for the first hour or so. I took the opportunity to call Kerry and catch up. It was so awesome to hear her voice. It felt like home. I was back at the hotel by 8:15. We spent the day listening to the foot traffic from the crowds attending the events in the square across the street, watching tv, packing and getting ready for the cruise.

The Best of Britain & Ireland – Final

The Irish Ferry back to Britain doesn’t wait for late arrivals, so Stuart doesn’t take chances that the bus will miss the ride. We had to be on the bus at 6:45 Friday morning. The bus drove directly to the ferry port and we boarded for the 4 hour sail back to Wales.  The ferry ride was quiet and uneventful. Vickie and I were both tired, but didn’t sleep on the boat although many people were sleeping.

After the ferry ride back over to Wales we made our way to Cardiff. It’s obvious we are nearing the end of the tour. The landscape is the same, so not as many photos of the green hill sides and livestock.

I had an opportunity to talk to Adi that morning before we left the hotel. She had had a bad day and, combined with missing me, was emotional. I’m glad I had time to talk with her. Despite the time difference, our communication is much more frequent, so far, than it was while we traveled in 2016. I look forward to receiving her texts every day around 5pm UK time. We aren’t able to get into deep conversation through text, but I appreciate even the superficial contact. Today was the third time we had spoken voice-to-voice. She seems to be doing ok. Her communication continues to be transparent and she is able to not only tell us what she is doing, but how she is feeling. The financial transparency around her paychecks and bills are still happening. And she told me she is staying on top of her housekeeping chores.  All of these things are triggers for her anxiety, so hearing these reports tell me she is doing ok, even though I am hearing a lot of emotion. We’ve come a long way in better understanding each other in the six months before leaving for Europe.

The optional activity in Cardiff was a Welsh Banquet. We were thinking we would be treated to an authentic Welsh meal at some cool, historical Welsh location with genuine Welsh entertainment. We got 1 out of the 3 assumptions right. The entertainment was performed by Welsh people. There was a main emcee, a harpist, and 3 young adult singers. The emcee worked really hard to engage the crowd and the singers had beautiful voices and performed lovely, traditional Welsh songs. But, the event was at the “Wales Millennium Centre” in one of the banquet rooms. It sort of felt like I was attending a conference and there should be a Power Point presentation on the wall behind the performers. The meal options were very limited and I opted for the vegetarian dishes. We weren’t the only ones disappointed. Several of us were hoping for something a little more ‘authentic’ and were sad that this is the final tour evening. Very anticlimactic. I didn’t even take pictures of the evening.

Saturday morning we woke with the anticipation of Stonehenge. First, though, was a stop in Bath. This city shows clear evidence of the Roman history in this part of England. Much of the architecture is still in place. We thought about taking a tour of the Roman Bath house in the center of town but decided against it since we only had a little more than an hour. We chose to walk the town, instead.

The final site stop of the tour was Stonehenge. It was like a picture out of a story book. We were given audio tour guides and sent on our way. The site has been modernly renovated with a visitor center, trams to the stones from the parking lots, and roped paths to protect the ancient structures. I was surprised to learn that there is evidence that these structures were built around 3000 B.C.!! Some of the stones used to build them came from an area around 100 miles away. There are still lots of mystery around this site:

  1. What was it’s purpose? Some believe it was some sort of worship site. Some say it was used as a healing site.
  2. How were the people able to move the stones? from their original location to here? and, once here into their current, upright positions? Researchers have conjured up some resourceful devices using wood to simulate tracks as a possibility. Others think the people may have been keen to the seasons and used the winter (ice) weather to ease the movement by sliding. And there’s always the possibility of sheer strength of a lot of people.

None the less, it was an amazing place to be. The thought of standing on ground where we have evidence of man over 5000 years ago was overwhelming. It reminds me just how strong we humans are. Despite wars, disease, famine, droughts, wildlife and other humans… we survive. We regroup and move forward. Technology has made the world seem smaller. We know so much more than the people before us. Places like this help me remember the ‘basics’. People are generally good and most want the same fundamental things.

Arriving back into London meant a couple of things. We had chores to do to be ready for the travel to Germany the next day. I found a nearby laundromat and we had agreed on the tasks that needed to be accomplished that day, despite our fatigue and desire to go out and ‘play’ with our new friends. We agreed that it would be best to get the laundry done in an English speaking area rather than trying to navigate a new language. Most importantly, though, it meant saying ‘good-bye’ to our new friends. The invitation to join the Aussie’s that night at dinner was a turn-around moment for us. My confidence had been restored. From that night forward I started engaging the people of this group differently. By the end of the tour I knew every person’s name, I knew a little something about most and I knew a little more about some. We had a really good group. The mixture of cultures made for great conversations for deeper understanding. We were asked by several about our ‘same sex’ relationship and lives at home since some parts of the world still do not recognize homosexuality as a valid way of life. We saw these people who, in the beginning, weren’t sure how to approach us come to accept and enjoy our company. We loved comparing everyday life details, such as raising children, food, driving habits, house cleaning tips, etc. We made friends and look forward to seeing many of them again in our future travel plans.

The Best of Britain & Ireland – Part 8

Thursday morning turned out to be another beautiful, clear, crisp morning. Kissing the Blarney Stone was Vickie’s “thing”. Her maternal grandfather was born in Cork County. She had been looking forward to this part of the world since the day I met her. For those of us on the tour that was interested in the Blarney Stone, Stuart had recommended we go do that first. We had been given 3 hours at this location, but had been warned that it would take at least an hour to go through the Blarney Stone site. A nearby cruise port had just docked and about 500 people were about to be unloaded into Blarney. We took the advice and took off for Blarney Castle as soon as our bladders had been taken care of. We paid the 15 Euros each to enter the Castle grounds. The grounds were beautiful with many gardens and lots of green grass. A Scottish bag piper was playing on the grass near the castle. There were gardens with vegetables and gardens with herbs. We found Cannabis (Marijuana) growing in the herb garden. Ha!

I had heard a while ago that you had to “hang upside down” if you wanted to kiss the Blarney Stone. I imagined the stone being on the edge of a cliff and the stone was just under the ledge. It’s not like I spent a great deal of time thinking about it, until the time was drawing closer. Only when we were standing on the ground, looking up to the top of the castle, did I realize the Blarney Stone was somehow part of the castle. We followed the signs and started walking through the short, narrow archways until we reached the staircase. There were around 150 steps through a winding staircase just barely wider than my shoulders. Thankfully there was a line, so we only took about 4 or 5 steps at a time to the top. There were about 4 castle rooms off the staircase where you could walk through and look out windows. Once we reached the top of the stairs, we walked around the top floor of the castle and then I saw where the Blarney Stone was. It was literally a stone in the wall of the castle. It was in what may have been the top of a window frame opening just beneath the level we were walking. At some point in ‘recent’ history someone had placed steel pipes across the width of the window opening and a member of the castle staff stood there. His job was to stand on those pipes, wipe the stone with a disinfectant spray on a paper towel, and help tourists kiss the stone. Another staff member was there to take photos that could be purchased. I had to lay on my back and stretch back at a slight arch until my face was in front of the stone.

I kissed the Blarney Stone.

 

The experience of climbing the narrow steps and seeing the rooms in the castle were equally exciting as kissing the stone. We were both elated. Vickie and I had taken pictures of each other with our own devices, but she wanted some souvenirs that reminded her of this “bucket list” experience. She purchased the photo and we bought a Claddaugh ring.

We were taken directly to the hotel in Tramore from Blarney. It was a beautiful, ocean front hotel and our room overlooked the beach area. The optional activity for the day was going a local Irish Pub. Once I saw the hotel, I kind of regretted having signed up for an activity; however, there’s no refund on the optional activities.

We had about an hour at the hotel before boarding the bus to the pub, Jack Meade’s. We were taken about 30 minutes from the hotel just outside Waterford. The pub was built around 1650 but didn’t start functioning as a pub until 1705. The owner, John Meade, paid 119 Euros for the property and has never changed hands. A man, representing the pub, took us to the front of the pub and told us the story of how the pub originated. There was a bridge nearly connected to the end of the pub that went over the road in front of the pub. The pub was there first, but the city found that the pub was built next to stone that was strong enough needed for the bridge. Although not connected, there was less than 12 inches between the base of the bridge and the side of the pub. We were taken into the front of the pub and were asked to speak to the few locals inside, which we all did. We didn’t get to stay downstairs with the locals. We were taken to the “loft bar” upstairs from where the locals were. The gentleman from the bar told us more stories and sang songs for us while we were served whatever we wanted from the bar. I had 3 Irish whiskeys during my time at the pub. Vickie had 2 Guinness. I was feeling no pain and no regret for participating in this activity. 😊 We had dinner at the hotel when we returned and then turned in for the night. We would have an early start on Friday to take the ferry back to Britain.

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The Best of Britain & Ireland – Part 7

Given our broken night, I wasn’t sure what to expect for Wednesday. I know I was tired and don’t function well on little sleep. Would there be discourse among the group? I had an extra cup of tea at breakfast and bought a couple cans of Coke for some caffeine assistance. There’s too much to see and hear along the road and I didn’t want to miss it while sleeping.

Today’s agenda was Limerick and small scenic stops around the Ring of Kerry which is a coastal drive along the southwestern part of Ireland. We were fortunate again with the weather and were able to see for miles along the coast including many small islands off the coast.

We stopped for lunch at The Scarriff Inn near Killarney. They were hit with several buses at the same time due to a traffic delay we all got caught in about 30 minutes before but the crew at the restaurant handled it with a very efficient process to get us food, fed, and out.

The optional activity of the day was a Jaunting Ride in Killarney. We have had a few horse drawn carriage rides over the course of our travels and had opted out of this activity. While the others were off on their tours, we walked to the Killarney Brewery for a tasting of the local beer. As we were crossing the road in front of the brewery Vickie misstepped and went face down in the road. The traffic was patient as she gathered herself and we got off to the side. Coupled with embarrassment and pain, it took her a few minutes to be able to speak. The first check was to ensure nothing was broken or seriously injured and, thankfully, she confirmed she was ok. We went inside the brewery and the bartender was very sweet in helping her get her scrapes cleaned up. She hadn’t seen the accident, but was proud to be able to use the First Aid Kit for the first time to help her. After the quick clean-up, Vickie enjoyed a few samples of the local brew so not all was lost.

The hotel in Killarney was similar to those we had stayed all throughout the tour, but the staff was great in handling the crowd. There was plenty of room for all of us to sit, which has not always been the case, and our meals were served with precision and speed. The best part of all was the absence of overnight fire drills to allow us all a good night sleep.

The Best of Britain & Ireland – Part 6

Tuesday morning, we set out for Galway, an old fishing village. It was raining when we arrived, but not badly. After finding the restrooms, Vickie and I spotted a miniature tour train and bought tickets. We were the only two on the train. It toured us through the village with a recorded message about the sites. While on the train, the sun came out. The driver stopped about half way through to pick up an additional two passengers. We were allowed to get off and get some good pictures of the Galway Bay. The train ride lasted about 45 minutes and was a great way to get to see everything. We felt quite proud of ourselves for finding and jumping on the train, especially after talking to our tour mates who weren’t very enthusiastic about their time in the town. Stuart recommended a place to get Fish ‘n Chips in Galway and the restaurant was slammed when they opened at noon. Because of the whole Yorkshire Pudding incident, I was skeptical about another ‘Stuart recommendation’, but we decided to go with the crowd. Having already given Fish ‘n Chips a try, I opted for the Chicken ‘n Onion Rings. Both of us were very pleased with our choices and with Stuart.

 

The weather has been quite favorable, even going back into our time in London. There have been a few days where there has been some rain, but it’s always been brief, light showers and dry for the majority of the day. We’ve even had sun about half of the time. The scenic drives have been beautiful and clear, able to see for miles and miles. Even the locals have commented how lucky we have been.

 

One of my most anticipated spots was The Cliffs of Moher, which was our second stop on Tuesday. Stuart had warned us that many times the cliffs are covered in mist and not very visible, but the sky was blue and the air was crisp. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for this truly amazing location. We hiked up the cliff to a small lookout tower that cost 2 Euros to the top. I stood there for as long as I could taking it all in. “Where Am I?!”

Our final stay was in Ennis at another local owned hotel. The evening event was another dinner show at the Knappogue Castle. It had a renaissance theme… sort of. It had been described as “midevil” in nature, so I was expecting a little more authentic styles and food. The meal was decent, but we used utensils which was out of the realm for the period. The skit was worse. It felt like a high school performance. We were disappointed and regretted purchasing this activity. One thing they did right about the time period is offer “Mead”, a fermented honey wine that is very strong. One member of our tour didn’t heed Stuart’s warning about moving slowly through the glasses and was very drunk when we reboarded the bus. Stuart took the opportunity to lead the bus in native bar songs on the ride back to the hotel.

 

We were jolted awake at 3am to the hotel fire alarm. Vickie and I grabbed our shoes, wallets and coats and ran outside along with the rest of the hotel. We had been in the courtyard for about 15 minutes when someone from the area of the office hollered “False alarm. Go back inside.” Needless to say, it was difficult to go back to sleep. Just as I was drifting off, around 4, the alarm went off again. This time I poked my head out into the hall and those of us ‘heads’ agreed it was another false alarm and went back to bed. The alarm at 6 was WAY too early!

Best of Britain & Ireland – Part 5

Once the ferry docked in Ireland, the bus took us directly to the evening event at Taylors Three Rock. All evening events are optional but we choose to participate when it allows us to get a closer look and feel to the culture. Our first evening in Ireland was a dinner show which included a comedian, dancers, singers, and musicians. Most of the tour participated in this event. The show was fantastic while the meal was mediocre. I enjoyed an authentic Irish Whiskey, Kilbeggan. It seemed to be stronger than the Scottish whiskey I tried a few nights prior. The comedian was an old man, probably late 80’s, who was hilarious! And the musical acts were superb. Very entertaining!

The next day, Monday, was a full day in Dublin. Stuart guided the bus on a city tour on the bus. The traffic was horrible. There is road construction all throughout the city along with just the busy car and foot traffic. Dublin is just like any other big city in that way. After the tour we were left to tour the city on our own by foot. I hadn’t had anything to eat yet that day since I had missed breakfast talking to Adi on the phone. So number 1 priority was finding a place to eat. Ireland uses Euros as it’s currency, different from Britain which uses the Pound, so cash was number 2 priority. Then we needed to figure out what we were doing wrong with our cell data. We had purchased a SIM card in London when we first arrived and had been using that all over Britain, but the one call with Adi that morning zapped the money I had just put on that card the night before. This was going to be a very expensive, or very detached, 5 months if we can’t figure this out. We found a mobile carrier store in Dublin and the sales guy was very helpful. Turns out the card we purchased is only good in Britain and we needed a different SIM card for Ireland. We now understand that we need to purchase a new SIM card for every country. We had been told this piece of information before we left but didn’t fully understand what that meant until we got to Ireland. We started to question our decision to go with the SIM card approach, as opposed to the International Plan with Verizon, but we’re committed and just need to stay as cost effective as possible with this plan. After our ‘cell plan lesson’ we had a good walk around on our own. Our bus took us back to the hotel so we could get ready for the evening event: tour the Guinness Brewery.

The Guinness Brewery tour was… ok. Not really my thing. I don’t drink beer and, of course, beer was a big part of the event. Vickie really enjoyed it. We had been told to ‘clean the slate’ on our opinion of Guinness and try it where it originated. Good advice, according to Vickie. Dinner was also included with our tour and the dinner was delicious! We will, however, start looking at how we select these optional activities differently. This is one she could have done without me, saving ourselves some money. I am enjoying getting to know the people on our tour, though, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Other than the first few nights, the hotels are small, local places. The rooms are decent size but very stuffy and the beds are not very comfortable. Some places we can at least open a window. I have my small travel fan, but that will only work when there is an electrical outlet near the bed, and that happens about 50% of the time. Also, most provide a “Body and Hair Wash” rather than body wash and shampoo. We are slowly shedding our ‘spoiled American’ skins and adjusting to our new way of life.

Best of Britain & Ireland – Part 4

The first half of the day was spent driving through Wales. The landscape is very similar to the rest of Britain: beautiful, green, sheep, cattle, hilly. Unlike Scotland, Wales (as a country) is quite content being closely connected with England. There is a unique language, Welsh, that is used by some as the primary language, but all Welsh people also speak English. We stopped for a short break in Snowdonia National Park, another small town gear toward the lover of outdoors. More camping, hiking, and walking. We walked around to stretch our legs. It’s been a challenge getting used to having to pay to use the “toilet”, the term most used for bathroom or restroom. Having the correct British coin to pay hasn’t been in the cards for us and isn’t fun when things are ‘desperate’. Thankfully, because we’ve increased our social circle, it wasn’t difficult to find someone to help us out in our time of need.

The last Welsh stop was in the town with the longest and weirdest name, which means “The Church of Mary in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysysilio by the Red Cave”: LLANFAIRPWLLGWYNGYLLGOGERYCHWYRNDROBWLLLLANTYSILIOGOGOGOCH. There wasn’t much to do in this town except get photos of the town sign and eat lunch.

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It was time to head to Ireland via the Ferry. We drove to the port and, without any security delay, boarded the ship that was a cross between a cruise ship and a ferry boat. The bus, along with several other buses, drove onto the ship. There are 10 decks to the ship, including a Cinema that was showing kid movies. We hung out on Deck 9 for the 3.5 hour ride.