There is some really old stuff in Heidelberg, Germany, the next stop on our train trip. St. Peter’s Church is nearly a thousand years old and the dominating Church of the Holy Spirit has been there for almost six centuries. I guess there was little of strategic value there during WWII since these treasures escaped the US and RAF bombing that other parts of Germany experienced. When the American troops arrived at the doorstep of Heidelberg, the German soldiers there negotiated a surrender, saving the city from destruction. I’m glad it worked out that way.
Jessica and I walked the streets of the old part of Heidelberg, taking in the sites that included old churches, the University of Heidelberg (Germany’s oldest university and the setting for The Student Prince), and the awe-inspiring Heidelberger Schloss (the Heidelberg Castle). The ruins of this former residence of the Palatine Electors (whoever they were) have been partially restored and now contain displays of objects found in and around the place, a coffee shop and even a wine tasting room where we could (and did) taste some of the local wines. Adjacent to the wine tasting space is, what we were told was the largest barrel in the world. It can hold over 55,000 gallons of wine. I asked what the point was of having a barrel that big, but no one could give me a reason.
After spending the day traipsing about the old town and strolling along the Neckar River, we went back to our hotel. On entering our room, we both noted the chill.
“I’ll put the heat on,” I said. I spent the next ten minutes playing with the alleged temperature controls mounted on the wall in the phone booth sized room. “The thermostat isn’t working,” I announced. “I’ll go talk to someone at the front desk.”
“I’m trying to put the heat on in our room, but the controls don’t seem to be working,” I said to the young girl at the lobby desk.
“Yes, that is because it is only October and the hotel has not yet put the heat on,” she explained as if this explanation were unassailable.
“But our room is cold. Are you telling me that, no matter how cold it is, there is no heat for the hotel?” I asked.
“No,” she replied matter-of-factly. “But, for Germans, it is warm enough.” I considered mentioning that we were not Germans, but she already knew that so I went back to the room where Jessica was waiting with a freshly-opened bottle of wine. There’s more than one way to keep warm.
Next stop: Berlin. For several years we had been reading about Berlin and its rebirth following the fall of the wall that bifurcated the city. East Berlin was doing its level best to eliminate vestiges of the past, both Nazi and Soviet. West Berlin had long ago disposed of its Nazi history and had become the city that a German capital should be. Now that the wall was gone, the former Soviet part of the city is fully integrated with its western counterpart. The city had developed a well-earned reputation as a cosmopolitan draw for artists, entrepreneurs and other creative types and we looked forward to experiencing the spirit of Berlin.
Our hotel was located in what-had-been West Berlin and was a short walk to the main shopping and restaurant district in that part of town. Our primary objective after checking in was finding a place for lunch. After the five-hour train trip from Heidelberg, we were hungry.
We passed a number of restaurants that, for one reason or another, did not appeal to us, starving though we were. As we approached desperation, we came upon a small eatery with Hebrew lettering on its sign. We thought, what the hell, and asked for a table for two. As we were led to the table, we passed the bartender.
“Did you hear about us on TripAdvisor?” he asked in slightly-accented English.
“No, we were just passing by and had to stop,” I responded.
“That’s even better,” he said with a smile.
The place is called Jacob’s Bar & Restaurant and bills itself as having Israeli/Mediterranean cuisine and that sounded wonderful to our empty tummies. The waitress presented us with menus and the bartender, who turned out to be Jacob himself, helped us to interpret the dishes. First up was mosabha that the menu says is “hummus, only better.” According to Jacob, this recipe for humus is 2,000 years old. As a second course, Jessica had the “Israeli pizza” topped with tomato sauce, tahini, eggplant, egg and feta. I couldn’t resist trying the meatballs when I saw the ingredients that included beets, pomegranate and yogurt. Neither of us was in the least disappointed. The food was so good and the environment was so lively that we booked for dinner the next night.
We got up early the next morning and walked to the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament. We started our tour here because that’s what Rick Steves told us to do. With headphones plugged into iPhones loaded with Rick’s (Yes, we’re now on a first-name basis.) walking tour of Berlin, we set off to explore the city. We passed through the Brandenburg Gate at the former border between East and West Berlin and took a side street to see the Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an eery and moving monument to an event that the German people will not allow themselves to forget. Even the use of the word “murdered” in the name of the site is indicative of the contrition which the German people have for this part of their history. The 2,711 gray granite slabs that cover the nearly 5 acre site provide a physical reminder that evil exists in the world and that we must be always on guard against its appearance.
We strolled down Unter den Linden, a broad, tree-lined boulevard that unsuccessfully combines Nazi- and Soviet-era architecture with designer boutiques and high-end restaurants. The incongruity of the form and the use of the buildings in this area of Berlin is actually disquieting. We arrived, at the end of the tour, at Alexanderplatz and I had a beer and a bratwurst. Jessica settled for a pretzel.
Now that we were properly nourished, we began a hike to see the East Side Gallery. We learned that, in 1990 in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a large number of artists were invited to create works on a 1.3 kilometer section of what remains of the wall. Over 100 artists participated and the result is the largest outdoor art gallery in the world. Most of the art springs from the politics of the time and I was struck by how many of the wall sections are now icons. I was also struck by the travesty of the tagging and defacing of the art by those with less talent and even fewer brains. There was almost no piece of art in the nearly-mile-long stretch that some moron had not seen fit to damage. I needed another beer.
We took a bus to the Berlin Wall Museum and, after spending a while there, headed back to the hotel, thinking about getting back to Jacob’s Bar & Restaurant and diving into a big bowl of mosabha.
We awoke early the next morning in order to catch the local train that would take us to the Berlin Bahnhof, the main train station. On the walk to the underground stop, we were entertained by some of the thousands of people preparing to run in the Berlin marathon later that morning and by the inebriated customers of the still-open bars. We were both sober and sane enough not to be about to run 26.2 miles so, all in all, we felt pretty good about ourselves.
Next stop: Prague.
Next: Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver & Chocolate – Part 3