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Walking the Basque country: Part 2

This is a continuation of Part 1

A little interlude…

I mentioned that our hotel had some interesting architectural features, including a glass partition dividing the bathroom from the bedroom, which I had nearly walked into the first day.  Overnight Tuesday, I was awoken by the crashing sound of Jean hitting it from the bathroom side. I had assumed that he just hadn’t quite seen it, same as me, but there was a bit more to the story.

He woke up in the night to use the facilities and, seeing a familiar bowl shape in the bathroom, proceeded to sit on that. Only it wasn’t a toilet; it was a bidet. And he sat on it in such a way that he activated the faucet, spraying water both on him and the floor, which he then slipped on, causing him to crash into the glass door.

He wasn’t really hurt, and I’m still giggling about it.

Wednesday

Wednesday was our “free day”. After the included breakfast at our hotel—which was very good—we decided to head back into San Sebastian and spend more time in that city. We didn’t catch the “express” bus we were expecting, but it still got us there, just with some extra stops on the way.

Since we didn’t want to lose our hiking momentum, the first thing we did was climb up Mount Urgull behind the Old City to get some views. We also visited the free museum in the castle there, which covered San Sebastian’s rather lively history. (As an aside, I was still battling a cold this day, and concluding that Spanish nasal decongestant wasn’t quite as effective as North American. But overall the congestion didn’t stop me from doing anything.)

Streets of San Sebastian

Mount Urgull in the background of San Sebastian streets

When we descended it was around lunch time, and we had resolved to have a pintxo experience. Pintxo are what the Basque call tapas, but apart from the different word, they also serve them differently that in other parts of Spain. Instead of just ordering them from a menu, they prepare them and lay them out on trays all over the bar. You pick up a plate and go through collecting the items you want to try. You then order a glass of wine, enjoy, then traditionally pay at the end (though sometimes have you pay before).

Some recommend having just one item per bar so you can try lots of them, but given that I think you’re expected to order a drink at each place—well, we didn’t want to be that hung over. So we aimed to try two places.

The first was just a random pick among the many bars available. It was a pretty good assortment of appetizers, and a nice Rioja, and we even found a place to sit (though again, it’s more traditional to stand and eat).

For the second we decided to aim for one recommended the Rick Steeve’s book, called Bar Zeruko, which had an “award-winning chef”. And it is true that everything we had here was a step above the first bar. For example, after putting our items on the plate, they took them from us to get all items to the proper temperature and re-plated nicely with the appropriate sauces and seasonings. It was quite busy here (as most places were), but we shared a table with a nice Indian family.

Playing in San Sebastian

Another San Sebastian scene

We then walked over the San Telmo Museum, which featured art and exhibits on Basque culture. Jean was overtaken with an “afternoon sleepy time” feeling (maybe it was the wine, maybe it was the crashing into glass walls), so he mostly rested while I visited the exhibits.

We then bused back to Getaria.

No group dinner was booked this night, of course, but our attempts to find a place to eat were frustrating. Almost every place listed in Trip Advisor was closed this day. Still not entirely sure if that’s a typical for Wednesdays in October, or if it was because they were resting ahead of the national holiday the next day, when every restaurant was open again.

At any rate, we ended up eating at yet another Pintxo bar, even though I didn’t feel like having that kind of food again, which at any rate wasn’t anywhere near as good as either of the bars we’d been to at lunch. Jean was saved from dealing with my full grumpiness about this by the fact that someone else from the group joined us for dinner, so I had to act at least semi-civil.

We redeemed the evening slightly by then going to a small deli restaurant for dessert—at least those were quite good. I had molten chocolate cake and Jean had this very interesting lemon-lime sorbet with cava (sparkling wine) thing.

Thursday

Today’s walk was apparently the shortest of the trip, and ended with a walk on the beach. Our start was delayed a bit, though, as it was Spain’s national day, which meant reduced frequency of public buses. So our bus ride to the town of Zumaia departed a half hour after we were expecting it to.

Zumaia

Zumaia is not too hard on the eyes

That also meant that there were lots of other people out hiking on this beautiful day. We did part of the el Camino again (again the less popular part). Then we did some walking on rock formations called flysch.

Cathy on the cliffs near Zarautz, Spain

Life on the edge

We ended up walking back in town, early enough in the day to take a little coffee break. With the holiday, though, we had to split into two groups at different establishments.

We then went to hang out at the beach. (It was really a tough day.) A lot of people took their shoes off. A few were surprised by a rogue wave, though no damage done—just slightly wet pants.

Flysch at the Beach in Spain

Most of the beach looked like your regular sandy beach, but it did have this neat part, with more flysch

There were also some caves to explore.

from inside the flysch cave

We then headed back into town to find an ice cream shop, and wait for the bus back to Getaria.

Reward after a tough, tough day 🙂

The group dinner that night was at a restaurant where the waitress didn’t speak much English, which provided some challenges. Now I’ll mention that the vegetarian couple on our tour had limited eating options all week in these small French and Spanish towns; none had a concept of vegetarian entrees. But at this place they weren’t even able to get minimal accommodations, such as putting an egg instead of ham on a salad.

For the rest of us, the food was pretty satisfying, I think, but there was the strangeness that at every course, everyone received their food except one person, who had to wait another 10 minutes or so for theirs. Even though it was inevitably another one of what  someone else had ordered. Not sure what was up with that.

Jean and I ordered clams, done two different ways, as main courses—not realizing they were more of an appetizer size serving. And of course, served with no veg or starch. Very good, however. And did leave us with ample room for dessert.

For that menu, we took out the Google Translate app, which caused considerable giggling as one of the desserts was being translated as “panties”. (Very avant-garde of them, serving edible underwear.) I stayed away from that item and ordered a truffle tart, which was very good, not overly sweet. Jean ordered the same lemon-lime sorbet and cava dessert he’d had the night before, but didn’t find it quite as good here.

For wine with dinner, we had the local white, txakoli, which was nice and fresh.

Friday

Now might be a time to mention that I had missed packing a few clothing items I intended—forgot to get them out of the laundry and into my suitcase. Thus answering the question I usually ask myself when packing: Do I really need to bring so many clothes? The answer to that is YES.

It was just a daily annoyance trying to pick among the clothes I did have to find something clean enough, suitable for the current weather, which turned out to be warmer than the original predictions. So those people who say you only need two pairs and three shirts: You’re nuts! Clothes are not heavy. And you don’t want to spend your vacation time hand-washing them. Bring enough to cover your days away, already.

Anyway. On Friday I hiked in my oldest, rattiest hiking pants and re-wore my lightest T-shirt, as this was predicated to be the warmest day yet: 26 degrees + humidity. Two people on the tour decided to skip this one. Both of them had sustained injuries after booking this trip (one to a knee, another to both feet) and though they’d managed to complete all hikes to date, they had decided that was accomplishment enough.

For me, the runny nose had stopped, so that was a relief. (It really was a cold of short duration.)

We started by taking the bus to the nearby town of Zarautz, from which we walked back to Getaria. Zarautz was distinguished by having one of the longest beaches in the region.

Zarautz Beach

Zarautz from the Mountain

View of Zarautz from above

The hiking route took us by many vineyards, all producing the txakoli wine we’d had the night before. Stéphane said that none were open for visiting, though people did seem to be waiting at one of them? I dunno. Would have been interesting to visit if we could have.

On this walk we did get into a little bit of political discussion, on Brexit (they opined it was a bad idea, and the fault of older people who won’t have to deal with it), Justin Trudeau and Canada’s native problem (Jean brought that up—ssh, don’t air our dirty laundry), and hunting policies of various countries. It all stayed pretty civil except for the Londoner insisting that London economically supported the rest of the UK, which the Manchester folks didn’t appreciate. But it didn’t seem to create any permanent tensions.

I guess because the two slowest members were not participating, the walk (billed as 12 km, but measured at more like 10) was done before we knew it, and Getaria came into view before 2 PM. (We also felt, even though it was just a week, that we had definitely improved our fitness compared to the start.)

Walking in the Vinyards above the Village of Getaria

Walking the vineyards above Getaria

We got back, showered and changed, than had a drink with the group and Stéphane at the nice hotel lounge. No group dinner was booked for the evening, and the rest seemed to be leaning toward pizza at the deli. Jean and I decided to just do our own thing.

We ended up at a place called Txoko. After we’d been seated, given our orders, and had started drinking our txakoli, we noticed the rest of the group arrive! They’d changed their minds and decided to eat here as well. But we anti-socially stayed at our own table.

We got quite good service here, and splurged a bit on salad, followed by clams, then a shared grilled sole, one of the more expensive fish options. It was all very good and fresh, though. We were kind of excited that the menu said the fish came with potato and tomato side, but it was such a tiny portion, it was sort of hilarious. (Tasty, mind you.) For dessert I went with rice pudding and ice cream, while Jean had creme brulee.

Saturday

Today was the last day of the tour, so the only items on the agenda were hotel breakfast followed by shuttle to the Bilbao airport at 8:30. Jean and I were not flying out this day, however. We’d had trouble finding any reasonable flights back to Canada with a Bilbao departure time of 11:00 AM or later. So we booked a flight back on Sunday, and added in a night at a Bilbao hotel.

From the airport, we expected to take a taxi to that hotel, but the bus driver agreed to drive us and the other three people on the tour who had also extended it by a day, which was very nice of him. Our hotels were only 200 m apart.

Despite our morning arrival, we were able to check into our room. It was a more typical European size, but nice. It was the first of the trip with an actual double bed, rather than two singles pushed together, and with a coffee machine. (No face cloths or Kleenex still, though.)

Bilbao is known mainly for its Guggenheim Museum. But it was predicted to be the hottest day yet—high of 30—so we decided to start with a visit to the Old Town. We toured two churches here, but neither was that impressive—Basque churches are quite plain compared with the amazing ones in other parts of Spain. We also walked through the market.

Stained glass in one of the Bilbao churches

Then we headed in the direction of the Guggenheim. It’s architecturally very interesting, so we walked up and around both viewing bridges before going over to it ourselves.

Guggenheim Bilbao

Guggenheim Bilbao

Outside they have a spider sculpture that is pretty much exactly like the one at the National Gallery in Ottawa (it is the same artist). There’s also a puppy monument that, Jean informed me, was originally just a temporary exhibit, but the people of Bilbao liked it so much, the Museum bought it for its permanent collection.

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Puppy at the Guggenheim

Some people on our tour who’d visited Bilbao on their free day had recommended the bistro restaurant at the Guggenheim, as did my Rick Steeves’ travel book. So we had decided to eat there. In looking for it, we followed the signs marked “Restaurant”. When we got to the entrance, there were a bunch of people crowded around the posted menu. I thought, we don’t really need to look at that, let’s just go eat.

Inside, though, was this very fancy, white linen sort of place. We were almost the only patrons at this point, and were outnumbered by wait staff. Then they handed us the menu.

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So, 110 Euros is about 165 Canadian dollars, otherwise known as notably more than we’d typically been spending for the both of us to have dinner on this trip. Should we just walk out and go to the actual bistro?

But it’s kind of awkward to just walk out, isn’t it? So we justified it. After all, we hadn’t managed to get into the fine dining El Cano restaurant we hoped to dine at in Getaria. We’d been eating cheap bag lunches all week. Let’s splurge!

My friends, all nine course were really exquisite, probably some of the best food we’ve ever had. And it was actually more than nine courses, as they started us off with an amuse of tuna, quail’s egg, and basil gazpacho. The house-made bread was herb, sundried tomato, and olive oil. Each item was sourced in a particular way that they told us about, shrimp from this particular cove where they were especially flavorful, baked beans elevated to gourmet levels but still reminiscent of baked beans.

We did not have the wine pairings, both because of cost and because we didn’t want to end up really drunk, but we each had two glasses that were really nice. I start with an orange wine, which is white wine given some skin contact so it gets colour, while Jean had a jura. He followed with a nice Rioja while I had a great blend of Pinot Noir and Txakoli wine, which I will never be able to find in Canada.

This would have been a great place to take food photos, as you can imagine the plating was also lovely, but Jean was a bit intimidated about doing that. Nearer the end of our meal, more people had arrived for lunch (most dressed somewhat casually, as we were), so I did take a couple with my phone.

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This was an extra dessert, not on the menu, of custard, macaroon, and chocolate beignet

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The coffee cups were interesting

We then went in to visit the exhibits. It’s all modern art, and not necessarily the greatest art collection we’ve ever seen, but I did enjoy this tall lighted work of cascading, thoughtful phrases; the huge Andy Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe collage; the Basquiat works; and this super slow-mo film by the featured artist, that was strangely compelling.

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim this year, and to celebrate they were doing a week of special video, music, and light projections onto the building’s surface at night. When we left our hotel for dinner later, tons of people were heading in that direction to watch it. While waiting for our selected Italian restaurant to open, we saw some of the show.

And Italian food was a nice change, though the restaurant was quite warm. Afterwards, we tried to walk back to see more of the presentation (which repeated in 20-minute loops), but it proved rather complicated getting there, and once we did, it was too full of people to get to a good view. Oh well.

Sunday

Sunday was just a travel day. We decided to avoid the stress of a fairly short layover in Paris by booking an earlier Bilbao flight, which meant getting up quite early, then having a long wait at the Paris airport. We were grateful for its decent wifi, and the comfy seats at the Starbucks, which was tolerant of us buying only the periodic latte.

The flight to Toronto was a couple hours longer than the one from Montreal had been, then on getting there, we had to wait a bit before landing. An early thunderstorm had prevented other planes from landing at their designated times, so our turn got pushed back a bit.

That then meant that more planes than usual were landing at the same time, which made customs a bit of a nightmare. They have this whole electronic scanning, take-your-photo thing happening now? (In Europe, they still just have a person look at your passport, you know?) Then even after that, slight wait for the luggage to be unloaded.

But it got there, we got there, drive home was fine, there you be.


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Walking in the Basque Country: Part 1

Jean had this trip in mind for a while. I was less certain about it, as I knew nothing about these places—San Sebastian, Bilbao, Biarritz—which meant I had no particular desire to go there. But when I read the description of the trip on the Exodus website, it sounded pretty good. So we went ahead with booking it.

We were headed to this part of France and Spain:

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These are the main cities (or towns) there:

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Friday / Saturday

It’s tricky booking travel to these smaller European destinations from Canada. We decided to try to fly into Bilbao around the same time as the rest of the tour group (flying in from London—Exodus is a British tour company). That meant flying to Montreal initially (on Westjet) to catch an earlier evening Air France flight to Paris, from where we got another flight to Bilbao.

So it was a bit of milk run, but everything went well, basically. The “long” flight was only about six hours. Then we had to go through security again (why?) and very slow passport control (unusual for Europe), but basically everything was on time and our luggage made it through. We arrived a bit ahead of the rest of the group, but eventually met up with our tour guide, Stéphane, then the rest of the group. We totalled 11.

We were then bused to our hotel in Ascain, France, which is too small to be on the map above, but isn’t far from Biarritz. Hotel room was small but fine, and the place had a nice patio out front and the staff were all quite friendly.  They also offered a quite delicious and sustaining daily breakfast (as we knew the “typical” French breakfast of coffee and croissant would not suffice for hiking).

Dinners were not included in the tour package, but for most nights, the tour guide did a group booking for us at a local restaurant, which generally worked out well. The only ongoing issue was that the concept of “splitting the cheque” seemed foreign in these parts (in both France and Spain), so each evening ended with us all having to do math to figure out who owed what.

The highlights of our first French dinner were the really great fish soup (mussels, scampi, white fish) to start, the fries that came with our duck à l’orange, my iced nougat dessert, and that Jean’s cheese dessert was offered in the form of: Here are several slabs of delicious French cheese. Slice off as much as you want.

Sunday

Now’s the time to mention that we were really lucky with weather: Though the Basque region can be pretty rainy, we had nothing but sun all week. Particularly in the beginning, it would start out cool then warm up nicely, followed by a cool evening. Later in the week the temperature trended up, almost (but not quite) to too warm.

The first hike was described as a “gentle walk perfect for stretching out our legs”. This was a ruse, as it actually had more elevation than most of the hikes (470m), and involved climbing and descending two mountains (small mountains, but still) and a hill. Plus, it was listed as 9 km but everyone’s mileage counter (including mine, on my phone) reported it as more like 12 km.

But it was nice.

St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

Overlooking St Jean de Luz and the Bay of Biscay

We saw some animals here, in the form of wild horses named pottocks. They are small and tough and were previously used in mines. More recently, they were problems with them mating with larger horses, such that they couldn’t get enough food in the mountains to survive the winter. Now, to preserve them—and though they are still considered wild—they have “owners” who ensure they get vaccinated (and presumably try to keep the larger horses away from them).

Wild horse in the Pyrennes Mountain's of Spain

A pottock in its natural habitat

They also do some free-range farming in these mountains, notably of the Basque pigs, who do seem to be living the good life.

It’s a pig’s life

With the first walk, we found we were able to keep up with the group and didn’t have too many sore muscles the next day.

Back in Escain, they were having an annual festival. (Nice of them to time it with our visit.) Part of the involved shepherds guiding some of the pottocks down to a pasture in town, so the tourists could see them without hiking in the mountains. A bit odd, but the horses didn’t look too unhappy being on view, eating their hay. There were also farm animals display, a competition of sheep herding by those amazing border collies, and market booths set up selling food and crafts. We got some lunch items here.

Group dinner was at a place that specialized in fish and seafood. Jean and I shared a very nice cold foie gras starter, with a glass of local sweet wine reminiscent of sauternes. I then had grilled hake, a local fish on many menus, while Jean tried the Basque specialty of squid cooked in squid ink. Very nice texture on that. We shared a crème brulée for dessert. This place was also the only one to help us split the bill: the waitress emerged with a calculator.

Monday

The Monday hike started with a ride to the most popular tourist destination of the area, the train station that brings you up the Rhune mountains. We also took the train up to what was probably the most spectacular hike of the trip. It was a cooler morning, and the clouds were low-lying at that point—it was very neat to be walking above them.

On top of the World

On top of the world

Pittoks (Wild Pyrenees horses) in the Moutain

More pottocks, less impressed than we were by the view

The idea was then to walk down La Rhune, and back up to the train station, take the train down, and walk back to Ascain.

This is the border between France and Spain

On the border between Spain and France, as marked by the stone

But after lunch (for lunch, by the way, we each to buy our own provisions from the local store before heading out), before starting our ascent back to the train station, someone asked about just walking all the way back from where we were. The guide agreed that it was a reasonable option, and that it saved us from having to wait around for the train. The group agreed on that approach, and we did see some interesting things on that stretch of trail.

Sheep grazing n the Pyrenees Mountains

Grazing sheep

A former hunting lodge (vulture hunting) now used by some hikers

Feral Pittok in the Basque Pyrenees

A pottock who isn’t too worried about us

At one point the group got split up, on a rocky path that were more of challenge for some (Jean and I were kind of in the middle) and ended up taking different paths down. But the guide managed to gather us all eventually.

La Rhune: group split on path down to Ascain panorama (Andrew's)

You take the high road, and I’ll take…

Our final French dinner was also nice, at Etorri. I had salad followed by squid with tomatoes and garlic, when Jean had duck and duck: foie gras then roast duck with cherries. And creme brulee for dessert (again).

Tuesday

Today was the day we moved from France to Spain, so we started with a private bus ride to Col de Sainte Ignace. The bus then carried our luggage on to our hotel in Getaria while we took a short boat ride, then walked into San Sebastian, where we caught a public bus to Getaria.

BasqueDay4_184of-4686_171010-HDR

Where we took a boat to start the walk

The trail head start included the exciting site of a public toilet (rare on this trip), so four of the women decided to take advantage. It had a system of lights we didn’t quite understand, but the door wasn’t locked, so the first one went in.

We outside then noticed that the light changed to yellow, then red, which seemed a bit ominous in itself, and then we heard this sound of whooshing water. Followed by some screaming, then B. emerging, pants unbuttoned.

“I haven’t had time to go yet!” she said. It started squirting water out all over, pointing to her speckled pant legs.

So, this was a self-cleaning system that activated after each person. Light green, you go in and do your thing, you emerge, light turns yellow, then red, and it sprays water onto the floor and seat to clean it, then green and ready for the next person. Kind of a nice system, really, for the rest of us in line. 🙂

This was one of the easier walks, which is good because the intermittent sore throat I’d noticed the past two days had evolved into nasal congestion, which meant hiking with a copious supply of TP (European hotels don’t supply Kleenex, period) for nose blowing. It did start with a quite a few stairs going up, but then was largely flat until we later descended into San Sebastian. Here we were walking on part of the famous El Camino trail, albeit its less popular (because harder—more elevation) northern end.

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Approaching San Sebastian

San Sebastian was a bigger place than most of us were expecting. We had about an hour here before needing to take the bus, so we prioritized finding a place with coffee and washroom. We followed that up with ice cream before getting the inter-city bus to Getaria.

Our hotel there, Hotel Saiaz, was one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at in Europe: Quite spacious and interesting architecture and room design. (Including a glass door to the bathroom which looked cool, but will lead to a funny story later.) It also had a fridge, which was handy.

We walked around Getaria a bit, getting cold supplies at a pharmacy where the pharmacist spoke excellent English (not always a given in these parts) and locating the Michelin-starred restaurant Jean had read about (El Kano). Unfortunately, with the combination of a food expo in San Sebastian and the national holiday Thursday, they were all booked up for the week.

Our dinner this night, as it would be the case each night, was booked for 8:30, as the Spanish don’t think anyone should eat their final meal of the day any earlier than that. I started with white asparagus, since Spanish main courses don’t include any sides—just whatever protein you order. (Jean nevertheless had foie gras again.) The asparagus was very good—fresh and flavored with olive oil. We then both had the sea bass, which was nice. I ordered a peach dessert which turned out to be… canned peaches. (Seriously?) Jean did better with the rice pudding.

Spanish menus also don’t routinely include wines by the glass so we got a bottle of Rioja. (At least the wine is fairly cheap.) It was good, but we weren’t able to finish it.


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A bewildered Canadian on a world gone mad

It’s Canada Day. And right now the world is giving me many reminders of how lucky I am to live here.

1. That Quebec’s referendum on separation was defeated.

I wasn’t paying much attention to Brexit until a couple weeks before it happened, and even then I was thinking that surely they wouldn’t vote Leave? Watching the results come in reminded me so much of the horrible Quebec separation referendum of 1995. A full night of tension (following weeks of worry on a vote I, an Ontarian, couldn’t even participate in) watching the movement of a Yes (separate) / No (stay) line on television.

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That nail biting time before the needle moved to the side of good

But then, while the Yes started out strong, it gradually swung toward the No, who ended up taking it with a 0.6% margin. Whereas Great Britain’s vote was the opposite: A strong initial showing for Stay giving way to Leave, who took it with 2% margin. (No matter how many times I refreshed my browser.)

What would have happened to Canada had it gone the other way? Great Britain’s experience is giving us an idea:

  • A precipitous drop in currency.
  • Tumbling stock markets, with the UK dropping from the 5th to the 6th world economy overnight.
  • Expected rises in unemployment, debt and lowering of GDP and growth.
  • A Leave team with no plan for how to exit.
  • Political disarray all around, leaving no party or leader currently able to effectively govern through the chaos.
  • Regions (Scotland, Ireland, London) unhappy with the result talking separation of their own.

For Canada, it would have been all that, only worse. (For an idea just how ill-prepared the country was for the possibility of a Yes vote in the Quebec Referendum, read Chantal Hébert’s The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was.)

And just for the record, Leave voters in Great Britain: What you did was crazy. Your country had a great deal in the EU: you were allowed to retain your own currency and greater control over your own borders than other countries, while still enjoying full trading access and movement of workers. And you gave that up for what?

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2. That recent attempts to win Canadians’ votes through xenophobic appeals have failed.

While a number of factors inspired Leave voters, the wish to reduce immigration—particular a certain kind of immigrant—was among them, as evidenced by the unfortunate increase in hate crime and racist abuse since the vote (as though racists now feel “allowed” to air their views). Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee for US President wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country (“til we figure out what’s going on”) and build a wall to keep out Mexicans. And France has their National Front party. And so on…

But similar appeals haven’t met with success in Canada. In Quebec’s (them again) 2014 election, the Parti Québecois ran, in part, on a “Charter of Values” that would have banned public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols:

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This bill was so popular in polls, the PQ used it try to turn their minority government into a majority. It didn’t work. After a fairly disastrous campaign by the PQ, it was the Liberals, who opposed the Charter, who were elected with a majority of the seats. With the added bonus that the spectre of another Quebec referendum on separation retreated further.

Then in the 2015 election, the ruling Conservatives appeared to gain ground in polls after they pledged to ban the wearing of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, and to set up a barbaric practices tip line. [This is when I had to check out of Canadian election coverage for a while, as I was so distraught.] But the end result was, again, a coalescing around the Liberal party, who were foursquare against both proposals (and, it must be said, who generally ran a brilliant election campaign).

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A plurality of Canadians chose hope over fear

Upon election, Liberals walked the talk, dropping the court case on the niqab ban, and most notably, welcoming 25,000 (and counting) Syrian refugees, moves that have only made them more popular since the election. Americans look on it in wonder, from The Daily Show to the New York Times:

Why? Well, Vox Magazine says it’s the outcome of decades of Canadian government fostering tolerance and acceptance as core national values. As a result, most Canadians see immigration as an opportunity, not a problem; as something that improves rather than threatens the nation. Apparently, Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world.

3. That our current government is (mostly) pro-trade

One of the most confusing results of the Brexit vote, to me, was the cavalcade of federal Conservatives MPs who tweeted their approval—the only Canadian I’m aware of who did so. But isn’t Conservatives supposed be all pro-trade, because it’s good for business, while it’s the lefties who are opposed, fearing it’s bad for labour?

And yet there’s Trump, spitting about pulling out NAFTA. What? When did this turn around? (Harper’s government, it must be said, was most definitely pro-trade, making the MPs comments all the more confusing.)

So it was another interesting bit of timing that this week was the NAFTA summit between the current US President, Canadian Prime Minister, and Mexican President.

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Too bad they’re all men (but this US will be changing that soon, right? right?), but a fine-looking trio they are

Their big message: Trade is good. Countries are stronger when they work together. Globalism brings prosperity. And it was all capped off by one amazing speech President Obama gave in the House of Commons:

And what makes our relationship so unique is not just proximity. It’s our enduring commitment to a set of values, a spirit alluded to by Justin that says no matter who we are, where we come from, what our last names are, what faith we practice, here, we can make of our lives what we will.

Watch or read the rest here.

It was heart-warming, and for a while, one might forget that it remains so much easier to cross borders in Europe than it is to move between the US and Canada, that we have to pay duties on even tiny online purchases from the US, and absolute absurdities such as Canadian inter-provincial (!) trade barriers that cost our economy billions.

So there’s a lot of work to do on this one. But at least it seems the intent it to make things better, not worse, on this front.

Cause that’s the Canadian way.

Happy 149, Canada.

 

 


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Dining in Berlin

The Hackescher Markt area of Berlin is the one end we ended up dining in the most. We went there first on the Monday, aiming for an Italian restaurant named Muret La Barba. We knew it was wise to try to arrive before the peak dining timing of 8:00 pm, but we were still figuring out the transit system then and weren’t able to meet that deadline. And therefore weren’t able to get a table.

For the next night, we made a reservation. That was tricky, as they were pretty busy that night as well, but we did nab one for 6:30 pm. When we arrived we were offered a table we’d have to vacate by 8:00, or we could sit in the bar area by the window and stay as long as we’d like. Jean selected the window because he thought it was a better spot anyway—he has trouble with accents and hadn’t caught that it also allowed us to eat at leisure.

A few things we gradually learned about dining out in Berlin:

  • They just don’t bring you your bill until you ask for it.
  • Berliners tend to like to linger over their meals, so if the place is full at 7:30, you’re likely not getting in at all that day.
  • Your server will speak at least some English, but don’t count on an English menu being available. Might be, might not.
  • The Google Translate app allows you to use phone’s camera to translate Germans “on the fly” into English.
  • Getting credit cards accepted is not so much a problem as it used to be. But, there is no tip option. You have to tell the server in advance how much tip to add to the credit card bill. (Typical tip rates there are 5 to 10%.)
  • If tipping in cash, you don’t just leave it on the table. You give it to the server.
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Google Translate app

We hadn’t figured all of that out by Tuesday, however, and were still wondering why the constant delay in getting our bill, and ended up not leaving a tip despite the fine service. Oops.

But, it was a lovely meal. They make their own wine there, and were able to recommend an interesting white to start. We intended to have just a glass each of that, with the idea of trying another, but they just left the whole bottle there after pouring us a glass each, for us to take as much as we wanted, and turned out what we wanted was the whole bottle.

As for food, we started by sharing a bread and cheese plate with walnuts, pear, and honey. Then I had the linguine con vongole (“with clams”) in a white wine and garlic sauce, while Jean went with a delicious mushroom ravioli in cream sauce. We shared a crème brulée for dessert, and each had a decaf espresso.


Tuesday we were back in that same area, this time trying a vegan restaurant, believe it or not: Kopps. And it was fantastic. They gave us an amuse to start, then Jean had a delicious cauliflower and peanut soup, while I tried the asparagus tart.

Vegan Soup .... Um Um Good!

Not sure why the soup is green, but it was some good

Vegan Veggie Roll :)

It was a spring roll-like tart

As mains, Jean had amazing gnocchi with eggplant and beet. I had barley risotto with asparagus (again!) and apple—the apple really made the dish “pop”. We enjoyed these with different glasses of German whites.

For dessert, we shared a plate of faux cheese—made with nuts and so on, and served with fruit such as figs and strawberries. Jean was kind of disappointed it wasn’t really cheese (which he knew going in, but still), but I thought everything was quite good. The waiter recommended having beer with that, and it seemed so odd to me, I ordered it. The beer was delicious! (I think it’s only Canadian beer I don’t like.) Jean had a kir royale type of drink that was also very nice.


Our lunches tended to be fine but not worth blogging about—all right udon, OK Chinese, acceptable Turkish. On Thursday lunch time, we were in the Charlottenburg Schloss area of more touristy restaurants. We though it time to finally have German good, at Brauhaus Lemke. We had a congenial waiter who commented on the number of Canadians he’d served that week—in fact, a couple were at the table behind us. And the place had a nice ambience, and a history, explained on the menu.

The food wasn’t terrific, though. German’s not our favourite cuisine anyway, and I’m not sure this was the best exemplar of it. I had duck, and the meat right under the skin was nice, but overall, it was overcooked. It came with some actually very good red cabbage, but pretty mediocre dumplings. Huge portions! But we left quite a bit.

The place was also a brewery, so we each had a beer. Both of those, my friends, were delicious!


After that heavy lunch, we weren’t up for a big meal. We considered trying to do something cool like go to a jazz club, or out dancing, but finally just settled on a wine bar.

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Vivent les vins… Libre!

No complaints here about the quality and choice of wines, many of which were French, or the food: We had a couple cheese plates (actual cheese, this time), a buffalo mozarella and beet dish, and another built around bacon and eggs. The only problem was that our waiter wasn’t very attentive. The whole pacing of when items arrived was a bit off; we’d have to wander off and go look for him when we wanted to order something else. So it was a nice evening—but not perfect.


Our best lunch was Wednesday, at the beautiful Café-Restaurant Wintergarten, facing a garden. Their white asparagus soup was incredible, but even more important was that it put an end to our streak of breakfast problems.

We’d decided not to go with our hotel’s breakfast buffet, as it was kind of expensive, and we’re not big fans of buffets. We’d thought that the nearby train station restaurants might be suitable for this simple meal, but… Honestly, if we’d been OK with just pastry and coffee for breakfast, that would have worked. German pastries are almost as good as French, and I experienced no bad coffee all week. But French experience had taught me that pastry breakfast leaves me hangry by lunchtime, so we were looking for something more substantial to start the day.

Googling breakfast places did indeed find others, but they just weren’t that good. So when we saw that Café-Restaurant Wintergarten served breakfast daily til 2:00 pm, it seemed perfectly reasonable Thursday morning to take the 20-minute train ride there to eat it. Finally, five days in: A delicious start to the day! (Belgian waffles with fruit, in my case.)

Then Friday, after sleeping in, we took a ride in a different direction to the place Lonely Planet advised offered the best breakfast in Berlin: Chipps Restaurant. It was totally worth the subway ride and walk. Jean declared his Hollandaise eggs delicious. I loved my “lumberjack” breakfast of French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, and greens. Due to concert timing, this turned out to be a two-meal day for us, so just as well we started with a hardy one.

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I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK… Photo from Yelp


Saturday night I was hoping to get a nice final dinner, but doubtful I would given, that we were in a random tapas restaurant. German tapas. Not Spanish.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the nice little dishes that were served. Exquisite mashed potatoes with truffle oil. Tender sole with tomatoes. Lively beets and walnuts. Tasty roast potatoes in walnut oil. Fresh tomato bocconcini. Creative fried cucumber (Jean left that one to me). Everything was great.

 


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Other Berlin highlights

Berlin has a lot to offer besides memorials to its Wall. Initially I’d thought that since we were staying in the city a whole week, it should be pretty relaxing—that we’d be able to take in activities at a leisurely pace. Wasn’t quite what happened. (Maybe we’re just not that good at relaxing.) Berlin is pretty sprawling, and we wanted to see different parts of it. So while it wasn’t really stressful—at least not that often—it definitely felt like we were always on the move.

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Berlin neighborhoods. Map By TUBS – Own work

This is some of what we saw (that I haven’t already covered).

Holocaust Memorial (Monday, Mitte)

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is in a kind of a maze design. It was interesting, but strangely… Playful, for a Holocaust Memorial? Especially since a lot of kids were, in fact, playing a sort of hide and seek in it the day we were there? And the interpretation centre was closed, and we didn’t get back to it, so we got no clues from that. Worth seeing, but unexpected.

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Members of Adam Lambert’s band at the Holocaust Memorial, same week but not same day we were there. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEwBO4uIMve/?hl=en

Topographie of Terrors (Monday, Mitte)

This site had panel exhibits on the Nazi rise to power and the subsequent effects on the population of Berlin. I found it quite interesting, especially learning (or being reminded) that after a period of economic hardship and high unemployment, Hitler and the Nazi party failed to gain an outright majority in the election: They got 42% of the vote. Now, that’s enough for an outright majority in Canada’s electoral system, but in Germany, Hitler had to pass laws giving him the ability to govern basically unopposed. He did this with the support of several minor parties. The ones who weren’t on board later found themselves harassed and arrested.

Pergamon Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Pergamon contains these huge installations re-creating Greek courtyards and Babyloninan palaces. I’ve never seen anything like it. And the included audioguide explained the effort in bringing these huge pieces over to Germany from where they were found, back in the day when Germany was the per-eminent archaeological nation.

The 2nd-century-B.C. marble Pergamon Altar

A big chunk of Greece inside a German museum

Neues Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Neues (“New”) museum, as I’d mentioned, we liked even more than the Pergamon. The building itself is lovely: “a dynamic space that beautifully juxtaposes massive stairwells, domed rooms, muralled halls and high ceilings”, as Lonely Planet puts it. The exhibits are a mix of old and new, such as artifacts from Troy along with a sociological look at the meaning of moustaches over time.

Neanderthal Likeness reconstruction from a skull

Computer modelling was used to determine what this Neanderthal looked liked, based on his skull. Cool, eh?

Neues Museum

The Neues has a particularly great collection of Egyptian artifacts

The major showpiece of the Neues is the bust of Nefertiti—but that, you are not allowed to photograph. It is indeed a stunningly beautiful piece. (The much less well-preserved bust of her husband is also on display here.)

City West sights (Wednesday, Charlottenburg)

To get here we had to take the U2 to Zoo Station, meaning that I had this song stuck in my head all day:

U2 Zoo Station – official / unofficial video

Our first stop was at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche [honestly, these German words], a church that was bombed during the second world war. Its been left in its damaged state as a war memorial. The remaining room is lovely, with painted roof and frescoes, and exhibits some interesting artifacts and photos of how the church as a whole once looked.

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Found photo, as construction made it difficult for Jean to get a good shot of this building

Zoo station is so named because it does overlook the Berlin Zoo, which we didn’t go in and visit (though it’s supposed to be quite good), but we could see the monkey and baboon cages from the rooftop terrace of Bikini Berlin, a mall we visited just to gawk at its gorgeous interior, and not toshop at. (We were terrible consumers in Berlin. Didn’t buy anything.)

The Käthe-Kollwitz Museum we visited largely because it was a convenient fill-in between lunch and the Story of Berlin Museum. Described as Germany’s greatest woman artist, she was very talented, especially with her lithographs, many of which had a maternal theme. But due to demands of motherhood and, especially, limitations placed on her during war time, she wasn’t able to produce a great deal of work.

Strangely for people who like art galleries and museums, that ended up being the only one we visited. We didn’t make it to the National Gallery, the Art Museum, or the Salvador Dali Museum.

Berlin's National Gallery

All we saw of Berlin’s National Gallery: Its impressive exterior

Schloss-Charlottenburg (Thursday, Charlottenburg)

When we found that the train deposited us in downtown Charlottenburg rather than at the castle site, we decided to walk to it rather than take the bus. The Schloss sight has four buildings you can visit, but the most impressive one is one we started with, the New Palace. This was the home to a series of German royals past, each of whom seemed to want to build their own wing of rooms when they took over, rather than occupy what was already in place. So the palace is quite large and reflects a variety of decorating styles. Though partly destroyed in the war, enough of it remained for reconstruction to make sense.

The New Palace audio-guide (most Berlin museums included an audio-guide free) was one of the best I’ve encountered, perfectly timed to guide your walk through the series of grand and slightly less-grand rooms.

Charlottenburg Schloss

Many statues are displayed at Schloss-Charlottenburg. I love this one.

Charlottenburg Schloss

And this is a cool photo

The remaining buildings were not as grand, but were worth taking a stroll through on the the pleasant garden grounds. The Altes, an older palace, is used to exhibit art (and, OK, I guess that is another art gallery we saw)—and had a remarkably poorly timed audio-guide! The Belvedere exhibited a whole lot of porcelain. The Mausoleum had a very impressive interior, with marble, and columns, and statues.

Stone Veil

Not a mausoleum picture (still from the New Palace), but pretend it is

Postdamer Platz (Thursday)

Postdamer Platz is called a “square” but is more like a disorienting set of intersecting streets with the same name. So it took us a while to get oriented, but once we did, we decided to visit the Museum of Film and Television, which is free later in the day on Thursday. I, who had studied how influential Germans were in the early history of cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariMetropolis, Greta Garbot, Leni Riefenstahl), found it much more interesting than Jean, who was not aided by his audioguide running out of battery. The only part he somewhat enjoyed—which I also found fun—was the special exhibit on all the Oscar Best Actress winners through history.

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We saw this famous dress of Cher’s “in person” at Berlin’s Museum of Film

River cruise (Friday, Museuminsel)

Most of the week in Berlin, the weather was unseasonably cool. Friday that finally turned around, and we got a beautiful, warm, sunny day. It felt that all of Berlin was out in parks, basking in the warmth. We decided it was time for a River Cruise.

Berlin TV Tower and TV Fan!

Finally enjoying the warmth! That’s Berlin’s highest structure, the Fernsehturm or “TV tower”

It was a good, one-hour tour. You did get a different view of Berlin and its buildings from the water, and we were supplied with English audioguide as to what we were seeing, though the geographic organization meant we were sometimes jumping in history in a somewhat confusing way.

Berlin River Tour

The Berlin Dome viewed from the water. Complete with construction cranes.

Potsdam (Saturday)

Potsdam is a popular day trip spot from Berlin, being about a 40-minute train ride away. Although our trip was slightly longer, because they were doing some track work on the final part, so we were moved to a bus for that bit.

On the way I’d read about a tour that sounded as though it would be good, taking us to all the main sights in the town, with a guide. The tour representative was there to meet our bus, and when we were 5 Euros short of the quoted price, just accepted that.

It was nice not to have to figure out how to get ourselves everywhere, for once. But what we hadn’t realized was that we wouldn’t get to go inside any of the museums or castles: just see the exterior, led by a guide who had to alternate between German for one group and English for another.

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Potsdam Schloss and Park Sanssouci (the French word, meaning “without worry”). Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Still, we did learn some things about the Prussian emperors who once inhabited these palaces, such as that they spoke better French than German, and that they introduced the potato to German cuisine.

After the tour, we would have had time to head back to one or more of the sights and tour inside, but we decided to just spend some time in the fairly charming old town instead.

Among the other sights we did not get to:

  • Museum of Photography
  • Tiergarten (like Central Park in New York; we only saw the edges of it)
  • German Historial Museum
  • Parliament tour
  • Checkpoint Charlie—We did walk in the area, but didn’t really go in anywhere
  • Planetarium
  • Aquarium
  • Jewish Museum

But I still think we did all right.


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Tear down the wall

Modern Berlin is vibrant. Its streets are always busy, though never uncomfortably crowded. Its people are a multicultural mix who speak a variety of languages, with German predominating, of course. The population is pretty stylish. That it’s a pretty open, liberal society is apparent in various ways, from the casual beer drinking by people on subways cars on the street (not drunks; just people enjoying a beer); the mant sex shops and clubs; even the sweet, candy-cotton waft of e-cigarette smoke.

And it certainly seems economically healthy, with all the construction projects foiling Jean’s photography attempts, the many high-end designer shops available, the architecturally beautiful new malls like Bikini Berlin,  and the relative scarcity of homeless people—far fewer than you see in large Canadian cities.

Berlin Dome

The Berlin Dome—one of the rare older buildings in modern Berlin

Berliners are well-supported in their desire to move around. Admittedly, the new airport is stuck is some of construction limbo, and the current one seems a bit dated. (It’s convenient that you go through security right at your gate, and disembark from the plane right where your luggage is, but there’s a notable lack of airport services.) But the transit system… amazing! It took us a few days to figure out it—the light rail (M trains), the surface trains (S-Bahn), the subway (U-Bahn), the regional train, the buses. But then—sometimes with help of Google Maps—it got us everywhere we wanted to go.

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Berlin transit map

We did notice some police presence—always around the Jewish synagogue, often at the main train station: one day we emerge to a whole lineup of police officers at the ready with riot gear. But it seemed clear this was about protecting, not repressing the population.

I think that’s why all the memorials to The Berlin Wall struck me so profoundly. The contrast with the present was so stark.


That Berlin was a city once divided by all wall into communist East and democratic west was the main thing I knew, going in. Today almost all of the Wall is down, and you can’t tell East from West—not by architectural differences, or weird road designs, or anything.

The main memorial remaining is the Gedenstätte Berliner Mauer, on a street once completed divided into east and west. Now just one wall segment remains, with an outdoor exhibit.

The closest train stop to it is the Nordbahnhof S-station. This station was below East Berlin, so the West Berlin trains that ran through it at that time were not permitted to stop there. This and few others like it became “ghost stations.”

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The end of the line—U station trapped behind the Berlin Wall, 1962. Source: http://www.iridetheharlemline.com/tag/berlin/

The communist regime quickly realized these stations could be used for escape attempts, so they set up guards. Only thing is, the guards then escaped, so they started locking the guards in their posts to prevent this. In case of fire? The guards would have been doomed. I learned about this and about other—mostly unsuccessful—attempts to escape from these increasingly fortified ghost stations via informational posters put up at this station.

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The Nordbahnhof S-station then and now (pretty much). Source: https://stretchingintoinfinity.com/tag/ghost-station/

It all just seemed so weird—this enormous amount of government time and money spent on keeping a population imprisoned in its country.


The Berlin Wall exhibit itself naturally gives the history of the building of the Wall. The initial version was a little too easy to scale, so they kept “improving” it with various features that made climbing and escaping more difficult. I hadn’t realized that they’d ended up with two parallel Walls, with a fairly wide, guarded space between each.

The green space on the left is bordered by yet another wall…

There was also a photo exhibit of people who had died attempting to escape (or from just being in the wrong place). Many were teenagers and children.

A rebuilt Church of Reconciliation chapel stands at one end. The original church was dynamited in 1985, its walled-on facade proving too much of a PR nightmare for the East German regime.

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Photos, artifacts, and this statue commemorate the original Church of Reconciliation. Photo by me.


Later we visited a couple museums that focused on what life was like in East Berlin. The Lonely Planet description of the DDR Museum is pretty accurate:

The ‘touchy-feely’ DDR Museum does an entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on an extinct society. In hands-on fashion you’ll learn how, under socialism, kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays.

The interactive approach was kind of fun, while also being educational. You got to sit in a 1970s style living room, try to determine your factory’s target output under central planning principles (very difficult), and gauge whether your choice of clothing and accessories would meet with government approval.

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Photo from the official DDR Museum site

This is a good place to go if you want your faith restored in capitalism. It explained how the economic central planning led to product shortages (except for privileged government members), though it also keep basic food stuffs really cheap (which I hadn’t realized). And it just made innovation impossible—lack of trade meant they couldn’t build on others’ work, and lacked the incentive and materials needed to come up with similar improvements themselves. This was perhaps most evident in the one car available to East Germans (if they saved their money a long time): the Trabant.

Tranbant Sales Girl :)

The Trabant: A car model that didn’t evolve for 30 years

The above photo was taken at the History of Berlin museum, which tries to bring all of Berlin history to life through a series of multimedia exhibits. We didn’t get as much out of that one (though the teenagers there seemed to like it), but it did include a tour of a a nuclear bunker.

Now, we have toured a nuclear bunker in Canada: the Diefenbunker. This is a huge, amazing facility designed to keep the Government of Canada operational during a nuclear attack.

These German nuclear bunkers couldn’t be more different. Designed for ordinary people—though there were only enough of these for about 0.5% population (with no real plan for how the unarmed guards in charge were supposed to manage this triage)—only the very basics were available. In the vestibule, you were to strip, shower, then enter the bunker, in which almost all floor space was taken up with stacked bare cots.

Bunker Bedding

Welcome to the apocalypse

The space, our tour guide pointed out, would quickly very hot with the 3000 or so inhabitants crammed in. The toilets and sinks were quite limited for this number of people, and there were no showers or mirrors inside. Kitchens were also small, and designed just to heat up big pots of canned food. An air filtration system, with backup generator, was designed to work just 14 days. Then it was back out into the nuclear wasteland with you.

Whole idea really gave me the willies.


We took a bit of a break from Wall memorials til later in the week, when we stopped in at the Trãnenpalast, or Palace of Tears, the preserved pavilion where East Berliners had to say good-bye to visitors. The small exhibit does a very good job of showing of what the border-crossing experience was like, and giving examples of families and lovers who were torn apart by the political rift. Quite emotional.

The Wall only came up once more, on our tour of Potsdam the last day—I hadn’t realized the Wall stretched so far. A small fence by the river marks the spot where the view-blocking Berlin Wall once caused much unhappiness.

Building walls. Who in this day and age would still think that’s a good idea?


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Berlin, mon amour

Tuesday morning. It’s cold. It’s raining. The museum lineup has slowed to a crawl, as groups of school children gained entry ahead of us. Jean has lapsed into a grumpy silence. My mood is darkening accordingly.

“Good Lord,” I think. “This is going to be a long week.”


Why visit Berlin? Well, weird as it seems, it really was a vacation built around an Adam Lambert concert. We’d been thinking of heading back to Europe in the spring anyway. He was touring there then; I’d been wanting to see Lambert in concert for a while. So we used his tour itinerary for vacation planning.

Amsterdam had been the likely prospect, but the date wasn’t ideal—a bit early in April, and conflicting with a local show we had tickets to. Then more dates were added. “Hey look,” I told Jean. “He’s playing Berlin.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin,” Jean said as he hurried off to work.

That afternoon I emailed him. “I bought Adam Lambert concert tickets!

“For Berlin!”

And five months later, we were off.


For whatever reason, I did a lot of fretting before this vacation. At various times, I worried about:

  • The low dollar. [But it had started swinging upward again well before we left, taking the steam out of that worry.]
  • That our Tep wireless device wouldn’t arrive in time. [It did.]
  • That it would rain constantly. [Actuality: Three of the seven days, it did rain regularly, but never constantly. Basically, we had four days of sun and three days of partial sun.]
  • Terrorism. That would be right after the Brussels airport bombing—the very airport we were transferring through on the way back. But I eventually got hold of myself and realized that fear was somewhat irrational, and replaced it with a fear of:
  • The Brussels airport not being ready for us to transfer through—But then I looked it up two weeks before, and it was ready, so then it was just
  • That security would be a nightmare. [Which it wasn’t really. Just that the extra checking delayed our departing flight somewhat.]

I could continue on this vein for a while. Will we get good seats on the plane? Have I done enough Berlin research? Should I get the Museumcard or the Citypass or the Berlinpass? Should I be booking a Parliament tour ahead of time? You get the idea.

Still, up to that Tuesday morning, it really seemed all that worrying had been silly. The flight over—and I never say this about transatlantic flights—seemed to go by really fast. Jet lag makes everything a bit challenging the first day, but we still managed to get our transit pass, then (eventually) find the bus to the train station, from where we (rather easily) found our hotel.

And our hotel was nicer than I had been expecting, and in our slightly sleepy state, we agreed to a room upgrade. I don’t know quite what the difference was, but if that’s why we got such a big bathroom counter, that was appreciated. (I don’t travel light in terms of cosmetics.) And the bed was quite comfortable.

It was a nice day, so after wrestling our wireless device into submission (after a shaky start, it ultimately worked really well for us), we got out into the city a bit. Our first Berlin meal, at a random but very busy pub across from a popular market, was delicious: Gorgonzola and spinach ravioli for me; Hungarian goulash for Jean. We saw the Berlin Wall remnants, with plans to go back for a proper visit, and that night had an incredibly long, restorative sleep.

What’s left of “The Wall”


So I think the troubles started Monday. But not dramatically so. Yes, we tried booking some sites online, and just ended up confused, which wasn’t a great start to a day. And yes, many museums were closed that day.

But it was also nice and sunny out, so a good day to visit several outdoor sites, which we did. We saw:

  • The Bradenburg Gates
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Topographie des Terrors site
  • The Berlin Wall memorial

All of which I found at least somewhat interesting, and some fascinating. And I’ll be writing more about them later.

But the problem for Jean—along with the fact that was a rather depressing series of historical events we were revisiting this day—was that he didn’t find much of this picture-worthy. And taking photos is a big part of what he enjoys doing on vacation.

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As Jean didn’t take a picture of the Bradenburg Gate, here’s one by Terrance Spencer, a member of Adam Lambert’s band, taken the week we were there. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEv9FomIMmB/?taken-by=terrancespencer&hl=en

It also didn’t help that our second Berlin dinner wasn’t as successful as the first. Having failed to get into the Italian restaurant we were aiming for, the alternative we selected was just so-so. (Though I think the lamb I had was better than Jean’s chicken.)

So Tuesday’s mediocre breakfast, rainy morning, and 45-minute wait to get into a museum did nothing improve to the situation.


Fortunately, when we got into the Pergamon, we found that it actually was a pretty darn good museum, with picture-worthy exhibits! I was quite relieved to finally see Jean pull out his camera and start snapping away. And the companion museum we visited in the afternoon—no lineup here—was even better: the Neues Museum.

Museum Island resident

One of the statues on “Museum Island”, where both the Pergamon and Neues Museums are located

And then the day cleared up, weather-wise. And that night we did get ourselves into that Italian restaurant we’d aimed for on Monday, and we had a wonderful meal there, with great wine.

However, it’s just a fact that Berlin is a less photographer-friendly city than many we’ve visited, given how much was destroyed in the wars and how much is currently under construction, So it just wasn’t destined to be Jean’s favourite. But he stopped letting that affect his mood, and for the rest of the vacation was his usual cheery self and generally great travel partner.

Meanwhile I was perfectly happy just stuffing historical and archaeological facts into my head (though I think many of them have just spilled back out…), and envisioning past times so very different from the vibrant and free city in front of me now.

And the week went by really fast… 🙂

(More to come.)