Saturday, October 3, 2009

Day 12 - Guttentag Deutschland!!!

Alright folks, here’s the Day 12 recap:  Lots of traveling today as I went from Amsterdam to Berlin, which is in the northeast part of Germany.  It was a 6 hour train ride, and while I am getting much more efficient at navigating all of the public transportation hurdles that each city throws at me, it was still close to 3 pm or so before I was able to go out.  I had modest goals today in Berlin.  I’m only here for a day and a half, and since I added this stop on the fly, I'm looking at everything I get to do here as a bonus.

What I wanted to do today was go to the Tiergarten and see the Victory Column, and then head to Potsdamer Platz for some food.  First stop was the Tiergarten, which is essentially Berlin’s Central Park.

At this park, I went to go see a famous monument called the Berlin Victory Column that commemorates the major victories of Germany during the time of power of Otto van Bismark.  Bismark was the main political force during the unification of the German Emipire in the late 19th centruy (realize Germany has only been a country since around the 1870’s or so).  To commemorate this, they built this monument with cannons taken from the three losers of these various wars as part of the structure and used the war reparations that the French paid to finance it (one of those who got the short end of the stick).   Here’s some shots of it:

 As you can see it looks vaguely similar to the other hundred or so victory columns built by various countries and empires to commemorate one victory or another.  The cannons are the gold things ringing the column on the way up to the top.  

I'm pretty sure there is a rule somewhere stating you have to have some type of phallic shaped monument (of the appropriate minimum size of course) in your town to be considered a big wig on Earth.

Here's a close up of Lady Victory.

Ran into this monument on the way to the Berlin Victory Column.  What is it?  Great question. There's a big hammer and sickle stamped in the middle of this bad boy and the alphabet is Cyrillic, so I feel pretty confident in saying it's a Soviet monument and that the Germans didn't put it there.

Since it was written in Russian, I can't tell you anything about it except I'm guessing it was a WWII monument because 1941-1945 was prominently displayed (Let's be honest here:  If it was written in German I couldn't tell you what it was either).  UPDATE:  This is the Soviet War Memorial Monument and apparently everyone is cool with it being there.  Go figure.

After that I headed toward Potsdamer Plazt to see the former “Time Square” of Europe.  I’m sorry to keep using all of these American analogies but I figured this is the best way to describe it.  Before WWII this place was where you wanted to be in Germany on a Saturday night, but after the country split into East and West Germany , the Berlin Wall went right through it and turned it into the famed “Death Strip” between the two sides. 

It pains me to realize this is now necessary, but for some of our younger readers, there used to be these little things called the Cold War and Communism and “Get under your desk because that will protect you from the nuclear bomb that just went off next to your school” drills.  Ask your folks or (sigh) someone my age to explain. 

The square has been rebuilt and this building, called the Sony Center, is the center piece.  I hear it’s not a local favorite, but the structure is really cool. Very modern and very pretty with some great places to grub.  Check it out:

This is the canopy ceiling.  I was told that it was built to emulate Mt. Fuji.  The Death Star from the Star Wars trilogy would have been my guess, but that's why I don't get paid the big bucks apparently.

Here's a shot of the buildings leading up to the canopy.

I decided to eat at one of the restaurants here.  Which brings us to the food.  I went to this place called Lindenbrau Beer Haus.  While a new institution, it seems this is a very German kind of place  They have a microbrewery in the restaurant and serve traditional German food.  Here’s what I got:

Turns out I like sauerkraut (Who knew).  Anyway, I am planning on eating no less than 10 or so meals that have basically the same caloric breakdown as this plate in the next few weeks, so it should be good news for people with stock in Tums.

And for all the funny guys out there who will make a comment, the answer is yes, that is a beer right behind the plate.  I am not one to drink very often, but Oktoberfest is coming up and I will have to participate at least a little, so this is my Spring Training of sorts.     For all the minors out there:  Don't drink till your legal.  Mrs. Sisak's (my cousin) class, ask your teacher.  I didn't even have a Shirley Temple till I was like 25.  Square people are cool. . .No seriously.

I can’t speak for the outer rings of town, but central Berlin has this real modern, even slightly futuristic feel to it.  This would make sense since 80% of the town was leveled at the end of WWII, but everything is really new.  Roads are big, buildings have a clean, crisp feel to them, and in stereotypical German fashion, everything seems to be in its proper place and doing its proper function (with the exception of a graffiti problem for some reason)..

The great thing to me though, is that while it has a completely different feel than a Paris for instance, it doesn’t come off as sterile to me.  This is the first city on the trip that I wouldn’t mind living in.  I would use the word “slick” to describe it in the very best sense of the word.

Here’s a couple of pictures to illustrate my point:

So this kinda looks like an older more traditional lamp post right (it's also what an older more traditional car looks like as well).  One you'd see in a historic old city.  Well in Berlin, we get a lot of these. . .

New energy efficient bulbs on the inside and just a more modern look.  Still classy, but newer.

Here's a shot of one of their larger streets.  See what I mean.  It just looks more futuristic, like it was built from scratch rather than built over, which again, makes sense since it was blown to the Dark Ages 60 years ago.

I loved Paris as a city, but if the rest of Germany is like this, it will be a no brainer on which country is my favorite.  Big fan of everything here so far.

Staying in another hostel here.  I have really enjoyed the atmosphere and my only disappointment is that I didn’t do it in Paris.  Whereas in Amsterdam I was in a 18 bunk men only room, I am staying in a 6 bed coed in Berlin.  There seems to be a ton of folks from Britain and Australia at this spot. I hang out in their lounge area at nights and I’ve met a bunch of folks who make my trip look like an appetizer.  This one girl from Brisbane, Australia has been on the road for 9 months (9 months!).  6 weeks will be good for me I think.

Tomorrow, I’ll have all of the famous sights in Berlin, including the Wall and the Brandenburg Gate, etc as I’m going on my first walking tour.  Till then I'll leave you with this shot, that is nothing more than a building I was getting a picture of.  We'll go ahead and say I did this on purpose ok.  Let's call it Creative Shot #2 or 3.

That's a bus going through the bottom by the way.  Later Team. . .

Day 11 - "Are You Getting Somewhere, Or Did You Get Lost In Amsterdam?" from the song Amsterdam by Guster

Hey Team,

Sorry for the big delay.  I've been doing the blog, but the internet connections at the hostels have been below average at best.  In order to post, I have to upload the photos to this website and that can literally take hours to do.  Of course, if I do that then I'll have nothing to show you.  See it's this vicious cycle that I can't get out of.  I'll have stuff for each day coming up, but I have to set up the page which takes some time.

Day 11 was a bit of a departure relative to the rest of the trip so far.  Today, I decided to head out of town and tour the countryside around Amsterdam.  To do this right, and like any good Dutchman would, you have to get a bike. 

Now this might not seem like a big deal, but in Holland, everyone rides a bike, and I mean everyone, so it’s not like practicing some sweet jumps Napoleon Dynamite style on the sidewalk around here.  Biking is a way of life and they are very good at it. 

During my time in Amsterdam, my main safety concern was not getting hit by a car, but making sure I didn’t end up taking a set of handlebars to the Boys (regretfully, I neglected to bring my cup).  They are ubiquitous in town and can come from any direction at any time.

In light of that, I decided it was best to wait till I left the city center to pick up my ride.  A good call on my part, as I have not ridden a whole lot since I was 12 or so and I’m quite sure I would have been responsible for the worst biking accident in Amsterdam since the War had I tried. 

I picked up my bike at Central Station and took a free ferry across the drink to what is known as Amsterdam North, which is basically a nice suburb.  My goal was to leave the sights, sounds, and smells of the city for cows, sheep, manure, and maybe a windmill or two. 

Of course, when I started I did so without a map.  Who needs directions when you’ve got an internal compass like mine?  Never mind I had no idea where I was going, I’d figure it out. 

This sets up Classic Kenny Moment #2.

As I set off through the burbs determined to find farmland, I had logically decided that going North was my best bet to get out of town, so that’s what I did.  I had been riding a while but could tell I was making progress.  I was moving “North” and was seeing stuff I hadn’t come across yet so I felt like I was in good shape.  Finally, up ahead I saw a big body of water.   Maybe another ferry to get across but no biggie.   Upon reaching the shore, I saw this:

For a little perspective, this is what I saw 45 minutes earlier:

On the plus side, I’ve been granted honorary citizenship status in Amsterdam North for staying there so long.   Surprisingly (and perhaps foolishly) this did not shake my confidence in the least.  I just got back on the bike and headed “North” again.  To my credit, I did try a different route and after another 15 minutes or so and a whole lot of luck, I literally stumbled (this is me we are talking about) onto something that resembled the countryside.

 I actually wasn’t quite as clueless as I’ve been letting on.  I knew there were a bunch of bike paths that lead out of town, and I had finally found them, albeit an hour and half later than I had planned.  These paths stretch for 20 or 30 miles one way from one end to the other and are meant for leisurely rides seeing the scenery. It is quite pretty out here.  Here are some shots as I rolled along:

Thought I'd throw this in to show you what a typical road looks like in Amsterdam.  Middle is for cars, red stuff on the edges is for the bikes.  Do Not Walk on the Bike Paths.  This is akin to playing chicken with a train, except, unlike the train, you'll feel this one in the morning.

Here is a shot of the farmland I finally got to see.  Actually, with the exception of the canals that ran alongside the road, and the fact that there were a lot of sheep in addition to cattle, I thought it reminded me a lot of the part of South Central Texas I grew up in.  Lots of small little communities five minutes apart and each one with a big church steeple sticking out to lead you where you were going.

This is the bike path through the countryside.  To the left are the house lined canals.  It's worth noting that at this point, I was a happy little guy.  Fresh legs, no rain, and nothing but the open road in front of me.  Perfect day in my opinion.  Keep this picture in mind for a little later.

This is the first (and as it turned out the last) village/town I went to.  It's called Broek in Waterland and it is about 7 km outside of Amsterdam.  The next several shots are of this town.

Here's another shot of the town.

I haven't gotten final confirmation from my sources yet, but I'm pretty sure this might be the last stop before you hit Heaven.  The whole town is just this mess of little waterways and quaint cottages with perfectly manicured yards.  This is the retirement community of your dreams.

Last shot here.  Basically you can pick with waterside home you'd want.  Almost all of them here fall into that category.

Now at this point, everything was going as planned.  I had finally seen what I wanted and I had plenty of time on my hands.  I felt good physically (I had been going for about 3 hours at this point but at a leisurely pace) so I decided to head for the next town, which would be about 15 or 20 km from Amsterdam.  I wanted to go there because there were supposedly windmills in the area (and you can't go to Holland without seeing a windmill, right).

So, I headed out of town and followed the marked path.  Lots of signs to make sure you don't get lost, except at this one point where the road forks (of course).  Nothing but concrete and no indication which was the right way.  So I picked one and took off.  This is a good time to show you a picture of my bike.  This was taken about 20 minutes after I took off.

Nice bike huh?  While I want you to notice the fine craftsmanship of my trusty steed, I also would like to point out the lack of pavement beneath the wheels. Turns out, the path out of town kinda turns into pasture land.

What is really confusing to me is right when the road disappeared there was a sign for the bike path.  Granted it was in Dutch, so I wouldn't know the difference between it telling me "Go this way to find the pot of gold" or "Beware of the vicious eye gouging raccoon in the area" but still.  From what I gathered, it indicated I was on the path.

So of course, I thought, "Well I guess I just keep going".  You can't really tell from the shot here, but this is not exactly a mountain bike.  It only took about 50 yards of pedaling through the grass (this stuff was like the rough at the British Open by the way) before I decided perhaps walking would be better.  This worked for about 3 minutes until I hit a canal which was impassable.

Turns out, I was walking through somebody's pastrure.  Sorry to disappoint, but there was no angry 6'5" 240 lb Dutch farmhand with a shotgun at the end of this story, but needless to say, I hightailled it out of there as soon as I could.  If you're curious, this is a picture of the middle of nowhere:

Notice the bunker style ditch here.  I decided it was a good idea to keep close to this just in case I did happen to stumble upon the angry Dutch farmhand with the shotgun.

After that, I went back to the fork and tried the other way because I could literally see the next town up ahead.  This side of the stupid fork did the same thing, and again there was this sign saying welcome to the Wandering Path (appropriate I thought).

I went back to town to see if I missed a sign and found nothing.  So I blew another hour and ended up at the same spot again.

Then it started raining.

At this point, I decided it might be time to go home. Honestly it had been a great day, even to that point, but I was running out of daylight and didn't want to end up on the Amsterdam News that night as the subject of the lead story, "Daring rescue as Dutch authorities saved American who accidentally wandered into the middle of a bloody turf war between two Holstein Cattle".

So I headed back to Amsterdam, which as it turns out, is uphill all the way from here and against the wind.  As an added bonus, my legs were shot from pedaling in the grass and my poncho was creating a bit of drag.  It was a long ride back and while I had had a great time, I was a little disappointed I didn't see my windmill.  But of course, as it has been the whole trip so far, right outside of town I saw this. . .

As it turns out, the Big Guy is a great tour guide.
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