A Day in Amsterdam

We are staying in the little town of Baarn about an hour’s train ride from Amsterdam. When we arrived from Berlin on Thursday afternoon, we dropped our bags and walked into the downtown for a few groceries and/or a bite to eat. What we found were pretty streets lined with gorgeous homes, some with thatched roofs, and quaint, little shops. We wandered around for a while soaking in the ambience. Richard found a barber so he got a quick haircut. I found several hairdresser shops but all were closed for the day. We settled on getting a few groceries and headed back to our room for the night.

We were up bright and early Friday morning and headed into Amsterdam on the train. What an amazing city! We jumped on a Hop On-Hop Off bus and took the tour around the city. We then hopped onto one of the many boats that make their way around the canals and spent a couple of stress free hours watching the city glide by. As we had no real plans or expectations of the city, we decided to take in a tour of the Heineken museum. This ended up being very informative and a whole lot of fun. The museum is obviously geared towards the younger population with loud music, bright light shows and interactive gadgetry but we enjoyed it a lot. A very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. We were also hoping to take a tour of the Anne Frank museum but found out when we got there that tickets need to be purchased online, many months in advance. The next available ticket was April 24th so we were SOL for that tour. We hoped to at least take some pictures from outside the building but it has been completely redone and is so modern looking that it does not even fit in with the structures around it. That was probably the most disappointing of all. That, and not being able to get into the Hard Rock Cafe for supper!! LOL!!

We thoroughly enjoyed Amsterdam and though we just walked, rode buses and boats most of the day, we thought that it was very unique and totally worth a visit. We have a free day in Baarn today so may see about checking out some war sites or may just kick back at one of the local pubs and enjoy a relaxing afternoon. Enjoy your weekend!!

You see a few of these along the Dutch countryside

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Of course we had to start the day off with a traditional Dutch breakfast.

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The Heineken experience.

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The bikes.

While in Amsterdam keep your head on a swivel and look out for the bikes because there are a million of them and they will run you over before you can blink.  It seems the preferred mode of transportation in the Netherlands is the bicycle.   Below is a couple of pictures of a bike parking lot by the train station and I hope you can get a idea of the size of it.

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As Col mentioned we had a boat ride around some of the canals in Amsterdam.  What was interesting was the amount of permanent houseboats on the canals which ranged from run down to the very exquisite.

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On a personal note (Richard) after visiting both Venice and Amsterdam, both cities with canals, I would recommend Amsterdam over Venice even though the canals of Venice outnumber Amsterdams 50 to 1 or more.  Compared to Venice, Amsterdam is much cleaner, the buildings have been kept up much better and it has a nice vibe.  Also if you are one who feels more comfortable where a lot of English is spoken than Amsterdam also fits that bill.  And that my friends is one man’s opinion.

 

 

Goodbye Berlin, Hello Amsterdam

The last couple of days in Berlin were spent planning the last portion of our journey. Can you believe that we will be back in Canada in less than two months? It is hard to imagine that we have been travelling for almost 9 months now. We have seen so much. We have experienced so much. And we have missed so much at home. We’ll be coming back to not one, but two new grandchildren. Friends and family have had birthdays and gone on holidays. There have been weddings and retirements. Christmas and New Year’s has come and gone. We head to the Netherlands today and then spend some time in Belgium and France. We meet our friends Kim and Jack in Paris at the end of April and spend May in the UK. Our flight home is May 31 from Dublin to Edmonton. We have so loved this adventure but will be so very excited to arrive home.

We took a break from planning and slipped out for a few hours to see a few more sights before we left Berlin. We took the lift up to the observation deck of the Fernsehtrum Radio Tower. This tower, situated in the Eastern Bloc was used during the Cold War to transmit propaganda and other preapproved programming to the masses. It also tried to block Western radio signals as well, even though it was only partially successful. The views from the panoramic viewing deck were amazing. It was a clear day so we were able to see for miles over the city. Each viewing window had a labelled picture below it detailing the buildings and parks that we were seeing from the deck. We had seen many of the sites from the ground so it was really neat seeing them in perspective to one another from 203 Meters above the surface.

Our last official stop in Berlin was the DDR Museum. This interactive museum lets you experience the lives of East Berliners from the end of the war until the Wall fell in 1989.  One of the first items that we saw was a Trabant Car – made exclusively for the East. In fact, I even got in the driver’s seat and through a simulator, drove through the streets of 1960’s East Berlin. Many of these cars did not have brakes, gas gauges or, in some cases, even a radiator but the people that were lucky enough to have one simply kept fixing it over and over again to keep it running. We saw a school room (with actual school work), a grocery store (with very little on the shelves), a movie theatre (which showed mostly propaganda films), a typical apartment (given to a family after several years of waiting), a house of one of the top officials (much nicer than the apartment!), a typical family vacation (many families enjoyed the nudist beaches) and other items from everyday life. We enjoyed this museum because it was a lot of fun. There were lots of kids there and it was a great way for them to learn about an era that existed long before they were born. We would definitely recommend this museum to anyone visiting Berlin.

So, it is that we say goodbye to Berlin and ultimately Germany. While in Berlin, we could see from day to day that spring was arriving as the trees were beginning to turn green and flowers started to poke up through the ground. The view from the train window today has been many green fields, acres of cattle and horses and even a few sheep here and there. Yes, spring has definitely arrived in Europe.

Col taking the Trabant for a test drive through old East Berlin.

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The picture below was from the DDR museum.  I thought it was an interesting concept on the electric lawn mower.

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A City Divided

Imagine our surprise this morning when we headed to our favourite Underground Subway Station to find that the gates were locked. We then walked to the first tram station down the street and as we were beginning to suspect, there was no public transportation today due to a work stoppage. So, the day we had planned was much too far away to walk so we had to improvise. I remembered that on one of our trips downtown I had seen a Berlin Wall Memorial. It was on my list but hadn’t made it into the schedule yet. So, guess what? It was now scheduled for today as it was within walking distance.

I won’t bore you with a bunch more details about the Wall and all the politics about it etc. etc. etc. What we saw today was actually a portion of the wall that ran along one of the main streets – Bernauer Strasse. The houses along one side of the street belonged to the East side. However, the sidewalks that ran along the front of the houses belonged to the West side. This resulted in a lot of people walking out of their front doors and jumping out of front windows to get to the west side as the wall started to come up in 1961. To combat this problem, the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and border security bricked up the doors and windows facing the street and put barbed wire on the roof so that there could be no more escaping from the east this way. Eastern Berliners became quite inventive and started to dig tunnels under the wall. Many escaped through these tunnels until they were caught and imprisoned or shot. Others tried to escape through subway tunnels but as I mentioned in an earlier post, after there had been a few escapes, the tunnels were either guarded and the train went straight through the “ghost stations” or the tunnels were bricked up as well.

The open air Berlin Wall Memorial museum documents the lives of families that lived on this street and became divided by the wall. Though East and West had been divided for about twelve years before the wall, movement back and forth was fairly easy with a pass. Even though rumours of a physical wall had started circulating in 1961, there were many that did not think much would change. As a result, family members did not make it out before the borders were completely closed and the wall became a physical barrier that could not be penetrated. There are pictures of families waving to each other across the barriers and even of a wedding taking place on the front street in the west so that the family in the east could see the bride and groom.

Many people lost their families. Many people lost their lives. We cannot even imagine. So many wasted lives. So many wasted years. So many wasted resources.

Olga Segler

Two thousand people were to be moved out of their apartments, most of them against their will. The West Berlin police and fire department expected that many residents “would in the last minute try to flee to freedom before their apartments are evacuated.  Olga Segler (80 years old) decided to jump from the window of her second story apartment on September 25, 1961. Her daughter waited down below on the sidewalk, encouraging her to jump. The firemen caught the eighty-year-old woman in their rescue net but she injured her back on impact and had to be taken by ambulance to the nearby Lazarus Hospital. Olga Segler died the next day.   Her heart had given out as a consequence of the overexcitement she experienced during the escape.  The picture of the plaque in the sidewalk shows the spot where she jumped.

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The bars on the ground show the location of one of the many escape tunnels.

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The Reconciliation Sculpture.  There are also copies in the Coventry Cathedral in England along with one in the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

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The Olympic Stadium, The Victory Column, The Reichstag and all the Canadians!!

The day was beautiful. The sun was warm. We headed out to take in some of the sights of Berlin and enjoy the day. The first stop was The Olympic Stadium, built in 1934 in order to host the Olympic Games of 1936. It was built on a grand scale to impress the world with the Nazi regime and the well being of Germany. The full scale sporting complex with a track field that could be used for mass rallies holding up to 500,000 people, also included a swimming and gymnastics center. 1936 was the year that African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ historic four-medal Olympic victory shook Hitler’s theory of the superiority of the Aryan race. The updated and modern stadium now hosts FIFA World Cup Soccer events as well as large scale concerts seating up to 75,000 people. 

After taking the audio tour of the Stadium, we headed back into the city and got off the train at the Tiergarten Station. We walked through the park towards the Victory Column. There were people cycling, walking, jogging, playing with their dogs and just enjoying the warmth and sunshine. Victory Column was built in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victories over Austria and France. Though the column sustained some damage during World War II (you can see bullet holes along the base) it was one of the few icons that survived the final assault by the Allies on Berlin in 1945.

We continued through the park to the Reichstag which is the current seat of Parliament in Germany. The building was opened in 1894 and and used as the government house until 1933 when, after a fire (some say set by the Nazis themselves) forced them to convene in the Opera House across the street. During the war, the building was heavily damaged and left to ruin. It was not until the period of reunification in the 1990’s that the building was reconstructed and parliament again sat there for the first time in 1999. It is a beautiful building and a definite must see when visiting Berlin.

We headed for home but as it was still such a beautiful day, we stopped for a drink at a cute little corner bar with tables set up on the street. Enjoying the last of the sunshine, we ended up meeting with a couple of people from Toronto who were in Berlin on conference. As it is always great meeting people from Canada, we had a great chat, exchanged some travel stories and finally left them alone to finish their drinks. Later in the evening, we met a couple of guys from Saskatoon and Vancouver who were tending bar at the little restaurant down the street from us. What a great way to finish off a perfectly perfect  day!!

Olympic Stadium.  Of the Olympic stadiums we have seen on our trip this was the oldest and by far the most impressive.

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The Column of Victory.img_4144

Monument to the Soviet soldiers who died liberating the city in 1945

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The Reichstag (German Federal Parliament)

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On our way back to our Airbnb we came across a football (soccer) game and stopped to watch for a while.  Obviously these guys were not professional players and members of some local club team,  but their skill level was quite high from my perspective and I really enjoyed watching them.  Much like so many Canadians who grow up playing hockey and continue long after their NHL dreams have died, so it is, I suppose, for a lot of average Germans.

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Checkpoint Charlie and All Things Berlin

Today we took the UBahn (fancy name for subway) down to Checkpoint Charlie. This was the best-known border crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War, probably because it could only be used by the Allied forces or foreigners. At the height of the Berlin Crisis in 1961 U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other here. There is a wonderful open air museum along the street chronicling the advent of World War II, the Allied Invasion, the division of Berlin into four quarters, the building of the wall in 1961 following the Berlin Crisis, subsequent riots and peace talks with the eventual result of the wall coming down in 1989.

Though the wall is no longer there, there is a brick trail that has been built into the street that follows the path of the wall. We followed this path from Checkpoint Charlie to the Topography of Terror Museum. This museum is located in the former SS and Gestapo headquarters area and documents the events that took place from 1933 to 1945. It, of course shows the rise of the Nazis, the resulting Holocaust and eventual downfall. Though we have seen much of this information before, we usually always pick up some new fact that we were previously unaware of.

From the Topography of Terror, we followed the wall path past the Memorial for Murdered Jews and on towards the Brandenburg Gate. Apparently there was a “Save the Earth” rally taking place around this area as there were thousands of people on the streets carrying placards. We pushed our way through the crowds until we walked through the famous Gate. This beautiful archway was built in 1791 in the design of the gateway of the Acropolis in Athens. In 1946, with the post-war division of Germany and Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate was in the Soviet sector. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, the Gate stood in an exclusion zone in an arc of the Wall, inaccessible for locals and visitors alike. In 1989, when the wall came down, over 100,000 people surged to this gate and the reunification process began to take place.

We walked east along the Unter den Linden towards the centre of Berlin. This area had been almost completely destroyed during the war and once it became part of the Soviet sector, it fell to complete ruin. Since 1990, this area has become the symbol of a reunited Berlin and buildings are being rebuilt and restored. We crossed over Museum Island (literally, this small island oasis is home to four museums) and into Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin. Our main concern here was to find the subway back to our apartment so we did not spend much time in the square. This, and surrounding sites, are on our list for another day.

The station here is huge – with trams, Ubahns and Sbahns all coming through. It is interesting to note that during the Cold War, trains would run through this station from one station in the West to another station in the West but would not stop here as it was in the East. As a result, many of these “ghost” stations fell to ruin and needed major repair once the wall came down.

We have so many thoughts and feelings about this period in history that we are having trouble expressing them. We discuss it between ourselves, we watch documentaries and discuss it again. Still, it is hard to come to grips with the horror and sadness of these complicated events. Why didn’t someone stop Hitler? How did the Allies get mixed up with the Soviets? How is it that propaganda and “false news” can change the face of the world? How can world leaders make such bad decisions? Is history repeating itself? These are all questions that back home we wouldn’t have bothered with, but here, they  become so much more relevant.

Today, we are off to the Olympic Stadium and even though there was much politics surrounding the 1936 Olympics, we plan to just enjoy the sport of it all. Wish us luck!!

Checkpoint Charlie.

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Today we sampled Currywurst.  The invention of currywurst is attributed to Herta Heuwer in Berlin in 1949, after she obtained ketchup (or possibly Worcestershire sauce) and curry powder from British soldiers in Germany. She mixed these ingredients with other spices and poured it over grilled pork sausage.  Little did she know her concoction would spiral into becoming a part of the iconic fabric of Germany’s capital; there’s even a currywurst museum.  I don’t believe the currywurst we had was pork sausage, but rather weiners.  Oh, also you can see that Col had some Kuchen also.  It’s a Wileman thing to have dessert with every meal.

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The picture below is of a section of the former Berlin wall that has been moved to a spot near Checkpoint Charlie.

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A section of the Berlin wall still standing and a picture of the how they have permanently marked where the wall had existed before it was torn down.

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The Memorial for murdered Jews.

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Brandenburg Gate

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Bebelplatz:  The public square where the infamous book burning ceremony took place on May 10, 1933.

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Our First Day In Berlin

We arrived at our BNB about 8 PM yesterday. If you remember, we had eaten in the middle of Poland so didn’t need to get supper. However, we thought that we should get a few groceries so that we would have some breakfast for the morning. As it turns out, our BNB is in former East Berlin and as we walked to the store one of the first things we noticed was the Ampelmann – the crosswalk symbol which is unique to East Berlin. In fact, you will always know when you are in former East Berlin by this crosswalk symbol!

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This morning we spent some time doing laundry and planning the next leg of our journey. We headed out for lunch and then wandered off to Mauerpark, just a few hundred meters from our apartment. The name translates to “Wall Park”, referring to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its Death Strip. There is still an 800 meter remnant of the wall running through the middle of this park that is heavily covered in graffiti. In fact, there was a group of school kids spray painting there when we walked along it. Seeing the wall started us thinking about the lives that Berliners led for for over forty years – separated from family and friends. How strange (and sad) it must have been to not be able to spend Christmases and Easters and other holidays with your family because of The Wall. Another one of those things that we cannot even begin to imagine or understand.

Over the next few days we plan on visiting many other sites within Berlin that pertain to the wall and these separations. I am sure that our heart will break everytime. However, Berlin is also a city of rejuvenation and hope and I know that we will see this as well. Such an interesting city. Can’t wait to take it all in!!

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Learning Polish History

We spent the last two days in Poland learning about history, mainly of life during the war and the horrors that took place in and around Krakow. On Monday we visited the Oskar Schindler Museum. Though Schindler was a playboy, and a somewhat crooked businessman, he also saved over 1000 Jews from certain death in the labour camps. He received many government contracts during the war and employed Jews in his enamel and munitions factories. It does seem ironic that many of these Jews were saved by working for a company that supplied the very army that was destroying them. Though Schindler basically set up work camps at these factories, he ensured that his employees received ample food and lodging as well as proper medical treatment. This was definitely not happening at the other camps around Poland and Germany. The original enamel plant has now been turned into the museum. Only one room is dedicated to Schindler, his actual business office. The rest of the museum is a history of life between 1938 and 1945: the formation of the Polish army; the invasion of the Nazis and how quickly Poland was taken over by the SS; how Hitler was so determined to destroy Poland that he cleared out entire Polish settlements (usually sending them to labour camps) and then invited German families to reside there; the removal of teachers and clerics from schools and churches and also placing them into labour camps; insisting that schools were only to be taught in German; as well as many other actions that continually instilled fear within the general public. And through all of this, the Polish people persevered by setting up Resistance movements, underground schools and their own communication networks. It was a very informative exhibit and if you ever get the chance to research this history, I am sure that you will find it very interesting.

Tuesday we went to Auschwitz. Auschwitz actually consists of three camps – Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. I was only aware of the second camp after reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz (a true story and a VERY good read) and was not aware of the third camp there until yesterday. The photos of train tracks that are widely circulated are actually taken at Birkenau which is much larger than the original camp. This became the main camp for exterminations in 1943 and 1944 with a total of 8 crematoriums. Walking through these camps and seeing the pictures of a handful of the 1.1 million Jews, Poles, Soviets, political prisoners and any others that died at the hands of the Nazis, I again have to ask why?  I mean, the killing was horrific but the starvation, the beatings, the dehumanization, is beyond comprehension. I also do not see the point of transporting all these people from one location to another only to kill them anyway. What was the point? I suppose that we will never know the thoughts of a madman but I sincerely hope that we will never have to witness this type of atrocity again.

Today we are travelling to Berlin. We changed trains in the middle of Poland – at a very small station where no one spoke English. We did manage to order a beer and a hamburger as well as catch our connecting train.  WOW!! Aren’t we amazing?!?!

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His office….

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Auschwitz and Birkenau…

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Krakow, Poland

We arrived in Krakow Saturday around 5:30 PM. While at the train station, we booked our reservations to Berlin and then booked a bus for our trip to Auschwitz on Tuesday. After a bit of circling the station, we finally found our way out and headed to our Air BNB.  After dropping our bags, we went in search of some supper. We came across a Polish restaurant and had a wonderful meal of perogies. I think that these were the best perogies ever!!

Sunday dawned sunny and bright so we headed out to church. Richard found a nice, little church with an English mass about five minutes from our apartment. The church was small but very old and ornate. It was quite full and we spoke afterwards with a woman who is originally from Chicago but has been teaching in the International School here for 26 years. Along our journey, we have met quite a few international teachers from both Canada, the States, England and Australia. It seems like a wonderful way to see the world….

After church we had a bit of lunch and headed out towards the Old Square. There were lots of people on the streets and in fact, it appeared that there was a run of some sort taking place. Though I have tried to figure out what it is, I have not had any luck. It was not the marathon as that takes place in April. Regardless, there were lots of runners, young and old,  and I got tired just watching them!!

We wandered around the area, looking at the shops, watching the street performers and I chuckled to see Richard get super excited when he saw the booths of beer, hot wine, perogies and cabbage rolls. Of course, I was almost as excited to see the booths of chocolate!! Of course, later in the day we headed back there for supper and we were not disappointed.

Our first full day in Krakow was a lot of fun and we look forward to the next couple of days. Tomorrow we head to the Schindler Museum and Tuesday of course is Auschwitz. Definitely, more somber days ahead.

The Perogie dinner we had upon arrival.  As Col said, may have been the best perogies ever.

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The little Church where we attended Mass Sunday morning.

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A sunny walk through the neighbourhood.

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The food court.  I think the pictures say it all….

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It’s no big deal to have a booth that is selling chocolate, but when the chocolate is in the shape of tools, well that is something different.

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We went back to the food court later that day for supper and they had some local entertainment on stage.  It was nice to see the older people really enjoying the music.