Monday, June 11, 2018

Four Days in Berlin

Once a year I take the exchange students from my hometown, who are spending 5 1/2 months in Esslingen, to Berlin for four days. When I did the exchange back in 1986, the dear lady who is now my Schwiegermutter was the chaperone - and she chaperoned the trip for something like 30 years! She has happily passed the responsibility to me, and as a result I keep becoming more familiar with the nation's capital. And it's growing on me! This year my co-chaperone was Sophie, who lived with my kids and me in Wisconsin for eight weeks in 2008.

We have a full plan and start each day at 9:00, after coffee and breakfast at the hotel. I build in some free time for the kids during the day and/or evening, partly because I need some as well, and we do a lot of walking. But let me start from the beginning.

Day 1

We fly into Tegel, and near Gate 1 I find the BerlinWelcomeCard booth and buy a 72-hour ticket for each of us. This covers all transportation for exactly 72 hours from the time you punch the card at your first use. Quite a few museums and activities provide discounts when you show them your card, and it pays for itself rather quickly.

The 72-hour ticket for zones A&B costs €28,90 (2018). A Tagesticket for zones A&B costs €7,00, and we would have had to buy four of them per person for Monday through Thursday - so €28,00 per person. With the BerlinWelcomeCard we got discounts usually around 25% for things like our bike tour, several museums, the Berliner Dom, and the Berlin Underworld tour. For us, the WelcomeCard is the better deal, not only because we didn't have the hassle each morning of having to buy 5 Tagestickets.

From Tegel we get Bus 109 - which departs every ten minutes - into the city. Our hotel is on Bleibtreustraße, which is conveniently one of the stops for Bus 109. This works well for arrival and departure - as long as we get on the right bus. More on that later.

We've stayed for three years in a row at Kurfürst Hotel Pension and I have been happy there every time. It's modest and there is no air conditioning, but it is a great location - just off the Ku'Damm and not far from the Uhlandstraße Endstation of the U1 line.

After checking in we go together to the next street where there are two Supermärkte, and we buy snacks for when we're in our rooms and drinks for the road.

This year we then went straight to the U-Bahn and navigated our way to the Brandenburger Tor, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, and in search of ice cream.

The memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered during the Holocaust is also near the Reichstag.

After sight-seeing we walked toward Friedrichstraße where there are plenty of places to eat as well as Dussmann, which is a bookstore galore open until 23:00.

My challenge - given to me by my daughter after the year I ate at Italian restaurants nearly every dinner - is to never eat the same cuisine twice while in Berlin. Sophie and I started at a Persian restaurant called Shan's Bistro across the street from the Gendarmenmarkt. Our meals were delicious!

(This is the part where I don't tell you the kids ate at McDonald's their first night in Berlin.)

We were tired and sweaty enough to return to the hotel by 10:00 for refreshing showers and sleep.

Day 2

On Tuesday we headed toward the Nikolaiviertel to see what I call "the pretty part of Berlin" and wait for our bike tour to start at 10:24. This is the second year I've done this with kids, and it was a highlight! You can see so much more on a bike than on foot, and with a guide who is either a native of Berlin or a Berlin enthusiast, you can learn a whole lot you wouldn't otherwise know. There are dozens of bike tour companies, and I randomly selected this one last year. I have no reason to try anyone else because the students and I have liked the tours and the guides. It's a 3-hour tour and costs €16 for adults and €13 for students with the BerlinWelcomeCard.

After the bike tour I took them to Alexanderplatz and gave them free time for lunch. Sophie, one of the students, and I ate at Vapiano, an Italian restaurant where they cook your meal while you watch. These restaurants get mixed reviews, but I like them. I don't know how many are in Berlin, but I've eaten at three different Vapianos!

We didn't go up the Fernsehturm this year or last because it's quite expensive, and I have found an alternative for a "view from above" that is much more reasonable. The students this year found an even better one, which somehow I've been missing - climbing up the dome of the Berliner Dom! We go into this cathedral every year, and once the entrance fee is paid, you already have access to the cupola. The students said it was worth the climb, and it became even more so when I discovered the Französischer Dom on the Gendarmenmarkt was closed for renovations.

From there we walked toward the Humboldt Universität and found the book burning memorial on Bebelsplatz.

We then walked to Gendarmenmarkt and found the fancy chocolate shop, Fassbender & Rausch. Don't miss this stop, if only to see the chocolate sculptures of Berlin's Sehenswürdigkeiten.

made of chocolate and cookies
The one problem I have in Berlin is coming up with things to keep the students occupied in the evenings. Attractions and many stores tend to close by 18:00 (6:00 p.m.), and the crazies start coming out by 21:30. Sophie had the idea to go to Potsdamerplatz and set them loose in the Berlin Mall, which is open until 21:00. That allowed them time to get something to eat and do a little shopping, while Sophie and I explored and then had ice cream for dinner.

Day 3

This day started with a dash to the Gesundbrunnen U-/S-Bahn station, where we located Berliner Unterwelten and bought tickets for the first English tour of a WWII bunker at 11:00. You can't book these tours online or by phone; on the day you want the tour you have to show up and stand in line. Get there around 10:00 and you'll have your pick of the tours. During the 45-minute wait for the start, we went to the nearby Kaufland for a snack and drinks. 

TIP: It's always better to buy water at a Supermarkt rather than at tourist stores and stands - a small one costs €0,89 rather than €2,50. If you only see packages of 6 bottles, know that in Germany you may unwrap the package and take one bottle instead of all six. An even better idea is to buy one bottle on your first day and fill it up in your hotel sink each morning. The tap water in Germany is fine to drink and you use less plastic!

The tour ("Dunkle Welten") was very interesting and I took lots of notes, but we were not allowed to take pictures. They rotate their tours each day, so look ahead for the day you plan to go in order to see what they'll have available. I suspect they are all interesting!

After the 90-minute tour we walked to Bernauerstraße to stroll along a stretch where the Berliner Mauer was, and to stop in the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, which is a small museum. This museum does not charge admission, and there is a platform one can climb up to look over a replica of the wall, death strip, and guard tower. Visitors can also see videos of eye witnesses talking about when the wall was first built as well as explanations of escape attempts.
The stone slabs show where tunnels had been dug
for people trying to escape from East to West.
(This view is looking from the point of the wall into the former East.)

We then took the S-Bahn to Hackischer Markt, where I treated them to lunch at Barcomi's Deli. Which cuisine is this? American! But good American, not fast food. Here they could order things they haven't seen in their 4+ months in Germany: Reuben sandwich, egg/tuna/chicken salad, grilled cheese, bagels & cream cheese, apple pie, pecan pie, devil's food cake, brownies, muffins, cheesecake... I have made it a tradition to eat here each time I come to Berlin.
German teachers love this kind of street art.
It's a list of adjective opposites - a great vocabulary exercise
in the first Hinterhof on the way to Barcomi's.

Cynthia Barcomi's baked treats
They had more free time to explore the Hackische Höfe - exclusive and quaint boutiques and shops in a maze of Hinterhöfe or courtyards - and the Hackischer Markt. Apparently the most interesting thing the boys saw was a man walking casually toward where they were sitting and peeing on a grassy spot. One boy's shock and awe as he told me the story revealed his small-midwestern-town sensitivities. Life in the big city, lads... ;-)

We made the obligatory stop at Checkpoint Charlie and I took the kids' photo with the "soldiers" standing there holding the American flag. (Our bike tour guide last year told us they are strippers by night, and the way one of them was behaving, I can believe it.) I don't want to be sassy, though, because they gave us a student discount on the photos (€1 each instead of €3).

From there we went to one of the top highlights of the trip - an escape room! This is a fun activity to add into a trip that is mostly about learning. I'd signed us up weeks in advance for the latest time slot of the Illuminati room. The group got locked into a room arranged like a chapel, and we had 60 minutes to search for clues that would finally solve the mystery and unlock the door. Amazingly we succeeded - with 30 seconds to spare! We worked well as a team and had a great time. Obviously we couldn't take photos, nor will I reveal any of the secrets. But if I get everyone's permission, I'll post our "We did it!" photo.
Permission granted! Escape Room WIN!!

Day 4

On our last morning we usually go The Story of Berlin museum and cold war bunker, which is very close to our hotel. This year I gave the students the choice between that and the Topography of Terror, which is an open-air museum at the former site of the Gestapo headquarters, and they chose the latter. This museum is free of charge, and although they said it was interesting and worth a visit, they didn't need more than an hour. It's very heavy - descriptions of arrests, interrogations, torture, beatings... But inside there is also a section about resistance against the regime, mentioning groups such as die Weiße Rose (the White Rose).

We took the S-Bahn back to the Ku'Damm and got out at Wittenbergplatz. I pointed them toward the KaDeWe (largest department store in mainland Europe) and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, the bombed-out church left after WWII as a reminder of the devastation of war. They had time to explore at will until our meeting time back at the hotel, and Sophie and I went in search of the memorial at Breitscheidplatz where a terrorist drove a semi into the Christmas market in 2016, killing 12 people.

The symbolism of the golden crack or tear in the pavement is worth a read. (See here for an article in German.)

Although we had checked out in the morning, the receptionist allowed us to store our suitcases behind the desk until we needed to catch our bus. We collected our bags and walked the short distance to our bus stop. When the bus arrived we hopped on, but after about 4 stops I realized I didn't recognize anything we were passing. WRONG BUS! (Many buses stop at Bleibtreustraße, and I didn't bother to double-check the number. Oops!) A woman sitting next to Sophie told her where we could get off and then get a connection to the right bus, and when we got off and were a little discombobulated despite her help, another woman rescued us and showed us where to go. There really are friendly and helpful people all over - even in the big city.

We made it back to Tegel in plenty of time because I always plan in extra time for mistakes and detours. Why we landed in Zürich and took a bus to Stuttgart in the middle of the night rather than landing in Stuttgart at 19:25 as was our travel plan is fodder for another blog post.

Thus endeth this year's Berlinreise!

P.S. A tip for teachers: I have a box of 100 question cards for the U.S. Citizenship test, which my daughter gave me for Christmas this year. I brought those along and always had a handful in my backpack. During waiting times and on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn, I took the cards out and quizzed the kids to pass the time. They enjoyed the challenge! Once on the U-Bahn I noticed a couple leaning over to have a look at each question, so I made a point of turning it so they could see clearly, too. They were from Portugal and also enjoyed the activity! They even knew an answer or two that stumped the students.


  1. So proud of your adventurous palate this trip! :)

    1. It was all for you...! Next time maybe I'll skip the Italian, too, and add Thai, which was in our original.