Sunday, May 19, 2013

Amsterdam and Berlin

We planned this summer as a bike trip starting in Vienna, but we've been traveling by everything but a bicycle to get there.  We started with a 4,100-mile train trip across the US on Amtrak, followed by 5,000 miles across the Atlantic by cruise ship to Harwich, England.  Next came 6 hours on a ferry across the English Channel and 2 more by train to get to Amsterdam, where we paused for 3 nights.  Our last 800-mile leg is again by train -- actually two trains, one to Berlin and a separate one to Vienna, with one evening and one full day to sightsee in the once and future capital of Germany.  We'll visit Amsterdam and Berlin in this posting and save Vienna for the next one.

Amsterdam had a special attraction for us, as it is now home to Thomas, Camilla and their charming daughter Rei, whom we visited a day after arriving.  Thomas's parents are Louise and Masaharu, with whom we spent several hours two weeks ago as we changed trains in Washington DC.  The two Louises have been friends for some 35 years now, but it has been close to 20 years since "our" Louise had seen Thomas, and everyone else was meeting for the first time.

Thomas and Camilla have volunteered to hold our luggage for us until we return to catch the Holland America Europa on August 15 for the trip home.  The logistics for a trip like ours are a bit . . . challenging.  Not only do we have to get ourselves to Vienna, but also our stuff -- except not all of it goes to Vienna!  Hence our considerable gratitude to Thomas and Camilla.

From Seattle to Amsterdam we have had as our constant companions two large grey suitcases holding the tandem bike (disassembled in many pieces, of course); two red suitcases with our clothes, toiletries, paperwork and the two panniers that will later hang on each side of the bike; two green bags with our bike helmets; one backpack each with things we want to have quick access to on our various trains and boats; and finally the rack trunk, which will eventually sit on the rear carrier right behind Louise.

The plan was to leave most of this in Amsterdam, taking only the assembled tandem, two panniers and the rack trunk with us on the train.  This was not to be.  Although we could reserve seats to Berlin and Vienna for ourselves, Deutsches Bahn does not allow one to make a reservation for a bike except in person at a train station.  The moment we reached Amsterdam we tried, and were told that there were no spots left for a tandem on the first train, nor for a bike of any kind on the second.  Sigh . . . on to Plan B. 

As you can see in the next photo, we're now down to the 2 bike boxes (with more stuff crammed inside than before, and now weighing about 60 lbs. each), one pannier each and one backpack each, until we reach Vienna.  In Amsterdam we were actually able to pull it all 3 blocks and then up two steep steps into a tram to the train station.  The bike will get assembled in Vienna and the bike cases will then go back to Amsterdam largely empty, courtesy of FedEx.  When the cases get back to Thomas, the red suitcases with the extra clothing for the train and ship travel that we dropped of at his apartment will go inside them and await our return in August.   So the planning for something as simple as a bike ride can sometimes be complex indeed.

With all the planning and repacking of our gear to accomplish, we did not have enough time to see either of the 2 museums we would love to visit here, the Van Gogh Museum or the Rijksmuseum.  However, we did spend almost an entire day walking from our apartment to downtown, and it was utterly fascinating, starting less than a block from our lodging when we crossed the first of several dozen canals.  We'll let a few additional shots give you a feel for the look of the place.  We fell in love with it, and know we'll need more than the three days we have booked in August.  Perhaps we have the beginnings of a plan for Summer 2014?

As tandem cyclists, we always pay particular attention to bikes with more than one saddle.  To our surprise, there were many "single" bikes in Amsterdam that are fitted out for one, two, three or even four additional passengers, provided they're small enough.  Notice on the second and third bikes that the steering is by the adult, and the handlebars in the front are for kids to hold onto but not to steer with.

We made sure we had a good Dutch lunch: a cup of homemade pea soup with ham, then pancakes of course.  Both Louise's spinach and goat cheese and my ham and cheese pancakes were to die for.  We now see why the Dutch cycle everywhere -- they'd look like sumo wrestlers if they didn't do something to work off food like this!

Though our walk was mainly to get a feel for the city, we did wander past a few landmarks, the most notable of which were the Anne Frank House and the Nieuwe Kerk.  Can you imagine anyone attaching their house to the side of a church in the U.S., as these folks have?  Our third "landmark" was Amsterdam's "red light district," which indeed was marked off with red lights.  There were signs saying "no photos" where various ladies sat and smiled from doorways or behind large windows, but no such sign graced the Condom Shop, with its rather amusing display.  We're sure the Statue of Liberty Condom (top row, 4th from the left) is popular with American tourists -- we'll, half of them, perhaps.  There are others who might have a practical concern or two.


The trip with our slightly-reduced luggage to the Amsterdam Centraal train station was a challenge, but we managed.  Luckily the train to Berlin had a spot at the end of the car for large luggage, where the bike cases went.  Our reserved places on the train were for backward-facing seats, but there were enough other available seats that we were able to get forward-facing ones, though twice en route we had to switch seats when it turned out we were in someone else's reserved spot.

We now had time to think a bit about our first impressions of Holland.  We'll get a good chance to revise them as we will be back for about two more weeks, half that before and half after our visit to East Anglia in England.

What we saw from the train in and out of Amsterdam, and in the city from trams or by walking, was very clean and well-maintained, with outstanding infrastructure for biking, walking and public transit.  We were taken aback, however, by graffiti that was as bad as anywhere we've seen in the U.S.  It struck a discordant, unsettling note.

We didn't have too many occasions to talk with the locals, but always seemed to find someone who spoke English when we needed to.  Unlike China, however, all signs seemed to be in Dutch only.  This sign in a tram was one of the very few we saw that were in more than one language.  Jeff has some vestigial recollection of German from 2 years' worth of study in high school and another in college, but that only rarely helped puzzle out Dutch words -- they really are very different languages despite their common roots.  For the most part, the best we could do was guess at what various signs, ads and other writing meant, and hope it wasn't important to know exactly what they said.

Our train ride to Berlin took us, intellectually, to another world.  Say "The Cold War," and one never thinks of Amsterdam, but almost always of Berlin.  As for WW II, the Anne Frank House of course keeps its memory alive in Amsterdam, but little else does. 

Berlin, on the other hand, is deeply haunted by both the Cold War and the world war.  It was, of course, both the capital of Hitler's empire and the point where he and it turned to ash.  If we had a week to spend in Berlin, we would of course find centuries of culture and a vibrant city that continues to create more.  Our stay, however, was from a Thursday evening arrival to a Saturday morning departure -- really only one day.  Our hotel, moreover, was within 2km of some of the most potent markers of those two conflicts. It was an intense day.   The Motel One was very attractive and new, and we needed the good sleep we got in that comfy bed, both before our immersion in Berlin, and after.

Our hotel was two blocks from the train station, though pulling the two 30-kilo suitcases holding the tandem made it feel a good bit further.  We returned to the station Frday morning for breakfast, part of which was "ein Berliner," or as Americans would say, a jelly donut.  Lucky for JFK, most non-German-speakers had no idea he was calling himself that when what he really meant to say was "Ich bin Berliner" :  "I (too) am a citizen of Berlin."  Translation is a tricky thing, isn't it?



Our first landmark was the Reichstag.  Less than a month after Hitler became Chancellor with a limited mandate to impose National Socialism on Germany (Hitler had won only 33% of the vote in the election a month earlier), a Dutch Communist started a fire which gutted the building.  Using the actions of this one individual as an excuse, Hitler obtained emergency power to "preserve order."  What he did to preserve order was imprison his enemies.  The tyranny began.

Arguably, the War both began and ended here.  One of the most iconic photos of WW II was taken on its roof as the Soviets took Berlin in May 1945.  The dome had collapsed not from the fire but from Allied bombing, and the building was basically unused until ten years after the 1989 fall of the Wall, when the parliament (Bundestag) of a reunited Germany moved back in.  The new glass dome was added as a symbol of the modern German government's aspiration to be open to the people.

Across the street was a reminder of what Germany's descent into tyranny back in 1933 meant to many.  This was a memorial to roughly half a million Sinti and Roma ("Gypsy") people worked to death or put to death, starting within weeks of that emergency decree.

Nearby, the focus swerved to the Cold War as we approached the Brandenburg Gate.  It dates to the late 1700s, and Napoleon even marched under it after conquering Prussia, but its location a few meters from a major checkpoint between East and West Berlin made it a focal point of feelings about The Wall.

The area around it is traffic free today, and one of the busiest places in Berlin.  Berlin's two tragedies came together here, with signs about the Cold War to one side and others about National Socialism on the other.  Nearby the Hotel Adlon helped balance things out by rising from the ashes.  It was the most elegant hotel in Belin when Berlin was the capital of European culture in the 1920s.  Liza Minnelli mentions it in Cabaret, and it was the inspiration for the 1931 Greta Garbo movie "Grand Hotel."  Luminaries from FDR to Freud to Charlie Chaplin stayed here.  Drunken Russian soldiers reputedly started the fire that burned it down shortly after the fall of Berlin, but it was rebuilt shortly after the reunification of Germany in 1991.  Isn't it charming once again?

There are many other places nearby that celebrate the present or recall a less tragic past, but on a first short visit to Berlin, one keeps getting drawn to The War and The Wall.  A block away is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a stark monument that is controversial not for its attempt at reconciliation with Germany's dark past, but for the artistic -- some would say ugly -- way it does so.  But then, it is an ugly matter.

Another block further, one comes to an undistinguished parking lot that the East German government meant to be undistinguished -- it is the site where Hitler committed suicide in a bunker many feet below.

Walk a quarter mile further still, and there are a few panels of The Wall on display.  As a sign pointed out, however, "The Wall" was not one wall but two, with a zone of destruction between them to keep East Germans from approaching it to make a quick hop over.  Nearby was one of the few remaining watch towers from which guards shot and killed several who nevertheless tried.  The entire block in the second photo below is new -- this was all part of "no man's land" from 1961 to 1989, since the outer wall was up by the street in the distance, and the inner wall is where the photo is taken from.

We'll, enough of this. Berlin is other things as well.  We did make a point of checking out the good German beer at lunch and at dinner, for example, and had a very pleasant walk along the Spree River back to our hotel.  We're off next to Vienna.  Hope you join us there.



Four Ports in Three Days

In our first 7 nights on the Celebrity Infinity we had 4 advances of the clock as we cruised to the Azores.  It went reasonably well, but after leaving the Azores we had 2  more, and the belief that taking a boat to Europe would avoid jet lag lost many adherents.  Our vessel is feeling more like a "Ship of Fools" with each sleep-shortened night.  But then after two more sea days and the end of the movable clock, things picked up.  In three quick days the Infinity stopped at three ports.  At the third one we switched boats to a Stena Line ferry and landed at a fourth.  We were on land at last!

We had planned to skip the Infinity's second "formal night" on our last sea day by again having dinner in the cafeteria, until we heard about the lobster tails.  The maitre d' had a stash of men's jackets to lend out and Jeff found one that was within 3 or 4 sizes of correct, and we blended in with more properly dressed guests, like the charming Florida couple we dined with that night and two earlier evenings.  And the lobster tail was good.

The stop in Cherbourg was mainly, we think, for the ship to sell bus excursions to see the site of the D-Day invasion, an hour or two from town.  We chose instead to wander through the downtown area, which has seen better days.  We stopped at an Internet cafe in hopes of posting a blog entry, without success.  The keyboard was the first challenge -- the French do not use a 'qwerty' layout.  Then the French Google site didn't want to let us into the Google-owned Blogspot site, but we eventually found an English-language pathway in.  The third and fatal blow was that the system was so slow we failed to load even one photo.  So we are now over a week behind in getting our blog posts up.  We hope Vienna will be the place we get to catch up.

Our next stop was magical.  The boat docked in Zeebrugge, or "Bruges By the Sea," and we paid for a bus service that brought us into the heart of Bruges itself, 25 minutes away.  On the way there and back we got a good look at the bicycling infrastructure that Belgium and Holland are so famous for.

 The "tour" was billed as "Bruges on Your Own" but we did have a guide who told us quite a bit about Belgium and Bruges on the rides in and back, and led us on a ten-minute walk at each end of the visit, from a bus drop-off point to a landmark for reassembly 4 hours later.  Along that walk was Lovers' Pond, with a romantic restaurant across the water on the right.

Bruges calls itself the "Venice of the North" and we did pass a number of canals.  But the streets were sometimes just as interesting, as they twisted and turned and showed you something interesting every few meters.

The highlight of our visit, literally as we'll as figuratively, was the Belfort, a/k/a the Belfry of Bruges.  We had a 40- minute wait as there is a limit of 70 people in the tower at any time, but it was well worth it.  And as we waited, a paper artist cut this silhouette of Jeff with his "Seattle Sombrero" rain hat.

The 135-step climb we did 2 or 3 times a day on the ship, from deck 2 to deck 10, had prepared us well for the 366-step climb up the Belfort.  Partway up was a treasure chamber, where the city's charter was once secured with 9 different locks, each with a lone key held by one of the 9 ranking officials of the city.  The chest could only be opened when all nine were assembled, as a way of ensuring this rarely or never happened.

As we climbed further, we came to a second even larger room.  We crossed it and started up yet another section of steps that took us far above its ceiling and into the realm of the bells.  A sign explained that when the first part of the tower went up between 1240 and 1280, time was a relative thing.  Bells signaled morning, mid-day and evening, but the concept of measuring time was alien to the age.  Then some clever mechanics started doing just that, and by the late Middle Ages the tower was famous for its bells striking the hour 24 times a day at actual 60-minute intervals.  Today the bells are run like a giant music box by this brass drum that a nearby sign said was the largest in the world of its type.  As it is about 6' in diameter and maybe 10' wide, that's entirely possible.

And then -- the top!  WOW!  We'll let the photos show you the fairy tale view.

Alas, all too soon we were descending those 366 steps, rather faster than we had climbed them.


We finished up our too-brief visit by wandering past more fanciful buildings, both public and private, and by admiring the wares in Bruges' many chocolate shops.  One even appeared to cater to chocoholics with a foot fetish.



The ship reached port number 3, Harwich England, about 4 am the next morning.  We had breakfast at 6 and stepped out onto the back deck for a view of our Stena Line ferry, next door as it were.  We had gone through British customs three days earlier on board the Infinity, and all the heavy luggage had been put outside our stateroom the night before and was now waiting on the pier for us.  Disembarking was a breeze.  We were on the Stena ferry by 8, and floating out to sea on our new vessel at 9 am sharp.

The ferry Brittanica is almost as long and tall as the cruise ship, and the English Channel was calm, so the crossing was easy.  We said goodbye to the Infinity and took a look at downtown Harwich as we pulled out of the Stour Estuary and at a windmill farm one hour out of town in the middle of the Channel.  6 1/2 hours from Harwich we were docked at the Hook of Holland, looking westward at the mouth of the mighty Rhine.

We will be back to the Hook of Holland two more times, in late July and then early August, when we descend the Rhine to take the same ferry over and back for an 18-day tour of East Anglia.  But right now it's off to Amsterdam for the real start of our European adventure.  We'll take you with us by train to Amsterdam and then Berlin in our next blog, and to Vienna for the start of our bicycle adventure in the following one.