Cologne (my first disappointment)

Sunday evening Dirk messaged me to inform me that the DeutscheBahn train conductors were going on strike Tuesday morning through Sunday, the longest strike in history, and my travel plans may have to be adjusted. I had not booked a round trip ticket when I left Dusseldorf but I had to go back for the rest of my stuff. So we watched the news and checked the train schedules and took a chance and booked a 2nd class ticket to Cologne for Tuesday at noon. Apparently about 1/3 of the trains were running, as 1/3 are regular employees and not in the union that was striking (or something like that). I overpaid and didn’t even use my reserved seat bc I’m too polite to kick someone out of it, even if they are a Gen Y asian playing a really annoying ping pong video game on his phone that will surely result in some arthritis of the wrist. But it was a fast train so only an hour to Cologne where Dirk informed me the sun was shining. I had gone for a lovely run before packing up and was in a good mood (minus the annoying Asian kid in my seat). But Cologne wasn’t so welcoming. The locker situation was bizarre – 4euro for 2 hours or 7 for 24. Once you put your money in, a window opens and you put your bag in then it vanishes under the floor to some general storage facility and is retrieved later. So I couldn’t put the open shopping bag in it and I really didn’t want to put anything remotely valuable in it either since someone else would be handling it. I put in 7 euro bc we were going to be there for about 4 hours, but it spit back out 3 and gave me a ticket for only 2 hours. UGH. I knew I needed food bc I was cranky.

Cologne is kind of strange. Admittedly I didn’t investigate it much since I was meeting Dirk and Hiltrud and Werner but stepping out of the train station you are immediately standing next to a gigantic church, the town’s main attraction. I mean, gigantic. Looking up at it made me dizzy. There was also some bizarre wind tunnel effect in the plaza on two sides of the church so all the tour groups of asians and teenagers were literally being blown around trying to take selfies in front of it. We crossed the plaza to a biergarten for some Kolsch and I enjoyed a giant bowl of homemade pesto and macaroni. Then we split up and Dirk and I wandered over to the German museum to peek in the window (another Rick Steves suggestion) for a free look at their prize possession, a mosaic tile floor from Roman times, restored in its original location, around which the museum was built, glass windows and all. Saved ourselves a couple euros and saw it anyways. Then we went in the Dom. Now I expect a cathedral referred to as the Dom to have a dome on it, but this one doesn’t. I guess that’s just how they refer to giant ornate churches here. It has to be one of the top 3 largest churches I’ve been inside. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the cathedral in Siena Italy probably rounding it out. They removed all the art and stained glass during the war so they glitter beautifully having been installed in their original location in contrast to the dark and dingy exterior. We couldn’t find an English brochure and they didn’t offer a tour in English and we were unsuccessful at eavesdropping on the private English tour groups but we spent a good bit of time wandering around anyways. There was a big ornate gold arc inside the gated front altar area and we found a tiny pamphlet that claimed it contained the bones of the magi – hence the allure of this particular church.
I saw Dirk curiously walking through the iron gate into the front altar area so naturally I follow and before we know it we are being locked in with some formally dressed old folks and some very official looking church persons. We tried to quietly exit only Dirk couldn’t operate the door. A bunch of tourists were staring at us from the outside because they wanted in and finally a man in a black robe came and let us out, with a very loud clang! Oops! We thought about going through the treasury to see all the fancy gold and jeweled relics, but didn’t want to pay the hefty entrance fee so we exited back into the wind tunnel.

Gold alter piece
Gold alter piece
Weird statue in a case
Weird statue in a case
Weird painting on an archway
Weird painting on an archway
Cool in laid wooden door
Cool in laid wooden door
Apparently the container of the bones of the magi
Apparently the container of the bones of the magi
Really high up organ
Really high up organ
Pretty detail
Pretty detail
Ancient crane?
Ancient crane?

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Tetris?
Tetris?
So tall
So tall
Interesting stonework
Interesting stonework
Old gates
Old gates
Creepy heads
Creepy heads

We didn’t really want to do any museums so we hit the pedestrian streets for some shopping, eventually ending up down at the riverfront. Again, I wasn’t really impressed. There were some quaint buildings, and a short promenade, but then we were back at the art museum and the Dom/wind tunnel.

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Old and new

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Art museum
Art museum

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It also started raining. yay. So we just found Hiltrud and Werner and sat down for some more Kolsch before boarding the train back. Since there were only 1/3 of the scheduled trains running but no lack of tourists, it was full. We did not reserve seats but it was only a 20 minute ride so we split up and I had an adorable little pup under my feet who snored the whole way back.

Getting off at the main train station we were already downtown, so to save ourselves another trip the next day, Dirk and I went shopping, some more. I found a Steiff store for cute niece and nephew gifts and a sports store for some sweet futbol jerseys for my soccer loving LeDoux boys. We took a tram back to Gerresheim for dinner but first met Archie for some goodbye hugs and a memory stick full of marathon day pics. Dirk took me to the Fox Hunt restaurant he enjoyed a few nights before where we had some seriously bad service, mysterious seat kicking, good wine, strange potato souffle things, and my least favorite schnitzel to date. It was stupidly hot and reeked of smoke. Pretty much a fitting end to my day.

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Lessons learned:

1) first class train tickets are worth it, most of the time.
2) if you don’t like the weather, don’t worry, it changes about every 10 minutes
3) if you wear a skirt (or shorts prob) that shows bare skin, people will stare at you (unless it’s July, I hear that’s the only month Germans wear shorts)
4) you are not allowed to walk across the plaza built over the philharmonic’s concert hall when they are rehearsing or performing. (one might ask why they would build a concert hall under a public plaza, but to that I have no answer)

Frankfurt

One of my dearest friends from accounting school at Wake moved to Frankfurt with her job 18 months ago so despite not knowing much of anything about Frankfurt, I knew I was too close not to go visit her. Of course she has to work so I made sure to arrive on a weekend and proceeded to talk her husband who doesn’t work (that whole foreign language barrier not working out for him), to play with me on the weekdays. I took a high speed train from Dusseldorf to Frankfurt on Saturday, however, they are working on the tracks on the weekends, so the train actually took a longer, slower, albeit more scenic route. I had 3 hours in first class with only 2 other passengers (some nice but not noisy Germans who live in Vancouver and just got off a transatlantic cruise in Rome, egads). So I blogged about Berlin til it got scenic then I enjoyed the sights along the Rhine, and before I knew it I was there, much easier than a 3 hour flight would have felt. Roxie and Paul met me at the train station in their gifted BMW and we drove into town to grab lunch at an Indian place that turned out to be closed, so we got some great Thai food instead. Really good international cuisine is always a nice break from Schnitzel and potatoes. Then we walked to an outdoors store called Globetrotters and although none of us bought anything I really enjoyed the store itself. Very cool layout with a big atrium in the middle.

Globetrotters
Globetrotters
They sell overpriced dog running shoes
They sell overpriced dog running shoes

Apparently the grocery was going to be closed on Sunday so we went back to their apartment to hit the grocery before dinner. The drive would include my first experience on the autobahn. Being not so good at converting kilometers to miles, I had to trust Paul when he said we were going about 100mph. When everyone around you is also going that fast, it doesn’t seem that fast actually. Trucks have to stay in the right lanes and are better about doing so than in the states. “Normal” people here drive mercedes and beamers and audis. The fancy rich bankers that inhabit Germany’s financial center drive an exotic assortment of ferraris, porsches, lambos, and other things I cannot identify. lots of noise pollution from the showboating but a fun attraction all the same.

Since they live out in this big planned community suburb the grocery was much bigger than any I’d been in so far and I had fun exploring. It is actually an underground store in the mall beneath her apartment complex. They planted the roof to make a nice green space and you would never know it’s under there. Only gardeners are allowed out there, but I still think it’s super cool.

Reissued green space (mall roof)
Reidburg green space (mall roof)

We took the train back downtown to wander around before dinner. We walked through the main plaza with a beautiful Rathaus (city hall) and some restored half timber buildings (almost all of them were destroyed in allied bombings). Street performers abound and the ever present scaffolding and cranes ruin most pictures lol. We were too late to go up in the church tower. The river walk area is very nice, just have to watch out for bikes and rollerbladers! The pedestrian bridge is covered in locks but Roxie and Paul couldn’t find theirs to show me.

Big plays with traditional half timber buildings (not original)
Big plays with traditional half timber buildings (not original)
The Rathaus (aka city hall)
The Rathaus (aka city hall)
Just a pretty old church on the platz
Just a pretty old church on the platz
The big church tower we were too late to go up in
The big church tower we were too late to go up in

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The Main River that runs through town (pronounced "mine")
The Main River that runs through town (pronounced “mine”)

We stopped at a biergarten for a refreshment and a quick internet search to pick an apfelwein restaurant for dinner. Our waiter spoke very good English and referenced the Friends episode in which Ross spray tans counting 1-mississippi, 2-mississippi, etc. trying to identify the state that is hardest to pronounce, as we struggled to pronounce the name of the beer I was drinking. We apparently picked a popular restaurant as we had to wait a while, and then waited even longer to order the nasty apfelwein, but the food was delicious, even if we were cold and choking on smoke sitting outside. We decided the sweet apfelwein (mixed with lemonade) was preferable to the sour version (mixed with sparkling water), but none of us wanted to order more than our tester glasses.

Amazing pruned sycamore trees all over town
Amazing pruned sycamore trees all over town
Apfelwein sour and sweet
Apfelwein sour and sweet

I was thrilled to have a giant bedroom and proper bed all to myself but it was noisy and I am becoming accustomed to sleeping with earplugs now. Their apartment is quite large and new and clean. Apparently their first one downtown was 35 square meters, not much larger than a hotel room. They have their own washer and dryer in a community laundry room in the basement and a storage locker for bikes and tools and cases of drinks, etc. The bathtub of course doesn’t have a curtain bc they never do, so we all use the tiny enclosed shower in the second bathroom. No large people could fit, I could barely lift my arms! But it was preferable to the open air situation in Dusseldorf (which darn it I forgot to take a pic of, sorry Matt). Due to the ear plugs I overslept Sunday but as I rushed to get dressed for church Paul informed me Roxie wasn’t feeling well so I could lounge around the apartment while he went to church alone. We had a lazy Sunday watching netflix bc by the time he got home it started raining and never stopped. I did brave the elements for a short run (my first since the marathon) and it was so beautiful. There are nice greenways and fields and a pond (and a dozen playgrounds) in Reidburg so I just embraced the rain and went exploring. It was a productive lazy day as I made airbnb reservations for Munich and Vienna and booked my flight to Munich and read up Salzburg and planned our Rhine Valley adventure for the next day.

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A Monday on the Rhine

Best day ever? Maybe. Roxie had to work so I talked her husband Paul into spending the day biking along the river. They have matching his and hers cross bikes (not cross bikes like my Charlotte cycling friends use) so Roxie loaned me hers for our adventure. We packed up camelbacks and donned those sexy padded bike shorts and broke the rules by taking our bikes on the Ubahn train into town during rush hour. Once at Willy Brantz plaza (below the opera) we rode the urine stanky elevators up to street level and rode a few minutes to the main train station to catch a different train up to Bingen where we planned to board the 10:30 ferry to ride downstream to Boppard and ride back upriver stopping to tour the castle in St Goar. The Rhine is one of those rare Northern Hemisphere rivers that flows north (from the alps to the North Sea). So the ferries going north are going downstream and moving rather quickly with the current. It would be an hour 25 journey to go approximately 30k. I brought along my trusty rick steves best of Europe book with a great write up of the highlights along our route and info for eating and touring the castle in St Goar. We had diligently studied the ferry schedule and left ourselves 20 minutes to get approximately 1k from the Bingen train station to the ferry dock. These German trains are proving to run behind schedule a lot of the time (when they aren’t canceled for the country’s largest conductor strike in history). Our train was 10 minutes late but we arrived at the ferry dock at 10:28 for the 10:30 boat and alas, it was already pushing off from the dock. The less than customer service oriented ticket agent gruffly informed us we could wait for the 11:30 ferry. No thanks! It was a gorgeous day and after 2 hours on 3 trains I was dying to ride the bike. So we considered trying to catch it a stop or two up. Ha ha ha. By the time we used the toilet and remounted our bikes that ferry was long gone, never to be seen again. So we just reversed the plan and biked to St. Goar aiming to take an afternoon ferry back upstream to catch the train home. The kilometer flew by. It was so beautiful. The pics I snapped while riding aren’t amazing but no pictures would do the sights justice. The canyon is steep and the towns are long and skinny along the water. The bike path is fairly flat, with only some little dips that thankfully weren’t full of water from the mountain run off. We stopped again to check a ferry schedule and use a toilet but pressed on to St. Goar before stopping to eat. Since my plan was to read along in the guidebook riding the ferry, I didn’t really know what town was what until we saw some signage, typically in the form of painted lettering on the city walls, either at water’s edge or high up on the hillside. The vineyards aren’t quite green yet but still, they are beautiful and make the landscape so interesting. I nearly rode my bike down the embankment into the river craning to see them (and take bad pics). I’m still dying to know how they harvest the grapes! Rappelling gear? Trained mountain goats? Funiculars?

Steep vineyards
Steep vineyards
one of the many cute towns along the river
one of the many cute towns along the river

There were castles nestled up in the hillsides too. Some clearly well cared for by private owners, others in ruins, all enchanting.
St. Goar was a perfect end point for the bike ride because the path kind of disappeared int a construction zone right in the middle of town anyways. We found the TI center, locked up our bikes, and asked how to get to the castle. As it was quoted to be a 17% grade, we opted not to ride to the entrance 😉 She was fairly helpless with lunch recommendations so I whipped out my book and located the first restaurant suggested by Rick and his gang. We sat outside eating Flamenkuchen watching the ferries and barges pass while investigating our options for a return trip.

Paul was done riding, and we still had to hike up to the castle and back. We finished eating at 1:30 and decided we would try to catch the 3:20 ferry but stopped at the train station for a backup plan timetable. At the north end of the train station there is an underpass that leads to a steep staircase and a nature path up to the castle (thank you Rick!) It was a great choice, in lieu of the 5euro touristy train trolley. At the top there are some cute hotels, one pictured here with a sweet van to haul guests up the mountainside.

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At the entrance we used some awesome toilets castle style (sorry no pics) and picked up the free map and bought our tickets. Rick’s walking tour of the castle is very well done with great descriptives of where to go (because really it’s just a lot of crumbling stone walls and grass and dirt. We stopped in the little museum which had a nice English version of the historical timeline of who owned/built/fortified the castle before the sorry losers just surrendered it to the French only to have them blow it up anyways. We opted not to crawl through the “small” tunnels in the cold dark mud but we did crouch our way through the “big” tunnels which was worth it and not too too claustrophobic. The dungeon made the prison in Berlin look like the Ritz Carlton. The views were stunning.

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part of the ruins we faced after crawling out of the tunnel
part of the ruins we faced after crawling out of the tunnel

So that was that and we headed back down the nature trail to retrieve our bikes and watch yet another ferry push off from the dock just as we approached. Somehow I convinced Paul that we could catch it in the next town because they go so much slower upstream. Like a LOT slower. Here we are chasing the ferry. (and I love the 19th century tower entrances to the train tunnels.)

we want to get on that boat!
we want to get on that boat!
catching up!
catching up!

He was hurtin, but we made it. And boarded the slow slow ferry full of old people, well not full, it was pretty darn empty, but the other passengers were all old. We grabbed a beer and sat down on the deck to enjoy the sights from a different vantage point. It was lovely, just slow. It had taken us 2.5 hours to ride from Bingen to St. Goar. It would take us 2 hours to ferry from Obelsheim (town south of St. Goar) back to Bingen. Oh well. The ferry had some brief announcements in about 6 languages each time we passed a castle and I followed along in the guide book pointing out anything interesting we may have missed.

castle across the river from Bingen
castle across the river from Bingen

Another 3 trains later and we were finally home. it was 12 hours door to door and we were sunburned and starving. Roxie picked up delicious Indian food on the way home from work which I scarfed down while Paul laid down with a migraine (I felt terrible but the next morning he said he had a lot of fun and didn’t feel bad til we got home).

Activity report: A must do. I would have biked the whole way back if my partner had been up for it. But the ferry ride is nice too, just don’t burn as many calories 😉

East Side Gallery

 

 

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pirate hostel at one end of the gallery next to bridge

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Day 3 in Berlin we started off taking a metro train to the East Side Gallery to see the artwork.

These are some of my favorite pieces by 118 artists who painted this stretch of the wall alone the Spree river on the East Side. The East side of the wall was separated from the people by the no man’s land so there was no graffiti on it from 1961-1989. Much of the work has been vandalized but they are trying to preserve it as a memorial to the suffering the GDR inflicted on the people by separating families and stifling the economy of East Germany. I still don’t entirely grasp the Cold War and everything that went on but it is wonderful to see the city being rebuilt and the vibrant culture the reunification has brought.image image image image image image image image image image image image image image imageAfter the gallery walk, we hopped a different kind f train back to the center of town to the Mercedes Benz gallery, which wasn’t exactly what we were anticipating, but an interesting and free stop all the same.

imageThen we walked back down Unter den Linden across Museum Island again to catch yet another kind of train out to a suburb to visit the former Nazi/Soviet/GDR prison that the restaurant bartender had suggested. It was a 2 hour tour and our guide’s English was not amazing and after an hour he was mostly repeating himself. Our legs were tired of standing on the cement ground in the cells and interrogation rooms and as I got antsy and irritable I couldn’t help but think of the physical and psychological torture inflicted upon the [mostly innocent] prisoners held there over the decades. It was remarkably strange to think it was still happening in my lifetime and also makes me think about the people still suffering under radical regimes around the world today. It was a sobering day of ‘sightseeing’ and it felt a bit odd to head back to the KaDeWe and clink glasses at the Moet & Chandon champagne bar before catching our flight back to Dusseldorf. It was an action packed 3 days and quite different than the quaint old town, traditional German feel of Dusseldorf. Berlin is a young city (founded in 1871) to start with and because of it’s tumultuous history it is really only now figuring out its identity for the 21st century.

 

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Day 1 in Berlin

 

day 2 in Berlin

Fat Tires and Flat Tires

We woke up on time and headed down to breakfast around 7:30 which is apparently early as we had the place mostly to ourselves and what a treat, it was a phenomenal spread. Our tour operator that booked the trip for us got it included in the price but even for 9€ it would have been a good deal. I am trying to be healthy (I swear) so I had some lactose free yogurt, some hearty whole grain bread with butter and jam, pineapple orange juice, and two cups of incredible coffee and a small piece of toast bread w Nutella just because the dispensers for honey, Nutella and jam were so cute I wanted to keep using them hehe. But there was a variety of hot and cold meats, scrambled or boiled eggs, all types of cheese, pastries, breads, cut and whole fruit, any kind of milk or juice you could imagine, plus some icky looking local things like herring and I don’t know what. I think I talk a lot about food, but it is a really fun part of exploring new cultures, plus we walked over 12 miles yesterday!
So after breakfast we took a bus to the passport check/ticket stand at the Reichstag and booked a 4:30 tour of the dome. Then we started to walk down the Unter den Linden toward the TV tower to meet our Fat Tire Bike Tour guide. To make the most of our walk we turned back on the Rick steve’s guide and picked up where we left off to appreciate the sites. Note: East Berlin is one giant construction zone so the accessibility of some of the sites changes on a daily basis. The walk towards Museum Island was interesting but not particularly scenic bc of all the scaffolding and cranes. I hardly took any pics bc of it. Museum island doesn’t make much sense til you see it. It’s hardly recognizable as an actual island except on a map. We didn’t go to any museums bc the reviews weren’t amazing and the weather was nice so staying outdoors was preferable. After the fun little detour into the Radisson hotel lobby to see the aquarium elevator we turned off the audio guide and found our bike guide.

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To be honest I was a little nervous about riding bikes in all the traffic and construction and I’m sadly not super proficient on cruisers bc my instincts are based on experience on my tri bike. Not even close to the same. But hopping sidewalks is fun and I only almost ate it twice 😉 our British guide simon was great and added good history explanations and fun tid bits to several sites we had already seen on our own and took us to a few new ones, including Alexanderplatz, the plaza with the twin churches, checkpoint Charlie, a guard tower and a protected section of the wall that wasn’t covered in gum.

the french church that the german's copied on the other side of the plaza (and made 1 meter taller of course)
the french church that the german’s copied on the other side of the plaza (and made 1 meter taller of course)
they actually fenced off the wall to prevent vandalism. oh the irony.
they actually fenced off the wall to prevent vandalism. oh the irony.

It was a gorgeous day and we enjoyed a lovely ride through the Tiergarten to a Biergarten near the zoo for refreshments. Sweet potato soup and asparagus salad washed down by a radler and we were ready for the final bit of the tour.

riding through the Tiergarten
riding through the Tiergarten
quenching my thirst with a Radler (aka cyclist)
quenching my thirst with a Radler (aka cyclist)

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the white asparagus here is gigantic and only in season for a short time. this was the best i've had so far
the white asparagus here is gigantic and only in season for a short time. this was the best i’ve had so far

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a bit chaotic leaving the busy pedestrian area near the zoo so the group got spread out and simon kept looking back for them. Next thing I know he plows knee first into a beautiful old lamp post. OW. Poor guy, he was in a lot of pain and rather embarrassed. Once everyone caught up we continued towards the Victory tower where I got to replace my rainy day pics with these.

victory tower on a sunny day (3euro and 236 steps to a great view)
victory tower on a sunny day (3euro and 236 steps to a great view)

But then poor Simon discovered he had a flat tire so told everyone to wander for 10 minutes while he replaced the tube. Now I know I’m not a whiz at bike mechanics but this guy rides bikes for a living and was pretty clueless. Lucky for him Dirk was along and despite a worthless pump and some wonky brakes they got him functioning again.

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Our last stop on the way back was the Brandenburg Gate again. I was excited for blue skies to retake some pics but there was a giant crane in the way bc they were installing an exhibit for the First of May festivities. Oh well.

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TV tower, tallest structure in the EU
TV tower, tallest structure in the EU

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back at the TV tower bike shop Dirk was rewarded with a beer and we picked up some fun tshirts before heading back to the Reichstag for our dome tour. It was a good 30 minute walk so naturally we picked up some streusel en route (from a local shop sandwiched between a Dunkin donuts and a Starbucks).

Reichstag (parliament building
Reichstag (parliament building

The security procedures to go in the parliament building were quite serious. After the background check, you go thru airport like scanners, then queue up for your scheduled time when they herd you into a glass compartment and stare you down before herding you into an elevator up to the viewing level. It’s all free, just a big production. The audio guide was nice and triggered by walking by certain points on the ramp so you could take your time enjoying the panoramic view and it would just pick up when you got to the appropriate side to hear about what you were looking at. The whole thing is open air and somehow the rain is funneled through the middle and the sun shade rotates so it is very energy efficient and environmentally friendly. British architect Norman foster, I think, designed it.

the ramp up the dome at the Reichstag
the ramp up the dome at the Reichstag
the cone in the center covered in mirrors
the cone in the center covered in mirrors

 

hole in the top of the dome
hole in the top of the dome

We had a beautiful clear day to enjoy it and again, the audio guide added more tid bits our other tours had not. I wasn’t bored of hearing about the sites at all. Berlin is fascinating and I enjoyed every minute of it.
By the end of our tour my ankle was super angry so we took a bus back to the hotel and picked up some arnica oil at an apothecary which i lathered on after a nice hot shower. We headed back to the KaDeWe for dinner but were again short on time and went straight for the Thai station to place our order. Dirk went back to the potato guy to buy a bottle of the wine we had enjoyed so much the previous night and we shut the place down. But it was only 8 so what to do? The hotel restaurant didn’t offer much but we used our voucher for complimentary wine and asked the bar tender what we should do with our last day. Then Dirk went out to wander down the Kurfürstendamm and I headed to the room to blog. Full and satisfying day but went to bed a little worried about the state of my ankle and calves. Lots more walking to do and I may have made a bad choice bringing my Altras.

Day 1 in Berlin

day 3 in Berlin