Day: July 21, 2013

TSOJ: Bike Tour of Potsdam

In my humble and important opinion, bike tours are one of the best ways to see most European cities, and my favorite bike tour company (Fat Tire Bike Tours) always manages to do all the things that make a bike tour great. I have taken three tours based in Paris (day tour, night tour, Versailles) and I have taken one of the many Berlin tours, so when I saw that there was a tour of Potsdam offered by Fat Tire I did not hesitate to sign up. When solo traveling these tours are great for meeting people and seeing the sights.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

When I decided that Potsdam was on my itinerary I knew very little about the history of Potsdam other than the end of WWII and Potsdam had some distant connection in my brain. By the end of the day I knew as much as someone with a PhD in German history. (This is a lie, but I could pass a two question test on German history written in English.)

We kicked off our tour by informally introducing ourselves and it wasn’t long before we all agreed that it was a small world as we made connections from our pasts. (For example, one of the ladies on the tour had grown up in the mighty PNW and had spent many summers at a family cabin in Grayland, WA where I worked for 16 years.) We all hopped on a train to Potsdam and picked up our bikes. The bikes all have names printed on their frames and I ended up with The Alman Brothers, I really wanted Anna Kornikova but I didn’t think my wife would approve of me riding Anna all day. Off we went, it was a cooler than usual day and I was prepared by having hairy legs and arms. The people from California and Arizona in our group were cold, but I was comfortable the whole day.

Doing my job as "ass man." Blocking a car, a horse-drawn carriage, and taking an ill-advised picture while riding downhill.

Doing my job as “ass man.” Blocking a car, a horse drawn carriage, and taking an ill advised picture while riding downhill.

Our guide, Craig, was from Australia and brought that Aussie relaxed attitude the entire day. One of the first things to decide on the tour is who gets to ride in the very back. In France they called this the derrière, but in Germany the last person is referred to as the “ass man.” The payment to be the “ass man” is one beer back at the shop, I had been the derriere before and quickly volunteered to take care of business as the “ass man.” The “ass man’s” job is to make sure no one gets left behind and at times is the person who blocks traffic. The nice thing about the Potsdam tour is that there was not any need to block traffic since most of the day we were riding through the huge parks in Potsdam.

I will now sum up everything you need to know about Potsdam in a paragraph. (If you need to check any of the historical accuracy of this section please use Wikipedia.) The Germans wanted to have a Versailles like place for their royalty to hang out, so they built a bunch of castles. It got a bit out of control. Many of the buildings were like Hollywood stage sets and did not have much substance. The different kings all had their own ideas about what to build and pretty soon there was a mess of different styles of architecture. Eventually the kings lost power after WWI and the place was kind of ignored for a few years, until the Big Three (not LeBron, D Wade, and Chris Bosh, but America, England, and Russia) were looking for a place to divide up Germany after WWII. The Big Three met in Potsdam because the rest of the country only had about three buildings left standing. (This bombing is described in Germany as inhumane, in the US it is described as necessary.) After the Potsdam Accord was signed the Cold War started and we got to move our hatred from Germans to Russians. After that Potsdam was controlled by the East Germans and the castles were used by the Communist Party leaders as summer retreats. There was some other important stuff along the way, but that is the condensed version.

On our bikes we saw some awesomely weird buildings and rode around the whole city. I must say, when people have unlimited funds to build things they go a bit nutty. The worst building was this Chinese Pagoda building. There were Germans who had been to China to trade opium and they returned with some great stories about the buildings, so instead of having the architect visit China or bringing in a Chinese builder, they just kind of winged it. The result is a building that is either blatantly racist, or just plain ugly. I believe the traders were smoking their product instead of just trading it.

This is a real building. This building exists.

This is a real building. This building exists.

What's worse, the hats or the mustache?

What’s worse, the hats or the mustache?

That's a lot of gold leaf.

That’s a lot of gold leaf.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

One of the kings, Frederick The Great (aka Frederick II), had an exciting life. He tried to run away from his father and leave the royal thing in the rearview mirror, but one of his friends ratted him out. (Most historians agree he was homosexual and trying to escape with his lover.) The king executed Fredrick’s lover; forcing Fred to watch. Freddy then decided to behave himself and even got married (kind of, no kids and he is buried next to his dogs, his wife’s grave is nowhere to be seen). The best thing King Freddy did was bring potatoes to Germany. At first Germans did not want to eat potatoes, so the King Freddy made a law that said that only the royals could eat potatoes. This changed everyone’s attitude about potatoes and soon people were trying to steal potatoes from the royal potato patch. After a year king Freddy lifted the ban on potatoes and everyone was making potato salad, mashed potatoes, and eating potatoes like crazy. Germans are still potato crazy.

The Potato King's grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

The Potato King’s grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

Around noon, we stopped to have a little lunch in a beer garden. This beer garden overlooked a lake and offered traditional German food: Beer, sausages, lentil soup, potatoes of various types, and pretzels. I decided that a liter of seasonal beer was needed to wash down my brat, potato salad, and kraut. It was a great break in the middle of the day and allowed all of us to sit around a table and find a little more about each other. Craig, the tour guide, said the most surprising thing of all; he wanted to travel to America and see the southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. All of the Americans were shocked by this information. Most often, these are not the locations that tourists want to visit, but Craig said that he heard that people there were crazy and he wanted to see them with his own eyes. This view is even more odd when one considers that Craig is from Australia and seeing crazy people is easy enough in his homeland. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

This was the servant housing...really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

This was the servant housing…really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

We finished the tour at the building where the Potsdam Accord was signed. I did not pay the extra fee to take photographs inside the building. There were three rooms for the three leaders: Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower; and one big room with a big round table for the actual meetings. It is strange to sit in a room where the course of history was changed, or at least to know that many of my childhood fears of the USSR were formed by the decisions made in this room. We hopped back on our bikes and cruised back to the train station, just barely made our train, and then headed back into Berlin. Once we made it to the bike shop I collected my beer and was given a chunk of the wall. I don’t know if the chuck was because I did a passable job as “ass man,” but it doesn’t matter why I was awarded the fist sized piece of cement because to me the fall of the wall is more about the potential for change than anything else. I never thought I would see the day when Germany was combined and I never thought we would live in a world where the Communist Bloc did not exist any longer. It gives me hope for the future and for all the challenges the human race will face.

TSOJ: Berlin–Ugly Shoes, Horrible Hotels, and How Germany Won the War of Breakfast

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Jesus in Berlin. I’m not sure if he is doing a swan dive, or is using the Crane technic (Karate Kid allusion) to fight off evil in Germany.

Let’s be honest, most Americans have a singular view of German history: Hitler. I don’t want to minimize Hitler’s impact on Germany, but reducing German history to the years around 1930-1945 is a little like reducing American history to the Reagan years.

Berlin has seen it all and for any traveler interested in history, Berlin is a must stop.

Travel inside Berlin has some challenges for a non-German speaker, but people are generally helpful and most speak excellent English. For me the public transportation is a challenge. Whereas London, and Paris have systems that I find easy to use, Berlin is a complicated mess. Now, I am certain that the locals all know how everything works, but to me the S system and U system need a bit of work. I was told that the S system is above ground and the U system in underground, but that isn’t always the truth. Coming off a U train and having to find an S train is a sometimes difficult. Couple that with Germany’s directional signage problems and you have a lot of lost tourists. (I found that almost all the signs got you 70% of the way, the last 30% is supposed to be intuition.) The number of times I started one direction, came back, and then finally figured it out are too many to mention. I don’t believe that Germans care that you get lost, and frankly who can blame them a lost tourist is a comical person to watch: The map flapping in the wind, the confused look, the orientation of map to streets, and the joy of knowing where you are going is a great example of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying that Germans are purposely being mean, they just seem to get a little more joy from your discomfort than other people.

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Berlin is also the best place that I know of to see chunks of ancient history, WWI and WWII history, Cold War history, and European reunification. London has a lot of this same history, but it is seen from a longer lens, in Berlin it happened in the streets beneath your feet. The greatest example is the brick line that cuts through the street in front of Brandenburg Gate.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

These shoes were made for running and that's not what they'll do, instead they'll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

These shoes were made for running and that’s not what they’ll do, instead they’ll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

Today cars drive across this little brick path, but just twenty-five years ago there was a wall separating East and West Berlin and a large chunk of ground between the two cities called the dead zone. This is now completely gone and the two cities are now one large metroplex of a city. Most cities grow around a center (I like to think of it like the yolk of a fried egg), but since Berlin had two centers for so many years it is like one of those two yolked eggs. There is the Western center of museums and culture, and then there is the Eastern chunk. When it comes to Berlin’s museums I will admit that I like the stuff the East had stolen better than the stuff the West had.

I think one of the most important aspects of Germany’s history is that they do not hide from their mistakes. It is not difficult to spend your whole day visiting Hitler sites and reviewing the horror of the Holocaust and WWII. Much of this history could have been revised, but Germans have done the more difficult thing, and that is to brush off the dust of history and show people how a country can take the small steps that eventually lead to inhumane acts of genocide.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, "When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people."

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, “When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people.”

How did I end up buying the ugliest shoes in Berlin? Well, my blister problems have been well documented during The Summer of Jon, but I finally decided that I would do whatever was needed to find shoes that did not cause me blisters, so as soon as I arrived in Berlin I struck out to find a shoe store. The good news is that my hotel was near one of the major shopping areas in Western Berlin, Ku Dam. So, I hobbled up along Ku Dam until I reached a shoe store and looked for a cheap pair of running shoes. I found some that met my requirements: not too loud, on sale, and in my size. I bought the shoes, asked where I could put them on, and then found out that the shoes I bought were too small. I took the shoes back to the register and talked to the salesman. He said they normally don’t carry shoes bigger than 45, which is close to an American 12. I normally wear a 12.5 so I asked if there were any shoes in my size, the salesman said that they don’t get many shoes that size but he would look. He came back with one pair of bright yellow shoes. “These are the only ones we have in your size,” he said. These shoes only met one of my three requirement–they fit. Everything else was wrong. Florescent yellow is not a shoe color in my opinion, and the shoes were not on sale. My desperation forced me into buying some epically ugly shoes and these shoes have not gone unnoticed. Germans are probably better at making disapproving faces at strangers than any other culture. I got a lot of looks. I know that I am probably just a trend setter, and that everyone is jealous of my cool shoes.

Berlin's man-hole covers are world-class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

Berlin’s man hole covers are world class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

When booking hotel I take into consideration many things, location, ratings on TripAdvisor, cost, and whether breakfast is offered. Sometimes I make a mistake. The biggest mistake would be the first time my family visited Iceland. There were not many hotels to choose from and prices were high for a family of four. We ended up in a place called the Flying Viking (pronounced Flying Wiking.) It was a little like a garage, a little like a hostel, and a lot like a place that my family universally hated. I was less concerned about the ratings of a hotel on this trip as saving money was the primary priority and because of that I didn’t mind staying in riskier hotels that were centrally located. Berlin has lots of hotels that do not cost a ton and I found one called Hotel Pension Kima just off Ku Dam and surrounded by expensive shops. It sounded like a no brainer to me. I booked it. My hopes were pretty high until I stepped into the elevator. The elevator resembled a painted wooden box that moved up and down the shaft by means of a hamster powered engine. It was the type of elevator that when you step into it, it sinks three inches. This did not make me feel safe, the sign next to the elevator did not reassure me. What does this sign mean? Be careful when passing the flame? Hell is located close by? Stand with your arms straight when the box catches fire?

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box...

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box…

After I got my key and headed up to my room, I was confronted by the uncomfortable fact that I was staying in a dive. The bed looked clean and that was really the only important thing, but I wondered how many people had died in this very room. Berlin is an old city and I estimated there were probably at least five people who took their last breath here. There was also the possibility that no one had died here because it was actually a broom closet until it was converted into my room. I dealt with the situation like most travelers, I spent as little time in the room as possible. I slept there and then spent the day out and about. This might be the best reason to stay in a dive, it forces you to get out of the hotel.

Don't get turned around in here, you could get lost.

Don’t get turned around in here, you could get lost.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

The other part of the hotel was the morning breakfast. I looked forward to it since German baked goods are very good. Apparently my hotel did not get the memo about feeding me German baked goods. We had coffee, orange juice, a couple cereal choices, cheese, meat, hardboiled eggs, and very bad breads. I tried to eat my usual 5,000 calories on the first day, but it was forced, and on day two and three I was eating a small breakfast and then paying for a large lunch. The good news was that I was able to eat cheaply since Berlin is a reasonably priced town, and beer is certainly not frowned upon for lunch.

Getting ready to take out my "breakfast anger" on some brats and beer.

Getting ready to take out my “breakfast anger” on some brats and beer.

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