Saturday, January 23, 2016

Berlin

An inscription on the Reichstag Building
Berlin’s a really big city with a long history. As such, there’s really far too much for any tourist to see, no matter how long they have in the metropolis.

I only had two and a half days to see the entire city, yet several of the travel boards suggested taking a whole day for each of the five museums on Museumsinsel.

Ain't nobody got time for that.

Feeling overwhelmed by all my options, I decided on the underrated “sleep in really late and see very little” itinerary. (In my defense, I was over two months into my trip at this point and kind of exhausted.)

I did still manage to see some cool things, though.

Being a good tourist, I started out with a World War II site.

U-Bahn Bomb Shelter Tour

I took the "Dark Worlds" tour through Berliner Unterwelten. I followed our tour guide unlocked an inconspicuous door in the Gesundbrunnen U-Bahn station—a door that thousands of people walk by every day—and we were instantly transported 75 years into the past.

The WW2 bomb shelter site has been left intentionally untouched in the intervening decades. There are still signs on the wall pointing to the, uh, "pissoir" and a small handful of bunks for families with children.

The guide told us about the hundreds of people who came and huddled in this dimly lit, claustrophobic, poorly ventilated space every time there was an air raid (which was often, seeing as how this was the capital of the Third Reich.)

We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, but suffice it to say that I really enjoyed and appreciated the tour.

Volkspark Humboldthain

After the tour, I took a stroll through the park across the street from the metro station

It was a relaxing way to spend an hour.


At one point, a group of schoolkids walked by singing a French song. It was fun.

I also encountered this colorful little bird:


The main trail in the park starts winding up a hill, ending in a platform that gives you an excellent overview of Berlin.

My first and main observation: Berlin is a very flat city. The pavilion I was standing on was the highest natural thing around as far as the eye could see.





Afterwards, I discovered that this green “hill” I was on was actually an overgrown WW2 flak tower. They intentionally built the park on top of it after the war. There are no obvious signs of that past now, but apparently it's actually possible to take a tour of the tower. And the tower is also the home of the "third largest bat colony in Berlin." Just FYI.

The park was also the site of a 19th century church that was demolished in the early 20th century. Now all that remains is a foundation exposed by archaeologists. It’s weird to think of something from barely a century ago being so obliterated that it’s now merely an archaeological excavation.

Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building

Ok, here’s something a bit more on-the-beaten path. There’s not much to say about Berlin’s most iconic spot. You push through the crowds, walk through and around it, snap some photos, and take in the historic atmosphere.

Here, just look at some pictures:




You then go down the street a few blocks to the Reichstag Building.





And then you walk in another direction, where you stumble upon the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a stark, imposing wound in the heart of the city. You walk through the memorial, until the more than 2,500 concrete slabs tower above you and overwhelm you.



In the same area, you also get monuments to the Roma (gypsies), gays, and various other minorities targeted by the Nazis.

Checkpoint Charlie

You can't leave Berlin without visiting one of the most iconic sites of the Cold War. The checkpoint itself is very "tourist trappy" in one of the busiest sections of Berlin. But the nearby museum is actually quite nice and educational. I learned about the history of some of those who were most closely affected by the Berlin Wall, and of those who tried to escape (some successfully, and some... Not.)




Street Art Tour and the East Side Gallery

I was hoping to take a bike tour of the city; instead I ended up on a tour looking at graffiti.

But it was actually pretty interesting. There’s a whole culture and world of “street art”—with different taggers (not just Banksy) becoming internationally famous and having their own defining, distinctive style.





Street art is often used as a political protest (see: the Berlin Wall)--and sometimes it's just fun.

Ok, a lot of it is just graffiti. But some of it is actually aesthetically interesting—and nowadays, some of it is even sanctioned by the city. The most famous "street artists" are actually sought about by municipalities to bring some art to an area.

A bit of officially sanctioned "street art"

After the tour, I visited the East Side Gallery—that is, the section of the Berlin Wall that has been left standing as a monument. It stretches for several miles near the banks of the Spree. "Gallery" is the right word for the part of the wall that became a canvas for artists. The original art is actually often beautiful and moving.










There's also the famous painting - which I won't post here, so as to protect delicate sensibilities - of Brezhnev and Reagan kissing, with the memorable title and caption: "Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben."

Unfortunately, modern idiots can’t help but add their own vastly inferior and uninteresting tag to the mix. I know it’s weird to support the “purity” of what is essentially vandalism—but the original images have become iconic and relevant by history and context.

And... That was about it for Berlin. I also ate (several times) at a delicious Middle Eastern restaurant around the corner from my hostel, where I also discovered these delicious and strange dessert balls.



And then I left the city of my dreams and headed north for one last stop on the continent.





Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Skocjan Cave

[Note: Apologies for the blurry photos in this post. The light in the dolines and caves was somewhat inimical to quality photography.]

Two blog entries about Slovenian caves may seem excessive, but I feel compelled to highlight Skocjan Cave anyways.

That's because Skocjan quickly became one of My Favorite Places - and one of the four or five coolest places I visited on this trip (alongside Pamukkale, Plitvice Lakes, and Thrihnukagigur Volcano.)

To get an idea of what makes Skocjan (which, by the way, is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site) so cool, imagine the Grand Canyon. And then imagine if it were underground.

Ok, it's not quite as deep as the Grand Canyon. But it is a big canyon. And it is underground.

Also: Think of the Mines of Moria from the Lord of the Rings. Except with 100% fewer Balrog.

It's less well known than Postojna Caves, but much cooler and more unique, in my less than humble opinion.

Ok, I'll stop gushing.

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We had some time to kill before our tour, so we took the somewhat lengthy (and arduous) self-guided "nature walk." We learned - and then promptly forgot - lots of information about the history and geology of the area.

-

The first part of our tour took us through some of the dolines - that is, collapsed caves that used to be an extension of the main underground section of the cave.

And though they might not technically be caves, these were still really, really cool.
















After hiking up and down the gorges for a while, it was time to visit the main attraction - and actually enter the cave itself for the first time.

Unfortunately...









...Photography isn't allowed in the main - and coolest - part of the cave. I took a few clandestine photos (naughty me, I know), but they mostly turned out blurry and didn't come anywhere close to capturing the "feel" and scope of the cave. But a quick Google search turns up some decent images. Though this is yet another of those places you just kind of have to experience in person.

You start out in a narrow, obviously manmade tunnel that might make you a bit claustrophobic. Then things open up as you enter a fairly ugly, typical looking cave. There's not much in the way of formations - just, well, a lot of rocks.



And then you keep on walking, and then suddenly things really open up.

Suddenly you're walking beside a giant canyon. You can look a hundred or more feet up, and a hundred or more feet down at a raging river.






You cross a bridge over the gorge that really did bring to mind thoughts of Moria and the Bridge of Khazad-dûm.

You keep walking on the cliffside, and you're just kind of in awe.

It's a canyon. And it's underground.

Ok, maybe that doesn't sound as cool to you as it does to me. Maybe it's just one of those "you have to be there" kinds of experiences. But once you have been there, it's pretty darn tough to beat.

That's it, ladies and gentlemen. Skocjan Cave. Go there.





...And that's it for caves. And Slovenia. And the Balkans. My trip was drawing to a close - but I still had a few more stops before returning to the US.

- A few days later I left for the airport and took an early flight to the land of the Danes...