Germany

The Cheesy Side of Hamburg (Hamburg mit Käse)

This is the second and undoubtedly my favourite of my mop-up style posts on Hamburg. You all know I love a bit of cheese (or should I say käse?), and fortunately Hamburg was very rewarding on that score.

Three times a year, Hamburg hosts a month-long festival called Hamburger DOM, which is apparently the biggest public festival in Northern Germany. It is just a really big funfair/carnival in the middle of Hamburg (free to enter, though you have to pay for everything inside), and is worth mentioning here mainly on account of all the creepy anthropomorphic food adorning the stalls, as seen above and below.

I’m not super into rickety carnival style rides (though I would have happily gone on the dark ride if Marcus was brave enough to go with me), but I did use it as an opportunity to try a couple of local delicacies (though sadly not a pickle from one of the ubiquitous pickle stalls, because I hate them, though I was delighted to see that they’re a standard carnival food here) – spaghetti eis and schmalzkuchen.

Spaghetti eis is just ice cream pressed through a spaetzle press so it comes out looking like spaghetti, and is then topped with strawberry sauce and white chocolate for the sauce and cheese. I could have gotten it in probably any local ice cream shop, but eating it out of a cone was so fun it almost made up for the low quality ice cream (not really though. I am an ice cream snob). Schmalzkuchen are just little fried balls of dough with your choice of topping – I know schmalz usually refers to some type of animal fat, but I think these were just fried in vegetable oil, though I didn’t actually check. Bad vegetarian.

Wax museums are one of my favourite things on the planet, so of course I had to go to Panoptikum. It was only like €5 with the Hamburg Card, and I don’t think you can put a price on the amount of joy that creepy wax figures bring me. They had free audio guides, but we skipped them, which means I don’t know who most of the German celebrities in here were (and just to clarify, the guy on the right is an unfortunate-looking German celebrity, NOT Jimmy Saville), except for Lena (above left), because I also love Eurovision, and still find myself singing “Satellite,” her winning song from 2010.

But yeah, this wax museum was pretty great. They had the whole gamut, from political figures like Angela Merkel and (ugh) Donald Trump…

to historical figures like a wall of kings and a shelving unit full of famous historical heads (I guess they’re no longer famous enough to merit bodies)…

to a very un-PC (but entertaining) freak show/hall of horrors downstairs (Michael Jackson was here, appropriately enough, though I think he was technically in the musician section)…

and Robbie Williams circa 2006 and a German woman who appears to be famous solely for the size of her breasts. Fabulous.

Finally, we went to see Miniatur Wunderland, because not only is it the “world’s largest model railway,” it is also apparently Hamburg’s leading tourist attraction. This was a terrible mistake. We had to book in advance, because Miniatur Wunderland is inexplicably incredibly popular, so we did it as the last thing before we had to leave for the airport. The website recommends spending some stupid amount of time, like 3-4 hours here, but we figured we could do it in an hour, and we weren’t wrong.

Miniatur Wunderland is in this giant building filled with other tourist traps, and we had to walk up about a million flights of stairs to get there, presumably to build anticipation. It costs €15 to get in, though I think we only paid something like €12 with the Hamburg Card. Then you have to walk through two floors of shop to even get to the stupid entrance. We went at an off-peak time, and it was still the most crowded thing ever. You couldn’t even get a space to look at the miniature things at most of the tables, and the lights kept going on and off to simulate nighttime, but it just made it hard to find your way from room to room without bumping into people. Also, this super annoying German guy kept following me around and going, “Wow” at everything, but with a German accent. “Wow-uh!” I wanted to punch him.

In theory, there were buttons you could press in every display to make various bits and pieces move, but in practice, children would just sidle their way in front of you so you couldn’t get near them. I did queue at the end to press the Lindt factory button, which spit out a piece of chocolate, but I had to pretty much hold this Augustus Gloop looking kid back with my elbow until it fell out and I could grab it. Wait your turn, Augustus!

The impression I got before going was that they were supposed to have re-created most of the world in miniature, but all they have is Hamburg, the US (solely the bits out west), Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and bits of Italy. The only thing I was sort of looking forward to seeing was London, to see how it compared to the real thing, but they haven’t built it yet. Other than the display of miniature conspiracy theories that we had to wait about ten minutes to see, because some guy wouldn’t move his ass (that’s where the photo of Nessie comes from), and the piece of chocolate, I really hated this place. Don’t go unless you REALLY like miniature railways, and have a much higher tolerance level for annoying children than I do.

To end on a high note, because I did genuinely really like Hamburg, aside from Miniatur Wunderland, I will talk about franzbrotchen, as I promised to do some weeks ago. They are a sort-of flattened cinnamon roll that originated in Hamburg, and they are everywhere, although obviously some are better than others. They come in a number of variations, and I recommend the streusel, because streusel makes everything better (though if you don’t want to be laughed at, make sure to call it “STROI-sel” rather than “STROO-sel” as most Americans, myself included, say). I recommend Hamburg in general – there’s loads of museums, and a cool bleak maritime vibe, which made for a lot of excellent sailory souvenirs, if you’re into that kind of stuff (I totally am).

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Underground Hamburg: ElbTunnel & St Nikolai Museum

Because we saw so many other things in Hamburg besides the three museums that were large enough to merit their own posts, I’ve decided to do something a bit different than my usual mop-up posts and split them into two posts roughly defined by subject matter. This is the underground side of Hamburg, and I don’t mean the U-Bahn, though it was super handy and we used it a lot, or Hamburg’s notorious sex district (which we obviously didn’t visit, though I don’t think female tourists are allowed in one of the areas anyway, which is pretty messed up), but attractions that are literally underground.

The first of these is the Alter ElbTunnel (also called St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel), which is not so much a tourist attraction as a practical way for people to get from one side of the river to the other, as indeed many of the people down there seemed to be doing. In fact, I like to think of it as what the Thames Tunnel could have been if safe lifts had been invented at the time of its construction, so it would have had a practical use which would have given it a hope of surviving (though obviously I would have loved to have visited it in its heyday in any capacity). The ElbTunnel opened in 1911, and was apparently modelled on Glasgow’s Clyde Tunnel, which I have never visited.

The tunnel is free to use for pedestrians and cyclists, but there is a small charge for cars (though there’s no point driving through it unless you are just using it to get from point A to point B, as you’d miss all the lovely terracotta ornamentation). Access on foot is via one of four lifts (two on each side, and they have a separate giant lift for cars) or a big metal staircase, and we opted for the staircase, somewhat to my chagrin, as I’ve got a little bit of a thing about heights (doesn’t stop me from going up tall things, but I don’t actually enjoy being up there), and I would have felt a whole lot better if the staircase had been visibly supported by something more than a handful of steel girders. It was worth seeing from a (scary) height though, so much so that I took the stairs down again on the return trip. Probably best to opt for the lift on the way up though, as there’s a LOT of stairs.

The main reason for going down at all, in fact, other than the views of Hamburg from the south side of the tunnel, are the aforementioned fabulous maritime-themed decorations that line the tunnel, which you can see above in collage form. I particularly liked the rats with the old boot. The tunnel was bombed during WWII, but the tiles managed to survive, and obviously still delight to this day.

The other underground(ish) attraction I wanted to talk about is the St. Nikolai Memorial and Museum, which was largely destroyed during WWII. The remaining spire of this church is clearly very much not underground, and is a prominent part of Hamburg’s skyline. However, the museum is underground, being housed in the former crypt, so I think I can get away with this somewhat tenuous link. (Whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.) Admission to the tower/museum is €5, and you get a euro off if you have the Hamburg Card. We waited a short amount of time to ascend to the top of the tower in the lift, which was somewhat underwhelming, as you’re still inside the tower at the top, and there’s no viewing platform or anything (and if you thought Hamburg was cold at ground level, just try it at 76 metres). I couldn’t wait to get into the museum, which was substantially warmer.

The museum talks about the events leading up to Operation Gommorah in 1943, as well as the bombing itself, which destroyed much of Hamburg, including the rest of St. Nikolai Church, and killed 35,000 people. This was a much more comprehensive exhibition than I was expecting, and really got into the history of the church (interestingly, the minister at St. Nikolai when the Nazis first took power was a liberal who was sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis and tried to help them. After he died (of natural causes), he was replaced by someone much more conservative), which was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott (Sr) in 1846 (the iconic spire is still the tallest church tower in Germany, and the fifth tallest in the world), as well as what living conditions for civilians were like at the time of the bombing, including the fact that though there were public bomb shelters, the few Jewish citizens who had been permitted to remain in the city were not permitted access to them.

This was actually a very interesting museum – I liked that it talked about how people trying to hide from the Nazis could use the chaos resulting from the bombing to flee the city and assume new identities somewhere else – and it had a fair amount of wartime photographs and artefacts. The decision was made after the war to preserve the church’s spire in its blackened state to serve as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. As part of the memorial, there have been some sculptures placed in the former churchyard of various despairing figures that some people were rather inappropriately trying to take smiling selfies with when I was there.

I’m glad we paid St. Nikolai Memorial a visit – it was interesting to get a German perspective on the bombings, since you don’t always see the aftermath when you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Allies (other than when Germany bombed Britain, of course), and it was well worth €5 for the museum, even though the trip up the tower was less impressive than I had hoped.

 

 

Hamburg: MK&G (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe)

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, in addition to being fun to say, is a museum of art and design very much like the V&A (right down to their use of initials with the ampersand). I’ll admit it wasn’t on my initial list of museums to visit since I could go to the V&A any time for free and this seemed like more of the same, but we were forced to book our flight back to London for 9:30 at night because all the earlier flights were too expensive, meaning we had a whole day to kill in Hamburg after checking out of our hotel at the latest possible time (noon. I was watching Frauen Tausch, the German version of Wife Swap, all morning, whilst eating lemon gugelhupf. Don’t judge), and as it was the coldest day of our trip yet, there was no way I was spending all of it outside. So walking around a big ol’ warm museum for a good few hours was starting to look awfully appealing.

Admission to MK&G is €12, or €8 with the Hamburg Card. However, this includes all special exhibits, which works out much better financially than the V&A, which is free but charges anything from £10-£24 for exhibitions, though I have to say that the V&A’s temporary exhibitions seem to be of a much higher calibre generally. At least almost everything here had English translations, except for a few of the temporary exhibitions (including the one I was most excited to see, of course). The gallery immediately in front of us when we entered the museum was a special exhibition on Greek vases (this one did have English labels. Shame I’m not more interested in ancient history) but after that we were a bit confused about which way to go, as we couldn’t actually see any other galleries. Turned out we had to exit the Greek vase gallery from the back of the space, which led to galleries branching out in two directions.

Marcus really enjoys taking photos of silly-looking lions (of which there were many), so he was happy enough, but I wasn’t super interested in most of the Baroque stuff or the Christianity gallery (except for some creepy religious imagery with a skeleton, as seen above), and the exciting sounding hall of mirrors was just a fancy reception room. It wasn’t until we got up to the Modernity and Art Nouveau galleries on the first floor that things started to improve.

And boy, did things improve. Robots! These were actually full-body costumes that a husband and wife dance team created in (believe it or not) 1919-1924. Considering Karel Capek didn’t even introduce the word robot (which had been coined by his brother) to the world until 1920, these were remarkably modern looking, and frankly, awesome! Sadly, their creators committed suicide due to financial hardship in 1924, so the world never got to see what else they were capable of producing.

I normally really like looking at clothing, but the stuff here was fairly run-of-the mill, so instead I’m going to show you this sweet sad little lion dog, above (I have kind of a soft spot for lion dogs), and the set of knight figures from the Art Nouveau section.

The special exhibition I was keenest on seeing (the one that didn’t have any English in it, as I mentioned above) was “Therefore, Vote!” which contained posters for Germany’s first democratic elections in 1919. Fortunately, they were such a bold graphic medium that you didn’t have to be able to read them to understand the messages they were conveying. There’s something really visually appealing about propaganda posters, even grim ones with skulls and dire warnings about the Bolsheviks, which I realise is obviously intentional.

Also upstairs was an exhibition on social design, which I think featured students’ plans for remaking Hamburg (it was hard to tell as nothing here was in English either), and “Pure Luxury” which explored the art of lacquer, though the actual preserved beetles that had been lacquered made me feel sick. The rather hilarious tapestry in one of the other galleries featuring a girl and a blue bowl made up for it though.

The second floor is also home to the far-more-fabulous-than-the-hall-of-mirrors Spiegel Canteen, which is the actual 1969 canteen of the former Spiegel Publishing House. Sadly, you can’t actually go into the room unless you rent it out, so all hopes of having a cheeky franzbrotchen and tea in there were smashed.

After viewing the photography and furniture sections, we headed back to the ground floor to see the medieval and ancient galleries, which we had missed when we were initially down there (you had to pick whether to go to Baroque or Medieval, as the two don’t intersect or lead into each other), and I’m happy we made the effort to see them, because the Wunderkammer room had some interesting artefacts in it, as you might expect from the name. Love a Wunderkammer!

I also liked the creepy disembodied eyes in the Egyptian gallery, and the ceramics part of the musical instruments room (poor ceramic boar head). This museum felt nearly as large as the V&A (though maybe had less on each topic, as the photography section was teeny, and most of the galleries seemed to be smaller than their V&A equivalent), and we were pretty tired from walking around, so we were grateful there were comfy seats scattered around, especially the sofa, below. The general tiredness is also why this post is less in-depth than many of my posts, and more me just pointing out things I liked. I couldn’t be bothered to read much at this point in the trip. Sorry.

There were definitely many cool things in here (those robot costumes, the best!), and I think €8 was certainly a reasonable price for all we saw. I’m glad we came because it was a nice respite from the cold, and even though it was similar in many ways to the V&A, the few galleries that were specifically on German art and design made it different enough that it was worth our while. Apparently, the MK&G used to have a lot more so-called “degenerate art” until the 1930s when the Nazis decided to destroy it all, so it’s sad to think about all the things we were missing out on, but I’m glad at least some of it still survives. 3/5.

 

Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

I generally try to visit a city history museum everywhere I travel to get a better sense of the place, if the city in question has one, and fortunately, Hamburg was happy to oblige with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg History Museum). I was initially a little wary about visiting, because their website was entirely in German with no other language options, which typically isn’t a good sign in terms of there being English in the museum. However, the reviews on Trip Advisor assured me that there were English translations available in the museum, so I was willing to take a chance. The museum is located in the middle of a rather nice park (or at least it would have been rather nice had there not been such an icy wind outside), so on a reasonably warm day you can grab yourself a franzbrotchen from one of the city’s many bakeries, and enjoy the stroll (I still ate the franzbrotchen, I just didn’t enjoy the stroll).

Admission to the museum is normally €9.50, but we only paid €6 with the Hamburg Card, and it was a big museum (never mind that this type of museum would be free in the UK). We started our visit on the first floor with medieval Hamburg, and I was pleased to see that the vast majority of labels did have an English translation available. Unfortunately, I realised I just wasn’t really that interested in medieval Hamburg, at least not in the dry way it was presented here, so I kind of skimmed over this section. Fortunately, I did enter the dark wood panelled space at the end of this gallery, because it unexpectedly contained the object I most wanted to see (which I learned about on Atlas Obscura before visiting) – a skull with a spike through it!

The skull was found during construction in 1878, and has been at the Hamburg History Museum since 1922, except for a brief hiatus in 2010 when it was stolen, then recovered. It is thought to be the head of notorious 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either), which had a spike driven through it so it could be displayed on a post as a deterrent to others (the video there mentioned that the hole had been made “very carefully,” and I had to wonder whether it was done when it actually was a skull, or when it was a fresh head, with flesh and brains still attached, which definitely would have required great care not to splatter brains everywhere!). At any rate, though their methods of execution were horrible, they weren’t that horrible, and it was done after Klaus was dead (from beheading) – it’s not a Phineas Gage type situation, although it’s not like Phineas was walking around with a spike through his head for long either. The head next to it is a reconstruction of what he might have looked like, based on the skull. There was also a display showing what a full row of these skulls would have looked like (there was an occasion where 78 pirates were executed on the same day, so although it already makes for a grim display, it could have been much worse), and some tools of execution, including the wheel, which they basically just smashed into your body until you were dead (so I’m not quite sure why it had to be a wheel shape, when a stick would have worked just as well, but there we are). If, like me, you are interested in this sort of thing and have a strong stomach, I recommend Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which is about an early modern German executioner.

One thing I learned at this museum is that Germans (or at least Hamburgers) really really love model-sized versions of pretty much everything. Houses, churches, ships, trains, you name it (my god, how they love a model railway, and don’t worry, I’ll get to the shitshow that is Miniatur Wunderland in a later post). Before we went to this museum, I was planning on also visiting Hamburg’s Maritime Museum, but I had read that it is basically just nine floors of model ships, and after looking at two galleries full of model ships here, I really couldn’t face any more. But Hamburg’s maritime history is genuinely interesting because it is such a massive part of what shaped the city, and I was especially excited to see that they had their own section on Ballinstadt, which frankly told me more of what I wanted to know than the Emigration Museum did.

For example, they had a chart showing the price of various voyages on the HAPAG line, and what those prices would translate into today, so I learned that my great-grandmother paid the equivalent of €600 for her voyage in steerage to the US (about what a flight costs today). They also had a chart showing more information about some of HAPAG’s ships, and I could see that the President Lincoln was included, but unfortunately, the relevant parts of the chart were covered up by other papers, so I don’t actually know what they had to say about it. There was also some information about the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and what that meant for Ballinstadt, and way more photos of the complex than were at the Emigration Museum. I don’t regret visiting Ballinstadt and seeing it in person, but I wish they could have incorporated more of this on site, rather than my having to accidentally stumble upon it here.

And to get back on the subject of models, the museum has its very own model railway, which runs every hour on the hour. There is a guy who sits in a booth above it, and gives what appears to be a running commentary on all the action (in German of course), which I found hilarious. What a job, model railway commentator! It was pretty big and impressive though, and (spoiler alert) a much better experience than Miniatur Wunderland, since there were only a handful of people in here, though I must admit that I’m not the sort of person that gets my jollies from watching a model railway, even at the best of times.

The museum also has a gallery on Jewish life in Hamburg, complete with a replica (life-size this time) of a synagogue, though only one small sign in each room was translated into English, so I couldn’t read most of it. There were more galleries on clothing and music, and this weird social history sort-of-house structure that you walked through, exploring the 20th century through each of the three different floors (though don’t bother going upstairs, it’s just where they store the chairs for events). Because I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy, I laughed way too hard at the dickmilch part of the sign below, which was in the replica dairy. Half a kilo is more than enough, thanks.

This museum is way too big for me to talk about each gallery in detail, but other highlights included the section on the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, which had various objects partially melted by the fire (seems like every city has to have a “great fire” at some point until they learn their lesson and start implementing better fire safety measures (hope that doesn’t sound too harsh in the wake of Notre Dame, but it does go to show that there’s still work to be done when it comes to preventing fires)), the interactive map where you could see how Hamburg expanded over time, and the replica ship you could climb aboard. I only gave a cursory visit to some of the galleries, because there was too much to read on one visit, and we still spent so long here we didn’t end up having time to visit any other museums that day. I think some of the history galleries could have been more interactive, because some of them were frankly boring and seemed to stretch on forever, but the more modern sections of the museum were great (in particular the ones about HAPAG and the fire), and there was enough here for something to appeal to everyone, especially model enthusiasts. 3/5.

 

Berlin: Jewish Museum

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Although most of the museums I visited in Berlin ranged from mediocre to downright disappointing, I’ve saved the best one for last: the Jewish Museum. Not only was it air conditioned (a bonus in itself), it was also huge and well thought out.  However, you shouldn’t go expecting a Holocaust Museum (though there is one of those elsewhere in Berlin).  While there is obviously some content relating to the Holocaust, the primary focus of the museum is the history of Judaism.  It kind of reminded me of the Maltz Museum in Cleveland, which is also very good (although I haven’t blogged about it yet!), only much bigger!  The museum consists of two buildings, an old and a new; the new one contains all the permanent art installations.

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You have to go through a full-on airport security style checkpoint upon entering the museum, but I do understand the reason for that.  However, I was irked by (and uncomprehending of) the different admission options.  A single adult ticket was 8 euros, but a family ticket, for two adults and up to two children, was 14 euros!  If they want to let children in free, then fine, but the family ticket should at least cost the same as two regular adult admissions.  So, because my boyfriend and I don’t have children, we had to pay 2 euros more than a whole family would, which I really don’t think is fair.  People shouldn’t be penalised for not having children (even though that does seem to be the trend…I notice the same thing going on with discounts for English Heritage and the National Trust).

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Anyway, you enter the museum down a flight of stairs, which in retrospect seems a bit backwards (although we just went the way the guy working there told us to go), because I feel like the museum makes more sense if you go to the upstairs galleries first.  The downstairs part is really the artsy half of the museum, but it is pretty cool.  It’s made up of long intersecting halls (axis) that are meant to represent different aspects of Jewish life under Nazi Germany.  There’s an Axis of Continuity, Axis of Exile, and an Axis of the Holocaust.  The last one leads to the Holocaust Tower, which is a bunker-like room with only a single shaft of light coming down from the ceiling.  It really is kind of overwhelming being in there, especially because the door is really heavy and slams shut with such finality.  The axis leading up to the Tower is full of objects belonging to families who perished in the Holocaust, with a little paragraph telling their story.  The Axis of Continuity has a learning centre attached with some WWI artefacts (which I appreciated, because WWI tends to get a little lost compared to the even greater horrors of WWII, but I still find it extremely interesting), and a lot of computer modules where you can learn more about certain aspects of the Jewish faith, like keeping kosher.  The final Axis tells the story of the families that successfully emigrated before the war, and leads to the Garden of Exile, which is meant to mimic the experience of being set adrift in a foreign land.  It’s made up of a series of columns set over an uneven pavement, so that wandering around feels disorientating.  It was neat.

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To represent the victims of the Holocaust, the museum also has “dead spaces” built into it; basically passages that lead to nowhere, or halls with nothing in them.  The largest of these is filled with metal plates in the shape of faces, all piled up on top of each other.

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The room next to it had a robot that was copying the Torah at human speed, which was fun to watch, and a distraction from the bleakness of this opening section.  We then progressed upstairs to start exploring the main galleries, which tell the story of Judaism from its beginnings thousands of years ago, up until the present day.  At the start of it, there was a wish tree, meaning you could write down a wish and pin it to the tree, but I was too embarrassed to let other people read my wishes (which probably goes against the whole principle behind it).  Most of this first floor was geared towards Judaism in the Middle Ages (and the Early Modern period), when much of the persecution began in Europe, particularly following times of plague.  There were lots of fun interactive games and activities throughout this floor, and I found it enjoyable and educational (everything was in both German and English, and they appeared to have a range of audio guides available as well).

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The next floor talked more about Judaism in the 19th  and early 20th century, and all the changes that happened in Germany around this time, like the First World War, and the reforms of the Weimar Republic (which were subsequently all reversed when the Nazis came to power).  It was sort of shocking to see how rapidly the rights given to Jews changed during this period, and I can well see what a horrible and confusing time it must have been to live through.

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It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as they included some more playful aspects of the modern faith, as well as some amusing stories about prominent Jewish philosophers and thinkers.  There was a quirky selection of yarmulkes in one case (apparently you could get a Friends yarmulke when the show was popular), one of those machines that transform coins into flattened out coins that was free (!), and even a vending machine selling kosher Haribo (they sub the pork gelatin with fish gelatin)!

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Unfortunately, because these galleries were so large and full of detail, I was feeling tired by the time I got to the end of them, and kind of rushed through the last sections (which were of course about the time just before and after the Holocaust, so maybe it was good I was able to properly appreciate all the relevant installations before I started looking at this section).  Everything here was incredibly informative, and very well put-together, however, and there were enough interactive things to generally hold my attention quite well.  I was honestly very impressed with this museum, and for once, I think the admission price was a fair one (except for the fact that we had to pay 2 euros more than a family! ugh!).  I’d definitely recommend stopping by this one if you’re in Berlin, because it really is about so much more than the Holocaust, and touches on human experiences common to all of us.  I’m not Jewish, or religious in any way, but I still found it very interesting!  4/5

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Berlin: The Ramones Museum

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Today’s my birthday, so I’m going to celebrate with a post on a museum that I would have loved to visit a decade ago (just to remind myself how old I’m getting, jeez!).  Back in the day, in my teens and early 20s, I was a full-fledged punk rocker.  While I’ve probably still got the attitude problem (and unfortunately, the tattoos) to show for it, I no longer rock some of the more, er, colourful looks of my past (I’ve had hair in every colour of the rainbow, including a bright red spiky do, a blue mohawk, and in the most ill-advised moment of all, blonde dreadlocks.  The memory of the dreads lives on to haunt me in my passport picture, which is sadly still valid for another three years).  I also gave up on most of the music (especially that awful D-Beat crap and anything else that was pretty much just yelling over noise), though I do retain a fondness for some of the bands with actual lyrics, including the Ramones (yes, just repeating “Sheena is a punk rocker” over and over again counts as lyrics.  At least you can sing along to that!).  This is all my way of explaining why I was excited when I found out Berlin was home to the world’s only museum devoted to the Fast Four.

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The museum was located in a bar/cafe a few streets away from our hotel, near Hackescher Markt.  You pay either 3.5 euros for admission, or 5 euros for admission plus a drink (cheap beer or fancy soda), which means that you can walk around the museum drinking a beer if you choose, in true punk style. They give you a Ramones badge as your ticket – if you manage to hang on to it you get admission for life (though I have never been able to hang onto a badge for more than a couple weeks, those stupid cheap pins always come undone and fall off).  This is less of a traditional museum and more just a collection of Ramones memorabilia, so there’s absolutely no point in visiting here unless you already know and like the Ramones (I used to read all those punk biographies back in the day, like DeeDee’s Lobotomy and Please Kill Me, so I’ve got a decent amount of Ramones trivia floating around in my cranium somewhere, even if it’s not a part of my brain I normally access).  Also, everything is in English, with absolutely no German, which is a little odd, considering the museum is in Berlin, but obviously wasn’t a problem for me.

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With the death of Tommy Ramone just a month or so ago, all of the original Ramones are now dead, and though the museum hadn’t had time to set up anything for Tommy when I visited, there were memorial sections for all the other members that contained a mix of biographical details and photo collages.  Most of the museum just consisted of hundreds of photos plastered over every available surface, with terse yet humorous captions provided by their friend/manager Danny Fields.  There was an outfit, or some clothing anyway, from each Ramone, as well as loads of albums and other random crap.

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There were also lots of lists – set lists, lists of tour stops, and lists of their catering requirements; I found the last item particularly intriguing.  Who was drinking all that fresh milk and YooHoo? (the thought of drinking milk before going on a hot stage in a leather jacket makes me feel ill).  I get why they didn’t want Soft-Baked Pepperidge Farm cookies though, those are offensively artificial (not that the traditional crunchy ones aren’t, I guess, but they taste better.  Especially Milanos, mmm).

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A back room (which was even hotter than the rest of the place, because it was in Berlin after all, why would there be air conditioning?) showed videos – it appeared to include a mix of clips from Rock n Roll High School (which is just as terrible as you’d imagine, but pretty much required viewing for any budding punk along with The Great Rock n Roll Swindle and the dreadful Suburbia), and the story of how Joey lost Linda, the love of his life, to Johnny, who married her (which caused quite a few problems within the band, as you can imagine).

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Appropriately enough, since it was in Berlin, much of the museum was devoted to their European tours (and how much they supposedly hated Europe, which I think was at least partially tongue-in-cheek).  I learned that Bono, of all people, was good friends with the band, and sent Joey gifts when he was dying from cancer (which I guess means Bono has done some non-douchey things in his life, though nothing will induce me to like U2).  The museum also contained a stage,where I guess you could either pretend to rock out, or just sit and have a read, since it was stocked with comfy chairs and magazines.

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Obviously, since it was just a shitload of photographs, and more reminiscent of a poor man’s Rock n Roll Hall of Fame than anything else (I’m from Cleveland, and I’ve only been to the real one once because it is so damn expensive, and not at all worth the money), it wasn’t the most amazing museum I’ve ever visited, but it was nice to revisit the music of the Ramones (which was playing in the museum throughout the visit, as you’d want and expect) and some of my misspent youth.  The atmosphere was pretty chill (though not literally, it was boiling in there), and it seemed like a good place to have a drink and enjoy a walk through the history of one of the most influential bands in the history of punk.  3/5, for the nostalgia factor.

Berlin: The DDR Museum

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I think it would have been difficult to visit Berlin and NOT go to the DDR Museum, as its advertisements are prominently displayed throughout the city.  In addition to that, it was literally right next to my hotel, so I couldn’t even use laziness as an excuse not to go.  Not that I was a particularly reluctant visitor, as the reviews were overwhelmingly positive, praising the many interactive exhibits.  I was a bit put off by the queue to get in, but naively assumed they wouldn’t let everyone in if the museum was filled to capacity.  How wrong I was.  We paid 7 euros each, and scanned our tickets in the Ampelmann barriers (he’s the little green man on crosswalk signs in Germany, and is apparently much better than green men in other countries because he is wearing a hat and shoes) for entrance…and were met with utter chaos.

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The pictures above should give you some idea of how many people were crammed into this relatively small (only two main rooms) museum.  Clearly, the advertisements work, which is great for them, but they need to institute some kind of timed ticket system or something, because as things stand now, it is a most unenjoyable experience.  I don’t relish having to push my way through crowds of fat smelly teenagers (for real, there were some serious B.O. problems happening in there, and the cramped conditions weren’t helping matters) to look at things.  The most crowded display was a Soviet car you could climb into; there was a queue stretching half the length of the museum to get in, and these people weren’t budging.  It might have helped if they had simply climbed into the car, snapped a picture, and got out, but nope – there were middle-aged men sat in there pretending to drive for minutes at a time, I mean, really?!

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I’ve somehow gotten halfway through this review without even telling you what the museum is about, so I should remedy that now.  It basically tells the story of life in the DDR, or East Germany, which was of course the Soviet half.  However, this was a more lighthearted perspective on the DDR than at the Stasi Museum, or the Tranenpalast, as the DDR Museum chose to focus more on the mundane drudgery of everyday life, rather than the dark side of living under communism.  Not that those subjects weren’t addressed, but they were done so in a playful way (that I supposed detracted from some of the harsh realities of life under the Soviet system), for example,  a mock interrogation room where you could have the fun of pretending to torture your friends!

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In addition to the interrogation room, there was also re-creations of a jail cell and a typical DDR era home, where you could theoretically touch and fiddle with everything, though you couldn’t in reality as it was so crowded and there was already a crowd of people plopped on the sofa to watch Soviet television.  Another annoying feature of the museum, which would have been fine if it wasn’t so busy, was that most of the information wasn’t out in the open – the museum was set up as a series of walls covered in cabinets, and you had to open the drawers and lift the flaps to read everything, which you couldn’t do if someone was blocking the way, so it just added to the general inconvenience.  There also seemed to be some “Disneyfied” touches in there for no reason at all, other than to increase the “interactivity,” for example, a spray of mist as you walked from one room to another and some portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin (and other some other communist, Engels, maybe?) with moving eyes that followed you around the room (which was neat, I’ll grant them that, but would have felt more at home in the Haunted Mansion than a museum).

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There were, as promised, many interactive things, but I didn’t have a chance to use most of them as the smelly teenagers already had their paws all over everything.  There was a short film, or game, or objects to look at under every one of these many flaps, but there was no way you could stand there and watch a film with a crowd of people waiting behind you, and though I did play a couple of the games, I felt like a jerk as I really had to hog the space to do so.  One was a game where I was a factory manager trying to increase productivity, and the game told me I would have been an awesome manager under the communist system (maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, work-wise), in another I had to create the ideal communist by dressing up a girl from a selection of outfits and expressions (I was trying to make her look a bit like me, which led to the game informing me I did not look like a good communist, so now I’m not sure what to think).

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The museum did have a lot of gen-u-ine Soviet artefacts, which was pretty cool, and seemed to be really aimed at capturing quotidian affairs, so there was a lot on fashion (ugly, everyone was desperate for Levis because Soviet jeans blew), travel (you could only travel to other Soviet countries, so lots of trips to the Baltic coast, especially to Nudist resorts.  There were a LOT of nudists back then), and work.  There were also some cute whimsical touches, like puppet versions of Soviet party leaders and the little military dove shown below.

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Everything was in German and English, and the displays I was able to look at (by pushing through the crowds) were quite interesting, so I think this could have been a very good museum if they somehow regulated their visitors (and I was there on a Wednesday morning, so it really shouldn’t have been a peak time or anything).  It is definitely quite a different approach than that taken by the Stasi Museum et al towards the DDR, and I think perhaps glosses over some of the worst parts of communism (or tries to turn them into a game, which is just as bad), but I think as long as you balance your visit to the DDR Museum with one to a more serious museum, you can still manage to get a good picture of Soviet German life.  However, I’m going to have to majorly downgrade them for not doing something to limit the flow of visitors, as it ruined my whole experience.  2.5/5, but could have easily been a 3.5 or higher with proper crowd control.

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Berlin: The Stasi Museum

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I’ve mentioned before how I’m not hugely interested in 20th century history (except FDR, I love FDR), but the Stasi Museum sounded intriguing – a museum on the East German secret police based in their former headquarters, with authentic preserved offices.  I read before visiting that only the main displays were in English, but that was also the case at the Criminology Museum in Rome, and that worked out ok, so I was willing to give it a go.  Since it was obviously located in the former East Berlin, the museum was in an extremely ugly area of town (I’ve heard that Karl Marx Allee, the youngest planned thoroughfare in a major European city, is within walking distance, and is bleakly imposing), though one of the nearest stations is the hilariously named Frankfurter Allee.

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Reviews of the museum also mentioned that they gave you a cloth propaganda patch as your ticket, but after paying my 5 euros, the guy just handed me a receipt, so I guess not anymore.  However, the museum charged an extra fee if you wanted to take pictures (not sure if it’s that well-enforced, but I didn’t want to take any chances (given the venue and all) so I just paid the extra euro – the things I do for you guys!) and they gave us one of the patches as proof we’d paid that fee, so I guess that’s the way to get one (there was also a shop, but it appeared to be shut when I visited, so not sure exactly what they sell in there).  At least they didn’t charge for the toilets, unlike a lot of other museums in Berlin, but of course there was no air conditioning, which made the visit brutal, especially when we got up to the 2nd and 3rd floors. There wasn’t even any windows that opened on one side of the building (so I can kind of see why Stasi agents might have been pissy)!

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As promised, though the walls were lined with colourful propaganda posters with no English translation, the main exhibit in each room was written in English in addition to the German (the museum was divided up in a bunch of small rooms, I’d imagine these were Stasi offices at one time as well).  A lot of the content seemed to be on all the communist organisations that were set up for the East Germans to join, like youth clubs; and the Soviet holidays they attempted to introduce (only the youth day caught on, rather than the substitutes for Christmas and Easter and such).  However, there wasn’t much background information, and the museum seemed to assume the visitor already knew all about the Stasi, including how they were formed, and the names of the main officials, which was definitely not the case for me.  Also, half the rooms on the first floor just contained an ugly chair (and a wall covered with seat cushions, so I guess we were supposed to note the different fabrics used in East Germany for some reason), and a poster with a photo and biography of various people, all in German, which I think was meant to be a tribute to those who were wrongfully imprisoned or killed by the Stasi, but it took me a good few rooms to figure this out.

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There were also an inordinate amount of everyday objects that had been reconfigured as spy cameras on display, so I guess everyone was spying on everyone else at all times.  This did convey, more so than the actual text, some of the horrors of living under communism, and the lengths the Stasi would go through to try to police people’s lives and thoughts.

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Because of this, I expected the preserved offices to be simultaneously utilitarian and formidable, but they turned out to be a surprisingly cozy homage to mid-century style.  I mean, this was furniture any hipster would kill to have in their living room.  It’s certainly not to my taste, but it wasn’t particularly communist looking at all; it actually looked pretty trendy for the time, unlike the dated furniture and clothing they were fobbing off on the ordinary citizen.

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They made a big stink about Erich Mielke’s preserved office being there (I kept referring to him as Eric Milky, because I have no idea how you actually pronounce his surname), and I know he was the head of the Ministry for State Security because the museum told me, but I don’t know anything else about him other than that.  Maybe the average German has heard of him, because the lack of information was puzzling otherwise.

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There were also some kind of crazy lifts that my boyfriend was interested in; apparently they somehow go sideways or on a circular track or something?  I dunno, they weren’t operational so I couldn’t witness them in action.  Anyway, the offices were probably the most interesting part of the museum, simply because of the chance to see the creature comforts that these leading communists surrounded them with, like a mod looking TV, and a radio with (very high-tech) Scotch tape marking the approved Soviet stations, though there was nothing to stop you from listening to Western radio if no one else was around (except of course, for the spy cameras hidden in literally everything).  Though the museum managed to get across the authoritarian leanings of the DDR, as well as the paranoia lurking under the surface of the government, and it was clear that most citizens would have had to be constantly on edge to avoid getting hauled off by the Stasi, I still would have liked to learn more about the history behind the agency, and I don’t feel that the displays were all they could have been.  3/5.

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While we’re on the subject of East Berlin, I of course had to swing by Checkpoint Charlie for a quick photo, which was easier said than done because the place is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to do the same thing, and they also have a couple “American” guards stationed at the checkpoint who pose for pictures (for a fee) so I had to avoid them as well.  I did not go to the museum, because it cost something ridiculous like 15 euros, and all the reviews said it wasn’t that good, particularly as there is plenty of wall-stuff to see for free, like a section of the remaining wall (as seen below) and the Traenenpalast (though they’re both a fair walk away from Checkpoint Charlie).

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Finally, this has nothing to do with anything communist, but I thought this post could use something funny at the end to lighten the mood, and I had to throw these pictures in somewhere.  We kept seeing these stupid bears all over Berlin, since “Ber” means bear in German.  Here are two of the creepiest examples (and I kind of look like a creeper too).  Enjoy!

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Berlin, Germany: Charlottenburg Palace

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I know I often complain on here when I feel that museums in England are poor value, but after a recent trip to Berlin, I might have to rethink some of my grievances with British museums.  I went to Munich years and years ago, when I was doing the whole backpacking thing, and I wasn’t terribly impressed, but I thought I ought to give Germany another chance, so we headed to Berlin a few weeks ago.  In retrospect, going in the middle of July was a mistake, because almost nothing was air conditioned, something I wasn’t counting on because unlike Britain, Germany gets proper summers (and even though it’s only hot in London for a few weeks, most public places are still air conditioned, even if our homes aren’t).  I completely wilt in hot conditions, and lose the will to do much of anything (as evidenced in my trip to Thailand), so making it to all the attractions I’d planned on visiting was always going to be a losing battle.  However, I did head across town with my boyfriend (on the most awful sweltering train) to see Charlottenburg Palace, which was built for Sophie Charlotte of Hanover in the late 17th century (Sophie Charlotte was the sister of George I of England, and was by all accounts an extremely intelligent and cultured woman who sadly died in her prime, at the age of 36).

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I implied at the start that I had some complaints, so here we go.  Admission to just the palace was 12 euros, which I figured fair enough, it was comparable to other stately homes, and cheaper than most British palaces.  However, they made it seem like the gardens weren’t included in the price of admission, so we paid the extra 3 euros for a Charlottenburg+ pass, which was good for entrance to everything on the site.  After visiting the palace, we realised that the gardens surrounding it were public grounds, and we didn’t need to pay admission at all to visit them, much less a supplementary cost to our palace admission.  All the extra cost of the + pass was to gain admission to a little bonus pavilion behind the palace that we couldn’t have cared less about visiting anyway, and the mausoleum, which was fine but not worth paying to see.  So be aware that unless you want to see some extra art, the base 12 euro ticket will suffice.  Another thing that riled me up was the fact that they charged 50 cents to use the toilet.  I understand why they might charge for the toilets in the gardens, since they’re open to the public, but the only way you could access the toilets in the palace was if you paid admission, and if I pay 15 euros for something, I at least want to be able to use the bathroom free of charge.  They also charged extra for information sheets (I mean, basic single sheets of paper that would be free to just stand there and read and then return in any other museum), and it was another 3 euros if you wanted to take pictures in the palace, which is why all of mine are of the grounds.  I understand that the palace is probably enormously expensive to run, but if that’s the case, then just tack an extra euro onto the admission fee, don’t charge people to use the loo!  It just felt really money-grubbing and made me instantly resent the place.

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They offer a free tour, but only in German, so everyone else is dependent on the audio guide, which surprisingly was free of charge (given that they charged for everything else).  It actually wasn’t that bad, as it had a fast-forward feature and most of the recordings were relatively short, so that you could hear all of it in the time it took to look at a room.  That said, though I have awesome retention when I read something, I suck at remembering things I’ve only heard, so most of the history of the palace completely escapes me.  My overriding memory is of room after room filled with portraits of bewigged men sporting hilarious “Dirty Sanchez” style mustaches that looked like they’d been Sharpied in over the painting as an afterthought.  And some portraits of Sophie Charlotte herself, and her husband, Frederick I of Prussia.  Whilst the palace was once home to the famed “Amber Room,” which was covered entirely with amber (obviously), it was given as a gift to Peter the Great of Russia (along with all Frederik Rusych’s finest specimens…man, I wish I could travel back in time just to see Peter’s baller collections), and “lost” after the Nazis stole it during WWII.  The most famous remaining room is therefore the Porcelain Cabinet, which certainly has the most porcelain I’ve ever seen adorning the walls of a room – it was built to hold Sophie Charlotte’s collection, but she died before it was finished.  There was also a small chapel inside the palace, with a pipe organ, and lots of rooms named after the colour of their panelling, which was usually some kind of ostentatious velvety looking number that certainly didn’t cool the place down any.

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There were two floors inside the palace (though the audio guide kindly gave me the option of only seeing one floor and then leaving, I guess in case I couldn’t bear the temperature inside the palace anymore, or really needed a pee but didn’t have any change), and the upstairs was set up more like a museum rather than as a reconstruction like the downstairs rooms.  I did like how when I was looking through some of the showcase rooms, the audio guide told me that they wouldn’t describe the pieces to me because then I’d linger in there too long and block everyone’s way, so they would just play some classical music for my enjoyment as I looked at the collections (I wish the English Heritage audio guides were so thoughtful and advised visitors to be considerate of other people trying to look at stuff…I’m looking at you, woman blocking the Horn Room at Osborne House).  My favourite display in this section was a set of china that Frederick requested be decorated with “exotic animals,” so he ended up with a monkey and then a bunch of imaginary creatures.  You could also see some of the Royal Jewels, though as the selection was limited to jewelboxes and one pair of diamond earrings, it was ultimately not that impressive.

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We were already pretty tired when we left the palace, because of the heat and all, but since we stupidly paid extra to see ALL the buildings, we felt like we should at least check them out.  The New Pavilion was directly behind the palace, and as I said earlier, is home to an art collection.  I cringed a little when the man inside offered us the use of another audio guide, because I felt it would be rude to turn it down, but I could not bear the thought of listening to another full audio tour.  So I took one, then fast-forwarded through most of it, but from what I heard, the guy voicing this one (which was entirely different from the one in the palace, which was split between a different man and a woman) sounded like the Crypt Keeper or Igor or something.  He had this really creepy monotone voice, which amused me, but wasn’t conducive to learning about art.  I gave all the paintings the most cursory of glances, and then thought it would be best to find the mausoleum, which was obviously more up my alley.  After wandering for a bit through the gardens (which had rather nice flowers and a fountain), I spotted a rock pointing to the mausoleum, which turned out to be about four times the size of any mausoleum I’d ever seen (when we spotted it in the distance, I couldn’t believe that was it).  The inside held stone effigies of four of the Hohenzollerns buried in there, and felt nicely chilled because of all the marble.  In fact, that’s probably the only thing that made the extra admission even sort of worth it, the delightfully cool temperature inside.

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After walking back through more of the gardens, I was ready to leave because the heat was just unbearable (I was hoping they’d have a stand that sold ice creams and maybe pretzels, like this one palace we went to in Vienna where I had the biggest and most delicious pretzel of my life, but no such luck), so we called it a day and headed back to the station, even though we never found the Gazebo, which was also included in the Charlottenburg+ pass.  I still don’t know an enormous amount about the Prussians or House of Hanover (at least, the branch of the family that never made it over to Britain), as the audio guide mainly covered things like the furnishings and the layout of the palace.  Even though it is the largest palace in Berlin, I’m not sure it was worth going to the outskirts of the city for.  Those little extra charges just really got on my nerves, and other than the Porcelain Cabinet, and Sophie Charlotte herself, there was nothing particularly remarkable about Charlottenburg.  2.5/5 is a fair score, I think.