21 March 2011

Where to go in Germany part 11: Berlin-Brandenburg

We reach our final installment of this series. *tear* I've saved my favorite for last, but we have to get through Brandenburg first.

There's not much in Brandenburg. If you put "brandenburg" into Google, one of the top video hits is this song, Rainald Grebe's "Brandenburg." (Sample of the lyrics: "There are 3 N*zis standing on a hill, and they don't find anyone to beat up in Brandenburg.") Some of this emptiness is due to the exodus of young people to places where there are jobs, some of it is due to the wilderness preserves.

Once upon a time, about 75 years ago, Brandenburg was part of the Kingdom of Prussia and site of the state's two capitals: Potsdam and Berlin. Today, the tourism council is marketing it as "Berlin's beautiful backdrop."

Brandenburg an der Havel is a mid-sized large town (75,000 residents) with lovely architecture, as expected in thousand-year-old German cities.

Eastern/southeastern Brandenburg is Lusatia (Lausitz). It's one of the last places you can find Sorbs. Cottbus is the cultural center for this ethnic minority in Germany.

The Spreewald biosphere reserve is southeast of Berlin, in the Lusatian area.

Potsdam is an easy 30-minute trip from Berlin (on local public transportation, even. As far as the BVG is concerned, it's part of Berlin.) There you'll find a historic downtown, with a couple lovely churches/cathedrals, and a sign hung under a window indicating that Mozart lived here for 6 months. There's a much smaller Brandenburg gate than the one you'll find in Berlin, and some ruins that are in the process of restoration. The big draw in Potsdam, however, is the castle park at Sans Souci. Sadly, the day I went there it was about 40 degrees and raining, which made for a miserable trip and no wandering through the gardens.

The palace was built by Friedrich II (the Great), more on him in a bit, to get away from the city and his wife. (He was forced to marry her, and as soon as his father died, he separated from her.) It's a lovely palace, and inside is decorated in a very rococo fashion. Reportedly, the palace grounds (free to the public, I believe) are beautiful, but I couldn't see them (see above re rain and cold).

Berlin is the German capital. (During the time of division, Bonn was the capital of West Germany and East Berlin that of East Germany. Once the infrastructure was in place after reunification, the capital moved back to Berlin, not without controversy.) Visit Berlin is the official tourism website, with up to date information on museums, theater, opera, concerts, and exhibits, as well as hotel booking.

It's surprisingly difficult for me to condense my thoughts on Berlin. I love the city, and it's hard to find a place to start.

I can recommend a guided tour company: Insider Tours. Ben and I took a tour with them in 2007, and it was very well done. We saw the major tourist sights in 2-3 hours.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was downright progressive for his time. His grandfather wanted Berlin to be a city of religious tolerance and immigration. When Frederick heard that the Huguenots (protestant) were being persecuted in France, he offered them a home in Berlin and let them build a cathedral. It's right across from the nearly identical German Cathedral on the Gendarmenmarkt. The third major building at the Gendarmenmarkt is the Concert House.

One of the things I love about Berlin is that there's always something going on. You can decide to take a walk up Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and encounter a demonstration (for the legalization of marijuana on the particular day I decided to do that), buskers, tourists, and any assortment of buses that will take you on a tour through the city.

Friedrichstrasse near the train station is one of the major shopping districts (the other being the Kurfürstendamm). During the division, the Friedrichstrasse train station was an internal border station, and that was where people transiting between the sides had to go. The station is very modernized and beautiful. If you walk south a bit (or take the U6 2 stops south), you'll reach Checkpoint Charlie, where there's now a museum.

The Museum Island is a must-visit for anyone in Berlin, home to five museums built from 1830 to 1930. The Pergamon Museum is amazing: they have a Greek temple reconstructed inside, part of a Roman temple, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The Bode Museum is OK; early Christian art isn't quite my thing. Protip: Buy a multi-museum pass. It's only a few Euro more, and it will let you in to 2-3 museums on the same day.

The Berlin Cathedral is also on the Museum Island. It's a Lutheran church, believe it or not from the interior. Down in the basement is the Hohenzollern crypt, but Frederick William I (the Great Elector) and his wife Sophie are interred on the main floor. If you enjoy walking up several hundred steps, the view from the cupola is very nice.

When the GDR was expanding the wall along Niederkirchenerstr, they found the basement of a N*zi jail/torture house. It's now publicly visible as the Topography of Terror. It's free and open until dusk most days.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is haunting. Concrete slabs rise from half a foot to towering over you as you walk through this cemetery-like garden.

Parliament meets in the Reichstag/Bundestag. Due to the terror threats last year, individuals can no longer go in except as prearranged tours. It's a beautiful building, though, and the view from the top is remarkable.

Potsdamer Platz, once a barren wasteland on the internal Berlin border, then the largest construction site in Europe, now houses office plazas, shopping arcades, and the Sony Center (which has 2 movie theaters). There's a weekly flea market on one of the open spaces above the train station.

The Zoo and Aquarium are worth the combined ticket. Like with the Museum Island, buying both is cheaper than buying separately. RIP, Knut.

Alexanderplatz is mainly remarkable for the TV Tower (which in 2006 was made to look like a soccer ball during the World Cup). There are a few shopping plazas (Galerie Kaufhof and Alexa), and above the U-bahnhof, out front of Galeria, is a fountain. In short walking distance of Alex is the Red Town Hall (named for its color, not the lean of its politics, though Berlin is run by a red-red coalition) and the Neptune Fountain.

Hackescher Markt and the Hackescher Höfe are a somewhat trendy shopping district nearby.

Over on the west side of town, Kurfürstendamm houses a lot of trendy shopping. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, known locally as "lipstick and powder compact," is in easy walking distance. It's bombed-out remains of the church commemorating Wilhelm I and some modern glass buildings. In the same district is Palace Charlottenburg, another example of rococo architecture. The grounds are free to the public.

One of my favorite sights in Berlin is the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There's a fully-intact section of the wall, including the death strip, which you can view from a (free) overlook (when it's open). Between my first visit in December 2007 and my second in May 2010, they added more outside exhibits and looked to be expanding further. The ghost stations exhibit is fascinating.

The weekly flea market at the Mauerpark (Sundays morning until evening) is worth the trip to Prenzlauer Berg. You can find everything from Soviet-era tchotchkes to art prints to antique photo postcards, dishes, and furniture, to handcrafted purses or t-shirts to English language books. There's also food stands so you can fortify yourself for several hours of shopping.

If, like me, you're interested in Cold War-era things, a tour with Berliner Unterwelten is highly recommended. I took tour 3 (Cold War bunker in the subway) and regret that I didn't have time to take more.

Here's a Google map I made.

View Visit Berlin in a larger map

14 March 2011

Where to go in Germany part 10: Thüringen & Sachsen-Anhalt

In the interest of finishing this series this year, I've combined these two states into a single post. Sadly, eastern Germany has a lot of cities of historic interest, and lovely scenery, but not as dense as western. Much has been written about the exodus of east Germans to the west, as well as the reasons for it, and I won't get into it here. (A twitter friend of mine has this exploration of how reunification has affected football.)

Thuringia (Thüringen) is to the west of Sachsen, bordering Bavaria to its south and Hessen to the west. Its northern edge includes the Harz Mountains. The official tourism council has more information.

Erfurt is the largest city and state capital, and it's the approximate geographic center of Germany. (Fun facts!)

Weimar was home to Goethe and Schiller and various artists and composers, and birthplace of the Bauhaus art style. A day trip to Buchenwald, if you're so inclined, is possible.

Jena is home to a glass industry, including Carl Zeiss lenses, and a thriving university-research community. It's been home to philosophers and poets, from Goethe to Hölderlin to Hegel, over the centuries.

Eisenach was also home to people you may have heard of, including Martin Luther, whose half-timbered house still stands in the town, and Bach. The Wartburg has seen a lot of history in its almost-thousand years of existence.

Saxony-Anhalt lies to the northeast of Thüringen. Its southwest includes the Harz Mountains. The official tourism council has information on the state and its UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as suggestions for themed excursions, such as the Romanesque Road.

Magdeburg has also been home to famous people, but it's noted more for being the state capital and its architecture.

Dessau is the current home of the Bauhaus architectural college, after it was forced to move from Weimar, and played home to the composer Kurt Weill.

Halle (Saale) is the largest city in SA and neighbors Leipzig. There is a sizable research industry, as well as remnants of a chemical industry from the Soviet era.

If you want to visit the church to which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, a trip to Lutherstadt Wittenberg is worth your while.

Next up: the final installment: Berlin-Brandenburg

06 March 2011


The UNCG SF club runs a little con about 50 miles from here, called StellarCon. This was its 35th year. Ben and I went for the day yesterday.

It was very small, maybe 700 attendees, but it was a bit easier to interact with the guests than at Dragon*Con (which has about 40,000 attendees). There are up sides and down sides to the small con: easier interaction, as I mentioned, but if you're there on a day pass, and you don't have a room to retire to during down time, you can get kind of bored. There weren't a whole lot of panels I was interested in, so I spent a lot of time loitering and using my wireless data plan.

One of the fun panels I went to was the Baen Roadshow, wherein publisher Toni Weisskopf gives away free books to people who ask good questions. Toni throws them to the recipients. Ben got one early on, for being polite and slowing down one of the books before it hit the receiver in the head. He asked what i wanted him to get, so I said Darkship Thieves, which I've wanted to read for a bit and just plain has a cool title. At the end, she invited those of us without books to pick one up, so I got When the Tide Rises, one of David Drake's RCN novels. Sam of BullSpec had a promo where if you show your Baen swag (a little button), you got 10% off, so I picked up Jump Gate Twist, an omnibus of 2 novels and two shorts by Mark Van Name (whose novel Children No More I reviewed last year).

If we go again next year (which, I'm told, should have more of an SF orientation), we'll probably only go one day, but we should get a room so we can stay for the parties Saturday night.

03 March 2011

Samsung: on my anti-rec list.

As you may recall, I bought a Samsung Captivate last August. I went with this phone in part because I don't like the iPhone, and I wanted an Android phone. The Android selection on AT&T was fairly awful until the Captivate came out, and the non-Captivate selection is still pretty bad. (AT&T wants you to buy the iPhone, of course!)

I was pleased with the phone, even when it began exhibiting the random shutdown bug. I got it replaced for a second one, and when that one had an even worse variant of the shutdown bug (it wouldn't stay on while in idle for FIVE MINUTES), I swapped it for a third (which, to date, hasn't shut itself off).

It's still running Android 2.1 Eclair (while other phones are on 2.3, and 2.4 is already rumored). When the Froyo update was finally released last week, I was excited...until I found out you could only install it using their proprietary Windows-only software. Like this user, I'm a Mac user. Exclusively. There are no functional computers running a modern Windows operating system in the entire house. (My ca 2001 Sony Vaio laptop ran WinXP, except it quit working around 2007. The power supply seems to have disconnected from the hard disk. That's when I got the MacBook I'm writing this post on.)

I contacted @galaxyssupport on twitter and asked if there's any plans to stop excluding their customers who use Mac. The answer's no. Through them I got a way to send email to customer "support," and I detailed my complaint regarding the Kies software and my Mac, and stated that, because of this, I will never purchase another Samsung product again. Here's their response.
Dear Conni,
Thank you for your inquiry. We understand your distress concerning the Froyo update but unfortunately, the software of the captivate is intended for windows software.
We do apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.
Thank you for your continued interest in Samsung products.
Technical Support

I'm so thrilled that they actually read my email. I'm not "distressed;" I'm angry.

I would like to point out at this time that nowhere on the box my phone came in does it state that Windows software is required to update the phone's software. Nowhere does it state that Kies is Windows-only. (Kies is their backup-to-PC program.) I can mount my phone to my Mac as an external drive. I can use the bluetooth in the phone to talk to the bluetooth on my Mac. I can pop an SD card into the phone and manually copy things to it, pop it out, and pop it into my Mac.

Thanks to the wonderful people at AT&T, sideloading the update (by copying it to said SD card and installing it that way) is impossible. They blocked it when they added their proprietary bloatware.

Thanks to the amount of sheer nonsense and lack of Mac support, I can no longer recommend Samsung phones to anyone who asks my opinion on them, and I will in fact recommend them to get anything but a Samsung phone. I will also never purchase any other Samsung products, from TVs to DVD players to other consumer electronics.