Grace on Pace

Tag - Berlin

Holiday Season in Berlin

Holiday Season in Berlin
Holiday Season in Berlin

Joining the Foreign Service permits a different kind of travel, by allowing you to become immersed in the local culture for up to three years.  We have traveled all over the world, but until this most recent adventure, never had the fortune to stay in a city more than a few days.  We have always tried to see as much as possible by “hitting” the highlights before jetting off to our next destination.  On my latest assignment, I got my first taste of “slow travel” with a six week temporary duty assignment to Berlin.  Fortunately for me, Jennilou and Esmei agreed to tag along for a holiday season in Berlin.

Setting up shop for our extended stay at the Hotel Otto, it was great to have such a fantastic home for exploring the city.  With Berlin playing host to over sixty Christmas markets annually, one of the highlights of our trip was getting to experience the shops at our leisure throughout the trip.  We also made evening and weekend trips to the Reichstag Building, Brandenburg Gate, Pergamon Museum, The Holocaust Memorial – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin Cathedral, East Side Gallery, Zoologischer Garten, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Charlottenburg Palace, Television Tower, Sony Center, and Hackescher Markt.  The metropolis is certainly charged with political history and reminders of a turbulent 20th-century are everywhere.  It seemed the more highlights we “hit”, the more we discovered existed.

For all the fond memories I have of Berlin, the tragedies which took place in Paris and San Bernardino during our posting will forever distinguish the stay.  Watching thousands of people march past our embassy to pay their respects across the street to the French at the mounting display of candles and flowers will be unforgettable.  I commit to memory the events that evoked an anxiety to bring the girls into crowed Christmas markets.  It’s sad to think about giving any space for fear and intolerance to terrorism and it gives all the more reason to stand together as humanity to uphold our way of life.

Exploring more slowly during our holiday season in Berlin allowed us to form a stronger connection to the place we were visiting.  With plenty of time, we didn’t feel the stress of attempting to knock out every site in our guidebook.  Instead, we stayed long enough to recognize commuting mates, shop in the local markets, and pick our favorite restaurants.  I have come to realize that few societies move as quickly as Americans do, and getting the chance to find myself slowing down a bit over time into the pace of the German culture, was a terrific feeling.

For recaps of the weekend getaways during my latest assignment, check out the following posts below:

Long Weekend in Northern Italy

Long Weekend in Northern Italy

Because my temporary duty assignment spanned the Thanksgiving Holiday, we were afforded the rare opportunity of a long weekend in Europe.  The possibilities seemed endless as we lay awake at night searching for deals and studying guidebooks.  In reality though, notwithstanding the $39 round trip fare from Berlin, we were going to rationalize a long weekend in northern Italy.  The trip began years before we tied the knot, when Jennilou and I shared our stories about a perfect marriage. Hers could be paraphrased like this:

“____ and I are moving to Europe to work for an NGO helping to eliminate poverty in developing countries.  We will live in a cozy home filled with children and laughter. One of our favorite things to do in the summer will be to drive our convertible to the end of Italy, eating pizza and pasta, while washing it down with fantastic wine.  There, we will have a picnic at sunset, fall asleep under the stars and wake up in the morning and go home.”

Years later, now that my name fortunately filled the ____, we were finally around to planning her dream.  We would fly to Venice, rent a car, and drive to Tuscany for Thanksgiving.

We arrived mid-afternoon to Florence and immediately felt blown away as we looked down onto the cityscape from the hotel deck.  That evening, we strolled to the nearby Piazzale Michelangelo and then down the hill to see Ponte VecchioPiazza della Signoria, and Piazza del Duomo, before finding a small pizzeria for some chow.  The next morning, we headed up the hill to take in the magnificent views at the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, before returning to the city center to scale the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore and visit the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.

The next day, we decided to head for the coast and make a few stops on our way back to Venice.  We arrived in Pisa mid morning and spent a couple hours grabbing a bite, strolling, and watching tourists prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Our next stop was the picturesque Portofino along the Italian riviera.  We decided to hike up to Castello Brown to watch the sun set, before having to reluctantly pull ourselves away.  One day we will be back!

After ditching our rental car that evening at the airport, we hopped aboard a ferry and set sail for the Hotel Metropole. In Venice, everything looks and feels so romantic, foreign, peculiar, I don’t know…fill in the ____.  For example, Venetian buildings are built like boats: three layers of wood and a lacquer finish. Apparently, once a month, during the full moon, the ocean fills the restaurants with three feet of salt water. The staff puts chairs and rugs on the tables the night before and comes to work early to mop up the place before opening for business.

We had a blast taking everything in as we wandered amongst the canals to check out the Grand Canal, Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), Doges’ Palace, St. Mark’s SquareSt. Mary of the Friars, and Santa Maria della Salute.

All in all, although we have probably come late to Italy, it was lovelier now, perhaps, than in our younger days that seemed to never be fulfilled.  Even now though, content with leisure toward the shifted axis of our new baby girl, we appear to never be where we are, but somewhere else, even in Italy.

Berlin to Prague For The Weekend

From Berlin to Prague For The Weekend

For our first side trip during our long-term stay in Germany, we decided to rent a car and self drive Berlin to Prague for the weekend.  We soon learned, the Autobahn is the ultimate in driving altogether.  The roads are excellently designed, built and maintained for high speed driving.  Amenities were numerous along the way and drivers seemed to be uncharacteristically cooperative on the four hour jaunt.

It’s common enough to get lost in European cities, with their narrow, winding streets, but as we slowly rolled past our hotel for a third time, we had to laugh at our unadventurous arrival.  After settling in, wandering aimlessly became a goal in itself.  That evening, we managed to visit the Charles Bridge (Karluv Most), Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti), and the Astronomical Clock (Staromestska Radnice), before stumbling onto a restaurant / playground for Esmei to practice her Czech toddler gab.

In the morning, the staff at Hotel Residence Agnes, offered to give us and our stroller a ride to the Strahov Monastery, so we could simply walk down the hill visiting the St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle (Prazsky hrad), St. Nicholas Cathedral, and Dancing House on our way back to the hotel.  After spending the day in Prague, I am convinced, anyone visiting will find a place where the crush of big crowds will fade away.  It will happen in a park or garden, or even in the middle of the city along its many cobble stone streets.  I take pride in my sense of direction, but loathe the thought of being lost (perhaps stemming from the days my father would plant me in the woods with a rifle and tell me to meet him just over the ridge at nightfall). Prague was different for me, as I was all but happy to lose myself for a few hours.

For us, Prague created that feeling you have when you’re on a great vacation: your stress levels drop and trivial concerns reveal themselves to be just that.  Unfortunately though, what makes Prague spectacular is that so much of what is encountered has been completely obliterated by war in other parts of Europe.  That being said, we feel lucky to have been afforded a visit and would never want to take away from what could be Europe’s most beautiful city.

Berlin to Prague For The Weekend