May 6, 2016: Berlin (Warnemunde), Germany
The first official port of our 12 day Baltic cruise onboard the Holland America Zuiderdam brought us to visit the northern German port of Warnemunde, a pleasant, if tiny port on the water’s edge in the Baltic Sea. When a port city is officially identified as “Warnemunde (Berlin)”, it implies that this is your best bet to reach the much larger and more visited city in parantheses that is not accessible directly by a cruise ship. And so, with the support of SPB Tours, we met our tour coordinators around 7:10am just off the gangway and checked in for our 12 hour “Classic Berlin Tour”. We met two SPB personnel, one of which had a well structured list of all of our names neatly assigned to one of 3 buses and Natalie and I (R stayed with the Babas on board today for reasons that will make themselves known shortly) quickly boarded.
On board, we received a pamphlet that provided us with a quick overview of the day and our tour. Our driver, Olaf, said hello, and once we had reached our tour group maximum of 24, we headed out of the parking lot and directly to the highways and Autobahn. We have about 3 hours of drive time ahead of us… (Queue the nails on the chalkboard record scratch noise!!) What? 3 hours of drive time to Berlin? Berlin, the captial of Germany and the home of the historical and impactful times of World Wars I, II, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall is 3 hours by bus or train from Warnemunde, and this is the closest we would ever get on a cruise ship.
Given this fact, Natalie and I decided to take the plunge, but for very legitimate reasons (and to avoid subjecting R to 6 hours of bus travel), he and the Babas sat this one out. SPB identifies this tour as an intensive introduction to Berlin, its history, and works very hard to incorporate more than 20 sights and a great amount of information, knowledge, and fun into a very small package. They hit the mark and exceeded our expectations – we’ll get into detail below.
First big win – that maximum group size of 24? That was the size of our tour group for the day. And that is all SPB would put on the bus. While other tour companies may have filled their buses larger or to capacity, the 24 of us enjoyed an air conditioned luxury bus that could seat 53. Everyone had their own row, more than enough space for themselves, their bags, and we all stretched out. In fact, that pamphlet we received from SPB identified that the time we would spend in Berlin would be busy and intense, so to enjoy the drive into Berlin in peaceful silence – rest, read, relax, or do whatever you wanted as the beautiful German countryside blew by at 70-80mph on the Autobahn.
After a required short break stop for our driver (and a good opportunity for a snack or bathroom break), we made great time into Berlin, where we began our day just before 10:30am at Berlin’s Olympic stadium. Pulling up to the massive staudium, we met our tour guide for the day, Preston, and within minutes knew that we were going to have a great day. Preston was originally from Astoria, Oregon, but came to Germany in 1999 to pursue his education, (a masters in German History no less), and 17 years later, we found his quick wit, sense of humor, perfect English, exceptional German, and his lightning quick knowledge of German history to be a powerhouse combination to navigate a gauntlet of sights, facts, and figures in this busy metropolis of nearly 4 million people.
It would be nearly impossible to go into infinite detail on each and every stop – they were quick, efficient, and effective, allowing us photo time, additional information and stories from Preston, and the opportunity to answer questions, before we headed back to the bus to move on to our next stop. Make no mistake… Berlin is NOT meant to be conquered in a single day. Preston even mentioned that 17 years into his stay in Berlin, he has personally visited just over 120 of the over 200 museums in this city.
In the short course of 6 hours, we visited:
Olympic Stadium: Home of the 1936 Olympic Games – Originally to host the 1916 games, but due to World War I had to be postponed. The original stadium sat 110,000 people, though with more recent improvements, that number is closer to 75,000
Reichstag: Germany’s historic parliament building with a modern dome made of glass that can be climbed. While the Reichstag is still used for the pomp and circumstance of official business for the Parliament, like signing legislation, etc. the large building next door is where the members of parliament actually have their offices and “get the work of the country done”.
Brandenburg Gate: On the short list of the most famous and photographed landmarks in Berlin, the massive divider between east and west Berlin was the point that we crossed into East Berlin for the very first time on our tour.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: Completed in 2005, the 2,711 gravestone-like pillars of varying heights were constructed on an undulating sunken base across a square city block. The official use of the word “Murdered” in the title was intentional and meant to take responsibility for the atrocities of the past in the hope of never repeating them.
Gendermenmarkt: Near the historic city center, home of the French and German Cathedrals, and named with a combination of both French and German words as it was recognized that in the 17th century (when it was established), nearly a quarter of all berliners were French as Prussia was accepting of emigrants to bring much needed money to the area.
Potsdamer Platz: The commerical home of Berlin, home to major multinational companies, and one of the largest squares in Europe until World War II when it was cut in half by the wall and nearly became extinct. Once the wall came down, the area slowly built up again to its original greatness.
Berlin Wall: Though most of the wall is long gone, some small sections are still in place (though ironically, a fence now protects the wall from people grabbing a souvenir), and represents one of two walls that were actually used. In between the two, there was a variety of death trap obstacles that kept folks from grabbing their nearest ladder and making a mad dash.
In addition to the above, we also visited and saw Charlottenburg Palace, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Victory Column, Museum Island, Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Dome, the New Synagogue, the TV Tower, Museum Island, the President’s Home, Chancellor’s Office, Hitler’s bunker, and list went on and on.
Beyond this, we even had an hour lunch break to enjoy a traditional German lunch at a Brew Pub, which was exceptional. Natalie had Bratwurst, Cabbage, and Potatoes, and I had Beer Beef Goulash with dumplings and a Hefewizen. Germans are generous with their portions and the meal was more than enough to keep us full until after we returned to the ship 8 hours later.
It was a jam packed day, filled with a great tour guide and introduction to a city that will easily require a return trip and several days to just scratch the surface. Berlin is not an easy city to grapple from the cruise ship, but given the available options, SPB provided a great value, driver, guide, and did its very best to incorporate as many worthwhile sights and experiences into the available time we had.