Berlin-Hamburg-Budapest: Glorious Travels with Family and Friends



I had many other and quite diverse ideas for my late summer/autumn travels this year. But a note from my friend Trip Driscoll, who is now living in Budapest for a spell, saying that he would also be in Berlin and wouldn’t it be fun to meet and to “see Berlin through my eyes” was the decision-maker to skip other destinations and head for Berlin. Since I also wanted to see my family in Germany and perhaps visit Budapest, it all began to fall into place.

Being in Berlin

On the Spree river bridge with Trip.

My brother Albrecht and my sister-in-law Gabriela welcomed me most generously to their splendid flat in a vintage building, circa 1910, near the Charlottenburger Schloss with the most romantic views of the Schlosspark and the river Spree. I loved being with them, the leisurely German breakfasts, and endless interesting conversations.


Original Art Nouveau tiles and decorative elements in the foyer of their apartment building.

Being in Berlin is always a little bit like coming home. I was born there, in what was once called Der Alte Westen (or Der Noble Westen) neighborhood of Schoeneberg in my maternal grandparents’ house. It was built by my great-grandparents in 1904 and miraculously survived the bombings of World War II. I sometimes stop by there and am always touched when I see my great-grandparents’ initials, EJM (Elise and Julius Mueseler), romantically entwined in a medallion above the façade. Trip and I marveled at the survival of the house and much enjoyed wandering around and admiring the handsome nearby vintage apartment buildings.


The initials.

By far the best way to get around in Berlin, besides walking and biking, is riding the rails of the S-Bahn (above ground trains) or U-Bahn (underground trains). Their networks are extremely well connected and get you absolutely anywhere. I was also particularly struck this time by the creative and appealing tile work in many U-bahn stations. My pictures are but a small sample of the themes and different motifs decorating walls and platforms. Waiting for the next train was almost a pleasure.


U-bahn tile work.


Babylonian palmettes all over.


Horse-drawn train from the days of yore.

Above ground, Berlin is building, renovating, rehabilitating, and gentrifying at what appears a hyper pace. Very little is left to remind of the city’s gray days, which I think is, in some way, a pity. I like gritty corners and mysterious, timeworn facades, and underpasses often covered with graffiti and slogans of a not-so-distant past.


Not yet gentrified.


Great graffiti.

While this visit to Berlin was definitely not museum-centric, I always do pay a call to the Kaethe Kollwitz Museum housed in a late-classicist townhouse (city villa) on elegant Fasanenstrasse. Kaethe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was a sculptor and graphic artist who lived and worked in Berlin. She took many motifs and much inspiration from her immediate environment, a once desperately poor working-class district in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. Today, Prenzlauer Berg is one of the most sought-after and popular yuppie neighborhoods in central Berlin. Kollwitz is closely associated with German expressionism. Her work is stark, realistic, and I am always deeply affected by it.


Brot (Bread).

Adjoining the Kaethe Kollwitz Museum is the charming and sophisticated Literatur Haus Berlin, a popular meeting place with its restaurant Café Wintergarten and outdoor café. It offers readings, literary events, exhibits, and has a marvelous bookstore where one can spend hours browsing and skimming through works of art and literature. I meandered through an exhibit about Stefan Zweig, an early 20th century Austrian author who, among many other well-known novels and short stories, wrote the libretto for Richard Strauss’ opera Die Schweigsame Frau.

My first cousin, Bettina, who most kindly spent six hours on the train coming to Berlin to see me, and I were not schweigsam (silent) at all, but sat for hours in the Wintergarten café to catch up and to plan a little walkabout. We took another look at the ancestral house and speculated about our family’s convoluted dynamics and, we think, intriguing secrets. What fun!


The Wintergarten Cafe.

Another favorite destination from my Berlin roamings is Gendarmenmarkt, with its triad of spectacular buildings by Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), the foremost classicist German architect of his time. I am especially fond of the Konzerthaus, felicitously situated between the French Church, also known as the Church of the Huguenots (starting in the 17th century French Huguenots became the most prominent and successful immigrants to Berlin and its surrounding province of Brandenburg) and the German Church. We spent a memorable evening listening to Mozart and Bruckner in the Konzerthaus’ festive performance hall, and toasted Berlin, this “phoenix from the ashes” par excellence, and our happy family reunion.


Konzerthaus Superstructure.

A Weekend in Hamburg

Barbara and I decided to explore the so-called Speicherstadt (warehouse district) and tour the recently opened Elbphilharmonie & Laeiszhalle, the spectacular new home of the Hamburger Symphoniker (Hamburg Symphony Orchestra). The building complex was famously designed by the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron. It sits boldly atop a former cocoa warehouse high above the Elbe River and the busy container port of Hamburg.


The curved white Tube and escalator, sequined with thousands of reflective discs.


The spectacular building, evoking a ship in full sail.


A dramatic entrance.

The Speicherstadt, located in the Hafencity (port city district) of Hamburg, is the largest warehouse district in the world, where buildings stand on oak log pile foundations in the many loading canals called Fleets that crisscross the district. Many of the original 19th century buildings were destroyed during World War II and have since been rebuilt in the original neo-Gothic style of its time. Their former commercial warehousing function has largely diminished, but some still house precious merchandise, such as rare carpets and antiques. Others are import hubs for coffee and cocoa.


In the Speicherstadt.

I was charmed by those imposing red brick buildings lining the intricately connected waterways. My niece pointed out that once upon a time, and as far back as the 14th century, Hamburg’s port was the most important transshipment center between the North and Baltic Seas. Hamburg is still one of the most important European overseas/container ports.

Walking through other parts of the Hafencity was also a fascinating. It is sometimes called “a city for the 21st century” and represents Europe’s biggest inner-city urban development project. Plans for this undertaking are ambitious, to say the least: it aims to be “a blueprint for the development of a European city on the waterfront.”

Some fabulously innovative and highly original residential architecture caught my eye—and the eye of my camera.


An apartment building in the Hafencity.

A cozy (gemuetlich) and delicious Sunday night supper party with nieces and nephews at Barbara’s house was the perfect coda to a great Hamburg get-together.

Off To Budapest

My dear Chicago friends Trip and Steve, who moved there a few months ago, had suggested I should visit and be their houseguest for a few days. I gratefully accepted and made my way, via the no-frills airline EasyJet (yes, economical, but also sort of horrid) from the banks of the meandering Spree River to the rives of the “Beautiful Blue Danube.”  Actually, it’s really not blue, more ocher and a little golden, though Trip insisted that if you look at it long enough in a certain light, it does become blue.

Trip and Steve live in an elegantly restored 19th century apartment building in Pest, the flat “modern” part of the city on the east bank of Danube. Buda lies across the Danube, on the hilly west bank.


My friends live here.

As in Berlin, we walked many miles to take in the most famous buildings, monuments, plazas, castles, and fabulous parks. I had much looked forward to see the Liszt Ferenc Zenermuesveszeti Egyetem (Franz Liszt Academy of Music), not least because of its strong associations with my, and Chicago’s, favorite conductor, Sir Georg Solti. He was born in Budapest and is buried there in Farkasreti Cemetery beside the remains of Bartok Bela. A strong, pre-Chicago memory of Sir Georg is seeing my first opera, Fidelio, when he conducted it at the Prinzregententheater in Munich in the early ‘50s.

In front of the Liszt Academy, an architectural and decorative jewel in high Art Nouveau style, is a cheerfully touching sculpture of Solti in ultimate conducting pose.


The Perennial Biker and Sir Georg.


The grand performance hall of the academy.


Golden laurel leaves decorating the wall.

Hungary played a low-key but essential part in the 1989 revolutions that ultimately caused the Berlin Wall to fall in late autumn of that year. “Hungary was the first country which punched a hole in the Iron Curtain”: border guards removed the first stretches of barbed wire and electric fencing, and through it poured such a torrent of refugees that it destabilized its communist neighbors.

Trip showed me a haunting and dramatic memorial of these events, the Iron Curtain Monument. It uses rows of big rusty chains suspended from either side of a narrow concrete block that bears inscriptions in both English and Hungarian.


The Iron Curtain Monument.

As a most enjoyable finale to my visit, we spent a pleasant afternoon on the castle hill of Buda. The sunset illuminated the stately buildings of Pest and the Danube appeared slowly . . . blue!


Sunset over Pest.


The beautiful Blue Danube.