Thursday, June 9, 2016

Berlin: Palaces everywhere

After we left Sanssouci, we explored the Potsdam area for the other palaces and World Heritage Sites. According to Wikipedia, "around the city there are a series of interconnected lakes and cultural and historical landmarks." True! In fact, so committed were these Potsdamites to their historical landmarks that they appeared to be constantly constructing them. Well, make that renovating them—I assume—but since the construction companies for some reason didn't bother with signs in English explaining what they were doing, it was all conjecture anyway!

We didn't mind. We just enjoyed driving our little VW minivan up hill and down dale, through darling little cobblestone streets like this:
And quaint little tree-lined alleys like this:
All the while hoping those signs with big red X's didn't mean "One-way street"… (you'd think the rental car company would give you some sort of traffic sign training before sending you off on your merry way, but they don't. At least in Germany they drive on the right side of the road like decent people.)
We could decipher just enough German to read through a paragraph on a sign and then say things like, "Okay…parken…something about parking. Maybe park here? Or no parking? Parking on this side only? Wait, maybe that means this is a public park?" But we also had the magical Google translate app on our phones—have you tried it? It's pretty amazing. You can hold it up to written words in one language and it will change them, on your screen, into another language. Like this:
The words change as you tilt your phone around and the camera catches different parts of words. And the translations have a lovely freshness to them. As in, "Repeatedly surprise we they with new creative from our manufacture." Surprise we, they do indeed!
It works amazingly well, considering…and yet its greatest value may be in coming up with translations like this phrase, on the aforementioned parking sign:
"Process can by red button cancelled become."
I was so delighted with this that I repeated it to myself and others for the next several hours, no doubt making myself an even more desirable traveling companion than usual.
We found the first few palaces fairly easily. This one was called the Marble Palace ("Marmorpalais" —there must have been an English translation of that on a sign because my French-Latin-and-English-cognates-method of "reading" German would have had me translating that as "Mother Palace")—for obvious reasons. It was, naturally, being renovated, and there were barricades and boarded-up areas so you couldn't get to the front, which was charmingly situated on the shore of a little lake. Considering that, it was strange how unpoliced the back area was. I liked that about all these palaces we visited—they felt very, I don't know, approachable. There weren't velvet ropes and signs keeping you off of and back from everything (or, you know, maybe we just couldn't read them). You could just stroll right up as if you were an invited guest. Maybe that was a function of being there at off-peak season or of the palaces being partially closed to the public, but I liked the sort of intimacy it gave the whole experience.
Some of the palaces had beautifully kept grounds. This one had an orangerie,
and duck-head hedges, of course, as all the best gardens do.
As we walked to the next palace (you can see the tower of the Marble Palace off in the distance through the trees in this picture), I kept saying to myself (having finally tired—for a time—of "Process can by red button cancelled become") "Potsdam Conference, Potsdam Conference." I knew it was SOMETHING. Something to do with a treaty? World War II? It nagged at me, and when we got inside and read a sign (in English) about how the three Allied powers had met here, at Cecilienhof, to divide up conquered Germany, I was relieved to finally have my memory jogged! Of course. I'd seen pictures of it. Stalin and Truman and Churchill sitting at a big round table.
This is the outside—the part that didn't have scaffolding on it. (Of course, the renovations were going along swimmingly here as everywhere.)
And here's the room where the Potsdam Conference was held, left arranged just as it was at that time (post-WWII).
See?
It was in getting to the next few castles that we ran into trouble. Our map kept telling us to go places that weren't places. (This was a great road, though.)
We could sometimes glimpse where we wanted to go…but not how to get there.
Finally we pulled, with great unease, into an official-looking parking lot. We couldn't tell what the signs said, but we noticed that EVERY SINGLE CAR had a green sticker in the window. "It must be some sort of permit," we said. "We probably aren't even supposed to be IN this lot!" We didn't dare leave the car there, so we took turns getting out to look at our next palace, which appeared to be a school of some sort. Through the windows you could see bored-looking students sitting around at desks.
There was a pretty river at one end, and some buildings across the way—this was a steam engine house (under renovation).
Later that day we realized that our car ALSO had one of those green stickers on the window. Ha! Must have been a registration sticker of some sort, so all our panic about being in a forbidden area was for nothing.
No, our panic about being in a forbidden area should have been saved for the next place we went. We followed our GPS instructions dutifully until we came to a sort of park. We were across the river looking back at the school/palace we'd just been at. The road got narrower and less road-y, and then there was a sign that said…something…about cars? Probably "cars go here!" we hoped. Actually it was the intrepid Jeff (another instructor for the workshop Sam was teaching) driving, and though the rest of us had our doubts, he boldly brazened on.

"This IS what the…map…says," said Kit dubiously.
"If people start looking at us with horror we'll know it's wrong," I said, as some bicyclists dove for the edge of the road and looked at us with horror.
People were strolling along with baby buggies. They watched us with considerable interest as we passed. Jeff appeared unperturbed.
"I don't know if this is right…this can't be a real road…can it?" we all said, weakly and without much hope. "We'll just keep going and see," said Jeff, serenely.

Eventually, after much winding about and turning onto even SMALLER and LESS road-like roads, and much nervous "Oh dear, this really can't be—I don't think we—hadn't we better—"-ing from the passengers, we reached the top of a hill and a sort of round dirt patch. "Parking!" said Jeff triumphantly, and we all piled out.
And there was a castle. This beautiful, perfectly Rapunzel-ish castle. It hardly seemed real.
In fact, due to lack of signage, I sort of assumed it must be a movie set or something. It had a real moat! And it seemed too small and cute to be an actual person's residence. But, in fact, it was, I learned later. Well—not really a residence. A sort of guest house for the actual Babelsberg Castle, nearby.
We're so tiny in this picture, but it is us:
Can you see the haunted look in my eye? That is the look of a rule-follower who has been driven in a car at the mercy of a rule-discarder. We walked around the castle, but all the while, I was waiting for something to happen. Something bad. Sure enough, we soon saw two security-guard-ish men speaking to each other in rapid German and gesticulating at the car, our car, in the "parking lot." They approached. I steeled myself and tried to look like a victim of greater universal forces.

They were really very nice. They seemed less like guards than philosophical old men, out for a relaxing walk. They stood there, looking at us musingly, hands clasped nonchalantly behind their backs, and said several things in German. Then in English, "You cannot be here—" pointing to the car. "Oh, so sorry, we didn't know!" said Jeff, the soul of apologetic bafflement, and I'm not sure he didn't smack his forehead. (Clearly, he was enjoying himself and had been planning the whole time on the "stupid American" defense.) "You must go down," said the guards, pointing. "But how?" we said, unsure if we should retrace the clearly wrong way we'd just come, or if there was a more legitimate exit. This appeared to stump the guards (perhaps sending them into contemplation: can one can ever, truly, return to one's origins?), and they eventually just swirled their hands elegantly toward the river and repeated "Down there! Down!" And so down we went.
I must say, going down was much better than going up, since I felt we had the blessing of the authorities and could protest to anyone who challenged us, "But they told us to go down here!"
We did make our way eventually to Babelsberg Castle itself, which is no doubt lovely when not undergoing renovation, and when one is not dogged by the constant fear that one will have a second encounter with the two security guards, now less indulgent and wondering more aggressively why one hasn't yet made one's way out of unauthorized areas. BUT my favorite place was still the tiny tower-castle. And if we ever go back we will undoubtedly NOT be able to drive up to its very doors, so we decided we'd better savor the memory of our great escapade as much as possible!

After finishing all this lawbreaking we were tired and hungry, and though I, personally, was NOT "castled-out" as certain others of our party claimed to be, I was happy enough to find a tiny Italian restaurant, deserted in the post-lunch hours, where the jolly Italian proprietor served us one of the best meals of our lives, mixing up our hot pasta in a huge wheel of cheese, and hand-shaving thin slices of truffles on top. Yum!

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