German History on the Road with AOL Autos' David Kiley
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AOL Autos Editor-In-Chief David Kiley took off on a road trip in Europe to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Jeep and explore family history connected to World War II.
Bumping around Europe to see old-world cities, museums and the like is always fun. But sometimes I like to have a mission, a journey, even a quest to guide my travels. Ten years ago, I tried to extend a business trip to Frankfurt, Germany with a side-trip to the Aachen area to the West where my uncle Eddie was killed during World War II, and then to his grave in Belgium; I had never been. But my trip was interrupted by the terrorist attacks on 9/11 back in the U.S. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, I decided it was time to take care of unfinished business.
There are estimates that around 1,000 World War II veterans die each day. There will be far fewer who will be around to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France in 2014 or the end of the war in 2015. At AOL Autos, we used this year's 70th anniversary of Jeep to not only tell the story of my uncle, but spotlight the rewards of engaging in one's family history connected to World War II.
The Journey Begins
I began my journey in Berlin where I had been test-driving the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, an all new design from the company hitting U.S. showrooms this Fall. It was somehow appropriate – beginning my journey at the seat of Adolph Hitler's Third Reich government. The Beetle I had been driving is the descendant of the original Beetle, which was, among other things, a propaganda project of Hitler's to bring a cheap "people's car" to the masses. I also got to drive a 1958 Beetle around the city.
For two days, I called the Mandala Hotel, a modern designer hotel about a ten minute walk to the Brandenburg Gate, home for $243.00 per night. But I have to say my favorite hotel visit was to the lobby of the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, 100 yards from the Brandenburg Gate, where I had a late-night Calvados with a friend. It has the old world charm of the Waldorf-Astoria or Plaza in New York, and amazingly was the setting for the movie, "Unknown," the Liam Neeson flick that came out earlier this year that was playing on my return flight to the states.
Berlin by Bike
Berlin is a tantalizing city, full of history of the once divided city and bike lanes. It is more like Washington, D.C. than New York or San Francisco, but much friendlier to bikes. There are bike lanes all over Berlin. You can opt for the Call-A-Bike system in which you can grab one of hundreds of bikes and ride by the minute. But the website to register is in German, and cumbersome to navigate. Many tourist shops have bikes to rent, which I did for a half day for $13.00. I rode to the Reichstag, the seat of German government today, and sat down amidst what seemed like a half dozen different small groups of students and tourists discussing the events surrounding the tear down of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Then it was over to the Holocaust Memorial, a powerful outdoor park and sculpture, which proved a thoughtful setting by which to eat my sandwich. Then, an exploratory ride all over the city that took me to an outdoor rehearsal by the Berlin Philharmonic. I must be blessed.
Most of the Berlin Wall has come down and been sold off in tiny chunks to collectors around the world, but Berliners have preserved a relatively long stretch of the wall along Muehlenstrasse. Checkpoint Charlie has been recreated at its original spot, and is now a popular place to get your photo taken. Next to "Charlie" is Haus am Checkpoint Charlie, a museum displaying memorabilia related to the Berlin Wall, including stories about those who escaped, or attempted to escape into West Berlin.
About a 20-minute cab ride or 45-minute bike ride from the Brandenburg Gate area is the German-Russian Museum. This will interest hard-core history buffs, as the museum is housed in the building where the Germans surrendered to the Russians in May 1945. The signing room has been preserved as it was, and the rest of the museum is dedicated to chronicling German-Soviet/Russian relations after the war. It's a bit of a trudge, and almost none of the exhibits are translated into English. But in the spirit of tracing my family through the war, I had to go. My father was a Stars and Stripes newspaper correspondent during the war, and was present for the surrender as the worldwide pool reporter for negotiations between the Germans and the Allies.
From there, I began the next leg of my trip, in a 2011 Jeep Wrangler to mark the 70th anniversary of Jeep, to western Germany, near the city of Aachen, where the Battle of the Huertgen Forest was fought. It wasthe five-month long campaign in the Fall of 1944 and early 1945 that claimed the life of my uncle in December 1944.
For part two of David's journey, click here.
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