11 September 2012

The Best Laid Plans (Germany and Belgium)

I booked this trip 7 months in advance.  I was trying to book everything I could on United before the computer systems merger and the conversion to the Continental SHARES system.  The plan was to go to Germany and visit a new Conrad Hotel in Berlin (and its new Pierre Gagnaire restaurant), as well as take a flight out of the new Berlin Airport (Willy Brandt International).  The hotel was to open on September 1 and the airport was due to open mid-summer.  My plan was to fly into Frankfurt, spend a couple of nights, take the train to Berlin, spend a couple of nights, and then fly out of the new airport.  Hilton decided to delay the Conrad Berlin opening, and the new airport suffered a very controversial schedule change (which still has yet to be resolved) after the airlines had all posted new schedules.

The airport change was tricky, as Lufthansa had canceled my original flight itinerary and booked a new flight out of the old airport at Tegel.  United had to grab that new reservation and integrate it into my existing ticket.  For the hotel, I had stayed at the Hilton Berlin before and it would be fine.  I had not made reservations yet.  And I did search and find a suitable restaurant substitute in Berlin.

My evening flight from SFO to Frankfurt went off without any issues.  I had lost my originally selected seat when the system changeover happened.  But, for whatever reason, my seat was switched back at the gate to the section of the business cabin that I preferred.  So, other than not getting the upgrade to Global First, I was fine.  The weather in Frankfurt was not going to be the best on arrival.  It was nice that it wasn't going to matter as I was booked again at the new Hilton at the airport and would not have to go outside.

I had requested a paid upgrade to a suite at the Hilton and got it.  The room was ready upon arrival, as it should be for a 3pm arrival time.  It was a very nice room.  And it is amazing that you never hear the airplanes from anywhere inside the hotel.

Living Room

Entryway and second washroom

Living room, desk, bedroom door

Bedroom and walk-in closet

Primary bathroom
Besides the walk-in shower, there was a full bathtub just behind the bathroom door.

The hotel was very quiet during my stay.  Being off in a corner also helped that feeling.  The Executive Lounge was only two floors up.

Originally, I had no definite sightseeing plans while in Frankfurt.  There's always plenty to see nearby via train, so was not concerned.  However, a couple of weeks before the trip, I found out that some friends were going to be in Brussels at the same time, so I looked into the train schedules and found that  Brussels was only an easy 3-hour train ride.  So we made plans to meet in Brussels for the day and take a trip to Ghent, where I had been before last December but they had never visited.

I did not tour the fortress on my prior visit, so after walking around a bit and having a traditional Ghent lunch, we toured the fortress, which is just a block away from the main market square.

After the fortress, I left my friends to continue touring Ghent and I left for Brussels.  IN addition to catching my train to Frankfurt, I wanted to go back to an olive oil store that sells oil exclusively from Provence.  When I got to the Ghent train station, I discovered  had just missed the train and would have to wait a half an hour.  Once back in Brussels, I had about 50 minutes to run my errand (via subway and a walk -- or jog -- to the store).  I made it back to Brussels Zuid station with 10 minutes to spare.  My scheduled train starts in Brussels and was already on the platform but not yet boarding, so I was good.  The train goes directly to the Frankfurt Airport station, where we arrived on time and in time for me to grab some dinner from a couple of the various food options still open that evening.

The next day, I walked 5 minutes from my hotel to the train platform for my late morning train to Berlin.  Unfortunately, I was not on a direct train and would have to change in Hanover.  We ended up getting to Hanover about 5 minutes late (my planned layover was 17 minutes).  However, upon arrival, I checked the boards and my scheduled train was running about 2 hours behind due to fallen overhead electrical lines.  I wasn't too concerned as I could still make my dinner reservation on that delayed arrival.  I pulled out my iPhone and started up my Deutsche Bahn app and checked for the trains running from Hanover to Berlin.  Turned out there was another ICE train (Inter-City Express) scheduled to leave Hanover for Berlin at almost the exact time as my original train that was running 15 minutes late.  Since I was traveling with a first class ticket, I was pretty certain there would be room on that train, and I was right.  So I ended up getting to Berlin pretty much on schedule.

Dinner was at a restaurant called Reinstoff.  It was located a couple of subway stops north of my hotel, so it was very easy to get to.  I was glad I booked an early reservation (7pm) as the dinner lasted for almost 4 hours.  Since I am not a big fan of traditional German food, I was glad to have a modern cuisine dining alternative.

Snails in the Forest
Beef Carpaccio with Goose Liver Cream
Peach Sorbet and Basil

Grapes and Cherries
The next day was very nice -- a arm, fall-like day.  I spent time just walking around areas I had not visited before, including the Prenzlauer Berg area.

Before leaving the States, I also pre-booked a twilight/evening cruise on the river and canals of Berlin.  The 3-hour bat ride started on the Spree River just north of my hotel and circled through different canals returning back to the starting point.

Tech Museum/Berlin Airlift Plane

Bodes Museum

Berlin Cathedral and Museum Island

Netherlands Embassy

Jannowitz Bridge

Many low-clearance bridges on the tour
The nice thing about Tegel Airport is that it is very close to the center of town.  Although my flight was at 9:30am, I went out early because I wanted to make sure there were no ticket issues with the change of airports.  Turns out there was.  The kiosk would not let me check in.  I went to the Lufthansa Ticketing Desk and they could not make the ticket work.  They finally figured out that they had to update the airport code and re-issue the ticket to allow me to board the flight.  They weren't sure if I could check-in all the way through.  I went up to the kiosk and tried again and I received both my boarding pass to Frankfurt and my United boarding pass to San Francisco.  And everything was on time, so it was an easy (but long) trip back home.  The only anomaly was that we had to use a bus to get to the San Francisco flight, which usually is not the case (but has happened on occasion).

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