SMOOTH ARRIVAL INTO BERLIN
Our 4 hour bus from Poland to Berlin went as efficiently as only the Germans know how. A punctual departure on a clean, spacious bus that not only had free wifi, but also an entertainment website full of movies. A “steward” was constantly going up and down the isles offering coffee, snacks and even beer once we’d crossed the German/ Polish border! All this bus was missing was a set of wings!
I was excited to see Berlin. It’s a city that has a shady past, but a city that has taken the right approach to shake its demons and build a vibrant, modern city, that respectfully acknowledges both the holocaust and the Berlin wall eras, but doesn’t dwell on them and hold the city back from being fantastically fresh, accessible and contemporary. Well done Berlin!
We pulled into the impressive giant glass structure that is Hauptbahnhof, one of Berlin’s main travel hubs, and set about finding transport to our hotel. Berlin has an S-bahn, U-bahn, bus and tram system which makes getting around extremely easy. We opted for the S-bahn and went a few stops West to the Hotel Pension Elegia.
With German being the “strongest” of my odds and ends of knowing a few words in a foreign language, I was all set to check in to the hotel speaking broken German. I mentally prepared phrases like “Guten Abend” (Good Evening) and “Wie gehst?” (How are you?), ready to finish up the transaction with a “Vielen Dank” (Many thanks) and “Guten Nacht” (good night).
The receptionist smiled and opened the conversation with a very English, “Hello”, which washed all the poised German phrases out of my head, and I proceed to check in to the hotel in fluent English instead. Useless.
We started the day with a pretty crap breakfast of, “left over baguette”, that had been wrapped in a napkin and pocketed from a previous breakfast out, smeared with an individual serve of jam, that I’d been carrying in my bag since bloody Florence (3 months earlier) “just in case” we were caught short. This was served alongside a luke warm cup of tea in a disposable plastic dentist style cup that I’d also been carrying in my bag since the dawn of time. After being spoilt by cheap apartments with fridges, kettles, hobs and utensils, we were now in a hotel room that had little more than a bed and a desk, so we ran the bathroom tap until it was hot enough to infuse a tea bag! Living the back packing dream eh!
Despite the ever so easy public transport, we opted to walk around expansive Berlin to get some exercise in, clocking up over 10 KM by the end of the day. Seeing as we were staying West, it made sense to explore all that that side had to offer first, so we left our restaurant packed neighbourhood of Savingyplatz and headed into the city.
After passing the Zoo and aquarium, we cut into the Tiergarten and kicked through the leaves, commenting on how nice it was to have such a large green space in the middle of the city. Kate even found her inner child and had a go in on the swings!
The Tiergarten led us all the way down to Victory Monument, a tall column with a gold statue on top that has been modified over time to commemorate various Prussian victories in war. The monument looks over a busy roundabout where several sets of jugglers were performing during the red lights for the cars in exchange for some coins through the window. Makes a nice change from the usual “can I wash your windscreen” routine I’m used to.
Apparently there is a large pub in the middle of the gardens somewhere, but I didn’t find out about it until we were too late unfortunately. Maybe for next time.
Victory Monument, Berlin
Strasse die 17 Juni led us all from the Victory Monument to the main symbol of Berlin, the infamous Brandenburg Gate. The gate was built as a sign of peace and is known as a key symbol of not only Berlin, but of all Germany too.
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
We passed underneath it to take it in from both sides and dodged the touts trying to sell us a tour of some sort. I was trying to imagine how it may have looked at the end of the Second World War and luckily enough, I later came across this merged photo that formed part of a free history plaque in the city.
WW2 vs Modern Day
Just around the corner from the Brandenburg gate was the Reichstag, Berlin’s main parliament building and where Hitler ruled from when he came to power.
Deciding on where to head next, Kate did her best impression of a tourist using our free map and we decided to check out Potsdammer Platz, and once again passed by the Brandenburg Gate, as well as the Holocaust Memorial.
We’d been to the scene of the crime itself when we visited Auschwitz, and now we were at the confession and acknowledgement of it. It was agreed that Germany needed to build a permanent and highly visible memorial for what had happened which resulted in a curious design being put forward – a plaza full of different sized smooth grey blocks, all at different heights.
I thought the flatter pieces resembled a stone coffin and that maybe that was the inspiration. Walking into the middle of the memorial, the height of the pieces tower above you, creating a maze like long corridors and the feeling of being lost, perhaps to emulate the feelings of the victims? Just my interpretation anyway.
Potsdammer Platz was once baron land after it was bombed to pieces, but now it is a pioneer for quirky architecture and a business district.
It was here that we got our first glimpses of some of the original pieces of the Berlin wall, staggered across the square with the perimeter of the fallen wall marked out on the pavement.
Remaining Segment of the Berlin Wall
Original Wall Marking
There was a small Christmas market set up that was serving up beers, mulled wine and the culinary delight that is the German Bratwurst. Mammoth sized sausages served in fresh white baguettes, oozing in mustard and ketchup. How can you say no to that?
The Ultimate Sausage Sizzle!
One Happy Bratwurst Customer
TOPOGRAHPIE OF TERRORS MUSEUM
On our way to Checkpoint Charlie we looked around the Topographie of Terrors museum. It is a free museum that details the rise, reign and fall of Nazi Germany, explaining not only what atrocities that occurred, but also how and why so many people were swept along by it all. It is easy with retrospect and hindsight to question how a man as outrageous as Hitler managed to build a faithful following of Germans, but he was a smart (and unfortunately twisted) leader. In many ways, he did a lot for the German people, brought them out of an economic slump, created jobs, gave people purpose again, introduced new public holidays to celebrate being German, and boosted industry and economy tremendously. Little did people know at the time that he wasn’t building a country, he was building an army.
Much of the museum was a refresher to my knowledge, having studied the pre Hitler times of the Weimar Republic, as well as Hitler’s reign, WW2, and even post Hitler times i.e., the Cold War. I was however shocked by the manner in which Hitler turned the police force into his personal arm of terror and how they got away with pushing their political agenda. For example, in the early days of Hitler’s reign he made the SS use phrases like “Protective Custody” to round up Jews and send them to prison centres. The SS explained, probably in quite a concerned way, that Jewish people were viewed as an “Enemy of the State” and that “the mob” of pro German supporters may try and cause harm to them. Therefore, it would be safer for everyone if they accepted being put in SS “Protective Custody”. This sort of “wool over the eyes” routine allowed the Nazis to seamlessly imprison thousands of people with the rest of Germany thinking that all was fine and above board! Unbelievable!
After the museum, we headed further into the city centre, past a shop offering Trabant tours. According to Channel 4’s Travel Man, you can take a self driving guided tour of Berlin. It was apparently voted the worst car in 1975! We just opted for a photo of the fleet instead.
Kate and the Totally Crap Trabant
Berlin has clearly read the guide book of “How to Attract Tourists to You City”, and have set up a fake Checkpoint Charlie where the original once stood. A checkpoint, once at the centre of the tension filled Cold War, is now a place where you can have your photo taken with an actor dressed in military gear outside a faux guard post.
The Tourist Twist on Checkpoint Charlie
I am not sure if the “Entering/ Leaving” sign posts are the original or remade, but you’ve got to love how the big food chains manage to ruin every single spot of historical relevance around the world.
I wonder if you were given a pass to go to East Berlin for the day, to conduct some important political business, you could nip into finger lickin’ KFC for a bucket of chicken first? Perhaps McDonalds is more your tipple? Both own a huge tourist guzzling “restaurant” either side of the checkpoint.
Grab Your Big Box Chicken Combo Before you Face the Russians!
So, with our papers cleared at Checkpoint Charlie and a box of fried chicken in our ration packs, we crossed the now invisible boundary into East Berlin.
I was quite surprised how quickly I noticed a difference between the two sides, and how obvious it was that the East had been somewhat held back compared to the affluent shopping districts of the West.
The East had a grungier vibe to it with many of the buildings sporting a fresh lick of graffiti and the attire of the people I saw being a lot more punk rocker/ hippy in style. We also walked past several large refugee camps that looked like the tent block at a musical festival.
First Glimpse of East Berlin
EAST SIDE GALLERY
We’d walked the hour from Checkpoint Charlie, across a bridge to see what is now called, “The East Side Gallery”. The East Side Gallery is a mile long section of the original wall that has been decorated by various local artists. A nice way, I thought, to turn a negative into a positive.
An Artistic Take on the Events of the Past
I thought I was straddling the East and West side at one point, but then remembered the area of space in between the walls, known as the “Death Zone”, that was patrolled by guards and dogs who would shot anyone trying to cross.
Straddling East and West Berlin?
Not Without Crossing the Death Zone First
We gave our weary legs a break and caught the S-bahn home and watched the sites of the day unfold in reverse through the window.
We finished up the day having a budget supermarket meal in the hotel room. Kate had the ingenious idea to use the balcony ledge outside the window as a natural fridge, as the temperature wasn’t going to rise above 5 degrees, so we were able to get some items that would have otherwise been out the question. The innovative things you come up with when you’re trying to save a penny or two eh!
In keeping with our tradition of getting Hollywood’s take on it all, we watched Steven Spielberg directed “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks as Jim Donnovan, a Lawyer who negotiated the trade of Russian and American spies via East Berlin during the height of the Cold War. Worth a watch.
I won’t sign off as JFK once did with his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, but I can safely say “Ich liebe Berlin” and would happily return – although definitely with more money this time to enjoy the copious amounts of nice restaurants, bars and cafes that I wasn’t able to sample this time around.
Next stop – Copenhagen in Denmark!