We are only a few weeks shy of the 25th Anniversary the Berlin Wall came down. There was a big party celebrating the anniversary for the collapse of the structure, manifest as a barrier between the Soviet Union and the western world. Berlin, has undergone a renaissance of late, a capital rebuilding. Berlin is a happening place.
We were in town a couple weeks out from Christmas, to see the Wehrmacht Christmas Markets, but also to explore a city steeped in recent history. A good three days in town. Meeting at Hackescher Markt for a walking tour was the best way to orient yourself and make a plan for where we were going to visit. Our tour guide, Mike, was well qualified with a military history and degrees in Politics and History. He started the tour with a brief walk across the river Spree through Museum Island, Berlin has over 200 museums, with most concentrated in this space, a pillar of culture. The Germans unlike the French and Brits, appear to have paid for all their Egyptian, Persian and foreign exhibits – and still have the receipts.
Berlin as a city is relatively young. The name itself, derived from the Slavic term for swamp, is built upon just that, silt – not the best site for foundations, but the city grew from the 13th Century to an important trading post, the capital of Brandenburg, Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, East Germany and now, Germany.
The Humboldt University sits close nearby, a famous university with 29 Novel prize winners, many of which were at the turn of the 20th century all lived within Berlin. The Brothers Grimm, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Hans Krebs and Fritz Haber (Mitch knows who they are) all studied here. In 1933, the university was witness to the Nazi book burning, where thousands of books were piled and burned, Jewish students were expelled. Heinrich Heines’ quote from the play Almansor is engraved at the site – “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well”. This horror later followed in the next decade at camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau.
A walk south to Checkpoint Charlie (third letter of the phonetic alphabet) in Friedrichstraße to see the former gateway from West Berlin (and West Germany) to East Berlin. A replica of the site now stands, adjacent to the longstanding capitalist symbol known as the golden arches of McDonalds. The building itself, built by the Americans, was a temporary shed, a political gesture to show the Soviet who constructed the wall in 1961 that the division in Berlin was intended to be only “temporary”. The Berlin Wall was in fact a ring, 155km around West Berlin – an autobahn passageway linked Checkpoint Alpha at Helmstedt–Marienborn to Checkpoint Bravo in West Berlin. West Berlin, apart from this passageway, was a Western island. Many died crossing the Wall to flee to the West.
Walking back to the north, we passed a non-descript carpark. The site of the former bunker where Hitler committed suicide with his recent wife Eva Braun and had his body burnt in a shell crater. The site is not signposted, no memorial stands. The memorial that does stand however, is directly adjacent. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with large blocks, stands as a space for reflection.
Around the corner at the edge of the Tiergarten Park stands the Brandenburg Gate. This gate is a triumphal arch built for peace. Napoleon stole the Quadriga on the top. When returned, an iron cross was added and the Gate served as a passageway from East to West. During the Cold War, this closed. The Berlin Wall ran behind it and for almost 30 years it was no longer a gate, but a barrier. Now it stands as a symbol of freedom, restored to its former glory, beside the Reichstag. Here is where our tour ended.
We had ample opportunity to make our way back through to the Alexanderplatz Wehrmacht, stopping at the Topography of Terrors, a modern monument on the former Gestapo headquarters that documented the horrors of Nazism. The Alexanderplatz markets were somewhat commercialised and we didn’t stay too long. Mitch managed to get of a chimney cake or “Kürtőskalács”, a tube of sugar and cinnamon baked on a roller. We returned back to our cheap hotel in Friedrichsfelde and after a few beers and pasta crashed early. Walking really takes it out of you.
The next day was spent going over the same locations, but in more depth. We started with a walk down the East Side Gallery, a 1.3km section of Berlin Wall along Mühlenstraße and the river Spree that has been used as an artist mural. At the end, we spotted a convoy of Trabi cars – an iconic East German city car made with a plastic body and a two stroke engine. The waiting list for a Trabi was so long, it was prudent to constantly service and repair your car. Still over 3 million were produced. Many were modified with cavities underneath to transport people across the border.
The Pergamon Museum holds relics and structures from antiquity – and because Mitch was only able to choose one museum (with a time limit of 2 hours imposed by Tam) this was the best bet. A large collection of Middle Eastern art was here. Most impressive was the Ishtar Gate of Babylon with blue brick, dragons and lions. Mitch dragged his feet in here as long as he could and we managed to get out without Tam getting grumpy.
The Berliner Dom was the best vantage point to see the city from. From here the horizon of new construction could be seen. The powerhouse of German economy in full swing, with cranes dotted all over Berlin. An even higher vantage point is the Berliner Fernsehturm, a large revolving sphere on a tower. In the days of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), this was used for surveillance, a tool of oppression to many Germans.
We stole a few moments in cafés, to get the bones warm and then go out for a few more hours. The stretch of the Berlin Wall, known as Bernauer Street, is the area where most people escaped from the East to the West. Here an open air museum runs along the street – at 2 degrees, it wasn’t the warmest place we could be either. You could see how the Wall progressed from barricades, to 3.6m walls, and to a “no-mans” land. Over 5,000 people escaped across the wall, citizens and soldiers alike a part of the 3.5 million Germans who defected. At least 137 confirmed deaths were from failed attempts.
The Lucia Christmas Markets, named after the Nordic goddess of light, was our next point of call. These markets had a collection of Nordic foods, Scandinavian pizza and Glogg – a Finnish gluhwein seemed to be the best finds. The area was packed tight in the courtyard of an old brewery. For the cold they had large reindeer skin jackets lined with heating coils and on top of bar heaters.
We tried to catch the Christmas Markets in Neukolln, by the Tempelhof Park (an airport repurposed as a park). Turned out we were a couple weeks late, research would have been keen, so we ambled a few kilometres back to the hotel through the trendy/hip/Bohemian area, stopping for a dirty burger.
Our final day in Berlin was spent going back through the southern suburbs of the old West Berlin. Moving along Oranienstraße we found a nice French Café “Bateau Ivre” where we shared a table with a German couple – from either side of the wall, they talked about their childhood and we shared our different upbringings in New Zealand. It was nice to have a conversation with strangers – it made the meal go a couple hours.
Making our way to the Zoo district we saw the demolished Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which remains partially destroyed. We found out later that it has intentionally been kept this way – a symbol of a rebuilding Germany. An adjacent mall gave us a lookout over the baboon and beaver enclosures at the zoo. Outside, Mitch found a local delicacy, currywurst – boiled and skinned wurst with tomato sauce and curry powder. Not really as good as it sounds…if it sounds good.
The Charlottenburg Palace is, the only remaining royal residence of the Hohenzollern family, overthrown following WWI. The grounds were host to the largest Berlin Christmas market. Again, we found a different variety of foods and attractions. Candied almonds and dampfnudeln (steamed vanilla puddings with custard and currants) were on the menu, eating our fill before a bus to Tegel Airport.
Berlin is such a great city, we’ve only scratched the surface and could probably dig a bit deeper. The development and history of the place gives it a great vibe and would recommend it as a must for Europe travel.