Berlin Day One (5/1)
It wasn’t a great start to today’s travels, we had an early morning flight to catch and had to be out of bed by 4am. At the airport we were directed to a shuttle bus that took us out towards a tiny plane on the tarmac. Looking out the bus window I saw what looked like an old time-y plane with propellers rather than jet engines and began thinking to myself – they still use these? I knew instantly we were going to be in for an interesting trip, but was hopeful that nothing could be worse than the RyanAir flight we had endured from Rome just a few days before. The flight, to my surprise, went very smoothly and had spacious and comfortable seats – well done Air Berlin. No sooner were we up in the air it felt like we we were landing. We had arrived in Berlin, hallo Germany!
A pleasant surprise awaited us at the hotel, not only did we manage to get another early checkin (we had arrived at the hotel approximately 930am) hours before our room was supposed to be ready but were able to head straight up. Our Berlin hotel room was the best of the trip so far, essentially we had a fully functioning apartment, complete with kitchen, lounge seat, dining room table, comfy king size bed, huge TV and large bathroom with a massive shower. We were now wishing we could spend longer in Berlin to make the most of this space. By this point in the trip we are both starting to feel run down and in need of some relaxation time, this apartment would have been perfect for that but we didn’t have the time to spare, so much to see and do.
The location of Adina Apartments was perfect as we were a short 5min walk from Checkpoint Charlie and a lot of other sites that were on our to see list. From our hotel we could easily catch the trains or simply walk to many of the main streets and iconic spots. Interesting to note was the Australian and Aboriginal art throughout the hotel, not sure why this was or how we managed to book a hotel that loves Australia so much but i guess we were their preferred guests!
Given it was another early start for us this morning and the 4am wake up was catching up with us, we decided to sleep before starting our hectic 2 days in Berlin. We napped for an hour before layering up for our walking tour of the city.
Berlin Walking Tour
First activity for the day was the Brewers Berlin Walking Tour. They had 2 tour options we could choose from; the in depth 6 hour tour or the free 3 hour tour. Given we were short on time (only having 2 days in Berlin) we decided on the 3 hour tour. And it is safe to say this tour was one of the best we have attended on our trip. Our guide was from Boston in America however she had been living in Berlin for 5 years and had studied German history extensively in college. Her knowledge base and ability to memorise facts and interesting stories was nothing short of amazing, she seemed to know everything about this city and it’s history.
The walking tour explored some of the city’s most historically significant spots (Berlin Wall, Hitler’s Bunker, Brandenburg Gates, the site where the burning of the books took place, monument to the murdered Jews and much more.) The historic commentary we received from our guide throughout the tour made visiting these sites so much more significant. As I have never studied history or admittedly even read too much about WWII, i found i learnt a lot within this 3 hour time frame. Learning about the numerous rises and falls of the German economy and how this impacted the daily lives of German people and coincided with the rise of the Nazi party was engaging.
We began our tour by walking along the Spree river in the central Mitte district of Berlin. This area is known as Museum Island. We were making our way towards the Gendarmenmarkt square where our tour would officially begin. We paused to discuss some of the architecture along the way, noting the bullet holes in the building facades still evident from WWII. Our guide also paused to point out galleries we may like to visit later in our trip.
Once we had made it to Lustgarten our guide helped us realise the historical significance of the place in which we stood. Nowadays the Lustgarten (in the Gendarmenmarkt square) is an open park space surrounded by cathedral buildings. It is a favourite of families and tourists; particularly in the warmer months. However we quickly learned that this site historically was used as a meeting place of the Nazi’s. They too were drawn to the openness of this space and the numbers it could accommodate. The Nazi’s and Hitler often held rallies and military parades at this site and when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 approximately 200,000 people demonstrated against the Fuhrer at Gendarmenmarkt square. Our guide walked us to one side of the park and had us stop close to the river bank, she then showed us an old photo of a nazi party gathering that stood in the same space we now were. The crowd filled the entire area, the grass, the road and the cobble stone path we were standing on. Our guide asked us to imagine the atmosphere of that day and compare it to the (almost empty) scene we were now viewing. It was an interesting and unsettling feeling to be standing on history and imagining the chaos of that rally and the sheer number of people Hitler was able to draw to one of his speeches.
Next we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Which is now more commonly referred to as the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship”. This is a monument dedicated to the services of an unidentifiable soldier who died in battle and stands as a symbols to the memory of all soldiers killed in any war. The site also houses the remains of a nameless Nazi extermination camp victim. Inside the building is a Käthe Kollwitz sculpture called Mother with her Dead Son and the oculus (an open hole in the ceiling) The open space in the ceiling means the sculpture is always exposed to the elements (rain, wind, snow, darkness etc.) The sculpture has been place centrally in a cold grey, dark, concrete room. We were there in the afternoon so the hole in the ceiling of the building created a circular spot light on the mother holding her dead son. As we were viewing the memorial it began to rain, it made the tomb even more sombre to see the figures sitting in the rain, whilst we stood dry at the edges of the building.
We walked on, eventually coming to an area where our tour guide yelled “stop.” We weren’t really sure why we suddenly had to stop but everyone in the group did. She had us all line up behind a paved cobble stone line in the sidewalk. She then explained that this was the line for East and West Berlin and one of the areas in which the diving line of the Berlin wall existed cutting the city in two.
Checkpoint Charlie was the name given by the Western Allies to the most well-known crossing point in the Berlin Wall. We were now standing at the intersection of two main streets whilst our guide explained exactly where the wall had cut through the city. She pointed out the guards station situated in the middle of the road and explained that this was simply for tourists and in no way accurately resembled what the real guards station would have looked like, even the street sign that many tourist were taking photos of, she explained was not the real one and in fact wasn’t even standing in the correct place on the street (the real sign is now in the museum for those wondering.) Our guide was also quick to point out that the man dressed as an American officer was most definitely not one and would pose for photos for money, she also remarked a little more quietly that he was known to do a lot of other things for money when his shift ended too… She then drew the groups attention to the pale yellow cafe on the corner. This cafe had become well known because the building had multiple levels and provided views into East Berlin for the Allied officials and was often used for spying during the cold war. Checkpoint Charlie has been featured in lots of spy movies and books over the years and this cafe is often featured. Our tour guide took us inside Cafe Adler to warm up with a hot chocolate and apple strudel whilst she continued explaining more about the area.
After leaving the cafe, we braved the cold once more, walking a little further down the street until we encountered a still standing section of the Berlin Wall. One thing that I wasn’t aware of before visiting Berlin, was that the Wall wasn’t simply 1 wall. Before attending the tour I had questioned why people couldn’t just climb over if they had wanted to get from East to West Berlin. Our guide explained that this is a common misconception and the wall was in fact 2 walls with a large space in between. The space in between was roughly the size of a soccer pitch and called the ‘Death Zone’. Within the death zone there were tanks, soldier patrols and watch towers to ensure people didn’t successfully make it across the border. The routines of the soldiers and timed patrols changed everyday so people were unable to figure out the pattern and safe crossing times. Turns out if someone did manage to get over the wall they still then had to run a soccer field length without being seen, climb the next wall, all whilst dodging barbed wire and soldiers who would shoot on sight. Not a very high chance of success! However there were a few who managed and our guide told us of one family in particular who had pulled off a crossing from the very site in which we were standing. The family managed to create a batman-like wire gun contraption, that they shot from a third floor window of a building on the East Berlin side of the wall. The wire-gun hooked over the top of the east side of the wall and they were able to lower themselves from the building. The family were lucky enough to climb over at a time when they missed the soldiers on patrols and made it safely to the other side. As you can imagine though these success stories were few and far between.
After learning about the death zone, it was then interesting to see tourist stand with their body in the middle of the Berlin Wall taking selfies. They were, I imagine, trying to represent one side of their body being on the East and the other in West Berlin. Little did they know both sides of their bodies were still in East Berlin. Both walls and the death zone were all created on East Berlin’s land. This is something I probably would have done before learning more about the Wall so i would thoroughly recommend doing a tour and learning some facts.
Now that we had seen a section of the Wall, our tour guide walked us to the Reich Chancellery and Hitler’s bunker, the site where he spent his last days. The chancellery was built to be one of the grandest buildings in Berlin and was a source of great pride for Hitler. Hitler took up residence here in January 1945 and it became the centre of the Nazi regime until the last week of World War II. We learnt that this was also the site where Hitler married Eva Braun, shortly before they committed suicide together in the bunker located behind the chancellery building. After the war both the Chancellery building and bunker were levelled by the Soviets between 1945 and 1949 as part of an effort to destroy the landmarks of Nazi Germany. The site now contains a Chinese restaurant, apartment block and an unremarkable car park… this is kind of satisfying to see and you cant help but smugly think ‘wouldn’t Hitler be impressed.’
Next was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe also known as the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. It is situated on a large site near the Brandenburg Gate. The area is covered with 2,711 grey concrete slabs which have been arranged in a grid pattern on sloping, uneven ground. The slabs vary in height but are organised into precise rows that create an almost ‘tunnel vision’ when you look through the display. Just about every wall and building in Berlin is heavily graffitied, so it was surprising to note that this site was different. There was not one bit of graffiti on the entire memorial. At first I thought this must have been a mark of respect; however, our tour guide explained that it was actually due to the anti-graffiti spray that had been used to treat all of the concrete slabs. It was actually a bit disheartening to think that people wouldn’t refrain from graffitiing this area just because its a memorial and it had to be treated in order to be kept clean but that’s reality I guess.
Our tour guide explained that the exact meaning of the memorial was never given by its creators, who instead wanted it to be left open to interpretation. Apparently Eisenman intended for people to get different interpretations from the memorial and believed that all of the responses would be valid. I liked this idea, that you could take away from the memorial your own reflections about the Holocaust on a more emotional level rather than just being hit with more facts and figures. Eisenman said the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality – showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion.” Jess and I had different takes on the memorial and it was good to discuss our different theories about the intended meaning of the varying heights and shapes of the concrete slabs, but I think most notably when walking through we both sensed a feeling of being overwhelmed. The further towards the centre of the display you walked, the taller the concrete slabs rose above your head, you definitely felt small and quite powerless within the rows of concrete. Because of the narrow walkways between each slab, you also felt quite isolated and alone, even though you knew others were in there experiencing the same thing as you. The feeling you got walking through the display I believe was more important than the ‘look’ of the memorial. It has to be experienced and felt to be fully appreciated.
After a few minutes at the memorial site our guide explained that the memorial has attracted some controversy, one for its name and secondly for the products used in its construction. The name is controversial because it only only commemorates the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and not the others who suffered and lost their lives during this dark period. The second and probably most controversial of all, the anti-graffiti spray used to coat the monument caused outrage as the company that produced the spray also manufactured the Zyklon B gas that was used in the chambers at extermination camps. Understandably this didn’t sit well with the public. A massive oversight, letting the Degussa company be involved in the construction of the memorial when during the Holocaust they were a company that helped to kill the people in which the monument was created for.
There is so much to see and do in Berlin and the walking tour gives you a taste of not only the historical sites but also some other things that may be of interest. Our tour guide was a chocolate lover and pointed out to Jess a store where you could make your own chocolate bars and took us inside another that made chocolate for the royals (we bought a few sample sticks and it was amazingly good) The guide also made suggestions about cafes and restaurants, bars and speak-easy venues that had bands playing at various times during the week, noting her favourites and how to find some of the more hidden and secretive venues. This tour is a really helpful introduction to the city that assists you in getting your bearings. If you are visiting Berlin for the first time this tour is a must!
We ended the tour at the Brandenburg Gate. This is without a doubt the most iconic of Berlin’s landmarks. The gate marks the start of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg, though it is now closed to cars. The gate has been a site for many historically significant events and was one of the few structures in Berlin that was not completely destroyed during the War. Our tour guide explained that we had arrived in Berlin on a night where the Brandenburg gate would see yet another protest (as it so often had throughout history.) She explained that tonight the Neo-Nazi’s would be gathering to protest the Muslim-ification of Berlin and Europe. As a counter there would also be a group protesting and opposing the Neo-Nazi’s views. Our guide advised us to move away from the area as soon as she concluded the tour and encouraged us to get dinner closer to our hotel and away from this space that would soon fill with hundreds if not thousands of protesters. The police were already setting up cars and barricades as we moved towards a line of taxis, we were keen to get out before the action started.
Berlin Day Two (6/1)
Topography of Terror
On yesterday’s walking tour one of the places that was pointed out to the group was the ‘Topography of Terror’. This is a museum that was set up by university students and meant to be a short lived display; however, it drew such big crowds and so well executed that Berlin decided to keep it. The museum highlights in chronological order the actions of the Nazi regime, key events in WWII and provides detailed insights into individuals who lived and died during this period.
After yesterday’s tour, it was good to now consolidate some of what we had learnt by re-reading the details of what we had been told. Visiting the Topography of Terror provided us with further insight into German history and some more individual accounts of experiences and life during this time.
The museum itself has been built on the site of what was formerly the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS, during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. Outside of the building there is still a section of the Berlin Wall still standing and just in front of the wall, in remnants of underground basement trenches are the remains of prison cells and torture chambers that were once apart of the original Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse building (Gestapo headquarters.)
The Holocaust Memorial
We had already visited this site during the walking tour the day before but wanted to go back to walk through the memorial at a slower pace. The site is a surreal and sobering experience even the second time around. Walking through the grounds, it has a cemetery-like feel and despite the near-by traffic it is almost silent.
At a number of the historically significant sites we have visited (many of which are related to such horrific times in history) there always seems to be someone taking a selfie or conducting themselves in a way that seems disrespectful. Jess was disappointed to see a father and son jumping from the top of one concrete slab to the next concrete slab in the memorial, like it was a playground. Perhaps its the difference between engaging with and learning the history of a place rather than simply site seeing and not being fully aware of what you are looking at?
Did you know that the sculpture on top of the Brandenburg Gate has not always been in Berlin? This is because Napoleon thought it would be good idea to seize it during his occupation of Berlin in 1806, and take the sculpture back to Paris. It was later reclaimed by Berlin and has remained atop the gate ever since.
Being one of Germany’s most iconic landmarks we felt the gate was worth a second visit and wanted to try and capture a photo with less tourists milling around. We were in luck, after the protests the night before there were only a handful of people taking photographs.
Interesting to note the Hotel Adlon is located just across the street from the Brandenburg Gate. This hotel is well know because it is where the Queen of England stays when she visits Berlin and it is also where Michael Jackson decided to show off his new baby Blanket to the world by dangling him over the balcony railings.
East Side Gallery
One of the spots we didn’t make it to on the walking tour, but were keen to explore ourselves was the East Side Gallery. This gallery is possibly the largest and longest-lasting open air gallery in the world. The East Side Gallery refers to a section of the Berlin Wall which is still standing and displays 105 paintings by artists from all over the world. The artworks were painted in 1990 and they span the entire 1.3km length of the remaining wall. Jess and I walked approximately half of the wall, taking in the unique artworks until we were too frozen to continue. We made the decision to head back to the hotel to warm up and add more layers to our clothing before tonight’s Beer Tour.
Local Beer and Breweries Tour
While I have enjoyed the art galleries, museums and history of Berlin, it was now my time to shine! While researching tours I discovered that Brewers Berlin Tours also did a beer tour, where you are taken to 3 different venues to sample a variety of craft beers. I like beer so it was a no brainer (Jess however has only ever drank one beer in her life so it is fair to say she doesn’t like beer but made the most of the night anyway.)
We were both excited to head out for a night on the town with a group of people. While at the meeting point we noticed that a US couple from yesterdays Walking Tour were on the beer tour also. So it was a good start, with at least 2 people we kind of knew. Then as more people arrived we heard the undeniable sounds of a kiwi accent, then another Aussie couple…who amazingly and coincidentally happened to be from Perth. Mix in a Canadian couple and a couple from California and it was going to be interesting night.
Initially the Kiwis and Aussie gravitated towards each other, sharing our travel stories and paying out on each other. Our Berlin tour guide was perhaps a little concerned to hear ‘bloody Kiwis’ and ‘bloody Aussies’ thrown back and forth a number of times between the group. However he relaxed when he realised we were all smiling whilst saying it. As the beers flowed (I drank Jess’s share) the groups started to mingle more, we ended up talking to the US couple from the walking tour (who were studying in New York and had some travel tips for us) and the Canadian couple who were keen to learn about all things Aussie. Jess ended up ordering glasses of presseco and having to explain herself to the group, who all demanded an explanation as to why she had come on a beer tour when she openly announced she hated beer.
The tour took us to 3 local craft breweries and gives you a chance to experience the Berlin bar scene and get a handle on the train system. While on foot in Alexander Platz the tour guide provided some spontaneous commentary about Berlin. He pointed out the TV tower and told us an interesting fact about it, he explained that when the sun shines on the stainless steel dome, the reflection usually appears in the form of a cross. This effect was not intended by the architect and understandably annoyed the people who commissioned, so much so the architect wasn’t invited to the official opening of the tower. Berliners nicknamed the tower’s cross the ‘Pope’s Revenge.’
As we continued walking to our next stop, the two Kiwi sisters spotted some rabbits hopping through the streets. This sparked some more commentary from our guide. He described the space between the Berlin wall as a bunny heaven because it provided an ideal environment for rabbits away from humans, where they thrived. Now that the Berlin Wall is no longer there, when you walk through Berlin at night you see countless rabbits hopping around…sometimes even deer wandering the streets. He suggested we watch the movie Rabbit à la Berlin. The movie is a documentary made in 2009 and was nominated for an Oscar in 2010. The movie tells the story of the Berlin Wall but from point of view of a group of wild rabbits that inhabited the zone between the two walls separating West Berlin from the East Germany during the Cold War. We haven’t watch it yet but we will, it came highly recommended.
We were having a great time on the tour and many of the group looked like they were settling in for the long haul. Everyone got on so well, it would have been easy staying out all night talking and drinking but it was now 12:30am and given we were flying to New York in the morning we thought it was best to call it a night. Turns out the US couple who had been on the same walking tour and beer tour were also staying at the same hotel as us, so we shared a cab back to the hotel.
Berlin Day Three (7/1)
A sleep in, this has been very rare for us over the course of our trip, however we slept in a bit too long today! Our flight was at 1pm so we had to be at the airport approximately 11am for our International flight. The plan was to get up by 9am, pack and leave the hotel by 10:30am to ensure we weren’t rushed, however we didn’t set an alarm (first time the whole trip and not a good idea.) I woke up initially at 7:30am and instantly went back to sleep, the next time I opened my eyes it was 9:50am. I panicked and woke Jess realising we had less than 40mins to get showered, dressed, packed and taxi to the airport.
Luckily we managed to pull everything together pretty quickly and the taxi was very quick. We weren’t running too late and arrived at the airport around 1130, which was probably a blessing given how small the waiting area was at Berlin airport once you had gone through security. You can see why they are building a new airport. No shops, one toilet and about 20 plastic seats for 300 plus passengers.
Berlin Final Thoughts
Two days in Berlin is definitely not enough. With such a short stay I think it is fair to say we got the most out of Berlin we possibly could and learnt a lot about German history and the significant events that occurred in Berlin, whilst still enjoying some of the more fun, contemporary things the city has to offer.
Lots of the people we spoke to before we left on our travels, who had travelled to Berlin, said that is was one of their favourite places in Europe. They often couldn’t explain exactly why they liked it so much, which at the time Jess and I found a bit strange. Having now been there I think I understand. Berlin has so much to do and see and every area of the city has a history to it. Its hard to say why you like this city so much but you just do, it is definitely an experience. We both wish our stay hadn’t been quite so short, there were still a lot of areas and places to explore but it was great to get a taste of Berlin.
The next and last stop of our trip is New York…. and as they say you always save the best for last.