We were very grateful to escape the 38-degree heat in Lucca for a far more comfortable high of 30 degrees in Berlin. Our train to Pisa was at 5:30am so we had an early start. This meant a comfortable temperature for walking from home to Lucca station and from Pisa Centrale (train station) to the airport. It also meant arriving in Berlin late morning, enabling us to make the most of our first day. After dropping our suitcase at the hotel, we were able to start exploring this vibrant, cosmopolitan city where anything goes.
I’m sure you’ll understand that I cannot do this complex city justice in one post, but hopefully, I’ll enable you to understand something of what it’s about and feel some of the emotion pulsing through its veins. I don’t want to bore you with a history lesson, but I will include some pieces of information that gave me additional insight into and appreciation for what I was experiencing.
By the end of the first day, we thought we’d almost covered it all. We had seen the Brandenburg Gate, checked out Checkpoint Charlie, gained insight into the enormity of the Berlin Wall and wondered at the variety of architecture as we looked over the city from the dome of the Reichstag. We’d even munched on some of the well-renowned baked goods, had our first slice of cheesecake and enjoyed a schnitzel with local beer/wine. Little did we know that over the next week, we would cover another 180,000 steps and realise that the more we saw, the more there was to see.
Before arrival, we thought we’d be running through the Tiergarten, the green heart of Berlin and near the Brandenburg Gate. On the Berlin city map, the three-kilometre wide and one-kilometre deep garden looks like an inner-city island. Berliners and tourists use the oasis to relax, exercise, go for a walk and while away the day. As we orientated ourselves to the city, we enjoyed a stroll under the trees, watching the people relaxing, cycling and running and checking out the Victory Column and statues of historical figures like Bismarck and a number of composers.
The Victory Column is a monument in Berlin to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Second Schleswig War, by the time it was inaugurated on 2 September 1873, Prussia had also defeated Austria and its German allies in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), giving the statue a new purpose. Different from the original plans, these later victories in the unification wars inspired the addition of the bronze sculpture of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory, 8.3 metres high. Berliners have given the statue the nickname Goldelse, meaning something like “Golden Lizzy”.The Victory Column is a major tourist attraction in the city of Berlin.
WW2 & the Holocaust
In 962, the Kingdom of Germany formed the bulk of the Holy Roman Empire. Since then, Germany has often been central to many a power struggle & war.
Probably the most infamous and far-reaching attack was what is commonly known as the Holocaust, the genocide of European Jews Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its collaborators systematically murdered some six million Jews across German-occupied Europe, around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population.
The Holocaust Memorial is a memorial in Berlin to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Built in 2003/2004, sixty years after the end of World War II in Europe, it is situated on the former location of the Berlin Wall, where the “death strip” once divided the city. During the war, the area acted as the administrative centre of Hitler’s killing machine, with the Chancellery building and his bunker both nearby.
The memorial consists of a 19,000-square-metre open air site covered with 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae”, arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. This allows for long, straight, and narrow alleys between them, along which the ground undulates. Walking amongst the holocaust memorial could not help to generate an emotional response as I continue to try and comprehend why this segment of the population was subjected to such atrocities.
In addition to the large memorial, as we made our way across the city, copper plaques could be spotted on the ground. These were to commemorate the lives of those Jewish people that had been killed. We have seen similar plaques across other cities including Rome, placed outside residence of the victims.
“Topography of Terror” addresses National-Socialist politics in Berlin and its consequences for the city and its people. It shows how the National Socialists managed to get a foothold in “red” Berlin and transform the city into their centre of political power. The outdoor exhibition “Berlin 1933–1945. Between propaganda and terror” is oriented around two traces of the past: the unexcavated floor-level memorial, marked by gravel, where the remaining foundations of the former “in-house prison” of the Gestapo headquarters are located, and the remaining section of the Berlin Wall. Information consoles with photos, documents and 3D graphics for orientation around the site give an overview of the history of this location – where, from 1933 to 1945, the most important institutions of the National-Socialist persecution and terror apparatus were headquartered: the secret police (Gestapo), Reich SS leadership and Reich Security Main Office.
Berlin Wall & Checkpoint Charlie
I had never understood how a wall had been able to confine people for so long. Why it was so difficult to jump over, tunnel under or break down a wall? This was based on my picture of a boundary wall in the back garden of a home. It was only as we explored the many sites across the city related to the wall that I began to comprehend the enormity. Whilst I’m not going to go into a full history lesson – I couldn’t do it justice – I feel that some background is necessary.
Following WW2, when Germany was separated into East & West, many East Germans living in Berlin wanted to escape. This was illegal, trying to escape made one a fugitive. Over the years, as more people tried to move to the West, desperate measures were put in place to prevent them from doing so. In 1961, this resulted in a wall being built across the city, separating east from west. Over time, the situation became so dire that the East German authorities eventually constructed a 160km long, 100m+ wide corridor of wasteland separating the two regimes. The only things occupying said area were multiple walls, a path for patrol, signal fences, watchtowers and extremely bright lights to illuminate the area. Soldiers were given strict instructions to prevent escape, shooting if required. I soon understood why “fugitives” had to burrow under buildings for long distances to make their way to the other side. At a depth of 12 meters, and a length of 145 meters, Tunnel 57 was the longest, deepest and most expensive flight tunnel built in Berlin.
Although we had already walked through the Brandenburg gate – a key symbol of the tumultuous history – our first real history lesson came with a visit to Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was the best-known Berlin Wall crossing point between East Berlin and West Berlin during the Cold War (1947–1991). Checkpoint Charlie was designated as the single crossing point (on foot or by car) for foreigners and members of the Allied forces. The development of the infrastructure around the checkpoint was largely asymmetrical, reflecting the contrary priorities of East German and Western border authorities. During its 28-year active life, the infrastructure on the Eastern side was expanded to include not only the wall, watchtower and zig-zag barriers, but a multi-lane shed where cars and their occupants were checked. However, the Allied authority never erected any permanent buildings. A wooden shed used as the guard house was replaced during the 1980s by a larger metal structure, now displayed at the Allied Museum in western Berlin. Their reasoning was that they did not consider the inner Berlin sector boundary an international border and did not treat it as such.
It was during our visit to Checkpoint Charlie that we came across the first of many pieces of The Wall that we would see during our 7 day visit. We also discovered a fact that would aid us in understanding the reach of The Wall across the city – they have placed a double row of bricks along the entire line of The Wall throughout the city. Walter relished the many references to the Trabi, the locally produced car strongly associated with East Berlin.
Close to Checkpoint Charlie was a giant 360-degree panorama created by an artist that lived on the East German side of The Wall. It represented life near the wall as he had perceived it and together with a large display of photos gathered from other residents, gave a heart-wrenching view of the impact of the structure on daily life. The wide brightly lit channel on the East German side contrast with the “normal” life and tourist activity happening in the West.
The Berlin Wall Memorial was where we were really confronted with the scale of the corridor that was created on the East German side. This was where we came to understand the huge feat that it was for people to tunnel their way to escape.
When the Wall first came down in 1989, there was a desire to get rid of every piece of it. Thankfully, people soon realised that it would be good to preserve it, to remember what had happened. Perhaps an indication of why Berlin seems to be such a tolerant place. There are numerous wall-related memorials all over the city. There is even a stretch that has now become the East Side Gallery. At 1316 metres long, the open-air art gallery on the banks of the Spree is the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. Immediately after the wall came down, 118 artists from 21 countries began painting the East Side Gallery, and it officially opened as an open-air gallery on 28 September 1990. Just over a year later, it was given protected memorial status.
The Brandenburg Gate & unified Berlin
The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most photographed monuments, a landmark and symbol with over two hundred years of history. It used to be a memorial of division – after the construction of the Berlin Wall, it was located in a restricted area and could not be visited by East or West Germans. After the fall of the Wall, the gate became a symbol of German unity.
Berlin owes the Brandenburg Gate to King Frederick William II, who commissioned the large sandstone gate as a dignified conclusion of the magnificent boulevard Unter den Linden. The gate is widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings of classicism. It was built between 1788 and 1791 Two years after the Brandenburg Gate was completed, the so-called Quadriga – a chariot pulled by four horses – was placed on the roof of the gate.
The Neo-Renaissance building was built between 1871 and 1884 and housed both the Reichstag legislature of the German Empire and the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. It was initially used by the Reichstag for Nazi Germany, but severe damage in the Reichstag fire of 1933 prevented further use. The building took further damage during the Second World War and its symbolism made it an important target for the Red Army during the Battle of Berlin. After the war, the building was modernised and restored in the 1960s and used for exhibitions and special events, as its location in West Berlin prevented its use as a parliament building by either of the two Germanies. From 1995 to 1999, the Reichstag was fundamentally redesigned for its permanent use as a parliament building in the now-reunified Germany. The keys were handed over to the President of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Thierse, on 19 April 1999. The Bundestag has been meeting there ever since. A landmark of the city is the walk-in glass dome above the plenary chamber, designed by Gottfried Böhm.
Whilst planning our trip, Walter had discovered that it was possible to access the glass dome on top of the plenary chamber of the Reichstag building, All we had to do was book in advance. So we reserved a spot for our first afternoon and another for sunset the following week. Our first visit proved a good way to get an overall perspective of the city. It was interesting to see the variety of architecture and rooflines across the urban expanse. The cloud had come in before the second visit, but even so, we were able to catch a glimpse of the sun setting in the distance. The reflections on the large mirrored structure inside the dome were surreal. By this stage, we were able to recognise all the sites we’d been too.
The Bears & the Bees
We started being tempted to call the city “Beelin” or “Bearlin” due to the presence of both. In the case of the bees, they are real live ones. In the case of the bears, they are life-sized sculptures. Partly owing to the wide nature strip created by the Berlin Wall corridor added to the protection laws in the city, there are literally thousands of striped yellow and black insects flying around. Anywhere that has something wet or sweet, even inside the sugar pots. I describe them in this way as I am still unsure how many of what we saw were wasps and how many were bees – Google searches reveal that both seem to be prolific across Berlin.
Buddy Bears are painted, life-size fibreglass bear sculptures. The first bears were displayed at an artistic event in Berlin in 2001 when artists painted approximately 350 bears to appear as decorative elements in the streets of Berlin. Four different bear designs (one standing on all four paws, one standing on two legs, one standing on its head, and one in a sitting position) were placed in the historic centre of Berlin. Afterwards, many of the bears were sold at auctions in aid of local child relief nonprofits. Nowadays, these Berlin Buddy Bears are exclusively presented on private premises, in front of hotels and embassies, as well as in the foyers of various office buildings. They have become a landmark of Berlin and are considered unofficial ambassadors of Germany. The outstretched arms of the standing Buddy Bear symbolise friendliness and optimism.
Canals & waterways
One of the things that struck us as we approached Berlin from the air, were the bodies of water and canals. Keen to explore some of the waterways outside the main tourist areas of the city, our morning run on our second day in Berlin, took us past an old cemetery, along dirt paths, amongst new apartment clocks – through what we later found to be the “New City”.
Gerd, our German-born friend from Sydney, was visiting his homeland for an extended stay. With a few days in the capital, one of the things he wanted to do was a canal cruise. This suited us perfectly as it was a great way to catch up and see the sights. It also made him a captive audience for all our questions related to growing up in West Germany in the 1950s & 1960s.
Berliner Straßenlauf – Die Generalprobe Half Marathon
Berliner Straßenlauf – Die Generalprobe, directly translated as Berlin Road Race – the Dress Rehearsal, is the lead-up event to the famous Berlin Marathon which is held in September every year. Having booked our flights and accommodation based on when our friend Gerd was going to be in town, we were fortunate that it happened to coincide with this 21.1km run. That said, it didn’t traverse the scenic route past all the iconic sites in the city that the marathon does but rather went through some typical suburbs. It was also not very organised, resulting in waiting more than ½ hour to collect our bags of dry, warm clothing at the end of the run – good thing it wasn’t raining or as cold as forecast. But they did serve beer at the refreshment station, albeit non-alcoholic. The course was flat, as one would expect in Berlin, and we both ran much quicker than expected. We ran together for the first 13km after which Walter bolted off into the distance.
Food & drink
Before our arrival in Berlin, I had decided that I would be aiming to eat a slice of cheesecake each day. Similarly, Walter was going to have a German beer each day. Whilst we didn’t manage to reach our goal, we did indulge. Walter discovered that his favoured Weissbeer is not as much German as Bavarian, so whilst he did get to have some, he also tried the local brew. Glenda was a little disappointed with the cheesecakes, even the one from the renowned and aptly named Princess Cheesecake. It was not worth the distance walked or the price paid to buy it.
Within a few hundred metres of the hotel we had three bakeries. We found out that they were all part of the same chain and enjoyed their products. Unfortunately the best selection and ambience was as at the one that was furthest – Cafe Luisa. The other food that Berlin is famous for is Currywurst – whilst I resisted, Walter succumbed to buying some from one of the little stalls we came across whilst exploring the canals. I was happy to try out the coffee though. Whilst it was good to have a flat white, something not found in our home town, the 4euro price tag was a bit steep.
On the last day of our stay, we met up with friends for lunch. Marcella, an ex-colleague of mine, is married to Peter, born in West Germany and a student in Berlin during the Cold War. They spend 6 months a year in Berlin and our visit coincided with their stay. Having picked us up at our hotel, they took us to their favourite beer garden. As we indulged in another Schnitzel – the third of our trip – they told us about a konditorei (cake shop) near their home. Soon after they dropped us off at the hotel, we decided to take the 6km return walk to Anna Blume to assess the validity of the recommendation. Walter had cake envy as I munched my cheesecake flavoured with orange liqueur. It was worth the long walk in the rain.
As the name implies, Museum Island houses numerous museums. The Berlin Cathedral is another landmark on this stretch of land. The architecture of the museums was gorgeous and everything seemed so clean. Whilst we planned to go back following our day visit on the third day of our stay, we didn’t make it. That said, we did end up at an informal canalside venue eating pizza and drinking wine as the sun went down and turned the stone on the Bode Museum a pretty shade of pink.
The best of the rest
Our trip to Berlin was eye-opening, heart-wrenching and exciting. Each day was a new discovery, some good, some emotionally challenging. We certainly had no time to get bored. We were fascinated by the big world clock in Alexanderplatz – so much so that Walter wants to build a small one for home. We marvelled at the mix of architecture in the houses, churches and colleges. We were shoccked to find that the tower that dominates the city skyline may have been used to misdirect messages duing the Cold War. We were encouraged by the statue of Martin Luther, who as the catalyst of the Reformation has indirectly had a huge impact on our lives.