By friday night I was in Berlin. Being back in the city which Ricky had begun our journey in just over 6 years before was an amazing feeling, however this time it was the beginning of a longer journey in Germany, to immerse myself in German. I was couchsurfing with Charlotte in the southwest of the city, and she had grown up in the city.
While I recovered from the long, bleary journey from Canada, she did the Berlin thing and partied until the early hours. That meant, in the morning I took myself for a little wander around the historic centre of Berlin.
Berlin is such an amazing melting pot of history and emotion. I began my Saturday morning wander at the amazingly iconic Brandenburger Tür. Originally it stood as one of many gates around the city at the end of the avenue, a symbol of pride and victory. The statue on top of the gate is four horses being ridden by an angel and is a symbol of victory, however it took a brief 150 year holiday in Paris from 1806 when Napeoleon took it home after the battle. For 30 years this gate stood behind the Berliner Mauer which decided East and West Berlin, and was a huge demonstration of reunification and emotion when the wall fell in November 1989, exactly 30 years ago. When the wall fell, traffic was allowed to pass through the gate and it experienced damage, however now it is restored and pedestrianised.
Amongst the tourists, preachers, salesman and cyclists that bustle constantly is Hotel Adlon where Micheal Jackson in 2002 displayed his baby to the world. There is also the impressive Reichstag Building, home of Germany’s parliament. The building was built after the original was destroyed by fire in 1933, an act attributed to the communist party, allowing Hitler to impose article 41 and cease control. The building was damaged in WW2 but rebuilt but with a glass dome filled with moving elevators, supposed to show transparency and demonstrate that such a travesty would never be allowed to happen again.
With the Reichstag still in sight, you can stand at the Memorial to the Fallen Jews of Europe which was installed in 2003. The artist designed it in such a way that you can get lost amongst the completely unique blocks. From above they are all exactly the same and stand uniformly apart, however from below they slant, grow and shrink in size and become a maze. People climb, sit, walk through and interact with the blocks, however in the network of blocks you cannot see what is round the corner. As you walk through the monument, even with the end in sight, you don’t know what is coming or who is around the corner, a sense of unease which is maybe implied by the artist.
Berlin’s tragic and gripping history doesn’t end with the Nazi regime, Kristallnacht and tragic treatment of jews, or even world war damage. It was further divided into two cities, in two different countries. When Germany was divided in 1945, one side was ruled by the Soviet Union and named DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and the other was divided amongst the allies, USA, Britain and France. One of Berlin’s most visited landmarks in Checkpoint Charlie, one of many outposts in the city, this one is a meeting point of the American and Soviet Union sections and had a few memorable moments of tension. In one particular event, a general wanted to spend the evening at the theatre in East Berlin. Increasing tension led to a stand off in which both sides matched tanks one for one, facing the wall, until JFK managed to initiate talks to deescalate the situation.
East Germany was a communist society where everyone was provided housing and a job. The low wages among many other struggles was one reason why Germans from the East fled to the West in masses. Berlin was a thorn in East Germany’s side because in the city people could simply walk in to the other stronghold, head for the airport and flee. In 1961, shortly after JFK’s election, the Soviet Union, maybe deeming him less of a threat than previous US presidents, overnight constructed a wall around the perimeter of west Berlin, with the justification that they were saving the people from Capitalism.
In East Germany, one car was produced, the Trabi. A fibreglass micro car which had a waiting list of 10 years to purchase. For this reason, the cost of a second hand one was about 10 times the cost of a new one and many people sold theirs on as soon as they had driven it off the lot.
In Berlin’s earlier history, it was a place where people fleeing religious persecution arrived and were welcomed, in particular the French Huegenots. The Kaiser built them a grand church to worship in, Fredrichstadt, and later an almost identical church was built opposite for German worshipers. Naturally is the German Dome 3 metres higher.
After a good dose of exploring, it was important to indulge in other German traditions, such as Kaffee Trinken, Coffee and cake, before crossing to the south west corner of the city to see the iconic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church that was has remained in its smashed state since WW2 bombings. Its sharp, shattered spire is an icon of the city which memorialises the damage caused in the war.
Of the many other German traditions, there is Flöhmarkts, Currywurst and the adopted German tradition is the popularity of middle eastern food. Döner is available on every street, said to be an influence of mass Turkish immigration in the 70’s. Charlotte took me to her favourite spot for a fill of middle eastern freshness. The next morning we attended a huge Flöhmarkt in the East of the city. Interestingly you only find trams in the East Germany, and any time you see the scar of the wall running through the city, the writing is on the west German side, memorialising that history is written by the winners. The Flöhmarkt had everything from retro military gear to African jewellery, smoothies to steel drum. It was alive with bargain hunters and musicians.
After dosing up on Berlin’s staple snack, the (veggie version of) Currywurst, it was off to Museum Island to learn about the rest of Berlin’s history, what came before all of its modern connotations.
The icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, lays in the east, Alexanderplatz. During my visit it was the Festival of Lights. At nightfall, many of the monuments around the city were illuminated with the theme of freedom, commemorating 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Lights danced and told stories on the Fernsehturm, Humboldt University and the Dom. I followed the trail all the way to the Brandenburger Tür where the lights told of story of searchlights to unity in an emotional tale of what it means to be free.
Berlin’s sister city, Potsdam, is just a half hour stretch by train. Its significant for an entirely different reason, associated more with royalty as it was the home of the Prussian court and German Kaiser until 1918. The Potsdam conference which led to the division of Germany in 1945 was also held here. Walking around the city is an architectural medley of Dutch, French and German influence, again with layers of regal and religious history. The main street of Brandenburger straße has endless outdoor dining and bakeries to explore, and of course, the German staple of Icecream!
The jewel in the crown of Potsdam is the huge Sanssouci Park which emcompasses many of the palaces. With an avenue dividing the park you can see from one palace to the next in a clever optical illusion. It feels like they are not so far apart, until you begin walking. A never shrinking 2.5km avenue connects the two main residences.
And after a spectacular introduction into Germany, it was time to delve further east, Leipzig.