Monday 9th February
When you are at school the key to survival is fitting in. Luckily for me I had a love for football, for Watford football club specifically. That meant I ‘couldn’t’ be bullied because a) I liked football, b) I supported the team all the Arsenal, Man United, Spurs and even Chelsea fans (this was pre Abramovich) felt sorry for (I.e we were no threat) and perhaps c) I wore glasses. You can never hit someone with glasses. It also helped that I was a pretty fearless goal keeper in 5 aside where my short height had no impact so back then I wasn’t even last picked.
I suppose as you get older you do accept there is perhaps less shame in any geeky tendencies you may have tried to keep hidden. One of mine is history and perhaps a rather irritating habit of remembering the most minuscule of facts as though it happened yesterday. But then perhaps the latter is a natural result of the former. I do love history and feel great pathos at the way man kind enacts the same actions with the same results again and again. Anyway I digress, where am I going with this? Well for someone that studied modern history there is only one city that encapsulates the power struggle of the 20th century. Athens, Rome and Istanbul are probably the European cities Ancient historians want to visit but for a graduate in modern European history Berlin is (to me) of equal if not greater importance than St Petersburg and Prague.
Flying from Heathrow I felt much less anxious than when I left from Gatwick for Morocco. Having sped through bag drop off and through security (no interrogation(s) this time) I treated myself to breakfast. After i finished and watched everyone rushing off in different directions I sat and let out a content sigh. No rushing for me, it was 8.35 and boarding wasn’t for a whole 5 minutes. Then it struck me. I wasn’t at the gate I was in EAT so I had no choice but to join those rushing in different directions. I still arrived on time and because I was flying so out of season I got a row (if not the whole final 1/4 of the plane) to myself for the 3rd flight in succession. I’m going to feel sad when I have to share a row again.
I know Germans have that reputation of being efficient but Berlin airport took it to another level. We landed early, got off the plane early and then I realised having gone through the walkway from the plane I was already in the queue for passport control. Even better the baggage carousel for my flight was just the other side. No potential confusion about which bay to go. Then stepping through the customs door I realised I was at the exit of the airport for the bus. I’ve been through Heathrow queues quickly but it’s a maze and requires lots of walking. Not Berlin. In my head I had allowed an hour to leave the airport but in reality it had taken under 15 minutes to get from the seat of the aircraft to the seat of a bus.
After getting off the bus I caught my glimpse of the Berliner Fernsehturm the TV tower built in 1969 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who controlled East Berlin. My hostel wasn’t far away from Alexanderplatz so it was useful to have the tallest structure in Germany as a landmark. I arrived at the hostel but couldn’t check in but my rucksack already had everything I needed for a day of sight seeing. Unfortunately by the time I’d put my bags in storage I’d just missed a free walking tour which may have been a good introduction to the city.
I’d already got a list (yes I’m one of those tourists) of where I wanted to see on Tuesday and Wednesday but Monday had been blank. The Stasi museum based in the old head quartets was not on the list because it was out of the centre and I didn’t think I’d have time. But with time now on my side, thoughts about the film “The Lives of Others” and a morbid interest in understanding how they operated I soon found myself outside ‘Building One’. Standing outside its soulless character felt quite sinister and I felt a shiver or two up my back. The museum had been closed a number of months and had only just reopened. The displays were really interesting (with English translations) and each section contained a different theme of the Stasi story. The second floor contained the offices of Erich Mielke in restored condition and it was quite chilling to think what decisions had been made there.
It was fascinating to hear the view points of some of the 8000 people that worked for the “Ministry of State Security”. Most believed they were acting in good faith however I was surprised a minority still refuse to believe they were acting against the population still believing this to be ‘propaganda’ of the West. There was a display on the different techniques used to observe the population but perhaps most chilling was a audio display about those observed. One phycologist committed suicide because the agents would enter the house and move a few objects around. Her friends didn’t believe her and she ended up believing she was going mad. It was only after the collapse of the GDR that the truth came out.
I returned back to my hostel checked in and met my room mates. A student from Esperance on the South West coast of Australia (he was astounded I’d not only heard of it but visited on my Nullabor trip) and an Italian from Venice. Having got changed I made my way to meet up with my friend and old housemate Victoria. I’d always wanted to visit Berlin so when she’d told me she was visiting for work it was a case of “just try to stop me”.
I met up Victoria and her brother Richard and we asked the reception for some tips on where we could get a drink and for me to get some food as I’d inadvertently missed lunch. We were soon joined by two colleagues she had worked with and were at the same conference. I was looking forward to a curry wurst but apparently the Munich themed restaurant we were in didn’t sell it so I chose the first thing that I saw which contained mustard, sausage and mustard. To say it wasn’t what I expected is an understatement as it was just a bowl of warm water, containing two white sausages floating around. It looked small and not overly appetising but looks can be deceiving and it was actually just the type of stodge I needed to go with my stein of beer.
It was obviously a lot of fun meeting Victoria again but it was also nice to meet Richard as well. It wasn’t long before he had to leave to make his way to the airport for his flight back to Sweden but not before I asked for some tips on when to visit. By now the others were hungry so we went to another bar / restaurant. I was still peckish so I ordered a kids sized portion of Kasespatzle (similar to mac and cheese) which I had in Munich. It was a lovely evening and it was nice to spend a bit of time with Victoria before I got my train back to the hostel. Luckily the light was still on when I got back so I didn’t need to crawl around in the dark.
Tuesday 10th February
After an uneventful but fulfilling breakfast at the hostel I made my way through Alexanderplatz to the Berliner Fernsehturm tower. Considering it was a week day on a cloudy day in February there was quite a big crowd to get in and i was glad I’d booked my ticket in advance. The commentary in the lift up was in German and I felt quite pleased I got the gist of what was being said. I reached the viewing platform 203m high, perhaps not the tallest I’ve been to in the past year but it must be one of the most historic. Despite it being a cloudy morning I got quite a decent clear view of the city below but I was eager to get back down and explore the streets.
Making my way down I headed to the train station so I could get the ‘S Bahn’ towards the East Side gallery, the longest open air gallery in the world. I walked the full 1.3km of the longest section of what remains of the Berlin Wall but it may have been nice to have had a local guide to draw my attention to some of the art. I still stopped to appreciate some but unfortunately I’m not the best art connoisseur and I felt I’d probably missed out on some human stories behind the graffiti.
Seeing the wall covered in bright graffiti it didn’t have the cold sinister appearance I had expected (obviously the intention of the artists). If I wanted to appreciate how the wall was I knew I’d have to visit the the Memorial to the Berlin Wall. This includes a section which has been rebuilt complete with watch tower and death trap. When the sculpture was built it was quite controversial but personally I think it’s important there is a proper reminder as it is a way of dealing with the past. It was only possible to look down on the section (which was quite small) so I still felt a bit separated from the emotions as to how it must have felt when the city was divided. Perhaps weirdly what had more of an impact was a block of flats which had remained in situ both before and after the wall and had therefore seen so much history.
It had gone 13.00 and I was starting to feel hungry. I noticed I wasn’t far from a vegan restaurant Victoria had recommended but when I arrived I found out it was closed. Putting hunger thoughts behind me I carried on up to the underground station to take a trip to Check Point Charlie one of the most famous border crossings due to it being the place where JF Kennedy had given his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech. Despite the sign telling me I was leaving the America sector and some men in American military uniforms at the check point the street itself had changed immensely. I meant to look at the pavement to see where the wall had been but forgot.
The Museum on the Topography of Terror was also in the area and whilst I wanted to have a look around the Check
Point Charlie museum I decided to go to the Topography of Terror whilst it was still light. The outside area contained a section of Berlin Wall in its original location but my main reason for going was because the museum was located on the site of the headquarters of the SS. The building had been levelled but there were some archeological remains of a building that had such a notorious history.
The exhibition itself detailed the atrocities of Hitler towards Jews, the disabled, homosexuals and anyone else he deemed unable to contribute towards Volksgemeinschaft (folk community). I had studied the Wairmar Republic and was reminded how the unpopularity of the government had been partly responsible for the Nazi party being able to rise to power relatively unchallenged. Obviously it sounds shocking in hindsight but the Great Depression meant most were just trying to survive and the rise should be a reminder how ‘facts’ can be used to mislead and stir hatred.
I was a bit drained by the end so I decided to try and get a particular brand of vodka Victoria had asked me to try and pick up for her. A big shopping centre was near by and whilst I checked all over “Kaisers” they didn’t stock it. I left and headed back towards Check Point Charlie but first I was distracted by a giant Nutella sign. Finding out it was free I had my name put on the sign and my picture taken. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to modelling and it meant I got a nice free souvenir.
I returned back to the Check Point Charlie Museum which was located in a building used by photographers and press during official visits because it allowed them to look in to East Berlin. It went in to a lot of detail and there was arguably to much for my brain to take in. It didn’t even seem that well laid out so I couldn’t easily skip certain sections but the subject matter was interesting. The origins of Cold War including the global political landscape, lots of stories about the Wall and how people tried to escape and in amongst all that a general sections on the modern abuse of human rights.
By the time I was ready to go I was drained, both mentally and physically. – Dragging my legs and feet I navigated to the fairly nearby U2 underground station so I could check out a authentic Curry wurst outlet not to far from my hostel. “Ich mochte zwei curry wurst mit pomme frits und ein Berliner Pilsener bitte” The two curry wursts came chopped up smothered in ketchup and curry powder with chips and a refreshing local beer. Having not eaten since breakfast it wasn’t a bad reward.
I returned to the hostel and I was in two minds about going on the hostel pub crawl. If it had been to authentic beer halls or if I had more than one more night remaining I may have been more keen but despite the “free shots” advertised it didn’t really interest me. Next I contemplated travelling to Die Berliner Republik a bar where the price of beer was determined by a stock level system. We had something similar in Aberystwyth called “Bar Footsie”. My roommates weren’t keen on travelling to that so instead we went to a Munich themed beer hall nearby.
Outside it was disappointing to realise it was just a modern building but inside I could have fooled myself in to believing I was back in Oktoberfest. There was a toilet sign which also randomly pointed to Dubai. Obviously the most obvious drink to have in a German Beer Hall is beer and I saw what appeared to be a selection of different beers in taster glasses. The waiter looked a bit confused when I ordered them and it was only when they arrived they were strawberry and rhubarb shots of an unknown spirit not beer.
Shortly after after downing the second I got a message from Victoria inviting me for a beer at her hotel. I quickly drunk the remaining shots and made my way. Luckily it was just one train and when I arrived at Wittenbergplatz Station I congratulated myself on how easily I was finding my way around and remembering the way. A few minutes later, rather predictably I realised I was going the wrong way. Eventually I arrived and after ordering a beer we had a bit of time to catch up alone before I made my way back to the hostel.
Wednesday 11th February
Luckily I had sorted everything before going out the night before but I still had a fairly early start because even though I’d paid for late check out it only covered me until 1.00. As a result I had to put everything in a locker and in hindsight the late check out was of zero benefit. Victoria had recommended a bakery a 10 minute walk from hostel so I decided to go there for breakfast. Victoria had recommended the cinnamon buns but as I couldn’t see any I ordered two things I unfortunately don’t know how to spell or say. At the time I went Ich mochte ein *point* / ‘mumble'” I took a chance on both but wasn’t disappointed. One was a croissant filled with what I assume was cream cheese and salad and the other was a dough bread with bits of chocolate. I’ve not done justice to either with my description.
It looked a fairly simple journey by bus to the Reichstag so I thought as I had so much time I’d be able to go via Bebelplatz and the Brandenburg Gate. Unfortunately my travel plans unravelled in spectacular fashion and even with Google maps a 25 minute journey took about an hour. 1st I couldn’t find the bus stop and then when I finally did a police car suddenly pulled a car over and blocked the road. I therefore saw the bus I was waiting for turn off on diversion metres before my stop. I am not a fan of city buses I just don’t find them as regular as a train. This itself wasn’t much easier because I went via the new Berlin train station which made Kings Cross look simple to navigate.
Arrived at Reichstag 5 minutes later than I had been advised to and feared German efficiency would see me left behind. Fortunately as i handed in my invitation letter I was told my timing was ‘perfect’. As I made my way through I saw some audio guides and asked how much they were. In the UK they probably cost a small fortune but they were free. I couldn’t get mine to play so I went back to the desk. I felt like a dinosaur when I was told it would start automatically depending on where I was stood. I have to admit I was amazed.
Then I saw the Dome and I was amazed again! It really was quite spectacular and I slowly made my way up the ramp where at various points I was told facts or to stop and appreciate the view of Berlin below. On the inside the Reichstag looks incredibly modern and functional but on the outside it has all its Gothic charm. It’s basically Canberra and Westminster (the only other two parliament buildings I’ve been in) combined.
Leaving the Reichstag I made my way to the Brandenburg Gate and in the middle of the road that ran in front I could see where the path of the Berlin Wall had been marked. It was built in 1791 as a sign of peace on the site of a former city gate and it has therefore become a symbol of Berlin especially after the wall was built.
I carried on down the same road and eventually arrived at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe ” and had some quiet reflection time. I’m not great with interpretation of modern art and sculptures but to be it appeared to represent some kind of dystopian cemetery and walking towards the centre the blocks got larger and eventually towered over me.
Not far from the memorial is a site which is not commemorated with anything except a notice board to say what it once was. I had mixed feelings about trying to locate the FuhrerBunker but ultimately the historian and tourist in me were curious to see where one of the 20th centuries most notorious murderers met their fate. Thankfully it didn’t look like the site had become a shrine but I think it’s right it does have an information board because to avoid history repeating you sometimes have to face up to events of the past.
I carried on to another site I was interested in visiting more out of intrigue. Bebelplatz. It was here in front of Berlin university that the Nazis burnt books that were ‘ungerman’ or presented a way of life which was different to their ideology. I remembered studying it on my course and I was a bit disappointed when after spending 15 minutes walking around the site the actual spot was behind the walls of a construction site. Apparently the Opera House is being rejuvenated and the memorial is it appeared therefore outside of public view. Apparently it is an empty bookshelf engraved with the following quote from a play in the 1800s: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people”
By now my visit to Berlin was nearly over but there was still one more place to visit which I was combining with lunch and to see Victoria one last time before we both went home. Kaufhaus des Westens is probably Berlin’s equivalent to Harrod’s though perhaps the building is less grand on the outside and inside. We wondered around the food hall and nothing was immediately jumping out saying “eat me” except the delicious looking chocolates. Eventually I made a decision and got a curry pastry/omelette/tart thing. As usual I enjoyed it but wasn’t really sure what it was. After a quick selfie on the elevator down it was time for a final hug goodbye until the next time.
I returned back to my hostel for the last time and collected my bag and waited for bus which was 20 minutes late. Then the journey seemed to take longer both than I’d remembered it taking coming in to the city and than it was meant to. Luckily I had allowed a bit of flex in my timings and the Berlin airport I used was small. My gate was also the check in desk and passport control so whilst I wasn’t early I wasn’t in a rush. I had a wonder in duty free and saw they did Victoria’s vodka but all I got for myself was a giant bag of haribo sweets. I’d seen them in every shop for 48 hours and it was only in the final minutes I broke and gave in.
This will probably be my last trip abroad before I turn 30 in March but all the best things get better with age and I’m not done yet…