08 May Trip Diary – Berlin
Well, it’s been quite a week here in Berlin and despite the weather, I’ve been out amongst the crowds of other tourists who have braved the overcast skies and torrential downpours to check out what the city has to offer. It’s been quite a change from the last few weeks of peace and quiet that comes with solo touring through the countryside and I’m ready to get back to that, but before I leave in the morning, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve been up to.
Swapping wheels for feet
Berlin is spread along the banks of the rivers Spree and Haval and, somewhat surprisingly for a capital city, around one-third is covered with forests, parks, gardens, lakes, rivers, and canals, meaning you’re never too far away from a bit of greenery. I spent nearly every day wandering the city from east to west, north to south, sometimes on foot and sometimes by bike. I took a day or two off just to laze around in the huge and beautiful Tiergarten Park, Berlin’s most popular inner-city park. I’ll share a little history and some of the highlights from the week rather than give a day-by-day account.
Today, Berlin’s cityscape is largely shaped by the key role it played in the 20th century with the national governments of the Kingdom of Prussia, the 1871 German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and East Germany and the current reunified Germany, each of which added its own distinctive style to the city’s architecture. With the end of World War II, Berlin lay almost entirely in ruins and any buildings that escaped the bombings, street battles, and fires were mostly torn down. Since then, successive governments have sought to restore some of its more important heritage buildings, albeit only partly in some cases, including Charlottenburg Palace just beyond the front door of my friend’s apartment.
From my friend’s apartment, the inner city is a 20-minute stroll along the canals. On my first foray in, I dashed from tree to tree to avoid the rain. The sightseeing ferries were still doing a brisk trade up and down the canal despite the weather, their customers clad in those hideous bright yellow throwaway plastic macs that instantly mark them as tourists. I noticed that not many stopped at the first of the historic buildings I encountered on my visit, Charlottenburg Palace. This was probably because only a small section of one wing of what is Berlin’s largest palace can be seen from the river; the rest is obscured by trees and faces away from the river. For a real look, you have to ditch the boat and get on your feet.
The palace was constructed at the end of the 17th Century and inhabited by various royal families until around 1888. Inside the palace was a room that has been described as ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’, with its wall surfaced in decorative amber. In 1716, the sign told me, Friedrich Wilhelm I gifted the Amber Room to Tsar Peter the Great. (It must have taken some wrapping!) It was last inhabited by the German President during 2004-2006 while the traditional seat of the presidency, Schloss Bellevue, was being renovated. Today, it’s a major tourist attraction with armed police patrolling the gates and gardens. I didn’t go inside, partly because the rain stopped and I thought I should make the most of the dry spell and partly because every gate I saw was shut, but the outside is very beautiful.
A little farther on, the unusual glass and concrete building of the German Chancellery loomed into view. This Chancellery was built in 2001 after the German Government moved from Bonn in 1999 and is home to the executive office of the Chancellor of Germany, the head of the federal government, currently Angela Merkel. What’s strikes you first (once you get your head around its somewhat erratic design) is the sheer size of the place. In fact, the Chancellery is the largest government headquarters in the world (by comparison, the Chancellery is ten times the size of the White House), covering a whopping 12,000 square meters. Right at the top is a 200 square meter, two bedroom flat that serves as a semi-official chancellor apartment with views of the city. Angela Merkel doesn’t live there, preferring to live in her private apartment in Berlin instead.
The building’s design is somewhat controversial and has been given some rather apt, if not altogether flattering, alternative names. My favourite was Bundeswaschmaschine, roughly translated as ‘federal laundry machine’. A close second is Elefantenklo (elephant loo).
A stone’s throw away is the Reichstag building, the meeting place of the German Parliament. After the war, it fell into disuse and became virtually a ruin until undergoing reconstruction that was completed in 1999. During the reconstruction, the building was almost completely gutted, except for the outer walls. One of the conditions stipulated by the architects was to respect the historical aspects of the building and to leave traces of historic events, including graffiti left by Soviet soldiers after the final battle for Berlin in April–May 1945. On top of the building, and open for a small fee to the public, is a huge glass dome, a nod to the original 1894 cupola, with an impressive view over the city. All the tourist literature labelled the view from the dome a ‘must see’ so I joined the queue then passed through security for my chance to take a look. (Is it just me or does the sight of heavily armed police officers and the prospect of being padded down instantly start making you feel like you’re hiding something and then you start to act suspiciously?) The view is amazing, with a 360-degree panorama of the city laid out below. I’d show you a photo but my iPad battery died, so you’ll have to make do with one of the outside instead.
Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever found myself inside, though I haven’t been inside many, is the Berlin Cathedral, situated on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Museum Island. Although not listed alongside the five museums that make up the World Heritage Site, it sits neatly alongside them and its interior provides a quiet space from the hustle of bustle of the city. I popped in just in time to join the 6pm service and sat among only a handful of other people. We were dwarfed by the sheer size of the place. The service was in German and English and although I can’t say I really go along with a lot of what was said, it was a nice experience to just sit in such a building and listen to the huge pipe organ that solemnly played hymn after hymn. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the sheer magnitude of beauty in such a place. Every inch of wall had carved figures and depictions from the bible and the huge dome directly above catapulted the sounds around the room. Whatever your beliefs, it’s definitely worth a look.
The Berlin Wall
I like history. At school, history classes soon became my second favourite subject, only being eclipsed by sport (incidentally, the list ends there; everything else was rather dull for me). And, history’s better when you can actually come face to face with it and becomes amazing, to me at least, when you can touch it. I visited the East Side gallery, a long stretch of wall that was painted by artists from all around the world in 1990 and features 105 paintings, and the remains that lay at the Topography of Terror, which form part of a museum detailing the history of the wall.
Construction of the Berlin Wall began near the end of 1961 and soon stretched around what was then West Berlin. The reasons are long and rather convoluted for this blog, but I’ll pass on a few, rather startling facts I found out about those who attempted to cross.
During 1961 and 1989, when the wall was opened up (actual demolition didn’t begin until the summer of 1990 and was not completed until 1992), it is estimated around 5,000 people attempted to escape over into West Berlin, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Figures vary depending on who you ask but somewhere between 98 to ‘over 200’ people died in their attempts. People tried jumping from buildings taller than the wall in an attempt to land on the other side, including a woman named Ida Siekmann, who is also considered to be the first casualty of the Berlin Wall: she died after she jumped out of her third-floor apartment. Some dug tunnels, or simply ran or drove cars at the weaker points where just barbed wire formed the wall. Some took to the air, including a man called Winfried Freudenberg, who, on the 6th February 1989, just a few months before the wall was opened, attempted to cross in a homemade and natural gas-filled balloon. His attempt was unsuccessful and he was killed when it crash landed. Winfried is also remembered by history as his death was the last recorded. Early on, the East German government had issued shooting orders to border guards dealing with defectors and although the idea was to deter rather than kill, it often resulted in the latter. If an escapee was wounded while attempting to cross and lay on the death strip, there was little chance anyone would come to their aid, no matter how close they were to the Western Wall. Anyone who dared would no doubt draw the fire of the ‘Grepos’, the East Berlin border guards. Guards chose to do nothing for the most partPossiblyle the most notorious shooting at the wall, that of Peter Fechter, happened in full view of Western media in 1962. Peter bled to death, and no one dared help.
All of this goes to show the desperation of those who longed to escape the confines of the wall and just how cruel mankind can be at times. And, speaking of the cruelty of mankind…
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Standing on a sloping site of almost five acres is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Despite the hoards of tourists, there is a sombre feel to the place. The 2,711 concrete slabs, or “stelae” as they are known, are set into a bare memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Built between 2003-4 at a cost of €25 million, it was opened to the public in 2005, sixty years since World War Two ended. Around the edges, the stelae are mainly small at around 0.2 meters high but as you walk through towards the centre they grow up to 4.7m in height. The stelae are arranged in a grid pattern and as you walk deeper and deeper in amongst them, the sounds of the outside world disappear-not an easy thing to accomplish in a big city like Berlin. As you look down the rows, you also see that the stelae are slightly askew and don’t line up. According to the text, the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, with the whole sculpture representing a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. But, there are many other interpretations. Critics claim it lacks any information, the blocks contain no names, stars of David or any indication of who is to be remembered. Still, walking through the dark, bare concrete, and knowing, as one undoubtedly does, even a little of what happened to the Jewish population during the war, you can’t help but feel a sense of sadness and loss in all that bleakness and silence.
Possibly the most easily recognisable and photographed of all the landmarks in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate sits on the site of a former city gate that marked the start of the road from Berlin to the town of Brandenburg an der Havel. Like a lot of Berlin, it was badly damaged in the war but happily now stands fully restored and attracts millions of visitors a year. You can wander through any one of the archways and, at least I was told, you can still see the bullet holes from the fighting. It was often used as a site for major historical events (on the day I visited, a stage had been erected in front and a band was performing) and has become not only a symbol of Europes and Germany’s turbulent history but also of European unity and peace. On top of which, it really is very beautiful.
During my stay, I visited many other places, Checkpoint Charley, Potsdamer Platz and some of the many museums, but this post has gone on long enough and I’ve a bike ride to get on with in the morning. All I can recommend is that you visit the city if you haven’t already, as it won’t disappoint. Thanks to Christina and Sebastian for putting me up for the week and entertaining me in the evenings. I had a blast. If you want a more visual look at my time in Berlin, check out the gallery page where you’ll find plenty to feast your eyes on.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the late David Bowie: ‘Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.’
This diary entry covers dates from the 1st – 7th May, 2017
There are plenty more photos from Berlin on the gallery page of the website or click here
Edited by – Emer Garry