DAY 19: Monday, November 3 (arrival in BERLIN)
It was time to end our wanderings around Germany, and Berlin was the place. After stopping off in Lutherville, aka Wittenberg, we drove another three hours, turned in our rental car, and found our VRBO.com (vacation rental by owner) apartment. We were staying in Charlottenburg, a western suburb of Berlin located about a 30-minute S-Bahn (fast urban train) & U-Bahn (underground subway) ride from the city’s center.
The owner of the apartment couldn’t have been more helpful in our pre-planning for Berlin. The approach to the apartment, however, didn’t bode well for what the interior might look like (graffiti walls, trash on sidewalk, grungy windows). Fortunately, it was nicer on the inside than out although a few extra dollars wouldn’t have hurt to improve first impressions. But, it was clean, offered a nicely outfitted kitchen, and was plenty large. Climbing five sets of stairs to reach it ensured we’d have plenty of exercise (Only after our stay was over did Max point out the complete lack of a fire escape).
After figuring out places we wanted to go, and sights we wanted to see, the next morning we walked to the convenient metro stop. Like a lot of our German experiences, using the public transportation was another example of this country’s efficiency: you purchased a ticket (lots of different configurations; we chose the 7-day fare); hopped on the public transportation; arrived at our destination; hopped off; end of story. No turnstiles, no swiping, no barriers to entry or exit. The way they ensured compliance was by spot-checking passengers’ tickets. Talk about streamlining transportation.
With so much to experience in this historical city, it was a whirlwind of a visit in spite of allowing ourselves seven days; so, I’ll try to keep each day’s wanderings to captioned photos beginning with our self-guided city walk on Day One in Berlin…
DAY 20 Tuesday, November 4
Brandenburg Gate was our first stop. The only surviving gate of the 14 surrounding the original city, this impressive structure was built in 1791.
It was originally designed as an arch of peace with the Goddess of Peace riding the chariot as the God of War sheathes his sword. After several mishaps and misrepresentations–Napoleon stole the statue in 1806 but lost it when Prussia beat him 1813; Hitler used it as a symbol of aggression–in 1989 it reverted to its original symbolism with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
And, since our trip was timed to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, we were fortunate to have the East-West Berlin history in front of our eyes as we walked around the gate (THE major site for the November 9th celebratory events) and throughout the city.
Squatting in the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate we spotted a small blue car. Later we found out it was a Trabant, an East German car manufactured so cheaply it became a symbol of that government’s economy. Supposedly, a ‘people’s car’ in answer to West Germany’s VW Beetle; yet, it made TIME Magazine’s list of the 50 worst cars in the world…
Looking around the square we noticed the Adlon Hotel, famous for Michael Jackson’s baby dangling over a balcony.
Realizing this would be the primo place to be for November 9th’s celebrations, we casually walked in to inquire about a room. Well, let’s just say we weren’t dressed like the people who typically stay at this hotel, and the desk clerk definitely thought it was out of our price range the way he answered our question. In spite of his being right, we still thanked him and said ‘we’ll think about it.’ At least the doorman was nice. And, frankly, if we had known Gorbachev was staying there that weekend, we might have even said ‘to hell with it, let’s do it!’ (We did, though, find another place much more reasonable and still in close proximity to Sunday’s coming celebration.)
Nearby was the DZ Bank building designed by Gehry with his saying he thought it was his best designed shape ever.
A short stroll away we found the stark memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, a granite maze of pillars of varying heights.
Continuing on we stopped in at one of the ghost subway stations, stations blocked off by during the Cold War. When the wall fell these subway stations re-opened, providing a step back in history with the decor still unchanged since they were built in 1931.
As we walked towards Museum island away from the Gate on Unter Der Linden, a major boulevard, we saw a lot of construction, both in buildings
with temporary offices simply attached by cables
and temporary, above-ground pipes as they worked on the underground water and sewage systems.
One way you knew you were in the former East Berlin was the pedestrian signal. This East German, street-crossing light is seen around the city today and is one of the few ‘friendly’ symbols to have survived from the Cold War. There are even Ampelmann shops selling little green man logo items.
Humboldt University was lovely and large, stretching across the street. We had a light lunch at the school’s library cafe and snapped a photo of the famous 1968, stained glass featuring Vladimir Lenin (after being admonished by the librarian not to include any people in it due to privacy issues).
When you realize Lenin studied law here, it made more sense.
In the square opposite the library’s entrance is the site where Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, instructed university staff and students to burn 20,000 books in 1933. The memorial is an underground, empty book shelf you can barely see when peering through the covering at your feet.
That was only a prelude, there
where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.
Heinrich Heine 1820
One of the fun sculptures we spotted
which you can see is quite large:
Another piece of sculpture, only much more sobering, is one by Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), “Mother with her Dead Son” also known as the pieta. This replica sits in the middle of a stone floor in an 1816 building, the Emperor’s New Guardhouse, which was remodeled in 1993. This national memorial reads “To the victims of war and tyranny” with the only light coming from an opening in the roof. The sculptress, Kollwitz, was known for her artistic expressions against government repression, and her life is an interesting read.
We crossed the river to Berlin’s Museum Island.
With the fading light and falling temperatures, we decided to visit some of these another day. We headed back to the apartment where Max performed his culinary art and we planned our next day’s tour.
DAY 21: Wednesday, November 5
The next morning we continued our getting-to-know Berlin crawl. We ended up along the Spree River where the Chancellery and Parliament buildings stood.
With the build-up for the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Wall we were constantly educated by some amazing ‘Wall Stories’ along the wall’s path. The city had erected 100 of these blue boxes, and we stopped at every one we came across. The snippets of history related by a large photograph and accompanying story made the wall come to life, many through the terror and pain this structure caused. I took photos of many of these, and, hopefully, you can enlarge them to read the mesmerizing tales.
We found one here along the Spree River.
A bit of history about this concrete snake…The wall was 96 miles long with 27 miles separating East and West Berliners (the remaining separated the East Germany countryside from West Berlin). Originally it began with barbed wire and some cement blocks in 1961 and eventually morphed into the ugly combination of a secondary wall, electric fence, trenches and death strip.
If anything can be comical about this structure it was how it came to ‘fall’. Over the years other communist leaders were realizing how out of touch the East German leader, Erich Honecker, was becoming. Enough so that Gorbachev was warning him of the futility of not accommodating the growing freedom occurring in neighboring countries (Russia’s Gorbachev’s reforms, Poland’s Lech Wales’s first free labor union, Hungary’s Miklos Nameth’s opening the border to Austria). Push came to shove and Honecker finally resigned October 18, 1989.
During this time a new law easing the travel ban was being considered. At a press conference on November 9th an official for the new East German government was asked about this proposed law. Not having clear instructions the woefully unprepared spokesman fumbled and stumbled and when asked when the proposed easing would take effect he finally said at 6:53pm “Well, as far as I can see, … straightaway, immediately.” Thousands ran to the border gates only to have the guards refuse to let them through. Evidently one guard kept trying to reach his superiors without any luck, so after a while he said open the gates. The rest, as they say, is history.
In addition to the Wall Stories, over 2,000 white balloons were being posted where the wall once stood. On November 9th at 7:00pm individuals would stand next to their balloon and release them one by one. As we were walking around Berlin we saw the numbered posts (so the assigned individual knew which one was theirs) with their deflated balloons being readied for the event.
We walked to the Reichstag and saw the memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler.
Heading south we stopped on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate on the Pariser Platz where the US Embassy stands.
We then espied more Wall Stories to read.
and saw a memorial to those who participated in the June 17, 1953, demonstration in Potsdamer Platz. Called the People’s Uprising in East Germany, it began when East German construction workers went on strike June 16. They were joined by the general public the next day, resulting in the Democratic German Republic (GDR) confronting the protesters with tanks and guns. Ironically, it all started when the GDR, under pressure from the Soviet Union, announced easement of some work policies (10% raise in work quotas plus higher taxes and prices) they were going to put into place. Rather than diffuse the bubbling unrest, it inflamed the citizens, resulting in this demonstration.
Further on Max bought a hotdog (there are so many names for their hotdogs I can’t remember them all so now they’re all ‘hotdog’ to me). In doing so, he befriended a sparrow
who quickly drew a flock of his friends…
Escaping their clutches we strolled along the eastern side of Tiergarten, a 400-acre public park and read more Wall Stories
and the site of the memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under the National Socialist Regime…
and more Wall Stories (for someone like me these history blurbs were like candy).
Further on we reached Potsdamer Platz, the “Times Square” of old Berlin and a postwar wasteland until businesses and a mall sprang up. This was also another site for celebrating the fall of the wall with a large screen showing a Berlin Wall documentary on continuous loop. This area was more like a carnival site with a snow slide, a lego-ed giraffe, commercial billboards, and the new Sony Center.
The colorful sights seemed a bit bizarre when juxtaposed next to the history of this area.
We saw one of the guard towers that was saved from being demolished and moved to a site for easy access. Guards who worked the wall weren’t allowed to fraternize with one another so, if one tried to escape, the other wouldn’t feel so bad shooting him.
Our final destination of the day was the Topography of Terror sited on a former Nazi building used by the Gestapo and SS. Like all of the museums which we toured in Germany, the amount of detail and information is overwhelming. Two hours only seems to touch the surface but it’s at least enough to give you the basic overview; and, when you’re viewing the horrors of what was performed under the Nazi banner, two hours can seem like an eternity.
Because the history found in this museum was so well documented, I took photos so you can experience first-hand the terrors of that time.
The faces of the terrorized children is something I’ll never forget, and I don’t think I should. The memory is too much of a reminder of what can and did happen.
It was still early afternoon so we decided to head across town back to the Unter den Linden (at one end is the Brandenburg Gate) next to Berlin’s Museum Island, a UNESCO site. The Deutsches Historisches Museum was our last stop of the day and it offered a mind-numbing but fascinating journey through Germany’s history. Centuries of artifacts, including Roman mosaics, items from when Napoleon was captured (they had a photo of his hat saying it was on loan… we later saw it was up for auction), a Turkish tent from the Ottoman siege of Vienna (1863), paintings and busts, Nazi posters, a trabant car, basically, almost anything German and it’d be there. Unfortunately, what we didn’t do is wander into the Pei annex. Saved for a later visit.
We stumbled out after our typical two-hours meandering to find it dark and chilly, which meant we were a bit disoriented. But we located an S-Bahn and found our way home with this sign illuminating the night sky and offering a suggestion for our heads ready to explode with German facts. Note to self: never do TWO museums in ONE day.
DAY 22: Thursday, November 6
Another chilly day out but still easy for sight-seeing as no rain (or snow). We decided to visit another site, the Berlin Wall Memorial. The museum was closed with a new one opening up on November 9th; however, just seeing remnants of the wall and walking in a former death zone strip gave us a good feel of what happened here.
Still unsure of navigating our way around various U-Bahn stations we happened to ask a fellow rider directions. He kindly said he was heading there with his wife to visit his wife’s mother and offered to lead us towards our destination. Along the way we spoke with his saying he’d come from Africa to study and ended up staying for work. He also shared with us that it was difficult at times living in Germany because of racism. Just as in the states, we are reminded of how different skin colors and cultures can cause ugliness instead of opportunities to learn from one another.
After a ten-minute walk we reached the Berlin Wall Memorial, a green expanse with some memorials placed around. Formerly the site of a church (later demolished by the East German government to make way for the death zone) some graves still exist.
In 1961 the wall seemed to appear overnight, with apartment buildings actually used as part of the wall along Bernauer Strasse where this memorial was located. This site was also where the first casualty of the wall occurred when Ida Sickmann fell to her death August 22, 1961, attempting to escape from her 3rd-floor apartment.
The open-air memorial listed with photos those who died trying to flee from East Germany.
Some were young children and teenagers.
Photos showing the final wall were on display.
To visit graves remaining after the church was demolished required special passes.
A sculpture on the grounds embraces the sadness and grief caused by the wall separating families. One copy exists in the Hiroshima Peace Museum.
Some of the wall still stood along Bernauer Strasse, such as one where kids were playing after the fall in 1989, and where I stood 25 years later on the other side.
Looking across the memorial from the street side we saw the second (or first) wall that bordered the death zone.
Unfortunately the Visitor Center and the Berlin Wall Documentation Center weren’t open but we absorbed the bleak ambiance just walking in this former death grip in the gray, damp day.
With that somber memorial seen, it was time for some lightness. I had read about a famous chocolate store on Gendarmenmarkt, a beautiful historic square where Berlin Symphony’s concert hall sits. We didn’t hear any music but were able to watch a young girl entertained by a street vendor’s huge bubbles.
Not to be distracted I made a beeline for Fassbender & Rausch, supposedly Europe’s biggest chocolate store. I don’t know if it’s true but this family-owned store offered up some treats; and, after 150 years of creating chocolate candies, I can truthfully say they know their craft.
They even commemorated the Fall of the Wall’s 25th anniversary…
We were hungry for lunch and scoured the area for street food. No luck so we found a grocery store off the square and picked up a wrap. While looking I spotted some dyed eggs being sold. A bit weird considering they were being sold as regular, uncooked eggs.
We had a cabaret date at a little restaurant bar later that night. Something we had wanted to do, being familiar with the 1972 movie Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli. Although it wasn’t half as spectacular as the movie it was still fun to experience a live performance. Plus, we met a nice couple from San Francisco, which added to the night’s enjoyment.
DAY 23: Friday, November 7
We ended up going to different destinations, with my heading for the shopping district and Max to Potsdam.
My excursion resulted in an ornament gift I had tried to purchase in Rothenberg but the shop was closed the morning we left. Locating the store took me longer than I had expected; but, It was a lovely day, warmer than previous ones, so it felt wonderful walking up and down Kurfurstendamm, up and down because of getting lost.
Max discovered the trains were on strike so his trek to Potsdam (to see the grim room where the Final Solution was initiated) didn’t happen. Instead he landed at the Berlin zoo and enjoyed a lighter outing amongst animals and their antics such as the ‘roos :)
Arriving back home within thirty minutes of one another we packed up. We had booked a room downtown for two nights so were moving out. Thanks to economizing on our VRBO.com apartment, we felt we’d give ourselves a treat, especially since we had discovered a day earlier the S-Bahn, the fastest way into the city center, was on strike. Let the festivities begin!
DAY 24: Saturday, November 8
Knowing Berlin had beautiful art museums, we wanted to see at least one; so, we headed into the city with our bags dropped off at our hotel in Potsdamer Platz.
The museum was the Gemaldegalerie, the “Painting Gallery”, located fairly close by to our hotel. The modern building held Germany’s top collection of 13th-18th century European paintings. [The following are from the Internet because I didn’t take photos of the museum and I couldn’t take them once in the galleries.]
Thinking it would be packed on a weekend day, we were surprised to find it rather deserted. Although a fascinating example of modern architecture, it felt rather cold and lonely, lacking a feeling of vitality. Yet, the art was sumptuous, and I’m no art aficionado.
Once again, two hours wasn’t enough time to soak in all of the magnificent paintings; however, I will say religious art can get rather redundant in my eyes (I need a guide who knows something about it), but there were other paintings that were captivating. One was Johannes Vermeer’s (1632-1675) The Glass of Wine.
Another was Lucas Cranach (the guy who was friends with Luther in Wittenberg) and his Fountain of Youth.
This museum I will definitely revisit if we ever return to Berlin. Only next time I’ll be better prepared.
We had purchased matinee tickets for a Las Vegas-like show, WILD, so we headed across town. The circus-like acts were entertaining, the best one being the acrobatic strongmen. The costumes alone were eye candy, and the singing and dancing entertaining. But, like our cabaret experience, the walking around Berlin was more of a highlight.
Once back at our hotel we prepared to go out again as the city was lighting up in anticipation of the next day’s celebrations. But, not before I recorded our dream room…
Once you live on a boat bathrooms take on a whole new appeal…
Yes, it was a slice of heaven.
With my drooling under control we went out into the night and took in the sights, beginning with the lit snow slide.
Our hotel was right in Potsdamn Platz so balloons (they were illuminated starting Friday night) lined the sidewalk where the wall once stood.
We took photos for strangers and they took ours. Everyone was excited to be there. And, rightly so! It was exhilarating, spellbinding, and joyful. We felt we were participating in history.
From our hotel it was a straight walk up to Brandenburg Gate where the moon hung over the Peace Goddess and her chariot.
The stage for Sunday’s events was being checked out for the festivities.
And, the lights splashed across the sky and venues.
The crowds thronged around the stage and the Gate, while Max documented it with his iPad.
The screen with the documentary was showing on the other side and I snapped some screen shot, including Kennedy’s proclaiming ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ June 1963.
Outside Hotel Adlon (the one we inquired about and gulped) featured a banner of Gorbachev; that’s when we wished we’d paid the $$ just to be in the same proximity.
Back to hotel primed for Sunday’s events.
DAY 25: Sunday, November 9
And, we thought last night was packed. Saturday was just a tease for Sunday’s crowds.
We decided to go to several locations, the first prompted by CNN’s reporting of Angela Merkel at the dedication of the Berlin Wall Memorial’s new center. We hurried there hoping to catch sight of the German Chancellor. It was freezing but waiting around for her to appear we met a visitor from outside of Hamburg with whom we traded tales and kept each other company.
We saw another Wall Story, one of a guard escaping.
Finally, Angela left along with her entourage and I caught the back of her head while Max got a profile view.
From there we headed north to Bornholmer Strasse. This is the spot where the wall was ‘opened’ and the first East Berliners poured into West Berlin’s working class neighborhood Wedding. By 11:00pm over 20,000, Angela Merkel being one, crossed into freedom.
Walking towards the gate and park the festivities included street music enjoyed by young climbers. Colorful, graffiti walls looked down into the park.
It was frigid so when we finally reached the end of the walk, we were looking forward to the next stop via S-Bahn, East Side Gallery where CNN was broadcasting the signing of the Trabant car.
The riverside in Friedrichshain is the longest surviving piece of the inner wall. The wall has become a famous work of art thanks to over 100 artists from 20 countries using it as their canvas in 1990.
We managed to find the CNN car only to discover the reporter had left and they weren’t allowing anyone to sign it. However, we persuaded the assistant we had come all this way to do so. She thought a second, then handed us the pen saying ‘do NOT give this out to anyone else.’ Orr’s Islanders, your home is immortalized or, at least, it decorates a car in Berlin :)
Walking back along the river we saw a youth hostel, and I was ever so glad we didn’t have to stay there.
Having seen the sights here we made our way back to our hotel to warm up prior to heading out for the night.
After an hour we were ready to hit the street again and, man, it was CROWDED. I have never felt so smooshed as when I was trying to reach the other side of the walkway during this celebration. We tried getting to Brandenburg Gate but quickly gave up when we were being routed through Tiergarten by police. We knew we’d never reach the stage area, let alone hear the speeches.
To give you an idea, here’s a crowd scene:
So, we turned around and returned to Potsdamn Platz where we met a German family of two sisters (one married to a guy from California and they were living in London, the other married and living in Germany) and their uncle born and raised in East Germany.
We grabbed hotdogs and beer along with our new-found friends and proceeded to enjoy the night in spite of the sardine-like situation.
We watched the large screen and recognized places we’d been during our walks to see the wall, only this time it was before the fall of the wall:
East Side Gallery (where the car that we signed earlier in the day was located)
Bernauer Strasse (where we went to see Angela Merkel and where we had been Thursday)
Mauerpark (where we saw the live band and the little girl climbing the rock)
and Checkpoint Charlie around Potsdam Platz (so called because “C” is “Charlie” in the NATO phonetic alphabet)
With images like the ones above captured from the screen you can imagine how stunningly powerful this documentary was.
A yell went up when the balloons were released and we all watched mesmerized as they drifted into the heavens.
The documentary (which we hope to purchase once it’s released) played on…
and the night was one of shared appreciation for what mankind can do if thinking the right way.
Berlin, Thank you. We had the time of our life.
DAY 26: Monday, November 10
Up and out early for our plane, we took the U-Bahn to catch our bus to the airport via a connection in Stockholm.
Of course, when I say via Stockholm I mean wandering in a deserted airport for an hour or two and ordering a salad that cost at least double what it’d be back home. But, hey, we were in ‘sveeedin’ :)
Catching the bus from Heathrow to Ipswich we were charmingly entertained by Vinnie, our driver. This guy was great, and nuts. He demonstrated the stopping power of the bus by coming to a complete stop… on the highway. Yes, there was a slowdown due to traffic ahead, but, still, a complete stop was a bit over the top.
He had been to the states to visit his cousin and her husband in Mississippi. Come to find out his aunt was married to Eddie Willis of The Funk Brothers! Holy moly. We ordered the documentary Vinnie told us about, the DVD Standing in the Shadow of Motown, so we could pick it up when back in the states. Pretty cool.
Dropped off at the rail station, we walked home to Juanona. Our Germany adventure had come to a close, and all we can say is we’ll be back humming the Ode to Joy.
And, to practice, i’ll just have to watch this over (and over) :)
YOUTUBE: Flashmob Flash Mob – Ode an die Freude ( Ode to Joy ) Beethoven Symphony No.9 classical music