“Paris became Paris a long time ago. London became London a long time ago. But Berlin is still becoming Berlin.”
This is how Zabi, my guide, described the city on the free walking tour during my first full day in Berlin. I think this statement captures the essence of Berlin. I had been looking forward to visiting Berlin since I started planning this trip months ago (being the history nerd that I am), and it did not disappoint. I remain fascinated with this city. While I was initially drawn here because of its historical significance, I really enjoyed the overall vibe in Berlin, and I managed to make some great friends during my 5 days here.
Berlin, the capital of Germany, is also the former capital of Prussia (another one of the German states that used to be a separate kingdom that now comprises modern Germany). This city has experienced extremely dark periods of history, and my impression of the city (given the number of museums and memorials, as well as the tone of the artwork that’s prevalent throughout) is that it is dedicated to learning from these terrible periods and not repeating past mistakes. If a city can be called “introspective,” then I would say this is what Berlin is. In the last century, the city has experienced 2 world wars, the rise to power of a monster, and a 28 year division by a wall manned with armed guards and lined with barbed wire separating West Berlin as an “island of democracy” from the rest of communist East Germany. However, the city has also experienced a type of rebirth and is well along in the process of becoming the Berlin of today.
Below are some of the highlights of my time in Berlin:
-Free walking tour with Sandeman’s. This walking tour was an absolutely fantastic way to start my time in Berlin. We started at the iconic Brandenburg Gate, then walked past the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby at the Hotel Adlon.
Then we visited a random apartment building parking lot. We were told that Hitler’s bunker was located 15 meters below where we stood. This is where he allegedly committed suicide as the Soviets invaded Berlin in 1945, as well as where Goebbels and his wife killed themselves and their 6 children. There is no marker for this sight, and the world carries on in the apartment building and playground adjacent to the parking lot.
We then continued to the Holocaust memorial and a piece of the Berlin Wall. My favorite spot from the tour was art outside of the former Luftwaffe Headquarters (interestingly, this is one of the few former Nazi buildings that survived WW2, and it was due to a mutual agreement with the Allied forces not to bomb air force headquarters). A mural outside of the building depicts a march in the artistic style of socialist realism (aka bright colors, smiling faces, and fierce nationalism) as a form of Communist propaganda. The photograph below shows the reality of June 17, 1953, when over 500 East Germans were murdered for peacefully protesting the Communist regime.
We also visited Checkpoint Charlie, one of many famous checkpoints between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. People would go to extremes to escape the communist east, including sewing themselves into a car seat to be driven through the checkpoint.
-The Holocaust Memorial. Located just a block from the Brandenburg Gate, the memorial at first glance appears to be just a bunch of blocks. However, one must walk through the blocks to extract the real intent and purpose of the memorial. As you start at the edge, the blocks are low to the ground, and you are forced to walk alone given the narrowness of the path. Then, as you continue further, the ground becomes uneven and the blocks get taller, ultimately reaching 5 meters. This I think represents the “gradualness” of the Holocaust. First, the Jews were forced to wear a mark, then they were separated from the rest of society, then families started disappearing. The atrocities grew over the course of several years. I think it’s important to recognize from this that the longer persecution is allowed, no matter how big or small, the worse it becomes. As Jewish families began to disappear, many Germans looked the other way, and the problem grew. I think the memorial is meant to teach that it is all of our duty to learn about what is happening to and affecting our neighbors, and to speak out and act accordingly to stop injustice before it grows.
-The East Side Gallery. A portion of the Berlin Wall has been preserved as an art gallery, and different pieces of the wall are commissioned out to street artists. The murals really speak for themselves, and say so much about what Berlin now represents.
-Pub crawl. This was a lot of craic (as the Irish say!) and a great way to meet other people traveling.
-Potsdam. This small town is located just outside of Berlin, and is home to several Prussian palaces. To me, it felt like the Versailles of Germany. Upon entering Potsdam, our tour group crossed the same bridge where the US and the Soviets would swap spies during the Cold War. The line dividing East and West Berlin cut the bridge in half. It was fun to pretend I was a spy as I crossed the bridge…haha.
Potsdam is also the location of the Potsdam Agreement–the meeting of the Big 3 (Truman, Churchill, and Stalin) that ended WW2. Before these leaders met at Cecilienhof (a chateau in Potsdam) to begin their discussions of what to do with Germany and how to force Japan’s surrender, Stalin moved first to make his mark on the chateau by having this huge Communist star planted in flowers…I guess he had his own priorities!
In particular, I enjoyed the gardens around San Soucci, which was the home of the famous Frederick the Great. Frederick was the Prussian king in the late 18th century and is very loved and admired in German history. He is buried at San Soucci with his beloved greyhound dogs. Visitors still place potatoes on his grave, as he is well-known for playing a personal role in helping to introduce and integrate the potato as a crop to the commoners of Germany during his rule. He was truly a king who cared about his people.
-St. Christopher’s Inn. By far, my hostel in Berlin was my favorite of my whole trip! It was so easy to meet people here, as the lobby is basically a pub. My room was large, clean, and comfortable. It even connected to a private living room and kitchen! Also, the staff was extremely nice and accommodating (I even got a free sandwich once after the kitchen was closed and I was starving!) St. Christopher’s is a hostel chain with locations in other cities, so I highly encourage other travelers to check them out. I am going to see if they have locations in any of my remaining cities and book there if possible!
I could have spent more time in Berlin, as there are still so many museums and sites I would still like to see! As I mentioned in my last post, I have taken this week slowly, and I actually spent a good bit of time reading this week and finished 3 books–The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Siddhartha, and Mrs. Hemingway (historical reading but a light, fun read for being on holiday!).
Now, I am in Provence for another unexpected and unplanned portion of my trip! I have me up with Nat, my friend from Southeast Asia, and am spending 5 days in a small village located near Marseille. I am excited to get away from major cities for a bit and see a less touristy side of Europe!