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Germany, Part 2 – Berlin

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East Side Gallery, Berlin
“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.

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The Bundestag, home of Germany’s parliament
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.IMG_1991[1]

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.

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If I recall correctly, the Michael Jackson window is 4 floors up and 2 from the right.
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.

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Hitler’s bunker was 15 meters below my feet. I am standing in a 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.IMG_1855[1]

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.

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Checkpoint Charlie
-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.IMG_1844[1]

-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.IMG_1948[1]

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-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.IMG_2009[1].JPG

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!IMG_2028[1].JPG

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.

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San Soucci
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The grave of Frederick the Great…notice the potatoes and all the gravestones for his dogs.
-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!

 

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Germany, Part 1: Munich

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Munich Residenz
It’s been a while since my last blog post, and that’s because I’ve taken some time this week to slow down a bit and pace myself as I’ve traveled through Germany (Deutschland!) Initially, my plans were to spend a little over a week solely in Berlin, taking the time to enjoy the unique art scene and soak in as much history as possible. However, as has often happened this summer, my plans changed along the way. On the advice of a few friends who have visited before and swore I would love it, I decided to include a few days in Munich (München) during my time in Germany.

They were right, to an extent. I arrived in Munich Monday morning after a smooth overnight bus ride from Amsterdam (I am quickly becoming a huge fan of Flixbus! It is ridiculously cheap and both trips with them have been comfortable). After checking in to my hostel, I struck out to explore the city. Munich was once the capital of Bavaria, a separate state in the south of Germany that joined Prussia and other states to create what we know as modern Germany back in 1871. Therefore, Bavarian culture is quite unique compared to other parts of Germany (i.e. lederhosen and Oktoberfest!)

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Casual shopping in Munich!
Over two days in Munich, here are my highlights:

-The chiming of the glockenspiel at Marienplatz. Nothing screams “Bavaria” like a giant music box in a church tower! I stumbled upon this by accident right at 11am, as the bells were chiming and the glockenspiel, which contains 32 life-size figures that move about, started going. This was definitely a unique surprise during my visit to Munich.IMG_1738[1]

-Munchen Residenz and Hofgarten. The Residenz is the former palace of the Bavarian kings and dates back to the 14th century. Much of it was destroyed during WW2 but has since been restored. I walked through the complex, not going inside, and spent most of my time in the Hofgarten, or the courtyard garden of the palace. Here, I stopped for about 30 minutes to listen to an amazing celloist playing both classical and modern music (like U2!) in the rotunda for free. I relished this moment, as I remembered how just 6 months ago I would never have had the time or patience in my daily life to stop and listen to free and beautiful music. I hope I always find the time to do so for the rest of my life!IMG_1750[1]

-Englischer Garten. By far, this was my favorite part of Munich! I spent the afternoon wandering through this beautiful garden, laying in the grass and reading, and dipping my feet in the cold water of the surfing river that flows through. I immediately planned to forego all museums and spend my second and final day sunbathing here (unfortunately, it was cold and rainy so I did museums anyway!) I also met some nice Germans sitting nearby who gave me some good advice for the rest of my week in Germany. I finished the visit by finding a hidden beer garden tucked away near the river, where I enjoyed my first true Bavarian weiss beer!IMG_1766[1]

-Deutsches Museum. My last day in Munich was chilly and rainy, so I decided to geek out at the Deutsches Museum as I could not go back to the Englischer Garten. The Deutches Museum is a giant science and technology museum located on the bank of the Isar River. The exhibits range from physics to astronomy to modern energy production to aeronautics to cartography and geology to cryptography and mathematics to everything in between! I learned a lot about how windmills are used in Germany for energy (the process of selecting the correct sight and implementing the necessary public policies is much more complex than I realized). I also enjoyed seeing the Enigma coding machine, used by Germany to send encrypted messages during WW2. The code was ultimately broken by British mathematician Alan Turing and was crucial to ending the war (for more info watch Imitation Game…an amazing movie!)IMG_1803[1]

I only spent 2 days in Munich, but I found it was enough time to get a feel for the city. If the weather had been nicer, I could have spent a few more days just enjoying the Englischer Garten! As it was, I found myself ready to move on to what I knew would be a highlight of the trip–Berlin.

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