I’m going to start this post by stating a fact that I presume is fairly widely acknowledged; the extent to which one loves a city is largely, I believe, based on the experience they have there… who they travel with, what they do there, where they go, what they eat, smell, hear and feel, if they’re homesick at the time, taking a quite getaway, or if they feel they can keep traveling for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t really have a lot to do with the city itself, but more the personal experience one has when visiting there. I have been to places in the world that people have sworn were the most incredible places on the planet; but you could not get me to revisit if you paid for my trip to go back. I have also been to the most primitive and basic of destinations, and had the most incredible time, just because I was with amazing people, eating good, cheap food, and drinking delicious cocktails. Having said that, at the risk of offending or elating; this is my account of Berlin…
Lots of love – padlocks on a gate in the wall with lovers names and dates on them
I have to be honest – Berlin and I didn’t get off to a great start. Having arrived at about 11pm, I had a positive attitude towards trying my luck on public transport to get to the hostel. I asked around and managed to buy a train ticket, get directions and find the right train – or so I thought. Hopping off at the advised station and I was in the middle of no where. With no one around. For those who have been to Berlin, you’ll agree it’s not a massive city. I had stupidly missed the fact that my CityMapper app would not be working without WiFi, which I could not connect to regardless of where I walked to. I stopped in a hotel and in very broken English, the unfriendly receptionist told me I was nowhere near the street I needed. Instead of panicking, I calmly asked for a map, which he gave me (without pointing out where we were or where I needed to go) and set off again on my mission. I wasn’t scared, but I didn’t feel absolutely safe. The hardest thing for me in Berlin was that because all the streets and tube stations have German names, it’s hard to remember them and locate them on a map. After about 20 minutes of walking around aimlessly, with a huge backpack on, in the freezing cold, a cab finally drove past. He said it was a 20 minute walk to my hostel. Great! I can do that! Without looking at my map, he gave me some basic left, right, left again directions and sent me on my way… At 1am I gave up and walked to a main road to hail a cab… It cost me 6 euros… and that was when I vowed to never be a tight ass again.
The reason I came to Berlin was because my beloved old friend Chanel and her boyfriend Eliot were visiting our other friends who live in Berlin; meeting in Germany was a lot closer for me to see a familiar face than back to Australia, so it was fantastic to catch up with them the next day!
Chanel and I at our reunion!
Our first morning we set off for the Berlin wall which was hard to miss in its 94km glory along the boarder of East and West Berlin and went about 100 meters by where we were staying. There were some memorials and informative plaques along the way and a span than ran for kilometres that was given to local street artists to create commemorative and symbolic pieces reflective of the times and feelings during and after the wall came down.
A stretch of the wall marked with street art – not sure why I didn’t try to capture some of more meaningful tributes… Think I was too wrapped up living in the moment instead!
It was really during the free walking tour that I truly came to understand the history behind the wall and the desperate reasoning behind its construction. To simplify it (as I have come to understand it), after the war, Germany was divided in 4 by the allies; the Soviets, France, America and Great Britain. Berlin, as the capital, was divided again; the Eastern half was given to the Soviets, and the West was split between the three Western allies. Because the East was under such strict Soviet rule, the Eastern Berliners started fleeing to other parts of Germany and Europe. This is when the Iron Curtain was constructed to separate Communist Germany (the Soviets and their allies) from the more democratic ‘West’. Already, citizens were being restricted on their travel. Basically, from here, shit started getting out of control. More and more restrictions were getting placed on the East Berliners, from the clothes they could wear, to what they could watch on the TV, cars they could buy (none, only the Traby which was technically edible for animals, and parents had to put their children’s names down on a 16 year waiting list at birth so they were able to get a car when they came of age), who they could communicate with and how they would live. Obviously, to say that everyone in the East was unhappy with this method of leadership would be untrue; however, the thousands who tried to flee the East during these early days are indicative of the unease the people were obviously beginning to feel at the increase of regulation and policing. It got so bad that migrating to the West was made illegal. Lots of back doors were being utilised, with people exiting East Berlin through other countries then entering back through West Berlin. America even set up a refugee section in the West where if an East Berliner could make it to this camp, they would be set up with accommodation, work and counselling free of charge. The East would not stand for this, and so, on one Sunday in 1961, literally overnight, the division of the West and East was established with a basic yet striking barbed wire divide. The thing that shook me the most about the Berlin wall when learning about it, reading about it and seeing pictures, is that in terms of dramatic history, it was so recent. The wall came down in 1989, the year I was born… The thought of such primitive and brutal ideals being enforced in my parent’s lifetime is so bazaar to me.
A portion of the wall that has been left in its original condition, fenced off to preserve it from tourists chipping away at it as a souvenir… (not looking at anyone in particular……)
The fact that it was just ‘bad luck’ if you were in the East, and your family was in the West just chills me to the bone. No visiting was allowed, soldiers had instructions to shoot to kill, and escape attempts were punishable by long prison sentences; if you managed to survive being shot at. We visited Check Point Charlie.
Although its authenticity is questionable, the concept of Check Point Charlie is still striking.
Although it is called Berlin’s Disneyland due to the fact that the whole checkpoint area has been reconstructed and moved, it was interesting to learn about the historical significance of the place. It was check point ‘C’ (thus, the name Charlie; from the Phonetic Alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie) and it was the point between the East and the US zone of the West. Lots of attempted escapes took place here with the American soldiers doing all that they could to help the East Berliners by dressing them up as soldiers, surrounding them as a human shield once they managed to make it in the US zone knowing full well the East wouldn’t shoot the West for fear of starting another War. As you can probably tell, I was very fascinated by all this.
Perhaps what was even more fascinating was when we visited the Stasi Prison; definitely one of the most incredible things I did in the city. The Stasi were the German version of the Secret Police – a kind of KGB military unit that oversaw the East Berliners (governed by the Soviets) before and during the wall period. I’m not sure why I didn’t take any photos here; I honestly was so engulfed in reading everything and trying to wrap my head around this warped Soviet, Communist mentality. But this building was in original condition down to the offices and furniture of these officers who were basically spying on civilians, kidnapping people and questioning them, sometimes in-prisoning them, sometimes returning them back to their families days later, breaking into homes secretly to go through belongings; this was truly a mind blowing operation. Anyone who dressed differently, did their hair differently (I’d be arrested for sure), made sideward comments about the leadership style, were homosexuals (give them a break!) or generally didn’t fit into the Communist ideals were spied on and conspired against. You could actually see photos that had been taken by spies (near the end, thousands of everyday people ended up being blackmailed or paid to work as spies and rat our their own family, friends and neighbours); photographs of everyday people going about their everyday lives in their typical 70’s and 80’s attire… It gave me shivers. This is recent history. No amount of writing I do will give this museum any justice. You must go if you visit Berlin. As usual, the final days of this operation saw a frantic obliteration of records and evidence… the icing on the cake was when we left the building and headed to the subway to see a modern day camera on the side of the building facing out towards the street; you’d like to think we’ve progressed and learned something from all these fucked up (‘scuse me but it really is fucked up) occurrences throughout history.. but sometimes you wonder if things have really changed that drastically or if there’s a chance of history repeating itself in a somewhat disguised and seemingly more innocent fashion…
We also went to see the Parliament House which was architecturally spectacular and reminiscent of a bee-hive! The views were amazing!
A modern addition on the roof in the centre of Parliament house – do you see the beehive resemblance?!
The inside of the beehive! Pretty impressive! The ramps wound up and down along the outsides and the centre pillar was mirrored!
The most memorable thing that I took away from Parliament house is that Michael Jackson performed out the front of it – obviously this isn’t the type of history that floats my boat… Amazing to see nevertheless! I also got to see the world famous Brandenburg Bridge which was so grand and reminded me of the columned Grand entrance to the road that leads you to Buckingham Palace. Apparently the quadriga (chariot drawn by 4 horses) used to carry a goddess that represented peace. After a rough history involving Napoleon taking the quadriga back to France as a trophy, and the Germans claiming it back, the goddess now represents victory… See what I mean… will we ever really learn from our past?
The most exciting thing was that just behind where I stood to take this photo is the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby out of the window… #tripmade
On the free walking tour we also got to see Museum Island where the first Library ever created is situated; it is now a museum. This was also fascinating because it was facing the gardens belonging to the Prussian Palace in a vast open space which was transformed into a meeting place for all Hitler’s Propaganda talks. Apart from the fact that he was high off his head most of the time, the pyscology that went into these propaganda talks is absolutely fascinating and quite revolutionary for his time. We saw a photo of the area that was converted for one such occasion; Swastika banners hung from trees and a massive podium was erected so that everyone would be looking up to an imposing Hitler (who in reality was quite the pipsqueak) in front of commanding, stately pillars that civilians were meant to subconsciously associate with the Greek Gods, power and leadership.
You can picture Hitler giving his talks out the front of this building, his platform set up on top of the steps, Swastika banners everywhere and the pillars subconsciously associating him with an all powerful God.
A big Church
There is an incredible church (isn’t it amazing how churches are always the biggest and most elaborately decorated buildings in any town you visit……..), a university (Uni is free is Germany! You just have to pay an admin fee per semester which is roughly 800 Euros… amazing!), and the square which is famous for the book burning that occurred there before World War II in 1933. Basically the Nazi’s and Nazi supporters raided the library and threw all the books written by non Nazi’s or which contained non-Nazi ideals from the building where they were compiled into a large mound and set alight while everyone stood around and hailed hitler…
The building that was broken into to steal books from which were later burned in the fire.
In the square where the book burning occurred, there was a chilling, forecasting quote made by famous author Heinrich Heine years before the horrors of WWII had even begun. It translated roughly to “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people” – how hauntingly right he turned out to be.
I witnessed the holocaust memorial and it’s sheer size and location is somewhat telling of the regret and tribute paid by the local community to the hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered in the war.
The commemorative memorial space. All the blocks look a relatively similar height, however, when you walk amongst them, the ground dips, so at some points, the massive grey mounds are towering over your head.
Apparently, when asked what these countless grey blocks of varied sizes and dimensions represent, the artist is hesitant to say. For me, the rectangular shaped boxes instantly remind me of graves. But, as I walked through them, the way they are positioned in rows and lines, makes walking through their midst quite unnerving and intimidating. Most go over your head, you can’t see what is around the corner, and it is easy to loose your way. Perhaps he was trying to symbolise the everyday struggle the Jews faced during War times, not knowing which way to turn, what lay around the next corner, or how to find their way out of the hell they found themselves in.
Not sure why I look so happy… having a good day obviously!
I also took the time to visit the museum under this memorial and was so touched by the hundreds of pictures and stories on display, not only of German Jews, but Jews affected by the holocaust from all over Europe. Another sobering sight I visited.
On a happier, lighter note, I FOUND RAINBOW FLOWERS!! I saw these and reposted them on my Instagram account a few years ago and was so excited to see some with my own eyes! How amazingly beautiful are they?
And then, after I thought things couldn’t get any better… I turned around… AND THERE WERE RAINBOW ROSES WITH GLITTER! They were absolutely beautiful and made my day! They had these pretty blue roses also… And they were 3 Euros each! Incredible.
I also saw Spongebob Squareface… Not Squarepants…Squareface. This was a great day.
We also visited some super cute markets with lots of knick-knacks and yummy food!
And talking about yummy food…. I waited all week but finally got to have my first Weiner Schnitzel in Germany! And it was well worth the wait… absolutely delicious! I had a feeling it would be massive, so Chanel and I shared… and we also shared a sneaky apple strudel afterwards… a truly German meal!
Just like Hofbrauhaus, only really in Germany!
I also had my first Currywust… which was anti-climatic, but consumable. Coming from London – where everything is curry, I had in my head this sausage covered in curry gravy… But it was just a sausage drowned in tomato sauce with a light sprinkling of curry powder… good in its own right anyway!
I’m so excited! This is obviously before I realise it’s just a sausage with tomato sauce…
Chanel also found this amazing French Patisserie called Du Bonheur around the corner from our friend’s place… It was one of those places that is so overwhelming to choose what you want because everything’s so freaking adorable!
So of course, we had to go back 3 times to try some different things! I had a salted caramel cake (which I couldn’t finish, that’s how rich it was!) and the next day I tried the white chocolate, mascarpone and pistachio torte… Amazing! Not much of a foodie – but good sweets are good sweets!
We also found this middle eastern bakery in the middle of an area that primarily had kebab shops… I was truly in sweet heaven!
I had one of the churro looking things on the left covered in syrup – amazinggggg…
On our last full day, we had heard about this abandoned old building that the US used to use as a spy tower to watch over the East. The amazing thing about this tower was how high it was. Berlin is practically marshland, very flat – but after the war, there was that much rubble, they carted it to the outskirts of town and piled it up. Over time, this rubble was overgrown by nature; trees, shrubs and moss now cover what once was unusable scraps discarded to the edge of society. This tower was so eerie and it was such a windy day, it was a really creepy sight.
The old remnants of material flapping noisily in the wind was an eerie sight and sound
Obviously, the view from on top of this mountain was amazing also; it’s so bizarre to think that we were standing of the remnants of a bombed city. Unfortunately squatters had built a fence around the tower, and you were not able to enter without paying an inflated price for a guided tour… We passed on the over priced tour but took a turn around the place anyway; any holes in the fence were unfortunately securely plugged up.
The view from the US Spy Tower – obviously a lot of rubble left after the war built this area in to the hilly scenery it is today.
So, from what you have read above, it would be safe to say that I had a lovely time away from my big adventure on the first of what I hope will be many little adventures. I was with good company enjoying so much history, something I am so passionate about. Having said that, Berlin as a city did leave me feeling I needed more. The buildings were plain and dull, the people were generally cold and unfriendly, and there was a heavy sense of repression in the air that was probably conjured up throughout the decades of dodgy history that went down there. It was very cheap to eat and drink, and if you’re into history, like I am, there is so much to take in.
A girl blowing ridiculously large bubbles
But in terms of sights, without the company of good friends, 6 days, for me, would have been too many. There was no bright and intricate architecture, no happiness or laughter, no sense of joy or hidden gems. A lot of people say it has an incredible night life; I myself am not a big party animal, so I cannot comment on that aspect. But for me, the city left me feeling heavy and somewhat sad. You could say this is due to the weather, however, I have never had this feeling in London. In fact, although the temperature was only a few degrees less than London, the sun was out every single day for at least a few hours, and this at least gave some sense of the approaching spring that I have not yet experienced in the UK. Of course I had a nice time; how can you not, seeing new places, experiencing history, eating good food and seeing old friends – but in terms of a ‘wow’ city, Berlin does not make my Hot Hits List… Let’s see if Krakow has anything more breathtaking to offer…