Now that I’ve told you about my first European winter and how it was the only thing that made the trip less than perfect, I can tell you about the parts that I really liked. Perhaps the only things I was looking forward to going to Berlin was to learn more about Germany during WWII and of course visit the Berlin Wall, or at least what’s left of it. Other than that, perhaps seeing our friend Ms. Banana was all that I was excited for.
Thankfully though, JG’s intimate relationship with his laptop and the internet does us some good because he found out about the many guided tours you can find in Berlin. When we went to Paris and Rome, we did not avail of such services, we haven’t learned about them back then so we just went off on our own with nothing but a Lonely Planet book for a guide. And as helpful and informative the LP books are, it’s not really that engaging to be looking down a book every five minutes to learn something about a place, it kind of loses the feeling of actually being there. So anyway early on we decided that we were going to be taking the tours. What’s great about such tours is that they promised to be there everyday no matter the weather condition. Some of them are free of charge and work on tip basis only, a person like me who comes from a place where you have to pay to get anything, such services to come free of charge is too good to be true. But in their site, they make a good point, which is that since they survive with only your tip, they want to make sure you give big, and the only way to do that is to give you the best that they can.
Unfortunately, we could not find the guys that do the free tour in Berlin, so we ended up signing up for a paid one instead, the Insider Tours. Which wasn’t so bad, I promise you do get your money’s worth. On our second day, we took the “Famous Walk” Tour, which is kind of like Berlin for first-timers. Our guide was Kenny, a Scotsman from Glasgow who has been living in Berlin for ten years, who then led our group of around 20 around Berlin’s historical and most famous sites. I’m not going to walk you through the entire four hours, but just highlight some favorites.
The rendezvous point of the tour was in West Berlin, if I’m not mistaken called Breitscheidplatz and Ku’damm, now a main shopping center, to which one of the most popular sites can be found, Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. You can’t really miss it, because it really stands out not just for its being an old church surrounded by building, but by its damaged steeple. They say it was built in the late 18th century and was badly damaged during the 2nd world war. It was scheduled to be restored, but the architect assigned made a bold move to leave the ruined tower as it is, today Berliners call it the “hollow tooth” and Ms. Banana affectionately calls it the “broken church” to which I say is more appropriate because the second I turned and saw it, I immediately knew that that was what she was talking about. Also, I like the idea that they decided to leave it that way, as a reminder of the struggles Berlin has gone through.
I always like well thought of memorials and commemorative sites, it is one thing to put up a monument, it is another to do something different. Like the Keiser Wilhelm Church and the decision to leave it in its broken state, a favorite site of mine during the tour was when we went to Bebelplatz. Formerly known as Opernplatz, it is a public square near the city’s grand opera house and Humboldt University. The historical site was where the Nazi’s staged the infamous book burning ceremony during WWII.
About 20,000 books were burned that night, and in to remember that day, a glass plate set into the
cobbles where you can look down and see a small room walled by white empty shelves that can is said can hold all the 20,000 books that were burned. For a book lover like me, that was something really special, thinking about all those authors and thoughts that were erased that day.
Another main stop was the Berlin Cathedral also known as the Berliner Dom, the Palace Bridge, which is near the area called Museum Island, basically because around it are five museums ranging for the arts to an Egyptian museum I think. I think it was the Bode museum that the guide said had to be closed for some time because it was starting to sink into the river, and then to be closed again because they had to microwave the pests who were largely contributing to damaging it afterwards.
One of Berlin’s iconic sites is the very tall Television Tower found around the area called Alexanderplatz, the tower has a revolving observation deck, where you can see a great view of the city. Of course that was out of the question since JG is never one to go to high places. I think it was built in the 60’s and has a world time clock which shows 27 times of 27 different places. A funny note the Kenny added was that locals jokingly refer to it as the deathstar.
Among JG’s favorite stop was at Checkpoint Charlie, the now famous border control station, which is
now conserved as a memorial to the division of Berlin by the Wall. Like the broken church, it remains there as a reminder of another chapter of Berlin’s history. I could imagine how it must be like for the people to be living there that time, waking up to find out that you, as the guide described, are now a prisoner in your own city. They say more than 200 people had died trying to cross from East Berlin to the West side.
And then there is of course the Berlin Wall, it was kind of a surreal feeling that more than ten years ago, we were standing on what they called a deathstrip, in between the two sides. More than 20 years ago, we could’ve been shot or stepped on a mine just by being there. It must have been an experience being there when the walls came down, I was around five then, but it would’ve been a great thing to experience a change that drastically affected a lot of people for 28 years. An interesting fact the guide explained that non-history geeks like me would easily assume that the Wall divided Berlin exactly in the middle but West Berlin was in fact surrounded by the Soviets.
The last stop was the Paris Platz where the Brandenberg Gate is located, where to me was famous for welcoming Hitler and his men when he came to power. During the division, the Gate was sitting right smack in a deathstrip. It is kind of hard to imagine how it was back then, so I’ll try to post a picture of what it looked like when the Wall was erected. Today it is a beautiful plaza, surrounded by nice buildings including the US Embassy, The Academy of Art, and the historical Hotel Adlon where Kenny says houses state visitors like Obama, the Queen of England, and where Michael Jackson famously dangled baby Blanket to which impressed the group more than state visitor’s mentioned beforehand.
Aside from the famous walk, we also took the Third Reich tour which took you through the rise and fall of Hitler’s Nazi party. I have to say honestly that I wasn’t that interested because I am not one to find interest in power crazy psychos, assassinations, and executions. But of course the tour isn’t just about that, but by that time I was cold and hungry and was really just interested to know how Hitler was able to find his way to lead as one of the most notoriously evil reigns in the history of the world. And as the guide explained he was basically the really smart but crazy kind, as most of his men were. JG as always was able to put it nicely and effectively for me explained that at that time Germany was reeling from making amends from the damages they made during WWI, people were hungry and there was no money for everyone; and in effect they were desperate for some change, and as JG say that they clung to anyone who can promise them that change. And as it happened Hitler was one to make that promise of making Germany the most powerful country in the world.
Part of both tours was to take you to the site where Hitler’s bunker and where his remains were
burned. If you take the tour they will give you a very chilling account of Hitler’s last moments when it was apparent that they have lost their campaign. I cannot begin to do justice to how it happened, but that is something I have to commend our guides Kenny and Barnaby for, they’re both very good story tellers. Today the site of the bunker is an ordinary park surrounded by residential apartments. Unlike most historical places, no monument was erected except for a small sign that shows what they bunker looked like before it was destroyed. The reason for this was to avoid anyone who would get any crazy ideas of making the area a shrine for modern Nazi followers.
I cannot say enough times how beautiful Berlin is, a city full of history
and stories of everything from espionage to modernization. Some additional facts, Bears of all sorts can found all around the city because it is the symbol of the city’s coat of arms, one reason they say named after the conqueror Abrecht I who has the nickname “the Bear”. Also another famous logo of the city is the Ampelmannchen, mostly found in the stop signs. In East Berlin the walk/don’t walk guy is wearing a hat, unlike the usual kind we see which is what West Berlin has. At first I thought JG was pulling my leg when he explained that it was because communism promoted that everyone was to be in uniform and the pedestrian crossing signs show the general man from East Berlin wearing a hat. But he wasn’t kidding, or at least that was his version of it.
But my Berlin posts does not end here, I still have some other things I’d like to write about like the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, our day trip to Prague, and Ms. Banana’s version of her Berlin. But for now I stop here.