From Amsterdam, we entered unfamiliar lands: Deutschland. Neither of us had ever been and did not know what to expect from Berlin or Germany, but needless to say, we had a great time. Let me just preface this post by saying, Berlin is probably my new favourite city, if only slightly ahead of Mexico City, which is hard for me to write after my four-month romance with that excellent city. Berlin is just so much awesome crammed into one super dynamic, lively, fun city.
On our first day, to get our bearings for the city, we went on a four-and-a-half hour walking tour of Berlin. Led by our very knowledgeable “local” guide, Jimmy, a dude from Minnesota, complete with a slight Minnesotan accent that even came through in some of his German pronunciations, who came to Berlin some 12 years ago to complete his PhD in German History and never left, we spent an entire afternoon taking in the breadth of Berlin’s long, fascinating story. We went from the River Spree where the city was founded, “Berlin” being Slavic for swamp, the Imperial WWII-bullet riddled buildings of the Hohenzollerns, Humboldt University where in 1933 the Nazis infamously burnt some 20,000 books to Hitler’s bunker, the Berlin Wall, Communist Secret Police HQ, and the Reichstag (newly opened in 1999).
We actually did a follow-up visit to the Reichstag on our second day in Berlin, and went to the very top of its dome for an excellent, albeit slightly foggy, view of the city. The visit was free, and we even got a free audio guide that highlighted the history of the Reichstag and pointed out landmarks in Berlin’s cityscape as we climbed to the top of the dome. We also squeezed in a visit to the zoo and to Tiergarten, the Central Park of Berlin, as a sanity-saving afternoon for Valentina as we planned to take in a whole lot of history, or as Valentina claims “boring,” stuff during our week in Berlin.
One of the great things about Berlin is that most everything, at least as it is related to the National Socialist era and its aftermath, is free of admission. Better still, these memorials and museums are not just some lousy, “you get what you pay for” experience, they are extremely well done, very professional, and better than most exhibits we had paid too many euros to see. This was particularly true for the Topography of Terror Museum, which is dedicated to shining a light on the Gestapo, SS and broader terror network that the Nazis established in Europe from 1933-1945. We had originally planned a couple of hours for a visit based around the one-hour guided tour, but we ended up spending almost five hours there instead. It was a brilliant, honest, and open exhibit about the terror state the National Socialists created, its architects, its contributors, its victims, how it functioned, and its consequences – one of which was very apparent as just outside the museum stood a block-long stretch of the original Berlin Wall. It was a very heavy topic, with a tremendous amount of information to take in and emotions to process, but it was very much worth it, and became a perfect preface for our visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was hauntingly beautiful, later that evening.
Due to the weather report, we had planned our fourth day in Berlin as a Museum Day. We had planned to visit the famed archeological Pergamon Museum in the morning with either the Nuees Museum of Antiquity or the German Historical Museum as the afternoon follow up. When we arrived at the Pergamon Museum not long after opening at 10AM, there was a one-hour lineup already just to buy tickets, and Nuees was not much better. So we figured we would head to the German Historical Museum for a few hours to let the crowds die down and get to Pergamon around 3PM. I had previously read that the German Historical Museum was a hidden gem in its own right, overshadowed by its more famous museum cousins, and did a great job covering all of German history from prehistory to reunification. I do not know why, but I had expected a broad-strokes, relative glossing over type of history museum considering the timeline it was covering, but I was definitely wrong. We had only just wrapped up WWI and the start of the Weimar Republic era before we realised it was already 330PM; so rather than rush through the Pergamon Museum, we opted to power on and finish our journey through the entirety of Germany history instead – but, this was, of course, after a much needed snack-and-sit break, especially for Valentina who was suffering from museum fatigue at that point. Basically, if you have any interest in Germany and you are ever in Berlin, go to the German Historical Museum, it is fascinating.
We spent our last day in Berlin visiting sites dedicated to some of the most recent history in Berlin, that being the Berlin Wall and the East German state. Our day started at the East Side Gallery, where a 1.3KM stretch of the Berlin wall remains in its original place, but has since been turned into a canvas on which various artists have created murals with their take on the Berlin Wall era. It is quite a unique perspective of the Wall and captures some of the immediate emotions and social commentary that existed following its fall. After the East Side Gallery we ventured across Berlin to the Berlin Wall Memorial itself, which is a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, complete with watchtower and death strip that also memorialised the 136 people who did not survive their attempts to escape East Berlin. Our visit to the Berlin Wall was rather surreal, as it is crazy to think that in our own lifetime, a world capital, a cultural centre, was split in half by a giant wall for nearly 30 years. From the Berlin Wall Memorial we visited the “Palace of Tears”, the infamous East-German controlled border crossing at Berlin Friedrichstrasse train station, which documented life in Berlin behind the wall and the stories of those who had escaped East Berlin and Germany through that very crossing.
On a lighter note, the food in Berlin was very good. The potato salad was delicious, the schnitzel was superb, the currywurst was amazing, the kebab was succulent, and the street sausages were divine; and the beer, the beer was plentiful and cheap. In fact, most everything in Berlin was very reasonably priced and was a nice treat for the wallet after the hammering it took in France.
But, alas, like all good things, our week in Berlin did not last, and before we knew it we were on a train headed south to Prague. In summation: Berlin is awesome and you should go visit – please take me with you!