Berlin is the capital of Germany and the second most populous city proper in the European Union after London. It has a long and checkered history and we were excited to explore and experience all of it.
Dating back to the 13th Century, most of our generation know is best as a city divided by geopolitical turmoil and war. During the 1920s and subsequent Second World War, the rise and reign of the Third Reich thrust Berlin into the global spotlight. In the 60s, Berlin made headlines again, as a city that represented the divide between East and West. The functional and metaphorical Berlin Wall ripped the city and families part. Despite the demolition that began on November 9th 1989, it’s present is still felt. Today, Berlin is a city reborn. While there is still remanence of its all too recent history, there is a simmering revival as a new younger generation return. They are bringing their energy invigorating arts, architecture, technology and innovation. Ranking in the top 20 cities for Quality of Life, Berlin is rapidly regaining its reputation as a world leader. While climbing the ranks towards one of the world’s most popular tourists destinations.
We loved visiting Berlin. It has a perfect mix of old and new to explore. Its energy is infectious, we could definitely see ourselves living there one day!
Berlin Day 0.5
A late afternoon arrival from Amsterdam and a full day of travel had us tired and ready to get to the hotel. We chose to have a relaxing evening before our 3-day adventure in this new city. We were staying at the Titanic Gendarmenmarkt Berlin, situated just a few blocks from the Brandenburg Gate. The location of the hotel was a great fit for us. It is close to many attractions all within walking distance. It is also central for public transit allowing us to get out of the downtown district.
Berlin Day 1
Refreshed and ready to explore, our first stop was Checkpoint Charlie. This historic location is about as celebrity as a border crossing can get. The former border crossing divided East and West Berlin during the Cold War. Checkpoint Charlie inspired fear and anxiety in all who tried to cross it, whether legally or illegally. The name Charlie came from the letter C in the NATO phonetic alphabet. While no original parts of the checkpoint are visible today, the gate replica is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Berlin. You can take a cheesy photo with actors dressed in the former East and West guards uniforms, or just stand and imagine what the experience would have been like 30 years ago. While there, you should visit the Black Box Cold War History Museum. Located right where American and Soviet tanks squared off in 1961, this museum is dedicated to the history of the Cold War and the division of Berlin and Germany. Installations recount stories of attempted escapes and the families who’s lives were forever changed by the wall. The outside of the gallery is free, or, as we did, pay a small fee to visit the indoor exhibition where you can get a closer look at the East-West conflict.
We continued West along what would have been the Wall. There are several small museums along the route dedicated to the Berlin Wall history. We didn’t have a destination in mind, we just followed the road and admired the remains of the wall and old buildings. The along the Wall there is another section that has been turned into an outdoor museum. Providing detailed stories of people and families during the time of the Cold War. Although it is hard to accept the pain and suffering the Wall caused, it is important that we understand the past in all it inglorious truth. By understanding the mistakes made in the past, we can hope that we will avoid repeating them in the future.
With all the walking we had definitely worked up an appetite. There was only one must have culinary experience on our Berlin list, Currywurst. Currywurst is typically a German pork sausage, covered with a curry ketchup (think tomato sauce with curry powder added). This dish is so popular in Germany that there is an estimated 800 million consumed in Germany every year! There is even a Currywurst Museum you can visit!! Vade’s father had spent some time in Germany in the 1970s while immigrating to Australia. He had brought his love of Currywurst to the family and Vade had to try it in its natural habitat.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the streets, admiring the architecture and history. We stopped by the outdoor memorial dedicated to the Holocaust.
This Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was developed in 1999, after lengthy debates, the German parliament decided to establish a central memorial site, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The competition to design it was won by the New York architect Peter Eisenman. The memorial was ceremonially opened in 2005.
On a site covering 19,000 square metres, Eisenman placed 2711 concrete slabs of different heights. The area is open day and night and from all four sides, you can fully immerse yourself in the fully accessible spatial structure. The memorial is on a slight slope and its wave-like form is different wherever you stand. The uneven concrete floor gives many visitors a moment of giddiness or even uncertainty. Its openness and abstractness give you space to confront the topic in your own personal way. The sheer size of the installation and its lack of a central point of remembrance call into question the conventional concept of a memorial. This creates a place of remembrance, but not with the usual means.
This memorial has also received a lot of coverage and controversy in the travel blogger community recently. Many #Instatravellers fail to grasp what it represents and give it the respect that it deserves. They climb all over it and take disrespectful or “culturally tone deaf” photos. As always, we “stepped lightly” and although we still immersed ourselves in the experience, we kept a level of dignity and humility it deserves. This, once again, reinforces that travellers need to do research before visiting destinations. They need to understand the cultural relevance and customs of the places and people they are visiting.
Next to the monument is another well-known monument with a long history, the Brandenburg Gate. The Brandenburg Gate was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans whose vision was inspired by the Propylaea in Athens’ Acropolis. Erected between 1788 and 1791 under the direction of the Prussian sovereign Friedrich Wilhelm II who was looking for a suitable architectural statement to enhance the approach into the Boulevard Unter den Linden. The Brandenburg Gate is one of Berlin’s most important monuments – a landmark and symbol all in one with over two hundred years of history. In the days of the Wall, it served as a symbol of the city’s division, drawing visitors who climbed an observation platform to get a glimpse of the world behind the Iron Curtain. At the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, Ronald Regan issued his stern command to his cold war adversary, “Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!”. The speech, on the Western side of the Wall, echoed down the east side of the Gate and was one of the catalysts to the eventual removal of the Wall and German reunification.
Berlin Day 2
As you know from reading our blog, we love to get off the beaten tourist path. We wanted to get out explore the outer parts of the city. We had read many articles about street art and how graffiti had influenced the artistic and socio-politics of the city. Online we discovered a walking tour that would take us out of the city into surrounding neighbourhoods to learn about the history of the city and to learn about the art of graffiti. Art critic Emilie Trice has called Berlin “the graffiti Mecca of the urban art world.” Intrigued by the Berlin scene we hit the streets.
Our meeting point was the Berliner Fernsehturm (Television Tower), which is the tall spire that towers over the city. Greeted by our guide and small group we heading off to the train station towards our first stop. North of the city we visited the suburb of Kollwitzkiez. This is a quaint little area filled with cafes and farmers markets and of course graffiti! We headed down alleyways to walls filled with different styles and techniques. All showed impressive artistic skill, vibrant colours and interesting cultural statements.
You will learn about Murals, tags, pieces, throw-ups, stencils, posters even a less than elegant form called “pissing”. All these styles and technique have idiosyncracies and artistic merit in line with any other artistic movement. With academic and cultural studies in neo-classical, impressionism, cubism and expressionism, we wonder how long before street art becomes a mainstay in the art world. You don’t actually realise how much work goes into some of these pieces until you actually stop and take it all in. Looking past the law and order side of the artform, it is very clear there is a level of skill and expression that is worthy of praise and attention.
Back on the train, we headed East to the suburb of Kreuzberg. During the time of the Wall, it was enclosed on three sides. The area became famous for its alternative lifestyle and its squatters. Artists flocked to the area, hoping to get a taste of “east meets west” and artistically feed of the turmoil and instability. Today, Kreuzberg has one of the youngest populations of all European boroughs; statistically, its population age demographic has switched and cycled twice in the last two decades. Its youthful residence now leads Berlin and Germany’s community of tech startups. With many government support programs funding and encouraging the development of innovative software and tech hardware solutions.
The main piece we were heading to see was a work called The Cosmonaut. Created in 2007 by the street artist Victor Ash, it is considered to be the largest stencil drawing in the world. The piece is massive. Floating as if weightless, the astronaut immediately attracts your attention. Looming over the residents at 22m high by 14m wide, it creates a thought-provoking juxtaposition between daily terrestrial life and the space race of the cold war.
After much walking, we came to a unanimous decision to stop for a beer. We all wandered into a small bar and onto its patio, where we enjoyed a cleansing and refreshing ale in the late Summer sun.
Our final stop was the East Side Gallery, set on the banks of the River Spree. Here visitors can wander along the River and view parts of the Berlin Wall still standing. The area is covered in street art and graffiti. All with unique messages and statements, spanning all generations and political viewpoints. We strolled around and soaked it all in, the perfect end to a really cool and unique art and culture experience.
Berlin Day 3
When we were planning our visit to Berlin, we knew that we should pay a visit to a former WWII concentration camp. Destinations like this are always hard and sombre experiences. These places shine a light on the regrettable parts of world history. Dark destinations like concentration camps can be difficult for modern mindsets to fully to comprehend. Evil and ignorant actions like those of the Nazis in WWII, are so often performed in the name of politics or religion. They permeate our global history, no nation or culture is immune. Most sadly they are not just “of the past” they still occur in parts of the world today. Visiting places like this may not be on everyone’s list, we felt it was important to learn about the history and pay our respects to those who lost their lives. Like we mentioned earlier, it is only by understanding the mistakes of the past that we can progress towards a more enlightened, inclusive and just future.
The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp is the closest in proximity to Berlin, making it an easy day trip either by yourself or as we chose, on a group tour. Sachsenhausen was one of the first concentration camps established by the Third Reich during the Second World War. It held approx. 200,000 prisoners and operated during from 1396 through to 1945.
We met our guide and the rest of the tourist joining us at a train station in the heart of the city. It was a really weird experience meeting new people and trying to be friendly when in the back of your mind, we knew a heavy experience was ahead of us. The train took us approx 45 minutes out of the city to a town called Oranienburg. We began walking through this quaint little town not sure what to expect. The concentration camp is situated in the town, surrounded by houses and businesses. It is hard to comprehend that people lived so close to a site that caused so much pain and suffering. When we arrived at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp we were briefed by our guide on the history of the camp, its creation and given an overview of what we were to expect.
Prisoners at the camp were mostly made up of German political opponents to the Nazi regime and captured nationals from other occupied European states. During their time at the camp, inmates were forced to perform physical testing of military footwear, work in local businesses like the brickworks as slave labour and to produce counterfeit British Pounds. It is estimated that over 1 billion pounds of counterfeit banknotes were created in camps like Sachsenhausen. There have also been allegations of medical testing with a prisoner being fed a cocktail of cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone. In an attempt to create a drug that would enhance the performance of soldiers on the front line.
By the time the camp was dissolved in 1945, tens of thousands of people died from disease, starvation, forced labour or by execution by hanging, shooting or in the camps gas chamber.
During the tour of the camp, you will visit cells, gallows, gas chambers and burial pits. You get a real heavy feeling when walking around. You can still feel the sadness and pain that has seemed to seep into the walls and campgrounds. Take your time and read the informative installations that explain the plight and history, we are sure it’s not the kind of place you will be rushing back to experience again, so take it all in while you are there.
The tour ends with a return trip back to Berlin. To be honest, when we left we really didn’t feel up to doing anything else for the rest of the day. We spent the night back at our hotel at the bar and restaurant talking to staff and other guests about our time in Berlin.
Berlin is a city of dichotomy, a city forever tarnished by the Second World War and the Cold War that followed. But at its heart, it is a bright vibrant city begging the world to look past the dark history and embrace the art, culture and innovation that now lives in its soul. Berlin did not die in 1945, but to say it was reborn on November 9th 1989 would be a true statement. It continues to grow and rebuilt after years of cultural division. It will continue its rebirth, leading Germany and Europe into our shared global future. Always looking to the past and learning from its mistakes. It is and will continue to be a progressive city that welcomes youth and those looking to embrace art, technology, culture and innovation. When you visit Berlin open your mind to its future while accepting that the past can not be changed and must be used to inform the positive future its residents now seek.
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