Berlin is now more a new city than old. Since we arrived late Friday night, my first impression didn't come until the next morning when riding the train from the station near our hotel into old Berlin. That is when I saw all the construction cranes on the horizon. It is simply amazing all of the activity going on in the city - mostly financed by a 'solidarity tax' of 2% on every German's income.
Before I start into what I saw and learned, I must disqualify myself as any sort of history-knowing person. In fact, I probably know less history than your average freshman or sophomore high school student. As a student, I was never interested much in that kind of stuff. Just to let you know where I'm coming from...
On this particular weekend I traveled to Berlin with Tom Rooney, my boss. Since I talked Tom into buying a Europass rail ticket also, it was good that we got to take at least one trip together. We made both hotel and train reservations a little late (2-3 days before), so I would make them a little more in advance next time. The trains to Berlin were all booked on Friday up until around 6pm and even then we didn't get a direct train. We did ride the ICE (Inter City Express) on both legs. Very nice high-speed train. On several occasions we hit 250 kph which is about 155 mph! They have displays on either end of the cars that give info like when the next stop is and how fast you're going. Although we stayed in a nice hotel in the Charlottenburg area of Berlin, it was a good hike to the nearest train station. Next time (if there is one), I'll make sure to get something in the middle of the city or at least really near a train station.
Saturday October 30, 1999
Pete Kimbell and family had been to Berlin the weekend before, and recommended we take a tour from Terry's Tophat Tours. It's a walking tour of historic Berlin that's advertised to take 4-5 hours. More on that later. We arrived at one of the starting points for the tour - the New Synagogue - on Saturday morning just a few minutes before the tour was to start, cutting it pretty close. Luckily our tour guide was Terry himself and we only had a total of 7 tourists. The demographics of our group was really interesting. Our guide, Terry Brewer, was a retired British diplomat that had worked and lived in Berlin for many years. Tom and I, along with a consultant from Manhattan, Betty, were the only Americans. The others were: Ullrich, a doctor from South Africa, Leanna, a veterinarian from Australia, Alan, a freelancer from Scotland, and another woman from the Czech Republic (although I think she was British).
We began the tour a little after 10am. It began by Terry showing us some of the old and new of East Berlin. By the way, the tour stayed entirely in the historic part of Berlin. We saw buildings that had been restored, were currently being restored, and those that are still show the effects of Communism (neglected, run-down) even after the German reunification. It's been 10 years since the Berlin wall came down, but it takes a long time to bring the city back from decades of Soviet influence. The Germans are working as hard as they can to rebuild and restore Berlin. It's very hard to find a street in old East Berlin where there IS NOT work being done. Anyway, back to the tour. We saw several Jewish buildings, a school, hospital, the New Synagogue. It was very clear from the start that Terry was not going to gloss over one bit of the terrible, evil parts of Berlin's history - like what the Nazi's did to the Jews. I am very glad that he emphasized these points all through the tour. One reason is that we never want to forget or have that horror seem unreal. The other reason is that since Terry gets a lot of his business from the youth hostels in Berlin, it's important that the young people on the tours know what really happened.
After pointing out a few of the buildings in the Jewish section and giving us their history, we walked down by the Spree River. One more thing - there is a 24 hour/7 day permanent police guard on every Jewish building in Berlin - maybe in Germany. This is because of the hate groups still around. Back down by the river, we sat down while Terry gave us a history lesson of Germany from the end of WW II up to today. He drew a map of Germany in the sand and proceeded to mark it up with all the divisions and borders that were in place after the Allies occupied Germany. It was extremely interesting, but for someone like me - it was overload. Not to take anything away from Terry. While down by the river, he told us about how after the wall was erected in 1961 that the river was also heavily fortified and patrolled to keep East Berliners from escaping to the west. They went as far as lining the river bottom with barbed wire.
Next was a visit to the Palace of Tears. This was the train station that was one of the gateways from West to East Berlin. When the wall was erected in 1961, all of a sudden families were separated and people were cut off from their homes and jobs. People from the west side could come and visit their friends and family on the east side, but the people on the east side were trapped and couldn't leave. The Palace of Tears was so named because of the grief and heartbreak it saw when people had to leave their loved ones behind to return to the west side.
We walked down a street called Unter den Linden (under the lemon trees), a famous tree-lined street in old Berlin. At one end we saw the Brandenburg Gate, the most famous monument in Germany. It has seen a lot of action over the years and was one of the few things that didn't receive much damage during the war. The square there at the Gate (Pariser Platz) is being almost totally rebuilt with new buildings on all sides like the Adlon Hotel (just rebuilt) and the French Embassy (under construction). West of the gate, we caught site of the Reichstag, the seat of the new German government. A very impressive building that unfortunately we didn't get to visit.
We next walked down the street where a lot of the Nazi buildings were, including Hitler's palace. All that remains are some information plaques on the sidewalks that show what the buildings looked like and where they were and a little history about them. What Terry called 'lego houses' were built over the sites. These are multi-story apartment buildings made of prefabricated concrete sections. They don't look as bad as they sound, but are very ugly when you compare them to traditional old German construction. Over 80% of Berlin was destroyed in WWII and much the east side was built back 'lego-style' by the Soviets. We saw some pictures illustrating this at the Topography of Terrors, an outdoor photographic exhibit that shows a lot of aerial photos of the results of the bombing along with some really moving photos of the Nazi era. Terry showed us a hole in the ground where it looked like they were getting ready to put up a building. We were looking at the roof of Hitler's bunker. We wondered why they were going to build over the top of it. I guess I now share the opinion of someone who said it was better not to open it up and give the crazies some place to use a an evil shrine.
After grabbing a bite to eat (way overdue for me), we went to Checkpoint Charlie, which was one of the gates from west to east Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was operated on the West side by the US. There's a huge museum there. Didn't go there either - too many people and tour buses. We were walking down the sidewalk after Checkpoint Charlie and Terry stops and starts telling us this story about these two young east German men who thought they discovered a way across the wall to the west side. When they made their break, the first guy made it. The second fellow wasn't so lucky and was shot by the East German border guards. They left him lying there to bleed to death. I was wondering why he was telling us this story right there on the sidewalk between a new building and one under construction on the other side of the street. Then we realized we were standing right where it happened! Terry showed us the very spot. All that remains is a small memorial that is dwarfed by a brand new building.
The next visit along the tour was to a couple of large squares with some magnificent old buildings. I don't remember the names of any of them of course. You can see them in some of the pictures. Terry said that one square was described by 'some' as the most beautiful square in Europe. I think he meant it was described that way by 'some Germans'. In the middle of the second square (Bebelplatz) was where the famous book-burning by Nazi students in 1933 took place. Now there is an underground memorial. There is a square glass window and if you look down through it, you see nothing but empty white bookshelves from floor to ceiling. Across the street from the square was Humboldt University.
By this time it was late afternoon. We saw a few more things. Terry pointed out where some of the bigger museums were and showed us some statues. I think we finished up around 6pm. Terry invited us to go eat dinner with him. We readily went because we didn't know where to go otherwise and he was such an interesting person to hang out with. Only a couple of folks from the group dropped out. The rest of us jumped on the tram and went to this little self-serve Italian restaurant called Mimmo's. I must say I had the best veggie pizza I've had in Europe so far! After eating we continued to follow Terry to his favorite pub where we hung out drinking beers and talking until about 11pm. A bonus stop on the way to the pub was a tour through this huge sports hall (the name is translated from German as 'Stadium of the World's Youth) that had been built by the communists. It had everything! I haven't seen a facility in the US that rivals it. At the pub, Terry continued to enlighten us with facts such as where the word soccer came from and why some countries drive on the wrong (right) side of the road. Remember, he's British. The short answer to that one is the influence of Napoleon is the reason we Americans drive on the right side and the British (and 40 other countries!) drive on the left.
Sunday October 31, 1999
On Sunday we were on our own. Mostly we walked around some of the same areas of old Berlin. It started out as a rainy day but fortunately cleared up as the day wore on. My luck has been amazing on these trips. There isn't a whole lot to say about Sunday. Not nearly as much as Saturday. We made a short stop at the Pergamon Museum to view some old stuff from Turkey and fairly quickly decided that we'd rather go back outside and walk around the city. The main place we went was Potsdammer Platz. This area is being rebuilt from the ground up. It's full of new modern buildings just like a city in the US. We ate lunch at the Arkaden - a 3-level shopping mall. There were several places to eat there and we settled on an oriental fast food place. The interesting difference between eating here and a mall in the US was that you got real plates, knives, and forks to eat with. They were very efficient about cleaning up your mess too. Not nearly the waste generated as we do. The only disposable items were the napkins and plastic cups (for beer). At Potsdammer Platz they had a red building sort of up on stilts called the Info Box. Inside, it was sort of a museum for all the construction that's going on in Berlin. There were all sort of exhibits explaining how the construction was being done, how tunnels were dug, and how they handle the very high water table without either drying out or drowning trees. One evident aspect of handling the water table were above-ground pipes running all over the city. Mostly they were for pumping off ground water from construction sites.
After seeing all the new construction at Potsdammmer Platz, we headed back towards the train station so we would be close by to catch our afternoon train back to Frankfurt. Like a lot of American tourists, we visited the Hard Rock Cafe. Tom wanted some American beer. They didn't have Bud Lite - only Budweiser. The label on the Bud was different. Instead of saying Budweiser across the label, it said Anhauser-Busch and had a large letter B in the middle of the label. The only thing we could figure was that the Czech beer named Budweiser (the original?) must be the dominant Bud over here. I wish Terry had been there to tell us. Our waiter was a guy named Johnny from Kinston, NC. He had been stationed in Berlin in the Army and decided to stay. Before heading back to catch the train, we strolled up and down Kurfurstendamm (Ku-Damm), which is billed as Berlin's most famous street. It was evident because there were lots of nice shops, restaurants, and hotels along the tree-lined street. If I go back, I'll try to get a hotel either on Ku-Damm or in the historic part of Berlin.
All in all, a great weekend. We just scratched the surface of what there is to see in Berlin.
Comments, questions, suggestions? Last update: 12/31/04