We’ve both visited Berlin before, but I’ve always held strong positive feelings for this city. I was happy to finally be returning, and hoped that a decade later I’d still feel the same way.
We found a great area to park for free besides an old airfield – it was actually West Germany’s only airfield, and was crucial for supplies to the town when land borders were closed. It was strange to see such an enormous and empty tract of land so close to the centre of town, but at least it was being used by people.
We grabbed a quick coffee to share from one of the hipster coffee shops in the area. We noticed just how alternative this area was, and it seemed like a nice place. It was also very ethnically diverse – and in a good way.
East Side Gallery
We started our time in Berlin with a walk along an old stretch of the Berlin Wall that was converted into a public art space. The rear of the wall featured stories of people from East Berlin that were persecuted by the secret police for various reasons, and it shouldn’t have come as a surprise after visiting so many of these ex-Socialist states – but it was still shocking.
The other side had some beautiful murals, many of them quite well known – like the Soviet Brother Kiss, which I assumed to be satirical, but is actually taken from a real photograph. The wall stretched for well over 1km, and along the way there were countless fantastic pieces of art. Almost as impressive as the art itself was the fact that so little of it had been tagged/vandalised.
Once again, we were arriving with little time to spare before the museum closed, and once again we were forced to pass through the museum a little faster than we’d have liked – even though the man at the ticket office said most people spend much less time than we had available.
I had to start with a drive of their Trabant simulator, where I was able to try driving one of these famous vehicles. The simulator authentically recreated the concrete jungle that the residents were living in, as well as some of the finer abilities of the Trabant – like wooden brakes. It was a bit of a laugh, even if it did cut short the amount of time we had left to see the rest of the exhibits.
There were so many things here on display, from sports, education, shopping to industry and occupation. I’d heard plenty of the tales of the shortage of food/goods to buy, but it still is powerful to see. I didn’t realise that the general population were fairly well off financially – however, they just didn’t have much that they could buy with that money due to general shortages.
It was also interesting the way they began the propaganda from an early age by having the children at kindergarten perform activities together, as a single entity, like going to the bathroom and sleeping/eating. The maths taught was also interesting, opting to use things like tanks and other military objects to teach counting and algebra with, rather than more benign objects like fruit or animals.
Another small fascinating piece of information we learnt was the nakedness and skinny dipping culture. It seemed more bohemian and free-thinking to ditch clothes, rather than socialist, but after reading the explanation that it was to show a unity and sameness with another, it made a little more sense.
There was an elevator to visit a recreation of the living areas of an average apartment – I just didn’t realise that the elevator itself was part of the experience! The doors closed, the lights flickered, and the walls and floor shook. The lights went out for extended periods, and the shaking became even more violent, and I hoped that my assumption that this was part of the experience were correct. The doors finally opened at the rear, and I was standing in a large, though retro, apartment. Even though I knew it was a ruse, it still confused my mind that we hadn’t actually travelled and were still on the same floor.
But, not long after I’d stepped out of the elevator, they were ushering us out of the museum as it was now closing time.
We had a quick walk around the exterior of the Berlin Cathedral, which was surprisingly grand, even in the dim light. Fernsehturm (aka the giant cocktail onion/Sputnik), the old broadcasting tower, was just as impressive as the first time I’d seen it, too, proudly above anything else in town.
We’d read a slightly satirical suggestion that the local food of Berlin is the kebab, however, one of both of our lasting memories of eating in Berlin were the kebabs, so we were keen to grab one. Mustafa Demir’s Gemusekebap was just a small, mediocre looking restaurant, but it was probably the best kebab either of us had ever had – far better than any in Turkey. There was so much flavour and juice in the meat. We somewhat regretted sharing a large one.
The other food I’d read was famous in Berlin was the currywurst. Being a fan of both of these, and still feeling a little space after dinner, I sought it out. I didn’t have to look too hard, there were dozens of shops all claiming to have the original, or the best in town. In the end, I went to nearby Curry 61. It turns out that it’s just a regular grilled wurst but the tomato sauce is slightly spiced with chilli and curry powders. It didn’t matter, it was delicious, and I had to resist buying a bottle of this sauce.
We decided to do a walking tour of Berlin, even though both of us had done one previously. It turned out to be a less than ideal day for it, with moderately heavy showers, and cold gusting winds for almost the entirely of the tour.
We covered many of the same sights we’d walked past previously, but now had a little more context, however, the majority of the tour was walking, covering large amounts of town and less time to actually hear from the guide.
That said, we did pick up some really interesting information that I’d not have known otherwise. The most chilling was outside the library where un-German books were burnt by students in the nationalist party. Here there was a small plaque on the ground with a quote from German author, written in the early 19th century, over a century before the Nazis swept into power. It was translated to us as ‘First they burn the books, then they burn the bodies’. It was chilling.
We blitzed through the usual central Berlin sites, like Checkpoint Charlie, which was basically a stretch of souvenir shops – and actors posing for those willing to pay for photographs.
We passed by the site of Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide in the last days of the war. Now it’s a completely non-descript car park, with nothing to mark the spot, other than a small informational panel. This, like most of the other sites in town was something admirable about the way history was handled here. It was honest and nonpartisan – just the facts, and no fluff.
We were allowed to explore the Holocaust Memorial on our own, allowing us to form our own feelings and thoughts about it. I’d forgotten how large it was. From the outside it was impossible to know just how deep it sank, and soon the giant blocks were far above my head. The uneven floor and slightly off-kilter blocks were incredibly disorientating.
There is no official explanation of the monument, with the artist purposely keeping the interpretation open. Our guide did share some of her opinions, which I did like. She said after entering, you don’t realise how quickly you get in over your head, which was much like the way treatment of the Jews escalated to an extreme situation.
By this point the sun was starting to break through, just in time for the tour to finish outside of Brandenburg Gate. We started hearing a few car horns, which seemed to gather and amplify into the sounds of dozens, then hundreds of cars beeping near constantly. We hadn’t heard such noise even in the craziest cities in Italy, so we didn’t expect such traffic madness in Berlin. As we approached, we noticed that it seemed to be only taxis – and we made an assumption that it was a protest, since it was solely taxis. We couldn’t work out what they were protesting against, but Uber would be a safe bet.
I wanted to visit the Bundestag, which is free to enter – if you pre-book tickets. I had a look a few days ago, once we were sure of the dates that we would be arriving, and realised that I was only a week or two too late. Still, we admired Norman Foster’s glass dome on the stately parliament building from afar, soaking up the sun and letting our damp clothes dry.
Topography of Terror
We were starting to feel like we’d had enough of the historical side of the city. But, the Topography of Terror sounded too deep to miss. It’s a free museum about the SS/Gestapo, documenting their incredible rise to power and the climate that fuelled it, followed by their lack of monitoring or guidelines, seemingly operating with absolute power. It gave a frank look at how the average German initially accepted the bad treatment of the Jews by the Nazis because quality of life was improving for them after the depression, only to then realise too late what the government was capable of. It was terrifying reading how it all came into play, finding small parallels with the current climate.
It also documented that it wasn’t just the Jews that were targeted, but also the castration of mentally ill and handicapped. It showed how homosexuals were treated, as well as the Roma and pretty much anyone that didn’t fit in their Aryan race profile. The single mindedness was horrific.
Finally it ended with their prosecution and persecution of those who were involved with these crimes once the war had been lost. It was a little shocking to hear just how few suffered prosecution, and to hear that many involved were able to continue on and resume regular lives – some continuing within government. The museum was dense with information, and it continued to be horrific. It reached a point where I almost became desensitised, as I couldn’t be shocked any further. It was exhausting, and we needed to skim through the final sections.
Outside was another small display about the rise to power of the Nazis. Even with all we’d seen and heard already, it was still fascinating to understand a little more about the situations that lead to them coming into power.
There was a small section of the original wall still in position, chipped away from people looking for souvenirs, and now itself protected by a fence – which I find funny.
It’d been a busy day, but we’d managed to cram just about everything we’d wanted to see of historic Berlin in that period. Now, off to have fun with friends here in the city!