Wed 15 May ’13 – day 4 The best way to see Berlin or another city is to walk around its streets and there are some excellent guided tours on offer. The 2 with English speaking guides are www.insidertour.com and www.berlinwalks.de and they both start outside the Zoologischer Garten U Bahn station which was just one stop from the nearest station to my hotel, so very convenient. There is no need to book, just turn up and contact one of the guides who will point you to the correct group.
I used both companies and they were as good as each other.
Day 1 was the Discover Berlin walk and so we set off on the U Bahn to Hackescher Markt, a station that would have been in East Berlin; this was to be a long day as the tour visited most of the sights that people are interested in. Our guide, Lorna, was originally from Scarborough but now lived and worked in Berlin so was very knowledgeable.
We walked across one of the bridges over the Spree and on to Museumsinsel (Museum Island) as the area is known locally; this is the place if you want to overdose on culture in the 5 very grand museums. But that’s not what we are here for and as it is a bright sunny day we keep walking past the Berliner Dom , the former court church of the Prussian royals and on towards what was the site of the Palast der Republic, the home of the GDR Parliament. After WW2 the GDR tore down the old Prussian Royal Palace and built their HQ instead; however once the Wall had come down, this was closed immediately because of asbestos contamination. Now there is just a huge hole in the ground as there is no money to construct a replica of the Prussian Place.
Berlin is still a massive construction site as the city modernises itself and because it was originally built in a low lying area, the water table is quite near the surface. To counter this there are massive blue pipes everywhere taking away the water pumped out of the building sites and this has also led to a phenomenon know at the ‘Berlin Luft’ (Berlin Air), the all pervading smell of slightly stagnant water!
From the site of the old Prussia Palace the Unter den Linden heads west passing through the Brandenburg Tor to the Tiergarten which was the hunting ground of the nobility. It is easy to see that this avenue was constructed on the imperial scale as this is where some of the most important buildings in the city are located.
The first building you come across is the Neue Wache, once a royal guardhouse, it now contains a moving sculpture by Karl Friedrich Schinkel of a mother cradling her dead soldier son.
A little further down Unter den Linden is the Bebleplatz which is the site of the first full-blown public book burning on 10 May 1933 and beneath a glass panel at the square’s centre is an installation by Micha Ullmann entitled ‘Empty Library’.
There was an imperial decree that all building along the Unter den Linden should have their frontage right on to the pavement and this is still the case today. However the Soviet government decided to ignore this and so the Soviet, now Russian, Embassy was built with a garden in front of it.
Pariser Platz is the elegant square immediately to the east of the Brandenburg Tor which I remember as a waste land patrolled by guards when the Berlin Wall existed. Now the square is full of tourists getting their photos taken with the ‘Berlin Bear’ or any number of people dressed in Soviet or American uniforms; you pay your money and take your pick. In one corner of the Square is the Adlon Kempinski, probably the best hotel in the city, and all the tour guides point to the window out of which Michael Jackson held out his young son!!
Through the Brandenburg Tor and to the south of the Reichstag is the Soviet War Memorial at which a commemorative guard used to be mounted night and day by Russian soldiers until they, like all the armed forces of what had been the occupying powers, left the city in 1992.
We walked to an area just to the south of the Holocaust Memorial where there is a car park under which are the remains of Hitler’s Bunker. There is an information panel with a diagram of the vast underground network.
Our next stop was the Stadtmitte U Bahn station as this was one of what were called ‘Ghosts Stations’ during the period the Berlin Wall was up. This part of the U Bahn ran from the western sector, through the eastern sector and back into the west again. The 6 stations on this line in the eastern sector were locked so that people couldn’t enter, but on every platform were guards to make sure that the trains didn’t stop to let anyone off. The ’Ghost Stations’ were eerie places as the lights had low wattage bulbs that flickered constantly. There were also some places on the S Bahn where the opposite was true as the train travelled from the east, through the west and back into the east again; guards travelled on these trains to ensure that no one jumped off even thought the trains were travelling at speed and did not stop at any of the stations they passed.
This building was separated from the Berlin Wall by just a street and our guide told us about one of the most daring escapes that happened during the Cold War. An employee in the Finance Ministry smuggled his wife and young son into the building and hid them until it was dark, they then went up onto the roof from where he shot a rope across the street and Wall to friends in the west. The family then slid down the rope in makeshift baskets to freedom. This building is still the Finance Ministry, but now that of the Federal Republic. The section of the Berlin Wall along this road is still in place; however the city council have had to erect perspex screens along its length in order to prevent people chipping off ‘souvenirs’.
The area where Checkpoint Charlie existed is now a very tacky tourist trap and quite frankly is not worth visiting.
After what has been a superb 6 hour tour, although only scheduled for a maximum of 4 hours, I took the U Bahn to Alexanderplatz and went up the Fernsehturm, at 336m high the TV tower is Germany’s tallest structure. Built to demonstrate the GDR’s technological prowess, it turned into a laughing stock because when the sun shone on the steel sphere below the antenna, the reflection of a giant cross appeared and West Berliners gleefully dubbed the phenomenon ‘The Pope’s Revenge’.
The views from the observation gallery are fantastic as the city spread out in all directions; to the south is the now closed Tempelhof Airport, the city’s first airport and from where Indiana Jones boarded a Zeppelin in the 1989 film ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.
After a lot of walking I sit down to take the weight off my feet and have a BLT roll with a beer while writing postcards and admiring the view.
It took ages to get down from the observation gallery as one of the lifts had broken down; so much for German efficiency!!
I took the U Bahn back to the hotel where I had another beer before having a shower and heading out for dinner.
Thu 16 May ‘13 – day 5 After another good night’s sleep as the fresh air and lots of walking are certainly sorting out my old bones, I set off on another guided tour. This time looking at Berlin in the Cold War period, so we spent nearly all day in what had been East Berlin.
Barry our guide was originally from Waterford in Ireland, but like Lorna yesterday now lives and works in Berlin. He took us to sites well off the normal tourist trail, some of which are not even listed in the Lonely Planet guidebook.
It is yet another hot day, 29 C and as there is little breeze the city is sweltering.
At the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer there is the last remaining part of the Berlin Wall with a section of the death strip – scary. The LP guide of Berlin (page 178) details a 15 km cycle route along what was the Wall and lists sites to be seen.
Our guide took us on a long trip on the U Bahn to Lichtenburg where we saw the HQ of the Stasi, the GDR Secret Police. The building is now a museum, but was closed while asbestos was being removed. Despite frantic efforts to destroy files when the Wall came down, many still exist and the Federal Government now has a research team working through the remaining files in order to produce an insight into the way the Stasi worked.
The Stasi HQ is located on a wide boulevard built by the GDR after WW2 and is in the style now called ‘Stalinallee’ with its wedding-cake architecture designed to illustrate Communist might. The buildings were so well constructed and are of such a size that the apartments are now in the very desirable bracket and so fetch high prices when they come on to the market.
Back at the U Bahn station we come across the ‘Inspection Flying Squad’ who tour the network checking whether people have tickets and if they have been validated as there are no checks at the entry or exit to the system. Offenders are heavily fined and they have absolutely no sympathy with tourists who say “I didn’t know”, so beware as the ‘on-the-spot-fines’ start at €50!!
This has been a great place to visit even if I only got a glimpse of most of the sights, because just like all large city’s you need to spend lots of time exploring in order to really get to know the place.
But it is time for me to move on as my feet are really aching after all the walking I have done; so I am heading east and tomorrow morning Poland will be the next stop on my journey.