Here it is, the epic Berlin update. This is a long one, so get comfortable.
After a painful train ride from Krakow (see last post regarding my opinions on Polish trains) I arrived in Berlin and got settled in. The day I arrived, Germany was defeated by Italy in the Euro Tournament, just like how the Czech team lost when I came to Prague (at this rate I’ll be banned from Europe whenever the next tournament happens).
Berlin is a large city and the sights are spread out across it. If you go there you’ll need to budget time for getting from area to area. The public transit system is good, but fragmented, and what I mean by that is that the various systems (like S-Bahn trains and U-Bahn subways) cover the whole town, but no individual system seems to cover the whole town extensively. You’ll have to get used to switching between systems to get across town. Since my rail pass covered the S-Bahn trains, I used them whenever possible.
Small note: keep in mind that Germany is a fairly young country, and you’ll see me referring to Prussia, the German nation state that included Berlin, at several points in this post.
My first day I cut right to the chase and went to the Brandenburg Gate to start the day. The gate is one of the few surviving remnants of Prussian Berlin (back before Germany was a unified nation) and the Berlin Wall used to run through it. There was still stuff set up for the Euro Tournament, and I was told it would be staying up until the tournament ended. The whole street from Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column was shut down to traffic and along the length outdoor screens, loudspeakers and a few hundred port-o-poties had been set up. Whenever a game from the tournament was played, it was broadcast on the screens on the street, and the night before a few thousand Berliners were there and got to see Germany lose. After surveying the gate, I walked towards the Victory Column, through the Tiergarten, (Berlin’s large city park, sometimes called the “green lungs of Berlin”) parallel to the road. Along the way I came across a monument to Beethoven, Mozart and some other guy, as well as a monument to Russian soldiers who had died in the assault on Berlin in 1945. I reached the Victory Column after a bit of walking (it’s farther away than it looks) and went inside. There’s a small museum on various large monuments across Germany and the world, but the real reason you go in is to climb the inside of the column to the top for the view. From up there you have a good all-round view of Berlin, though most people photograph in the direction of Brandenburg Gate and central Berlin. While up there I noticed that the traffic circle that goes around the column has lanes and traffic lights which make for an orderly procession of cars around it, unlike the mess of traffic that goes around the Arc D’ Triumph in Paris. I came back down the column and then walked back to Brandenburg Gate, and when I got there I detoured to the south to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (that is in fact the actual name; the Germans decided it was better not to be vague). The memorial has the appearance of an above-ground graveyard, comprised of several hundred concrete slabs. The ground level rises and falls as you go deeper into it, so you almost have the feeling of being lost in a concrete maze. After leaving the memorial, I returned to Brandenburg Gate and started walking down a street called Unter Den Linden towards Berlin’s famous tv tower. The US and French embassies are both right next to Brandenburg Gate, and the Russian embassy is just down the street. Farther along I came to Babelplatz, a square that become infamous when the Nazis used it for multiple book burning events. If you look, you can find a small window in the ground that looks down into a memorial dedicated to the book burnings. When you look in you see empty bookshelves, which are meant to be symbolic of the books that were destroyed by the Nazis. Around the square are the Berlin opera house, the library of the nearby Humboltd University and the St Hedwig’s “tea cup”cathedral, one of the few catholic churches in Berlin. Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia many years ago, conquered some predominantly catholic lands and decided to build a catholic church in Berlin to help integrate them into protestant Prussia. When asked what the church should look like, he slammed a tea cup upside down on the table and said “like this.” Across the street from the square is Humboldt University, and next to it is the Neue Wache, which is a memorial to the victims of war and fascism. Inside is a large room with only a single statue in the middle, and an oculus in the ceiling above it. The statue is of a mother holding her dead son, and because the oculus is directly above the statue, the outside weather falls on it (whenever it rains or snows, the rain or snow fall on the statue inside as well). If you have the patience to wait for the other tourists to leave, you can get a really good photo of the empty room. After the Neue Wache, I moved on down the street to the Germany History Museum, where I spent the next two hours. The museum is a very thorough history of the German people and lands from pre-Roman times up to the end of the Cold War, and you could spend a few hours in there if you decided to check out everything. I would have stayed longer myself, but I ran out of time when the museum closed. To finish the day I went over to the Gendarmenmark, a square with twin churches on each end and another building in the middle, which I believe is an orchestra/theater building. One of the churches is French Huguenot (protestant) and the other is German. During the various religious wars that Europe endured in the 16th and 17th centuries, French protestants were driven out of France, and some of them came to Berlin. The Prussians took them in and built them a church on the square. The other church (the German one) today houses an exhibit on Germany’s parliamentary history.
The next day I began at Alexanderplatz, the site of Berlin’s iconic tv tower, which is shaped like a tall column with a large orb halfway up the tower. The tower was built during the communist days and was meant to symbolize the power of the secular state. However the communists designers didn’t realize that when the sun shines on the orb in the center of the tower at a certain angle, the glare/reflection forms a cross on the orb. Locals came to call it the cross “the pope’s revenge.” The tower is supposed to have good views of all Berlin from the observation area, but it costed a bit more than I was willing to pay. From the tower area I went west, in the direction of Brandenburg Gate, and went over to Marien church and also saw the Triton fountain nearby it. I then moved on further west and saw the statues of Marx and Engels in a small park. The statues are sometimes called “the old pensioners.” Crossing the Spree River, I went into the Berlin Cathedral, the most ornate protestant church ever (or at least, that I’ve seen). If you look up from the inside, you can see statues of Martin Luther, John Calvin and a few other reformers (along with Prussian nobility) atop columns near the bottom of the interior dome. I climbed the dome and got photos of the surrounding area, and ate lunch outside after I was finished with the cathedral. The Berlin Cathedral is right next to what is called Museum Island, which is five or so museums all right next to each other on the island in the River Spree that also has the cathedral. You can buy a museum pass, either for just Museum Island, or for most of the museums in Berlin, and it’s actually a good value if you’re going to see multiple museums. I went first to the antiquities museum, which was right next to the Berlin Cathedral, and holds mostly Greek, Etruscan and Roman sculpture, pottery and art. After that museum I moved on to the Neues Museum, which is also antiquities but focuses on Egyptian artifacts, along with some Greek and Roman ones. I then went to the Old National Gallery, which is full of paintings, and a few sculptures, from German and French artists from the Renaissance through the 1800s. By the time I got out of that museum the day was about over, and I decided to pay a visit to Potsdamer Platz as the last item of the day. During the Cold War, the Berlin Wall ran through Potsdamer Platz, but these days the area is a tribute to the triumph of capitalism with several major corporations having their European headquarters located there. I went into the Sony Center, whose exterior is modeled on Mt Fuji in Japan. Inside there’s a theater, restaurants, a Sony store and several other shops. Back outside there are a few sections of the Berlin Wall on display, and I got a few photos of them.
Day three’s main sight was the wall. I went over to the East Side Gallery, which is a mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall that was turned into an art gallery. Artists from all over the world were invited to paint sections of the wall, and it is the longest continuous section of the wall in Berlin (that I know of). I had only meant to do a short visit, but wound up seeing the whole thing, so I was a bit late for church that morning (I also underestimated how long it would take to get there by the S-Bahn trains). When I got to the church I had decided to visit, called International Baptist Church Berlin, I was 50 minutes late and sure that I had missed almost everything, but I actually was not as late as I had thought and even got to meet the pastor after the service. After leaving, I went over to the Topography of Terror Museum, which also has a small section of the wall in front of it. The museum site used to have the headquarters of the Reich Main Security Office and is dedicated to the horrors of the SS, Gestapo and the Nazi dictatorship. The office no longer exists due to heavy bombing in World War 2, and whatever survived was bulldozed later. From here the Nazis spied on their citizens, administered concentration camps and planned out the details of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” The building had its own dungeons, and was the sort of building where people went into, and were never seen again. The museum now on the site is somewhat unique in that it focuses on the perpetrators of the crimes rather than the victims. Across from the museum is the German Finance Ministry, which is housed in the former headquarters of the Luftwaffe (German air force) and is one of the very few Berlin buildings that survived World War 2 intact. Not to far from the Topography of Terror Museum is the famous Checkpoint Charlie, which I went to next. This was the most famous border crossing between East and West Berlin, and it has a recreation of the guardhouse that used to stand there. There’s also a museum in one of the buildings next to it, but it costs €12.50, which I think is a little too much. After Checkpoint Charlies I wasn’t sure where to go next, but after some looking at my map I decided to go to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church was badly damaged in World War 2, but was not repaired so that it would stand as a memorial to the war. Unfortunately for me, it was completely covered by an aluminum tent for renovation. The sign on the outside said that the work was to be done by the end of the year, so I’ll have to come back at some point in the future. Nearby the church is Kaufhas des Westens (called KaDeWe) which is supposedly the largest department store in continental Europe. I decided to go back to the East Side Gallery, and there I got a photo I had been meaning to take for a long time, involving me and a cobblestone. With that I called it a day.
The final full day in Berlin started at the Jewish Museum Berlin. The inside of the museum is completely slanted, (literally) with the floors, walls and ceilings being all over the place. The design is intentionally disorienting, and is meant to be symbolic of the troubled history of the Jewish people in Germany. There are also three “void” rooms, which are large open rooms symbolic of loss. The Holocaust certainly takes up a good chunk of the museum, but the upper level is all about Jewish life and traditions, so it’s not all sadness. After the museum I made my way towards the Reichstag, but it took awhile to get there because construction work on the U-Bahn lines meant I had to reroute my path. At the Reichstag I checked in (if you want to tour the dome or the building you have to reserve in advance) and went up to the roof. There I went into and up the glass dome. From inside you can actually see right down into the main chamber of the German parliament, which is meant to be symbolic of government transparency with the people looking down and keeping watch over their representatives. The Reichstag itself has had a short but complicated history, and if you look at the exterior you’ll noticed discolored patches scattered all over it. During World War 2 the building was badly damaged as the Russians assaulted it, and during the Cold War, German masons repaired it but patched in the holes from bullets and artillery with intentionally discolored stone, much to the displeasure of the Russians. Near the Reichstag you can see the German Chancellery, where Angela Merkel works, and also nearby on the Spree River is a small monument to the Germans who died trying the swim across the river to West Berlin. From there I walked back to Museum Island and went into the Pergamon Museum. Inside is the massive Pergamon Alter, whose steps you can climb. Also inside is the Miletus Gate and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The rest of museum is mostly Middle Eastern artifacts along with a few Greek ones. More than any other museum I had seen, the Pergamon Museum is full of large artifacts, so be sure you have a wide-angle lens for your camera when you go there. When I finished I walked to Alexanderplatz and then took the U-Bahn back to my hostel. Later that night I went back out to do a night walk across Berlin, but I had to wait until 10:00pm to leave because of how late the sun sets at that time of year in Berlin. The walk was honestly a bit disappointing, and Berlin doesn’t light up too many things. The one thing that was well lit and made the whole walk worthwhile was Brandenburg Gate, which takes on an almost golden appearance at night. The Reichstag looked good too. With that, I went back to the hostel and ended the day.
And that was Berlin. The next four towns (Copenhagen, Cologne, Amsterdam and London) were all brief stays so I’m going to lump them all together into a single post. I am typing this update from London, and once I’m back in the United States I will post some photos for you all to see. The journey is almost over.