City Break 2010 – Berlin
Berlin is a fascinating mix of new and old. Most of the city is less than sixty years old, having been almost completely flattened during the second world war (er, that would be down to us, then). Much of it has a new, modern feel – all glass-fronted shopping centres and modern architecture and carefully landscaped gardens. Since the city was rebuilt after the war, its landscape has changed twice more – once in the 1960s when the Berlin Wall went up, and again at the end of the 1980s, when the Wall came down.
A line marking where the Wall stood is marked out through the middle of the city. Its path is bizarrely abrupt, bisecting roads and housing estates. During our three day visit to this cosmopolitan European city, we strolled freely over the line many times, aware of the fact that twenty-five years ago this would not have been possible.
Even if you don’t notice when you step over the line, it’s hard to miss the Eastern Bloc architecture – all dreary and functional concrete blocks. The city is still in the process of tearing down the East Berlin legacy – road works and scaffolding are everywhere. Berlin’s ambitious rebuild plans means it is changing very quickly. Certain sections of the Wall still remain, the longest being right next to the building that used to be the Third Reich headquarters. There are no guards there anymore, nor any Nazi flags, but the building still looks intimidating, as no doubt it was designed to be
The section where Checkpoint Charlie was is a little disappointing. In its spot, a series of posters telling the story of the Berlin Wall – the events that led to its erection, and ultimately its destruction – are on display. The sign declaring that one is entering the West remains, but, ironically, the first building that sits on the East side of it now is that great symbol of American capitalism, McDonalds.
All over Berlin, souvenir shops sell little pieces of the Wall sealed in boxes. Somehow I doubt their authenticity. I know the Wall was long, but the rubble has sold by the bucketload for over twenty years now.
The old buildings that house Berlin’s museums still stand, on what used to be the East side of Berlin. The impressive Greek-style pillars that support them are all riddled with bullet holes, the building facades sporting huge holes where shells and bombs have torn away the concrete and the marble. One can’t help but think about the fact that all of these antiquities – including the Processional Street of Babylon and the famous bust of Nefertiti – were lost to West Germans for the twenty years they were hidden behind the Wall.
My husband has a fascination for anything to do with Hitler or World War II, a fascination I confess I do not share. When we walked around the Deutsches Technikmuseum, which is full of planes, trains and boats, he was enthusiastically taking photographs of what I thought were just mangled aeroplanes. Turns out that these mangled wrecks were rare WWII fighters, the remains salvaged because no other examples of these planes remain. I had run out of stamina by the time we visited this museum – we’d walked all over Berlin by that point, and all I wanted to do was find a cafe somewhere and sit down with a nice cup of tea. So I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about viewing wrecked bombers as he was.
We also took a wander through Berlin zoo, which is expansive and has many animals, including a panda and a rather famous polar bear. Apparently during the War, the zoo was hit by bombs and a lot of the animals escaped. I can’t imagine how much havoc terrified lions wandering free around Berlin must have caused in a city already mired in chaos and confusion.
The people of Berlin are friendly and cosmopolitan, welcoming all these visitors that come to their city. A few years ago, it seemed they were uncomfortable with their history. Now they seem to have accepted it as the past. What’s done is done – they are looking to the future.
As we travel around the world, it’s always interesting to me to note the mind set of people of a certain country. There are always national characteristics. In Germany, it is efficiency and adherence to rules. You don’t find any native Berliner crossing the road on a red light. Oh, no. They stand and wait for the green man to appear, regardless of whether or not there is traffic. This foxed me the first few times – as a Londoner I am used to dashing across the road when there’s a gap in traffic. This gets you some rather furious scowls in Berlin.
If you’ve read my other travel blogs you will know I have a thing about toilets. Public toilets in Berlin are a joy – clean; functional; always stocked with toilet paper; always locking doors on the cubicles. After our recent forays through Africa and Asia, it was a pleasure to use German toilets.
We were in Berlin only three days in the middle of October. We packed a great deal in to those three days. It’s not a city to go for a sunshine break – it was decidedly chilly when we were there – but it’s a city that blends the old and new, rich in history, and the role it played in shaping the 20th century world cannot be ignored.