We arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof at 2pm after a minor train delay and a 4 1/2 hour train ride from Prague. The impressive glass and steel construction of the new main train station was a sign of things to come - example after brilliant example of a city reborn, and a people coming together.
We used the remarkably efficient S-Bahn and U-Bahn from Hauptbahnhof to Zoologischer Garten, and on to Nollendorfplatz where we checked into the brilliantly named "Hotel Berlin, Berlin."
Streets of Colour
Its festival season in Europe as most cities harness the summer weather for street parades, parks and outdoor sports. Our district near Nollendorfplatz was alive with colour as we walked through the packed gay and lesbian street parade, complete with wurst (sausage) stalls, beer tents and a great number of very interesting people having a fantastic time!
Near Hauptbahnhof, there was also the Berlin leg of an international volleyball tournament, which we stumbled across and walked into (I'm pretty sure it was free entry?) the women's gold medal match; as well as the Berlin 'Velothon', which looked roughly equivalent to Sydney's City to Surf - on bikes! Men and women of all ages were geared up in biking suits and pedalling around town, and it looked well organised (and plenty of fun) with streets cordoned of for the occasion.
In the evening, we took full advantage of our final (and very swish) Expedia bargain hotel, making use of the very smart gym and sauna facilities.
New (and Old) Berlin
On a bright and sunny Sunday morning we headed into Pariser Platz adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, to meet Sandeman's New Europe walking tour of Berlin. Sandeman's New Europe has presence in cities all around Europe and conduct free walking tours, (as well as some add ons extra tours) in cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, London etc.
Our guide was Emma, a ginger haired lass from Glasgow, who was extremely knowledgable and confessed her thoughts that Berlin was the "greatest city in the world" - and spoke with humour and fervour throughout that convinced us of her sincerity!
The tour began in alongside the Brandenburg Gate, which erected in the 18th century, and was part of the no-man's land or "death strip" during the period of the Berlin Wall. Pariser Platz now hosts the American and French embassies.
We walked by the Reichstag, the current house of Germany's parliament - an old building that has undergone a remarkable renovation, bringing it into the 21st century post reunification with its glass dome.
We moved onto the "Memorial for Jewish Victims of the Holocaust", an eery memorial the size of a city block, made up of simple grey rectangular columns of varying sizes set on undulating ground. You can walk through the memorial, interpret it how you will, and it promotes one to think about how such a tradgegy came about. Its location in the heart of town ensures it will not be forgotten.
We walked past the monotone Luftwaffer headquarters (anyone seen Valkyrie?), past the site of Hitler's final bunkers (which, by the way, is in no way commemorated and marked only by a simple matter of fact historical sign, so as not to give any neo-nazi or disturbed people a gathering point) toward a remnant of the Berlin Wall near the famous 'Checkpoint Charlie' on Friedrichstrasse, a border crossing between east and west Berlin. This is where the Soviet Union and the United States faced off for decades during the Cold War including an incident in which tanks and soldiers physically lined up on either side of the border, guns pointed, for days on end. Despite the history, the place is said to be called 'Berlin's Disneyland' by the locals who point out that nothing is original - including the famous 'You are now leaving the American Quarter' sign.
The Wall itself is one of 3 remaining portions still standing in Berlin. Put up in 1961 to stop mass exodus of East Germans into the west (whom they considered 'traitors'), where they would find better living conditions, freedom and 'Coca Cola', the Soviets firstly erected a barb wire fence and then eventually a reinforced concrete wall encircling the West German enclave of West Berlin (Berlin the city, is located deep inside East Germany). On the East German side were guards, obstacles, a smaller wall, and guards who had orders to shoot anyone on sight who approached the wall - thus the colloquial "death strip". When the wall came down, this strip which runs right through the middle of unified Berlin, became the world's largest construction site.
As a nice memorial to the wall, a cobbled line runs through Berlin marking where the wall once ran. Simple liberties like traversing this line were simply not possible just 20 years ago.
The last few stops on the tour were the Gemandsmarkt, Babelplatz (the scene of the Nazi book burning of undesirable authors or political opponents), the Neue Wache (memorial to those who have suffered 'through war or tyranny', made up of an empty room with single statue, or a mother holding her dead son), and Museum Insel - a nice park surrounded by 4 museums as well as the Berliner Dom.
The Jewish Museum in Berling is a really nice museum known as much for its meaningful architecture as its powerful exhibits, the museum traces through the history of the Jewish people in Germany, their suffering during the holocaust, and how they have survived as a people. It also tells stories of survivors, descendants, and those who passed. The exhbits are organised in zig-zagged lines and empty spaces pervade the building, representing emptiness. At one end is the 'holocaust tower' - an unheated empty concrete tower in which you can reflect on this terrible event.
We also attended a nearby concentration camp (or work camp) in Sachsenhausen, through which tens of thousands of people suffered and died either through malnutrition, disease, through mistreatment, as a result of medical experimentation, or simply murdered through neckshots or by gas. The museum is a potent memorial and exhibit about the conditions of the prisoners, how they survived and how they were liberated. Strangely, there is also an interesting history post the liberation, as to how the site was used as a memorial to the victory over fascism by the East Germans (GDR).
The episode of history raises some questions, as to me it beggars belief that such a catastrophe could happen, that people could be convinced that this was a path worth following and executing this horrible plan, and that others could stand by and watch it happen. It also generates a sigh of relief that liberal democracy and free markets have flourished and emerged victorious despite obstacles and withstanding current conditions - leading to a peace and freedom for this continent and around the world.
A City Reborn
Two great symbols of Berlin reborn are the new Reichstag, in which parliament now sits; and Potsdamer Platz, a modern and glitzy city area with a grand dome and the home of Sony's headquarters, which used to lie in the so-called "death strip".
The Reichstag was used as parliament prior to WWII and although in West Berlin, it was so close to the border that the capital of West Germany was moved deep into its territory, to Bonn. The building's recent refurbishment and new glass dome was designed by Norman Foster and is meant to represent the transparency of parliament to the people, who can visit the dome and see right down into the chambers where parliament takes place. It also offers some fantastic views over Berlin (although you need some patience to get past the queues!).
The resolve of the people of this city to come through such adversity and emerge in this fashion, the energy this creates and the manner in which they have gone about it, makes Berlin a truly remarkable place.