Berlin

Seems like Berlin should be an interesting place to spend Lynn's half-term holiday. It may also be a source of background for the Open University course "Total war and social change: Europe 1914-1955" that she is studying during 2009.

The following is my record of our holiday.

2009-05-25

There are no direct flights from Birmingham to Berlin but the convenience of flying from our local airport outweighs the inconvenience of changing planes. Travel connections are very good at Birmingham Airport so our daughter travels with us and picks up a fast train to Manchester. We fly on KLM from Birmingham changing in Amsterdam and arriving at Tegel Airport. Tegel is a small airport that is scheduled to close following the completion of Schönefeld, supposedly in 2011. A pity really since travel through small airports is so much more pleasant. A short 18EUR taxi ride gets us to our hotel.

We chose to stay at Hotel Berlin, not very imaginatively named but very nice. Neither of us have visited Berlin before so we decided to stay somewhere reasonably central and our hotel is located on Lützowplatz show on a map, just a short walk south of Tiergarten.

Our taxi had passed Europa Center on our way to the hotel and we decided that would be a reasonable place to explore on our first evening. It was a warm, pleasant evening and only took about 20 minutes to walk (~1 mile) there. We sat in the open near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche) at Mövenpick and enjoyed a light snack and drinks plus some people watching. The Pound - Euro exchange rate is still not very favourable at 1.13 but I suppose is an improvement from our Christmas holiday in Finland when it was at parity.

Before leaving home I had booked a walking tour of Berlin which started from Zoo station (Zoologischer Garten). This was just across the road so decided to make sure we knew where it was for tomorrow. After finding the approximate meeting place we set off North along the edge of the Zoo until we stumbled upon Schleusenkrug biergarten. Where better to stop as the sun is setting. The shortest route back to our hotel would have been along the southern edge of the Landwehr Canal but the route closes at 21:00 when the Zoo closes so we returned the way we came.

Days walking: 5,400 paces

2009-05-26

Tuesday morning and we start the day with an excellent breakfast in the hotel. The weather forecast is for a significant thunderstorm in the afternoon and it is already overcast as we set off for a morning's exploration. We walk a short distance North and then walk along the southern edge of Tiergarten with mostly embassies lining the south side of Tiergarten Strasse. We walked until we entered an area of Tiergarten with some more formal gardens which is just inside and North of Stauffenbergstrasse and the point at which we planned to leave and head for the German Resistance Memorial Centre.

From Berlin
Bendler Block  show on a map

The museum is housed in a small part of The Bendler Block which during the war years housed various military institutions. It is a forbidding looking building constructed of grey stone. The museum is small, which in itself may suggest something.

When we visited one floor was occupied by a special exhibition "Shoes, Bread ... Living on in Auschwitz". I have visited Auschwitz so there was not much that I was not familiar with. The interesting thing for me was the commentary associated with each section by German youths who had visited recorded their impressions.

The other floor was the permanent exhibition. While there were a few leaflets in English all the historical documents were in German as was most of the explanatory material posted beside the various exhibits. We managed to collect a few leaflets and purchased a book that may prove useful in Lynn's studies. While the museum was quite interesting we left with more questions than answers.

No more time for exploring if we are to get a quick bite to eat before we have to head off to the Zoo to meet up for our afternoon walk.

The weather really starts to look threatening and we call back at our hotel to borrow a couple of umbrellas. As we leave the hotel the first few drops of rain begin to fall. When we get to the "West" meeting point for Original Berlin Walks it is raining fairly steadily. Lisa is to be our guide and gives us the option to do the tour on another day as the weather is poor. We are English so we'd do very little if we let a drop of rain stop us and decide to go ahead with the tour. It seems that no one else is as daft as us and the three of us set off for what should be about a 4 hour tour. We start of by taking the S-Bahn from Zoo station a few stops to the East meeting point near Hackescher Markt Station. No one joins here so it is just the 3 of us, a private tour!

Lisa is a good guide and kept up a constant narrative about the large number of sites that we visited. While it was all interesting a couple of items really grabbed my attention. I was aware of Nazi book burnings but standing in Bebelplatz at the site of the book burning ceremony held on 10th May 1933 was a very powerful experience. The monument is incredibly apt, simply a view onto empty bookcases. Beside the monument is a prescient quote:

"Das war ein vorspiel nur, Dort
wo man Bücher verbrennt,
verbrennt man am ende auch Menschen"

Heinrich Heine 1820

Which in English would read: "Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people."

The other place which got me thinking was Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas). We arrived at the north-west corner of the memorial and Lisa said that she would not take us "through" the memorial instead she said that we should work our way through it and meet her at the south-east corner. Walking through is a interesting experience, you have to follow the strict grid lines but the paths rise and fall at the same time that the pillars also change height. You also gradually notice that the pillars are not all quite vertical. When we met up with Lisa again we talked a little about our impressions and how it had affected us.

The memorial is, in my opinion, an unusual but effective one. However, I had thought that this place was called the Holocaust Memorial (Holocaust-Mahnmal) and do not understand why it should not be a memorial to all the victims of the Holocaust. Lisa told us that in recognition of other categories of victim yet more memorials are being planned, including ones for the Sinti and Roma and homosexuals.

As things turned out the rain had only been intermittent but as we were headed to the final location on the tour, Gendarmenmarkt show on a map, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour erupted. We decided to call it a day, skipped Gendarmenmarkt and took the U-Bahn to Nollendorfplatz show on a map, the nearest stop to our hotel.

The rain stopped and we decided to go out and find a place to eat, the area around Nollendorfplatz had looked interesting and we ended up eating an enjoyable, and very reasonably priced, meal at a small Vietnamese restaurant SAO MAI.

Days walking: 12,300 paces

2009-05-27

Wednesday morning is much cooler following the storm and we decided to spend the day at Potsdam. A return S-Bahn ticket from Zoo station to Potsdam Hauptbahnhof cost us 6.50EUR for the ~25km journey. Our train happened to be a slow train stopping at pretty much every station.

Potsdam Hauptbahnhof is a new, well organised station just across the water from the historic inner city. As you look north from the station you can see the dome of the Church of St Nicholas (Nikolaikirche) and you take the bridge in this direction. We did not see the Church at its best as is was undergoing renovation and much of the outside was covered though the inside was pretty interesting. The surrounding area was not very appealing, the renovation is a necessary blot on the landscape but to the west there were unoccupied, uninspiring buildings that were relics from the time before reunification. Not a place to linger. We headed north up Friedrich-Ebert Strasse until we found a nice little corner cafe where we could consider what we wanted to see. We settled on plan to explore the historic inner city followed by Sanssouci Park.

We continued heading North as far as Nauen Gate (Nauener Tor) show on a map, this structure seemed out of place, it served no apparent function as it is standalone and you simply go around it if you cannot go through it. It seems that its only purpose was decorative and I started to think "Disneyland". I now know that it was built based on a sketch by Frederick II.

From here we turned around a headed west on Brandenburger Strasse which is mostly lined by the shops you can see in any European city, i.e. not very interesting. This route seemed the easiest way to get out of the "Historic Inner City" and on to Sanssouci Park. At the end of Brandenburger Strasse is yet another seemingly pointless structure, the Brandenburg Gate show on a map, a pale imitation of the one in Berlin. Disneyland!

We entered Sanssouci Park in the south-east near Friedenskirche and walked towards the Sanssouci Palace heading up through the terraced vineyards. The views across the park from the top of the terrace are superb. This place was much more pleasant than walking through the faux inner city. The time we spent exploring this huge park (almost 300ha [~1square mile]) was delightful and could only have been improved with weather that was less threatening.

To get back to Hauptbahnhof we had to walk back through Disneyland "Historic Inner City" and did not feel inclined to pause.

We managed to get a regional train back which was much quicker and only had a couple of stops. Unfortunately I forgot to validate our tickets before boarding the train but was lucky enough not to get a fine!

The weather continued to be cool and unpredictable but we decided to try our luck at Cafe am Neuen show on a map, a biergarten in Tiergarten where we shared a simple meal and a couple of drinks sitting by the lake. Lynn managed to get a blanket to keep her warm.

Days walking: 12,200 paces

2009-05-28

thumbnail of Trümmerfrauen

Thursday, no outings planned for today. We decided that we would revisit some of the places we saw on Tuesday's tour and visit the one place that we missed because of the thunderstorm, i.e. Gendarmenmarkt. Lynn would like to visit some additional places including the the Jewish Museum and the monument to the "brick ladies". A friend of Lynn's family had cleaned bricks from the rubble after 1945 and she would have liked to see the statue commemorating those women known as Trümmerfrauen. Finding out where it is was not easy and when we eventually tracked it down to Hasenheide Park show on a map we decided it was a bit far to walk in the time available.

We head off in the direction of Potsdamer Platz. As we walked walk north along Potsdamer Strasse the skyline started to change as we approached the post-reunification developments around Potsdamer Platz. Along the way we take a quick peek in the New National Gallery (Neue Nationalgalerie), the ground floor of which was a large square almost empty space.

The changes around Potsdamer Platz in the last 20 years are enormous but you only have to walk a few meters west of the old east-west border along Leipziger to see that creative destruction is still going on.

When we actually get to the Jewish Museum we change our mind about going in, I was never particularly keen and the queues at the security checks seem to have tipped the balance for Lynn too. It is not long before we are back in territory that we visited with Lisa, the difference being that the weather is much nicer. Even with bright sunshine the old Reich Air Ministry headquarters, that is now the Finanz Ministry, still looks foreboding. I'm not sure what it is that makes building from this era look so forbidding , perhaps it is the gray stone, perhaps something about the windows.

thumbnail of Wall

We "cross" the wall as we head for "Topographie des Terrors", a museum on the topic of the Gestapo and the SS whose headquarters used to occupy this site. This primarily an outdoor exhibition though a permanent exhibition building is planned. Not surprisingly , the information is disturbing.

Time for a break, we stop at a small nearby cafe for coffee but I see on the menu that they serve soljanka, a soup that I really enjoy and have not seen for years. I cannot resist and really enjoy reminding my palate of the flavour!

We once again walk past Checkpoint Charlie with a couple of fake soldiers prepared to pose for photos as we head for Gendarmenmarkt show on a map. This square is often billed as Berlin's most beautiful square, it is pleasant enough but the claim is somewhat exaggerated. There are three main buildings, two very similar Cathedrals: the French Cathedral on the north side and the German Cathedral on the South side and between them the Konzerthaus Berlin. We went inside the Deutscher Dom (German Cathedral) and while it is a pretty building the "German Bundestag Historic Exhibition" that it was hosting was not terribly interesting.

Our final sight of the day was a visit to the Reichstag. It is certainly an impressive building. We had discussed taking a tour, particularly of the dome, but we would have to be prepared for some serious time queuing, not something that I am good at. We had been told that first thing in the morning is the best time but that there are always queues. Sure enough, they were queueing out of the building when we got there late in the afternoon.

According to some literature I picked up at the Deutscher Dom the Bundestag (which sits at the Reichstag building) is the world's most visited parliament. About 3 million visitors a year. No wonder there are queues!

Near the south-west corner of the Reichstag is a Memorial to Murdered Members of Parliament show on a map. This is a small but thoughtful monument for which there is little mention, at least in English. It would seem that it is a memorial dedicated to 96 members of the Reichstag who were murdered by the National Socialists. Each cast iron tablet has the name of the victim as well the date and place where they died, mostly concentration camps, along the top edge of the tablet.

We wended our way slowly back to the hotel passing the Soviet War Memorial show on a map in Tiergarten along the way.

For dinner we finally make it back to the Schleusenkrug biergarten but the weather is still cool and unpredictable so, like most people there, we eat indoors. The atmosphere just wasn't the same as when we sat outside on a busy summers day just 3 days earlier. Oh well, c'est la vie!

Days walking: 13,500 paces

2009-05-29

Friday, our last full day and the decision is that we will visit Sachsenhausen concentration camp. We were very happy with the "Discover Berlin Tour" we took on Tuesday and decided to join their "Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial Tour". Once again we joined the tour at Zoo station. The tour cost 15.00EUR each plus 5.60EUR each for the return train journey to Orienburg which is about 50km North of Berlin. We meet up with some more folks at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, there are 8 of us on the tour plus our guide Sarah. We catch a regional train which means a quick journey with only a couple of stops.

From Orienburg we need to take a bus to get to Sachsenhausen. No food or drink is available at Sachsenhausen and those that had not already bought something did so at the station. The bus ride is only a short one, they walk to the camp at the weekend when the bus does not run.

We start of by visiting the Visitor Centre where Sarah shows us the overall plan and describes how it was designed as a Panopticon to provide the most economical use of guards.

Sarah takes us through the reasons why Sachsenhausen was created and why the Nazis built the concentration camp system. She made distinctions between the different kinds of camp and that this one was not specifically a death camp, though an unknown number in the 10s of thousands actually did meet their end here. The main death camps were in the East, specifically in Poland, of which Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest. The third category of camp was the work camp where inmates laboured in support of the war effort. Both Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz (Monowitz) also had work camps.

As we toured the camp Sarah took us through its history covering the Nazi period until 1945, the period when it was a Soviet Special camp and the period since 1961 when it has been a Memorial. I'm not going to try and paraphrase what Sarah told us or summarise what we saw, if you want to know I'd suggest you visit either this or one of the other concentration camps that are now memorials.

The return journey was basically the reverse of the outbound journey but with an added frisson. We took an S-Bahn train back and I was careful to validate our tickets, at least I thought I had. Something in our conversation caused me to look at our tickets and I realised that I had validated the wrong ones, arrgghhh! I definitely do not want a fine and haven't enough cash to pay one if I got caught. Luckily, the S-Bahn stops at every station so as we stopped I leapt of the train and searched for a machine, it was at the "wrong" end of the platform so, to put it mildly, had to hurry to get the tickets validated and get back on the same train. I made it but my carriage was now several forward of Lynn and they were not connecting carriages which meant I had to switch carriages at every stop until I rejoined the group. Will I ever learn!

It is close to 17:00 when we decide to leave at Friedrichstrasse. We stopped for a drink and snack at nearby Deponie, a very nice little cafe in the arches under the railway. Would you believe it, they serve soljanka, I have to try it.

Our walk back towards our hotel takes us through Potsdamer Platz, it is really spectacularly lit at night. We decide to finish off the evening and see "Angels & Demons" at the cinema in the Sony Center.

Days walking: 11,400 paces

2009-05-30

We have a midday flight home via Amsterdam so settle for a leisurely breakfast before taking a taxi to the airport. The trip was uneventful, about as good as it gets!

Afterword

My pedometer recorded that I walked ~54,800 paces during our four days in Berlin, my pace is a little more than 1 meter so in total we walked about 60km (~37miles). Berlin is a very walkable city with few hills, little traffic and plenty parks and wide roads. Cycling is also popular and less than half of the population of Berlin drive cars.

The Good

The city itself is interesting architecturally and also historically. The history is more subtle than many cities as there are relatively few historical building most having been destroyed during the Second World War. The initial tour with Original Berlin Walks was a good overview of the city. Having visited Auswitz a couple of years ago I probably wouldn't have visited Sachsenhausen but went to accompany Lynn. That said, it was a very good tour and Sarah did an excellent job.

There is a vibrancy about Berlin that is unlike other German cities I have visited, it would now be tough to choose between Munich and Berlin.

The Bad

Nothing comes to mind.

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