I never tire of train travel in Europe. It was so lovely to once again see the little summer gardens lining the train lines. My train had a delayed departure but the driver seemed to be doing his/her best to make up for time, clocking up a cool 250km for a good part of the journey.
The arrival into Berlin was as I had expected – to a very clean, large and and contemporary station. As I made my way to the part of the city in which I was staying, Kreusberg, the city appeared less ‘new and shiny’. It became obvious almost immediately that the Berliners had an even greater love of graffiti than the folk of places like Rio and Bogota. Unfortunately they were not so driven for it to be aesthetically pleasing – I guess a reflection of their determination to be seen as people pushing all boundaries.
I was absolutely thrilled when I arrived at my Airbnb accommodation, which was an old apartment with 12 ft ceilings and an eclectic mix of furnishings – I would discover over the coming days that Berliners are the consummate recyclers preferring to recycle furniture and clothes than succumb to the temptation of disposing in favour of shiny new things!
Kerstin quickly oriented me and encouraged me to use the afternoon/evening to take in the atmosphere, something Keren had also suggested was the best way to enjoy Berlin.
It only took a few minutes of walking and observing to realise that Berlin is very ‘now’. The locals dressed with individuality and exude a presence of calm despite the area being like a West End / Newtown on speed (and given the offerings along the way there is no shortage) – it was Bowie who said he went to Berlin to escape heroin to find access to more than he’d ever imagined!
I enjoyed a walk along East Side Gallery, a part of the Berlin Wall restored with artistic graffiti on the east side and the less attractive graffiti on the west. The rationale for the contrast would become apparent when I visited the remaining part of the original wall.
The early evening was bringing out the locals of Kreusberg. Everyone seemed to have a beer in hand – some pushing their bikes, some meandering the streets and others sitting by the canals. When in Berlin…..
For my first full day I opted for a walking tour of the city sights to get my bearings for the next two days. It was an interesting tour giving bits of history on the war and the soviet occupation of parts of Germany.
Having watched The Book Thief on the flight over I was fascinated to be in the spot of the Humbolt University where Goebbels had initiated the burning of some 20 000 selected books during the Nazi era (interesting move from a country that invented the printer!).
The visit to the remaining part of the wall was interesting as I’d always thought the wall had gone around East Berlin but it was actually around West Berlin to stop East Berliners going into the West. It was here that I also learnt of the death strip – the obstacle course of death constructed on the east side of the wall – explained how such a low wall had stopped so many (some 150 – 200 people died trying to enter West Berlin). The western Berliners had been able to walk right up to the wall in contrast to the East Berliners, hence the commemoration at the Eastside Gallery having run-of-the-mill graffiti on the west side and politically enriched graffiti on the east side. The wall was constructed in 1961 and brought down in 1989 (with unification occurring in the following year) – I still remember tearing up at the scenes on the news of it being brought down!
I also learnt a lot about the former Prussian rulers – they used an interesting strategy to build their empire in Germany offering land to the persecuted and embracing tolerance of the range of religions; signified by the pagan temple flanked by Christian places of worship.
Throughout the city there was evidence of the Germans’ attempts to reconcile the atrocities of the war. The site where Hitler and Goebells and their wives met their demise being just a dirt carpark (apparently the bunker was encased in cement ensuring it could never be available for public ‘viewing/homage’). Memorials are erected around the city in memory of the various groups of people who had met their fate during the war – foremost being the Jews (with the imposing 2711 solid blocks) but also recognising gays and lesbians and the gypsies among others.
The Brandenburg Gate, built by the Prussians in 1791, was certainly imposing, leading the way to the lovely city gardens and the Reichstag – the impressive parliamentary building.
The tour had inspired me to find out more about Germany’s history so for the afternoon I headed to the German Historical Museum. Unfortunately I spent a little too much time reading the plates on the early history that when the closing was announced I had missed the floor on post 1918! Never mind, my head was starting to hurt with the download so I made my way back home.
Day three in Berlin and the weather was a little warmer so I headed to the Badeschiff; the pool immersed in the River Spree alongside the grunge warehouse clubbing precinct. From what I could work out from the signs it was 30 euro for one hour but I managed to be given the opportunity to get in for a quick look. A cool spot – music pumping, deck chairs for sunning surrounding the heated pool and a very Tiki inspired bar. The pool had a great view of the Molecule Man Sculpture on the river (I wondered if I’d get to see the others installed across the world). No photos allowed unfortunately – could really see this working in the West End reaches of the Brisbane River! At least we’ve got the weather for it! I had also loved the little floating bars adjoining the clubs – almost had an Asian feel about them.
The guide from my city tour had booked my reservation for the Pergamon Museum so I ventured back toward the city centre. When I saw the line for those without a reservation I felt guilty I hadn’t been more generous with my tip to the guide. I reckon he’d saved me at least a 90 minute wait.
On entering the museum I understood what the fuss was about. To see the Ishtar Gate of Babylon with its Prosessional Way inside a building was amazing. I then stepped through the Market Gate of Miletus, which took me back to my visit to Ephesus in 2008. Next of these monumental exhibits was the Pergamon Altar (180-160 BC), with its frieze that is believed to have taken 20 years to finish. My timing was spot on as this part of the museum is closing in September until 2020, while the altar is moved to allow additional pieces to be included with the exhibit. The final significant piece was the Jordanian Mshatta Facade. The palace was never finished and the facade was gifted to the museum after works commenced to construct a train line to Damscus and Mecca adjacent to it. I really enjoyed the Islamic artefacts, again bringing back fond memories of my visit to Turkey.
My last museum visit was to be the Neues Museum, primarily to see the well preserved painted limestone bust of Nefertiti and the golden celestial hat (only four known to have survived the millennia). I must admit I had become a bit desensitised to Egyptian antiquities having seen such wonders in all their glory in Egypt – a reminder to myself of my privileged life.
On exiting the museum I bumped into Glenda and Terry, from South Brisbane, who I’d met on the walking tour. They encouraged me to visit the Berlin Cathedral, which was very nice with its elaborate gold altar and impressive dome.
A bit dark but I must admit I do love a crypt and my legs were telling me “enough is enough” (no dome today) so I ventured down to see the rather unusual collection of elaborate and austere vaults – the crowns bearing witness to those from nobility.
A few beers with a bit of people watching at the local alternative pub on arrival back to Kreusberg before turning in – what a melting pot of people! The accents of the locals were varied, highlighting the great attraction of this city.
I farewelled Gero who was leaving the next day to shoot a film in Nairobi and chatted with Kerstin about local issues like the treatment of the ever present refugees in the streets. I had really enjoyed my stay; Kerstin and Gero had certainly made me feel at home.
I had planned to spend my final morning breakfasting by a canal but that proved easier said than done. Turns out the Germans (or at least Berliners in Kreusberg) are partial to a sleep in – it was quite a challenge to find a cafe open for breakfast before 10!
I’d had a great time in Berlin and could certainly have used another few days to chill but alas it was time to move on to Munich. The only thing I wouldn’t miss were the apartment stairs….I imagine the low level apartments are significantly more expensive than their loftier neighbours!