Today was our day off in Berlin! We took the S-Bahn from Spandau to the Hackescher Markt station. We had decided to do a walking tour with Berlin Walks Tour Co. They had a tour in English. The meeting point was at Hackescher Station at 10:30. The tour cost 12€ and was worth every cent.
Our tour guide was Beth. She is from Wales, did German studies in Great Britain, and was now working as a tour guide. She has been in Berlin for 1 1/2 years. She had to deal with about 50 of us on the tour. There were several Americans, but also Australia and India were represented.
Our intrepid tour guide, Beth
We started the tour with a 10 minute German history lesson covering about 800 years. I learned more about German history in those 10 minutes than I ever learned in school. And, it was very interesting! The name, Berlin, probably comes from a Slavic word for swamp. Indeed, Berlin is pretty much built on a swamp. There is frequently an odor of a swampy nature. When they are doing construction, they must have pipes (mostly pink in color) to pump out the swamp water.
After our oh so brief history lesson, we headed to Museum Island. It is, not surprisingly, an island with only museums on it. Beth said the German way is to call something what you see (say what you see).
The above photo is the only museum to completely survive the Battle of Berlin. The others needed to be rebuilt after the war. Beth recommended all the museums (all cost 12€, or a card can be purchased for all for 18€).
Moving on we came to this other museum and Lustgarten. The large stone bowl below was meant to go in the museum. Unfortunately, they built the museum too fast and by the time the bowl was finished, it couldn't fit through the entrance. Soooo...they put it outside.
To the left of the big bowl was Lustgarten. It is the famous parade ground, and where Hitler made his speeches. Now it's just a area with grass and a fountain.
Next to Lustgarten is the Berliner Dom (Cathedral). It looks very old, but it's not. It was built to look old and was intended to rival St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (it doesn't).
To the right of the Dom (and in the photo below) is the TV Tower. It was built by the East Germans to show the West that they could build something bright and shiny too. Unfortunately, they reached a point in the building where they didn't know how to proceed. They had to have a Swedish (Western) company help them finish it. Another interesting fact is that when the sun shines on the ball part, it creates a big shiny cross. The East Germans were agnostic. The West called it "The Pope's Revenge". The Socialists retorted that it was a "+ sign" for Socialism.
We made our way along Unter den Linden. This was the Straß where the Royal family lived. Across from the palace, is a building that was the guardhouse for the Royal Family. Hitler turned it into a memorial for World War I victims. Then it became a memorial for all victims of War and Dictatorship. The artist, Käthe-Kollwitz, did the sculpture below. Her son was killed in the war. She was famous for saying publicly (during Hitler's reign) that not one single person more should die in war. The only reason she was not killed for saying this was because she was famous all over the world. It would have made Hitler look bad. Lucky for her!
Next we moved on to Humboldt University. This was the site of the infamous Book Burning. 20,000 books of anything thought to be controversial were burned in front of the University.
This is the plaque for the memorial of the Book Burning. The quote is from 100 years before Hitler came to power. It says, "When you begin burning books, you end burning people." Below the plaza there is the memorial itself. It is an empty bookshelf. It is said there is enough room on the bookshelf for 20,000 books. Fittingly, across the street from the plaza, there were vendors selling books.
Next we walked by the old Russian Embassy. Apparently, when Clinton was coming to visit Berlin, the Germans asked the Russians to please remove the large bust of Lenin from the front yard of the Embassy. The Russians said yes, yes, they would do it. A few weeks later Lenin was still sitting out front. The Germans asked again. They said oh yes, we have been busy. We'll do it. It was almost time for Clinton's visit. Still, the Russians had not removed the bust of Lenin. At this point the Germans were getting angry. Again, they approached the Russians. Same answer--yes, we will do it. Clinton arrives and is riding through the city. He asks questions along the way--what is this, what is that, and so on. As they drive by the Russian Embassy, Clinton asks what is the large cardboard box in the front? Some kind of art? Needless to say, the Germans were not happy. Finally, they removed the bust, but after Clinton's visit. Beth said he is now chillin' out in the back somewhere.
After the Embassy, we walked to the Brandenburg S-Bahn station. During the time of The Wall there was a problem with the trains that went from West Germany through the Mitte section of East Berlin, and back to the West. At the stations in the Mitte, East Berliners could just get on the train, and get off in West Germany. They couldn't just not have the train. There were West Germans who lived on one side of the Mitte, but worked on the other side. So, what the East Germans did was close all the stations in the Mitte, and not allow the trains going through to stop. The Brandenburg station, and others in the Mitte, became "Ghost Stations". But people could still escape to the West through the tunnel. So they stationed soldiers to make sure that didn't happen. Of course, there were some soldiers who wanted to escape too. One day, a soldier who had been working in the station didn't come out after his shift. Another soldier said he would go look for him. He didn't come back either. Then a third said he would go look for the other two. He also didn't return. By the time the others figured out that the third guy hadn't come back, the three soldiers had escaped down the tracks. After that, the soldiers guarding the stations were locked into a bunker with small windows, and not let out until after their shift.
From the "Ghost Station" it was just a short walk to the famous Brandenburg Tor.
This was the entrance/exit to the city used by the Royal Family. The King would go out this gate to go hunting in the Tiergarten. The area just inside the gate is called Paris Square. It was to celebrate the Prussian victory over France. Incidentally, the statue on top of the gate was stolen by Napolean when he conquered Berlin. Then when France was defeated, they stole the sculpture back. Her name had been Diana, but when she returned, her name became Victory. She looks to her left...at the French Embassy as if to say, "I'm watching you!"
Also in Paris Square is the Hotel Adlon. This is the most expensive hotel in Berlin. This is also the hotel where Michael Jackson held his son out over the balcony--interesting little tidbit.
Outside, and to the right (we didn't walk there) is the Reichstagg. This was the German Headquarters and where Hitler was able to come to power after the building was set on fire (longer story, of course). It is thought that Hitler's people probably set the fire themselves.
We walked the other direction to the Berlin Memorial for the murdered Jews (and others) of WWII.
The Memorial means different things to different people. It is stark, and when you walk between the taller blocks, it feels dark, and almost like you could not escape. There is no graffiti on the blocks. They have been coated with a chemical that resists the paint. Ironically (and for some, a source of anger), the company that manufactures the chemical was the same company that manufactured the chemicals for the gas chambers in the concentration camps.
There is no information about the Memorial on the Memorial itself. Underneath there is a visitor center. It is free, but we did not go into it on the tour. Beth said it is a difficult place to go. I think, much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.
At this point in the tour we had a 30 minute break. I bought a few souvenirs, Christian had a curry wurst. We met back at the Memorial and continued the tour once all 50 of us where there.
Our next location was a carpark. There is only a small sign to say what this location was. As you can see, it is only some grass and parking spots. However, below this area was Hitler's bunker. In the final days, when it wasn't looking good for Germany, it is the place where Hitler, and Eva Braun committed suicide. The reason there is not a big marker is so the place can not become a shrine to Hitler (there is also no grave of Hitler--he was cremated, and his ashes dumped in the Elbe River).
We walked on past what was the Airforce Ministry in 1936 (completed after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that said, explicitly, that Germany could not have an Airforce). The building survived the war and became the Ministry of Ministries (say what you see). Now it is the Ministry of Finance. This building has an interesting story about an escape over the Berlin Wall. I'll get to that in a minute.
Next to (with a street in between) the Ministry of Finance building is what remains of the Berlin Wall. In the photo above, below The Wall, is the foundation for the Gestapo Headquarters. For this reason, there is no building at this section of The Wall (except on one far corner there is the museum called the Topography of Terrors). When The Wall was first built, it had rolled Barbed wire across the top. The East Germans said The Wall was to keep the West Germans out (ja, sure!). It was felt that the barbed wire gave the wrong impression, and was replaced with the rounded part. It was still impossible to get over (no handhold--and of course the guards with guns didn't help either).
Now for the escape story. When the building across the street from The Wall was the Ministry of Ministries, people could get Passes to enter the building to do their business. One such gentleman went to the building frequently. He noticed that when he would leave, the guards were not so strict about collecting the Pass. So, he hatched a plan. For three visits, he kept the Passes. Then one day him, his wife, and their son, with Passes in hand entered the building. They stayed until the building closed, hiding in the upstairs toilets (they put an Out of Order sign on the door). After the building was empty, they went to the roof. The man had brought a rope with a weight. He threw the rope over the wall to his brother who was waiting on the other side. Then, his wife zip lined over The Wall. The son was next. They promised him a bicycle if he was quiet while going over (if he had made noise, the guards would have seen them and shot them). Finally, the man went over. They made it! In the morning, the guards of the building found the rope. They asked The Wall guards, "What is this?" The Wall guards said they saw the three zip line over The Wall at about midnight the night before. When asked why they didn't shoot them, they replied they thought they were spies being sent to the West!
From The Wall, we walked past the Trabi Museum (yes, there is a museum for the inexpensive East German cars that most people drove) to Checkpoint Charlie.
Everything at the Checkpoint Charlie (the Allies--American) gate through The Wall is now a replica. There is, of course, a museum where you can see the original little gate house.
At one point when The Wall had been opened (another interesting story, but I won't go into it here), an American diplomat wanted to go into East Germany to go to the opera. The East Germans gave him all sorts of grief, but finally allowed him entry, but he missed his opera. The next time he wanted to go across, he brought with him 10 tanks. The East Germans responded by bringing 10 tanks of their own. This resulted in a standoff that lasted 16 hours. If there had been one shot fired, it would have started another war! All because of an opera!
Our final place on the walking tour was the Gendarmemarkt. It was bordered by the French Cathedral, the Concert Hall, and a German Cathedral. It was a bit of an homage to the French, and to show religious tolerance. While we were there, there was a group from The Netherlands playing music in the square. They looked like a school group.
We thanked Beth for doing a great job with such a large group of people. Christian and I walked back to Hackescher Markt. We checked on the bikes (they were fine) and walked over to Die Hackescher Höfe. It is an unusual group of shops. From the outside, it looks like just a building. But, inside, it is a collection of courtyards connected by passageways. There are 8 courtyards each with several shops and restaurants.
There are apartments above the shops.
After Hackescher Höfe, we returned to our bikes. We would now attempt to bike around the city. We wanted a closer look at the TV Tower. Although Berlin is a very large and very busy city, biking was not too difficult. There are so many other people on bikes! The cars seem to expect bikes, and are very courteous (at least compared to anywhere in the US). If there wasn't a bike lane, we biked with the traffic.
We revisited some of the places from the walking tour for a closer look. We also went to the Reichstagg. We couldn't go in because you have to make a reservation online (like the Washington Monument).
Then we biked through the Tiergarten. Again, there were tons of bikes.
The Tiergarten is a Central Park of sorts for Berlin. It is huge and we only biked a small part. After returning to the Brandenburg Gate, we went to a place nearby that had these crosses. They were to commemorate people who had been killed trying to climb over the Berlin Wall.
From there, we made our way back to the S-Bahn station at Hackescher Markt to catch the train back to Spandau. There was an interesting site on the train. This guy didn't look so good.
Is he alive???
Our 12 hours in Berlin netted us 15 miles on the bikes. It was a great day, and I got a feel for the highlights of Berlin. Of course, one could spend days and days going through the museums, but we do not have days and days! We have decided to take a train to Stendal. Christian is worried about not having enough time to make it with me to Jon's in Norway. By taking the train, we save two days. It's good experience for me in case I have to take a train later by myself. Strangely, if we count what we save in camping fees and food, the train does not cost much more.
(As I am writing this, somehow the text has changed to underlined red. I have no idea why.)