Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Berlin: Beyond Expectations

Before visiting Berlin, I had always heard of the architectural oddity and the eclectic nature of the city. Because of this, I wasn’t all that excited to visit the city itself. I was immensely more interested in visiting the locales of historical signifance like the Brandenburg Gate, remnants of the Berlin Wall, and Check Point Charlie. However, after spending a day in Berlin, I am more than pleased to say that  the city was without a doubt a highlight of the cruise. I would love to return one day to explore some more. 

Brandenburg Gate and surrounding buildings
On May 21st we arrived in Warnermünde, Germany where we hopped on board an early morning bus heading toward Berlin. As we traveled through the rain and countryside, I couldn’t help but notice the green rolling hills and the same bright yellow patches of field that we had seen while in England. Our tour guide said the yellow fields were canola, so next time I use canola oil in my cooking I will remember how beautiful its plant form looks in the countryside of western Europe. Upon arriving in Berlin, we immediately passed the yellow tinted walls of Charlottenburg Palace before further proceeding into the city. After a brief stop at the Palace, we drove past Victory Column, a tall golden monument near the center of the city that commemorates the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. Then the remarkable part of the city tour began at the Reichstag, home to the German parliament. The building itself was quite impressive to behold- colossal columns and a massive German flag. The anthill like glass dome on top of the building didn’t quite match the impressive facade of the old parliament building, but it was interesting to learn that: 1) the white adjacent building that houses the offices of the mp’s is connected to the Reichstag by underground tunnels and 2) Hitler never made a speech or worked in the Reichstag. Afterwards, we only walked for about 5 minutes before we came upon the highlight of any trip to Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate. As a personal fan of President Reagan, it was quite the historical experience to stand at the location where he gave his famous speech “Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” On a slightly humorous note, after passing from west Berlin into east Berlin through the Gates, we stopped in front of a glamorous hotel on the plaza. This hotel was the location where Michael Jackson had held his son Blanket from over the balcony. Another fun fact about Michael Jackson and Berlin- during the height of the cold war, West Berlin brought in famous “western” musical artist to play in concerts. West Berliners would purposefully turn the concert speakers to the east Berlin side in order to spread the prohibited western music in the east. The West Berliners even did so with Michael Jackson’s music. 

Our next stop included a visit of remembrance to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe near the Brandenburg Gate. This was one of the most thought provoking memorials I had ever visited. The memorial included over 1700 large grey stones of varying heights. While walking through the paths between the stones, eventually the grey stones overshadow you until you reach the other side. Interestingly, the creators of the memorial never provided an interpretation for the meaning behind the stone memorial. Personally, I believe that the ever increasing height of the stones represents the annihilation of the Jewish people. As you walk through the stones and disappear into the greyness, the stones represent the Jewish people. Their humanity and life were taken from them with ever more frequency as the war and genocide continued. On our way out of the memorial, our tour guide pointed out a tall tree not too far into the distance. She informed us that this tree marked the location of Hitler’s bunker where he supposedly killed himself alongside his wife at the war’s end. 
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The next three stops came straight out of a history lover’s dream. First, my parents and I got to see a large section of the Berlin Wall where we were able to stand with each foot on either side of the line that marks the location where the Berlin Wall stood over 20 years before. I was fascinated to learn that the Berlin Wall was built in less than 24 hours in 1961 while the city was at work. This original wall was simply made from barbed wire (no cement yet), but those who worked on a different side of the wall from where they lived were separated from loved ones until the collapse of the wall in 1989. Successful attempts to escape from the East were infrequent. The creativity of Eastern Berliners was especially impressive: people made underwater one-manned submarines, they jumped from buildings, and they escaped through concert sound equipment. Those who attempted to run, we learned, were often mowed down in what was known as the death strip where barbed wire, machine guns, and land mines served as deadly obstacles to freedom. Second, we drove through the city to see the small, yet infamous historic locale known as Check Point Charlie. We were able to see the check point (which served as an important barrier between the east and the west) only from a distance. Swat teams and police officers had barricaded the street on which Check Pointe Charlie was located. As we learned later, the authorities had discovered an old bomb from the WWII era in the Check Pointe Charlie area while we were visiting. What a way to remember this historical site. Third, we visited an old library, now home to the Humboldt Law School. In front of this library, Hitler had the Nazis burn any books that did not support support/complement his propaganda. On the location where all the books were infamously burned, there exists a memorial built into the guard. If you look into the glass portal of the memorial, you will only see empty book shelves symbolizes the books that were burned and forever lost. 
In the east and west with the Berlin Wall behind

The final 3 hours of our day in Berlin were spent in the trendy east Berlin. To make the experience even more memorable we stopped at a traditional German restaurant where we sampled German dark and light beer, pretzels, bread balls, sausage, sauerkraut, ham, sour potato casserole, and so much more. This was by far the best German food that I have ever eaten- absolutely delicious. Plus, we had a spectacular view of Gendermenmarkt plaza complete with identical cream and green Lutheran and Huguenot Churches from the restaurant. From the plaza, we walked to the absolutely colossal and magnificent Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) where we enjoyed strolling around the park and embankment on the nearby river. We briefly passed by Museum Island as well. There, five large museums in Neoclassical architectural style offer varying museum themes from ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean antiquities to 19th century art collections. The architecture alone of these museums is worth the visit- the cement and stone structures are islands themselves- the walls of the buildings are grounded into the large river, giving the impression that these buildings have recently emerged from the depths of the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t have to visit Altes Museum which hosts the infamous bust of Nofretete. One day I will have to return to Berlin in order to explore Museum Island further. 

Berlin Cathedral
In many ways, Berlin surpassed all of my expectations. I thought that the varying architectural styles of the city would be off-putting, but I found that to be the contrary. It simply added to the historical significance of the city. I was surprised to discover the number of vast Cathedrals that exist in Eastern Berlin, yet these Cathedrals stand alongside some drab Soviet buildings and even more modern buildings that were constructed post 1989.  Then there is Western Berlin, which has also undergone some changes. We learned that during the time of the east-west split, the area of Western Berlin that had been close to the wall had practically been a worn down ghost town. Now expensive department stores and high rises command this once empty area. Berlin has undergone drastic changes within the last 20 years. It would have been quite amazing to be able to compare the city from its divided days to the present. Berlin is rich with history, and quite a remarkable place. I didn’t think this city would touch my heart quite like it did. The history nerd in me loved this city; I hope I have the opportunity to return soon. 

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