90% of Berlin was destroyed in WWII, but after years of rebuilding, it is now one of the more modern cities I’ve been to in Europe. Yet even with its modern flare, it was all the history here that really caught my interest. After only a few hours, I knew 2 days wouldn’t be enough. I definitely made the most of my time though, walking over 30 miles between the two days.
I made sure to see a lot of the major sites like the Reichstag Building (their Parliament building), the Brandenburg Gate, Victory Column, and the New Synagogue. I also walked around Museum Island, an island in the river with a lot of old buildings (some original, some reconstructions since the war) that house many museums. I didn’t do any of the museums, but it was a great place to walk around with the flea markets and live performances going on. On kind of a side note, I also saw the Hotel Adlon, which is the hotel where Micheal Jackson held his baby out the window. Like Berlin needed another claim to fame.
The first and last thing I saw in Berlin was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The 2,711 block memorial was designed by the same man who designed the Ground Zero memorial. He has never come out and officially said what the design means or where he got his inspiration. There are many theories, one of which says he got his inspiration from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague where the ground is uneven and the headstones are of various sizes and heights. Having seen both, this theory really stuck with me. The memorial is largely unmarked and is meant for you just to walk through and think. As I walked between the stones, it reminded me a lot of the stacks at Memorial Library. This made me think about how much knowledge, creativity, traditions, etc have been lost or forever changed due to centuries of persecution of a people. One slightly satisfying side note about the memorial is that it is located very close to the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. Rather than turning it into a museum or something, the bunker has been filled in with concrete and a dirt parking lot stands on top of it. This unceremonious fate seems far better than commemorating his actions in any way with a museum.
While Berlin has a lot of WWII history, what I was most interested in was its role in the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. I spent a lot of time at various parts of the wall and learning about the people who were affected. I hadn’t realized that the boarder between East Berlin and West Berlin closed over night. Between 2am and 5am, East German police and soldiers put up miles of barbed wire fence, locking people on whatever side they were for the next 18mo. I read about a family who lived in West Berlin and dropped their infant son off at Grandma and Grandpa’s, who lived in East Berlin, for a sleep over. They woke up in the morning and went to get their son, and were unable to cross. They were not able to see him for 18mo, when West Berliners were allowed into East Berlin to visit loved ones. The barbed wire fence was quickly replaced by a concrete wall that had been made outside of the city and was just brought in and assembled. Houses and churches that had survived the war were unceremoniously torn down to make room for the wall. The wall was constantly being upgraded, and by the end most places had an inner wall, a taller outer wall, and the infamous Death Strip in between. I visited the Berlin Wall Memorial and saw the monument to the victims. The most famous was a man who was shot in the leg while trying to flee to West Germany. He screamed but no one came to help from either side of the boarder. His screams were heard for 50 minutes while he bled out. His inhumane death sparked international outcry and was an example of how high tensions were, as the American soldiers nearby did not help him for fear of starting a nuclear war. At the Memorial, I also saw a preserved section of the wall, where you could go to the East side and peak through the cracks into the Death Strip. You had to be incredibly brave and incredibly desperate to in there.
While the Berlin Wall ultimately has a dark history, there were some lighter points as well. I enjoyed going to Check Point Charlie, the point where soldiers and diplomats could cross from the American Sector of West Berlin into East Berlin and visa versa. Today Check Point Charlie is a busy hub with a lot of 1950's style American fanfare. By far the coolest part of the wall however was the East Side Gallery. After the boarder opened (if you don’t know how this happened, ask me about it — it’s a funny story), artists from all over the world came and painted sections of the wall. The East Side Gallery is a section of the wall completely covered in street art. Some of the murals are originals that have just been retouched. Others are new and rotate every few months. The city has turned part of its dark past into one of the most positive attractions in the city.
Another reason 2 days in Berlin was not enough was that I met some really cool people here. We had a good time hanging out during the day and went for dinner and drinks at night. The hard part about getting food with people you just met, is that you don’t know about any dietary restrictions. After we had all decided to go out together and were looking for a place, I learned one of them was allergic to wheat and dairy and one was a vegetarian. That doesn’t leave a lot of options for German cuisine. We ended up at a place that served all potato dishes. I was a bit skeptical but everything was really good! It was easily the best meal I’ve had since solo traveling.
Having left Berlin, I have only two more stops before returning to the U.S. of A. I’m off to have some beer, chocolate, and waffles in Brussels before heading to Geneva to hike it all off!
Peace, Love, and 63,367 steps,