We arrived in Berlin on Thursday evening and were immediately struck by how modern this city is when compared to those we had visited in Poland. Like other German cities, it was very much destroyed by Allied bombing in WW2 so there has been a lot of building activity ever since. Germany is certainly a much more affluent country. In addition, with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1990, a massive renewal program has been in place to capitalise on the wasteland that the East Germans maintained as a security zone around the area of the wall. It looks to me as though many of the old Soviet style buildings are also being replaced, so it is probably correct that the old East Berlin is going to be home to many new and stunning buildings.
Our hotel, the Marriott, is in a newly developed area near Potsdamer Place. It is in a cluster of new buildings that have been constructed on an area of wasteland that was never developed by the DDR after WW2. Over the last few years it was part of the largest construction project in Europe. During the time of the wall, it formed part of the death zone along the wall. There are only a few sections of the wall still in existence – mainly as memorials. If we were standing on the same ground before 1990, we would have just been in the Eastern zone (the wrong side of the wall). I still can’t believe that if communism was so good, that you would have to build a wall to keep people from escaping. Surely people would want to flock into such a paradise. In fact, there are a number of memorials in Berlin, one of them being a large area of concrete blocks. like tomb stones of different height, as the holocaust memorial.
After we settled in to our hotel, I walked up to the Brandenburg Gate which was once cut off by the wall, but which is now open again (although not to traffic) and the Reichstag which is once again the building that houses the German parliament.
I was fascinated by the various type of bicycle conveyance that passed me as I walked along. Apart from renting standard bicycles (no helmets needed here), there were various sorts of bicycle taxis in the form of both modern bicycle types of rickshaws and some with much more ‘space age’ designs. For the gregarious, there were bicycles on which about six riders sat in a circle around a central person who steered and they all peddled as they proceeded up the street. There was also a conveyance in the form of a mobile ‘beer hut’ where eight riders sat on either side of a bar, under a wooden roof, and drank beer as they all pedalled along. My favourite was a bike with a bed on the back, where the passengers lay under a doona as the driver pedalled tham around the tourist sites.
We bought a two-day ticket on the ‘Hop On, Hop Off Bus’ which runs every ten minutes around a circular route. The entire circuit takes about two hours to complete. We did one complete circuit on Friday morning and then stopped for lunch at the very grand Sony complex which takes up six buildings on the newly developed Potsdamer Place area.
After lunch, we hopped back on the bus and stopped at stop number ten for an included one-hour cruse along the Spree River which flows through Berlin. It was interesting to see some of the city from the river – especially the new government buildings with their very modern and impressive architecture.
We had dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Potsdamer Place and were served by a young lady who is just about to leave to travel to Melbourne for a year and hopes to find a job in an Italian restaurant in Lygon Street. What a coincidence!
Today (Saturday) we enjoyed a late morning (just as well breakfast at the hotel is served until 11:00 am) and then set out on the bus again. This time, we made a number of stops as we had our bearings and planned the best things to see. Our first stop was at the Gendarmenmarkt, a square in Berlin, and the site of the Concert House and the French and German Cathedrals. In the centre of the square stands a monumental statue of Germany’s renowned poet Friedrich Schiller. The square was created by Johann Arnold Nering at the end of the seventeenth century. It is named after the cuirassier regiment Gens d’Armes, which had their stables at the square until 1773. During World War II, most of the buildings were badly damaged or destroyed. Today all the buildings have been restored to their former state.
Then, we went on to the Spree River and Museum island where four or five significant museums can be found. Along one side of the river is a little art market where we looked for a painting to hang on our wall at home. We have long stopped buying souvenirs that just collect dust. Instead we try to find a small painting by a local street artist to hang in an ever expanding mosaic of places that we have visited on our Sunroom wall.
Our next stop was at Berlin’s most famous trademark department store – KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens). It is Berlin’s shopping paradise, a landmark on Wittenberg Platz. With 60,000 sqm, it attracts over 40,000 visitors a day. This is the largest department store on the continent (second only in size to Harrods in all of Europe. It is a beautiful store with gorgeous fashions and a lovely store layout . We found that many comparative items are about 30% less expensive than the prices we pay in Australia for similar things. We couldn’t believe the bright colours in the menswear department – socks, shirts and pants of every colour of the rainbow. Unless you are Matt Preston (Masterchef Australia), I don’t really think that you could look good in many of them outside Europe where colourful clothes are very plentiful. We found an enormous food hall on the sixth floor with foodstuffs from all over the world. Needing a rest, we sat for a while in the self serve cafe on the top floor where we managed to enjoy two very large serves of chocolate tort and a half litre of wine that altogether cost only 16 Euros.
Our final stop was at Checkpoint Charlie, the last checkpoint along the wall where you could pass from the Western zone into Eastern Berlin. It wasn’t the real attraction that we wanted to see, just where the bus would let us off. It’s very popular as a tourist attraction with local men dressed up in American and Soviet uniforms, looking like the soldiers of the 1960’s.
Our last stop was in fact the uniquely named ‘Topography of Terror Museum’. Here there is a large area of wall and death zone retained with a history of the the rise of Nazism and the occupation under the Russians. There was far too much to see and read in the short time that we had available and there was also the risk of Jill being completely bored with something of no interest to her whatsoever.
Tomorrow we have a comfortably timed flight to Moscow at 11:40 am, where we will join our friends John and Barbara for a river trip from Moscow to St Petersburg.