It's hard to imagine that only a short two decades ago the city of Berlin was still divided by a wall. Berlin is an intriguing and resilient city that kept coming up in discussions with other travelers. It was not originally on our European itinerary, but how could we pass being in Berlin on its 20th Anniversary since the fall of the wall.
Traveling to Berlin was quite easy from Prague. A short 5-hour train had us in the German capital by early evening. We took the S-train across the Mitte section of the city to our hostel/hotel. We had previously booked online because Berlin was not cheap, and toughing it out on foot in the cold was not really an option.
We were shocked to see what CDN $50 gets you in Berlin versus CDN $40 in Prague. Our twin bed closet was a big change from the luxury we had left in the Czech Republic. We had a terrible feeling that Western Europe and its Euro was going to hurt our fast-diminishing budget.
As we crossed the city on the above ground train we immediately noticed the iconic Fernsehturm (Berlin TV Tower) towering over the neon lights of Alexanderplatz. The Berlin Tower, said to be the tallest structure in Western Europe, was created as a symbol of socialist success during the 1960's when the city was separated by more than just a concrete wall.
Still having plenty of time left in the day, we set our sights on the extravagant Christmas market that was near our hostel. We loved the Christmas markets in Prague and Budapest but they didn't even come close to the markets in Berlin. They are more like small amusement parks with skating rinks, massive ferris wheels, tacky games, food stalls grilling sausages and outdoor bars. Of course we had sample the popular Gluhwein (a festive hot and sweet red wine) and eat Bratwurst (Cameron that is) while watching the insane, nauseating rides. We also came to the realization that being in northern Germany in December was going to be very cold!
Nicole had previously traveled to Berlin ten years ago but this was a first for Cameron. When we thought of Berlin two things came to mind - Hitler's dictatorship and the deadly Berlin Wall. Aside from witnessing the city's incredible resurgence, that's what we came to see.
The following morning we visited the East Side Gallery, the largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall. Our accommodations were in the east side of Berlin so the walk was short and easy. The East Side Gallery has been commissioned by local and international artists to express their views on what happened before and after the wall fell. It is touted as the world's largest open aired gallery and has had significant restorations to replace the vandalism, erosion and graffiti over the years. It is quite the sight and a must for anyone touring the spirited city.
We walked along the wall admiring the 'peace-driven' artwork and reflected on how awful it must have been to wake up one morning and have your whole world enclosed by a wall. It's strange to think that a barricaded section of the city was actually a separate country, with democratic, capitalist views.
It's amazing and inspiring to see the vibrant city on its 20th Anniversary since the fall of the wall - it is truly mind-boggling to imagine its dark past.
Berlin is known for its FREE walking tours, the perfect price for two backpackers. We met our tour guide Mick at the famous Pariser Platz, home of the prominent Brandenburg Gate and recently known in pop-culture as the place where the late Michael Jackson dangled his infant son out of his Adlon Hotel room window.
Our tour, and guide, was without question the best we've had on our global adventure. Mick was enthusiast and knowledgeable and really made the 4-tour unforgettable. It was the perfect way to see the city and understand its history. Highlights included the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate, Hitler's Bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, Bebelplatz (Nazi book burning location) and the Berliner Dom.
If you're ever in Berlin we'd highly recommend you take the free tour - the guides only work for tips and earn every Euro you can spare.
This blog isn't the forum to get into a history lesson, so instead of boring you with the details, take a look at the photo album where we've narrowed down over 500+ photos with some highlights.
Our final full day in Berlin was a 'culture' day. Mick recommended that we visit the Pergamon Museum, conveniently located on Museum Island. It is an impressive museum unlike anything we've ever visited. The clear highlights are the Pergamon Altar, the Market Gate of Miletus, and the Ishtar Gate - each consisting of original pieces that were transported from the thousand year old excavation sites. We also lucked out and caught an exhibit with hundreds of priceless ancient Greek and Roman God statues. Very cool!
After the Pergamon Museum we visited the German Political Museum. It showcases the chronological history of Germany's political past, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and life after reunification. Although we had a free audio tour the exhibits were all in German, making it somewhat difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the museum was very informative and enlightening and helped tame our never-ending curiousity about Berlin.
The museum is located in the remarkable Gendarmenmarkt Square in the old Deutsche Dom, originally built in the late 1,700's but recently restored after it was severely damaged during the war. Touring the extraordinary building was just as cool as learning about the country's unbelievable history.
The last stop of the day had us standing outside the Reichstag Building in a 45-minute line. The Reichstag is the current Parliament Building that has been through several restorations since a devastating fire in 1933. We were warned of the long line ups to get into the important building, so we figured that showing up in the evening was a good bet. It didn't seem to matter.
If you want to see the Reichstag... you wait.
The restored building has a massive dome that visitors can walk up and get unobstructed panoramic views of the city. The free audio tour was also a great way to learn about the city and its landmarks. Parliament was actually in session that night, allowing us to sneak a bird's eye view of German politics in action.
This blog was meant to be a short one so we'll leave it at that. Berlin is a very cool city. We were glad that we did a detour and made the trip to one of Europe's greatest cities.
We got up at the crack of dawn and made our way back to the enormous Hauptbahnhof train station. The day's adventure would have travel to Koln (Cologne) where we would connect to our next destination - Brussels, Belgium.
December 4th, 2009