Arriving in Berlin for the first time, to be honest, I initially wondered why we were there. Apart from visiting our children for the first time of course. A day in Berlin gave us a brief glimpse of what the city has to offer
My initial impression was of a bleak, cold, rundown city still bearing the battle scars of two world wars. Parts of the city seemed like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp which had failed to keep pace with the modern world. A dilapidated, grafittied city desperately in need of an upgrade.
However a few hours exploration unveiled the rich, sometimes dark, history of a city reunified less than 30 years ago. The vibrant, friendly culture of a city that constantly buzzes with activity. There are so many things to do in Berlin. All within close proximity of a train or tram ride. Ian was most impressed by the fact that a beer could easily be had for 90 cents at the corner store.
Walking for a day in Berlin
Cycling is the preferred means of transport for most Berliners, with designated bike lanes and parking bays. Trams run through the eastern part of the the city, with an excellent underground train system. Despite our lack of German, were were confident of navigating the system by the end of the week.
The Berlin Wall may be long gone. However the stark contrast between the more modernised “west” and the more dilapidated “East”, where post war development was bypassed, still exists today. Major construction works across the city promise a period of renewal. When arriving in any new city, a “whistle stop tour” of the major attractions (preferably on foot), gives you both an orientation and a shortlist of attractions you would like to explore further. Our first stop after arrival was a well needed coffee and our first baked pretzel , before our daughter took us in tow for an energetic walking tour of the city she loves.
The five major city museums, including the Berliner Dom Berlin’s largest museum are located at Museumsinsel (Museum Island) Walking through the precinct along the River Spree, I was amazed that more than 70 years on, many of the buildings still bore wartime bullet holes and battle scars. Empty spaces still exist where buildings were flattened during bombing raids. Major construction work is underway ,where Berlin City Palace stood for nearly 500 years. Although relatively undamaged during the War, the East German government demolished the building in 1951. A new cultural centre is now under construction, with the exterior facade replicating the original palace.
“Whenever books are burned, men also, in the end are burned” Heinrich Heine
“Bebelplatz” is surrounded by historic 18th century buildings, built during the reign of King Frederick the Great. The Old Royal Library (1780), State Opera (1743) and St Hedwigskirche (1783) flank the plaza. Across the road stands the Humbolt University built in 1810. This square was also the site of the infamous Nazi book burnings in 1933. Artist Michal Ullman’s underground installation “Empty Library” is located in the centre of the Plaza. The glass cover reveals the empty bookshelves standing as a stark memorial to the event. Coincidentally, it was many of Karl Marx’s books which were burnt in Bebelplatz. The larger than life size Marx-Engels memorial statues were one of the next items on our itinerary.
The Brandenburg Gate, is flanked by foreign embassies in Pariser Platz. During its history, it has symbolised power of the Ruling monarchs, the division of Berlin and today stands a symbol of freedom. Built on the site of an 18th century city gate, today cyclists and horse carriages, cars and pedestrians jostle for a photo opportunity with this iconic Berlin landmark.
Towering over Berlin in Alexanderplatz, formerly the main commercial hub of East Berlin, is a 368 metre high TV tower. Built in 1969 to demonstrate the engineering prowress of the GDR, it remains the tallest structure in Berlin. For a small charge you can travel to the top of the dome to take in the views over the city. Beyond Alexanderplatz we discovered the Neptune Fountain. The Soviets removed the fountain from its original location in Schlossplatz when the City Palace was demolished in 1951.
Stepping into the narrow courtyard of Haus Schwarzenberg on Rosenthaler Strass provides a wonderful sample of the city’s street art culture. There are three exhibitions featuring the assistance efforts ordinary Berliners provided Jews during the Third Reich, including the Anne Frank exhibition. The three story stone apartment buildings once formed part of the old Jewish quarter. Many residents were imprisoned and subsequently murdered. Walking through the old Jewish quarter today, cobblestones in the footpath have been replaced with brass memorial “stumbling stones. These provide a silent, poignant reminder of the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. Situated outside the homes of Jewish prisoners, the plaques bear the names, birth and death dates. Often whole families, children included were taken to certain death. A constant, stark reminder of the horrors of the holocaust.
On Cora-Berliner Strasse, over 2500 vertical concrete sarcophaghi are situated in a maze-like, undulating formation as a memorial to the thousands of murdered European Jews. There is a subterranean information centre providing further displays, however we ran out of time to visit during this trip.
On the corner of Inden Ministegarten and GurtrudKolmar Strasse stands a fairly innocuous carpark, scene of one of the most important events in modern history. Here is the site of Hitler’s infamous bunker, where he committed suicide in the wake of advancing Allied forces in 1945. Soviets sealed off and blew up the site in 1947, however a story board remains to mark the somewhat infamous history of the site.
Humbolthian Park, is one of the oldest parks in Berlin and also houses a hidden historic treasure. Here we meandered through the formal gardens, with spring in full bloom, the wisteria draped archways leading to adjacent “garden rooms”.
We were fortunate to visit on a weekday morning, when we had the gardens pretty much to ourselves, save for the odd squirrel scurrying along the pathways.
On a weekend the gardens will be full of Berliners taking full advantage of the sprawling parkland.
We met an unexpected surprise after climbing the somewhat steep hill at the rear of the park. An abandoned WWII bunker, designated as a safe spot for local residents during Allied air raids, now providing spectacular views across the city.
A hectic, yet worthwhile day’s sightseeing of Berlin in a day had given us just a glimpse of the historic and cultural treasures Berlin had to offer.
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