Where: Berlin, Germany
When: July 2013
Hotel: Hotel Gat Point Charlie
Why Berlin: Berlin was on John’s list of cities he wanted to see, so this was the first trip we took after he arrived back in Germany last summer. He had gone to Berlin right after the wall had fallen while in high school but had never made a trip to the downtown area of the city so he wanted to check it out. I wanted to go as well but only did a little bit of research before we left which we will get to later. Berlin is about a 6-hour drive north of Stuttgart. It’s a fairly pleasant drive – once you get more into the northern part of the country, the traffic thins out a bit so it was a smooth, easy drive. Once we got into Berlin, everything got a little crazy…but that is a common theme in Berlin as we found out!
The Trip: I had worked the night before, so I slept a majority of the trip up to and into Berlin and was woke up only by John mumbling about the crazy drivers. I woke up, took a look at Berlin and…was confused. Where was the charm typically emitted by pretty much all of the German towns we had visited? Where was the pretty architecture or the quaint coziness that even large cities still manage to emanate? It was nowhere in the hodgepodge concrete jungle that appeared to be going for some Guinness Book of World Records for the most construction cranes in one city. But, being an optimist, I was sure that this was purely the outside skirts of town and the real charm was hiding around the corner.
Berlin is a fairly reasonable priced city, so we found a great price at the Hotel Gat Point Charlie. The location was ideal – honestly, the famed Check Point Charlie was literally around the corner from our hotel. So after we dumped our stuff at the hotel, we grabbed a free map from the hotel front desk and set out for a short walking tour for the day. Along with going to Berlin itself, John’s one request was that we leave the detailed itineraries behind and just experience the city. Note to self – probably a good idea in any city except Berlin. Honestly, do your research and really narrow down what you want to see. When they say Berlin is huge, they aren’t kidding. We had two nights to “explore” and while we had the main attractions highlighted on the map, it’s better to narrow down not only those main sites but how you are going to get there. I’m sure one of the main problems I had with this city was that I couldn’t get my bearings. It’s too sprawling, too spread out, too pieced together like a quilt.
Which is why it was awesome that we only had to walk out of our hotel, turn right and there we were – at the famed Checkpoint Charlie.
It was very cool to see but was also one of the first reminders of the incredibly sad history that the city and people of Berlin have had to endure in their recent history. In the final days of the European theatre of WWII, Hitler refused to back down and allowed the already ravaged city to become completely decimated in the Battle of Berlin, and by the end of the war, more than half of the population had left the city. After the war ended, Berlin was split into four section, which eventually turned into two sections – East and West Berlin. Relations were contentious between the Soviets and the Allies to the point where 16 years after the war ended, the Berlin Wall was constructed seemingly overnight and without warning adding more pain to a city that hadn’t even started to recover from the war. It’s been more than 20 years since the Wall fell and Berlin is still a city trying to identify itself all while having the sad cloud that is WWII and post-WWII hanging over it. I think that was one of the biggest heartaches I had with Berlin. There was just this sadness everywhere you turned.
This included the Topography of Terror, which is just around the block from the famed Checkpoint Charlie. The Topography of Terror is an outdoor and indoor museum on the site of Nazi headquarters buildings. It is also where a large portion of the Berlin Wall still stands to this day.
From there, we walked in the direction of the Brandenburg Gate and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and noticed in certain areas the foul smells and above-ground pipes that were painted red and attempted to look artsy. In reality, Berlin is built on almost swamp-like grounds making it impossible for buried pipes. The “temporary” yet seemingly permanent solution was to build these pipes. Try to stay downwind if possible.
The Memorial is steps away from the Brandenburg Gate, and also a short distance away from the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. According to the architect, the design of the memorial – that was only finished in 2004 – is designed to “produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.”
What I didn’t realize until we really started walking around was that East Berlin actually had most of the landmarks we know today. The Brandenburg Gate is on that side, as is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Museum Insel – or Museum Island. I also looked closer at photographs of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan giving speeches in front of the Brandenburg Gate and realized I hadn’t before noticed the location of the wall in the background.
Before heading back for the evening, we continued over to the Reichstag Building – another completely destroyed building before it was reconstructed when the German government moved back to Berlin. The building was rebuilt to look as it once had with the addition of a glass dome with a 360-view that can be visited with reservations. We thought about making them for the next day but opted against it.
We made our way back to the hotel for the night, although from what we hear this is when Berlin really gets going. The nightlife has come alive in the past couple of years – which I’m sure would maybe have added to our experience if we were single, 20-somethings. I’m not really into going to clubs anymore so my interest level in checking out the hype was zero. Not to mention, after a 6-hour drive, little sleep and the small hike – it was time to relax!
The next day, after a delicious breakfast that of course included pastries, Nutella and various meats, cheeses and cereals (typical for Germany but always a joy!), we headed out once again in the direction of the Topography of Terrors
We hadn’t actually gone in the Topography of Terror museum the previous day and made that our first stop of the day. The Museum was amazing and yet another reminder of the terribleness that was the Nazi party. Just when you think they couldn’t get anymore evil, you visit these museums and are shocked at the depths of wickedness and lack of human compassion the Nazi party possessed. And honestly – they did these things for absolutely no reason at all to innocent people. It is truly mind-blowing.
From there, I had read about a memorial church that had been bombed in WWII and never restored as a reminder of the dangers of war. On the map, it didn’t appear ver far. Note to self – maps are terribly deceiving and when possible, take the train! Adding insult to injury, when we showed up, the church was covered in scaffolding. Definitely not the highlight of the day!
Next we headed to Museum Insel, the island with museums. We didn’t explore the museums and this is one part of the trip that I do regret and wish we had done. If you go, go to the Pergamon Museum, which has among other things, the Ishtar Gate. It is almost enough to make me go back.
On our way back to the hotel from the day, we stopped to get Currywurst – which is German sausage, covered with curry ketchup. Not my favorite, or even close, but John likes it and it is a must-try in Berlin where it was invented.
This brought our time to an end as we were leaving the next morning early to get back to Stuttgart. I had a work class in the afternoon, so we were out of time.
Final Impressions: I left with the same impression I had when we pulled into Berlin that first day – confused. Berlin, and rightfully so, is unlike any town I have visited in Germany. It’s just different. And although it is not my favorite, I’ve spent some time really researching Berlin and its history and wouldn’t mind giving it a second chance.