This one should be shorter than some other recent posts.
Sunday, June 21st
Wallyard Concept Hostel was to be the home camp in Berlin. When we arrived, it was easy to see how it got it’s name. Their courtyard faced a large, blank wall of the building on the next street. At least it didn’t face a noisy street, and the courtyard was pretty quiet since all of the surrounding buildings were tall and took up their entire lots. This hostel also wins the award for most industrial feeling interiors, as a lot of the surfaces just appeared to be concrete painted black. The hostel was in a West Berlin neighborhood and just a couple blocks from a subway station.
The subways in Berlin were different from those in every other city. It seemed like it was just one big honor system. There were no gates to get in or out of the station. You just needed a valid ticket and if you got caught without one, the fine was something like 40€. Despite this seemingly free access, neither trains nor platforms were full of people in many places. Busy, but not as packed as some other cities.
Walking around the area in Berlin the first night, we decided to not take the subway. Before we got too far from the hostel, I noticed a little orange square embedded on the ground. At first, it just looked like a utility marker, just one that on the ground instead of on a pole, like most had been in Europe. Then, I noticed that there was a name on block, two dates, the second one during the war, and a location. It was pretty obvious that these were markers related to the Holocaust. I would later look them up online and find out that there’s a guy who’s been making these for the past 20 years or so on behalf of Holocaust victims’ families, etc. and placing them at their last known addresses before the war. He started it because people where he was from didn’t believe there were victims from their neighborhood. Now there are tens of thousands placed throughout Europe. The first one I saw was outside of a large apartment building that was obviously built after the war. I would later see them a few more times around Berlin.
The first major destination we headed towards was an old war monument from a victory over France some 200 years ago. It was mostly just a tower, and I found it kind of funny that the statue on top faced towards France. The bronze(?) murals on the side of the monument were taken at some point, wound up in France, but they later returned them sometime after World War II. Immediately after the war, France wanted the monument torn down and not restored. Curiously, parts of the returned murals were missing, so there would be large and irregularly shape blank gaps on the sides of the monument base. By looking straight down the road, you could see the Brandenburg Gate.
We wound up walking around the zoo to head towards one of Berlin’s centers. I guess that’s another thing that makes Berlin different. It has three “centers” in three different areas of the city. There was supposed to be a large music festival going on throughout all three of these centers. This center was focused on the main shopping street in Berlin, which was closed of course, because it was Sunday. We just wound up walking this closed shopping street for a while and looking at the buildings. Pretty close to the zoo was another church that had been bombed during the war. They intentionally did not restore its tower except for the clock face, so it provided for some stark contrast from the upscale shopping surrounding it.
Another unique part of Berlin was the pipes. It didn’t take long to realize that there were a lot of above ground pipes for something. They were either pink or a navy blue, and would seemingly wind around and follow roads. They didn’t seem permanent because most their supports were just large concrete blocks, and what appeared to be sections of the same pipe. This was another thing I had to look up online. It turns out that Berlin gets it’s name from an old word “Berl” in some language, and that meant swamp. The city is still very swampy and the ground is not too stable in a lot of places. The pipes pump water out of problem areas and takes it to a larger body of water nearby. I guess this also makes construction very difficult in Berlin because anything with a basement has to constantly pump out water until the entire below ground section is finished while not disturbing the water table too much, as pumping out too much water could cause surrounding buildings to become unstable.
Monday, June 22nd
Having researched transit options in Berlin, I found out a day card good for both the above and below ground trains, as well as busses was only something like 7€. That didn’t seem like much of an issue until I found out that the ticket machine only took coins. Collecting coins when 1€ and 2€ (and anything smaller) only come in coins means it’s pretty easy to have 7€ in change, right? Well, we were both short after depositing our entire pockets full of change. An obvious solution would have been a change machine or to accept bills at the ticket machine, but neither was available. I would later notice change machines at other stations. Anyways, it was back to the surface to find places to make small purchases and get large amounts of change. A couple doors down from the station was the best, cheap, little bakery in Berlin. I would get 2 or 3 pastries each morning and be completely full for less than 1.50€.
With enough change to buy a subway ticket, we headed towards Checkpoint Charlie. There was a museum located next to it, but it was a bit hard to find the entrance so we wound up going in the gift shop first instead of the entrance. This was also the first museum where a beggar managed to make it past the entrance.
I’m not sure if I covered it in the Paris post much, but in summary there are plenty of people going around with “petitions” to help out the disabled, and they’ll often ask for a donation. The donation of course just goes straight to that person, but there’s enough dumb tourists that I guess it isn’t too hard for them to make a living out of it. The beggar only made it through a couple of rooms before being kicked out by the staff.
It was a pretty interesting museum. There were plenty of displays on the creative ways people managed to successfully cross the barrier. That really helps you realize how sick the DDR (short for East Germany) was to put up the wall. Remember, the purpose of the wall wasn’t to keep people in West Berlin, it was to keep people from East Berlin and the rest of the DDR from using West Berlin as an escape route to West Germany or pretty much anywhere else. I think it might be a very good sign that there’s something wrong with the way you’re country is run when people want to leave it so desperately. The museum itself had a pretty obvious negative attitude towards the DDR and USSR. It was a bit funny to see how Britain, France, and the US handled the wall and its security. On the East Berlin side, there was this big huge strip cleared of everything with very heavy security, and often on the West Berlin side, streets dead ended at the wall and people would park right up against the wall. The museum didn’t just focus on the wall or Checkpoint Charlie, although those were very large parts of it. They also had pretty large displays about the end of communism in various European countries as well as a pretty extensive photography display from the recent happenings in Ukraine.
On the site of the actual Checkpoint Charlie, there’s a replica station that seemed to be manned by actors… who’d stamp your passport. I am not sure why anyone would want a fake stamp on their passport, or if they realize the headaches that might cause when they try to get back home.
A few blocks along the location of the wall (the location is marked with a double wide strip of cobblestones in the middle of the street, sidewalk, grass, wherever it might be) was a place called the Topography of Terror. It was on the site of the former SS headquarters that had been bulldozed after the war, used as a dump for a while, and then the remaining foundation of the SS building was excavated to create this exhibit. The remaining foundation was on the side of the wall, which remained mostly intact for the block or so that the memorial took along the street. In the foundation was a chronological exhibit about the Holocaust. They also had a fairly new building on the site that contained much of the same type of information, but was more in depth.
Potsdamer Platz was a short walk away. The entire area remained empty from the time the war ended until the fall of the Wall, which runs right through the middle of the area. This meant that it was filled with tons of new buildings and many of them were skyscrapers. It felt like a completely modern downtown area, something that you don’t really find in too many European cities, at least in the center of town.
The next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, but before we got there, we came across a very large Holocaust memorial. From afar, it looks like a bunch of concrete rectangles with varying heights. I think the idea was to make the rectangles about coffin size, and there was probably three or so feet between rectangles, enough that you could walk between them. The rectangles were all on a grid so they lined up perfectly with each other. The ground was uneven and the rectangles got taller as the ground also lowered, so you could only see the path in front of you and that was it. On one side of this memorial there was a museum underground, but it was closed on Mondays.
The Brandenburg Gate was cool, and the restoration work done since the wall fell made it look almost new. Likewise with the Bundestag (home of the German legislature), although the big glass dome on the Bundestag felt a bit out of place on the building.
There was a bit of time left in the afternoon, so we headed towards the DDR Museum, located on the east side of town, of course. It was located on one of the main streets in Berlin (Unter der Linden) where the Brandenburg Gate is also located. This particular part of the street was home to a lot of new buildings. This museum was right next to the river and directly across from the Berlin Cathedral. This was a different museum. It had a lot of hands on things that they encouraged you to touch. It focused on daily life in East Germany. Things like transportation, jobs, housing, furnishings, kids toys, leadership, and more. There was not too much focus on the wall or other border security in East Germany.
There was a mall near Potsdamer Platz and I thought it might be a good place to look for food, especially because it was still raining lightly. I thought it seemed like a fairly small mall to call itself “Mall of Berlin”, but it turned out that it was a pair of buildings with a big courtyard between them. There was a fairly extensive fort made out of cardboard boxes in the middle. I think it was supposed to be some type of architecture project. The mall turned out to be good for a few things other than foodcourt bratwurst (which was really good). They had a huge electronics store that had cheap battery packs, so I picked one up for recharging my phone, even though I had already figured out the problem that was causing my phone to take all night to just barely get charged. At the other end of the mall was an Aldi’s. Like the one in Denmark, this is the Aldi related to Trader Joe’s in the US, so they even had some Trader Joe’s brand stuff on the shelves. The Aldi you see in America is the other Aldi from the other part of Germany. It’s complicated (this Aldi was set up like the American Aldi but not like Trader Joe’s) but there is a Wikipedia article about it. I got some cheap chocolate that turned out to not be cheap everywhere else (Ritter Sport) because it came in small squares and had a variety of flavors included in the package, so I knew I could try a few different things. Since it was an Aldi’s, milk was very cheap. I think I paid something like fifty cents for a liter.
Since it had quit raining, it was time to catch a train out to the east side of town to visit the East Side Gallery. The gallery is actually the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, I think. It’s probably half a mile long and is continually painted with murals. Some of these murals have graffiti over them since they were painted a few years ago. The opposite side of the wall, facing a river, is just continuous graffiti that seems to get painted over every few months based on the dates of signatures on that side.
Tuesday, June 23rd
The precipitation from Monday continued into Tuesday, which made it a good lazy day. Having learned a lesson the day before, I had plenty of coins saved up to buy a subway pass in the morning. The remaining part of the morning was spent waiting outside in the rain and then visiting the Holocaust memorial that I described earlier. It contained a lot of personal stories and stories about how entire families were affected.
Located close to the DDR Museum was the German History Museum. It had been the premier history museum in Germany for something like 200 years, including the time it was in East Berlin. Over the past 25 years, it has been renovated extensively and has become a modern museum. They had viewscopes set up in certain rooms so you could see how the rooms looked in the 1800s through the early 1900s, during recovery from World War II (the area was bombed pretty heavily and a wing of the museum was destroyed), and during its time under East German control, when it hosted a large number of exhibits about social things like the education system. The entire first floor of the museum is now dedicated to the century since the end of World War I, and thus provides a really good overview of everything that’s gone on in Germany since then. It was kind of like a combination of all of the other museums since the breadth of the museum was so large. We didn’t have time to do the other level of the museum, which covered German history from something like the years 1000-1914.