I did not fall in love with Berlin at first sight–but I’m warming up to it and it’s growing on me. We are staying in the eastern part of the city and upon arrival at our hotel, I initially thought we were in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the architecture either. We had just come from a six hour train journey in first class which wasn’t quite the upscale ride we had anticipated and then, there was that short, but steep flight of stairs up to the hotel entrance. We are not bare bones travelers and our two bags are a bit heavy so, it was a less auspicious beginning. However, our room is simply lovely, very spacious and quiet, and the breakfast each morning is a lavish spread of hot and cold meats, cheeses, eggs, soft and hard-boiled, smoked salmon, cereal, several kinds of bread and pastries plus various condiments. Hard to go wrong with this start to your day!
The next day we discovered that we are about 5 minutes from the subway (U) and another 5 minutes in the other direction from a tram line (S) and there are lots of small family-run restaurants in the surrounding blocks which we’ve been sampling. Yes, the architecture is rather stark and drab, and yes, the streets are grittier in this part of town, and yes, there is a lot of graffiti, but it has its own charm. (I have been puzzling about the graffiti and wondering if it’s being kept deliberately as some sort of statement or if there just aren’t funds to clean it up.)
You do notice a difference when you get into what was West Berlin–cleaner, wider streets, more department stores, more chains, more big hotels (Intercontinental, et al), and more tourists. That said, some of the biggest attractions are in the former eastern part so after awhile, I stopped thinking so much about which part of the city I was in and just appreciated the history that was all around me.
I suppose if one came to Berlin just to shop, that person could be unaware of its pivotal role in history. But, having come here to explore both its museums and its history, we have been doing just that. We first mastered the subway–once you find the English button on the automatic ticket machine, the process gets simpler–and then validated our day-long tickets. Unlike on the London subway, once you validate the ticket, you just ride and never have to tag in or out. Also I never saw anyone asking for or checking people’s tickets. Honor system, perhaps, or perhaps like MUNI, we just haven’t encountered any inspectors.
After stopping briefly at Checkpoint Charlie, we went on to examine the section of the Berlin Wall that was left standing. It has holes in it and markings and is a reminder of this divided city; it would have looked even grimmer on a gray day. November 9 this year marks the 25th anniversary of the coming down of the wall and the city is getting ready for a big celebration. Preparations are underway at the Brandenburg Gate.
The Topography of Terrors is a small museum that provides a comprehensive look at the Nazi apparatus, all the units, the SS, the Gestapo and others, and the key individuals who were responsible for so much death and destruction. The museum is an open gray space with large windows and panels suspended from the ceiling. I was struck by how baldly the events were presented and by the comments from historians who offered insights, but not excuses. Seeing panel after panel, each one a different country that was occupied by the Nazis during the 1940-45 period, brought home to me how the experience of the Dutch people was just repeated over and over elsewhere. I also learned that some of the perpetrators went on have political careers and others are believed to have assumed new identities.
The Berlin Wall and the Topography museum are both sobering venues so it was cheering to continue on to the Reichstag and to gaze upon this re-built and refurbished parliament building which was out of commission, due to damage and politics, for many years. Parliament met here again for the first time in 1999. The dome that was designed by architect Norman Foster is stunning and echoes in basic shape, but not materials, the original dome.
My husband is a good planner and a great tour guide, and he had discovered that by going online at home and reserving a table for lunch at the restaurant on the terrace level (bottom of the dome), we could avoid a long line to get in and simultaneously enjoy a lovely lunch. This was all definitely worth it! It was a warm sunny day and the skyline view of Berlin from the restaurant was spectacular and walking the spiral ramp around and up the dome was great. At the bottom of the dome, there are panels around the circle giving the history of the building and its rebirth.
So much to see and do! More to come on Berlin.