I didn’t feel like I had a good grasp of the layout of Berlin. It basically has two centers, due to the Wall, and is more like a collection of villages than one cohesive city. For this reason, I decided to take a walking tour. I chose Brewer’s Berlin Tours after researching online and was not disappointed. The tour was lead by a guy named Preston who is from Oregon, but has lived in Berlin for 10 years and studies modern German history. The tour went by all the major sites and had a lot of background information on the history of Berlin that made the rest of my trip more interesting. For example, he showed us how we could know we were in East Berlin as opposed to West Berlin, based on the traffic lights and the buildings. Unfortunately, a lot of the restoration in East Berlin consisted of scraping everything off a building to the brick, turning that rubble into cement, and putting it flatly back on. Most of these restorations are falling apart now, so East Berlin is littered with gray buildings missing chunks of their exteriors. Another sign of East Berlin is that buildings that were still standing weren’t restored, as there were so many other buildings that were destroyed. So a lot of buildings still have bullet holes or bomb damage that’s visible. And then there is the famous Ampelmännchen that is on the East Berlin traffic lights. He wears a hat and is much more animated than the West Berlin man. Most of the interesting sites are in East Berlin, so I spent the majority of my trip there. One of the first stops on the tour was the Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue (picture above). You might be surprised that any old synagogues are standing in Berlin, but this one was single-handedly saved by a German police officer on Kristallnacht, basically because he refused to not do his job and let people on private property. Unfortunately, it was later almost completely destroyed by British air raids and now only the front remains.
We then went by the Brandenburg Gate and to the Reichstag, famous its fire that ended up giving Hitler so much power. By blaming it on the communists and encouraging fear, the Nazis were able to suspend constitutional rights. To this day, no one knows who set the fire.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is around the corner from the Reichstag and is, in my opinion, an example of how not to do a memorial. It consists of a grid of 2,711 concrete slabs on three small hills, that are like waves. Walking through the memorial is disorienting and kind of scary, you see people between the pillars like ghosts. It turns everyone into phantoms. However, nowhere on the memorial does it say that it is a memorial and the artist stated that there was no intended meaning with the structure of it. He was later made to create an information area underground that is good, but a lot of people come to the memorial thinking it is just installation art. Another problem is that many Jewish organizations thought that the memorial should be for all of the victims of the Holocaust, but this request was denied. Instead Berlin is trying to build separate memorials to each group, but due to Germany’s financial crisis only two others have been built so far. The third problem is Berlin has a huge graffiti problem and building a memorial to the Jews using plain gray concrete is kind of asking for tags. So the memorial is protected with a special chemical that makes it easy to wipe off graffiti. The problem is that the company that sold this chemical and made money off it is the same that produced Zyklon B, which was used in the concentration camp gas chambers.
Not much of the Berlin Wall is still standing in its original location, although pieces of it are preserved around town and there is a trail of bricks in the ground that shows where one of the outer walls was. Above is the largest section still remaining in its original place. There were two Berlin Walls, one facing the West and one facing the East, with the deadly space in between called “No Man’s Land.” I believe this part of the Wall was facing the West, but I could be wrong. A lot of people try to chip away a souvenir and a car actually crashed into this section, knocking down a big part, so that’s why there is a fence.
Another East Berlin icon is the Trabi, which was the easiest car to get during the communist bloc. Although mainly made out of plastic and infamous for being shoddy, there are still a few driving the streets of Berlin. The cars above were restored by a guy who does “Trabi Safaris” in East Berlin where you can drive a Trabi in a caravan past the sites. I think they’re cute.
Our tour included a stop for delicious falafel, one of many falafels I would eat while in Berlin. They were so cheap, 2,50 euros at the most, and always amazing. Anyway, another landmark on the tour was Checkpoint Charlie. The original is in a museum, but you can see a copy and in front of it is a giant portrait of an American guard with a Soviet guard on the back and a sign that says you are entering the American sector. The checkpoint was used by military personnel going back and forth between the East and West, but today it’s a historical symbol of the Cold War.
On the tour, there were a few locations from Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt), one of my favorite movies. This includes the Gendarmenmarkt above and also the bank where Lola’s dad worked.
The tour ended in front of the Berliner Dom. It was nice to have a good history of Berlin to use in the rest of my stay and it was helpful to get good tips on places to go. I would recommend the tour to anyone coming to Berlin, even if you’ve been there before. Afterward, I got coffee with a French guy that was on the tour and then I went to the Berlinale film festival to see a movie.
I asked about what tickets were available and ending up seeing “Strella,” a Greek film about an ex-con who falls in love with a transsexual. The cool thing about the Berlinale is that for each film I saw, the cast and crew came on stage afterward to answer questions. I had a little trouble getting back to my hostel after since the U-Bahn closes at half-past midnight, but I eventually figured out the night buses and got some sleep.