Berlin, Germany

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Bucharest to Brussels:

  1. Bucharest to Brussels – Introduction and Our Route
  2. Munich, Germany
  3. All Roads Lead to Rome, Part I
  4. Bucharest, Romania
  5. Brasov and Dracula’s (Bram) Castle
  6. Smaller Cities of Transylvania
  7. Budapest part 1: Sziget Festival
  8. Budapest Part 2: Daylife
  9. Budapest Part 3: Nightlife and Food
  10. Vienna and Salzburg, Austria
  11. Berlin, Germany
  12. Beer Around Belgium
  13. Biking to the Best Beer in the World
It was great to visit our friends Vin and Allie!

It was great to visit our friends Vin and Allie!

Along with Budapest, Berlin was one of our favorite destinations in Europe. To start, we had not one, but two friends from college there (one living there, one also visiting), so it was nice to have people from home to share the experience with. We enjoyed a lot of tasty food, good nights out, and lots of laughs over our few days there.

We also found Berlin did an excellent job of presenting its history to tourists. Berlin has a long and complex history, although while we were there we focused on the last 100 years of it. We visited two sites centered around two of the most pivotal times in modern history: the rise of the Nazi party, and the building and tearing down of the Berlin wall.

The memorial was thoughtful and moving

The memorial was thoughtful and moving

Most countries we visit make an attempt to hide the worst parts of their history from tourists (Croatia for example) because they want people to have a good time and not focus on war and death. A few places have explained their history well – Bosnia and Poland come to mind – and we would definitely put Berlin on that list. They do a great job of not only storytelling, but analyzing history, and attempt to let tourists do the same sort of analysis. We got our first taste of this at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As you can see in the photos, it’s a completely open-air monument with no names or real order to it. The architect, Peter Eisenman, wanted the visitor to get lost and develop their own feelings and emotions. There is definitely some controversy around it, mainly that it doesn’t mention Nazis or Germany, and it only recognizes Jews that died (although there are smaller memorials to other groups – homosexuals, Romas, etc). It was still an incredibly powerful exhibit to walk through.

Seeing how the wall split Berlin was crazy

Seeing how the wall split Berlin was crazy

We also visited the Topography of Terror, which is a historical documentation center about the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. We liked that its focus was not on Hitler, but about how the Nazis party (the SS, Gestapo, etc) implemented a widespread system of fear and used nationalism and security as a platform in their rise to power. Additionally, the museum focused on deciphering how so many people became engaged in the Nazi mission. There is a free English tour at 3:30 daily, and the historian who led it did a fantastic job of helping us analyze pictures and really understand the undercurrent of life in Germany in the 20s and 30s. He also pointed out that many other countries, companies, and peoples’ anti-semitic policies impacted the politics within Germany. The war itself was more of an afterthought at the exhibit, which was good, because it really made you think about how countries around the world (including our own) leverage fear and promise safety and security as a means of retaining power. Important things to keep in mind, especially for Americans.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

While WWII was devastating for all of Germany and its population, we were really awed by the impact the Berlin wall had on the city and the people of East Germany (the DDR). We went to the excellent Berlin Wall Memorial, another free historical documentation center about the events surrounding the building and removal of the wall. Sara and I were both young (3 and 6, respectively) when the wall finally fell in November, 1989, so while we thought we knew a bit about it, actually being there taught us so much. First, it’s important to point out that the wall wasn’t really to divide the East and West Berlin; it was an attempt to both isolate Berlin from West Germany, and later as a means to keep people from the DDR from emigrating to the West. What really struck us was how quickly the wall was erected: the first barriers went up at 1 AM on August 13, 1961, and were gradually built up over the next 40 years. By 1989, sections of the wall had a wide no-mans’ land, guard towers, automatic machine guns, etc. It was basically a war zone inside the city. And it was incredibly to see the remnants of the wall (some areas have a brick line showing where the wall used to be; other parts are now used for art installations) and think about how the city was divided overnight. In some cases families were cut off from one another. We saw a church on the east side cut off from its constituents on the west (it was later demolished). There was a really interesting exhibit at one of the subway stations that was on a line that started and ended at points in West Berlin, but ran through the DDR. They bricked up the stations in the east, and always kept armed guards at these “ghost stations”. It was really powerful to step into a city and imagine it being split apart, which the inhabitants fully isolated from one another

Impressive street art throughout Berlin

Impressive street art throughout Berlin

Berlin wasn’t all serious, of course. We went on an “alternative Berlin” tour, which was quite interesting. Berlin is now known for having a vibrant arts and club scene, and we definitely got some insight into this on the tour. We started by looking at a lot of the street art, including everything from a massive astronaut to guerilla tagging of whole buildings to the East Side Gallery, which commissioned artists to repaint a long strip of the Berlin Wall. We also visited a beach bar (with sand) in the middle of the city. We also enjoyed seeing a train depot, which was destroyed during WWII, and instead of being rebuilt, was repurposed by the Berliners into a large flea market and huge 1000-person nightclubs. We had some excellent food truck food there as well.

Overall Berlin was a fantastic city to visit, and while we were incredibly busy there, between visiting with our friends, learning about the history, and taking in the culture, we never got tired of it. Berlin is definitely a city we would return to again, as I know there is so much more of it to explore than we got to see in the 4 days we were there.

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