Saturday, July 12, 2014

Berlin - Day 1

We pulled into Berlin on the night train at about 7:30 in the morning. Luckily, I had researched tasty breakfast joints that would be open that early because I was starving! We went to Alpenstuck Bäckerei and Café. We both got a tray of ham/sausage and fruits with breads. AMAZING. Seriously, I know it gets annoying to hear so much about what other people eat but we just eat SO GOOD I have to share.

After breakfast, it was still early so we wandered towards Alexanderplatz which is dominated by the Fernseturm (aka the TV Tower). It was built by the DDR as a symbol of sucess and prosperity when Germany was divided. Now, it's... Interesting and dominating and really expensive to go up. 

Then we headed over to Museumsinsel (Museum Island) to look around. This is the most visually interesting building on the island, Berliner Dom. 

At that point we realized we should probably head into the Pergamonmuseum to avoid the crazy crowds. We did pretty much the whole museum and of course saw the Pergamon Altar. There are carvings all the way around the room that were once painted and tell very descriptive stories of the Gods. 

We also saw the Ishtar Gate from Bablyon. 

After Pergamon, we went to the Neues Museum which is mostly Egyptian and Islamic art and artifacts. The big thing there is the bust of Nefertiti but you're not allowed to photograph it. The other big thing is this gold hat. Really that's what it's called... Berliner Goldhut.

After the museums, we were starving again so we wandered around the super touristy area between Museumsinsel and Alexanderplatz looking for something tasty and boy did we find it. I can't even explain these wraps except to say how delicious they were. The sauces were amaaaazing!!!! 

After lunch we did a quick tour through the DDR museum. We really only got through half of it because we had to get to our bike tour but we weren't super sold on it. The first half was all about life in East Germany during the communist era. They way they presented it was really hands on and interactive, which was great except it made life in the east not seem not all that bad. The second part was about soldiers' lives in the DDR but we didn't get to much of that. One weird thing about this particular topic is that it's so current that you have to be careful what you say in the museum because the person next to you. Ishtar have lived it. 

At 4 we started out bike tour!! I went on a bike tour with Fat Tire Tours in Paris 5 years ago and loved it, so when I found out they did tours in Berlin, I knew we had to do it. Berlin is super bike friendly and we loved seeing it this way! I'm not going to talk about all the places we saw, because there are just so many. I'll just hit the top ones. Craig was our guide and he was awesome! Informative and funny and at the end, he spent a good amount of time drawing on maps giving everyone suggestions on what to do and where to eat and where to watch the game. Also, a bit over halfway through the tour, he took us to a Biergarten in the Tiergarten park-- awesome!!

One of the first stops was Bebelplatz, home of Humboldt University and the site of a major book burning in 1933 right after Hitler took power. Today, there is a memorial to remember the book burning. It's underground with just a skylight in the square where you can see a room filled with empty bookshelves. I found it really touching because I am such an avid reader. 

From there we headed to Checkpoint Charlie. So a bit more history (I didn't know all this, so I'm assuming someone reading this doesn't either): When WWII ended, Germany was divided between USA, France, the UK, and the USSR. 

Each of the four countries also controlled a section of the very important capital city of Berlin. But as you can see, Berlin is smack dab in the middle of the Soviet Zone. Pretty quickly, the Soviet Zone became the DDR- Deutsche Demokratische Republik. It was a communist state and folks, especially educated folks didn't want to stay there so many people started moving into West Germany. In Berlin, this was a big problem because you could walk across the street and be in a different country. The West would also grant any Easterners immediate residency as political refugees. The DDR couldn't keep loosing their population in about 6 hours in the middle of the night, they build the first wall. After that, East Germans weren't allowed to go to West Germany. The wall was surrounded by booby trapped no-go zones and guards with guns. West Germans (and I guess most other nationalities), however, were still allowed to cross freely into the East. To do that, there were three train lines and three checkpoints between East and West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie (as in alpha, beta, charlie) was between the US portion of West Berlin and East Berlin. At the time, this was a seriously tense area because the US was butting right up against the Soviets during the Cold War and any wrong move could start WWIII. Today, Checkpoint Charlie is a tourist trap. They've got actors in Cold War Era uniforms and tons of just commercial nonsense, however, it is history so it was interesting to see.

Near Checkpoint Charlie, a portion of the wall still stands.

A much larger portion is located by the Topographies of Terror museum. It has actually been fenced in as a protective measure to preserve the history-- ironic. That's another important thing about Berlin. It would be really easy to destroy all the historical landmarks in the area based on the depressing and horrific memories associated with the city, but the city is very intent on preserving them. The preservation of horrific history is one of the main ways we prevent atrocities from repeating and this mentality is really present throughout the city.

Here is a guard tower.

After the guard tower, we actually went by the site of the bunker where Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war. Its still there because the walls of the bunker are 15 METERS thick and to remove it would be catastrophic to the surrounding buildings. They have however, sealed the entrance and turned the location into a parking lot to prevent Neo-Nazis from turning the site into a rallying point.

From there, appropriately, we headed to the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. At first glance, it might not look like much, but it is actually a very powerful memorial. There are over 3000 blocks and none are the same. The memorial was designed to be purposefully vague in order to make you think and decide for yourself its meaning. The individual blocks could represent the individuals lost. The maze-like positioning could represent the struggle to survive. The memorial actually gets very deep but you can't tell that from the outside, I think this represents the deception of the Nazis as they tried to hide their crimes. To this day, we still don't know exactly how many people were murdered.

After that, we lightened things up by heading to the Tiergarten, a huge park in the middle of the city. Originally, it was a hunting ground then, most of it was destroyed in WWII. What remained was destroyed in the depression following the war as the trees were used as firewood in the cold winter. Now, it gorgeous and full of trails and hidden gems. My pictures didn't turn out because of the lighting but here is one.

At the far end of the Tiergarten stands the Victory Column. It is a monument commemorating the Prussian victories against the Denmark, France, and Austria. The angel on the top is, appropriately,  facing Paris.

The last stops on the tour were the Richetagsgebäude (we saw that Saturday), the Brandenburger Tor (that too), and Museumsinsel (which we already saw).

After the bike tour, I was exhausted!! We headed to our hotel with the intention of finding good food on the way. Another amazing thing about Berlin is the diversity and acceptance of the city as a whole. It has the third largest gay population in the world and is home to SO many different cultures and ways of life. It is also home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. So it was super appropriate that, right out side of our Metro station. We were able to pick up some very, very delicious Doner Kebaps! YUM. And so ended our first day in Berlin.

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