We left Copenhagen headed for the city of Berlin. For 21 Euro per ticket, we were able to board a bus which would take us from Copenhagen to the city, an 8 hour journey. For 1.5 hours, our bus would board a ferry. Bonus: we got free ice cream bars while we waited on our bus to board the ferry. Score.
Background: When we told our most recent workaway hosts (in Ireland) that we would be going to mainland Europe for the first time and visiting Berlin, their reaction was immediate scoffing and I swear their noses went somewhere in the clouds above. “It’s so touristy, you can find much better places further away,” they said. Additionally something like, “not really sure why you’d choose that city in all of Germany”. Two things happened after this response. The first being we no longer wanted to tell them about our plans, and secondly, we were not very interested in their suggestions. This was also within the first hour of meeting them which was also a bummer because…first impressions.
If you are one of those people who responds immediately with, “Oh, but it’s so touristy. Like the worst. Ew.”, when someone tells you they’re visiting a certain place in the world, you are not only rude, but you’re also a poor conversationalist in this moment, because you haven’t thought to ask the person their reason for going somewhere. I’ve made this mistake before, and many of us who love to travel have. It’s ok- just be more considerate moving forward. I have thought this when I’ve been told that someone is going to Cancun, for example, because Cancun is known for its all-inclusive resorts and bars/restaurants geared toward the swarm of American tourists, which is generally not my idea of a fun travel session. However, it’s also accessible with cheap and direct flights from the States, it guarantees dual-language abilities from hotels and restaurants, and if you’re looking for that type of vacation, you’re guaranteed white sands, blue water, and a lot of sunshine. I think that’s the key: what are you looking for when you’re thinking about a destination? I will also say that after 9 months collectively (wow!) of on-the-go traveling and day-to-day planning, an all-inclusive can sound like a pretty sweet deal. There’s a time and a place for everything.
Bottom line: Berlin is cool, and I was quite happy in doing every “touristy” and not-so-touristy thing in this city. But, I spent a week here, and I could have easily spent more time. A week allows you to spread out the really “touristy” things, and allowed us time to relax and wander, which is when you experience things more on a local level.
Here’s one reason why Berlin is worth your visit: its history, which is what makes the city’s current character so vibrant and unique to any other place I’ve been, and no, I have not been to Munich or Hamburg or Frankfurt, so take it for what it’s worth. But, it can’t go without saying that the very recent history, which of course includes the falling of the Berlin Wall, is fascinating and relics of this recent past can be seen all over.
Continuing with history, the Nazi headquarters were here, and because Germany is so good about taking ownership and confronting their horrendous past, the dedication to exposing this knowledge in order to show how far they’ve come is something from which we can all learn. Museums, free tours, nearby concentration camp memorial preserved for remembrance, and the fact that the place of Hitler’s death is now a regular apartment building rather than any type of memorial whatsoever to avoid giving any further attention and accidentally honor him in death are just a few examples. If you’re even remotely morbidly fascinated by the Third Reich, then you need to visit Berlin.
Of course I remember learning about the rise of the Nazi’s year after year in history class, but it’s like learning it for the first time when you’re standing where the Book Burning was, and when you’re walking through squares that at one time had banners of anti-Jewish propaganda and thousands of Hitler supporters. It’s kind of unreal. Don’t get me started on what it was like to actually visit the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen… For now, I’ll dive into this touristy stuff by starting with the free walking tour we took with Sandeman New Berlin Tours.
This tour company offers a free 3 hour walking tour of the city, and it is SO worth your time, and the tip you absolutely should leave your guide. It was so thorough, entertaining, and well-done that we booked a tour of the concentration camp through them as well…which means we did more tours during this week than I’ve ever done in a week’s trip! YEAH TOURS. YEAH LEARNIN’.
We saw Michael Jackson’s famous baby danglin’ window at the prestigious hotel in Pariser Platz:
We learned that the statue at the top of the Brandenburger Tor was stolen by Napoleon, taken back to Paris, and when it was finally returned, the Germans put it back on top…. Took her head off, adjusted it, and put it back on so that it now stares forever and directly at the French Embassy. Funny stuff right there.
This memorial was in honor of the recent Paris attacks, and was infront of the embassy:
We saw Checkpoint Charlie and learned through our guide’s impressive impersonation of both JFK and General Watson how World War III was nearly started thanks to an American General being absolutely pissed off that he missed an opera due to a thorough inspection of his car, because the opera house was in East Berlin. Tanks, guns, tension, all because of a missed opera. That’s the stuff that starts the real battles. Germans were like “whatever, we’re not afraid of these tanks do you have any idea what we’ve lived through?” so they went down the rows of tanks and sold beer and snacks to the American soldiers while they waited on orders.
We saw and obeyed Ampelman, which was (and still is) the “fun” way to cross the street. He’s from former East Germany and he’s now an indicator of which part of the city you’d be in, if the wall were still there:
We walked through the memorial for Jewish victims of Nazi Oppression, which was one of my favorite (it’s hard to use positive words to describe such things…) memorials. Powerful, disorienting, and cold, it is a geometric maze of parallel and intersecting walkways of cement pillars at different heights and angles. Every visitor is meant to get their own meaning from the memorial, and I couldn’t help but think about how well it symbolized the cold and organized efficiency of how so many were exterminated at this time under the Nazi reign.
We stood where the book burnings took place, and walked down the hallway of the former Nazi headquarters. After WWII this building then became the East German Ministry of ministries, which features this famous mural of communist propaganda… and also coincidentally seems to feature Larry David. Seriously- that part was comical. Now, it’s just the German tax building!
We gathered in a children’s sandbox in the courtyard of an apartment complex and learned about how, 2 stories below, Adolf Hitler had taken his life in a bunker. He got his dose from his doctor and first tried it on his dog, who fell dead, but Hitler was ok with this because he couldn’t bear knowing his dog could be surrendered and become a communist dog. His body was burned, ashes scattered with no ceremony, and a rumor was started that he was still alive so that no deranged followers would come here and make some sort of shrine in his honor. All in all, Hitler was so awful that no one even wants to give him the decency of resting his body in one place. Hats off to all for that one.
We saw part of the Berlin wall, which is now surrounded by a fence (wall within a wall- Irony!) due to too many people picking off chunks and trying to sell it to tourists. We learned about how an East Berlin woman had sewed herself into the seat of a car and was able to pass into West Berlin undetected. We learned about how Günter Schabowski had no idea what he was talking about in a press conference and gave incorrect information, which is what spurred the biggest party in German history as people went rushing over and through the wall, completely overwhelming the guards who hadn’t gotten any memo of the sudden unrestricted travel rule updates.
That concludes our free walking tour. I learned so much! If you go, ask for Steve. 😀
After this tour, we wandered on our own through Tier Garten Park, where there are memorials for the Sinti and Roma, mentally ill, and the victims of the holocaust who were gay. Each was well designed, placed in view, and was beautiful in its own way. The memorial for gay victims featured a short silent film in black and white of two young men kissing and embracing. These victims were treated the worst, only above Jewish prisoners, as they were “sexual offenders”.
Whoever thought of these big bubble things are great, because they create..well..big bubbles and are mesmerizing to children and adults alike, and you can see bubbles randomly in high traffic areas. These were in the same park.
Going back quickly to history and information on the rise of the Nazis, I recommend going to the *free* museum called “The Topography of Terror”, which is situated on the grounds of the old headquarters of the Gestapo/SS police. This was a ton of information to digest and a lot of reading, but full of artifacts, photographs, and other documentation on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. I was especially disturbed by the detail of the propaganda against the Jews and other minority groups. I can’t believe after all I’ve seen and learned this week especially, I’m still getting surprised by the lengths they went to solidify this particular political agenda. It’s so disturbing because it was so efficient, so well-thought out, and so fool=proof once the movement got going. Ugh.
Photos of other touristy things we saw on other days, including the East Side Gallery, which is a stretch of the Berlin Wall preserved with street art. It is also the location of the biggest and most costly scam, for which Pat fell victim. But let’s not talk about it… we’ll chalk it up as a loss and just pretend that we ended up in neutral spending zone since we lucked out with free tours and free museums and super cheap bike rentals on other days…. Eep.
Here you can see the most visited building in Berlin, the cathedral, and as I mentioned above…more bubbles! I like the bubbles. I even got a picture of one of the biggest bubbles POPPING. I did not go inside.
Lastly, I debated adding photos here of the concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, that we toured. I decided to only put a few, which includes the gate that bears the infamous and cruel “Work Will Set You Free”-which was here before it was replicated at Auschwitz, thanks to the disgraceful man who was promoted here for his particularly heinous punishments and then went on to run Auschwitz. I felt that this particular subject deserved more than a brief overview, but I am undecided as to whether I will write a full post. At the same time, it absolutely needs to be mentioned. It was really emotional for me, and more horrific than I could have come up with in my nightmares. Like I said earlier, it’s one thing to read about it, see pictures, etc, but to walk inside the barracks, to understand and see the conditions of the inhumane treatment infront of me, and to see the gas chambers, and to walk through the town where each prisoner had to walk in plain view infront of all of the townspeople living their normal lives before they entered the gates…it’s just so heavy. I thought about my “Uncle” Lou, who is Jewish and managed to flee his home country of Austria during the Nazi invasion. His story is recorded in a book on my parents’ shelf back at home with other survivors’. I thought about how someone I loved I may not have met if the timing had been different. My thoughts spiraled down a rabbit hole of all of the lives lost and the web of interconnectedness just completely ripped apart. It became very personal and very real to me, and it was a lot. I think it’s important to experience, but it is horrific. I left with a headache and half of my heart.
This concludes this section of our Berlin visit. My next posts may feature more details of this memorial, and will definitely feature more of our experiences exploring and wandering the city.. a bit less “touristy” as the days go on.
As always, thank you for reading.