Friday, May 15, 2015

Germany: Berlin free walking tour

I went on a free walking tour of Berlin today, thanks to the recommendation of my friend Mel. I highly recommend this, if you are capable of walking for about 3 hours. Berlin is a super flat city and there is A LOT of cool stuff to see in a pretty small area, so that made the walking pretty easy. 

This morning started out a little rough, due to a lousy night's sleep. I had reached the stuffy nose part of this cold. Breathing through both nostrils was a challenge. But I digress.

I had breakfast and got ready earlier than needed, which meant that I got to go back to bed for a little rest. Though lovely, this made getting up and out the door at 10am VERY HARD. I almost gave up but I have this little voice inside my head (planted there by Tony Robbins) that says, "When else are you going to have the chance to do this? DO IT NOW!" So I got up and out. I bought two bus tickets from the train station near my hotel and caught the 10:20am bus. Bus number 100. This was the fullest bus I'd ever been on (until the afternoon ride home). Standing room only. You know that small section in the front of the bus, where there's a line that says, "Do not stand here". There were 6 of us standing there. At one point, I was so smooshed, 4 other people were touching me at once. I counted the number of stops on my hand to make sure I got off at the right place, but 50% of the other passengers did too. Brandenburg Gate.

This was the meeting point of the walking tour. Well, technically, the Starbucks on the corner of Brandenburg Gate. There were over 130 of us going on the tour. We were split into groups of about 30, which turned out to be perfect. My tour guide was a tall Englishman (probably in his 20's) - easy to follow because of his height. He was passionate about the story of Berlin and also hosted other tours (more Nazi/3rd Reich focused). 

Meeting Point
I learned many, many facts and took a handful of notes on my iPhone. First thing, the woman in the statue on top of the gate was stolen and put in the Louvre for a long time. Once it was retaken by Germany and put back in place, they changed her name to Victory - so there will always been Victory in Germany over the French. The square that the Gate is in is known as Paris Square for this reason.

Also in Paris Square is the most expensive hotel in Berlin.
This is the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his baby from a balcony window.
We walked through the gates and stopped briefly. The first thing we all noticed was the odor of sewage that wafted through us. Our Tour Guide, who I'm going to call Wills (which is his last name, but also he sort of looked and sounded like Prince William), said that Berlin is actually built on top of a swamp. So, the smell is common in Berlin.

Wills - Tour Guide
Around the corner was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We learned that there are several memorials to each of the groups effected by the holocaust (Jews, Gays, etc). The memorial is stunning. There are 2,711 concrete slabs. Wills said that the tour group asked the artist what it meant and he basically said, "It means whatever you feel when you look at it." Which is a typical artist answer. Here's what I think, after some input from Wills and walking through it again on my own after the tour. The slabs vary is size, the ground on which they're built is like a wave. Wills said it could signify Hitler's rise to power as the outer slabs are very low to the ground, often ignored or tolerated by passers by. I found the taller ones feel imposing. They block the sun. Dominate your view. It's easy to get lost in there. The other thing to note is that they are not symmetrically placed. This might be because this memorial was based on or influenced by the memorial in Prague which is overwhelmed by headstones, which are touching and falling over on each other. There is a museum underneath the memorial, which I did not get a chance to go into, but it focuses on a few individuals. Rather than trying to digest what it meant for 6 Million Jews to die (1/2 the European population of Jews), the museum expresses that each one of those 6 million was a real person, with family and a story of their own. 

This first picture was taken around 11:30am and gives you an idea of how flat (in color and depth) the memorial can look at different times of the day.
The rest of these shots were taken around 3pm where the shadows add gravity to each slab.

Then we walked to a car park where Hitler's bunker had been and part of it is still buried 15m below the surface. This is where Hitler and Eva Braun were married, shortly before their suicides. There is nothing to see at this spot. Anyone involved in genocide is generally cremated and dumped at sea, so no shrine can be made to them and the same goes any site where Hitler could have been remembered. The bunker was destroyed, buried and eventually a car park was built.

And on we went to the Berlin Wall. The section of the wall we saw could be considered an edge of the wall. Not the main bit you might've seen on TV or in films, but still part of the wall none-the-less. Wills told us the history of Germany, how it came to be that Berlin was split. That the wall went up overnight (Aug 13th 1961). First as barbed wire and then four days later as the wall. There were two walls. And the space between them was for the guard tower to keep an eye out for anyone trying to cross from East to West Berlin. They would either be arrested or shot if trying to cross over. There is so much more to this time period that I can't cover here, but I will point out that when the wall went up, whatever side of the wall you were on is where you would live. If your family was on the other side, you wouldn't get to see them again for 28 1/2 years, but at the time it was thought it would be forever. If you slept on one side of the wall, but worked on the other, you lost your job. If you were in love with your fiance who was on the other side of the wall, too bad. 

The tour also covered the Prussian Headquarters, The Ministry of Ministries (an old Nazi building still used today...not by Nazis), Checkpoint Charlie, Jean Dame square, Bebelpatz and much more which I can't begin to summarise. I do hope that if you're ever in Berlin, you give a walking tour a go. It's worth it.  

60% of Berlin was destroyed in WWII. These buildings were rebuilt in the 1980's.
You might notice the sculptures on top are darker than the buildings themselves.
The sculptures are originals, saved from being destroyed and returned.


In 1933, the Nazi's burned 20,000 books in this square.
A permanent book sale at Humbolt University.
All proceeds go to charity as an apology for 1933's book burning.

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