We did well in getting up in time and making our way to the starting point of the 10am walking tour. Justin and I have done some of the free walking tours in various cities and they’ve always been great, so after getting overwhelmed with all the places we need to hit within this city, we decided this would be the easiest and most interesting way to ensure we get the full experience. Our guide was AMAZING and today ended up being one of the best days we’ve ever had travelling. It was such a great balance of history, sightseeing, fun, relaxation, partying, and even spontaneity while getting lost in the city.
The Tour (in case you're interested in the history vs just following our whereabouts. I've marked the end of this essay in case you just want to skip it)
Our tour started in Alexanderplatz, a pretty good place to start. Before the war, it was the most important part of Berlin - it’s where all the money was; the grand train station, the ritzy fancy shops, cinema; the place to be. After the second war, this was part of East Berlin, Soviet territory, and you can clearly see it to this day by looking around. The only thing that survived the war was the train station arch, the rest of the building, plaza, neighbourhood was _completely_ demolished. They were desperate to build homes quickly for the 1.5 million homeless people post war, and the quickest and cheapest way to do so, was in the standard Soviet way: concrete block homes. Ugly as all hell, but efficient and cheap. You could absolutely feel the difference the second you step into what was East Berlin from where we were staying as it went from clean, beautiful buildings, colourful, only to step into a very white, pastel-y neighbourhood, covered in graffiti with drug dealers every 3 steps in the metro station. Alexanderplatz itself wasn’t dirty or anything, but you can tell by seeing the tall buildings peeping up behind the main plaza as the residue of the Soviet times.
The one thing that wasn’t there before and the Soviets decided to add in was a giant tv/radio tower. At the time, it was the tallest building in Germany, possibly Europe at the time (now it’s the third). Why did they build it? Multiple reasons:
- Because it was the Soviets, and they could.
- This was close to where East Berlin met West Berlin. They wanted to intimidate everyone so they all always remembered no matter where they were, East Berlin was close, it was there.
- It was able to send out propaganda further out since it was close to the border.
This checked out, and no matter where we were, we always had our orientation and could see it, even as we left the city core.
Our next stop wasn’t far, just outside the plaza, but we were now on the little island in central Berlin between the two canals. This is the museum island and currently has 5 giant museums.
If you turn around from facing the museum, you see a giant palace. Back in the hay days, Prussian royalty lived in this palace. It was beautiful, it was giant, the whole shindig. It was, of course, demolished in the second war, and in the 70s, the Soviets built it as a Palace of the Republic with shopping, bowling, restaurants, etc. It was also used as the parliament, but after the reunification in 1990, it was taken down as they no longer needed a second parliament. It was then decided to rebuild this palace exactly as it once looked to preserve history. It has been under construction for 7 years at this point, and they’re still not done. The best part is this palace cost some stupid amount of billions to rebuild, and until this year, they had no idea what they were going to use it for. It was just decided to be transformed into a museum. As we we were walking to our next destination, I made a comment how it’s ridiculous it cost so much, and to transform it into the museum will cost another fortune to acquire items for exhibit. The tour guide heard me and laughed saying that they have so much stolen shit in their archives, it probably won’t. Most of the budget to rebuild this palace came from advertising and the entire palace was covered in a wall of them until recently, but the building is still under construction so not much photo-worthy.
From this stop, we could see two more things. On the one side, a giant church. If you look at it, you could see the walls blackened outside the windows from when it was engulfed in fire from the war. It’s one of the only original buildings still standing, and you can see which parts were restored based on the discolouration.
The reason we still have this ancient monument standing is because the Soviets were a secular country and had no need for the church so they just didn’t bother with it and left it there as it was. It wasn’t until fairly recently that it was restored. It was pretty eerie to see the discolouration and really see the flames of the fire and the direction they had taken, it actually made imagining it really easy. Turning the other way, you could see two spires of another church (not nearly as big) and it’s the only full on medieval building fully intact still standing in all of Berlin. That entire section was a little mini city that the Soviets tried to rebuild and replicate the medieval times, but of course in their Soviet way, they rebuilt it all in concrete blocks so its apparently super super ugly. We didn’t make it closer to check it out this time, I guess we’ll just have to come back to Berlin.
Our next stop was in the university square - a significant turn in history as it was the catalyst and the place of the first public act that turned into the genocide as we know it.
Backtrack: Germany is the only place in the world - anyone can go to university and study for free, and pretty much anyone who’s anyone either studied or taught here, Einstein for example. You don’t have to be a local citizen, you don’t even have to be European, you can literally just come and study here for entirely free. That said, this is the site of the infamous book burning. This is where it started and a shitton of students ran into the library and burned 20,000 books of impureness - anything that doesn’t support the purification of the aryan race/anything un-German: anything written by Jews or anyone else frowned upon, anything communist, anything improper, etc. This encouraged students in other cities to do the same, as everyone looked up to this university and its society. The monument for this is pretty epic although photos don’t quite do it justice. In the centre of the square, right where the burning occurred, there is a glass window in the ground and looking into it, there are enough empty shelves that would’ve held 20,000 books, just to give the visual-ness of this significant number.
Along our route, we came across these little plaques in the ground. They are hand crafted memorials to individual Jews during the war. It started off with a guy who was arrested for digging up cobblestones in order to put these in randomly in streets, but once the police found out what he was doing, the city actually started paying him to continue his work. To date, there are now 7 guys working to place these memorials and there have been about 70,000 laid. These stones have the names and dates for birth and death for individual Jews placed in significant places for them like the front step of their homes, shops, places they frequented regularly, etc. It's a beautiful way to honour them and really bring home the realization that these were real people, and they walked these steps daily. These tripping stones have a name, Stolperstein, which essentially means "tripping stones" and the name actually comes from an old joke about people tripping on cobblestones and falling over but jews were disregarded so much that the joke was about people tripping over "their bodies" because they were considered so low on the totem pole that you couldn't be bothered to give them a proper burial so their bodies would just be left there on the street.
Next up were the remnants of the German wall (same one we saw yesterday by the Topography of Terrors, however, we got quite the visual breakdown of what it was like instead of just gazing upon it).
Our guide talked to us about this being the wall for the East Berlin border and if we looked 10m across the road, that’s where the a second wall was put up in order to maximize security. It was initially erected overnight as a knee high wall, but seeing as that didn’t do much to keep anyone out, it was reinforced as the wall we’ve come to know today. He walked us through what to have expected back then with the round edging to keep hooks and ladders from attaching, all the booby traps that would set off alarms once on the ground, barbed wire, ravaging dogs, and sniper towers to keep anyone from crossing. I don’t recall exact numbers, but with all the corners being cut and emigration getting a few hundred people out, as soon as the wall went up, it practically ceased any escape. All in all, a couple of hundred died trying to mount and get away over the wall, but about 60 made it through tunnelling underground. What a time to live in.
Just across the road was one of the only buildings that survived the war 100% intact, and funnily enough, this was the Nazi airforce headquarters. It only survived because it was the largest building at the time and was the landmark the Allies would use as a reference for bombing the rest of the city. It was massive, 2 blocks long, solid, minimalistic, and even the original gate, locks, everything was still there. It’s an excellent example of how solid Nazi architecture was, and if you looked closely, the gate even still had all the marks from the staples that held swastikas up. It is now used as a government building for the Ministry of Finance.
We then stopped at the Jewish Holocaust memorial that we visited yesterday. I talked a bit about it in yesterday’s post, but we learned some extra things today that were neat. First of all, it’s a Jewish architect that never gave an explanation for this abstract and giant memorial, so it’s very much open to interpretation, and is Not one of the coffin-like structures is the same though, whether each one is at a slightly different angle, different height, different slant on the top. The centre of the memorial is the lowest point, and standing there, you have to go uphill to get out in any which direction.
Another super neat thing the guide mentioned was why there was no graffiti or dirt on any of the stones. The entire monument was painted in a layer of some sort of substance that cannot be stained, anything that is painted on top, can be washed off with warm water and soap. But here’s the kicker, the company that invented that paint, was also the company that invented the gas, Zyklon B, that were then used in the gas chambers. I don’t recall the name of the company, and we had a big discussion on the controversy here, but the argument was that the Nazi party ran the place at the time, and as a company (for example IBM), whether you supported your government or not, you needed money to survive and if the government in power picked you up for contracts, who were you to say no. Overall, this monument, leaves you with a feeling of isolation. No matter where you go and how big your group is, you always end up alone through the rows because they force you to break up. Closer to the middle, the coffin structures are 3m tall so they also break up any noise from the busy streets of Berlin. You can always see the light of the exits and entrances, but wandering through it, it’s absolute silence.
From where we were then standing, we could see the current Parliament building, the Reichtag. I’m sure there’s much to talk about parliament here, but the main point is the giant glass dome. It was built to allow people to go up into it and be able to look down into the parliament whether it was in session or not - symbolism to show that it’s the Parliament of the people now and to never forget it. Super neat, but although it is free, you do have to book to go up, and if you want to do so, you should probably do it 2 weeks in advance if you want to ensure to get in as it’s packed.
Last stop on the list was the Brandenburg Gate. It’s been back and forth a few times since Napoleon concurred Berlin and stole the statue off the top. Germany was all “I don’t think so” and took it back, but when they brought the statue back, they renamed her to Victoria for their victory in Paris, and just to stick it one last time to France, when they put her back up on top of the gate, they turned her around and had her face directly at the French embassy in the courtyard as if she’s watching them. Meanwhile, the French embassy is strategically placed to be the furthest away from the gate in this giant embassy plaza.
In fact, between the french embassy and the gate is the Avon Hotel. It is the most expensive and prestigious hotel in Berlin. Everyone from the Queen to practically any celebrities who come to Berlin, stay here, and they are often sited coming out of the side door. In fact, this is the very hotel where the notorious Michael-Jackson-holding-a-baby-out-the-window incident occurred.
Our baby, however, has been fantastic and was great throughout the entire tour.
The tour ended here and we went off to a little corner store to grab some beers with the tour guide. He was an interesting character so we exchanged quite a few stories, dealt with the baby, then rode the tram to get across the city to check out the Berlin Shopify office and come grab Laura after work. We met the local team, exchanged a few more stories, analyzed the bullet shell (one of the shopify guys wrote a thesis on bullets, go figure). Grabbed some food, checked out the city from the roof patio, then ran to catch the tram to make our way back across the city where the tour had ended (who planned this?!?!) in order to start our beer bike tour.
To set the scene, it’s practically 30 degrees, sun’s out, we’re melting from just sitting there and not moving, let alone now 6 people having to peddle a buggy big enough to carry 12. We had to order the drinks beforehand to stock the buggy, and the minimum order for beer was a 5kg keg. We’re 6 people, only 2 are drinking beer. So it seems like a great idea to get the keg anyway (which, we still managed to finish for the most part), 2 bottle of wine, and a bottle of coke for the non drinker. So a recap: 5kg of beer and 2 bottles of wine for 5 people, in 30 degree weather, sweating buckets.
We hadn’t even gotten out of the driveway before we all started to complain, so we just drank more. I was wearing the Munchkin in a carrier, trying to reach the peddles, drinking beer, and karaoking at the top of my lungs as we slowed traffic and peddled through the busy streets of Berlin. It was quite the scene, and definitely A+ parenting. Everywhere we went for the next 2 hours, people holding up phone screens followed us, recorded us, pointed, laughed, probably judged, but most were laughing and joining in the festivities from the sidewalk. As we peddled past people and realized how much beer we have, Justin started offering random people glasses if they can keep up with the bike. Everyone from pedestrians to motorcyclists to people stuck at red lights in the car. One guy crossing an intersection got super excited and actually sprinted a good 100-200m to keep with us, stopped to down it and then had to sprint another 100m or so to get us the glass back. It was friggin’ hysterical. By the time we made it back to the parking lot, I think it’s safe to say none of us were walking straight. Some people wanted to take the tram back, I thought I should probably walk the 40min to the hotel to get some air… with baby. The sun was going down and she was practically asleep anyway. While we stood in the grand plaza by the trams debating our next move and food, Laura and Chris heard one of their favourite musicians live so they urged us to run over and listen to him. He was just packing up from busking all day and they begged him to do one more song. He did end up agreeing and proceeded to play a 17minute song. It was probably one of the coolest things we’ve seen live, this dude has unbelievable talent as he played a gazillion instruments. Check him out on youtube, seriously, go: Reinhardt Buhr is the name.
We all danced, swayed, and just had the most amazing afternoon listening to this guy, obviously bought his CD/USB thing, and then decided to walk back. We got lost a bit and found a mall for those who needed to use the bathroom. There we came across a beautiful setup with string lights across the entire ceiling, flowers everywhere, and a ballroom set up with people just walking off the street and waltzing, salsa-ing, or just regular swaying depending on your skills but it was wonderful to watch and we got to see the whole thing from the second floor balcony. We knew some of the music and danced/sang upstairs in the empty balcony halls, didn’t know some of the other music so just enjoyed the view. People just came and went below, and it was such a romantic and wonderful evening. Not sure if still drunk or just legitimately a fantastic evening, but we all got back to the hotel just completely gushing at how amazing the entire day was. We put the baby to sleep who has been such a trooper this whole time, and went to grab some Italian for dinner downstairs as it was already 10pm and we couldn’t be bothered to go figure out food, or wander away from the hotel.
This seriously topped one of the best days in our travel experience. We love being on the move, and I can't say I've ever had the feeling that I didn't have enough time in a city, but this will be the first time I will say this. I was not ready to leave Berlin and Justin and I are both in agreement that we will have to come back for sure.