Thursday, July 21, 2011


After a fun 7ish hour train ride through the lovely German countryside (first class rocks by the way cos they gave me a free chocolate…yes, that’s how easy I am to win over :P) made it into Berlin and found my hostel which is  really nice but I was a little worried that it was a bit too far out of the way of things. Grabbed a free map from reception however and discovered that the East Side Gallery, the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall was only a 2 minute walk away so headed out to explore.
Painted with murals by artists from all over the world in 1990, the kilometre or so stretch of wall is still pretty imposing, though you have to admire how they’ve made such a positive piece of community art out of what’s left of it. From the wall I could see the big TV tower (but really is there anywhere you can’t see it from) so kept walking in that direction along the river and eventually hit the old City Hall and museum districts and from there it was only a bit more of a walk up to the imposing Brandenburg Gate.
Just around the corner from the gate stumbled on the impressive Holocaust memorial, a huge area covered in rows of uneven grey concrete blocks. Its quite disorienting walking amongst them as the hightest ones are over 2 meters tall and it feels like a maze. You can hear and occasionally catch a glimpse of other people but you can’t really place where they are and unless you actually bump into someone else at an intersection, it feels pretty solitary in there. Don’t know if that’s what they were aiming for but it certainly seems an appropriate memorial in my mind.
Walked back towards the hotel following the path of the wall. Obviously most of it is gone other than a double line in brick that marks where it used to stand  but you still get the odd piece here and there, usually incorporated into an artwork of some kind, and it certainly helps put things in perspective to realise just how long the wall would have been when it was whole. Went past Check Point Charlie with faux US soldiers trying to get tourists to pay for photos with them, and past the house where one of the more infamous escape tunnels started , but ended in bloodshed when the escapees were betrayed to the GDR and eventually ended up back at the East Side Gallery and the hostel.
Enjoyed a nice sleep in the next morning as I had a room all to myself for the first time in 2 weeks, then hiked back up to the Brandenburg Gate and joined a free tour. Covered a lot of the areas I’d walked through yesterday plus a few other little hidden away things that I missed like the site of Hitler’s Bunker (now a car park) and the book burning memorial (an underground room of empty bookshelves to hold the number of books that were burnt). Also got lots of history to give everything a bit of context which is always great, especially in this case as it included a lot of more positive pre-war history as its quite easy to get bogged down in the events after Hitler took power (as you’ll quickly notice).
Spent a very cheerful afternoon, first at the museum under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which houses stories off individuals, families and places from the holocaust as well as a collection of all the other Holocaust memorials around Europe. Then headed to another remaining section of the wall, and beside it the Topography of Terror, a museum of Gestapo tactics built on the former site of their head office. Pretty chilling stuff. Then back to the hostel for a nice relaxing swim in the pool (best hostel ever :D)
Got up nice and early this morning and went for a run along the East Side Gallery before the crowds (and rain of course) moved in for the day. Then headed to the Reichstag where I had planned to climb the dome but turns out you have to make an appointment (somehow) to do that so instead grabbed some breakfast and tried to figure out how the train tickets worked (I failed in this endeavour and am pretty sure I spent the day riding around with the wrong ticket but it all seems to be based on an honour system anyway so close enough).
Headed to the small town of Oranienburg, just outside of which was the Sachsenhausen concentration camp which was used by the Nazis from 1936-45 and then as a Soviet special camp until 1950 and after that was turned into a memorial site under the GDR which emphasised the victory of anti-facism over facism rather than focusing on the history of the site. It was redesigned after the fall of the wall and is now a fascinating and grim memorial to those who suffered and died there with as many of the remaining buildings and sites used to show what life was like for the prisoners, who the prisoners were and how why they were killed.
Headed back into the city and visited the Stasi  museum which focuses on the mechanisms of the Ministry of state security who’s main purpose was to make sure no one under the GDR was getting any revolutionary ideas. Unfortunately most of it was in German but they had very basic summaries around the place and the visit was totally worth it for the range of espionage tools that have been preserved. Seriously, these guys would out a hidden camera in anything. Finished off at the touching war memorial in the centre of town which houses remains of an unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp victim along with dirt from several battlefields buried below a sculpture of a mother holding her dead son. Very moving memorial to the victims of all wars.
Now based on all the places I visited you might expect to come away from Berlin feeling pretty gloomy, but on the contrary, its probably one of the most vibrant. All over the place you have the remnants of pre-war and Soviet architecture nestled among contemporary buildings and beautiful rives and parks scattered around the city. The best thing though is that rather than trying to hide away or dwell over the darker aspects of their recent past, they have instead been creatively incorporated into the reinvention of the city in such a way that while walking around, it is both hard to imagine and difficult to forget that some of history’s worst events happened here in the last 100 years, without feeling overly weighed down by that fact.  Its probably also the most heavily graffitied place I’ve yet been which for Europe is really saying something, I swear these guys will spray-paint anything if it stands still long enough.
Anyway, sorry for the slightly longer than usual entry, hope no one got too bored. Off to Venice tomorrow (I hope. There are about 4 trains between here and there so fingers crossed I won’t end up stranded along the way) and there had better not be a single rain cloud in sight when I get there or I am going to throw a tantrum the likes of which Europe has never seen before, so stay tuned J
East Side Gallery

Brandenburg Gate

Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial at Sachsenhaussen

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