In the UK, Easter brings a four day weekend making it a great time to get away for a European city break. We chose Berlin since we’ve both never been to Germany and have always been interested in the recent history of World War 2 and the Third Reich.
We kicked off the weekend with a Sandeman free tour that began at Brandenburg Gate. We always love a free walking tour and this one came highly recommended. It’s also a great way to get a feel for the city and a baseline of the history in a short amount of time.
With a fun little Australian guide, we took off to explore East Berlin on a cold sunny day. It was really interesting to hear about life in East Berlin before the wall fell and how the Nazi government came to power. It’s hard to believe that the wall didn’t come down till 1990; such recent history for us to take in. Naively, I thought that the majority of the interesting history took place during WW2, but I actually found the Cold War aftermath where Germany was occupied by allied powers more intriguing. The thought of secret police, espionage and tapped rooms, it all reminded me of the movie “The Lives of Others” (highly recommended if you’ve not seen it).
I’ve always wondered how the Germans felt about the dark history of the Holocaust and Nazi regime and was impressed to see that many of Hitler’s important places and bunkers are not memorialised in any way. There was a very nondescript apartment complex and playground built upon his final bunker. It seemed fitting to have no attention at all paid to the place where Hitler took his own life.
After wandering through the spare and moving Holocaust memorial, we made our way over to the wall itself. At first site, it was a little underwhelming, just a large concrete slab. But we learned that what remained was the first of two walls where in between was a “death zone” where armed guards were instructed to shoot to kill. Our guide shared that the death zone was actually home to loads of rabbits that found a home in the 30 foot sandy area. I liked thinking about the rabbits hopping around all the big tough guards.
We took a little break and enjoyed a berliner before checking out the Topography of Terror museum/section of the wall.
From there it was on to Checkpoint Charlie, the site of the American sector where you had to show your passport to enter the territory. It is also the site of an American v Russia tank standoff during the Cold War that luckily ended peacefully. Now it’s largely a tacky tourist attraction with actors dressed like American soldiers and a massive McDonalds. But still worth checking out.
We then made our way down Friedrichstrasse where the cabaret scene thrived (before the Nazis shut it down) and on to Gendermarket square to take in the French and German cathedrals and the German Philharmonic. We finished up at Humboldt University where Einstein taught for 10 years. It was also the site of the famous Nazi book burning where they destroyed first editions and original manuscripts of works they didn’t approve of. There’s a moving memorial under the main square of an empty library.
I thought the tour was super interesting in it’s own right, but perhaps the best part for me was learning more about how Germans perceive and process their own history. Our guide told us that Berlin is always changing and evolving itself and that seemed to fit. It’s not a beautiful city in any way, but seems to be building, changing and progressing into a brighter future. All of the turmoil and violence of its history has produced an open and tolerant society determined not to repeat it’s past.
After a pizza lunch and a massive beer for Mikey, in Gendarmenmarkt, we rallied to go check out the East Side Gallery where over 100 street artists had graffitied a 1 km section of the Berlin Wall where it runs up against the Elbe river. It was a sunny spring day and the tourists and Berliners alike were out to enjoy the weather. We snuck in some photos between dodging other tourists and eventually made our way down to the river for a beer. The famous scene of Honecker kissing Brezhnev was my favourite.
The day wasn’t over yet as we geared up for the real reason for our trip, the Germany v England soccer game. We showed up at the stadium which is completely terrifying and opens with this huge tower that looks exactly like a modern concentration camp. It was in the middle of a haunted forest and surrounded by polizei in riot gear. Not a great welcome. But, once past the frightening exterior, the stadium is actually really nice and kinda resembles a Roman amphitheater with smooth white stones.
England surprised everyone, most of all me, by coming back from an 0-2 deficit to win 3-2. It was an exciting game but as a six month pregnant woman, I couldn’t have felt more out of place around the drunken crowd throwing their beers in the air in celebration. Definitely a night to remember though in sporting history and it was exciting to be there for such a dramatic finish.
We tried to go to the Pergamon museum but I couldn’t take the 2 hour plus line. I also found it infuriating that they would expect people to wait that long in the cold for a museum, where is the German efficiency?! Definitely book ahead so you can fly past all the suckers waiting for hours, wish we had. While you’re planning ahead, book a visit to the Reichstag as well, site of the German Parliament. We also neglected to do that but got some nice sunset snaps of the outside on the way to dinner.
Finally, my favourite part of any holiday, the food. I had low expectations for this trip as German food is hardly a favourite of mine and I wouldn’t be able to have the best part… The beer. Devastated. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the food, particularly the pretzels, goulash, spätzle, apple strudel and schorle (sparkling juice). While Mike put down beer after beer, I looked on longingly while sipping the best schorle’s berlin had on offer (wife of the year 3 years running). Our favourite beer halls were the cosy Standige Vertretung, studenty Aufsturz, the traditional Augustiner am Gandarmenmarkt and the modern Lemke.
A final can’t miss spot: Ritter Sport. Bright punchy packaging and fun flavours, it’s only a euro per bar allowing you to sample tons of great chocolate for a steal. You can even make your own chocolate bar by adding in your favourite mixers to melted chocolate and coming back later for a bar. I couldn’t be bothered with the line it I’m sure it’s tasty!
Overall, I liked Berlin and my first taste of Germany. I much prefer the romance, culture and warmth of other European cities like Rome and Paris, but it was a good experience to see something different and step out of my comfort zone on this one. Next time I’m going when I’m not pregnant and the beers will flow like schorle 🙂
Until next time