The weekend before Christmas is a magical time to visit Belin. During our stay we saw numerous Christmas markets serving tempting food and offering a delightful array of interesting (often handmade) goods for sale. The whole city seemed abuzz with festive cheer looking even better by night. Aside from all things Christmas, we learned a lot about the modern history of the city. Like most people, we have an overview of WWII, the cold war and the Berlin Wall but over the course of our weekend, we learned a lot more about how these historic events shaped the lives of everyday people there.
We did a four hour walking tour which covered the main landmarks of interest and wasn’t as exhausting as it might sound. Our guide did a lot of talking which provided much of our education over the weekend even if he was a little hard to understand (and hear) at times. A walking tour is a remarkably efficient way to tick things off and get a feel for the layout of the city. One of the most notable aspects of the tour was being taken to the most unassuming of places and then being told about how 25 years ago we wouldn’t have been allowed access to this area or that the derelict carpark we stood in was above Hitler’s bunker where he spent the last 6 weeks of his life. While the city is certainly still marked by the events of history, it has also rebuilt into a bustling metropolis.
Significant stops on our tour included the Berlin wall (which somewhat ironically needs to now be protected by its own wall), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Brandenburg Gate. Given what surrounds the remains of the Berlin wall now, it is difficult to imagine the kind of life that existed on each side of the wall only a quarter of a century ago.
I was impressed by the size of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; it took up an entire city block – 19,000m2. The memorial was designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold and consists of 2711 concrete blocks of various heights. There are a number of explanations for the meaning behind such a construction but the main one is that the organisation of the blocks in rows indicates an ordered system but one that has lost humanity. Walking through it certainly gives you a sense of disorientation and unease as you can quickly lose one another. I think the ability to immerse yourself in the structure is key to its effectiveness in reminding visitors how easily people can create mayhem and tragedy.
The Brandenburg Gate was satisfyingly monumental. It marked the entrance to a square, Pariser Platz, with the French and US embassies. It is quite remarkable that the gate itself was the only structure still standing at the end of WWII with all the other buildings destroyed by air raids.
Later on our own wanderings, we went to the Palace of Tears or Tränenpalast. Situated at Friedrichstraße station, this was the border crossing where West German visitors to the East bid heart wrenching farewells to their relatives who had to remain in the East. The goodbyes are what inspired the name which does its best to capture the emotional toll the wall brought upon everyday people.
As a tourist in Berlin, you expect to have a portion of your visit dominated by grave reflections on humanity. But there is more to Berlin than the past.
A great place to see beautiful buildings is Museum Island. On this pinch of land there are five museums which are housed in magnificent buildings reminiscent of ancient Roman architecture.
We spent a couple of hours wandering through the Alte Museum. The building was designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel who has left his mark all through the city. While it looks incredibly proud as though it has stood there forever, the building has only been there since the 19th century. Inside was a delightful collection of Roman statues and romantic art.
The audio guide at the Alte Museum was quite long-winded however so we didn’t listen to as many descriptions as we usually would have. The lengthy explanations usually included a note about the meaning behind the artwork followed by a brief biography of the artist and perhaps an added note about the technique employed. It was perhaps something we should have known to expect there! I think if I had more knowledge about art and art history, I would have found the details more interesting. In saying that, the museum is a wonderful way to explore truly magnificent paintings and an incredible collection of statues.
On the Saturday afternoon we visited Classic Remise which is a classic car showroom. It also has plenty of vehicles for sale and they provide services for people who already own classic cars. It seemed fitting that we had a car-oriented activity on our first visit to Germany. There were some very cool cars on display and some for sale.
While it is a showcase of classic cars, we spotted a couple of very shiny new La Ferrari’s which caused some excitement. Between them they sandwiched a Porsche 918 Spyder inside an area where no photography was allowed so if you don’t know what they look like, Google it because they’re totally awesome.
During our wanderings we also came across an Audi store. Even I had something to drool over there!
Other than cars, Germany is also famous for its Christmas markets. All the other markets we have been to seem to talk about being German-themed so it was great to finally go to one in Germany. There are reportedly over 100 Christmas markets in Berlin alone and it certainly felt like the highest density of Christmas markets we have seen. There was one close to our hotel that took up the space outside a large department store. There was plenty of beer, sausages, mulled wine, toffee apples and huge gingerbread cookies on sale. I was also rather taken with a store that sold wooden goods but I never ended up going back to buy anything – two days is often not enough! Further away was a slightly more posh Christmas market which required a €1 entry fee; Weihnachts Zauber. It felt magical with all the fairy lights and the cheerful crowds. One of the stalls sold some incredible glass ornaments too!
A highlight of our weekend was having dinner at Hofbräu Berlin. This restaurant was just a block away from our hotel and was unexpectedly huge. There was a line forming outside when we arrived for an early dinner and we were soon directed to a back entrance to find seating upstairs. We got stamped on entry which took me back to memories of clubbing (Aucklanders, take a moment to remember Sixth Sense, Margis and later, Primo…). The dining area was a vast array of long rectangular tables; this isn’t the place for an intimate dinner. We shared a table with a group of six British people and the whole set up worked beautifully as we struck up conversation with them briefly – forced to be sociable! The staff were all wearing typical German costume and they could all carry a ridiculous number of beer jugs. Beer was ordered by the litre mostly and men beside us were already on their second litre by the time our food arrived. The atmosphere was so convivial it was impossible not to smile. The star of the night was my roasted pork knuckle; a huge caveman-like chunk of meat with the crispest of skins. Richard had to assist with eating almost half of it because it was so big. Even though we were totally stuffed and had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant, we both felt like going back for more the next day! It was definitely a great experience and I think we will return if we go back to Berlin again.
After dinner at such a loud and slightly raucous restaurant, it was a contrast to find ourselves at the stylishly quiet Chamäleon Theatre awaiting the start of Wunderkammer; a combination of contemporary circus, cabaret and vaudeville by Australian group CIRCA. I must admit that my exposure to circuses is mostly from Cirque du Soleil and this group was very different to that. They were a team of only 7 people with no set beyond some lights but they still kept us entertained. I’m very glad we went along and I would recommend it to anyone travelling in the area.
Berlin showed us a great time with mild weather which we were thankful for. It is a fascinating city with a difficult past which it does not try to hide from. I received an education there in history and also in the insistence of German people to rise above past events and build a better present to deliver to future generations.
Last post of the year – hard to believe we have almost been here for 6 months! Both Richard and I hope you all have a wonderful new years and send our best wishes for an amazing 2016!