At the beginning of last week my Mum and I headed to Berlin, a city I had long wanted to visit. Berlin has a lot of history from the 1920s, 1930s & 1940s and I wanted to visit some of the places I’d only ever seen in old photographs or read about in books. We both saw this trip very much as a touritsy one, choosing to explore the most well known landmarks we’d both read about, rather than veering off the beaten track. However, we have already agreed that we want to go back and explore more of the city, so that will be saved for another time. A little warning, this post is incredibly photo heavy but I will try to keep my words brief! Yeah right!
After getting up at 4am in the morning for our flight, we finally arrived at our hotel about lunch time. Initially we headed just around the corner from the hotel to the Gendarmenmarkt for a spot of refreshment (I had German sausage and a beer – when in Rome and all that!). Then it was full on touristing.
Our first stop was a sombre one at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe on Cora-Berliner-Straße. This haunting place, designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, is made up of 2,711 different sized grey concrete columns. They’re arranged in a grid like fashion and the ground dips considerably within the centre of the structure so the columns are much taller than you. It feels incredibly repressive in this part and you have a real sense of unease and confusion.
Underneath the installation is an information centre which contains a timeline of the Jewish persecutions, from 1933 to 1941. It also contains personal accounts of a number of Jewish families and the names of approximately 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims.
The whole area is incredibly humbling, however, what did annoy both of us was the fact that there were a lot of children, many on school trips, just running around the concrete columns as if it was a maze. To them it was just a game, a bit of fun, and for such a symbolic place this just didn’t seem right.
The Tiergarten (Berlin’s answer to Central Park) and the Brandenburger Tor are both just a stone’s throw away from the memorial and it was our plan to have a lovely sunny walk through the park and end up at the Tor. However, there was a sports festival going on in the park, so the entire area was closed off for ticket holders only. Not, only that the Tor had barricades all the way around it so you had to walk through a back street to get to the Pariser Platz. Not quite the entrance I wanted to make by going between the columns of the Tor 🙁
However, once inside the Pariser Platz I spotted the hotel I had longed to stay at, the Hotel Adlon. The original pre-war Adlon had many famous guests, including Marlene Dietrich, Josephine Baker and Charlie Chaplin and it would’ve been wonderful to have followed in their footsteps. Sadly, we just had to make do with a lovely ice cream from their ice cream cart as the cheapest rooms stuck at the back are £285 per night!
After a lovely chat with a German couple, randomly about how smoking is seen differently in the UK and Germany (don’t ask!), we headed off to the Reichstag. This beautiful building had great significance in the rise of the Nazi party. In February of 1933 it caught fire and in direct response the President, under the then Chancellor, Adolf Hitler’s, advisement, issued the Reichstag Fire Decree which was used as the legal basis for many of the imprisonments and restrictions of the 1930s.
We decided not to go into the Reichstag due to it getting late in the afternoon, so instead chose to walk along the famous Unter den Linden. This super wide street runs straight through the Mitte area of Berlin, from the Brandenburger Tor at one end to the Lustgarten at the other. During the 1920s and 30s this street was a grand boulevard bustling with people and many shops, cafes and cabarets lined either side. This is how I expected it to be when we walked down it but alas time has taken its toll on this beautiful street.
The main issue was right the way down the middle of the street, where the beautiful and historic linden trees once lined the central walk way, was high boarding to protect construction of the new U-Bahn (underground) line. Not only did this block the view of the other side of the street, but it also looks incredibly ugly. All of the trees had been felled(!!!!) and the central walk way was no more. In fact, there was so much construction going on everywhere in the city, literally on every single street we walked down, that it detracted a lot from the beauty of the city. It was such a shame.
We actually had to dodge past many construction barriers to view the stunning building above, which was down Oberwallstraße, just off Unter den Linden. I can imagine ladies in the 1930s coming out of that door and down the steps in beautiful bias cut evening gowns! You can see a photo of what this street looked like at the end of WWII here.
Just past this, and next to more construction, was this incredible door just minding its own business on a very plain looking building. We found out who Schinkel, or indeed Karl Friedrich Schinkel, was just a few minutes later as we came across his statue. This Prussian architect was responsible for a huge number of Greek and Roman inspired buildings around Berlin (and there’s a lot of them!). The beautiful door has a story of its own, which you can read about here, but for now it leads to a quiet art gallery that seems to only open occasionally.
The one place I really wanted to visit in Berlin was Bebelplatz. This beautiful area, surrounded on one side by one of the Humboldt University buildings, was sadly the place of the very first book burning in Germany. On the 10th of May 1933, 20,000 books written by blacklisted authors such as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Erich Kästner, were tossed onto a fire. Erich Kästner actually stood in the background at Bebelplatz and watched as his 1931 book Fabian was slowly destroyed on that night.
Today, in its place as a permanent reminder, is a sunken library. It is completely empty apart from the shelves and has enough space for 20,000 books. To the side is a bronze plaque that says “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well. Heinrich Heine 1820”.
As a huge bookworm and secondhand book lover, I have a thing about not destroying books in any way. My mum brought me up to respect them as they can not only give you knowledge and help you grow, but they have the power to change you. It was instilled in me at a very young age that you never wrote in a book and never ripped anything out of one, let alone throw one away.
The Sarah Waters book, Tipping the Velvet, that I placed on top of the library was one I had bought at a secondhand book fair, just minutes before, outside the Humboldt University building on Unter den Linden. I thought it was rather apt due to the fact that it’s about the intimate relationship of two women.
The next day, after an early night, 11 hours sleep(!!), and nearly missing breakfast because we got up so late, we headed off to the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße. This was a little way outside the main centre where we were staying but it was definitely worth the walk. (We walked everywhere so we could see as much of the city as possible!). Unlike the Holocaust Memorial, people seemed to respect this area and walk around quietly reading the details and taking it all in.
This area was known as the death strip because it was one of the main places people tried to cross from the East to the West, with so many of them losing their lives. During the decades the wall was in place it was just waste land between a barricade on the east side and a solid concrete wall on the west side. Inside this strip guards controlled watch towers and patrolled on foot and in cars. The stories of those who tried to cross are incredible, with some of them reading like something out a James Bond film, expect this was people’s real lives.
Whilst walking around the area we got chatting to a lovely Canadian guy who had just retired from the military. During the early 1980s he was posted to West Germany and spent quite a few years there, experiencing the fragile state of the country during the Cold War period. He’d decided to come back now and see the reunified Germany for himself, which seemed to mean an awful lot to him. It was so fascinating talking to him.
After a leisurely walk back along the river, we stopped for a spot of lunch on Museumsinsel (Museum Island) where we watched the tourist river boats go by like London buses! This area is beautiful, it’s full of magnificent buildings all playing host to a different museum. As we didn’t have a massive amount of time we chose to just go to the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) as we generally go to a National Gallery in every country we go to.
I did, however, really want to go to the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) whilst in Berlin as it focuses a great deal of its collection on the first half of the 20th Century. Some of my favourite movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, the Bauhaus and Surrealism are featured quire heavily. The building itself is designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a major player during the Modernist movement of the 1920s & 30s, who I studied in great depth during my Art History A-level a few years ago at evening college. However, the gallery has been closed since January 2015 for renovation and will be closed until 2019! Ah well, there’s another excuse to go back!
The Alte Nationalgalerie was lovely though and two pieces I really fell in love with are the sculpture of Sleeping Beauty, 1878 by German artist, Ludwig Sussman Hellborn and Moulin de la Galette auf dem Montmartre in Paris, 1886 by Vincent Van Gogh. I’m a huge fan of Van Gogh’s so, to see a piece I’d never seen before in real life, it was quite a treat.
On the way back to the hotel for a quick freshen up before dinner we walked past many of the other museums and down to the Unter den Linden. This took us through the Lustgarten in front of the Altes Museum. On the left hand side of the road stood one of the many impressive cathedrals in Berlin, Berliner Dom. This incredible building was vastly destroyed during WWII and has had a huge restoration to bring it back to its former glory.
I recently found a photo of it on May 1st 1937, taken by Norwegian engineer Thomas Neumann whilst he was working in Germany during the 1930s, which you can see here. On the right is the Maypole for the May Day celebrations.
After dinner we had a wander around the Gendarmenmarkt just as the sun was disappearing. The Konzerthaus, Deutscher Dom, and Französischer Dom (pictured above) were all lit up beautifully and it all looked so pretty. Apparently this area is one of the best in Berlin for a Christmas market, so we’re definitely keeping that in mind for a later date!
When we reached our hotel we had a quick sit down in the foyer as it really was outstanding. This is me in one of the impressive gold cage chairs, which was in the main part. They had a whole range of this furniture and I really wanted to bring the very Art Deco looking cocktail trolley home. Sadly it didn’t fit in my suitcase 🙁
The Titanic Hotel – Gendarmenmarkt really was one of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed at. It was only completed in the last few years, so everything is brand spanking new and oh-so-clean. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, and honestly couldn’t do enough for us. It was quiet as it was just on the outskirts of the main tourist area, and due to the fact that it was early in the week, but I ‘d rather that than too crowded and no personal service (let’s not mention a certain hotel next to Marble Arch!).
Despite it being a luxury 5 star hotel we got an incredibly good deal on Expedia. For two people, for two nights, and return flights included, it cost just £250 each! Thank you Expedia!!
On the third and final day we initially headed to Checkpoint Charlie. (We’re on the home straight now, I promise. Well done for sticking with me this far!) We knew this was going to be a very touristy area but still wanted to see it to say we’d been there. Whilst holding on to our handbags and dodging the multitude of dodgy sellers (okay, it wasn’t that bad!) we stood for a moment and snapped a few shots of the sign and the main checkpoint.
We did have a giggle at the fact that the “American” soldiers were very obviously Germans and that on one side of the street was McDonalds and on the other KFC. Yep, just to prove it was the American side of the checkpoint!
We then took a stroll towards Potsdamer Platz, the busiest junction in Europe during the 1930s. We passed the Topography of Terror, home to an information centre built upon the area where the headquarters of the Gestapo and the SS used to be. We decided not to go in as we’d had quite a few sombre moments during the trip and weren’t sure if we were ready for another. However, on the outside of it is another long section of the Berlin Wall. There’s quite a few spots in Berlin where it still stands and you can just happen upon them every now and again.
Then we stumbled across Trabi World! The Trabant, affectionately known as Trabis, were a symbol of East Germany. These cute little, very Cold War looking, cars were plastic, uncomfortable, slow, noisy, and dirty but yet, still very much sought after in the Eastern Bloc. Now you can have a ride in a Trabi Taxi or have a quick look around the small museum.
The Potsdamer Platz was sadly nothing like its former 1930s version with its luxurious Wertheim department store, multi-national-themed Haus Vaterland restaurant and countless luxury hotels, shops, beer houses and cafés. During WWII the majority of the buildings were severely damaged and were then torn down during the Cold War period to enable the Wall to go straight through it, leaving it a waste land. Today the main intersection houses many high rise buildings, including Sony’s European headquarters. I particularly loved the two above because they seemed to defy all laws of perspective!
Just off Potsdamer Platz is the Berlin Mall which we nipped into as the heaven’s opened. We’d been incredibly lucky throughout the three days we’d been there with glorious hot sunshine but for about an hour or so it rained non stop and the temperature dropped. My Mum and I even had to buy scarves to wear because it had suddenly turned so cold!
When we decided to leave the mall, as it really wasn’t holding our interest at all, the sun decided to come out. So we headed north a little and found that the Tiergarten was now open. Yay! We had a little walk through the nearest section to the Brandenburger Tor and I imagined I was walking in the footsteps of one of my favourite authors, Christopher Isherwood. When he first arrived in Berlin in 1929 he lived in a tiny flat just on the edge of the Tiergarten and must have walked through it countless times during his four year stay in Germany.
We had such an amazing time in Berlin and actually didn’t spend an awful lot. Most of our money went on food and drink, well a lot of drink. Berlin is definitely one place you can walk just a few yards and find a café to sit outside of. We very quickly became accustomed to the culture of stopping somewhere and having a glass of beer or wine. In fact, we stopped half way down Unter den Linden for a glass of bubbly at the Mercedes show room that had its own bar and lovely seating area outside!
We’ll definitely be going back, even if it’s just for the beer, there’s no doubt about that 🙂