Saturday, 06-06-2015. Day 290.
Football Fans,San Playgrounds, Communism, and chocolate
We'd only spent one rainy day in Berlin before we zipped off to Denmark for a few days, so we were looking forward to a proper exploration of Germany's capital city. When we landed on our return flight from Denmark, we jumped into the car and quickly checked into the hotel before heading off to Pariser Platz (location of the famous Brandenburg Gate) to meet up with the afternoon Sandeman's Free Walking Tour of Berlin.
We were about a good half-hour walk from the meet-up point and we had some time, so we took a little impromptu walking tour of our own. We saw a few cool things (most of which we'd revisit in a few hours) but our main target was Fassbender & Rasuch, a chocolatier at the edge of Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt.
After a short visit (and some chocolate samples) inside, where we saw chocolate re-creations of the Brandenburg Gate, the Titanic, and the Reichstag, we continued our walk up toward the Pariser Platz. As we got close, the crowds got thicker and thicker until, as we arrived we found ourselves in the thick of a huge crowd of football (soccer to us yanks) fanatics.
As it turns out, the Champions League final between Italy's Juventus F.C. and Spain's FC Barcelona was taking place in Berlin's Olympiastadion that night. So the whole place was a chaotic mass of people. Fortunately, we do really well with chaos.
We quickly figured out where we needed to be and in almost no time, we were off on our tour with Stephen, an Australian living in Berlin by way of Scotland. Since we were standing in the center of Pariser Platz ("the nicest address in Berlin," according to Stephen), we got started right there with the Brandenburg Gate.
The gate, which led to the beginning of the road from Berlin to Brandenburg City, was first built in the 1730s as one of the 18 gates that led into Berlin. It was rebuilt as the Peace Gate in 1788 as the more grandiose structure it is today. It was crowned with a statue of Eirene, the Greek goddess of peace, riding in a chariot pulled by four horses.
Then Napoleon came along and defeated the Prussians in 1806. He used the gate for his victory procession before taking the statue from the gate back to the Louvre in Paris. Eight years later, Napoleon lost it all (for the first time) and the Prussians reclaimed the statue—although now she was the Roman goddess Victoria with an iron cross and Prussian eagle—and returned it to its honored place atop the gate. Today, as Stephen pointed out, the statue looks right at the French Embassy.
As we wandered out of Pariser Platz, Stephen pointed out the Hotel Adlon, which at about $1200 U.S. per night is one of the world's most luxurious luxury hotels—and where Michael Jackson once dangled his infant son out of the window.
Shortly after we walked past the U.S. Embassy, we stopped for a short while (14 minutes) as Stephen gave us the abbreviated version of German history—from the city's early days as a fishing village in 1237 up through Prussia . Germany as a country in 1871 when William I (formerly King of Prussia) was crowned German Emperor in Versailles as Prussian forces laid siege to Paris. Yeah, like a lot of European history, the story is mighty complicated (it was the Holy Roman Empire, after all) so I won't pretend to try to replicate it here (this is already going to be a long post). But Stephen's retelling was mighty entertaining.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (no sugar-coating in that title) is a large memorial honoring the memory of all the Jews who were killed in Nazi work camps during the Holocaust. It takes up an entire city block (almost five acres), not far from Brandenburg Gate.
It's a very striking memorial, inspired by the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (which we'd visited a few weeks earlier), with its 2,711 rectangular concrete blocks of varying heights laid out in a grid.
We walked through the stones to the other side of the memorial. It was very eerie. There's a place of information (as it's called) underneath the memorial that includes the names of all the Jewish Holocaust victims that are known, and the line to get in was very long when we were there.
As long as we were on the subject of Nazis and World War II, Stephen walked us over to the saddest playground in the world. And it was pretty sad.
Why is this the saddest playground in the world? It's only partly due to the fact that this lonely slide looks like Jar Jar Binks. The main reason is that it sits right on top of what was formerly Adolf Hitler's bunker. As we stood here feeling sorry for the playground, Stephen told us the story of Hitler's final days, from his paranoid ravings to devouring multiple cakes in a single sitting to, finally, his suicide.
As we continued on, Stephen pointed out two notable buildings: the North Korean Embassy (he knew all the fun places) and Bistro Motiv, the restaurant German Cancellor Angela Merkel visits when she wants a kebab. Speaking of which, Stephen also dropped a bombshell on us here—the kebab was invented in Berlin in the 1960s. True story? I'm not sure, but it isn't without a little controversy.
We crossed the street by the Mall of Berlin (and were encouraged to steer clear of this monstrosity) for a brief visit at the last Third Reich-era building still standing. It was built as the headquarters of Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe and was used as the East German headquarters in 1945. Today, however, it is the Federal Ministry of Finance (better known as the German tax department).
Just down the street from the Federal Ministry of Finance, we came to the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall located at the corner of Wilhelmstraße and Niederkirchnerstraße.
At this location, adjacent to the remains of the wall, one can find what's left of the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. These days it's an outdoor museum called the Topographie des Terrors, which is the world's longest running temporary museum (it started in 1987).
The Berlin Wall was actually two walls separated by an always illuminated strip of land known as the death strip. That's what the cheery East German government called it anyway. And although it spelled certain death at the hands of the East German border guards for any human setting foot into the death strip, this uninhabited zone was a place where the bunnies of Berlin thrived.
Until the Berlin Wall was built, 5,000 people a day were fleeing from East Berlin into Berlin. But after the wall was built only 6,000 more defected over the next 28 years, with 137 people dying during their crossing.
As Stephen said, East Germany existed for 40 years—and then it vanished. Not much of it remains, other than a double-brick line embedded in the streets throughout Berlin marking where the wall once stood. Oh, and Ampelmann.
As we walked to Checkpoint Charlie, Stephen told us about East Berlin's only lasting contribution to the world—Amplemann, the pedestrian crossing light from .He's quite a popular guy—there's even an Ampelmann Shop in the Gendarmenmarkt that sells nothing but, you guess it, Ampelmann paraphernalia.
Most people want to know who this Charlie guy was but there was no Charlie at Checkpoint Charlie. Rather, it was the third checkpoint get into East Berlin, and, as such was named Charlie using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet (you know, Alfa, Bravo, Charlie ... Yankee, Zulu), and his is where World War III almost started on October 22, 1961—all because U.S. diplomat Allan Lightner wanted to go to the opera.
The crisis was successfully averted, thanks to the negotiation skills of Robert F. Kennedy and Georgi Bolshakov (okay, I had to look that one up), but this incident catapulted good old Checkpoint Charlie right into historical infamy. Today, the whole thing is a reproduction and a heavy tourist attraction—you can even get your photo taken with soldiers in front of the guardhouse (hint: they're not real soldiers). There is only one artifact of the whole site that remains authentic.
No, the sign, too, is a reproduction. But, Stephen assured us, the frame is the original.
Stephen would stop the group every so often and point out something unique about Berlin. For instance, once he stopped and wondered if any of us had noticed the large colorful pipes that are all over the city streets. And they are all over, and we did wonder about them.
Turns out Berlin, like many of the great European cities, is built on a swamp, and these pipes take groundwater from building sites to the safety of a reservoir. So they serve a useful purpose, but they sure look weird wrapped all about the city streets.
We also stopped to take a quick look at a place you can pay a few cold hard Euros to drive the Trabant, the not-so-fast and mostly non-furious car of East German manufacture that boasts a powerful two-stroke engine. If you're lucky, you can spot a caravan or two of these East German street beasts tearing up the roads of Berlin.
On another occasion (shortly after our break Stephen stopped us on near of a sewer cover where he told us about the glory days of 1920s Berlin (a thing we'd experienced firsthand at Phantasialand) that Berlin was built for eight million people, but only four million currently live there. So sometimes there's not enough pressure in the sewage pipes for the water to flow properly—which explained the pungent aroma.
We walked back past Fassbender & Rausch. Despite Stephen saying he wasn't going to wait for anyone if they went inside, a few people went inside anyway. The rest of us continued on across the street to the Gendarmenmarkt, a public square between two nearly identical churches, one German (a Lutheran church built in 1708) and one French (a Calvinist church built by the Huegenots in the early 1700s). One of the churches was a little taller (I think it was the German one, but I can't remember exactly).
The Gendarmenmarkt is also the home to the Konzerthaus Berlin, which is located between the two churches. It's marked by Schiller Monument, placed to honor German peot and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, which has been on display since 1871.
All the buildings in the square were heavily damaged during bombings in World War II, but the statues, which were moved to a nearby salt mine for protection, are the originals from the 1800s.
Book Burning Memorial
We left the Gendarmenmarkt and walked over to the Babelplatz, named for the founder of the Social Democrat party, near St. Hedwig's Church and Humboldt University. It's unfortunately most famous for the event that took place here on 10 May 1933—the German Student Association burned 40,000 books on this spot on behalf of the Nazi party.
The memorial that's placed here is quite fantastic. It's a room below the street level that you can view through a pane of glass. Inside are empty bookshelves with enough space on them to hold the 40,000 books that were burned here.
Berlin TV Tower
The Berlin TV Tower, which stands tall just past the north east bank of Berlin's Spree river, is the crowning engineering achievement of East Germany. It was designed as a symbol of Berlin (which it is) and modeled after the Russian satellite Sputnik.
The ball is made from squares of stainless steel, and when the sun shines on the globe it looks like a cross. A neat effect, to be sure. But east Germany was an anti-religious country, and this was a vexing phenomenon. They tried to fix it by having workmen beat on the surface with a hammer, but it only made things worse. So instead they called it the cross of victory (or something like that), but no one was buying it and it became known as The Pope's Revenge.
For our final history lesson of the tour, Stephen related to us how the Berlin Wall fell, which was a really interesting story. I remember when it came down, but I didn't know the full story of how the events unfolded. In short, Günter Schabowski, spokesman for the East German government gave a press conference and unwittingly let the news slip that East Germany was opening its borders. Once the public found it, that was it—people raced for the gates to be reunited with their friends and families on the other side of the wall,trampling scores of those Berlin bunnies in the process.
And on that happy note, the tour was over. We walked back to our hotel and relaxed for a little while before we headed out to dinner. Then watched the Juventus vs Barcelona game on television. I sort of wanted Juventus to win (because of the enthusiasm of a certain restaurant owner in Lucca), but my youngest daughter said she'd bet me ten euro that Barcelona would win. And that's how she won her first ten euro.
Header image: Equestrian statue of Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia).