As a foreigner, it’s easy to see a landmass on a map and start ascribing generalities to the people who live within those borders. It’s a natural crutch we all hitch ourselves to. We speak about “the French” or “the English” as if there aren’t key differences between regions within those countries and the people who grow in them. (This isn’t an American-only flaw, by the way. They speak of “the Yanks” or “the Americans” as well). We know that though we share many key points, there’s a difference between someone who grew up in the northern parts of Minnesota and the southern coast of California. Geography impacts culture in ways both big and small.
To steal a comparison from my buddy K, Bavaria is “Herman the German” while Berlin is “Dieter.” It’s an apt one.
Berlin is not just big. It’s a completely different environment than Munich. It’s far more cosmopolitan and far more diverse than even it’s big southern cousins. While there I heard plenty of Spanish, French and other dialects and languages spoken on the streets and the subways. People move more quickly. While on the subway, you’ll hear folks talking about nightclub openings, galas and plans to take trips all over the world. You also run into more beggars, transients and scam artists. Graffiti is more pervasive — not that it’s bad, just that it’s more prevalent. So keep that in mind.
The other thing that struck me about Berlin is that it’s far more modern than the other places I saw. And that’s not a surprise given the extent of the devastation that followed the fall of Berlin in 1945 as well as the reconstruction efforts following Reunification in 1990. If you’re looking for a place that embodies the history of the latter part of the 20th Century, you won’t do better than Berlin. From World War II through the Cold War, you can easily find the influences of these key events on the streets of this interesting city.
We started our tour of Berlin at the obvious stop: Brandenburg Gate. Commissioned by the king of Prussia in the late 1700s, it now stands as one of the landmarks of both Berlin and Germany. Based on Greek designs, the Gate has Doric columns, statues of Ares and Athena on each side and, at the top is the Quadriga, a chariot and team of four horses that bring Eirene (the goddess of peace) into the city. Lots and lots of history has happened by that gate, both good and bad. The old Berlin Wall ran near it and it’s where President Ronald Reagan famously intoned “Tear down this wall!” It’s also an interesting concept to consider how much the Renaissance and the Enlightenment really forced Greek architecture and design on cities and peoples long removed from the designs. It’s a similar thing that occurred in Paris and in Washington D.C. Seems like people during the 1700-1800s were so enamored with the Greeks.
Just a block away from Brandenburger Tor lies the Reichstag, the German Parliament building. Just like our Capitol building, you’ll find nonstop school kids on field trips in and around the Reichstag. A Neo-Baroque design, the Reichstag is known for its large glass dome and the statues that adorn it. You need a wide lens to capture the entire building in one shot and it’s very easy to take multiple photos to try and capture all the details. The building had fallen into disrepair after World War II, but was renovated and is now the meeting place of the German Parliament. In front of it, is the Memorial to the Murdered Members of the Reichstag, a small 96 iron plate design that stands for the various Parliament members who died at the hands of the Nazis.
From there, we took a subway to head to the Berlin Story Bunker. Here we ran into an odd thing. The Bunker is broken into 3 stories. The first story is a museum that details all sorts of human evil and depravity — from torture to cannibalism — with mannequins. It’s an intriguing design even if some of the displays are kind of odd. The bottom story is the actual Bunker museum. It’s still being developed, but you can get a sense of how small and cramped and horrible it was to run into these bunkers during the fall of Berlin. They were designed for 300 persons and were holding anywhere from a 1000 to 1500 men, women and children as the Soviets and Allies converged. No food, no beds and not even a good AC system meant many died in there from heat exhaustion, dehydration and disease. It’s horrific to contemplate such an ending for the citizens of Berlin.
But before you get to visit the bottom floor, you must go to the 2nd story and go through the “Chamber of Horrors” AKA a haunted house. Yes, that’s correct. There’s a haunted house in the Bunker Story Museum. No, I don’t know why there’s a haunted house nor did I bother to ask. And it’s got everything you expect of a haunted house: strobe lights, fog machines, scream makers and guys in dark clothing and masks jumping out of nowhere to scare you. I’ve had time to think as to a possible reason why you’d have a haunted house requirement before letting paying customers visit the historical part of your museum and I can’t come up with one. Is it to put the real life horrors in perspective? Is it to raise funds? I don’t know.
After the Bunker Museum, we walked to Checkpoint Charlie. For anyone who grew up during the Cold War, this famous part of Berlin is notorious. It was the one point where it was allowed — if you had the proper documentation — to cross from American-supported West Berlin into Soviet-backed East Berlin. The building above the checkpoint has become a museum that depicts the history of the Cold War, with an emphasis on Berlin and the desperate attempts at both reforms and escapes from East Berlin. You get to see some of the vehicles retrofitted to allow for a single human being to wedge themselves where an air compressor or a radiator was in order to flee the oppression of the East. It also shows how things came to a head which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. (And yes, there’s even a picture of David Hasselhoff singing atop the Wall).
Near Checkpoint Charlie, there’s a digital recreation of the Berlin Wall, where you can get a sense of what standing by the Wall was like. Further on ahead though lies one of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. This is part of the 3rd version of the Wall. Chunks have been taken out, but it remains standing near the Topography of Terror museum. It’s a place that’s built on what was the offices of the Gestapo and now is a place dedicated to showing to the world all the evils of the Third Reich. They’ve got a small dedicated part to the Warsaw Rising revolt and the destruction of the Polish capital by the Nazis. It’s all harrowing stuff and the kind of thing you should really contemplate viewing at least once.
After this, we decided to lighten things up and took a long subway ride to the Video Games Museum, but alas, we found it closed. Undeterred, we jumped back on the subway and went to the other side of Berlin to the world’s biggest Apple store. It looked….like a big ass Apple store. Located in one of the trendy shopping districts — I think there’s a dozen — it looks like an old train station that’s been taken over by Apple. I did get to enjoy a 20% discount on a red iPod Shuffle thanks to B’s connect. It was so amusing seeing Apple employees bond across language and culture barriers. Maybe Steve Jobs was right.
In the evening, things kind of draw down from 7 PM to about 10-11 PM, when the casinos, clubs and other evening spots open up. Just keep in mind that, to enter these places, you need to be dressed appropriately. Jeans and a t-shirt just won’t cut it. This seriously curtailed the evening opportunities. We had wanted to swing by Tarantino’s Bar — a place that’s dedicated entirely to the works of Quentin Tarantino — but unless you’re him, you better show up looking appropriately. Something to keep in mind if you’re ever in Europe.
We did get to run the next morning to Alexanderplatz to visit the Fernsehturm (Berlin’s TV Tower) before we had to jump on our train back to Bavaria. Ran into the same scam ladies there that we ran at Brandenburger Tor and Checkpoint Charlie, which was amusing. A long and adventure-filled train ride later — ICE train pulled in 20 minutes late to Nuremberg — and we got home safe and sound at about 10 PM. I would recommend a longer stay in Berlin, but planes wait for no man and you really want to have a chance to rest after a 7-hour train ride.