Thursday morning, I got up early and caught a high speed ICE train to Berlin. Even on such a fast train (155mph at times), it still takes about 6 hours for the journey. This doesn’t bother me too much though–I’d much rather spend time on a train than in a car or airplane. Trains are much more comfortable, have more to look at out the window, are much less of a hassle, and you can get up and walk around. I really wish we had a good train infrastructure in the US. Anyways, I got to Berlin at about 2PM, caught the subway to my hostel, and checked in.
I stayed in The Circus hostel, and was quite impressed. Very comfortable, clean, and relaxed, and often felt more like a hotel than a hostel. Unfortunately, being winter in Germany, it was already getting dark out, but I headed down to the Brandenburg Gate to have a poke around. I got a few good pictures, and then walked down the street to the Reichstag. The Reichstag was very impressive, and much larger than I had imagined, but unfortunately due to the low light (at 4:30 in the afternoon, it was pitch black), I couldn’t get any pictures, so I headed back to the hostel to find somewhere to eat. They pointed me to a very good and very cheap Thai restaurant, and I was very pleased.
The next morning, I decided to go on a walking tour of Berlin. I’d heard several good things about Brewer’s Berlin Tours, and that they were an excellent way to get some insight into the tremendous history of Berlin that you can’t find in a guidebook. They were right. The tour was led in our case by the owner of the company, Terry Brewer, a grizzled old British guy who has lived in Berlin since before the wall came down. We all met up in the freezing cold outside, myself dressed in two pairs of pants, three shirts, my wool overcoat, a hat, and gloves, and proceeded to walk around Berlin for 10 hours. Terry was an encyclopedia of knowledge, pointing out tidbits of information about seemingly random buildings as we walked by. He seemed to know everything, and buildings that you normally wouldn’t have take a second look at turned out to have some very important history behind them. The tour was also a good way to get a feel for the city, and see how it was layed out. Most of the standard sights, like the cathedral, Brandenburg Gate, and the museums, were all in the East–in fact, I think I was only in the West a couple of times during my whole visit. Despite this, most of the old Soviet buildings have either been torn down and rebuilt or totally overhauled thanks to the appalling condition the Soviets had left them in, and you oftentimes wouldn’t even know that you were in the old East Berlin. Even 16 years after the wall came down though, the city is still shrouded in a blanket of construction. Everywhere you turn, buildings are covered in scaffolding, draped in construction covering, and watched over by several towering cranes. The joke used to go that you couldn’t get a crane in Europe because they were all in Berlin. Imagine a city that was isolated, neglected, and abused for 50 years, only to suddenly spring into the daylight, and that is Berlin. Despite this, they conserve some of the past, and one can see a few buildings that still show bullet and shrapnel damage from the war–such damage is even visible on the Brandenburg Gate.
Anyways, the next day, I went back to the museums to go inside and spend a bit of time in them. First up was the Egyptian museum. Currently housed in the Altes Museum because it’s normal home is under the shroud of reconstruction, it was an interesting display, but I must say I was somewhat underwhelmed. I think the problem was that the viewing space was possibly smaller than the normal location, and so not as much was on display; regardless, it felt that just as I was starting to get into it, it ended. Not to be phased, I headed down the street into the Pergamon Museum. The Pergamon is a museum in the vein of the British Museum in London. And given that the British Museum is by far the best I have ever seen, I was quite pleased with the Pergamon. While certainly not as large as the British Museum, it was nonetheless impressive. In it are the Ishtar and Miletus Gates, the latter under reconstruction to repair damage sustained in WW2. Also of interest, the Berlin Kore, an ancient Greek sculpture I had to learn about in my Greek Archaeology class and immediately recognized upon seeing, pointing out the details to myself before even the museum recording playing in my ears could say it. An excellent experience, and similar to what I experienced in the British Museum. After this, I went over to the Berlin Cathedral, and after listening to a bit of a choir concert, walked up to the top of the dome and admired the view of Berlin. By this time, it was getting dark, so after quickly walking through one of the Christmas markets, I headed back to the hostel to find some dinner.
The next day, my last final day, was considerably more quiet. I got up early and headed over to the Reichstag with the intention of climbing to the top of the glass dome, but arrived to find a massive line out the front and stretching into the field in front of the building. Everything was like that that day–the tour bus crowds were out in force. You could see them, busses pulling up to sidewalks in front of all the sights, and the tourists disembarking like locusts to swarm all over things, rudely talking loudly, shoving for better camera angles, and generally just being obnoxious. I saw people loudly walking into the War Monument (wearing hats as well), laughing and playing tag in the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and generally doing disrespectful shit. So I headed off to an internet cafe and passed the rest of the day drinking coffee and surfing the internet. A quiet end, but better than dealing with the tourist hordes.
The next day, up early and then back home. Not much to write about there.
I must say, the best (though somewhat morbid) part of the trip however, was finding the location of Hitler’s bunker, the place where he spent his last days before killing himself and being burned. There’s an eery sense about the place, made all the more so because there is nothing marking the spot and no tour book guiding you there–the German government refuses, perhaps rightly so, to put any sort of monument or marker there for fear of it becoming a rallying point for Neo-Nazis. Terry showed us the spot, which I later managed to back up with a bit of Googling. Today, an apartment building and parking lot stands on the spot. Part of the bunker was torn up to build the apartments, but a significant part of it still remains, and you can see the inconspicuous locked steel doors leading down into it. There is a children’s playground right about on the spot that Hitler is supposed to have been burned, making it even more creepy. All the people living there know what they are living over–seems rather creepy to me. I’m not sure I’d like my children playing on the ground where that man was burned. But nonetheless, my curiosity for history made the place supremely interesting to me. It’s not too often you can stand on the ground where the most infamous figure of the last century met his end, with not a soul around to make a noise.
Anyways, make sure to check out the photo gallery. There are tons of photos up from the trip beyond was is shown here.