18 March 2020
“So, Englishman! You think you’ve got palaces? We’re going to show you some real palaces!”
This would have been early 1992, about half way through my year out in Germany, an obligatory part of my German degree course. I had been living with a chaotic but kind family in a rural village in Lower Saxony where nothing much happened. The family father, Johann, had been promising all week that we would go on an excursion, wouldn’t tell me where but insisted that we would be leaving at 5am. Where the hell were they taking me?!
Berlin and I go back a long way, you see. And, boy, was it a long way. The palaces Johann was boasting about were five hours’ drive away in Potsdam. And what a drive. Two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this didn’t look like a unified country. We drove through rickety roads in eerie East German villages, happening often upon the Russian army, who were still to vacate their former Soviet sister state, whose soldiers wore exotic big caps and whose vehicles pumped out thick black smoke.
We made it to Sanssouci and Neues Palais, the ostentatious “Prussian Versailles” in Potsdam, before spending a couple of hours in East Berlin, where I bought a piece of the Wall (or a piece of someone’s wall, at any rate!) and gawped at the bullet holes in the building facades, a reminder of the street battles for Berlin nearly 50 years earlier and which had never been renovated by the GDR.
I’ve been back maybe fifteen times since, mostly with work, and so have usually done my sightseeing at night. With the travel trade show ITB Berlin subject to a late cancellation this year due to COVID-19, I decided to travel anyway, doing some daytime sightseeing. I’m particularly intrigued with the former East Berlin, what was beyond the Wall, and I thought I’d share with you my tour of the Unter den Linden grand avenue, along with a couple of tips off the beaten track.
We begin just beyond our virtual Berlin Wall at the Reichstag building. It was built late 19th century to house the German parliament. After the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II the new republic was proclaimed in 1918 by Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann from a Reichstag balcony. In 1933 the Reichstag caught fire, which gave the Nazis an excuse to seize power. Following World War II the building lay unused by the East German government. Restored and redesigned by British architect Norman Foster, the Reichstag is once again the united Germany's parliament.
A short walk brings us to the Brandenburg Gate, built at the behest of the powerful Prussian monarch Frederick the Great in the 18th century, the gateway to Berlin's grand avenue. Beside it is the Holocaust Memorial, a must-visit installation. From the roadside it looks like a series of shallow slabs. What you can only experience by walking into the memorial is that the ground sinks, the slabs eventually towering above you, suffocating daylight, swallowing you up. I challenge you to not walk away from here moved. It’s a powerful attack on your senses.
After walking past the embassies and the swish Adlon Hotel, a short detour takes us to the "Palace of Tears" at Friedrichstrasse station. In an era when families, friends and love affairs were separated by the Wall, this was the point where any visit from loved ones in the West ended. The last hug, the last kiss, before divided lives continued amidst the madness of a city partitioned.
Further up Unter den Linden is the German State Opera. The square beside this house of culture was the site of an act of cultural crime. It was here in 1933 that Nazi students burned books that didn't adhere to the new ideology. On a tablet in the square is a quotation from the German 19th century poet, Heinrich Heine. "In the place where they burn books, they will eventually burn people". I know of no city as thought-provoking as Berlin.
Onwards to Berlin Cathedral and, next door, a sight that most tours won't visit. The Radisson Hotel has a fishtank in its lobby. "That's not unusual," I hear you say. Well how about a floor to ceiling aquarium? Where else in Berlin can you book a room with sea view?!
The last time I was here in 2014 "Palace Square" was waste ground. Originally the site of the Prussian monarchy's Berlin Palace, in GDR times the site was rebuilt as the concrete monstrosity East German parliament, Palast der Republik, a place so hated that it was pulled down after reunification. Palace Square lay empty for many years. In its place, finally, they are just completing the rebuild of the original Berlin Palace. Berlin is coming full circle.
A stroll past the "Red Town Hall" and through the quaint Nikolaiviertel quarter brings us to Alexanderplatz, the former central square of East Berlin. Here's the World Clock with the TV Tower in the background. It is here that East Berliners pre the fall of the Wall were reminded of the time in places all over the world that they weren't allowed to visit!
An S-Bahn train takes you to Warschauer Strasse, where you can see the lovely Oberbaum Bridge. Separating Kreuzberg in what was West Berlin and Friedrichshain in what was East Berlin. Just a short walk away is East Side Gallery, one of the few remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall.
Further east and off the beaten track is Treptower Park, essentially the resting place of the Soviet soldiers who died in the ferocious battles for Berlin. There stands here a memorial park, with a series of concrete slabs depicting the battles for Berlin from the Soviet perspective. On the side of each slab is a quotation from a certain J. Stalin.
The bombastic centrepiece of Treptower Park is a Soviet soldier cradling a German babe in one arm, a sword in the other, boots crushing a swastika! Berlin is a great city for sightseeing, shopping and is great value too. Yet around every corner, in every nook and cranny, there is amazing and thought-provoking history. It's a unique place. I know I’ll be back again.