I wasn’t particularly excited about going to Berlin in all honesty. It was a birthday present to my dad who had wanted to visit the city for years and I went with an unfair, bleak presumption of what would be awaiting me on the other end of the rowdy, stag-do laden flight. I expected a dismal city with an eerie air of awkwardness.
How wrong I was – Berlin is fantastic and I’m already counting down the days until I go back!
The events of the last century are so intrinsically entwined into the history and culture of Berlin, that the atrocities which took place are unescapable. Evidence of war is everywhere, from bullet holes in monuments to heads missing from statues. While there is a sombreness surrounding these patches of Berlin, the darker areas of the city’s history are not necessarily presented in an embarrassed light or ignored even slightly. Instead, the city’s history is presented in such a way that you cannot help but feel you have been educated, even on a topic on which the majority of people will already have a considerably in depth knowledge. Public galleries such as the Topography of Terror display an abundance of information and images, and by no means downplay the role of certain German people in one of mankind’s cruellest movements. The deep sense of regret in these displays is conveyed in a cold, matter of fact tone which not only captivates visitors of all ages, but also urges everyone to learn from the tragedies which took place. There was a quote on the wall of one of the displays which read “if we do not know why something happened, we will never know how to stop it from happening again”. This extract from a speech of Gerhard Schroder’s sums up perfectly the general approach which the city has taken towards its past – while there are some awfully uncomfortable parts and some areas of its not so distant history which are difficult to comprehend, you feel that Berlin has gone further than just apologising and is actually taking commendable steps to ensure that nothing of the sort happens again.
The Berlin Wall is of course one of the most famous features of the city, its presence still sobering despite its now incompleteness. With a line running through the city marking where the wall used to stand, it is impossible to forget that it once divided and trapped thousands of families.
Several parts of the wall can be found dotted around the city, many of which are now colourfully decorated. Ordinarily the sight of graffiti outrages me, but here it seemed pleasantly uplifting to see a once industrial and threatening symbol of Germany’s divide now emblazed with bright comical images.
This joviality is however taken a step too far in my opinion, at Checkpoint Charlie which personally made me feel ill at ease. It is one thing to make the best of a bad situation, but unfortunately the presentation of Checkpoint Charlie borderlines on disrespectful to those who suffered as a result of the Berlin Wall. Having spent hours reading on Berlin’s street displays about those who died trying to cross the wall, including an 18 year old who was left to bleed to death without any help or rescue, just metres from Checkpoint Charlie, I was taken aback to walk around the corner and find an amusement-park style atmosphere commemorating the spot where so many risked their lives. I find it immensely inappropriate, in light of the anguish felt by families separated by the Wall, and the lives lost trying to cross it, that there are now visitors queueing in their multitude to have their photo taken with men dressed as Americans or to get into the abundance of souvenir shops leading up to the checkpoint. Should tourists be buying “novelty” SS peaked caps? For me, it’s a resounding no.
While cities such as London and Paris boast street after street of historic buildings and houses which have seen multiple centuries come and go, Berlin is impressively modern. I do not pretend to be an expert on architecture or even a great appreciator of the work which goes into designing magnificent buildings, but even I found some of the newer, sky scraping towers breath-taking. The demolition of a large proportion of the city during the War gave architects and builders sizeable areas of more-or-less blank canvass to rebuild on, and personally I think it has been done fantastically. It will always be difficult to compete with the aesthetic richness of Paris and London, both of whom are home to some of the most beautifully old buildings in the Western World, but Berlin’s street-scape certainly offers a more modern cleanness which, for me, trumps the griminess of the other two – and those classic buildings which do still stand in Berlin are just as majestic as any of their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.. No other example portrays as perfectly the dedication to cleanliness in Berlin, as when I quite literally stumbled into a ‘Legalise Cannabis’ march. Inevitably the marchers were fairly raucous, leaving a trail of empty bottles, cigarette butts and discarded clothing behind them, but the ash barely settled on the ground for longer than 30 seconds, as directly behind the protestors were three road sweepers cleaning up after them. As the march disappeared around the corner of the street, so too did the road sweepers, leaving the street free from any trace of the protest. Having lived in France for a year, where evidence of its many, many protests can be seen in town centres for weeks after the event, I found it remarkable just how efficient the Berliners really are.
Berlin is full of quirks! I avoided the U-Bahn as much as possible, instead making the most of the weather and walking. As I strolled, I came across no end of bizarre, random features which were oddly a bright addition to the city’s street scenes.
As a new-found classic car enthusiast, I loved the Trabants that were dotted around the city in every colour and pattern. My Dad did point out to me however that they are particularly rubbish and that I probably shouldn’t swap my faithful Peugeot for a leopard print Trabi. Trabi-Safari is however number one on my list of things to do when I return to Berlin, I can’t wait!
And of course – the food! It would not be too big an exaggeration to say I ate my way through the city, but when there’s a Currywurst truck around every corner and a bäckerei on every street, my willpower was bound to crumble sometimes.
I took the opportunity while in Berlin to sample some of the most popular German wines, my favourite of which was the Markus Schneider Black Print from Pfalz. The trip also introduced me to the smooth and herbaceous Elephant Gin which went fantastically with Golden Monaco tonic. I’ll most certainly be ordering these to have at home!
After a year of trying so hard to be a local in a foreign country, it was such a relief to embrace being a tourist again. Maybe it was more thanks to timing than location, but being abroad and not needing to adopt and understand every component of local life gave me the opportunity to relax and enjoy being a tourist. That said, I wouldn’t mind being a Berliner!