Third stop – Berlin
Berlin and I – we finally met. It was a special feeling to walk through the Brandenburg Gate, along the Berlin Wall, and see both sides of the city. I tried to imagine how it was for the people back then, when the city was divided by the Wall, not too long ago. I thought of today’s world, freedom and of all the benefits we enjoy that we’re not even aware or appreciative of. The third stop of chapter three is definitely one my favorite places in Germany – the multicultural capitol.
Having studied German for several years in school and now as my minor at the University of Florida, I’ve learned so much about the country. Berlin has somehow always found its place in each course’s curriculum, either through written work or oral presentations. Until recently, I could only imagine how it all looked in reality. I traveled with my fellow Gator friend for the Carnival of Cultures, a big cultural event in mid-May.
After we left our suitcases in the hostel, we went for a little city expedition. A simple walk gave us a good idea of how different and beautiful Berlin is: street art could be found in all kind of little corners, brick fences, doorways, balconies, among other places. People were just so different and colorful in styles, cultures and ethnicities that I felt as if I was walking through the work of Leonid Afremov, who is known as one of the most colorful painters. As soon as we crossed into a new suburb, there was a completely new stylistic climate, carrying simultaneously a different profile of people.
The giant Mural showing a mother with her two children. The sentence underneath is translated from the famous Martin Luther’s: “Wenn ich wüsste, dass die Welt morgen untergeht, würde ich heute einen Apfelbaum pflanzen,” or in English: “Even if I knew that the world ended tomorrow, I’d plant an apple tree today.” This sentence is then translated into 20 different languages and decorates the mother’s dress.
Fun fact #1: Berlin is famous around the world for its street art. Some of them, such as El Bocho, XOOOOX and Evol live and work there. Even Banksy has been immortalized in Berlin.
Our first and nearby place to see was “Alexanderplatz.” A beautiful square, enriched with so many passengers, tourists, artists, families and elderly, also known to Berliners as “Alex,” used to be a cattle market in the Middle Ages. Later, it became a military parade square where the military troops performed their exercises. Standing at the Alexanderplatz, the sightseeing is available in all 360 degrees. Wherever I turned, there was a building, tower, or some kind of architectural piece to please the eyes. One of them is the 365-metre TV Tower, which is known as Berlin’s highest construction with a giant globe and a rotating viewing platform. Right in the middle of the Alexanderplatz, between the Marien church and Red Town Hall, there is one of the most beautiful fountains in Berlin – the Neptun fountain. The fountain depicts Neptun as the main figure, while the four women at his feet symbolize the four rivers: Elbe, Rhine, Oder and Vistula.
“Alexanderplatz” is the square named to honor Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, on his visit to Berlin in 1805. Alfred Döblin described the metropolis by portraying “Alexanderplatz” in his 1929 novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” which was also filmed by Fassbinder for a TV series, featuring the city in the 1920s before the Nazis took over.
Fun fact #2: At the “Alexanderplatz” some of the brave Germans became a part of the history we learn about today. One million people demonstrated here in the largest anti-government demonstration in history on November 4, 1989, against the German Democratic Republic (GDR) shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
We had only three days, so it was impossible to see all of Berlin’s famous places, cultural landmarks and historical stops. We had to choose and circle on the maps the places that were of a most interest to us, but also somewhat close to where we stayed. On our second day, before we went on museum expeditions and a two-hour free walking tour, it was impossible not to see the giant and indescribably beautiful “Berliner Dom” or Berlin Cathedral. The church was first built in 1465 as a parish church and was finally completed in 1905. Today, it stands as the most important Protestant church. It was severely damaged during the Second World War and was closed at the time of GDR. Its final reopening came after restoration in 1993.
Berlin Cathedral is a high-renaissance baroque monument that has gone under different phases of architectural renovation since the Middle Ages. It is Berlin’s largest church – a statement I don’t doubt in the least because it was very hard to take a photo and capture the church in length without cutting the width and its spiky tops.
On our long walking-tour on Saturday we heard some interesting facts about the city that could not be easily found on Internet or learned in school. Our tour guide was extremely engaging, giving the dry historical facts human faces, emphasizing traditions and valuable details. Although very busy and crowded with tourists from all around the world, “Brandenburger Tor,” or Brandenburg Gate, left a special mark on me. That was also a starting point of our tour. As the Berliners call it, the Gate is a symbol and a landmark at the same time, representing over two hundred years of history. It used to divide East and West Berlin. A famous saying by Ronald Regan on June 12, 1987, was issues here: “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!” On November 4, more than 500,000 East Berliners gathered at “Alexanderplatz” for a demonstration, requesting their rights to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly to be honored. To get rid of the demonstrators, the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) leadership promised that restrictions on travel to the West would be eased. But the people didn’t stop there. The story of the fall of the Berlin Wall is impressive. Just try to imagine half a million people, desperate for change, desperate to see their families and friends from whom they were separated for more than 20 years, marching all together and echoing the whole of Berlin with: “Wir sind das Volk, wir sind das Volk…” (We are the people). When the Gate was finally opened, people rushed in tears to their beloved ones, who waited on the other side with bottles of campaign. They were all crying, kissing and hugging, family, friends, and strangers alike. It was a heart-breaking scene. The Gate was officially opened to traffic on December 22, 1989, and100,000 people came to celebrate.
Another interesting story our tour guide told us was about the Berlin “Quadriga,” a statue that adorns the Brandenburg Gate. It was designed by Johann Gottfried Schadow around 1791, depicting the goddess of victory driving a chariot pulled by four horses as a symbol of peace. It gets interesting when Napoleon seized the figure during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and took it to Paris. When Paris was captured by Prussian soldiers following Napoleon’s defeat, the Quadriga was returned to Brandenburg Gate. This time it included one change – an iron cross that represented a symbol of Prussia’s military victory over France. The Communist era, the cross was removed. However, the monument was permanently restored in 1990 during the unification of Germany.
Due to the severe damage that was made to the monument during the celebration and opening of the Gate in 1989, it had to be restored, and was then officially reopened on October 3, 2002.
Fun fact #3: President’s John F. Kennedy famous speech on June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner), was delivered to more than 120,000 people outside West Berlin’s City Hall, almost two years after the Berlin Wall was erected. It was a world-wide remembered speech due to a poorly spoken German. Despite the work with his speechwriters and State Department translators to spell the possibly tricky phrases phonetically, he still said that he was a jelly doughnut (Berliner) instead of a citizen of Berlin.
One of the stops on our tour was the impressive memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, or the Holocaust Memorial, another powerful take-away from Berlin. It commemorates around six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. The Memorial is located on a stretch of the former “death strip” (a 160-yards-wide zone that contained hundreds of watchtowers, anti-vehicle trenches, trip-wire machine guns between two concrete walls, which was just a part of the 27-mile barrier that separated east and west Berlin), near Brandenburg Gate. It also includes an underground Information Centre with personal documentation about individuals and families. To walk in-between these 2711 pieces of rectangular blocks of concrete conjures a feeling that is hard to describe. Even when I put it in words, it’s not a tiny bit of how it actually felt. I think everyone who gets a chance to be in Berlin should visit the Memorial and experience it himself/herself. It is free and open during any day or night time. The uncomfortable silence, different elevations of uneven ground and heights of the blocks cause confusion, fear and anxiety. I felt lost and disconnected from the outside world. Based on the movies I saw and descriptions I read, it reminded me of gas chambers, prison hallways and dark underground ways that would all put a full stop to life.
The Holocaust Memorial took 17 years to be completed. It was completed in May 2005 and designed by the U.S. architect Peter Eisenman. The blocks of concrete recall tombstones. Visitors are not allowed to climb on them and such behavior is considered extremely disrespectful. However, many still do it before the security guard comes to warn them.
After all heavy and dark history stories on Saturday, DDR museum, Jewish museum, among others, Sunday was a more relaxing and entertaining day. It was the day of the Carnival of Cultures and a big colorful parade that lasted for a couple of hours. Before the parade, we wanted to see one of the most popular places to go, a former section of the Berlin Wall – the East Side Gallery. With more than one hundred original mural paintings, it has become the largest open-air gallery in the world.
Fun fact #4: The East Side Gallery is a 1.3-kilometer long painted stretch of the former Berlin Wall along Mühlenstraße in former East Berlin. It’s a lasting expression of freedom and reconciliation, as many tend to call it.
Some of the best known paintings are “The Mortal Kiss” by Dmitri Vrubel, of Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev’s mouth-to-mouth embrace, as well as Birgit Kinder’s Trabi (Trabant) crashing through the Wall. We especially liked the Trabi painting, so we took one photo in front of that one.
And our last glimpses of Berlin were of the Carnival of Cultures, little street vintage markets, music performances – overall, we saw Berlin in its full shine. The rain didn’t help too much, but it failed to ruin our mood. While observing the colorful dresses, traditional music and folklore from all around the world, I isolated myself for a second just to inhale the air of cultural diversity and all the differences that could and should be celebrated in the world. It’s wonderful how many different flowers in God’s garden there are, as one of my good friends often says. I just thought how much better this world could be if we could simply appreciate all that each culture brings in. Everyone at the parade was having such a great time, regardless of the age, color, race or any problems they left at home. Some of the performers were just jumping and dancing around, some carried important social messages, such as support for refugees.
The longest and in my opinion the most impressive performance was from Bolivia. They kept coming in different costumes and moves, but always with such a great energy.
So much to see and do in Berlin, and much more to tell about this city. Berlin has been through so much good and bad. Despite numerous historical barriers and destructions, the city kept rising and renewing itself, while simultaneously welcoming people from all around the world. In that spirit, I will end my blog post with our tour guide’s description of the city: “London has become London a long time ago, Paris has always been what Paris is today, but Berlin is still about to become – Berlin.”