We had wanted to make at least one stop in Germany, and some cheap flights out of Birmingham meant Berlin would be it from 6 to 10 August. A lucky find on the internet also meant we could enjoy relative luxury of a great hotel in the central city (with a pool for a couple of mornings of laps). Perhaps the most interesting discovery for Alex was that I could read and speak a small but useful amount of German. It certainly helped with navigation and payments somewhat.
After arriving late the night before, we used the first day to visit Berlin Zoo. It has the world’s largest collection of animals with over 1500 different species. The grounds were pretty much destroyed in WWII (91 of the animals survived) and the grounds were fortified as part of the last Nazi resistance (from what I understand!) You could get quite a bit closer to the animals or cages than Auckland Zoo – and I didn’t see a single ‘no touching’ or ‘beware of getting your fingers bitten’ sign. Highlights were the great viewing of jaguar cubs harassing each other and their mother, and watching a huge lion within touching distance lazing on his back, with paws in the air like a domestic pet.
The zoo also provided our first currywürst experience, which may have sounded slightly more glamorous than the reality of a large frankfurter doused in curried tom sauce and slapped next to some pommes frits. We tarted it up with a side salad.
We found what would become our regular breakfast haunt the next morning. Cafe Einstein was where the previous German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, had his morning coffee. While this meant little to us, the fact the coffee was “the best” and we could get a good selection of tasty brekkie was perfect.
A short distance from the cafe along the relatively famous Unter den Linden was the impressive Brandenburg gate – the symbol of Germany and site of the Nazi torchlight procession. It was completely bustling with people snapping pics and watching street performers who played a segment of Aloe Blacc “I need a dollar, dollar…” while pressuring for tips at the end. Bit different…
German parliament building – Reichstag – which played a part in Hitler’s political tactics after it was destroyed by fire pre-WWII. It was only fully restored and the dome added in ’90 after the reunification
Whilst we couldn’t spend any money on the fancy clothes or electronics, we still had a fun evening in Europe’s biggest department store KaDeWe. We drank cocktails in the middle of a floor at an Appleton’s stand, treated ourselves to some Godiva truffles and had dinner at a cool buffet on the top floor where you selected your stir fry ingredients and a man cooked it in front of you. A plate of vegetables was heaven!
Berlin has done quite a good job of appropriately marking some of the darker parts of its history. Checkpoint Charlie (one of the crossing points between the American quarter and Soviet quarter during ‘walled’ Berlin) was somewhat touristy and token, though the nearby museum did have some interesting and informative detail about how that time operated. It was seriously crammed with reading though, and air conditioning never seems to exist in such places! The best sites to visit were the less famed Topography of Terrors, and the path of the wall itself.
Topography of Terrors lies on the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. The buildings where torture and wartime planning occurred have been torn down, with only a shell of the basement remaining.
The outdoor exhibit of chronological panels depicts the rise of Hitler through to the erection of the post-war Wall. It was honest, graphic and sombering, despite the number of people making their way along it in the late evening. It was perhaps even more effective that it was in the shadow of a remaining section of the wall, and that the surrounding land has been left as grey gravel. I would put it down as a must-see.
What was surprising about Berlin was how young or new that it felt – it has such immense history and historical buildings, yet the wall only came down in 1989, meaning the city as it exists today has only been reestablishing itself for a relatively short time. It is, and will be for some time, a construction zone. But it’s clean and easy and pretty much everything that people suggest it is – including the guide who apologized on behalf of her countrymen for having zero sense of humor. Well worth the detour.