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Berlin

GERMANY | Thursday, 29 May 2008 | Views [871]

We arrived in Berlin in the early afternoon (it's not that far from Prague).  And started with a tour on the bus with a local guide (Heike).  First main stop from the Zoo where we started (after a few nice Embassy buildings) was the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, which is very interesting and a great piece of modern art.  It's a whole city block with nothing but sharp edged grey stone prisms in rigid row and column alignment.  They are of different heights and the ground is not even either, so as you walk between them you go from looking across the uneven surface to disappearing within the stone matrix (the passageways between the stones are narrower than the stones).  Occasionally there's a tree where a stone would be but otherwise it's bare grey stone representing (to me) the faceless victims - different heights but the same fate.  Nice (the well realised artistic expression not the fate).  One interesting side point, though, was that a few of the obelisks seemed to be under repair, with long cracks being glued.  Not sure if that was due to weathering, but it did seem like they were fixing up after vandals.

After that we spent some time going past various Belin Wall relics - Checkpoint Charlie and a remaining stretch of the wall.  The path that the wall took through Berlin is remembered by a line of cobblestones or a metal strip that snakes its way through the city.  The randomless of the path reflects both the arbitrary path the wall took when it was conceived (due more to generals looking at maps at the end of WWII and again in 1961 than local geography) as well as how effectively Berlin has shaken off the failed 30 odd year experiment in urban planning.  The fact that the wall exists now only as a curious one dimensional memorial and not in any obvious way in the development on either side (if not for the strip of metal on the ground, you'd never realise that you had just crossed the strongest point of the Iron Curtain that divided a continent for decades) is a refreshing salute to the healing that's gone on.  OK, so I should mention here that I'm NOT an expert on any of the cities we visited and these are just the casual observations of a touristic tumbleweed blowing through and are affected by my mood at the time as much as any reality on the ground, but you paid your money (didn't you?...damn I knew I forgot something) for my opinions, if you want fact ask someone who knows something (-:  Anyhoo, now that I've covered myself for all sorts of sweeping statements based on very little evidence (what is it I do for a living again?) I'll move on.  As a footnote on the wall, it went up at 2am on a Sunday morning in 1961 (first as a quick, temporary barbed wire fence), which meant that where you were that night did somewhat determine your future.  Heike told us that her Aunt had been out the night before with friends to the movies (sounds like before the wall there was fairly free movement - usually from East to West, which is why they needed the wall) and had slept over at a friends house, meaning that she lost all her possessions because she couldn't return home (she didn't say which side of the wall she ended up on).

We had a quick drive past the mediæval centre of the city and some of the old buildings on the former East Berlin side (Berlin was not a particularly important city in the Middle Ages).  And then we saw the museum island.  All very nice but I think by then my brain was full.

Next day Emma and I went to see the Reichstag building.  We hopped a U-Bahn (underground train) and changed stations to another U-Bahn that tuned out to be an S-Bahn (surface train).  While we were looking at our map and looking confused, and German lady came up to ask us if we needed help.  As we started to explain our problem another German lady came from the other side and asked us if we needed help.  Not having seen the first lady she apologised, but the first lady said something along the lines of "Your English is better, maybe you should help" and went on her way.  The second lady asked where we were going, and then said she was going that way and we should follow her.  So she showed us to the train platform and we took the train together chatting about things while she pointed out a few sights.  Her name was Heinricha and she was going to be running a fun run in the Teirgarten the next day, but was on her was to a conference just then (it was a Friday).  So we hopped off at Hauptbahnhoff, the new central station completed (on time as Heike proudly pointed out) for the world cup.  It's a massive glass tunnel with about 5 stories of shops and platforms - crazy, modern and quite impressive. 

We then walked to the Reichstag, Germany's parliament building with a history that mirrors that of Germany.  It was built after unification and was the site of the Nazi rise to power (when they used to turn up in matching uniforms - sounds silly, but imagine if the National Party {as a random example of a party of similar size} all started turning up in matching military uniforms, it wouldn't bode well).  In 1933 it mysteriously caught fire, allowing Hitler to blame the Communists (scapegoats of a lot of 20th century politics) and sieze power.  During the 3rd Reich the Reichstag remained a burned out shell (the Nazis dissolved parliament shortly after and the Reichstag proudly proclaims that Hitler never set foot there).  It was the place where the Soviet Army raised the red flag of "liberation" in 1945 and was further damaged by fighting and vandalism by the Russian soldiers.  After the Wall went up it ended up on the West side and they started renovations in the 1970s (that capital of West Germany then was in Bonn).  After Reunification the capital was moved back to Berlin and the Reichstag underwent a proper renovation and rebuilding.  The job went to an English architect whose name elludes me, but he did a fantastic job.  The old late-19th-century shell remains (looking not unlike Treasury Casino in Brisvegas) but on the top is a modern glass dome with a spiral ramp inside so that visitors can walk up to the top with wonderful views of Berlin.  I think the dome reprises the old burned out shell of the old dome - the glass and decorations were destroyed by fire in 1933 but the hollow iron structure of it remained until the 1960s (during many of the hard times) - but nothing I read said that specifically.  Anyway, 'sgreat.

We then walked through a slightly rainy Teirgarten (the huge park in the middle of town) to Potsdamplatz, the new shopping centre built on the old no-mans-land next to the wall.  It's OK, it's a bit like Southbank Piazza (with sails and everything), but I really liked the sense of renewal it gave the city.  It's a new central shopping district between Kantstrasse (the centre of former West Berlin) and Alexanderplatz (the centre of former East Berlin) - a practical symbol of reunification (even if it is just another temple of consumerism).  Then we went to the Turkish area of Berlin (I think Berlin has the largest Turkish community outside of Istanbul) and had lunch in the restaurant that invented the döner kebab.  Nice meal too.  Then we went home to get changed for our night on the town.

So I had decided that I wanted to check out some techno in Berlin (one of the homes of the stuff) and we found a few clubs and bars in the Lonely Planet (about the only recommendations we could find) over in the former East (where a lot of the nightlife has moved).  We went out with a couple of other couples from the tour (Jo&Ilario and Dan&Kirby) to Alexanderplatz, where the massive TV Tower stands.  We were going to go up it later on for some cocktails, but never got around to it (the mass of drunken goths hanging out in the poorly lit plaza beneath it may have helped that decision).  We instead found a cocktail bar with relatively cheap cocktails (happy hour was on) and then followed that up with some dinner nearby.  Then I dragged everyone to a likely looking bar that was a bit of a hike but quite nice inside - a bit like visiting a friend´who lived in a sharehouse with a great DJ (and a well stocked drinks fridge).  Then we hit the clubs (since they only open at midnight).  We took the train just off the map, walked along a dark street and, after asking directions at a kebab shop (we figured its existence was a good sign we were getting close) we walked along a long industrial driveway to an old powerhouse or railway workshop or something to be frisked by a large extra from Mad Max (as Jo asked after "Did he have tattoos on his face or a beard?" to which we replied "I think it was both") before paying our 10 euros and climbing a few flights of stairs to a cement box full of dancing Germans.  It was a cool experience, but I was hoping more for the "cathedral like former railway workshop" the LP mentioned.  It was a cool old factory type setting with lots of little alcoves and a pretty good hardcore DJ.  So after a couple of hours of dancing we went home (past another club that looked like a cathedral-like former railway workshop with all sorts of lights and lasers and stuff...oh well we'd had our adventure and the best techno experience was to come).

Next day Emma and I found a laundromat in the LP, packed the dirty clothes into my big backpack and went on the metro to do some washing.  Travel tip:  Beware of recommendations from hotel desk staff or fellow travellers of laundromats, often you'll get there and find that theyäve sent you to a dry cleaners - this didn't happen on this day because others on the tour had already done the dead end trip before us.  Make sure before you lug your clothes across town.

After we washed and dropped our clothes back at the hotel (we'd tried carrying them sightseeing in Barcelona, not worth it) we headed into Kantstrasse to see the bombed cathedral.  This was a lovely old copper spired cathedral (its real name is Kaiser Wilhelm Kirk or something like that) that had the living crap bombed out of it in WWII, leaving only the broken tower at one end standing (the copper spire just...ends halfway up).  Instead of demolishing it, the Germans left it as it was as a reminder of the destruction of war.  More recently (since the late 60s when my Mum visited Berlin) they built a new, deliberately ultra modern baptistry and belltower on either side made almost entirely out of small stained glass panels inside a honeycomb-like frame.  The overall effect is to demonstrate both the destruction of war, as well as humanity's capacity to rebuild and move on.  And the whole of Berlin has that vibe too (see disclaimer earlier).  They may have weathered some tough times, but the destruction of WWII and the neglect of the cold War that lead to the very rough boat has (to paraphrase the Red Hot Chili Peppers) also bred creation.  Unlike Rome (for example) where you can't build anything new because you'd have to knock an historic monument down to do it, Berlin has been able to renew itself and live more in the present.  It's not that it's forgotten its past, they freely admit to their failures and atrocities like a recovering alcoholic, it's more that Berlin is a wonderful mix of past, present and future, a living city not just a relic (earlier disclaimers notwithstanding).

Another cool thing about Berlin was to come.  We were walking from the cathedral towards Teirgarten when I got a bit unsure of my location with respect to the map (I'd say I was lost, but it turned out that where I thought I was was where I was, but I didn't realise it).  Anyway, "I think Iäm officially lost," I said.  Emma was about to say that she's start a stopwatch and see how long it took a local to arrive and ask if we needed help, but before she got a chance to make her little witticism, a local passing on a bike asked us if we needed help.  My words must have set off an alarm in Berlin central "Tourist lost, dispatch local."  We really did find the Berlinners the most friendly and obsessively helpful people on our tour.

We entered Teirgarten at about 5pm (it was Saturday afternoon) and were aimlessly walking through, with only a vague plan to take the train to Spandau to see the ballet, when we heard some distant doof.  Thinking that that was kind of cool, we decided to follow it to try and find the techno elves that were making it, but found our path blocked by water at every turn.  Eventually we stumbled into a picnic area full of people on blankets with discarded pushbikes and kiddies, or playing table tennis on the permanent stone pingpong tables or mingling and dancing under the largish BBQ area where some people had put up some speakers and decks and were playing some really cool organic trance music.  We thought "Well this is pretty cool" and stuck around for a while.  After a bit, when it didn't look like they were going anywhere soon, we wandered off to find some dinner.  We got some food and booze at a hotdog stand on the edge of the park where 500ml cold bottles of Becks were 1.6 euro (A$2.60) and my 1.9 euro 100ml bottle of Wodka was the equivalent of A$22 for a whole bottle - how could you not love a city for that?  Anyway, we took our dinner back to the party and had a bit of a drink and a bit of a dance and even a few passing showers couldn't drench anyone's fun.  There was even a band setting up (a drum kit and a few keyboards).  I asked one guy: "Why is this on?" "Vere it is on?" "No why?" "Oh...vhy not?  Zis is Berlin, zere is always somesing on like zis on a veekend."  "Cool...fuck I love Berlin!"  "Ja, I sink so too."  It was just an internet group (in this case exquisite-berlin.com) doing it for the hell of it.  He said they didnät get permission, but the cops didn't usually bother them, and it is a VERY big park.  At about 8 or 9pm Emma decided it was time to go since we had an early start, and who was I to argue, I'd had my magic Berlin techno experience.  The band finally started up as we left and they sounded great, but we left it as a nice outro for the event and headed back to the hotel to get up and head to Amsterdam the following morning.

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