Leaving Hamburg and returning to Berlin for the first time since 2009, I was a different person and that in turn, made it a different city to experience. The train journey here was quiet, and second class was better than first class in England – just a fact! Navigating to Berlin HBF and then to the hostel was a fairly quick experience, despite having to do it without using data and maps on my phone, as Germany is one of the few locations Three’s ‘Feels At Home’ programme doesn’t work.
The hostel itself was very clean, but we did have a bit of a misunderstanding with a couple of girls staying there when they took over our beds when we were out! On the first day we went to the Reichstag, which we spotted very close to the huge central station constructed in 2006, where we began to get a sense of how the war still looms over the city and that it is now a draw for visitors who want to learn, be engaged and understand all of ours recent history.
The muted and almost cautious atmosphere whilst visiting Berlin was at first difficult to shake, but then you should feel something when presented with the horrors of what happened. From the lack of old buildings in the cityscape (destroyed by allied bombs), to the numerous memorials and remnants of the Berlin Wall, it certainly is a city with a lot to say as you turn each and every corner.
As when I visited before, the most worthwhile ‘attraction’ explored was the Holocaust Memorial right in the centre of the city, where grey cuboids emerge from uneven ground into a maze to get you lost. Beneath, a museum dicusses personal aspects of the war after presenting you with an immensely interesting and chronological overview. The images of mass murder are hard to see but that’s where the message hits home that this should never happen again. From what I saw all over the city, Germany is committed to educate with openess, rather than to hide away a difficult era.
In the museum, one room presents you with an audio clip of a name and a brief biography of the murdered, in the cases where the name and fate are known. In a shocking stat, if all names and fates were known, it would take over six years for the complete audio to play. In this room, victims are given the dignity they were denied in their final moments, and largely without traditional resting places, it goes some way to honour the dead. If there is a ‘must-visit’ of Berlin, this is it.
Near this memorial you find a park with further artwork to mark the deaths of gypsies and homosexuals, all amongst a calm, green backdrop. A short walk up the road and you’re at the famous Brandenberg Gate, the only remaining gate of the original sixteen in Berlin. Tourists mingled to get photos, whilst Berlin Fashion Week took place in view of the large, decorated pillars. Here, it was time to sample Germany’s famous currywurst, which didn’t disapoint; it isn’t actually spicy, just has the flavour of a mild curry and paprika. Strangely, we were hit by a sudden and extreme burst of rain, mirroring the brief snowstorm from my time here in 2009.
Rounding off the first day, we visited a large section of the Berlin Wall south of Checkpoint Charlie, before walking ten minutes to the checkpoint itself. This is the American district of the city, where until the 90’s, you needed to cross from West to East Berlin. Behind the checkpoint, very tellingly, is a McDonald’s and Starbucks double-whammy of American culture. I took the chance to have my picture taken with the ‘guards’ before strolling in the evening sun and going to a fancy restuarant for dinner – not a habit for this trip by any stretch.
By this point, we were often being mistaken for German and I’m still being surprised by how much English every other nationality knows. Before this trip I wrote about language barriers and whether English is enough to travel. It has so far proven itself to be more than enough, yet I feel now more than ever the benefit of knowing at least a second language.
After a night in to refuel from 31 miles walked in three days, we got up early and after sampling the hostel breakfast, headed to Berlin HBF to catch the Hop On, Hop Off sightseeing tour (as strongly recommended by Caroline’s parents)! At half nine we were being driven round the city following Route B, which covered the east of the city, before later taking Route A, covering the west, after grabbing some lunch.
Both tours lasted two hours and current prices allowed us to take both for just 24 euros, or 6 euro per hour to place the value in perspective. The narration was fairly short per attraction, and the narrators comedy at times made you laugh for the wrong reasons. As my first ever bus tour of a city, I’d recommend it. I feel we covered so much ground and actually learnt quite a lot about Berlin, from ghettos and social issues, to simply seeing how the city has been rebuilt over the years. A fascinating fact I took away was that there are at any one time, 100,000 construction sites in the city limits. They can indeed be seen all around, including at the largest Opera House of three, which is being restored over a period of at least three years.
At the East Wall Gallery, we had a twenty minute stop off and it was one of the few times the city felt unchanged from by previous visit. My name, somewhere on the wall and written in biro. Briefly, the weather improved enough to have the bus open-topped for when we passed the Cathedral, the new parliament buildings and the British Embassy, which was oddly reassuring to see.
Berlin has been the first destination on this route that I’m in fact revisiting; the second will be Budapest and the third and final, Paris. Seeing it a second time lessened the need to see everything possible in a set time frame, although I think we still achieved this. As I leave, I have a sombre feeling whilst at the same time am looking ahead to unknown Vienna.
Currently I’m sat on a seat in the corridor of the night train watching the last of Germany go by the window. I’m hoping for a good sleep where I’m sharing a 6-bed cabin with a lovely family, as I usually nap unreservedly on normal daytime trains back in England!
Handing over to Caroline for the last time as I waved goodbye to her this evening:
I was born in Germany and lived here for many years as a child, but Berlin was not something I got to experience as an adult until now. My first impression was that it’s a fantastic city for anyone who loves history; the impact the War and the Nazi regime had on this city is still palpable to this day, with many monuments, statues and memorials erected in honour of those who were killed dotted around the city.
For me, the most memorable part of Berlin was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum that’s based beneath the public memorial just by Brandenburg gate. It’s designed in such a way that when you walk around, you see photographs, written passages and commentary that tells the story of what really happened and how it all unfolded between 1938 and 1945. The photographs that showed conditions of Auschwitz and the execution of those persecuted were particularly eye-opening, but even more so were the written accounts of those who had suffered at the time. I read one by a 13 year old girl writing to her father for the last time, saying “We will surely die, I know I will never see you again, but I love you”. It’s hardly surprising that a few of the visitors I saw there began to become quite emotional.
I don’t think anyone can truly comprehend the scale of the suffering the Jews and other persecuted minorities faced at that time, but the museum does an absolutely fantastic job as an educational piece. I would personally highly recommend a visit – and given it’s also free, it can be a visit for any kind of traveller.