The Rebirth of Berlin

Posted on 19. Jan, 2011 by in Destinations, Europe Travel, Germany

I can’t believe a whole year has gone by since I was in Berlin. It seems to me like it was just yesterday. One year ago, I was cramped under my 70L backpack, probably looking for my way around, most likely tired and hungry - but having the best time of my life. Some of the best memories of this Eurotrip are in Berlin: here’s my story in this surprising, lively city.

I arrived in Berlin after a long ride in an overnight train from Munich. In all honesty, I was freaked out by the overnight trains in Europe - Internet holds some scary stories.  White slavery, abduction and theft, anyone? I was also unconvinced by the privacy/security of the cabin, or shall I say, lack of – separating me from the rest of the train was an innocent suede curtain - and the fiancé on the lower bunk. I’m not usually scared of things when he’s up on his 6’4” frame, but he looks slightly less threatening lying down.  But of course, the journey was smooth and eventless, as they all are in the non-virtual world.

The trip started off really well with my train stopping at Hauptbanhof station, and leaving two and a half seconds later, way before I had time to disembark. Great. I had no idea where the next station was, but it didn’t really matter because well, I was trapped in a moving train. By the time I located Hauptbanhof on the map, the train had stopped at Ostbanhauf – which was, luckily, pretty close to my hostel.

Speaking of which, I could not go on with this report and not mention how amazing my hostel was - Singer 109. Spacious, bunk-bed free, colourful rooms, with 10 foot high windows, separate shower and toilet rooms. It gets even better downstairs with high-speed Internet computers, large living rooms and most importantly - a friendly cheap bar area. Not too party-esque, just casual enough to be a great place to hang around during the evening (did I mention the Wii?). It transforms into a nice breakfast room in the morning, very light and yummy smelling - bagels, croissants, eggs, bacon, cereals, muffins, fresh fruits, juices, etc. Well worth the €5!

The first attraction I wanted to visit was within walking distance of the hostel: the East Side Gallery. It’s the largest remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, now an art gallery since 1990. Peace and hope messages give a special atmosphere to the place, although it’s a bit ruined by the large amount of vandalism. Breaking news, people: visitors really do not want to know you were here in 1997.

I eventually made my way to Tiergarten station on the S-Bahn. I walked for a little (hum, long) while and reached the gracious Siegessaule and noticed the bullet holes on the structure. I realized that the darker side of the city  really is omnipresent, with every building telling a story. Nothing quite says “World War II” and “Cold War” like Berlin does.

On the edge of the park is the Reichstag, the seat of the German government. Impressive piece of mixed architecture, with the über-modern glass observatory and the classic stone building. I snapped a few shots but then my nose caught smell of wurst in a nearby biergarten, and I was immediately tempted to indulge. It felt like a touristy thing I had to do. With my stomach full, I got up on my feet and crossed Brandenburger Tor. Very iconic. I saw the exact position of where the Berlin Wall once stood and I tried to imagine what it was like back then. I was somewhat bothered by the questionable DDR agents, hitting on blonde tourists and stamping real passports with fake DDR stamps for a modest €5. Now that’s mixing business with pleasure.

I walked a bit further south and reached the Jewish Memorial . Brutal, monochrome and moving architecture. Not only because of what it represents, but by the raw honesty of the Germans. At that moment, I wished I had German friends who could help me understand how exactly they deal with World War II, how it’s taught to them. Nearby Potsdamer Platz, now a contemporary square but once the most damaged part of Berlin, is a great display of Germany’s rebirth.

At that point, I decided it was enough emotion for the day and opted on the U-Bahn, heading to my hostel. I ate pizza, had an atrocious absinth shot, a tasty raspberry beer and called it a night.

The weather wasn’t the most collaborative on the second day - I was tempted to hang out in the hostel since it was such a great place - with German cable TV and everything!  But considering I only had two days in Berlin, I managed to gather my things in my daypack and walk to the Fernsehturm and Alexanderplatz, in which I really liked the international, colourful clock. I smiled when I saw Montreal on it, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before I got back. I strolled around and ended up facing Berliner Dom, completely speechless. Very few religious buildings can boast having such architectural prestige and actually make an impression like this cathedral does. I would’ve really liked to enter and visit but it was unfortunately closed. I wonder what the large middle dome looks like from the inside.

I walked all the way down Unter den Linden, which is very pleasant. Historically, it’s not quite as light though. Home to Bebelplatz, it made me realize just how evocative tributes really are, no matter how many or how futile they seem to be (yes, I’m thinking of the animal memorial in London). Bebelplatz is amongst the poignant memorials I’ve visited despite its small size, because of its significance in World War II - it’s the exact place where the Nazi auto de fé took place, a grotesque Jewish book burning fest organized by Hitler Youth that triggered the events we know today.

Still in that same state of mind, I visited the Topography of Terrors museum. Although the site was undergoing major refurbishment, the photographs exhibition really captivated me - it’s amazing how many pictures of this era are still not published worldwide, luckily for Berlin tourists. They give a great insight on the Nazi side of the war.

Final destination of the trip: Checkpoint Charlie. An iconic place of the Cold War - too bad it’s now overly touristic and tacky (again with these fake DDR agents). I wish I had more time to visit the Museum Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie and fully understand the climate that ruled the area for decades, a period that seems far behind us but that really isn’t.

One of the things I regret about my visit is not having (or making) enough time to visit Kaiser Wilhem Gedachtniskirche. Yet another World War II figure but in a more subtle way (most people might say that a giant whole in a church’s spire isn’t so subtle, but hey, it’s my report) - in a less polished kind of way, more raw.

Berlin is one of the few cities I wished I stayed longer in, so I could really capture the vibe and stay in typical Berlin accommodation. I feel like there is so much more to Berlin than just World War II and Cold War, so much more that I haven’t seen. I think the fact that the city accepts its history and doesn’t try to hide it only makes it more beautiful, more diverse, creating an ideal combination of pleasure and culture.

All photos by Anne Gauthier.

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8 Responses to “The Rebirth of Berlin”

  1. Gray

    21. Jan, 2011

    I’ve often wondered, too, what it’s like to live in Berlin, in the shadow of such a dark history. It seems like everything around you would be a constant reminder. Still, I’d like to visit someday.

    Reply to this comment
    • Marie

      01. Feb, 2011

      Gray: I wonder that too. I also wonder what it was like to actually grow up there and how history is taught to young children. You certainly should visit!

      Lauren: I think I was mostly scared of overnight trains in Central Europe. And the fact that I get scared easily! But everything was smooth and I absolutely recommend it. Internet is scary though, don’t search for horror stories or you will find many!

      Inka: Thanks for your comment. I would be very curious to know how it was to grow up in Berlin and learn about the history!

      Reply to this comment
  2. Lauren

    24. Jan, 2011

    I really wanted to visit Berlin while I was in England, but unfortunately, I’m not going to make it. However, thanks for the awesome breakdown of all you did-especially the hostel recommendation.

    I wasn’t aware of the ‘dangers?’ of taking an overnight train. I was thinking of taking one to Scotland, but now I’m going to think twice!

    So, when the day comes that I finally make it to Berlin, I’ll be sure to come back to this post! :)

    Reply to this comment
  3. inka

    01. Feb, 2011

    First of all, I wish to thank you for your comment on my recent post. And secondly to tell you how deeply touched I am by this article about Berlin because that’s were I was boen but haven’t been back in a long, long time.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Charles McCool

    01. Feb, 2011

    I hope to visit Berlin soon, as it is one of my ancestral homelands. Your description of the hostel is inspiring. I especially like when travel writers say that they would have stayed in a destination longer if possible.

    Reply to this comment
  5. heatheronhertravels

    06. Feb, 2011

    Looks like you hit most of the high spots - I loved the Kaiser Wilhelm church with the blue glass - it’s a haven of tranquility in all the bustle and shopping around it

    Reply to this comment
  6. Andy

    28. Mar, 2012

    Sounds like you had fun in Berlin - next time try some of these more unusual things: http://grownuptravelguide.com/been-there-havent-done-that-5-things-you-shouldnt-miss-in-berlin

    Reply to this comment

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