Photos courtesy of visitBerlin
By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer
Berlin has secrets. Some are sweet. Some are sad. All are surprising.
And so it was on a recent visit to Berlin, that I found myself constantly surprised. Surprised at the livability of this great city. Surprised at the affordability of Germany’s capital. Surprised at the rebirth of this once divided metropolis.
In many ways, Berlin still has a split personality. The center of government, it is also home to street art and performances. A simple walk down a side street will graphically display this dual character. Instead of tearing down many of its old buildings, Berlin has chosen to restore them.
Lending a historic look that many others have lost with all the modern architecture. But right beside a beautifully restored building, a trashed hulk will rise, windowless and covered in graffiti.
Some call it street art, others urban redevelopment. But it’s everywhere.
Only a short walk away, however, visitors will be surprised to find a beautiful park. Berlin is home to 2,500 public green spaces, making up a third of the city. Just another secret, Berlin is a green city.
Once the hunting grounds of the royal family, the Tiergarten is a large park located in the very heart of Berlin. Strolling through the grounds is a delight on a summer day. And your jaunt will lead you to the very heart of the German government.
Its congress, the Bundestag, is housed in the Reichstag building. “Dem deutschen Volke” to the German people reads the front of the parliament building that opened in 1894.
Be sure to make an appointment to visit the magnificent glass dome crowning the restored capital. It’s actually the second most visited attraction in Germany. And a visit will confirm the reason why.
The dome offers a stunning 360 degree view of Berlin. Walking up the ramps, visitor will see the city spread out below them. Braver soles can look directly down into the main hall of parliament, which is lit by a column of mirrors hanging from the center of the glass cupola.
Be sure to walk along the parapets outside the dome. In addition to the statues from Imperial Germany, visitors can still see graffiti scrawled by Soviet soldiers. The Riechstag was a major target of the Red Army during the battle for Berlin in 1945. During reconstruction, the architect kept the graffiti on the smoky walls as well as the roof.
In fact, a huge Soviet war memorial can be seen a short distance away in the Tiergarten. Built out stones from the destroyed German chancellery, the memorial commemorates the 80,000 Soviet soldiers killed in the battle. Red Army tanks and howitzers flank the imposing statue of a Russian soldier.
The rise of communism can be seen everywhere in Berlin, a city divided by two ideologies after World War II. A double line of bricks down the boulevard marks the location of the dreaded Berlin wall.
The wall was constructed by East Germany as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Today, most of the wall has disappeared, leaving only memories for those old enough to remember it.
The largest remaining section, in fact, has become a public art display. Called the Eastside Gallery, the wall is covered by 105 paintings by artists from all over the world.
But to get a real feeling for this Iron Curtain, visit the Berlin Wall Memorial established it in 1998 “in memory of the city’s division from 13 August 1961 to 9 November 1989 and of the victims of communist tyranny.” It preserves 60 yards of the former “no man’s land” as a physical reminder of the Wall.
One can also imagine the courage it would take to cross this dead zone, where guards in nearby watch towers waited to arrest and shoot anyone attempting to escape to the west.
The documentation center is also part of the Berlin Wall Memorial, offering the history behind the building of the Berlin Wall. Visitors can climb the observation tower to see part of the original border.
The history comes to life when you ask Berliners about the Wall. Many remember vividly the day the gates between the divided city opened on Nov. 9, 1989. Burkhard Kieker, CEO of visitBerlin, still recalls that day.
“When I heard the gates had been opened, I rushed to a entry point,” Kieker remembered. “The East Germans stood in front of the open gate, afraid to cross in case it was a trick. They looked at a border guard who was yelling into a telephone. Finally, the guard looked at the people with disgust on his face and waved them through.”
The young journalist later saw a British armored car pull up.
“A British general got out and when he saw the people passing peacefully back and forth, tears began rolling down his face,” Kieker said.
The reunification had begun. In some ways, it made Berlin even better.
“Now we have two of everything, since Berlin was also the capital of East Germany,” Kieker explained.
Long a center of German culture, Berlin offers 180 museums, 440 galleries, three opera houses and 10 orchestras.
Be sure to visit Museum Island, a world-famous collection of five museums with UNESCO World Heritage recognition. Many were damaged during World War II, but have been restored.
We were lucky enough to get tickets to the Pergamon Panorama, a 360 degree view of this Greco-Roman city erected in the Pergamon Museum’s courtyard. Measuring 75 feet high and 309 feet in length, the mammoth panorama depicts the acropolis of Pergamon.
The spectacular view recreates day-to-day life of this ancient city. Atmospheric sounds and background music take visitors back to Emperor Hadrian’s side in the year 129 AD.
Pergamon was the capital of a powerful empire in what is now Turkey in the second and third century BC. Inside the museum, visitors will find massive reconstructions of the Great Altar of Pergamon, the Roman Market Gate of Miletus and Babylonian Ishtar Gate.
Nearby, visitors will find the restored Neues Museum, home of the famous bust of Egyptian queen Nerftiti. This artifact is an amazingly life like, her regal gaze looking out for all eternity.
The Altes Museum offers a collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art and sculpture, while the Bode Museum has a wonderful collection of Byzantine art.
Nearby, the German Historical Museum studies 2,000 years of German history, while the Jewish Museum Berlin discusses the history of German Jews.
And that history is quite dark. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe reflects the brutal Holocaust caused by Nazi Germany. Officials estimate that between five and six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
The 2,711 concrete stelae of the memorial are deceptive. While the tops of the concrete blocks seem level from a distance, walking down into the memorial is quite an experience. Tourists will find themselves lost in the heart of the memorial, with the blocks soaring up to 15 feet above them.
The eerie silence is broken only by the murmuring of visitors navigating the sloping field. An underground center holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims.
Another center, the Topography of Terror traces the rise of Gestapo and SS. The museum is actually located on the site of their headquarters. The buildings were largely destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945 and the ruins demolished after the war.
In 1987, the cellar of the Gestapo headquarters, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed, were found and excavated. It was turned into a memorial and museum.
Inside the new center, exhibitions follow the many groups that fell victims to the Nazi regime — gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped. All were slain in the thousands.
After a while it all became to much and we had to escape the nightmare of Nazi Germany.
But only a short walk away we saw something that brought smiles to our faces. A beer bicycle rolled slowly down the street, patrons sitting around a circular bar while pedaling for their suds.
We opted instead for a typical beer garden. There are many to choose from, some outside in beautiful parks, others inside.
If you miss Los Angeles, there’s even beach bars strung along the river. In the summertime, Berliners love to have a drink while wiggling their toes in the warm sand. The mood is quite festive.
Just one of the many surprises that visitors will find in Berlin. For more information, visit www.visitBerlin.com