18 March 2010

Arriving in Berlin [Day One]

I have been back in London for two days now, and am still feeling jaded. It may be the lack of sleep / abundance of alcohol during the long weekend away, or maybe I’m just depressed about leaving one of the most awesome cities I have ever visited.

As I have a lot of trips planned for the next 12 months, I'm not a fan of taking days off work. After speaking with friends I decided Berlin was worth taking a day, giving myself a long weekend to check the place out. Having such a short time, I was not about to waste a second, so booked a flight departing at 6am Saturday morning. I had two options; either try to get to the airport at some stupid hour in the morning, or travel out Friday evening and spend the night. I chose the latter, and soon discovered it was, without doubt, the wrong choice. Sure, I saved myself a bit of stress the following morning, and potentially could have gained a couple of hours sleep; potentially being the key word here. Even though I had a semi-sheltered spot, I think I had about 3 hours of interrupted sleep. It was NOT fun.

Another trip, another RyanAir flight. I’m beginning to get to know some of the stewardess’s on a first name basis. I arrived at 9am local time, and jumped on the metro which was conveniently located right outside the airport. Good work, Berlin! Within an hour I was standing right outside the Brandenburg Gate. Not wasting any time, I joined the Sandemans free walking tour. I definitely recommend these guys – I have been on about six of their tours now and have found them really interesting. They work on tips-only, which is good for those on a budget.

We checked out the Brandenburg Gate, the only surviving gate to the city, learnt a bit about the history and the monument that sits on top. Then moved on to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which consists of 2,711 concrete columns of different heights placed in rows. Wiki tells me 'it aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason', but also tells me 'nowhere inside the memorial, or around it, does it say what it commemorates. Some think that this is a deliberate attempt to encourage visitors to reach their own conclusions'. So, you make up your own mind.

The next stop on our tour wasn't so photogenic - the location of Hitler's bunker. This was where Hitler spent the last 6 months of his life, and eventually killed himself. The bunker is no longer there, and above ground has been paved for a carpark. There is no sign, no monument, no marking to indicate it was even there. After talking with people later, we agreed that it was quite fitting to have paved over the spot Hitler died for something so mundane as a carpark.

We moved on to catch our first glimpse of the Berlin Wall. Most of what's left is in pretty bad repair, but it gives you some idea of what it was like. On the top of the wall there is a cylinder, making it impossible to throw a hook over to pull yourself up. Our guide told us some amazing escape attempts which highlighted how bad the conditions really were.

A short walk away is Checkpoint Charlie, which was once the largest checkpoint for crossing through the Berlin Wall. It is now just a big tourist trap. It seems really unauthentic (if that's a word). You can buy souvenir documents and have them stamped - allowing you to 'cross'. There is also a guard tower with a guard out front that will let you take a photo with him for a few Euro... I decided to give it a miss.

Other interesting stops on the tour were BebelPlatz, which is surrounded by Konzerthaus (home to Berlin Symphany Orchestra), the French and German Cathedrals (which are almost identical), St. Hedwig's Cathedral and Humboldt University (home to 29 Nobel Prize winners). A really cool open square surrounded by amazing buildings. Definitely one to check out.

We finished up the tour on Museum Island, home to five internationally renowned museums and the Berlin Cathedral. The Cathedral is massive! And looks very impressive. On the steps of the Cathedral we finished our tour, where our guide told us the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the whole I really enjoyed the tour, but I wanted to get out and explore the real, gritty side of Berlin.

After my interesting night at the airport, and 3 hours walking with all my gear, I was ready for a bit of a rest. So I headed toward the TV tower (exactly how it sounds), located in the centre of Berlin. From there its a short walk to Wombats Hostel. It was a really cool place, very central, nice people - recommended if you are heading to Berlin. It was mid-afternoon when I found the room, which had one guy lying on the bed completely passed out. I had a shower and got my stuff organised, then an Aussi guy (Rob) arrived who was staying in the room also. We decided to head out and see the East Side Gallery.

The East Side Gallery is a section of the Berlin Wall that is covered in murals by artists from all over the world. It is a very cool spot, and one thing you cannot miss seeing if visiting the city. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

That evening Rob and I headed out on a pub crawl organised by the same company that ran the walking tour. There we met a cool South African guy (Kieran), who just happened to be the guy that was out to it in our room earlier. Random! We also met an American couple (Alex & Maytal), who I must say, were the most awesome American people I have ever met! I know what your thinking - 'a cool American, no way', but its true. We spent the rest of the night at 3 pubs and 2 craaazy clubs. It was a completely different scene to anything I had experienced before. The pubs just looked like run down old buildings, covered in graffiti, with the prices written on blackboards. There was no taps, and they only served one, maybe two types of bottled beer. It seemed like someone had just knocked in the door down that afternoon, bought a few boxes of beer and a stereo, and set up shop. I had a really good time until it got to about 2am, when the lack of sleep caught up with me, so I decided to head home. Only one problem; I had no idea where I was. I spent the next who knows how long trying to find my way. You might not thing it, but its actually kinda scary being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, in the middle of the night, slightly intoxicated, not knowing where you are or how to get home. In the end I made my way with the help of some friendly locals.

That wraps up my MASSIVE first day in Berlin. First impressions were really good. Its an amazing city with such a huge history. The people are very friendly, and its still relatively cheap to eat/drink. Some observations - much of the city has not been rebuilt following WWII, leaving huge empty lots all over the city. This has left the sides of huge buildings exposed, and street artists have taken to covering them up. Its a bit strange really, a major city having gaps everywhere. Its also quite evident that Berlin was almost completely flattened during the war, as there are very few historical buildings in the city. Those that you do see have been recently rebuilt, although most still feel very authentic. One more observation - Berlin is a LOT colder than London. I was expecting it to be cold, but DAM, it was fierce.

Coming up, day two, and discovering Tacheles.

Next Post - 'The Real Berlin'

1 comment:

  1. So you've seen pretty much the who-s-who of Berlin in that short time frame. It's actually what I recommend people see when they visit Berlin for a couple hours or days. Great! :-)


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