Berlin

Trip Start Sep 15, 2011
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25
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Trip End Oct 21, 2011


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Sunday, October 9, 2011

This morning we checked out at 07:30 and drove to the airport. Our easyJet flight left on time at 10:40, the flight was smooth and we arrived in Berlin, Schönefeld, a little less than two hours later. Since we were already in the Schengen area, we didn't have to clear customs or immigration, though there were spot checks for some passengers. We took a taxi to our hotel which is located right on the Alexanderplatz, in the heart of Berlin. We checked into our rooms, which are on the 16th and 23rd floors respectively, dropped our bags and immediately headed out to start exploring Berlin.

The sky was bright blue sprinkled with cottony white clouds; the temperature was cool enough that a sweater of light jacket was needed. We walked toward the Spree River not quite a kilometer (about half a mile) away. We passed St Mary’s Church, the Marienkirche, one of the two oldest churches in Berlin, and which dates to the 1200s. It was badly damaged during the bombing of WWII. It was rebuilt but the surrounding area wasn’t, so it sits in a large empty area, overshadowed by the East Berlin TV tower, built by the communists to show how advanced they were.

We crossed the bridge onto the island in the Spree called Museum Island, because it contains so many, and we passed the Berlin Cathedral (not truly a Cathedral but called such anyway). The walls and most of the structure survived the bombings of WWII, though the roof was destroyed, and had to be rebuilt. We passed in front of the Lustgarten (pleasure garden) in front of the Altes (old) museum, mostly of art. This large lawn and garden area was sometimes used by Hitler for elaborate and impressive rallies.

At this point I should mention that there is much more history to the sites of Berlin that just since the rise of the Nazis. Germans are sometimes understandably annoyed when foreigners fixate on that period and forget other more brilliant and enlightened periods in German history. There have been brilliant writers and artists, statesmen and even generals (who helped defeat the tyrant Napoleon for example). But for students of 20th century history, the Nazi period is one of the most studied because of the terrible conflagration it caused, and the unexpected consequences it caused for 40 years and more after the war. It is a period interesting to both my father and me, so with apologies to my German friends, my blog will likely be weighted heavily toward that period.

We crossed a second bridge, the schlossbrücke, named because the palace of the Prussian monarchs was just to the south on the island. From there we were on the famous boulevard Unter den Linden ("under the linden trees"). We passed the History Museum; we’ll go there later if we have time. We next came to the Neue Wache (New Guard House), originally built as a house for the guards of the royal family; it has been a war memorial since the 1930s. An oculus, or open window to the sky was added during that transition. Damaged during the bombings of WWII, it was used for political purposes by the Communist government. After reunification it was rededicated as the "Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Tyranny." An unknown soldier and a concentration camp victim are interred underneath. In the center now stands a sculpture called Mother with her Dead Son, by artist Käthe Kollwitz, who herself lost a son in WWI. It is quite a moving piece; especially given all that occurred in her country during her lifetime (she died just before the end of WWII). The oculus in the room means the sculpture is exposed to the elements, including the cold and snows of winter, which only underscores the suffering of the powerless.

Just passed the Neue Wache, we came to Humboldt University, dating from 1810, the oldest in Berlin. Between faculty building on the south side of the boulevard, is the Bebelplatz, the square where Nazis organized one of the most famous of their book burnings in May 1933, with volumes taken from the university library. A memorial in the square consists of is a thick pane of glass among the cobblestones that shows a subterranean room containing empty bookshelves.

I had read some of this history already, but my Dad was an encyclopedia of knowledge about each place. He had a very precise map in his head, and would even anticipate what we would next see as we walked, and from memory, would give very interesting commentary with frequent anecdotes on each site. When we were kids my sisters and I thought my dad knew everything. I still think he comes closer than anyone else I’ve ever known.

By this time we were hungry, so we looked for a suitable restaurant. We found a charming restaurant called the Nante Eck, a restoration of an old-style Berlin restaurant. The waiting staff dresses in turn of the century clothes, and the decor reflects this period. We both ordered Wiener-schnitzel and neither of us were able to finish the portion in spite of being quite hungry.

We continued west and in a few more minutes came to the Brandenburg Gate, probably the most famous monument in Berlin; dating from the late 1700s. It was just behind the Berlin wall (in East Berlin) during the wall period, and it was just to the west of the gate that Ronald Reagan famously said in June of 1987: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” His challenge seems to have had a huge impact. The gate is now a symbol of a reunited and rejuvenated Germany; a cause of joy for some, alarm for not a few others.

We walked through the gate and saw the Bundestag (formerly Reichstag) building off to the right (we hope to visit that later), and took some photos. We noted the young men in American and Soviet military uniforms available for photos (for a small price) and enough kitschy stuff going on ( a mime doing a statue of Lenin for example) that we could have been California….

By this time it was late afternoon and we were starting to get tired, so we retraced our steps to the hotel, and rested a short while before dinner. I had a quick walk around the Alexanderplatz, and couldn’t resist quoting a line of movie dialogue as I plucked the scene from my memory: “Send her alone, give her your phone.” Any reader who can correctly identify the movie gets, well, some small public recognition. Robert Ludlum aficionados shouldn’t have any trouble.

It was quite animated this Sunday night; there were temporary restaurants and beer gardens set up, live music, polka dances, and a few well-lubricated patrons. Alexanderplatz has always had an interesting reputation, going back at least as far as the 1920s. I remember while in university in Strasbourg, having to read Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, the story of a low-life loser in what was then a seamy quarter, that still has a bit of a reputation.

Around 7:00 pm Dad and I went to a restaurant near the hotel and had a bowl of soup, some thick brot and glass of wine, it was just enough. Now we’ll turn in pretty early, a little footsore, and rest so we can continue discovering Berlin tomorrow.
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Comments

alzoo
alzoo on

I admit, had to look it up myself....

The Bourne Supremacy...

maryhendren
maryhendren on

Hi Joel,

I enjoyed your blog and commentary, especially the juxtaposition of the black and white pictures with your current photos. The sculpture Mother with Her Dead Son is gripping, especially in such a lonely, hard setting. The glass window view into empty bookshelves reminds me all the loss of knowledge in book burnings over the centuries. Ronald Reagan's call to tear down the wall--what memories of leadership. Your dad's interest in history and preparation for the trip are inspiring. We look forward to the next accounts.

Mary

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