Berlin - Tough Place in the 20th Century
Trip Start Aug 26, 2010
12Trip End Jan 18, 2011
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We arrived in Berlin at 3:20pm into the biggest, newest train station weīd seen in Europe. It was grey and dull looking outside but there were people everywhere. Mandy and I had to split up for the afternoon. I had 3 hours to get to the marathon race registration. So off I went, nibbling on straight carbohydrates and carrying my overflowing backpack.
Sore but not sorry, I was ready to have a better look at Berlin in the morning. Mandy felt refreshed after taking it easy on the rainy Sunday. We first had to find our way to the Australian embassy. Paperwork is required to allow us to be married in South Africa next year
Again it was a cold, grey day. But there was a good crowd gathered to take advantage of the free walking tour. We were split into 2 groups and we found ourselves with an extroverted englishman. He seemed ok to me but Mandy didn't like the look/sound of him. She nipped over to the other group and quickly waved me in too. Colin, a reserved scot was to be our guide for the day.
First stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a sprawling concrete "sculpture" that occupies a piece of prime real-estate in central Berlin. It consists of 2711 concrete blocks that look orderly but are all a bit off-kilter. It is harsh and sombre and its location ensures that Berliners are cannot help but remember what happened back in the 30's and 40's.
My favourite part of the tour was a derelict carpark. We stood there in light drizzle directly above Hitler's bunker. Standing in that carpark, Colin told us about Hitler's mistress (Eva Braun) and his last days as the Red Army closed in. A cyanide capsule for her, one for him and a bullet for good measure
We moved on geographically and chronologically to the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, the end of WWII heralded the beginning of the split city. Germany was divided up and Berlin (being over in the east) was in Russia's control. But the allies thought that Berlin was too important a place to fully hand over. So they took a chunk - an island of city surrounded by communism. West Germany prospered as the country rebuilt, but East Germany struggled under communist rule. Thousands of people from East Germany walked into West Berlin then flew out for better lives in West Germany - estimated at over 2 million people. The East Germans (Russians) didn't like this one way flow of good people
I liked the stories of the various escapes that were pulled off. Particularly the guy who got the lowest sports car available (including foldable windscreen). As a west berliner he was able to get a weekend pass to go into the East. He picked up his girlfriend, put her mum in the boot and headed back to Checkpoint Charlie. As he got close to the border guards, he folded down the windscreen, ducked down and floored it. In seconds he was across in safety.
Most of the wall got pulled down and chunks of it were taken as souvenirs. But the route has been preserved with distinct pavers that thread their way around Berlin. It is weird to just step across those pavers and think what they used to mean. Barbed wire, guards in guntowers, no-man's land etc.
Colin's tour concluded with the story about the fall of the Wall. Having just come from the Czech republic, we had heard some of what had happened in 1988 and 1989 across Eastern Europe. It was funny to hear that the actual fall was brought about by a spokesman with poor information at a press conference. Gunther Schabowski didn't understand a note handed to him and declared that East Germany's borders were open "effective immediately". The flood of people to the Berlin wall was too much for the guards and everyone went through. Once the gates were open, they never closed again. The tour ended with a vigorous round of applause. Colin's parents may despair but I'm glad he didn't finish law school.
After the tour we headed over to the most intact section of wall via the subway. They had some great murals that were painted soon after the fall. I'm not sure how one gets internationally renowned as a graffiti artist, but it must be possible.
Berlin was super. It had a hell of a time in the 20th century. It had a population of 4.5 million people and was the engine room of Germany's Industry back in the 1930s. WWII and communism knocked it for six. Today it has only two thirds of that peak population. Good for finding accommodation and parking. Not so good for the economy which lags way behind Frankfurt and Munich. I'll be interested to watch what happens there in the next 30 years.
Scott's MarathonSaturday Afternoon
Race registration was at the old Tempelhof airport terminal and was reasonably straightforward. They had a big "expo" of running gear that was laid out so that you had to walk past every stall. I traipsed through the crowd cursing the organisers and picked up my number and
timing chip. Then turned around and stalked out again. If I was given funny looks I was oblivious.
Rain had intensified from a light mist to a steady pelt. Donning my rain jacket (at least I had the full choice of all my clothes) I hiked back to the subway. Two connections, three extra stops and a couple of bad turns later I made it to Amstel House Hostel. Mandy had checked-in and was happily typing away on the free computer having a hot chocolate. Great preparation for the marathon this was not!
The hostel was massive. We mused that it used to be a hospital or a mental asylum. Lots of runners for the Berlin marathon as it was handy for the start area. We took part in their pasta party and then tried to kill each other in foozball. Mandy got the early lead, I squared it
up but she eventually finished on top. Grrrr... At least I still have the lead in chess.
I woke the next morning to see that the rain had just kept on falling. The skies were grey and it wasnīt going to stop. Mandy came down to have breakfast with me at 7am. There were a few other runners but most were already on their way to the start line. I was much more
blase than usual. Mandy and I had discussed this marathon and agreed that I should not go flat out. Normally I do and it takes quite a bit out of me. With lots of travel and hiking planned for October, being fatigued and sick was best avoided. So I was on strict instructions to
run no faster than 3:30 and she "would find out if you run faster!".
I walked to the start at 7;30 which only took half an hour. It was crazy busy (57,000 runners) but well organised. Everyone was allocated a bag tent according to their number. You had to get changed into your running gear and then hand your special bag into that tent before the
race. The trouble was that it was cold and rainy and everyone wanted to hand theirs in at exactly 8:35am. I got stuck in a massive wall of runners walking down a narrow alley half in each direction. It took 10 minutes to move 60 metres. But I got out of there and found my tent and I was off to the start line with 20 minutes to spare.
The start area was the magnificent "Strasse des 17 Juni", a wide avenue near the Reichstag (German Parliament building). I had a start in the 2:50 to 3:00 section about 100 metres from the very front. The atmosphere in the start queue was fantastic. Nervous energy of thousands of runners combined with loud "pump-up" music and hundreds of spectators. The only problem was the bloody rain which kept stubbornly falling. A count down, a cheer and we were away. It took 40 seconds to cross the start line and by that time the person in front of me was
running, so I could run too. We streamed down the avenue and parted around the Victory Column and continued on.
With my goal of 3:30 and start position near the front, other runners streamed past. I was going along at my long run pace of 5:00/km. The first 25km of the race was very comfortable. People stopped going past and I was in amongst other people running at the same pace. I got a good look at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It was bombed badly in WWII but one spire was not completely destroyed. It has been left as a memorial. Most of the rest of Berlin was apparently flattened. And I must say that flat ugly 1950īs "architecture" seemed
to be the norm.
People, people everywhere - especially other runners. In other big races Iīve been nearer the front and not had so many others so close. Not today. Down wide sections (four car lanes wide) it was ok, but if it narrowed then it was downright claustrophobic. I was starting to
feel tired by the 30km mark. I was looking forward to the last 10km when others would start to slow down. Through 38km and Iīd fallen slightly behind the 3:30 target. There were 60 music bands on the course and the strangest one was at 39km - Hula type Hawaiian music. Totally uninspiring and weird. There were still other runners everywhere but at least I was overtaking a few people who had slowed to a walk.
At 40km I sped up a little but my legs were sore and didnīt really want to go. At 41km I got more inspired and kicked towards the finish. Around a corner and ahead was the Brandenburg Gate. It dates back to when Berlin was a walled city. Itīs got a great statue on the top and I
was inspired to run right through the middle. From there I slowed down and enjoyed the noise and atmosphere. I crossed the line with 3:30:25 on the big clock, about 3:29:40 for me.
The thing about running a marathon slower is that it is still a bloody long way. And although I didnīt feel the need to go into the fetal position, I was pretty well exhausted. I grabbed a banana and a cup of the hot lemon-sugary tea and sat down at the nearest convenience. The rain had finally stopped at least. Lots of lost, exhausted looking people wandering gingerly around with electrolyte "beer". What I found funny was the total disregard for normal sensibilities that men showed as they changed out of their wet, sweaty running clothes. In the grand park in front of the Reichstag were many naked pink bodies. Itīs not everyday that you can get your gear off in
broad daylight at such an official place.