As one would expect on a coach, a fitful night of partial sleep but the dawn is a pleasant reward. The ‘Poor’ Berliner girl stretches, turns and smiles “good morning”. Dismounting from the coach in Berlin I get my bearings and wave farewell to ‘Poor’ Berliner girl with whom I’ve not exchanged a solitary word. ‘Poor’ Berliner girl smiles “good bye”.
At the coach station in Berlin I undertake my first public-toilet ablutions session and get ready for this BIG city.
I’ll start this one with a mild complaint, as much about myself as Berlin the place (which is wonderful). I have to say that throughout the day I really struggle to get my head around the various inter-locking forms of public transportation on offer in this great city. I’ve no doubt they are a wonder and an ease once you’ve learnt the ropes but to a culture-hungry backpacker with only hours to get-to-grips it proves quite a headache…and I fully accept my incompetency as a strong contributing factor! There are U-Bahns (underground), S-Bahns (still not sure on those), trams & buses (of course) and DB bahns too (mainline trains) all of which loop and interweave together (although not half as often as you’d like where the U-bahns are concerned) and the maps of the systems whilst in most cities (London, Paris, Prague, Vienna etc…) are usually graphic design masterpieces of colour, line and simplicity here look devilishly complicated, convoluted and often employ two shades of the same flippin’ colour for two interlocking lines of say an U or an S bahn.
Indistinguishability is frequently the order of the day! Not a huge problem, but it did often lead me to just throw in the towel and opt for my preferred modus operandi anyway… i.e. my feet. This though comes at a price eventually in the form of a backpackers worst enemy (well? one of them anyway)… blisters!
All well and good but Berlin is a LARGE, often surprisingly spacious city and walking from one point of interest to the next can mean a loooong old stroll. But I have to say I like this city’s spaciousness. For a metropolis so steeped in often grand and troubled history (in the last century for sure) this openness helps it to feel a breathable, likeable and nourishing place to be despite all of ‘that‘.
The city and it’s open air feel at peace and an often majestic fusion of the architecture and monuments to the past and those of the modern help the vibrant and aspirational mood of the place. It’s a beautiful day (again) helping the city to feel happy and alive to my eyes. In a day or two I will be chatting with a German lad in a hostel in Prague who expands on his own similar feelings in this regard. His theory is that the benefit of space comes from the fact that Berlin through historical circumstance is what he has dubbed a “dual-core” city. Two hubs, of course East and West formally torn apart by the Berlin Wall containing their own separate epicentres but now (the wall having been removed through the collapse of Communism and East and West Berlin’s ultimate realisation of their mutual love for the pop music of David Hasselhof) these two centres are finding the time to grow back towards one another and slowly weave together. There is space. And there is always time to heal. This will be a recurring theme in my day in Berlin I feel.
This sense of the healthy collaboration of the old and new is perfectly illustrated by my first stop in town, the Bundestag, home of the democratic German government (formerly the Reichstag, and still almost universally referred to as such by everyone, even by the German populace despite the merciful conclusion of the Third Reich – destroyers of the building too – in 1945). The end of the Second World War of course only marked the beginning of much internal division and strife for Germany the nation and Berlin the city.
It was only after the collapse of the Berlin Wall (1990ish I think?, built 1961) that a close-run contest between Berlin and Bonn led to the new seat of the unified German government residing permanently in the former. A few years after this time architectural plans were bandied about and in the end good ol’ Brit Norman Foster beat out the competition to renovate and create the fabulous and I think most elegant Bundestag building (in it’s current form) that sits in the middle of Berlin today.
The old edifice of the ‘Reichstag’ still sits in grandeur cocooning a thoroughly modern interior of glass and metal with the show-stealing Cupola dome that now sits atop the building. As a visitor you can walk around the roof of the Bundestag admiring the view and walk up the winding double cork-screw ramps within the Cupola looking outwards at the city and – in theory – inwards, and down to the political debating chamber below within the heart of the Bundestag. Suspended in the Cupola’s core sits a large cone-shaped sculpture of mirrors and light (360 mirrors to be precise) which whilst looking magnificent, also reflects copious sunlight down into the debating chamber and collects heat to help run the building’s environmentally friendly, energy-efficient heating, cooling and water systems. Not bad Normy. Not bad m’man!
So much to see! Next a few confused U-bahn connections later and I’m further into the east part of the city near Alexanderplatz watching the tour boats glide up and down the river Spree. Here I visit the fabulous Berliner Dom basilica and then stroll further out still to ascend the famous Berlin TV Tower.
Standing (I think?) at about 368 metres to the summit it’s Berlin’s highest landmark… a bit of a cheat I think as most of the final stretch is just a ruddy great TV-ariel, but there you go. It is a TV tower after all. You can (and I did) pay about 9 Euros to shoooom up it’s central column in an enclosed lift (no view) to the ‘golf ball’ that sits atop of it and have panoramic views of Berlin from about 203 metres up. Personally I think in hindsight this is a bit of a waste of money. Berlin seen from this part of town is not that panoramically pretty or interesting a place, and when you think of the architectural experience you have with a tower such as the Eiffel Tower – a date with history almost – for actually less cost then the experience here really just doesn’t compare. There’s the usual revolving restaurant on the next floor up, but unless you’re payin’ for nosh you ain’t allowed up.My advice? Don’t waste your time or money on this one unless you‘re a real panorama junky.
Back into the centre to stroll around and through the Brandenburg Gate and around the corner to ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’. Now I don’t know, but I bet this one has and continues to divide opinion. This is an unusual and to my mind stunningly effective memorial. I’m not saying that there couldn’t have been, and weren’t maybe better suggestions for a fitting and suitable monument to such challenging subject matter but I thoroughly respect the simplicity and integrity of the chosen form as it stands.
In simple terms 2,711 concrete blocks or ‘Stelae’ are placed in a LARGE grid pattern with perfect right-angled channels or walkways criss-crossing the length and breadth of the ’Memorial’ upon what can only be described as an undulating ‘carpet’ of likewise concrete flooring. The rapidly increasing, and random heights of the seemingly infinite stelae coupled with ground that dips and rises as if it were the sea all soon immerse the members of the public in a jungle of grey, concrete calm and solidity. Your line of sight is soon cut expect for the narrow lines of vision extending off into the distance, one passage at a time towards one or two of the numberless ‘exits‘ or are they ‘entry‘ points? But only one passage visible at a time, unless you stand at a crossroads. Such is life I suppose.
There could be hundreds of people equally lost in the concrete jungle but unless you cross paths with one of them all you have is the sound of footsteps or voices somewhere, in there, in the distance. I find the experience of being lost in this ‘Memorial’ very thought provoking and strange. Nothing moribund. I do not consider these ‘grave markers’ to the fallen or the missing although I guess that could be one take… I’m not sure. But as it is often with history, once all the stories that remained or could be reclaimed have been told, it is for you to decide your feelings for it. Your interpretation. Too many monuments rub their wounds openly in your face with so many names and dates that they almost become meaningless or drowned in over-wrought symbolism (I do accept of course that is ther purpose), but ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ for me with its clean lines, cold surfaces and lack of ‘pointers’ towards individuals, dates or specific events works perfectly to remind us of what a monolithic, still incomprehensible tragedy the Holocaust was.
I walk for some long time amidst the concrete blocks. It’s easy to forget there’s a sunny, carefree summers day continuing outside of the shadows and stones in here. A reminder does come though in the form of the many children who take great pleasure in running and laughing and screaming their way amidst the million passageways, happy to be lost in the world’s most perfect venue for hide’n’seek (or I imagine late at night for surreptitious and secretive liaisons between their elder brothers and sisters, or worse and seamier sides of society). Nevertheless it is inevitable that public ‘art’ and space will always to some varying extent and use be reclaimed in such ways. New life and new love amidst the unjudgmental blocks…and I bet this unforeseen and irreverent use of this ‘Memorial’ also annoys a lot of people – for understandable reasons – but again I like this.
A space being used to stimulate minds and moods in so many ways. New life, and new laughter amidst a reminder that such sounds and feelings were once so determinedly and ruthlessly muffled and cut off all those years ago (although NOT so many I guess). The children will grow to understand we hope. Such knowledge of tragedy has a time and place in life, if it is not thrust upon you by History. For my part I enjoy leaning against a pillar or two, listening to the gleeful footsteps sprinting around after each other and trying to time a click of my camera juuust right as a scampering sprite dashes across my field of vision.
Situated beneath the ‘Memorial’ is a likewise superbly stark and unflinchingly objective museum or rather ‘Information Centre’ with textual, photographic and audio displays on the subject of the history of the Nazi persecution of European Jewry (and other minority communities and social groupings) throughout the reign of the Third Reich including detailed accounts of specific family case histories and the extermination process itself.
The numbers. The endless numbers, spine-juddering statistics and names of terror in human history (Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, Berkenau, Dachau, Belsen… the list goes on) are all laid bare next to the poignant testimonials of survivors or more often than not recovered scraps of documentation from those who did not survive. You cannot be unmoved within the walls of this museum, and tears flow quite freely from me by the conclusion of my visit. I’m a little tired and I know that reflected in the bell-bottom of each of my tears are some slight visions and reflections of more immediate personal heartaches of (maybe) missing home and (certainly) family who my heart is missing now and from the past as I begin this huge journey. My body has seized the opportunity;found it’s excuse to let it all leak out a little bit.’ Often this is necessary I guess.
Anyway I have delayed you too long in Berlin my friends. I apologise. I was lost in history… and possibly a few more tears too.
The sunlight is blinding upon resurfacing into the city. I walk for some time through the sprawling lawns and pathways of the tree-dappled Tier Garten before tipping a nod to a monument to Bismarck and the Victory Column which stands in the middle of a large roundabout directly west of the Brandenburg gate about a kilometre or two down the Straße des 17.
Juni. I also take in a circuit of the exterior and grounds of the Schloss Charlottenburg palace before deciding I have walked too, too far today already and must rest my weary (and I fear soon, finally to be blistered) feet whilst I await the train to Halle.