Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Berlin: Ampelman and Currywurst at the Wall || Travel Diary


(Travel Day 12)
Welcome to Germany - a new country, with a new language to master (or decipher in our case)

On our way to Berlin, we stopped in at Check Point Alpha (AKA the Helmstedt–Marienborn border crossing). This was the first but not the last remnant we would see of the Soviet influence on this country. We were able to walk around the interrogation and inspection rooms, and see uniforms and memorabilia of those who experienced it first hand.

This was one of our longest busrides we took through Europe. To mix it up between the on bus movies and handy information about Germany and travels, we were treated to a Busabout Bus Pub Quiz. Chris and I paired up and together won the quiz. Our victory prize was a large bag of Gummy Bears, which we promptly shared around the rest of our bus mates.

We arrived in Berlin shortly before dinner. Perfect timing, since our bus guide (Paul) had been gushing about the amazing doner kebabs they have here in Berlin. Wanting to put his claims to the test, a group of us went and had the kebabs for dinner, and he wasn't kidding. I wish I had taken a photo, but the deliciousness overpowered me. A normal kebab has a tortilla type wrapping, right? Well these had tomato and herb PIZZA BASES as wraps! What?! Mind blown. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We ended up eating "All in One" kebabs every day we were in Berlin, and I'm not at all ashamed of it. You've got to make the most of these opportunities. No wonder the kebabs are so good in Berlin - the doner kebab as most of us know it originated in Berlin, from all the Turkish workers who immigrated here after WWII.

Day 1:
We started the next day with another Sandemans Walking tour of Berlin. Our guide (Sarah) met us at the Brandenburg Gate. This was the meeting point for all the Sandemans Tours. They divided us into our own language (English, Spanish, German etc) groups and began the tour. It was well paced, entertaining and very insightful. We visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which had a powerful impact on me.

We were told that the artist didn't leave a description of what the memorial represents, as each person is to view it differently. No one can tell you what you should, and should not be feeling when walking through the blocks. Chris and I later returned to this sight to take some more time and get a feeling for the space.
As we walked through the blocks, there was a feeling of descent. As the walls rise up around you without you realising. 
Before long the blocks turn into pillars which loom over you, making you feel small and enclosed.  None of them the same, none standing entirely straight.
The pillars are cold, strong and the rain that clings to them reminded me of tears. Some say that blocks are like coffins. Yet the sky is always visible, just as hope is for the survivors. It's a moving place to say the least, especially if you draw comparisons to the victims and survivors for whom it represents.
A lot of the architecture in Berlin was very grand and or imposing. There was a stark difference between the Nazi WWII buildings and the rest, the latter being very ornate with pillars and statues. In contrast were the strictly functional solid block walls of the Nazi buildings, which appeared very imposing and impenetrable.
The building behind us here was built to draw new protestant workers to the city as the population dwindled. It is is mirrored on the other side of the court yard by its catholic twin, which way built a mere metre taller, just because.

Another noticeable aspect of the architecture around the city was it mottled appearance. The city of Berlin received heavy bombing during WWII and a lot of the building were damaged. Many are still being rebuilt now. In order to salvage as much of the buildings as possible, intact old bricks were used amongst the new bricks, seen in the photo below as the lighter yellow colour. They aren't discoloured with age and pollution like the originals surrounding them.

Others bearing battle scars.

Our tour continued to Hilter's former secret bunker, which now is covered with a car park, and is in no way marked as significant. He was not someone who the survivors wanted to honour.

To understand the Berlin Wall, one must understand why it was put there. After WWII the Allied forces decided to occupy Germany to prevent it happening again. Germany was divided into four zones, occupied by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. As Berlin was the capital and political centre, it too was divided four ways, even though Berlin itself was located in the Soviet sector. The wall came about through the differences between the USSR run government and the more similar U.S, U.K and French side. The population of the USSR zone was seen in great numbers to be emigrating west, where there was more opportunities for education and employment. This did not sit well with the the Soviets, and so to prevent mass population decline they set up barriers practically over night. These manned barriers turned into fences, and later concrete walls. These walls were manned by military guards in many watch towers. Iron reinforcing was built into the walls to prevent cars breaking their way through. 

The well known Checkpoint Charlie was the location of the US/Soviet Berlin border crossing. Now it is basically a tourist trap. Actors were dressed up in military uniform and posed for a paid photo with tourists, which the place was crawling with. So the tour breezed past it, pointing out a small section where interesting information was displayed. The emphasis was placed on part of the remaining length of the Berlin wall at the Topography of Terror. The exhibition shows real stories of the great escapes over the wall. A family flown over by hot air balloon. A man that worked in a high office building, watching over the wall every day, who in the dead of night, set up a flying fox from the top of his office building and got his entire family over safely. Stories tell of many families divided by the wall, and of people in west Berlin helping get those of the east out, via any means possible. There were photos of an entire family squeezed into the boot of a specially modified car.

Chris and I revisited the Topography of Terrors memorial site later on, where we spent hours reading more details about the history and lives affected by and lost during the German conflicts.

For a break between all those powerful real life stories and horrid history we went to Curry at the Wall where we enjoyed local bratwurst, currywurst and pommes (chips) with mayo. The currywurst sauce was amaze-balls. To this day we still like to mix in some curry powder with our tomato sauce, Mmm, it takes me right back. Make sure you try it!

At the end of our tour we passed by Humboldt University where Albert Einstein was a lecturer in the 1930's. There were so many interesting sights and tales on our walking tour of Berlin, I couldn't possibly fit them all into one post. I would highly recommend the Sandeman's New Europe walking tour of Berlin.

 After our tour we did yet more walking, and took a stroll around the beautiful Tiergarten. I got all too excited when I saw my first ever Robin and Red Squirrel within minutes of each other. Cute nature squee!!

One of many favourite parts of East Berlin was the Ampelmännchen a.k.a Ampelman.
As East Berlin was governed by the USSR, rather than using the generic green traffic light walking man, they designed their own. Here comes Ampelman! (and Ampelfrau (woman) later). He with his snazzy wide brimmed hat and confident stride, and her with pigtail plaits and a dress. It's the small things that make a place feel like home, so when the Berlin wall came down, the locals petitioned to retain Ampel man, instead of the reunification style. Ampelman has become a Berlin tourist icon, with entire stores dedicated to his image. We even brought him home as a souvenir magnet, since we liked him so much.

Since we were close to the Reichstag Parliament building we thought we might check it out. Unfortunately it was quite late in the day by this point, and we didn't realise we needed our passports and a prior booking to enter. Which we locked away safely at our hostel. Apparently there is a great view of the city from atop the building, and a cool glass dome to look into the Parliament room itself. This is a way of representing the German public keeping watch over their politicians. If we were to visit Berlin again I would surely take the time to visit.
With so many years of repression under the Nazi and then Soviet regime, their is a refreshing sense of liberty and expression from modern day Berlin. So much, that graffiti and punk teenagers are a common sight around the city. 
Just like everywhere, the youth of Berlin have a point to prove. This sort of rebellion and non-conformity is a reminder of how liberated they are now, and that they will not let the past repeat itself.

We stopped by a few more features on our way back to our hostel and then settled in for another round of amazing Berlin doner kebabs for dinner. A good reward for a long day playing tourist.

Day 2:
Our next day started at 4am, with a not at all welcome fire alarm. Groan. It turns out that the guy who had drunkenly pulled it faced a huge couple thousand Euro fine. We didn't see him again.

At a much more acceptable hour we started our day with visiting the Pergamon Museum. With its huge array of ancient Babylonian and Turkish artifacts, tt was a nice change from all the WWII history we had been immersed in for the last few days.

By this point we had done enough walking for the day and decided to get a pedi-cab ride to Alexanderplatz (4 euro each) which we happily paid. This was the only form of public transport we used while in Berlin. Keep in mind that we did a heck of a lot of walking instead. With our hostel being centrally located their was no need to use the Metro services, which was nice for a change.

 Pointing out our home town of "Wellington"

On our last evening in Berlin we were treated to a stunner sunset.

 Cranes along the skyline are a common sight here. One thing you can be sure about Berlin, is that it's always changing. They are still rebuilding important heritage buildings destroyed in WWII and are continuously upgrading everything to once again become a thriving, modern, powerful city. Paris will always be Paris, but the Berlin of 2014 will not be the same in years to come.
Sneaky picture with the Busabout bus.
On our way out of the city our bus took us past the Berlin "East side gallery" wall , giving us enough time to view part of it.
This is the longest remaining section of the former Berlin Wall. We saw some of the more famous paintings and a lot of very beautiful works of art. Many with great messages of peace, acceptance and unity.

We had been doing a bit of German practice in preparation for this trip with Duolingo. This is a computer and phone app that takes you through the spelling, speaking and listening of a language, all in your own time. Yet it still has a motivating aspect to it (which I definitely need), by ranking your progress, reminding you when you've been slacking, and sharing comparisons with your Duolingo friends. 
I have to admit that we didn't get all the way through the course. I would say we were more at a beginner level. Though I feel the language was less daunting than if I had arrived without prior practice. Having conversations with the locals in Berlin and other large touristy cities didn't prove too difficult. The smaller less travelled towns were more of a challenge, but that's all part of the experience. A smile and some common courtesies will get you a long way.

Quick Summary (TL;DR)

Duration of stay: 2 full days
Was it enough time?: Yes, to do most things. If you want to venture out of the city to visit the concentration camp you may need another day. We would have liked to have stayed much longer though, Berlin is one of the few places both Chris and I could see ourselves living in.
Where we stayed: Citystay Berlin Hostel
Time of Year: May
Best memories: Hearing the survivors stories of courage and triumph at the Berlin wall, and our time at the Holocaust Memorial definitely left a distinct impression on me, maybe not the most happy memories but really powerful.
Worst memories: Getting stuck in the rain and having wet shoes for the rest of the day.
Top tip: Make a booking for the Reichstag Parliment building and take your passport, the view it meant to be awesome.
Next time: Do what my Top tip says, spend more time in the Tiergarten, and find some of the notorious night life.
Berlin in a few words: Sobering, Empowering, Changing
Recommended?: Yes, Berlin was quite different to all the other German cities we visited. It leaves an impact.
Overall experience: 9/10, maybe it was because we were sick, but we didn't do much in the evenings but take night-time strolls.
Next destination: Dresden

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