Posted by: vlibrizzi | October 5, 2009

A weekend in the city of the 20th century: Berlin (Days 1 and 2)

A few months ago, when we were planning where we would like to travel to this fall, C. had the idea of going to Berlin. I had wanted to go to Munich for Oktoberfest instead, but C. convinced me that Berlin would be a better choice (he knew that I wouldn’t much like the sweaty, smelly Oktoberfest beer halls for very long).  To be honest with you, I didn’t expect much of Berlin. Most of our German friends from INSEAD are from Munich and are very partial to their hometown. So, from them and from what little I know about history, I thought of Berlin as a city that had been broken, bombed, and divided by almost a century of misfortune.

But, we’ve been in Berlin for the past four days, and honestly, we could have spent at least four more there. I loved it, and would recommend going there to everyone. Not to get too preachy, but it’s a city you should visit as a person who lived in the 20th century. As C. pointed out to me yesterday, Berlin is really the city of the 20th century; both World Wars and the Cold War — the major events of the past 100 years — all to some extent had Berlin at their center.  

So in the hopes of convincing you to go to Berlin on your next trip to Europe, I’ve included our favorite things that we did in Berlin during our brief four days there. 

Day 1 : Currywurst and Walking tour of Berlin

DSC_0234It all starts with a little something called currywurst. Bratwurst, sweet katchup, and yellow curry powder….is absolutely amazing!

For our first, and best, currywurst, we went to a place which was literally under some elevated train tracks in a becoming-trendier part of East Berlin called Prenzlauer Berg. We waited in line, placed our order, and sat outside on benches scarfing the stuff down. We loved it so much that we wanted to go back for seconds, but instead we just committed ourselves to going again. And we did….three more times!

 

 

 

 

 

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Here’s a photo of the Currywurst place we went to, called Konnopke’s Imbiss, right under the train tracks. While eating there, beer in one hand and currywurst in the other, we felt like true locals!

 

 

 

 

DSC_0243After our currywurst lunch, we joined a more than four-hour Original Berlin Walks walking tour through the city. The tour was fabulous! In addition to taking us through the major parts of the city, the guide, Jim, was so energetic and knowledgeable about the history of Berlin. Here are some of the highlights of our tour:

I particularly liked walking past Humboldt University to see the site of the notorious Nazi book burning in 1933 when nearly 20,000 books that went against Nazi ideologies were burned. To remember the event, the city has created a memorial underground with a bare lightbulb and empty bookshelves. You cannot visit the memorial, but can only peer into the room, like one would look into history but cannot actually touch it or change it.

C. really liked the ghost subway stations, like the one in the photo above, which were completely sealed off during the Cold War (West German trains would pass through East Germany without stopping). Even though the stations are now in use again, it still feels a bit eerie to be down there knowing that for years it was an abandoned station with only an East German guard patrolling the platforms 24 hours a day.  The mildly ugly green tiles let you know that the station’s decor is straight out of the ’30s.

DSC_0246Then, after walking through the abandoned station, we hopped out of the subway right in front of the famous Brandenburg Gate (photo to the left). This weekend was the Reunification Day festivities in Germany, the national holiday that celebrates the time that East and West Germany became one nation. 

Because of the holiday, people were all over the place downtown. There were concerts going on behind the gate , there was a ferris wheel, and there were stands set up selling brats, pretzels, beer….all things German! It was a great weekend to be in Berlin…despite the rain and the really cold temperatures. 

DSC_0292After visiting the gate, our tour guide took us to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which was recently completed to remember the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The memorial is composed of over 2,700 concrete blocks of different heights that you are supposed to walk through.According to our tourguide, the architect’s goal was for visitors to get lost and disoriented in the maze.

Sadly, while we were walking through the memorial, it started to downpour and then hail. Our measly umbrellas were not enough, so we got soaked. So for the rest of the tour we were shivering and smelled like wet dog. Fun!

DSC_0253We saw so much on our four-hour tour that I don’t want to bore you with too many details (if I haven’t done so already), but the last stop that we made that I thought was pretty cool was the site where Hitler committed suicide. Actually, as you can see in the photo to the left, there isn’t much to see. Now, the bunker in which he killed himself is covered over by a parking lot, and there’s one small sign for tourists to see what happened here. 

Our tour ended at 7 pm near Checkpoint Charlie (sadly, very tourist-y nowadays and not the actual site of the checkpoint at all) and near the remains of some of the Berlin Wall. We were cold and our feet were sore, so we headed back on the U-bahn to Savignyplatz, the West Berlin neighborhood of our great hotel, Pension Peters, had some pizza and beer, and called it a night.

Day 2: The Rain Sends Us Indoors to the German History Museum

DSC_0270On Saturday it rained, and rained, and rained. But, determined not to lose the day, C. and I stayed under our umbrellas (as you can see me doing on Museum Island) and headed back into the old Soviet Sector to go to the German History Museum. 

Since it was a national holiday (Reunification day, remember?), the museum was free to get into! Sweet! 

So we rented some audiogudes (not free) and spend the next five hours walking around the museum. 

Yes, you read right….five hours!

DSC_0273I’ve never been in a museum that long…not even the Louvre, which I love!

But the museum was so well organized and had so much great information about the history of Germany, that we really lost track of time. The museum was arranged in chronological order and covered, in detail, everything about German history from the Middle Ages, to the Reformation, to the national unification (round one!), to the two World Wars, to the Cold War and a divided Germany. 

I just couldn’t believe how many historical objects there were in the museum. For example, you can see me posing with Napoleon’s hat and sword that the Prussian troops took from him after he was defeated at Waterloo. Pretty cool, huh? And this hat was just in the middle of a nondescript room in the museum! 

But, by far, the best part of the museum was the section that covered World War II and the rise of the Nazi party. It was an extremely detailed and candid look at the environment that made the country vulnerable to the Nazis, how the Nazis gained power, and how the population responded to them. 

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The museum was just so good at giving the perspective of what it felt like to be a German citizen during the 1900s, through first-hand documents, photographs, and other historical objects

Near the end of the museum there was an equally interesting section on the divided Germany from the end of WWII to the end of the 1980s. Through more first-hand accounts, but this time mostly through video, visitors could really get a feeling for what it felt like to be an East or West German citizen, and how exciting it must have been in 1989 when the wall came down. You can see C. posing in front of a piece of the Berlin Wall in the museum to the left. 

 

 

 

 

DSC_0301Once we left the museum, the weather had cleared up a bit so we went to the park behind the Brandenburg Gate to watch the concert and have some German food—bratwurst and beer again! 

There were hundreds of people outside enjoying the music and celebrating their national holiday. It felt like the 4th of July, except there weren’t any fireworks!

 

 

 

DSC_0305After sharing a yummy Bavarian pretzel while listening to the concert, we realized that we were pretty hungry and wanted to get out of the cold, so we hopped on the U-bahn to go to a traditional German beer garden. The beer garden we went to was called Prater, and although it was too cold to sit on their benches outside, we loved the festive atmosphere inside, and of course, we loved the food…potato soup, scnitzel and German beer. In fact, I think I found a new favorite beer—it’s a German beer called Weiheinstephaner. But how am I going to find that now in France? Or, when I go back to the US?

So that’s it for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll post about our second two days in Berlin which consisted of a visit to the Reichstag building, the Topography of Terror, the tourist-y and cluttered Checkpoint Charlie museum, and the excelled Jewish Museum Berlin.

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Responses

  1. Val, I am loving your beret, pink umbrella, and trench coat look! so very chic and french 🙂


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