I have fallen in love with a city.
There have been others that have gained my attention in the past, my home town of London (which is still the greatest city in the world), New York, Paris… But I think after visiting some of the greatest cities that the planet has to offer that I have found the one and that one is Berlin. I have been back a day and I miss it already, I miss the enriched history, I miss the architecture, I even miss the smell. Plus, Berlin was by far the cheapest city I have ever stayed in which was a nice change! I am a real city girl at heart, but being in them does mean that my bank balance takes a hit.
Anyway, here is what I’ve been up to for the past few days!
Our flight got in at around 5pm German time, my friend is the best and finding hotels and had booked us into a place directly opposite Hauptbahnhof, (fun fact – that is the biggest train station in the whole of Europe) so we managed to get the train from the airport to the station and got to our hotel in double quick time for only 3 euros, which meant that even though it was getting dusky, we still had time to explore before it got too dark to see anything!
Our first port of call after dropping our bags was the Brandenburg Gate which is something that I’ve wanted to see for what feels like forever.
I guess it’s a little like Marble Arch in the sense that the rest of the city appears to be built around this amazing piece of architecture.The gate has so much historic significance and being a massive history nerd it was amazing to see!
Our first few hours in Germany was spent exploring the area around our hotel and getting our bearings, I was so happy we managed to find the gate so soon! After stopping for photos and examining the sign posts around it, we decided to head a little further down the street to the supermarket where I was planning to buy all the Kinder products, but instead came across white chocolate twix bars (seriously, I thought the white lion bars of Poland were good, but they are nothing on Twix bars!) and real German stollen cake.
I really think that my friend ought to go into holiday planning or events management or something, she managed to find us a hotel five minutes away from the Brandenburg, parliament buildings and the Jewish Memorial. Unfortunately for us, the bad weather of the UK appeared to have followed us across to Europe and it started raining on our way back, so we decided to leave most of the surrounding landmarks for another day and headed back to the dryness of the hotel, but at least we managed to see the sunsetting behind the gate on the way back! One of the things that I really regretted about my trip to Paris was the fact that I never got to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, and Brandenburg looked so pretty at night!!
The sun decided to make a reappearance for our first morning, so we walked towards Alexanderplatz, which is, if we’re doing comparisons, a little like the Oxford Street region of London. There is a mall and a German Harrods type place. We took a stroll along the river, following the foundations of the Berlin Wall and spying many more beautiful buildings on our way to the Sealife Centre. I’ve never been to a Sealife Centre before, I know, I have a seriously deprived life.
The Berlin Sealife Centre was so good!! They have a massive tank with a clear lift that goes up into the tank so you can stand in the tank while all the fish swim around you! It was amazing!!
Once we’d exhausted all the fish, we decided to talk a walk around Alexanderplatz and found a market left over from Oktoberfest! German markets are always amazing in England, they’re even more amazing in Germany! THEY SMELL SO FREAKING GOOD! Whilst scouting out the market for fun German things, we stumbled across a stall selling baumkuchen, which was featured on the Great Bristish Bakeoff, one of the greatest television shows known to man! Baumkucken is a cake that’s made on a rotisery rather than in an oven, we sampled cinnamon and sugar flavoured (or rather, zimt und zucker) and honestly, it was awesome!
After walking around the market and investigating the shopping centre, we made our way back to Alexanderplatz station and caught the train back to Hauptbahnhof, walking back through the Brandenburg Tor once again to do all the things that we saw the evening before, starting with the Jewish Memorial for the Holocaust. It is a very haunting memorial which reminded me a lot of a graveyard and was also very disconcerting, the stones tower above you and the pathways between each one are are quite hilly.
Across the road from that in the park is a memorial for the Homosexuals who died under Hitler’s reign of terror.
When we saw the signposts for it, we were intregued, having never seen something that so openly commemorates the struggles of the LGBT community during the Holocaust. Having read Isherwood, I know that Berlin in particular was a very open place prior to Hitler gaining power in the context of sexual liberation, but I felt very unsure about the appropriateness of this particular memorial.
Basically, there is a large grey stone box in the corner of the park with a window on one side, if you look through the window you get to see a film of two men kissing on a loop. The memorial is supposed to show how open Berlin is about it’s LGBT community and how they are accepting of what happened to them, but the fact that the gay act itself is hidden within the box and the box itself is in the corner of the park and is so drab from the outside didn’t seem very open or accepting to me. I’m just not sure how fitting a memorial it really is. Have any of you visited the site? What did you think?
Continuing our walk through town, we headed towards Potzdammerplatz, which is a little like Picadilly Circus, where they have sections of the Berlin Wall up beside the train station along with a brief history of the Berlin wall.
The whole Berlin Wall experience is still blowing my mind a little, like a giant wall was built separating one part of the city from the other, like that’s all kind of crazy!
After walking along the wall and exploring the sights and sounds of Potsdammerplatz, we found the Topography of Terror, which is a museum about the Nazi regime based in the centre of where all the secret police etc kept their headquarters. As well as a very thorough exhibition inside about the various things that the gestapo etc did in Germany, there was also section of the wall there and a history of the start of the war and the invasion and desolation of Poland. One of the things I loved about my trip to Poland back in the day, was the amount of history about Poland and what happened there that wasn’t included in my lessons at school, so it was great to see it included in the German history.
Once we had exhausted what the Topography had to offer, we followed the wall foundations further and found Checkpoint Charlie. It was sort of a shame really, I’d heard so much about Checkpoint Charlie and the history of Berlin centres so much on the checkpoint and life for the citizens of the city with the wall being up, but the site had been really commecialised, the checkpoint was a replica and featured two actors dressed as American soldiers posing for photos with people. There were two museums for the checkpoint, both of which had cafes and gift shops as the first things that you saw. I did very much enjoy the irony of the “You are entering the American sector” sign being right in front of a Starbucks and a McDonalds. It started raining again while we were at the checkpoint, so we donned our coats and ran for the cover of the German museum of Judaism. It was one of the attractions that was recommended to us and it was super interesting, but was the weirdest museum I have ever been in, the exhibitions were mostly art installations that told the story of the history of the Jewish people in Germany. Bits of it were very unsettling with only natural light being used and the angles of the room really throw you off and make you lose your bearings. I’m glad we went though, it was fascinating. The rain didn’t stop while we were in there getting lost though, so it was through a storm that we ran back to Potsdammerplatz for a train to our hotel. It was still raining the following morning when we took a trip to Sachsenhausen.
I visited Auschwitz several years ago on my trip to Poland, so I was looking forward (if that’s the right phrase) to seeing Sachsenhausen and seeing the difference between the two. The first thing that is really striking about the place is that unlike other camps, it was pretty much destroyed and not rebuilt as a memorial until well into the sixties. Another was the fact that the gate features the same phrase as the one at Auschwitz.
The translation makes me feel sick to my stomach.
The remains of Sachsenhausen are in the middle of a housing estate, which feels all kinds of wrong. It was much larger than I anticipated, though Auschwitz was bigger, and it’s past was just as grizzly, it was being built before the war began and was still being used well into the sixties when the Russians decided to use it as a prisoner of war camp. It was actually a really surreal experience. I expected it to feel ominous, oppressive and sombre, like it did at Auschwitz, but it just didn’t and I think part of that was the fact that the other guests were wondering around taking selfies and eating their lunch as they walked around the exhibits. Like, come on people. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE DIED HERE, EXTERMINATION TECHNIQUES WERE TESTED HERE, like, were those people just like snapchatting pics of themselves next to a gas chamber for the lolz? What is that about?
It was a very odd experience. While the gravity of the situation and the appalling nature of what went on there is obvious, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact on me that Auschwitz did. I even walked around the original camp morgue and though that was disturbing, it wasn’t anywhere near as upsetting as I though it was going to be. The history nerd in me relished all the information that I got to indulge in during the trip, but I mostly felt like the other guests visiting that day just didn’t care about the enormity of what happened there and that ruined the atmosphere for me. How are we supposed to ensure that awful things like this don’t happen again if people don’t take it seriously?
If you are planning a trip to Berlin, it is definitely something I would recommend visiting, purely because learning about the Holocaust always keeps you removed and separate from what happened, but being in these places, walking around the inside walls of a camp and seeing where prisoners were made to work, where they were experimented on and exterminated, it really does make the whole thing so much more real. If any of you have visited Sachsenhausen, or any of the other camps, I would love to hear about your experiences and what you thought. My Auschwitz visit was documented here, in case you’re interested. We ended up spending nearly all day there, so it was getting dark by the time we headed back to Hauptbahnhoff, we spent the evening strolling towards what I thought was a giant eagle on a pillar, but actually turned out to be an important historical landmark. Oops.
Turns out this is actually a victory column which was hella pretty!
This part of the city reminded me a lot of Paris, the column is in the middle of a ridiculously busy roundabout at the end of the longest stretch of road imaginable, kind of like the Arc de Triumph at the end of the Champs Elyse.
We managed to avoid the rain and annoyingly, our last day was the best day of the trip! The most annoying aspect being that we had booked tickets to the Berlin dungeons to stay dry before our flight and the sun was shining while we were wondering around the deep, dark exhibitions.
The dungeons were funny as! Possibly because due to me being a smartarse and ordering tickets etc in German, we ended up on the German tour and though I am ok with conversational German, the tour was far too fast for me to keep up. But I think the fact that everyone was dramatically yelling in German whilst blood, guts, knives and leaches were thrown around made the whole thing better!
After the trip to the dungeons it was time to return to the airport and get ourselves sorted for flying home. I had my first dunkin donuts experience which was amazing and the journey home gave me time to reflect and start missing Berlin.
I have spent my entire life wishing to channel Fitzgerald and Hemingway, wanting to move to Paris and sit in Bistros all day writing my next great novel, but now I’ve discovered Berlin. I’ve found a city that I want to move to more than Paris. Now I want to channel my inner Christopher Isherwood and move to Berlin. I want to hang out in Alexanderplatz catching trams around the eastern part of the city, I want to soak up the history of Potsdammerplatz, I want to sit in the park opposite the Brandenburg Tor with a notebook and write something brilliant, I want to spend all day eating baumkuchen and trying out all the vegan restaurants I didn’t get a chance to eat in.
Berlin has my heart and I want it back.