This weekend, we took the DeutscheBahn from Bielefeld to Berlin for an unscheduled no-itinerary weekend in Berlin. We didn’t even know what we wanted to do, only that we wanted to eat good food (preferably Asian) and go to a museum (preferably history). We stayed outside of the historical section of the city, so we’re sorry to say we didn’t see the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and the only view we had of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) was from the train.
Berlin has a diverse history. As the epicenter of many important political events throughout history, Berlin does a good job of paying homage to its past through museums and memorials throughout the city. We wanted to go to Berlin like locals, exploring cafes and parks, and see a museum or two. We will definitely be back to see more of Berlin’s famous Museuminsel, but during our visit, we went to the Berlin Wall, which has a large memorial park, visitors center, and memorial museum.
The Wall Must Come Down
Apparently, I have a very weird perception of the Berlin Wall. My first introduction to it was at a restaurant, in the bathroom, where parts of the wall were used as decoration. Any films or mentions of the Wall growing up revolved around Rock and Roll, graffiti and people taking pieces of the wall as souvenirs. Friends or family who have visited Germany before me described it as “cool,” or “awesome,” and always in a positive tone.
There is nothing about the Berlin Wall that is cool.
The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is a somber, quiet memorial site that travels along a 1.4km strip of the former wall. The outdoor exhibit includes historical information on the events leading up to the building of the wall, and the city’s political context from 1961-1989. The park is littered with information on the border fortifications, how people escaped, watchtowers, and memorials for victims shot and killed by border guards.
What was most jarring for me about the Wall, was the fact that it ran right through neighborhoods, and directly cut people off from their families and neighbors. The Wall was literally right up against apartment buildings. Imagine that one day you look out your window and suddenly your fence separating you from your neighbor just keeps getting higher and higher.
And now, it’s in the street.
And now, you can’t see the end of it.
You go outside, and there’s an armed guard. They won’t let you past the fence…even though you work on the other side. Your school is on the other side. Your parents live on the other side. What would you do?
2,000 residents were displaced.
130 people were shot and killed while trying to escape.
Old and New
Berlin’s world famous Museum Island (Museumsinsel) does not disappoint. We went there with the intention of going to the Pergamon museum on someone’s recommendation, and ended up being drawn into another museum entirely. We spent a good chunk of time roaming the halls of Neues Museum, which had a collection classical antiquities and artifacts from ancient Egypt, including the bust of Nefertiti.
The most interesting part of the museum was the building itself, which was heavily destroyed in bombing raids during the war. It was left dilapidated and in ruins from the 1940s until the 1980s, when measures were taken to protect it. The building was refurbished in 2003 using any recovered original pieces, preserving the original structure. The interior and exteriors were preserved, leaving signs of damage. Many pillars still show scorch marks from the bombs. The museum reopened to the public in 2009 and is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
I am (not) a Donut
Berlin is not a typical German city. For one thing, shops are open on Sundays. This city is the New York of Europe. It’s huge, disorderly, multicultural, and a little bit in-your-face. You could easily live here without learning German. In Bielefeld, everyone wears the same long black coats and Chelsea boots, in Berlin, street style and normcore add color to the yellow train cars and graffitied walkways.
Berlin has a pace that is aggressive and apathetic. Everyone is in a rush to get somewhere, zig-zagging through stations and across streets, yet no one knows how to use an escalator properly. Rechts stehen, links gehen. (Right stand, left go). There are also aspects about Berlin that make it very German. As disorganized as it is, they know how to throw a protest. Their cafe game is on point. People of every race, country, language live side-by-side. And the city has that typical cold, yet welcoming charm that I’ve only ever found in Germany.
I think the best way to visit Berlin is in short spurts, so you have time to recover. For an international visitor, the city is so huge, and there is so much to do it is impossible to even scratch the surface. It’s overwhelming. If you’re looking for a German vacation experience, this isn’t it. Go to Berlin like a tourist visiting any other major city (New York, Los Angeles, Paris, etc.) but in order to form a well-rounded opinion of this country, make sure to visit other places too. Might I suggest Bielefeld? I hear it’s nice there.