As per usual, we packed so much stuff into one day it’s hard to believe I’ve only spent about 35 hours in Berlin.
I woke up a little earlier than I’d wanted to, considering my jet lag. My body is still not quite adjusted to Europe time. My alarm was set for 7 but I was already fully awake by 6. Jet lag is partially to blame, and also the fact that we’d forgotten to close our curtains before going to sleep, so I was blinded by the rays of the sun before my eyes were open.
Breakfast was a continental buffet at our hotel. European hotels really know how to hold a buffet. There was a selection of pastries, eggs, bacon, crepes, fruit, and other items. And also self-serve cappuccino, thank god. Everything I ate hit the spot quite well before we got going on our adventures. It was also where everyone began to really start getting to know each other. I spent a good amount of time shaking hands with new people and learning where they were from. I’ve already forgotten a lot of names, considering it’s a massive tour of 51 people, but it’s only a matter of time before I’ve got them all down.
We boarded the coach and headed to our first pit stop of the day, the Berlin Wall. Now, as a history nerd, this was a big moment for me. This was an infamous symbol of the Cold War, a subject I’d taught at length to my US History kiddos. At this point, it was nothing short of legendary. Finally being able to go up and touch it felt so surreal. It was also cool to see how they used it not only as a historical symbol, but also as an artistic piece. Rather than letting the wall completely succumb to graffiti, the city commissioned artists to display their work on the wall. It displayed a lot of great talent and variety of styles, most of which made my hippy heart happy.
From there we headed off towards our scheduled walking tour of the city, stopping by a shop to grab some coffees and umbrellas, considering it was scheduled to rain. Thank god we did, because for the entirety of our three-hour tour, we were caught in the midst of a monsoon. I’m talking huge raindrops coming down from the sky like bullets. My cheap $7 umbrella started leaking at one point, it was pretty crazy.
The first half of the walking tour was really cool despite the weather. We stopped by a few monuments, and got to see one of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two of my buddies I’d spent a lot of time with in AP World History. I guessed that’s who they were before our tour guide told us, and mentioned it to Brodie, my new Australian/Irish friend. After guessing correctly I felt like a huge nerd, but then she told me that she was in school in Belfast writing her Ph.D. in Irish History, so I knew pretty quickly that I could be my nerdy self around her without being judged. From then on, we were pretty much inseparable for the day.
We passed a few other monuments and beautiful buildings. Berlin is a very interesting city. It’s old and new all at once. And then there are some buildings that look centuries old that were also built in the early 1900s, but look older than they are. In addition, the city is FILLED with new construction projects. There are cranes everywhere. You can be looking at a 17th century palace, a garden, a modern apartment building, and a series of cranes all within one frame of vision.
About halfway through the tour we stopped at the Mall of Berlin for a bathroom break and a snack. This building is MASSIVE. It was four stories high and wound around in a circle with tons of stores, most of which we have in America, along with some we don’t. Most of us trooped up to the food court to grab a small lunch. I wasn’t super hungry, but I noticed that one of the quick-service restaurants served currywurst, which I’d read is one of the “must eat” dishes of Berlin, so I needed to try it. It was very tasty! It was a plain sausage topped with a tomato sauce and then sprinkled with curry powder, one of my latest obsessions. It was the perfect amount of food I wanted, as well as an authentic German snack. German food never disappoints.
Our group gathered back together and we set back off onto the walking tour. On this leg we went to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which is composed of thousands of rectangular blocks all organized into a grid. However the blocks are all irregular sizes, and the ground beneath them was winding and wavy. This was intentional, created by the artist to symbolize the disorienting nature of the event, as well as the sensation of confusion and danger felt by those who were victims of the event. We were told to walk through alone to best get our own interpretation of the memorial. It was rather disorienting. What weirded me out about it was that you’d pass through an opening in the grid, never knowing if you were about to collide with someone or not, which was yet another sense of danger to be felt in there. The artist deserves kudos for its design.
Our tour ended at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the gates that connected East and West Berlin during the Cold War. That spot now is a huge tourist trap, where you can take photos with fake American soldiers (with German accents). I don’t think any people in our tour opted to go pay to have their photos taken with them. Instead we all ventured out on our free time to find activities in ways that best befit our interests. I went with Brodie, as well as two other history-loving Aussies, Gina and Ciara, to go to a small (but free!) museum at the former site of the SS Headquarters that highlighted the war crimes committed by the different agencies of the Third Reich. I was glad I wasn’t the only person on the tour that is strangely fascinated by the atrocities of World War II.
After that, Brodie and I broke off to investigate some souvenirs at the Berlin Mall. The items we had sought out were each symbols of the city. Brodie wanted something with the Ampleman on it. The Ampleman was a symbol of East Berlin. All of the “walk/do not walk” signs in East Berlin were symbolized not just with a man, but a cute little quick-walking man wearing a hat. That being said, he was a cute little symbol of the city that was featured in his own gift shop. She found a postcard with him on it. I was looking for a Buddy Bear. The bear is one of Berlin’s official symbols, as he is featured on the city’s flag. As a result, there are bear statues all over the city. We’d gotten a photo with one of them earlier emblazoned with flags of all the countries in the EU, and I found a mini replica of that same bear in a gift shop. He’s in my bag now. He’s precious and I love him.
We got a coffee at the mall and sat outside in the courtyard for a bit, enjoying sitting after having spent a lot of time walking around Berlin. With about 30 minutes before we needed to be back to the bus, we plugged our meetup spot into Apple Maps. Fun fact, the mall had not been nearly as close to Alexanderplatz as we’d thought. We were about 40 minutes away. After walking for a bit, attempting to make the journey as quickly as possible, we gave up and decided to take the Metro. The good thing about metro systems is that once you’ve traversed one, you can pretty much figure out any of them. The ticketing took us a minute to figure out, but after walking to a stop, boarding a train, making a connection, and surfacing, we finally made it back to the hotel with a half an hour to spare before our ride to dinner arrived.
Before dinner we went on a “Alternate Tour” of Berlin, which showed us some cool spots in the city that aren’t really the big “tourist” attractions, but instead some offbeat spots hidden away. We saw one spot that today operates as an official “squatting” community. The man who owns the building actually repossessed it from the government after it had been commandeered from his Jewish grandparents during the Third Reich. However by the time he’d inherited it, it had been overrun with squatters who didn’t have the money to live elsewhere. He still owns the building, but he allows the squatters to continue to live there so long as they organize their own community rules and utility bills. He seemed like a pretty cool guy.
Speaking of cool guys, my favorite spot was the garden treehouse owned by a Turkish couple. This couple had lived in Berlin before the wall went up. There was a small plot of land in their neighborhood that the husband had started a garden in. That land was technically owned by “East Berlin” but when the wall went up, it somehow wound up on the wrong side of the wall, so he could still access it, even though it technically belonged to the East, and because it was Eastern, the Western Berlin Government couldn’t really tell him to leave, so he continued to maintain it. Over time, he tended to it more, and eventually built a shed, and later a small house within the land, where he and his wife lived during the warm months of the year. When the wall came down, the land was to be reclaimed by the government, who said it supposedly fell under the jurisdiction of the Protestant Church next door. When the Church asked the government what they’d do with the land if they bought it from them, the government said they’d sell it to the developer. Then a member of the church went and asked the Turkish couple what they’d do with it, they said they’d continue to maintain it and live there as they’d done before. So the church gave the deed to the couple and they’ve continued to live there. Mind you, he and his wife were practicing Muslims, so it was just wonderful to hear this story of members of two religions outwardly respecting one another. The world is a beautiful place!
As our tour guide was giving the spiel, we saw a man come out of the treehouse, sit down at a small patio and wave at us. It was the man himself! He was an adorable little old man, age 93, happy as all hell to have his story told. You could tell he loved the attention. She also mentioned that on really hot days when she’d given that tour in the past, he’d come over to her and give her chilled water. I was almost crying at that point. Our entire tour group was waving back to him and asking him if he wanted any extra grandchildren.
From our walking tour we were off to dinner in a small, hole-in-the-wall Berlin restaurant famous for schnitzel. Now, I think I was spoiled by Munich last year because this schnitzel was “just okay” by comparison, but it was still good. Brodie and I ate dinner with Joe from Sydney, who we now call “schnitzel friend.” We all shared cultural stories, all having lived on three different continents. Ah Contiki. It’s just as fun to meet the people as it is to see the sights.
From dinner we went off to a small, quiet, outdoor bar for some drinks and chit chat. We each got a free beer with dinner, but it was no question as to why it was free. It was kind of gross. But hey, free is free. After meeting a bunch of new people and about an hour of hanging out there, we were curious to try out some Berlin nightlife, so we embarked to Matrix, one of the more well-known clubs in Berlin. Apparently it doesn’t get REALLY fun until like 2am. When we got there by 11:15 it was empty aside from our tour. We still had fun, though, dancing with all of our new trip companions. One girl even got pulled aside by a very friendly German guy who kissed her on the middle of the dance floor. We all went nuts.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Berlin as much as I did. It had a great, laid-back atmosphere, and obviously some amazing history. Seeing how a once-divided city can bounce back from such a tragic and terrifying past made me really hopeful for the world. And of course, the food was excellent. I will forever praise Germany for having the best food.
And now we’re off to Prague. Auf wiedersehen, Germany. Until we meet again.