I haven’t written anything in months. Whether its a lack of motivation or sheer laziness, I’ll leave it to you. Clearly, when it’s been over a year since I’ve returned from exchange, lots of the little details about my trips have been forgotten.
We arrived in Berlin late at night, and took the bus to our place which we rented on Airbnb. It was the only reasonably priced accommodation we could find as every other place was either full or were charging exorbitant prices for the new year. Berlin happens to be one of those cities where everyone wants to countdown the new year in. We heard that over 200,000 (conservative estimate) were going to the countdown at Brandenburg Gate. We got the whole place to ourselves, as our host and his girlfriend left the city. It wasn’t the most centrally-located place, but we didn’t have much of a choice anyway. However, the place was clean and lovely. No complaints there.
The next day, we headed out without much of an itinerary. We first headed to Museum Island.
The Berlin TV Tower (Berliner Fernsehturm) is the most prominent (outstanding, literally) structure in Berlin. It also happens to be the tallest structure in the whole of Germany. Should have gone up, but we didn’t. There was always a perpetual queue and we had lots to do in Berlin.
The Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) is my favourite building in Berlin. Always a sucker for those green domes. I used to think that the green was the original colour of these domes, however, it was only while on exchange that I found out that it was due to corrosion that it becomes that distinctive green patina. I feel smarter already.
The Altes Museum
Much of what we did the first day is lost to me. Not saying it sucked but it was nothing significant.
The TV Tower at night
There were still Christmas markets up and we briefly walked through one. It was a small one but nonetheless, still as enchanting.
Beautiful Lebkuchenherzen (gingerbread hearts)
That night, we headed to a famous (touristy) spot – Checkpoint Charlie.
Checkpoint Charlie is extremely gimmicky now (in my opinion), due to the actors dressed in military attire – whom you are able to take photos with at a fee. During the Cold War, however, Checkpoint Charlie represented the divide between East and West Berlin. Down the street, there are exhibits with lots of information about Checkpoint Charlie and the Cold War in general.
Remember all the history lessons back in high school? History was my favourite and till today, I am fascinated with it. It seems like all my favourite books are about the wars (fiction as well as non-fiction). I guess the highlight of this trip to Berlin was how much history the city has. The free walking tour was also awesome! More on that later.
After Checkpoint Charlie, we went hunting for the Ritter Sport store – a.k.a. Ritter Sport Bunte Schokowelt (translated: Ritter Sport Colourful Chocolate World). Oh, and indeed it was a colourful world of chocolate! Ritter Sport is definitely one of my favourite brands of affordable chocolates, so visiting this store was like being at Disneyland for me. My love for chocolate might just rival my love for peanut butter (or not). We found many flavours we have never seen in Singapore, and that I didn’t find in Austria.
Us, at the Ritter Sport store
We bought lots of chocolate to bring home for our families! The chocolate is much cheaper here too. As you can see, I gained many many pounds on exchange, and I attribute at least half of the weight to the countless bars of chocolate I ate. I made it a point to try all the chocolate that couldn’t be found back home. Heh.
We ended the day with dinner. We met up with my friend Franco and his friends who brought us for a Middle Eastern dinner. The food was fantastic, especially the manti.
These dumplings were delicious! Manti are dumplings filled with spiced meat that are either steamed or boiled. This version was served in a spicy chilli oil and topped with sour cream.
Don’t remember if these were lamb or beef kibbeh but I ate it anyway. It is made with bulgur and minced meat, deep-fried like a croquette. I love croquettes; I love deep-fried food.
The next day, we decided to go for the free walking tour. The free walking tour we chose was once again – Sandemans.
On the way to the meeting point – Brandenburg Gate, we passed by a Daimler AG – Mercedes Benz Gallery along Unter den Linden. It was interesting to see the evolution of the cars over the years.
I like the S350 best, though I wouldn’t mind owning them all if I had the money.
The meeting point for the free walking tour is at Brandenburg Gate. Brandenburg Gate has played an important role in the history of Berlin. Representing peace, the gate is a beautiful one – the Quadriga with Goddess Victoria holding the Iron Cross and an olive wreath makes it look ever so trimphant.
I’m not sure if it was because it was close to the new year, or if Berlin’s free walking tour is just very popular, but I’m just glad that we got there early because they had to turn many people away. There were hundreds of people waiting for the tour and too few guides to accommodate.
The tour brought us to numerous locations around Berlin. Our first stop after Brandenburg Gate was the Reichstag building – the meeting place of the German parliament.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is just a short walk away from Brandenburg Gate. The memorial is for the victims of the Holocaust.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
There are many interpretations of the memorial – some say each column represents a number of the victims since they look like tombstones. My first impression of the memorial was that it was vast, orderly yet disorderly at the same time. The columns are arranged in straight rows but the columns are of different heights. A walk through the memorial was greatly upsetting to me as I recollected the many stories of the Holocaust. It truly repulses me what people are capable of, not just back then, but also at this present day.
Also, remember to be respectful while you are at the memorial. Please no standing on the columns. It really irked me to see people standing on and misbehaving around the memorial.
One of the most interesting places we visited during the tour was what we thought was a random carpark. It looks like just another carpark in a residential estate; however, little did we know that this carpark was once where the centre of the Nazi regime – the Führerbunker. This was also where Hitler and his wife died by taking their own lives. Of course, this isn’t the typical tourist attraction. Only a small sign displays the history of the location.
The former site of the Führerbunker
You can find the location here.
Many of us know the Berlin Wall as the beautifully graffitied gallery. The tour brought us to a segment that was unpainted. It looked like just another wall (a very old, dirty one). The Berlin Wall divided West Berlin from East Germany from 1961 to 1989, keeping East Germans from fleeing to the West. One of the most famous checkpoints along the wall was Checkpoint Charlie, which was the main access point for the Allied forces.
A segment of the Berlin Wall
One of my favourite topics in history is on the Berlin Wall. Who can forget that speech by Ronald Reagan with one of the most powerful lines: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Many people lost their lives in attempts to defect. Guards were allowed to shoot anyone who tried to escape, but many people in desperation still tried their luck.
We also visited the Luftwaffe HQ which our tour guide explained was the former Nazi Air Force HQ. It is constructed in the typical “Nazi-style architecture” – intimidating and designed to make you feel small and insignificant. The building is now used as the German tax office.
One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Berlin is Humboldt-Universität. During the Third Reich, the Nazis burnt thousands of books from its library that were written or considered opposing their regime. The infamous book burnings took place in the square outside the university at the current Bebelplatz (formerly Opernplatz).
A memorial now stands at Bebelplatz. It is minimalistic – empty bookshelves to represent the missing 20,000 books that were burnt.
Memorial at Bebelplatz commemorating the book burnings
“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” which translates: “That was only a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
We ended the day at the Topography of Terror, which is the former location of the Gestapo and SS Headquarters in Berlin.
Topography of Terror
This was one of the most informative museums I’ve been to, but definitely not one for people who hate reading. If you’re as interested as I about the history, then the reading won’t be too painful. I definitely learnt a lot more from the visit, and I would encourage anyone to visit too, even if just for a short while.
The free walking tour was definitely one of the better ones I attended, very informative and covering many of the important historical locations around Berlin, including those that we wouldn’t find on TripAdvisor.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Berlin!