On a Friday morning in early May, I arrived in Berlin, Germany’s Tegel airport. I was a bit disappointed that it was a non-event. I exited the plane, picked up my bag and walked out to the main terminal. The process could not have been easier or more streamlined. I was thinking someone would want to ask me a few official questions or stamp my passport. No such luck. Air travel within the EU countries seems to be as easy as train travel.
I was, again, meeting my friend, Laura. As she was occupied with work calls and meetings, I headed out to a walking tour of Berlin. The tour meeting spot was about an hour’s walk across town in Alexanderplatz. I had enough time to walk to the location and start to get my bearings in the city.
My initial observations of the city proved accurate through a weekend of exploring, but they were much different from what I expected.
The city is green with trees and parks. Our hotel was close to an expansive park, Tiergarten. Walking trails and bike paths criss-crossed the park and allowed visitors to enjoy the blooming rhododendron. I am always pleasantly surprised when a large city has preserved space for nature.
Despite the angles of the park trails, Berlin is a city on a grid with perfectly square blocks and perfectly square buildings. I constantly thought how frustrated Germans must be with Paris and all the winding streets which curve and go no where and everywhere all at the same time. I imagine the German agitation, likely wringing their hands and rubbing their temples, at the old French buildings which noticeably lean on each other. Everything in Berlin was precise – not to mention structurally sound.
Part of the city’s design is the luxury of building a modern metropolis. Berlin was all but leveled in the second World War. There are very few “old” buildings or churches and those that remain have significant marks of war. In east Berlin, during the Soviet Union’s control, there were feeble attempts of repair on landmark churches, but with very little attention to the original aesthetic. Stain glass windows were not repaired or replaced, but instead many doors and windows were sealed with concrete. Saint Nicholas’ Church is an excellent example. The church originally dates from the 13th century.
The walking tour and the sites Laura and I visited over the weekend centered on WWII as well as the Berlin Wall. It was overwhelming to think these events were in our recent past. They were decades ago, not centuries ago. I am sure the city is interpreted in many ways by visitors. I found it quiet, a bit somber and homogenous.
Some of the inspirational elements in the city, were the East Side Gallery, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the American sector sign at Checkpoint Charlie and the green parks. Each allowed for reflection and renewal.
The East Side Gallery is a stretch of the Berlin Wall in the east. After the wall was opened, artists from around the world created murals to reflect freedom, persecution, individualism, democracy etc. This stretch of wall is a gritty and powerful statement.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe encompasses a full city block. I find it difficult to describe the physical memorial beyond saying it’s big blocks of varying height in a grid pattern. Rather, I identify with the feelings/emotions of experiencing the memorial. Walking through the site, I had a feeling of isolation, limitation and confusion. Looking up to the sky was the only outlet.
Checkpoint Charlie was an access point to cross the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. East Germany and east Berlin were parts of the Soviet Union and west Berlin (enclosed in east Germany) was part of the west Germany supported by the Allied forces and America.
Berlin is very flat and spread out. Renting bikes was a great way to cover miles, especially in getting to the remote parts of the Wall. We had a perfect weather weekend for biking and exploration. It felt like a very quick weekend escape, but between seeing the sites, exploring German gastronomy and discovering German wine (very good!) we covered a lot of territory.
(My apologies on the spacing in this post. The pictures were providing a challenge to add and edit.)