I generally don’t like being a tourist in a city. I prefer landscapes and natural beauty. But I’ve just spent 4 days in Berlin and wish I’d spent more time there. Here’s why.
I’m not a history person, but the impact of WW2, the Cold War, Berlin’s division between East and West in the middle of East Germany, coupled with the remnants of ‘old’ Berlin –most was destroyed in WW2 – made even me interested in its past. This ‘history’ is now old – it’s 30 years since the Wall fell and 70 years since the end of WW2 – but for Europe this is nothing. Other buildings have been there for hundreds or even thousands of years, which is simply incomprehensible to Australians. (I doubt anything we build will last even 100 years.)
I was particularly fascinated by the Wall (actually I discovered there were at least two walls!) . Though only remnants of the 155km remain, the double brick line in the ground that inconspicuously marks its existence throughout the city, coupled with the remnants, the associated information boards, remnants of towers, tunnels, barricades, houses, the pictures of those escaping and those who were killed are sufficient to bring the Wall to life.
Coming face to face with the reality of the ‘no man’s land’ that was created between the walls, seeing how the Wall changed over time together with the story of its opening and its fall, is personally challenging and sobering. But its temporariness (it lasted from 1961-89) is also something to ponder, as now Israel has constructed its own Wall, various European states have built fences to stop refugees and a US presidential candidate proposes a Wall to keep Mexicans out. Walls may be temporary solutions, but they eventually come down.
I stayed in East Berlin. What struck me was its youthfulness (everyone seemed to be under 40), its cosmopolitan nature, the vibe from funky places, arty, political and social graffiti, its excellent, varied and relatively cheap food and its café culture – eating outside on tree-lined wide streets and squares. Frankly, it didn’t feel like Germany!
The West Berlin areas are significantly different – older people, more ordered, more homogenous. Counter-intuitively, the East part seems more re-developed, more modern than the West part. Our guides explained this as being due to Germany investing more in the East part which had the best of the historical buildings and was in worse shape. Certainly there is much of the old ‘east’ building and architecture left – drab, colourless, with no artistic merit – but the huge amount of renovation completed so far means it is now hard to tell what is really ‘old’ and what is ‘renovated old’.
And that’s the exciting part. There’s so much history to visit – Reichstag, Alexanderplatz, Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamerplatz, Potsdam itself and Sans Souci (an absolute highlight combining many castles, KGB headquarters, lakes and huge beautiful grounds), Jewish Museum, Holocaust Memorial (our most disappointing experience – being treated as a playground for adults without regard for its significance), Museum Island, Gendarmenplatz and much, much more.
But the tremendous amount of renovation that is occurring, coupled with the last 30 years of renovation and the fact that the renovating is combining both restoration of old historical facades with exciting new developments (Foster’s Dome in the middle of the Reichstag, the Humboldt Forum in the middle of the Berlin Palace – a 20 year rebuilding project combining the old palace with the new Forum due for completion in 2019) make it clear that Berlin in 10 years will be one of the great cities of the world to visit.
Its excellent public transport system, its focus on bikes and walking (but be careful to walk in the ‘walking’ part of the footpath and not the ‘cycling’ part, or you will be subject to loud bike bells, gentle abuse or being crashed into) make it easy to get around. But don’t wait 10 years. There will be too many tourists there then!