04 October 2010 | Berlin, DE
Photo: the girls waiting for the start of our walking tour, Brandenburg Gate in the background
We arrived in Berlin this morning and have miraculously found a parking spot near our B&B stay for the next two days. The campervan is working out well, although I do like a hot shower once a week or so, whether I need it or not...
We hopped on the U- and S-trains for the short trip to Parisen Platz, the entrance to which is the Brandenburg Tor (Gate), Berlin's most famous and recognizable landmark (no, it's not the TV tower....). The gate is the last remaining of the 18 gates originally built as entrances to Berlin, and it opens onto the also famous Unter den Linden boulevard, the tree-lined route that leads to the former Prussian royal family palaces. Built from 1788-1791, the top of the gate is crowned by the Quadriga, the four-horse chariot driven by Victoria, the goddess of Victory, alough the initial driver was the goddess of peace, who held a laurel in her hand. When Napoleon marched through Berlin in 1806, he liked the Qudariga so much he took it back to Paris and stuck it in the Louvre. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814 by the combined British, Austrian and Prussian armies, the Prussians took it back, and changed the laurel to a staff with an Iron Cross, laurel and eagle on top, and renamed the driver Victoria; coincidentally (or not), Victoria looks directly at the French embassy....
We joined a free walking tour of the city at Pariser Platz, and spent the next 3-1/2 hours visiting many of the city's key landmarks. Our tour wound its way through the Brandenburg Gate and past the Reichstag, along the line of the Berlin Wall and then through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Here, there are 2,711 concrete rectangular blocks arranged in rows and columns like a city grid system, at varying heights, and the ground below undulates and sinks as one approaches the center, where the block heights reach up to 4.8 metres. It is meant, so the debate about its symbolism goes, to convey a feeling of uncertainty and confusion in a supposedly ordered system. Below this memorial is an undergound museum that will merit a visit later.
We also visited the site of Hitler's bunker where he spent the last months of the war, married Eva Braun in what must have been an incredibly romantic setting complete with Russian shelling 15 metres overhead, and then committed suicide. The bunker is now just a scruffy parking lot with a few small trees and a nearby sign explaining what was there. The governments (current and past) were determined that the site should never be preserved to become a possible shrine for neo-nazis. From there, our tour followed preserved sections of the Berlin Wall, past Checkpoint Charlie, the former Luftwaffe HQ (which thousands of allied bombing raids somehow managed to avoid hitting), and to Bebelplatz, where the Nazis burned over 200,000 books written by "un-German" authors in May 1933. The memorial there is quite interesting; it is a window set into the cobblestones, and it looks down into a white room of empty bookshelves. Nearby, a plaque has a quote from the German poet Heirich Heine..."When books burn, in the end people will burn". He wrote this in 1820.
I could go on about the sights here; the tourist trap, circus feel to Checkpoint Charlie (replete with poseurs dressed in US and East German army uniforms who will pose for a photo with you, for a fee of course, but at least it has more "authenticity" than the Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper and native american indian in full feathered headress standing near, but not too near, the Brandenburg Gate, but I digress....), and the impressive architecture that has had to be rebuilt after the war and years of communist neglect and even destruction, and the heaviness and oppressive history of past regimes, but suffice to say that Berlin is a must-see. It astonishes, it dismays, it delights, it depresses, and its current form is superb to see.