Breaching the Berlin Wall !

Day 1 – 17th Jan 2009, Berlin

We had all been banking on Krishna’s supposed German language skills to take us through our conversational needs in the city. Our man, had attended a 1-month course in German, few years ago at Bangalore. But that morning in the hotel, whilst having a crash-conversation with an elderly couple over breakfast, when he translated something that the lady told us as “It is too cold outside…so remove your shoes before you go !”, we kinda got a picture on how well he might have listened to the lectures back then 😉

Anyways, thanks to all the travelling we’d been doing over the last 2 years across various German-speaking cities in Switzerland, France and Austria, I knew enough German to comprehend that the sign-boards reading ‘Herren’ and ‘Damen’ outside the washrooms meant ‘Gents’ and ‘Ladies’ respectively ! As for the rest, Berliners seemed to speak pretty decent English …and almost everyone we met had an impeccable accent as well ! [It so happens that in preparation for the 2006 football World Cup, most of the customer-facing officials in the city had been trained in English ! ]

Our original plan for the day was to go on a guided Bike-tour around the city. However, the moment we stepped out of our hotel, we realized that the entire city had turned into one huge skating rink ! The pavements, sidewalks and squares were all frozen and needless to say, it was extremely slippery and walking in itself, seemed to be quite a perilous task !

Walking on the icy paths

From Berlin – 2009

Thus, forced to drop our Bike tour plan, we resorted to Plan B [….for a change, we had actually been equipped with a plan B :O ], which meant taking the ‘New Berlin’ walking tour. Since we had over an hour until the tour began, we explored the area around Alexanderplatz and walked down to the Berliner Dom [ Berlin Cathedral ]on the banks of the river Spree . With temperatures at around -3 that day, it didn’t surprise us that the river had blocks of ice floating across it!

A while later, an S-bahn train brought us to the most famous landmark of Berlin – the Brandenburg Gate ! Being an iconic symbol of Berlin, the Gate appears on many of the Euro cent coins minted in Germany today !

Bridging the gap between the Soviets and the Americans at the Brandenburg Gate !

From Berlin – 2009

The ‘New Berlin’ tour meets right outside the Brandenburg Gate and by the time we got there, a huge crowd had already gathered for it. The tour is organized by the same ‘New Europe’ tour company, who conducts the ‘New Amsterdam’ tour, which I had taken when I was in the city on Xmas day. Must admit, they offer some of the most informative and entertaining guided walking-tours that I have ever come across, and I would highly recommend it (in any of the cities that they operate in) ! To top it all up, the tours are free, and operate on a tips-only basis […which means, u only pay how much u want to, if want to  !]

Our guide for the day was a Swedish guy named Linus, and with about 30 other people in the group, we kicked-off from the Pariser Platz near the Brandenburg gate !  [The statue of Goddess Victoria that stands on top of the gate today, had been taken across to Paris by Napoleon, when he defeated the Prussians in 1806. 8 years later, the Prussians had defeated the French and brought the statue back here, and named the square as ‘Pariser Platz’ or ‘Paris Square’, ridiculing the French !]

Memorial to the murdered jews of Europe

From Berlin – 2009

Linus lead us past the German Parliament building – the Reichstag and through the sprawling ‘Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe’,  to an open parking-lot in the middle of a posh residential locality ! Except for a small sign-board on one corner, no one would have even guessed what lay under this innocuous parking-lot !

This was the site of Hitler’s bunker – the one where he and his mistress Eva Braun had spent the last few days of their lives…..until he shot himself in the head, on the face of defeat […and Eva took cyanide ] !! The site had been deliberately kept anonymous and unremarkable by the East German government, who wanted to prevent it from being turned into a neo-Nazi shrine !

The site of Hitler's bunker

From Berlin – 2009

Next, we walked across to the erstwhile headquarters of the Nazi Luftwaffe (Air-force). The Luftwaffe HQ was a massive building, and at its time, used to be the largest office building in Europe ! Ironically, the building was untouched by Allied bombings during WW2, and it is surprising how a building covering an entire city block could be missed when the rest of the city had been bombed to bits !

A little ahead from the Luftwaffe, we came across one of the few remaining sections of the Berlin Wall ! To be honest, what I had been [wrongly ..] expecting of the wall […given its cult status] was something as grand and as regal as, perhaps the Great Wall  of China !

The Berlin Wall !!!

From Berlin – 2009

But what it turned out to be, was something else altogether ! I mean, the compound wall in the backyard of my house in India was thicker than this [..maybe not as high, though] ! However, as the guide explained to us, for the 28 years that the Wall was in operation, it had served as a mighty, impregnable and brutal barrier between East and West Berlin….guarded round the clock by merciless Communist soldiers ! The No-Man’s land around the wall had infamously been known as the ‘Death Strip’, cos’ anyone who dared to cross over from the East to the West, would have been mercilessly shot dead ! In spite of this, many people had miraculously managed to escape, but over 200 were unsuccessful and ultimately paid with their lives ! Today, thankfully, Berlin is a free city and with no Commie Guards watching over us, we were able to freely walk across from the East to the West and back again !

From the wall, we were led to the area known as Checkpoint Charlie – where the famous border checkpoint between the American and the Soviet sectors of Berlin used to stand. Named after the 3rd letter of the phonetic alphabet [after Alpha and Beta], Checkpoint Charlie was an iconic symbol of the Cold War and was one of the only few border checkpoints along the Iron Curtain between the Eastern and Western blocs !

After a short break at a nearby Cafe, we proceeded on to see the Gendarmenmarkt Square – widely regarded as the most beautiful square in Berlin, and the Bebelplatz square – where in 1933, the infamous Nazi book-burning incident had taken place. Nearly 20,000 books that were deemed un-German by the Nazis had been burned here in one day !

The French Cathedral at Gendarmenmarkt Square

From Berlin – 2009

Opposite the Bebelplatz on the ‘Unter den Linden’ boulevard, stood a statue of the Prussian king – Frederick the Great ……who was one of the only persons to be referred to as ‘The Great’ during his lifetime. It is said that he always wore red coats to battle, so that his soldiers wouldn’t get to know if he was injured and bleeding. […and according to our guide, it was for a similar reason that Hitler always made it a point to wear brown pants 😉 ]

The tour finally culminated at the Berliner Dom on ‘Museum island’.

The Berliner Dom

From Berlin – 2009

We left a 20 Euro tip to Linus and as we set off to grab some lunch, we came across something that we had least expected to find in Berlin – a massive protest march against the Israeli attacks on Gaza ! There were hundreds..or perhaps 1000s of Palestinians and Arabs out on the streets, chanting slogans and holding placards.

Protest against the Israeli attacks on Gaza

From Berlin – 2009

Hoardes of German riot police were on stand-by too…however, the march was peaceful and we managed to grab a bite at a Subway outlet nearby.

That done, we headed back to the Reichstag – the German Parliament house.

The Reichstag

From Berlin – 2009

Out of all the monuments in Berlin today, I believe the Reichstag holds one of the most crucial places in German history, and perhaps that of the world ! Back in 1933, it was this building that got mysteriously burned down and a certain Mr.Adolf Hitler who had been democratically sworn-in as Chancellor of Germany 4 weeks prior, put the blame on the Communists and urged the President to issue a state of Emergency…That ultimately led to Hitler taking on dictatorial powers and the rest, as they say, is History ! [It had never been officially proven as to who caused the fire, but then, you don’t need to have a surname of ‘Holmes’ to realize that the bloody Nazis were themselves behind it !]

The Reichstag today sports a huge Glass Dome on its roof and is accessible to the public for free, from morning till late night. Virtually anyone can walk in to the Parliament building and pass through the airport-style security-checks, and take an elevator to the Dome to enjoy the wonderful 360-degree view of the city that it offers. Besides, the Glass Dome sits directly above the German Parliament Chamber and presents a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings below. It has been so designed that, should the Parliamentarians ever forget where the real power lies, all they’d have to do is to look up and see the people watching over them in the Glass Dome !

Us, in front of a lit up Brandenburg Gate

From Berlin – 2009

By the time we got out of the Reichstag, it was pitch dark and we took an S-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz – an ultra-modern district of the city, dotted with massive high-rises and futuristic malls. Up until 2 decades ago, Potsdamer Platz had been mostly a No-Man’s land, with the Berlin wall cutting right through its heart. With the fall of the wall, came major redevelopments that radically changed the face of the Platz !

Potsdamer Platz

From Berlin – 2009

Whilst Krishna, Shiva and Adarsh headed back to the Hotel, I split up from the gang and went in for the ‘Pub Crawl’, again organised by the New Berlin Tour company. Linus, our guide during the Walking-tour had recommended this, and since the other 3 do not drink, I had to make up for it all by myself ! The tour turned out to be pretty exciting and was quite an eye-opener, as well 😉 …. For about 11 euros, I was joined by about a 100 co-travellers and 3 guides – who led us from one pub to another, giving us a crash course on Berlin’s nightlife scene ! Oh ….and, did I mention there were a few free drinks thrown in as well ? 😉


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