I did ultimately find the number.
Stefan got here late -- he got called just before he left Westerwald. There was a man in a single-car crash and the fire department was needed to get him out. Stefan said he didn't think the guy is going to make it; he hadn't been wearing his seat belt. Stefan was a bit shaken about the whole thing, I think. I was too.
We went to bed early, because we wanted to leave by 7 a.m. Okay, we left by 8.
The autobahn is a lot like U.S. freeways: you don't really see things, you don't get much of any sense of the character of the land you are going through, there are ocassional traffic jams, and people drive like idiots. Occasionally there would be some interesting things, like windmills, both the old Dutch-style ones and the huge modern metal ones. At one point, we passed an old, beat up green double decker bus with every single window gone, putt-putting down the road. Stefan said its license plate was for just one day. As we passed, I looked over at the driver, and he was in a full body snow suit and old fashioned goggles that barn-stormer pilots used to wear. He had to wear all that, per the lack of a windshield. I should have hung out our window and taken a picture. Stefan and I would LOVE to know what that bus was going to be used for, and how much money the guy was getting for driving it.
The autobahn offers no easy ways to get off and go to a restaurant in a little town; instead, it has almost-identical rest stops every now and again, with one mediocre or even bad cafeteria at each place. There were trucks everywhere at these places, because other than food trucks, they can't drive on weekends and holidays (I like this rule).
It was a seven hour drive (the train was too expensive). Long after Hanover, near a city called Helmstedt, Stefan said, "this is the former East German border." There, to the right, behind a typical roadside cafeteria, was a series of abandoned buildings and drive-through lanes, where cars once sat in long lines, their occupants handing over their passports and then getting them back after a slow drive through about 200 meters of guards and barracks. The large towers that surveyed the scene still stood. After a while, I began to see other signs of the GDR -- the vast but run down farms, and extremely ugly cities in the distance. The small towns of East Germany, even if they are run down, still retain some charm, but the cities are dreadful -- concrete and steel boxes for apartment buildings and businesses. Stefan said that many of these structures aren't even built that well, so people would rather have them torn down and just start completely over. But the autobahn in East Germany is STELLAR -- vast amounts of money have been poured into the roads here, in an effort to rebuild the infrastructure that the Soviets did such an awful job of maintaining.
Berlin just popped up suddenly -- POP, there it was. No sprawl at all. Ofcourse, how could it sprawl? There was a wall around it until just 10 years ago. We took a couple of wrong turns, but always quickly got back on track. It was amazing to see live, in person, suddenly, the Reichstag, the Siegessäule and the Quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate -- I was overwhelmed by seeing all of these famous images, right here before me, just outside a car window. I couldn't get "Wings of Desire" out of my mind. The Brandenburg Gate was completely covered in fabric, but the image of the gate and the view behind it was reproduced on the fabric, so it actually looked like the gate was visible -- well, except for the massive bunny teeth and the Deutsche Telecom logo on top of it. Stefan was upset that I wasn't really seeing the gate, but I thought it was funny. We drove by Postdamer Platz, and Stefan was stunned -- what had been an empty field 10 years before when he last visited, and had been an empty field with land mines underneath it before that, is now this massive city center with vast, tall, all glass, glitzy buildings, a city within a city.
Amazingly, we got to our pension with relatively no problem -- it's on Karl Marx Allee (ha ha ha), east of Alexander Platz. We parked, went upstairs to our room, stored our stuff, and decided to head straight away for downtown, as it was only about 4 p.m.
Our neighborhood was in flux -- the ugly East Berlin slums being converted into funky flats, the massive pre-WWII buildings lining the vast main street have shops and restaurants popping up on their ground floors. We walked to the U-Bahn station to take a train to Alexander Platz, then to change to another train to take us farther downtown. The Alexander Platz underground station is a wonder with all its East German steel work, clocks and other architecture still so prominent. I loved it! I hope they don't change it -- I hope they clean it up, but I hope they don't replace anything. The underground trains are gorgeous, clean and modern, for the most part -- it's Germany, after all. And payment is on the honor system, which just kills me -- you buy your ticket from a stand and then someone may or may not ever check it. Mine has never been checked. In Berlin, the guy checking tickets was getting on as we were getting off, so my record stands. But I usually pay...
Most of the Berlin trains don't have doors between the cars, so being in one is like being inside a big metal snake; we would sit in the back and lean out into the aisle and stare to the front of the train, watching the people in the front disappear when the train went right or left, watch them rise when the train went up, watch them sink when the train went down -- it was really funny. We're so easily amused. Some trains also had TV sets, which was how we found out England's Queen Mum had died. We got on one train and two guys had put a little plastic toy man in the middle of the aisle, to see how many people would step around it. Most people did. Stefan also discovered that you could open the doors before the train stopped completely, so he kept trying to do it and hop out when we were still moving a little bit. MEN.
The Berlin subway station has antique weighing machines from at least the early part of the 20th century, just like out of something your grandmother would have found at a train station in her younger days. And these still work! They have been converted to accept Euros. I took a picture of one, and then someone else nearby decided to take a picture too. That happens to me a lot: I pick a scene, snap a photo, and someone standing there who was wanting to take a picture but felt silly doing so decides, well, heck, if she can do it... But I follow other people's lead as well.
We headed for the Brandenburg Gate. Stefan asked me which way I wanted to go, and I voted for walking down Strasse des 17 Juni to see the ornate Soviet War Memorial that is made, supposedly, from marble from Hitler's chancellory. It's really interesting, all in Russian, with the two tanks, the first to enter Berlin during WWII, mounted out front. Stefan said there used to be two Soviet soldiers marching slowly and precisely back and forth in front of the memorial, and I noticed that one of the rows of stones on the ground were rubbed smooth -- obviously where the soldiers used to march. It was kinda erie noticing that... A little girl nearby was thrilled to see the photo I had taken of Stefan in front of the memorial appear on the screen of my camera -- she squealed and ran away. There are information panels in back of the memorial in several languages, (where, before the fall of the USSR, tourists were NOT permitted) giving interesting information about WWII.
We walked over to the Reichstag -- it's impressive even without being wrapped by Christo. The Wall ran right next to this and in front of Branderburg Gate, and there's a series of stones in the roadway and sidewalk to mark where the wall used to be. The no-man's land next to that wall on the other side, a former killing field, is now ultra opulent and trendy -- oh, capitalism. Visiting the glass dome on the Reichstag was on my priority list, but the queue was ridiculous, and I didn't feel like coming to Berlin and standing in a line right away. So we headed back towards Postsdamer Platz and a balloon we had seen rising and falling gently.
There are these huge, pink, above-ground pipes, looking like something out of the movie "Brazil." They ran along this street as we walked, and then back into the East Berlin side. Stefan said they used to carry steam heat. I don't know anything about engineering, but this was yet another example of Soviet "problem-solving" that I could count about a dozen problems with right off the top of my head (the pipe is out in the open and, therefore, easy to be damaged by weather, people, an out-of-control truck...). No wonder communism failed. Anyway, I laughed every time I saw this huge pink pipes intersecting everywhere -- they were sureal. By the third day, I decided they should be re-painted pink and kept up -- they are part of the flavor of Berlin. There's also these wonderful symbols for the walk/don't walk people in East Berlin: the men are wearing HATS. I loved them! I think all of Berlin should switch over to the East Berlin symbols on the traffic lights. They're cuter.
We found the balloon and decided to buy a ride. The sun was setting, but I preferred to see the city from night, with all the lights everywhere. We had a brief moment of frustration when, 10 minutes after we bought our tickets, the ticket seller came on the loud speaker and said the price was dropping by five Euros -- we went back to get a refund, since we had just paid full price for a trip that others standing right beside us paid less for. Stefan spoke to her in German first, and she just shrugged and made some apologetic noises which I knew meant, "Oh, I just enforce the rules; I don't set them." So I started saying stuff in English, and while I don't think she understood the words, she understood the meaning... we got our little refund.
The balloon ride was fun, even if I was terrified the entire time. You go up 150 meters, and the carriage is this large metallic, fully-encased donut -- you can walk around the donut, but the whole structure tilts severely, per the shifting weight of the passengers as they walk, and that was a really scary feeling. The view was breathtaking -- Berlin at night, with so many lights and glowing glass buildings. The balloon was right on the edge of where the Wall once dog-legged, and from the air, it was easy to see which had been East and West Berlin: the East has a line of gorgeous, opulent new office buildings, followed by rows and rows of ugly East German square, lifeless buildings. I wasn't crazy about how severely the balloon wafted back and forth as we headed for the ground, and was as glad to step off as I'd been to go up. Stefan doesn't understand why a lot of things scare me, and why I do these things that scare me. But the balloon ride is a perfect example of why: yes, I was terrified, but I never would have seen such a beautiful site if I hadn't gone.
Berlin's night life is legendary, particularly its dance clubs, but neither of us are into that scene. Instead, we walked around Potzdamer Platz, freaking out over the sudden opulence, steel, glass and light in a place that was an empty piece of land 10 years ago. Almost all of the movies in the theaters there are in English, but we decided on an IMax movie instead; Stefan had never seen one. It was a 3-D affair called "Alien Adventure," about a group of aliens who come to explore Earth, which they mistakenly believe is called "Adventure Planet", because they have landed in an amusement park. So you "ride" with them on all these rides that we could only wish actually existed. Stefan loved it. I loved it too, although by the last "ride", I had to close my eyes, because I was getting car sick, or Alien Adventure sick.
After it was over, we walked out and looked over the balcony onto Potzdamer Platz -- it's just so amazing. Then we walked through it again, passed the Berlin Film Museum, passed a bar called "Billy Wilder's" (and, ironically, he died that night, and that's when I got my unspoken question answered, which was, why would a bar in Germany name itself after Billy Wilder?). We ended up in Andy's Bar and Grill which, yes, was a tourist trap for Americans, but we didn't care. We had very decent nachos -- the first time I've dared to try something even remotely Mexican in Germany -- and some tasty beer (it's Germany, after all). We got a table right away -- tourism numbers are way down in Europe.
Stefan brought my alarm clock, and that night, we set it for 8 a.m. Yes, I know, one is supposed to sleep late during vacations, but we were people on a mission: we wanted to see as much of Berlin as possible. Even so, we ended up out the door the next day an hour later than we wanted to be, and with no idea what places would be open on a holiday weekend. We stopped at a bakery along the way, got croissants and a coke, then breakfasted as we walked down the formerly grand, now kinda sad Otto-Braun Strasse to the U-Bahn. It was a thrill for me, every day we walked that street. Maybe because my paternal grandfather would never have believed that one of his grand children would one day be frolicking down a major thoroughfare of East Berlin with her German boyfriend. Maybe because I still can't believe it. Maybe because the ghost of a huge-but-failed political system that I was taught all my life to fear is still so very present. Maybe because I could imagine the people living in those massive buildings, looking out on this grand avenue, not living anywhere near as grand a life.
We took a series of U-Bahn trains to the starting point for one of Berlin's hop-on-hop-off bus tours. We got good seats on top, outside, and put on our headphones; we both chose English. We passed the famous ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church -- the Allied bombing of WWII left only one broken and battered tower still standing. It's a stark reminder amid the new buildings and bustling, trendy shopping centers of the very, very high cost of war.
After passing a few sites which I can't recall now, we got out at the Jüdische (Jewish) Museum. It's an amazing, asymmetrical, zinc-covered building, an artistic statement in and of itself. You go in through an adjacent 18th century building with a very traditional, Prussian stately look -- these two next to each other look quite strange. The buildings are connected underground, via the Holocaust Memorial museum. And I believe that it was a mistake to put this museum before the history part of the museum. We were really confused about how to navigate it, and most of the exhibits were cold to me, unfeeling even. The tower that serves as a memorial to the Holocaust I thought was thoroughly appropriate, however. The multimedia exhibits were also quite hard to use -- we finally gave up. Once you get through this part, you come to the extensive history museum, and that was so much more accessible, mentally and emotionally. It was fascinating, and I wish we had had more time to spend in it. I think that, had I gone through the history part first, learning about just how entrenched Jewish communities were in Germany for hundreds of years, learning how artistically and culturally rich they were, and THEN come upon the cold, stark Holocaust memorial, I would have been overwhelmed -- as I should have been. It would have been so much more powerful and meaningful that way. Still, I wasn't disappointed at all -- it was all quite interesting and worth the visit.
We got back on the bus and headed for the next stop -- Checkpoint Charlie. And almost everyone on the bus got off. We were starving, so we went around the corner and across the street to an Italian place. I had an amazing, truly Italian pasta dish -- not some Americanized or Germanized thing -- and it came with some great, fresh Italian bread, which I dipped in olive oil and I was in heaven, my dears, heaven... As the waiter brought back our change, he mentioned something about it being in the thousands or millions, I forget which -- but he obviously was talking about lira, not Euros. This was a trendy restaurant was in a very old building, and I was reminded of what a grand city Berlin was before the wars, particularly in the 20s. How amazing it would have been to see it then. It's rather amazing to see it now -- it's so on it's way to being that incredible again. Maybe it already is.
As we were sitting there, a protest went by on the street: people in cars, with their dogs, protesting new restrictions regarding certain breeds of "bad" dogs. I was paying or something, and couldn't run out and show my solidarity. Not that I don't know that there are dogs out there that bite and kill, and not that I don't think something should be done about it -- but not by banning breeds.
We walked around to Checkpoint Charlie and took lots of pictures with all the other tourists, and had a look at the fake Cold-War era East German and Soviet uniforms and hats that are obviously produced in some factory in Turkey. There's also "authentic" pieces of the wall for sale; Stefan and I kept joking about some guy frantically painting pieces of broken concrete in a back yard nearby to sell as such. Then we went into the museum. At first, I thought it was just a relic in and of itself -- the displays are old, the wording faded, the descriptions from long before the Wall fell. Interesting, but small. But there were some steps to the side, and it turned out that museum is four stories. Most of it is devoted to the Wall, and to the pictures and artifacts of those who got over it or under it... or tried to... There's also a whole floor devoted to non-violent struggles all over the world. I was so, so moved by it all. I was reminded once again that there's nothing passive about the non-violent movements lead by Gandhi or MLK, or of the events that lead to freedom in the Czech Republic, even of the fall of the Wall itself and the rejoining of East and West Germany. Why can't people see that true power, true revolution, and meaningful and effective protest, happens as a result of these kinds of actions, not blowing people up?
Okay, yeah, obviously, I dug this place. It was the highlight of the entire day.
We got back on the bus and finished the tour. We walked over to the main shopping district, only to find that the massive department store with the huge supermarket on the sixth floor that Stefan had so very much wanted to show me was CLOSED. It had closed at 4 p.m. Yes, I know, that's the normal time for places to close in Germany on Saturdays, as I have bitched about on many ocassions, but this is BERLIN!!! And other stores were still open!! I was a miffed, but decided to let it go -- we had too much to do otherwise.
We walked over to a park full of bears. Bears? Yes, Bears. Following the lead of Chicago, which put up these big glazed and colorful cows all over town on sidewalks everywhere, each with some kind of color scheme or theme, Berlin has done the same with bears (the bear is the symbol of Berlin). They are everywhere in the tourist areas, and I LOVE them. I had seen one from the bus, holding three beers, and decided that bear was destined to have its picture taken with us. Then we had a look at this big fountain nearby with all sorts of sculptures representing the different ages of man and woman. We decided it looked a lot like people at a German sauna. This is just one of many, many examples of public art that's all over Berlin, in addition to the bears. Every city should have lots of public art, however small and simple. Not just war memorials -- tributes to different professions, to music, to rivers, to people... it makes you want to walk around a city, to linger outside in places. I had no idea Berlin was packed with so much public sculpture.
We stopped at a big German restaurant, sat outside, and I dared to have an enchilada. Maybe I've been deprived of Mexican food too long: it was quite satisfying. We had a couple of beers and watched night fall and the lights of the city come on. Very romantic. Per Lonely Planet's recommendation, we then went to the "Erotik" Museum. It was about what I expected -- rather than being a really good review of erotic sculptures and drawings from throughout history and from various parts of the world, it was a mediocre, incomplete and, at times, silly and kitschy collection of drawings and sculptures from various places. A few exhibits were quite interesting (I loved the drawings from the 20s the most). It had WAY too many erotic pictures from Japan in the 19th century -- in fact, if you took those away, half the museum would be empty. And the display case shelves were thick with dust. The museum was created by Beate Uhse, which Lonely planet says is "Germany's porno and sex toy marketing equivalent of Martha Stewart." It was interesting, just not all that it could have been. The gift shop was closed (no German sex toys for you all, sorry). We decided to go back to the neighborhood of our pension, to the bar we had seen the night before as a place, to hang out until bed time.
The bar was quite empty inside when we got there -- just three guys wearing black t-shirts, sitting in the corner, yuppy/artsy types, playing cards. It was nice, lots of plants, lots of wooden fixtures. The waitress was nice, and it was a great ending to the day, just hanging out in a pretty, comfortable and friendly bar and knowing that our room was just a block away. We laughed and talked about the bad 80s music they were playing that was making me think of high school and college, about what we'd seen, about history, and all sorts of silly stuff I cannot recall now. A couple of guys came in at some point in all this. They were wearing loose leather jackets, they had black hair, and they looked like more yuppy/artsy types. They sat at the table right behind us, and I took no further notice of them until they left, only a short while later -- one drink and they were out of there. And I thought to myself, well, I guess we're just not enough of a *scene* for them... little did I know...
Much later, we decided to give the Internet cafe in the back a try. We wrote drunken emails to a few friends, and I took a picture of Stefan and freaked out the guy next to him with the camera flash. Then we decided it was time to call it a night. Stefan reached for his wallet, and noticed that the zipper on his jacket's breast pocket was open. He took out his wallet, and his money was gone, except for a five Euro note. After about five minutes, we figured it out: he had taken off his jacket and put his jacket on the back of his chair in the bar, and we had sat close, talking with our faces near each other, sitting on the edge of our seats. While we were chatting, one of those two well-dressed guys simply reached over, felt around Stefan's jacket, found the wallet, taken it out, taken out the money, then put the wallet back. If the thief had been caught at any point, there would be no evidence of him taking anything, since he had taken only cash. How can you prove cash is yours? We both sat dejected on the bed. I couldn't believe I never saw what was going on behind Stefan in a completely empty bar. I was so mad at myself. I said I hoped the thieves o.d'd on the drugs they brought with the money. Then I asked, "Do you want to leave tomorrow? Because we can leave if you want." And he said no, absolutely not, that he was not going to let this ruin our perfect day, and a wonderful trip.
And he didn't let it.
We woke up the next day, Easter Sunday, in a good mood. We didn't set the alarm this time, and got up at 9 -- which, upon further reflection, was actually 10 (daylight savings time had started the night before).
I liked our pension -- Stefan founded it on the Internet and it was clean, in a good location, and was quite cheap. We had one of the rooms with a private bathroom, and the room was really big. The only thing I didn't like was that there were only lace curtains on the windows, so we basically put on a show for anyone looking across the street, and woke up with the sunrise. A pension and a gästhaus are almost the same thing, room wise -- usually a basic room, no television or phone, a private bathroom only by request, and breakfast included in the price of the room. A gästhaus is also usually a restaurant. The Berlin place was the first one we have stayed in where breakfast wasn't included, but we worked around that okay.
We weren't sure where we would go for the day. We decided to look for breakfast around Alexander Platz, my favorite East Berlin subway stop (Commie drab chic!). We went out on the Plaza and found this sad little Christmas market. Every Christmas, every city in Germany puts up these little fake beam cottages in town centers and sell "home made" goods and food out of them. I find them terribly cheesy. Why this little place was here, in April, I wasn't sure, but it was so worn down, with just a few booths. We got a couple of brats and sat people-watching and talking about how quickly Berlin was changing, but how East Germany still has such a long way to go before it gets up to speed with the West, despite all of the investment. I also took a picture of what's known as the World Time Clock, built in 1961, and we got to see a guy changing the time -- Stefan was fascinated with the U.S. saying of "Spring Forward, Fall Back," because he said Germans are continually confused about which way to move the hour hand during the time change weekends. I read out loud from my Lonely Planet book about the area, which advised "don't use the subterranean men's loo nearby unless you want to be stared down by 101 homosexuals on permanent prowl." As we walked by, we saw an old guy about to go in and I grabbed Stefan and said, "Oh my god! Should I warn him? Should I warn him?"
We took the S-Bahn (above ground local train) to neighborhood near the Pergamon Museum. Lonely Planet calls it "a feast of classical Greek, Babylonian, Roman, Islamic and Middle Eastern art and architecture. It will wear you out if you're not careful." Correct on every note. The museum gets its name from the big main room, which houses the MASSIVE Pergamon Alter. It's like a mini-Parthanon, reconstructed indoors, with a 120 meter frieze of gods and goddesses doing battle with the giants. We sat on the massive stone steps leading into the alter and took it all in for a while. Amazing. There's also the Ishtar Gate, fronted by a 30m-long processional made up of mostly blue glazed bricks, with reliefs of lions, horses, dragons and unicorns. This lead to a tower that inspired the legend of the Tower of Babel, and Stefan remarked, "See, this is why we speak different languages." Ha ha.
The Islamic art was gorgeous -- it is so strange to think that a religion now dominated by fundamentalists and militants was once dominated by artists and intellectuals. There was a ton more at the Pergamon Museum that I won't detail here, but it was all amazing. I decided it was a much more interesting "Erotik" museum than the other place.
We got a dessert at the tiny cafe next to the museum, then walked a little more around Museuminsel, which is an island of museums (it's surrounded by canals). We sat in a park on the side of the Berliner Dom because, though it was still the early afternoon, I was WIPED out. I was beyond tired. I wanted a nap. I needed a nap. I laid my head on Stefan's shoulder and I dozed for just a moment... then some protesters came by, all on roller blades, blowing whistles. There were many people, of all sorts of ages. I got so excited, I woke right up. We were too far away to see, but I'm guessing that it has *something* to do with rollerblading... By then, the coke I'd had at the museum cafe kicked in (hurrah), but I was still tired.
So many of the Berlin buildings before WWII are gone, but there are quite a few still around, if you look hard enough, with dark brown walls so pock-marked that it looks like they were built that way, with textured facades. We passed one as we headed over the Palace Bridge (Schlossbrüke), with its eight marble statues that trace the training and development of a Greek hero. Walking down Unter Den Linden in this part of Berlin is to feel a sense of what the former Prussian capital looked like; all of the buildings are so ornate and grand. The buildings you notice most are the ones by Schinkel -- I'm now very sorry I didn't visit his grave and pay my respects.
We came to the Neue Wache, or New Guardhouse, built in 1818. It's now a memorial to the victims of fascism and militarism. It has a wonderful, massive sculpture in the center, of a mother cradling her dead son. The rest of the room is empty, covered in gray bricks -- very moving. I saw a couple of people walking in and respectfully taking off their hats and that really touched me -- everyone should be that respectful. The memorial holds the tombs of an unknown soldier, a resistance fighter and a concentration camp victim.
Next door to all this is the ornate Humboldt University, which was originally a palace of a Prussian prince. Across from the university is Bebelplatz (platz is plaza, in case you haven't guessed). It's where the Nazis held their first official book-burning, on May 10, 1933. In the middle of the platz, not very obvious, the stones have been replaced with plexiglass. We walked over and looked down, and saw a memorial of empty book shelves below ground. It is a perfect acknowledgement of that horrible act. Then I started telling Stefan about all the idiots in the U.S. who are trying to get certain books banned... I got a little riled up...
We continued down Unter Den Linden, taking more pictures of us and the bears all over the middle of the street, which reminded me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. We passed the street where the U.S. embassy is; you can't get anywhere close to it, as there are barricades, a tank and soldiers between the main street and the entrance. It depressed me.
I needed a WC, and we found one of these extremely fancy Berlin pay toilets. I just HAD to go in it. It's really something. First off, it's HUGE. You feel like you are going into some kind of space-age time machine -- you pay your 50 Euro cents, this huge door slides open, and in you go. You do your thing, wash your hands, do a cartwheel (it's about that big), then leave (you have 20 minutes to do your business). Then the bathroom closes itself off and cleans itself. You hear all this water spraying and air blowing and all sorts of other noises, while a computer display tells you how much longer it will be before it's clean. Stefan said it was actually a little old cleaning women on the other side who has a secret entrance, and the noise was a recording.
At some point in all this, we talked about how great it was that Berlin has all these bike lanes everywhere, but no where to park bikes! Strange... I've said it before, I'll say it again: we should have bike lanes everywhere in the U.S. Think about it, car drivers: all those bikers, not taking up your parking spaces, not in front of you in line at the gas station... I would so love to be able to go around a city in the U.S. on my bike the way you can in Berlin, the way I do here in Bonn.
I'm sorry, where was I?
Oh, yeah: my feet were killing me, I was tired, and I needed another coke. So I strongly suggested we take a boat tour. I cannot recall how we got back to a canal front for a boat tour... The boat tour gives you a unique perspective on Berlin, its mix of architecture meant to look Greek, with buildings Hitler must of have loved for being so domineering and huge, and new structures that are so amazing and modern. We went by the awful new home of Germany's chancellor -- YEEK. I had another coke on the boat, and was feeling much, much more awake by the time the tour was over. We went back to Potsdamer Platz for another iMax movie. This one was about Egypt, and was on Germany's largest iMax movie screen. It was amazing, even if it was all in German and wasn't in 3D (pretty funny seeing Omar Shariff dubbed in German). We went to a nearby restaurant, which had a theme of movie soundtracks, and I had some kind of drink called a "Diablo..." I was done sight-seeing, but then Stefan got it in his mind to go have a look at a stretch of Wall that still was up. I was so tired... but he really wanted to go, so I said yes. We took the U-Bahn to find remains near the corner of Bernauer Strasse and Gartenstrasse. It took a while for us to find the Wall that was left, and I was nervous -- we were obviously off the beaten track for tourists at night. But once we found the remaining Wall, and started walking along it, I decided this was absolutely the best time to come here; there was no one else around at all, and it made it a much more solemn experience. This was one of the sections of the city where the Soviets bricked up the windows as they put up the barbed wire that would later be replaced with cement, as people frantically jumped out of windows the soldiers hadn't gotten to yet. The Nordbahnof station that we used was bricked up until 1990. Around this area was also once one of the biggest platforms for looking over the Wall into East Berlin; Stefan said that the East Germans took pictures on every person that went on that platform. He also said that the Wall actually was built a few feet inside of the Soviet section of Berlin, so that East German soldiers could rightfully walk on the west side of the wall ocassionally and have a look at the graffiti.
About 10,000 people were forced to leave their homes because of this stretch of wall. The buildings close to the separation on the East side were torn down, to allow for the no-man's-land, also known as the Death Strip, that ran along the wall everywhere on the East German side. The strip had another, smaller wall on the other side, and within the Death Strip a road ran the entire stretch of the wall, all the way around West Berlin, along with towers for snipers. There's a memorial here in this neighborhood to 10 people who died trying to escape in this area. And the death strip has been preserved -- you can't walk on it, you can only look at it by walking around to the other side and looking through a fence, the way an East German would have had to look. Chilling.
The next day, we decided to spend time in Alexander Platz, rather than just traveling through on our way somewhere else, before we headed back home. There's this 365 meter tall spiky monstrosity there that is always haunting you no matter where you are in Berlin, called the Fernsehturm (supposedly built as a TV tower, but I have my doubts). What the heck... we decided to go up. It had two elevators to take you to the top (no step climbing this time -- I know you are disappointed). The weather wasn't very clear, but it was still worth the price and the trip up: it wasn't out-of-control crowded at the top, which is completely enclosed, and even has a restaurant. There were all sorts of maps and notes to show you what was where. I kept making jokes about the tower having these outlines of all famous towers all over the world, and claiming that all of them, including itself, were part of the World Federation of Towers. "Hi, I'm the secretary for the World Federation of Towers." We looked down at one point and saw a huge park that we had never noticed before, because it was on the other side of the platz and no tour ever went by it. There were two big honkin' statues in the middle, and I could tell, even from that far up in the heavens, that it was Marx and Engels. We decided to head down and have a look.
There is a big fountain on the way to the park: Neptunbrunnen, built in 1891, with a huge iron Neptune in the center, surrounded by four big babes, each representing a major river in Germany (not sure which was supposed to the Rhein). It wasn't working, so people were climbing all over it. Stefan got a laugh out of the women's breasts all being clear of green rust (because, ofcourse, people rub them).
We walked on to the big park, which is not mentioned at all in Lonely Planet. It's a Cold War-era East Berlin tribute to communism, one that has survived the fall of the Wall. Interrupting a flat, empty plane are these massive statues of Marx and Engels, and four very tall, flat gray panels depicting pictures from various communist marches throughout the world, and civil rights marches that had nothing to do with communism (but, hey, why not take credit). Standing there was a really amazing feeling -- I felt truly outside of the West for the first time in my life. It was an eerie feeling. I hope they keep the park and all of its contents, because it can serve as a monument to what we DON'T want: to the evils of putting our faith in totalitarian governments and absolute idealogies, rather than in ourselves. It was only later, surfing the web, that I got more info: "To the west of Alexanderplatz, a large square comes into view at the foot of Berlin's TV tower with flower beds, benches and fountains. There a meticulously constructed forum was built in the sixties to provide the new capital with an attractive location to linger and mingle."
There was an old, unassuming church nearby, back towards the TV tower. It is Marienkirche, a 700 year old Gothic church. I realized it had something I had marked as wanting to see, but had forgotten about in the sea of sights of the last 48 hours. Its claim to fame, other than being one of the few surviving medieval structures in Berlin, is a very badly-faded 23 meter-long Dance of Death (Totentänze) fresco. It portrays Death in 14 different scenes, leading people from all walks of life to their graves. This 15th century fresco was painted after an outbreak of the plague. It was covered up with white wash at some point, then rediscovered in 1730, then covered again, then rediscovered in 1860. It's now far behind a glass case, to protect it from further damage of from moisture and other elements. There's a reproduction that was made just after WWI, that includes the Low German phrases beneath each "dance", and I bought a copy, because I wanted to study it later. I like it so much, I may frame it. It's so fascinating to me. I don't know why. Here's more info I found later about it:
really good picture of the actual fresco (rather than the representation of such).
Click on the image of the portion of the fresco, and you will be taken through a representation of the entire fresco -- pages forward automatically.
We went back to our neighborhood, and decided to walk all the way around the huge block behind our pension before we hit the road. Stefan suggested it, and I'm SO glad he did. This neighborhood is midway through being gentrified, so you walk along and see buildings that have been completely redone, with little balconies added (Europeans love their little balconies), completely new facades and who knows what all renovation in side. But then every three or four buildings is one that hasn't yet been touched, still wearing its cheap, terribly-faded and ugly dark brown facade, no balconies but, rather, just square openings flat against the wall, like doors leading no where, with home-made wooden gates that allow air to come into the flats. And there was a LOT of graffiti everywhere. Just around the corner from us was a building of protesters, with political statements written on sheets, hanging off the balconies. I was scared to take a picture, not wanting to piss off a bunch of German rastas, but I did anyway. We continued around the block, and were so sad to pass a closed shop full of pre-wall East German items -- it would have been a GREAT place to shop. DANG! Only half a block from our pension... We also saw yet another Trabant, a car produced in East Germany before the wall fell that one could easily destroy with just a hammer and a few minutes (its nick-name was "Trabbi").
It was time to go. We were lucky enough to navigate our exit right out through the Brandenburg gate and, yes, saw one more protest, this one against genetically-engineered food. Our exit from the city was on a roadway that used to be a race track, and the stands are still right there next to the road -- but no fans, cheering us as we left the city. I noticed on the map that there was a street nearby named after Jesse Owens. That's so cool, on so many levels... We made an exit for a powder room break, and ended up landing in the middle of a huge, unofficial motorbike rally. Most Germans don't have year-round insurance for their motorcycles; they just get it for six or nine months, and most start on April 1. Hence, all these bikers out. We would have loved to stopped and have a look, but we'd delayed the journey back long enough.
We got off the autobahn a couple of hours after we had left Berlin, to take some pictures of an old East German guard tower and the remains of the no-man's-land that separated East and West Germany in the countryside. It was an eerie feeling. After we got back to Bonn, Barb told me that she used to visit relatives in Germany every summer, in a town right on the border, and she would ride her bike and look over into the woods and see the dogs and soldiers in the distance, pacing and guarding the border. Or that she would swim in a lake on the border, and if anyone got to close to the white buoys, which marked the border, the lifeguard would have to come on a loud speaker and warn the person to come back, so they wouldn't get shot...
We got back to Bonn very late -- hit lots of traffic jams -- and I was convinced that Buster was sick, because he had almost no reaction to our coming home, just wagged his tail and continued to lay on the bed. But he was fine by the next day. I guess he was just completely and utterly SPOILED by his dog sitters and was bored by me. Wiley was absolutely fine -- as soon as I saw him, I knew I'd made the right decision in going through the hassle of finding them a dog sitter for home.
See some of the many, many pictures I took in Berlin
See Germany Tourist Attraction Photos by someone else (in case you want to see what a lot of the things I've described above look like; this way, I don't have to use up my bandwidth for such...)
So, the conclusion is this -- GO TO BERLIN. It's an absolutely amazing city, and very much worth the trip. Tourism numbers are down, so other than at the Reichstag, you won't wait in any long lines. I can't wait to go back!
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