Saturday, January 31, 2009

Berlin on Foot

Wednesday, January 29, 2009

Finding my Bearings in Berlin:
At Schonefeld airport, I had requested a map at the Tourist Information Counter and on perusing it during breakfast (Andrea had thoughtfully provided me with a quarter loaf of raisin bread, milk and coffee powder), I discovered that there was such a thing as a Free Walking Tour of Berlin that met at the Dunkin Donuts shop near the Zoo.

I purchased a three-day Berlin Welcome Card (about which I had heard from a magazine before leaving London) that allowed unlimited travel on all forms of public transport—the S-Bahn, the U-Bahn (Underground), Trams and Buses. Now I know from experiences in London that the bus is the best way to really see a city and Berlin has double decker buses (just like London’s but yellow, not red) with big picture windows. The lady who sold me the ticket at Hallensee S-Bahn station told me to take Bus Number X10 to the Zoo. It trundled along in about ten minutes—ten freezing minutes during which time my toes turned to ice at the bus stop despite two pairs of socks—and when I climbed upstairs and followed its route on my map, I discovered that it ran along Kurfunstendamm (known as Ku-damm), one of West Berlin’s major arteries before it arrived at the Zoo.

Joining a Walking Tour of Berlin:
I found the Dunkin Donuts easily enough and saw that a crowd had already gathered there for the tour that left at 10. 30 am. There, I met Maria, our guide, who informed me that the Walking Tour would last three and a half hours and would take us through most of the historical sights in the East. I wondered whether my recovering feet would be able to deal with such a long tour; but I realized that the best way to find out was to join it. If I felt unable to go right through to the end, I could always drop out and do the rest on my own. With that caveat, I joined the group. Maria took us by S-Bahn to the Eastern side where we emerged on Unter der Linden, one of the main arteries in the East.

And just as we emerged from the Underground to street level, I gasped, because there right in front of me, in all its magnificent glory was the famous Brandenburg Gate. This is the most distinctive landmark of Berlin that I had seen in countless pictures and movies and to find it suddenly loom up in front of me was so startling that I had a reaction similar to the kind I had when I had first seen the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Grand Canyon in Colorado. It really did take my breath away!

After a good half hour and much organization by the leaders of this Free Walking City Tour (they had gathered a couple of hundred tourists from all over the city to converge on this spot), our tour with Maria began. In Paritzer Platz, she gave us a very detailed history of the Brandenburg Gate in the open air in rather freezing temperature and I realized that this tour is certainly not for the faint of heart—indeed, there was no one older than 40 on these tours! Thank goodness I had dressed warmly and in very comfortable shoes! She also pointed out the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, one of the world's most luxurious buildings, but one that gained notoriety when Michael Jackson dangled his baby out of the third floor balcony of that very same hotel!

Our next stop was the Reischstag—the country’s Parliament Building, a 19th century structure with a very recent crowning glass dome, the work of British architect Sir Norman Foster. We saw this building from the outside only (the walking tour does not take you inside any of the buildings) and I resolved to visit it again on my own, if only to see the handiwork of Sir Norman up close and personal.

Our route then took us over Hitler’s Bunker. I was very excited about this as I imagined that we would actually be able to visit the underground headquarters in which the Fuhrer remained holed up with his girl friend Eva Braun as the war came to an end and he committed suicide. I believe that there is a movie about this last phase in his life, but I could not remember the name of it. As it turned out, the bunker was completely destroyed by the Soviets after they seized control of the city at the war’s end. This was done deliberately as they did not want Hitler’s grave to become a place of pilgrimage for the world’s Neo-Nazis. Today, nothing but soil stands over the tunnel of rooms once occupied by the most powerful SS officers, but they are surrounded by the kind of solid, squat, institutional residential buildings that characterize all Communist countries. Residents of these building use the land under which the bunker once lay to walk their dogs who defecate all over the premises—a fitting fate, perhaps, for the former home of a man whose ideas brought so much terror to the world.

A few feet ahead is the Holocaust Memorial and I was so struck by the stark simplicity of the area that is made up of hundreds of granite blocks of varying height that form a uniform grid comprising narrow lanes that run throughout the space. In the midst of these, there are steps that lead underground to a free Holocaust Museum--which I also resolved to visit at my leisure when I had more time to ponder the unspeakable fate of the Jews and so many other minorities under the Nazi regime.

The Tour then took us past a huge grey granite building on the intersection of two of East Berlin’s busiest roads—Wilhelmstrasse and Fredreichstrasse. This building had the appearance of the kind you see in old Nazi movies—dour, forbidding, depressing. This is the only one of the old Nazi buildings that the Soviets did not destroy. It used to be the Ministry of Ministries under the SS but today is the Ministry of Finance and Taxation—just as frightful! Those who have seen the current Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie will find it familiar as the entire movie was shot in the premises of this building.

At the intersection of the street where this building ends are the remains of the Old Berlin Wall that once encircled the city and separated the GDR (German Democratic Republic, the West) from the DDR (the Communist East). Tourists pause here today to take pictures and Maria used the opportunity to describe the creation of the Wall and its impact on the people of Berlin. I found all of this rather heart breaking. The Wall today is a grey granite structure devoid of graffiti and enclosed by a fence as tourists still attempt to break pieces of it to sell on E-Bay!

Our walk then took us towards Checkpoint Charlie which was the name for the Border Crossing between East and West Germany. The name comes from the Code used in the NATO phonetic alphabet at the time—A for Alpha, the check-point at Helmstedt, B for Bravo at Dreilinden and C for Charlie, here in Berlin—and refers to a small white shed which was manned by Allied guards during the Cold War. To leave the American sector behind was to enter into the Communist Bloc in East Berlin, a place as different before the Fall of the Wall as Heaven from Hell! There is a Checkpoint Charlie Museum set up a mere block away as well as a Soviet Museum that carries the last Soviet flag that was flown on the Russian side before the wall fell in November 1989.

The tour moved on but, once again, I decided that I would return to take in the atmosphere in a more thoughtful manner. At this point, we stopped for lunch—a real hot chocolate and apfel streudel for me in Café Aroma—and then we were on our way again. On this leg of the walking tour, we left 20th century Berlin behind us and made our way into Berlin of 2 centuries previous—when it was under the Kaisers, all of whom rather confusingly were named either Wilhelm or Freidrich or when they were being more creative, Wilhelm Freidrich!

We arrived at Gendarmenmarkt (literally, in French, the Policeman’s Square) which is dominated by three stunningly beautiful buildings—the Concert Hall in the center with a marble sculpture of German playwright Schiller surrounded by the Muses; the Hugenot Memorial Museum and a Cathedral (Protestant). The grandeur of the architecture in this square makes it one of the prettiest in Europe and just before we arrived there, we passed by one of the country’s most famous chocolatiers, Fassbender and Rausch, where, in the picture windows, we saw chocolate replicas of the Brandenburg Gate, the Kaiser Wilheim Gedatschkirsch and somewhat inexplicably the Titanic! Here, too, I decided I would come and poke around as my great love for chocolate makes me a slave to these treats!

Our walk then wound on towards the Unter der Linden (an avenue named for the hundreds of linden or lime tress that are planted all along it) and on to Bebelplatz which is also dominated by the colossal dome of a church—this time the Catholic Cathedral of St. Helwig decorated with striking sculpture in bas relief on its main pediment. This space overlooks the campus of Humboldt University whose alumni list reads like a Who’s Who of German intellectuals from Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka to Sigmund Freud and Bismarck, Karl Marx and Fredreich Engels! In fact, in the early-19th century, a book burning ritual was carried out by a dictatorial regime which led alumnus Heinrich Heinne to write in the 1820s that when they start to burn books, it will not be long before they burn people. Of course, his words proved to be strangely prophetic considering what the Nazis did a century later. Because the university is supposedly ashamed of its role in the book burning scandal, today books are sold by the main gate and the proceeds go to charity. When we walked through Bebelplatz, the city was gearing up for Berlin’s Fashion Week which was supposed to draw some hot names from its contemporary couture scene.

By this point in the tour, I began to feel seriously fatigued and was contemplating dropping out when Maria informed us that it would be ending soon. We headed towards Museum Island and stopped short at the sight of the superb Berliner Dom or main Cathedral which reminds one of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and for good reason—the Kaiser wanted a cathedral similar to St. Paul’s, only more ornate--and so the architect gave him his heart’s desire. The cathedral shares space at the Lustgarten with the Altes Museum, a splendid Neo-Classical structure that houses Greek and Roman Antiquities and is considered one of the finest such buildings in Europe.

I was dead tired by this time and decided that I needed to sit somewhere for a long time. I was grateful that Maria sat us down on the steps of the Museum and went into a very dramatic rendition of the Fall of the Wall and the manner in which the country and the city that was torn apart for decades came together under Gorbachov’s news vision of glasnost and perestroika. I had goose bumps pretty frequently as her narrative continued for who among us has not the most vivid memories of those heady days when the winds of freedom swept across Europe and took it out of the darkness and into the light? It was a fine finale to a highly enlightening day but one that took much longer than three and a half hours and had me walk countless miles!

Inside the Glass Dome of the Reischstag:
I then hopped into the Bus Number 100 which is a big tourist attraction as it loops around most of Berlin’s monumental buildings. Well, before I knew it, I was back in front of the Reichstag and I could not resist jumping right off and joining the queue to get to the top in the elevator. Luckily, I asked if there was a handicap entrance and they led me to one—talk about German precision and engineering, they think of everything! Well, then I got priority in the line to get to Sir Norman Foster’s newest creation, a rather superb mirrored dome that reflects multiple images of the people who troop inside on a ramp that gets you to the very top for some stunning views of the city. And being one who doesn’t usually engage with modernist architecture, I was half prepared not to like the concept too much; but I have to say that having walked through the dome, I was converted. It is rather ingenious, in an I.M. Pei kind of way, and I was so glad I did seek this architectural gem out to wander through on my own.

Riding the Buses at Dusk:
I spent the next hour seeing dusk fall over Berlin as the lights came on and bathed the city with fluorescence. From one modern square after the other, in the comfort of my bus, I was struck by the architectural innovations that have flourished in the past few years as the rebuilding that began after the Wall fell has continued unabated over the years.

But because I felt hesitant about getting to Charlottenburg too late, I took a bus back home and by 7 pm, I was in my flat, safe and exhausted and reading up my guide book to supplement all the information that Maria had crammed into my head that day.

When I spoke to Llew in the evening, I told him how awed I felt by Berlin, its history, its sweep, its scale—for truly to walk the streets of Berlin is to walk in the shadow of the history of the 20th century. I wish he were sharing the city with me but I decided to be his eyes and ears and convey to him all that I was seeing and hearing and feeling through my blog. As the hours passed and sleep washed over me, I felt that I could not have spent my day more productively.

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