Giant Buildings & Little Men (Berlin Part 2)

Trip Start Sep 20, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Our weary travellers were sad to leave the lovely Berlin. Our walking tour on our final day showed us all the wonderful sights that we had now run out of time to go and see properly. Ah well, lesson learned, walking tour on first day, not last!

Having said that, the walking tour was a really rewarding and informative experience. Ironically our tourguide was actually from NZ - turns out he had met a girl from East Berlin whilst travelling and had ended up marrying her and now lives there. He jokingly told us that his 4yr old daughter is already becoming a socialist, but more about politics later.

Lewey and Dee got a really good basic education in East vs West Berlin and the Iron Curtain. Turns out that our guide's wife, was living in East Berlin under the communist rule. Apparently she wasn't even aware that West Berlin even existed until she was 15 and happened to look out over the wall from a friend's apartment. Crazy! Its so strange to think that we were kids when all of this was going on, in '89 when the wall came down and the 2 sides of East and West Berlin were reunified we were completely oblivious...very odd.
We even saw a piece of the wall, now ironically behind another wall, to protect it, as apparently when the wall came down, people made a lot of money selling pieces of the it to tourists etc... Amazing the inventiveness that situations can bring about...
The city has a symbolic 'wall' where the old one once stood, demonstrated by a cobblestone path. It was strange to try and imagine a wall being around a city.
We saw and learnt about 'checkpoint charlie' the American checkpoint for crossing between East and West Berlin (the West was operated by the allies, the East by the Soviets) before the wall went up. The stories of escape attempts were incredible, hot air ballons for going over the wall, scuba tanks for going under, and just about everything in between. Some were successful, unfortunately many were not.

Were were both fascinated by the sheer scope of the beautiful buildings - Flinders St station is tiny compared to the sites in Berlin. What was even more interesting, is that the majority of these buildings were bombed to the ground by the allies during WW2. So the buildings that we saw are actually reconstructions post WW2 even though they look much older. The materials used to reconstruct are a mixture of remaining stone (post bombing - full of actual bullet holes and damaged by shrapnel etc very evident) and new stone made to replicate the original design. There are many gothic statues on the buildings, which are the originals, apparently they were hidden in rivers, bunkers and lakes during the war. So there are the legit old statues on the fake new/old buildings, again with the irony. Very cool still though. This would perhaps explain why Berlin is Billion of dollars in debt. In fact the city's slogan is "poor but sexy".

One of the oldest surviving structure in the city is the Brandenburg Gates - the official entry points to Berlin, used by the King and Queen back in the day. Gigantic - with a cool statue on top of a goddess and her 4 horses, leading the way to the Olympics. One of the newest is the Reichstag, the German parliament house - very beautiful and also big. It has a glass dome on the top that you can walk around with a full view into the parliamentary building. The idea behind it being that the German people (and indeed anyone) can see down into the parliament and see the workings of the govt. So that therefore nothing is hidden from the people. Nice show of democracy at its best after 20+ yrs of communist rule!

Some other moving points of interest were two memorials post WW2. One was the official Jewish Holocaust memorial, designed by an Israeli architect. It is a giant labyrinth of stone tablets of varying height, all the same dimensions otherwise. The site is approx 2000 square metres (we think??), around about the size of a footy field, with approx 2611 of these stones. There is no official explanation of what the memorial is supposed to be, but these stones look like cemetary plaques and apparently the architect was influenced by the stones in a cemetary that he had visited in the past. Our guide explained some different interpretations of the memorial that included:
- that the varying height of the stones perhaps symbolised the different types of Jews who perished ie age, gender etc.
- the wavey design of the stones (varying heights and sloping slightly) symbolised the spirit of the Jewish people being crushed by the Nazi period (demonstrated by the stones at their peak in height). As the Nazi period passed, and the reconstruction to some attempt at a normal life was demonstrated by the lower stones. Trees that grew at the edge of the memorial, alongside completely flat stones represented rebirth, yet the fact that antisemitism still exists. It was also suggested that these flat stones symbolised that what happened will never be forgotten, even in the time of rebirth. Lewey and I were mesmerised by these explanations and could not agree on a definitive one as all seemed viable. Having said that, the memorial is designed to be open to the individual's interpretation.
Walking through it was a very eerie experience. There were people all around you, yet it felt like you were completely alone, again perhaps a deliberate measure.

The second memorial was to the victims of WW2, non specific. It was housed in a beautiful building originally designed as a safehouse/fortress for royalty long passed. Inside the vast building it was completely empty except for a 4 tiered tomb built into the ground with a sculpture of a woman cradling a child on top. Inside the tombs are apparently the bodies of an unknown concentration camp victim, an allied soldier and a nazi soldier and a forth unknown body. It was extremely quiet and a very moving experience.

On to a more lighthearted highlight, we went to the site of Hitler's underground bunker where he lived for the last month of the war with his mistress/wife. He gave her a cyanide capsule and then shot her and gave himself the same treatment. Apparently no one was allowed to smoke in the bunker, and immediately after Hitler was gonesies, everyone lit up! Nowdays, there is a gay spa/sauna and a Chinese restaurant on the site - loving the irony there!

One of our favourite things in Berlin was the Ampelmann - the electronic traffic light signals used for pedestrian crossings on the street. The little green and red guys are very popular throughout Berlin, they even have their own stores selling everything from towels, to lollies and pasta in their shape. The cool thing about them, besides their cute figures, is that they were the signals used in East Berlin during communist rule. The city has kept them throughout Berlin now, as a sign of 'ostalgia', like nostalgia, except 'ost' in German means 'East', so its nostalgia of the East. Very cool.

Finally, we totally forgot to mention a very random experience at the flea markets. So please mentally add this into the previous entry. At the markets, there was a karoke show would you believe?! An impromptu stage in the round featured a guy with a laptop and a sound system, and local Germans and out of towners randomly sang karoke songs. It was hilarious to witness ze locals singing Neil Diamond, Counting Crows and even the Doors. Like a Wirgin lives on forever!

Well folks, that's Berlin finito, wish we could have seen more, but we've learnt our lesson for Prague, which is our next installment, coming soon to theatres.

Cheers big ears,

Dee and Lewey

Ps. (we are now using these names as apparently all of you were confused as to who was who... c'mon guys... Dee= Dani, Dan= (did mean Lewey), now Lewey=Lewey. Hope you can cope with this. Ciao :)
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