Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
133Trip End Feb 28, 2013
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Where I stayed
Berlin is without question one of Europe's great cities and yet it has quite a different feel from other European cities like Paris, Rome and London. I think it is because Berlin is still very much a work in progress while cities like Paris and Rome feel more like completed works. I first visited Berlin in 1991, just after the reunification of East and West Germany and the removal of the Berlin wall. There were still obvious signs of damage from the war and, maybe worse, damage from poor Communist government programs in the former East Berlin section of the city. Massive central heating pipes ran directly overhead of sidewalks and through buildings. It was clear that a lot of work needed to be done to return the city to greatness but the potential for greatness was clearly there in the scale of the city, the architecture and the monuments.
In 1998, Mary and I visited Berlin for a few days
So it was with a bit of disappointment that we discovered central Berlin to be completely under construction once again on this visit. Much work is being done at Museumsinsel (Museum Island) in an ambitious plan to link all the museums. The grand boulevard of Unter den Linten, which leads to the Brandenburg Gates, is also completely under construction because a new subway line is being built underneath it. Construction has also begun on rebuilding the enormous Berliner Stadtschloss (with a reported budget of 2 billion Euros).
Even with all the new construction, the effects of World War II are still quite evident when visiting Berlin and yet there is a tangible feeling that the city is coming back to life after suffering some near fatal injuries. No doubt other cities in Europe have gone through these rebuilds over the centuries and countless wars. Warsaw is a great example of a city rebuilt. At some point, Berlin will feel complete again and the construction (and reconstruction) will be come to an end
Of course there is so much to see in Berlin that we didn’t let the construction get in our way. We had museums we wanted to see and places to explore. Our hotel was a bit outside of the downtown (we picked it for the free parking and the highly praised complementary buffet breakfast) so we left our car there and took advantage of Berlin’s excellent public transportation system to get around. On our first day we focused on Alexanderplatz and the museums of Museumsinsel. The highlight for me was the Pergamon Museum. Constructed in 1930, it contains several massive reconstructed archeological sites including the Pergamon Altar and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. I can’t recall another museum in our travels that has such large scale exhibits.
We also visited the Neues Museum. Badly damaged in the war, it has been rebuilt and was reopened in 2009. At some point as I walked through the Neues Museum enjoying the excellent collection I realized I had reached museum overload. After nearly five months of visiting countless museums all over Europe, things were starting to blur. I was walking through rooms with impressive paintings and sculptures but I know I wasn’t registering everything. I suppose the timing was good since this was the last art museum we visited in our five months in Europe
Fortunately Berlin has a lot more to see than just art museums. We visited the massive Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe located just south of the Brandenburg Gates. Filling an entire city block, it evokes the feeling of walking through a graveyard of massive tombstones. Somber to say the least, it is unlike any memorial I have ever seen but then what other memorial represents the slaughter of millions of innocent people? We had planned to walk to the Jewish Museum late in the day since we knew it was open until 10PM. As we made our way, we came upon an open air museum called the Topography of Terror. It turned out to be a very interesting chronicle of the Rise of the Nazis in Germany and so delayed our arrival at the Jewish Museum until later that evening.
Maybe it was because we were at the end of a long day of exploring Berlin, but I found the Jewish Museum to be a bit of a letdown. The Libeskind design felt a bit forced with much unusable interior space. The displays themselves had a bit of an elementary feel to them. Good for educating children perhaps but not much depth for an audience with some familiarity with Jewish European history. I appreciate the importance of having a museum of this profile in Berlin, just wish it had more to say
On our last full day in Berlin we met with my step-sister Leona for lunch. The last time we saw her was in 2000 when she was still living in Australia so it was nice to catch up a bit. Leona has been living in Berlin for a few years now and she feels Berlin is a great place to live as an artist. Berlin has a long history of being open to new people, new cultures and new ideas. I suppose Leona is just the latest wave of newcomers to call Berlin home.
After lunch we caught a train to get back downtown but through a little honest confusion, we ended up missing our stop. We had a look at our options and decided to keep going a few more stops and visit the Charlottenburg Palace. This is the largest palace in Berlin and quite a tourist draw. Originally built in the 1600s and expanded in the 1700s, it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. What we see today is yet another meticulous post war reconstruction. It is reassuring in a way to know that we can reverse at least some of the destruction caused by war but of course we cannot bring back even a single person whose life was cut short by wars they did not likely wish to have.
Berlin your name cannot be spoken without evoking many emotions. You are unfortunately associated with a dark past but yet I sense a bright future for you. You are a welcome harbour for people seeking a new start, a new home, a new life. I look forward to seeing what you become someday.