Berlin, more than just a place that had a wall.

Trip Start Apr 01, 2011
Trip End Jan 26, 2012

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Flag of Germany  ,
Thursday, June 2, 2011

We were not sure what to expect in Berlin.  Other than knowing there was a wall here and that it was, and again is, the capital of Germany, I was pretty much clueless about modern Berlin.
We arrived at the Bus station because in addition to great trains, Germany also has great bus systems and they are less than half the price of taking the train.  But wait a minute, isn't the bus slow and boring?  Not really, we had a great ride through the middle of Germany, sitting in the front row on the top of a double decker bus.  It was like being in the drivers seat except with an even better view.  Since most of the journey was on the Autobahn, which has a speed limit of 130 Km/h and having 3 to 5 lanes in each direction, it was a pretty fast trip.

We did a lot of sightseeing while in Berlin and in addition to visiting museums and specific monuments, spent a lot of time just walking around different areas of the city taking in the view.  Our first stop was the DDR Museum which is dedicated to what life was like in East Berlin during the time of Soviet control, from 1945 to 1989.  We saw lots of interesting exhibits such as: a reconstruction of a Soviet era housing unit complete with food in the cupboards; an East German manufactured Trabant car, which had a body made out of plastic reinforced cotton; dummy hand grenades that East German schoolchildren used to practice lobbing during phys-ed classes; examples of clothing and consumer goods that were common; and exhibits describing what work and leisure time was like.

After the DDR museum, we took a 1 hour riverboat tour through the city on the Spree River and got an overview of the history of Berlin and many of the buildings that line the river.  Walking around the town, it is pretty easy to tell if you are in the former East side or West side based on what the buildings look like.  If you are in the East, there are rows of condo buildings on almost every street that all look the same.  They all have flat brick or concrete sides, 2 windows per apartment and most of them have no balconies, but if there is a balcony, it is set into the building so the front of the buildings are all still flush.  There is also a huge communications tower with a silver ball on the top of it that I think you can see from anywhere in the East side of Berlin and even a lot of the west side of the downtown.  We visited "Checkpoint Charlie" which was probably the most famous military checkpoint at the Berlin wall and if you have ever seen pictures of Soviet and American tanks facing each other in the middle of a city, it was probably at Checkpoint Charlie.  The wall is gone there now and the original checkpoint building is also gone but a reconstruction is there and people dressed as guards still stand in front of it all day.  There is a museum in the building that is right beside the checkpoint and the museum has been there since the 1960's.  The museum contains a lot of information about the Berlin wall including documentation on successful and unsuccessful escapes as well as technical information on the security systems that were in place.  Yes, that is correct this information was on public display in the museum during the entire time the Berlin wall separated East and West Berlin, in a building RIGHT NEXT to the wall.  Museum staff  used to provide information to West Berliners who were helping friends or family escape from the East and would even on occasion directly assist people during escapes.  The museum was rarely shot at by the East guards but they do have one file folder on display that took a round of fire during an escape attempt.

Most of the wall is gone now but a few sections are still in place and one of the sections that is over a kilometer long is painted with murals and is a sort of long outdoor art gallery.  The rest of the former route of the wall is marked with a path of parallel bricks throughout the city so you can see where it used to run.  As in Munich, there was a LOT of damage done to buildings in WW2 and a lot of repair work has been done with some of it only being completed recently.  There is a cluster of 5 museums in the middle of the city that were severely damaged during the war.  The rebuilding work for the last one was just completed and the museum re-opened in 2009.  If that seems like a long time, keep in mind that Germany just made the final reparation payment to repay the damage to allied countries from World War I on October 3, 2010, 92 years after the war ended! 

Anyway, by this point, Robin was getting a bit tired of walking around museums (or at least the kinds of museums I like) so I headed off to the Deutsches Technical Museum and she went off in the other direction to randomly explore more of the city with the plan being to meet back at the hotel in 5 hours.  The technical museum was great, with a ton of trains, airplanes, boats, old computers, radio and TV equipment.  The funny part of this story though is that after going to the museum, I decided to take the U-Bahn to see Brandenburg Gate.  After walking around the Brandenburg Gate plaza, I went back into the U-Bahn station and, in a city of over 3.4 million people with 259 train stations and over 1 million transit passengers per day, I run into Robin!

Next stop in Berlin was a tour with Berlin Underworlds Association.  The guides took us thorough a WW2 bunker in downtown Berlin that had later been refitted as a cold war bomb shelter.  The other building they took us through was a multipurpose building which was built in the 1970's as a combination U-Bahn train station and nuclear fallout shelter for over 3,000 people.  It's still operating as a train station and was only recently decommissioned as a fallout shelter.  When a train is sitting on the tracks at the platform, there are sets of airlock doors in the back wall of the station that line up with the trains doors.  The trains were actually intended to be a part of the living space of the shelter.  On the other side of the train platform wall there are decontamination showers, generators, water, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping and air filtration facilities to keep over 3,000 people alive for 2 weeks.  It was a very interesting, informative, funny and sobering look at the state of preparation for a potential WW3.

We spent the rest of the last day just walking around Berlin and other than me getting mobbed by a bachelorette party :-) it was uneventful and relaxing.
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