Berlin was an add-on to my European vacation. After booking Amsterdam and Prague, a client booked a meeting in Berlin and since I was “in the general vicinity” it was decided that I should attend. This was fine by me – an additional three days of sightseeing on somebody else’s dime. What’s not to like? Yes, I’ll have fries with that!
Admittedly, the expectations were set high after Amsterdam and Prague. I’ve visited other parts of Germany and spent a brief 2 days in Berlin many, many moons ago so I was looking forward to going back. After a brief overnight in Amsterdam, we were back in the air on our way to Berlin bright and early. I must say, the Berlin airport was small, dark and dingy. The drive to the hotel wasn’t much better. Although there were a lot of greenbelts along the way, they weren’t well taken care of. The buildings appeared to be your average, run-of-the-mill type, nothing fancy or unique. In fact, most looked identical. This was not the city I remembered. It didn’t help that it was cloudy and cool with a steady drizzle.
Our cab driver was a friendly sort of guy, originally from Ghana but had lived in Berlin for over 25 years. He said he loved “his” city so I was hopeful that once we started touring we would also appreciate what she had to offer. Because the rain didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon and the temperature hovering around 50° F, we decided it would be a good museum day. As luck would have it, we were within a few short blocks of Museuminsel, a museum complex located on an island in the middle of the city. After purchasing a museum pass, we spend many hours going through just 4 of the top 10. We started at the Alte Nationalgalerie which houses paintings and sculptures. I was relieved to be inside, out of the cold rain. We had to put our belongings (both of us carried large bags – a strict “no no”) into a locker and proceeded up our first of many, many staircases that day. As we went through the various halls, I finally warmed up enough to remove my light jacket (I wore multiple layers). Immediately, a stern looking guard approached me. I could tell by the look on his face he wasn’t happy however I didn’t know why as he rambled on in German. I shrugged my shoulders as an apology and stated I didn’t understand German. He continued to verbally berate me in German and I walked away. In the next room, we could see the security guard speaking into their collar watching us intently. Now we were getting paranoid. Finally, a woman approached me again and stated I must leave my coat on. Wow, really? By now I was quite warm but decided I didn’t need another international incident so I reluctantly put it back on. It still didn’t prevent the evil-eyed stares from virtually every guard as we entered each room as if we were some kind of threat to the artwork and/or Germans. Between the warmth and the stares, I was more than ready to move on. We picked up our stuff and headed next door to the Neues Museum. This one held an extensive Egyptian artifact collection. I had certainly learned my lesson at the previous building so I removed all my layers in order not to get in trouble with the personnel at this location. This time it seems my reputation did not precede me making this visit less stressful. This was my favorite museum however it was lacking one thing – mummies! (At the Museum of Natural History in London, they have actual mummies on display.) Next was Pergamonmuseum, which was the most crowded. This one had a special exhibit on Greece. By now, the mileage was starting to wear us out a bit. The last one we visited was the Bode museum which had more paintings and sculptures. Sad to say we only managed the ground floor. We stopped and looked at the large marble staircase but neither one of us could bring ourselves to actually climb it.
Wearily, we shuffled back to the hotel. The weather had not improved but the next day was supposed to be warmer and sunnier. Because there wasn’t a lot of restaurant options nearby, we opted to hop in a cab and head to the Hard Rock Café. I know, I know. This isn’t local and very touristy. However, I collect the guitar pins and never pass up the opportunity to pick one up if there is one nearby. Besides, haven’t I mentioned I’m a picky eater? Currywurst? Bratwurst? Um, no. I’ll take a good old-fashioned American cheeseburger any day of the week. So sue me.
The next day we signed up for the hop on, hop off bus tour. Because Berlin is so big and everything is so spread out, we decided this would give us the best opportunity to see the sights without having to navigate the subway or bus system. Whilst the sun did show up as promised, it was still quite cool and we decided not to expose ourselves to the brisk breeze on the open upper deck. I promptly lost my ticket (so unlike me) and hoped that it would be enough to show my credit card receipt. We managed to see the big sights – Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and Schloss Charlottenburg to name a few.
We had saved the afternoon for Checkpoint Charlie, the Jewish Museum and of course, the Berlin Wall. The Jewish Museum consists of 2 buildings. The older building has the typical architecture one would expect to find while the newer addition is very modern. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, it has several meaningful exhibits representing what the Jewish people experienced during the Holocaust. The building itself is a maize with halls and stairs that go nowhere and from the outside looks like it was put together haphazardly. Inside, there are several Voids; without air conditioning, heat or light are isolating. One of these areas is filled with round, iron “faces.” You really stop to think as the mere 10,000 are a drop in the bucket when you think of the millions who perished. The Garden of Exile is a made up of concrete pillars of different heights and sizes. When walking through this “garden” one feels off balance and a little dizzy. This was representing how the survivors felt when the war was over and they had no place to go. Russian Olives grow on top of the pillars representing hope. Like the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC it really makes you think about the atrocities of war. Next we headed to Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall Museum. As with most historical sites, there is a bit of tacky tourism at work. There were American “soldiers” you could pose with. Seems a bit silly to me, but what do I know? The Wall Museum was small and quite crowded. There was a lot of information written on the walls in German and English, along with hundreds of photos. There were all sorts of contraptions used to smuggle people from East Berlin to West Berlin. Hard to believe it wasn’t that long ago the wall stood, dividing the city and the risks people took to escape the oppression of the Communist government. An entire room was dedicated to President Reagan with a video loop playing his famous speech ending with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” With commercialism well at work here, one can buy a small chunk of the wall, be it a on a keychain, magnet or in a jar. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some small factory breaking of bits of concrete to fool the tourists into thinking they were getting a piece of the actual wall. At any rate, I opted for a few postcards showing old Berlin and new Berlin and a book.
Keeping in mind that much of Berlin was destroyed by the Allies, it was still fairly blah in terms of architecture in most areas. However, when one thinks about the history it is certainly worth a visit but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favorites. Overall, I didn’t find the Germans all that friendly and some were in fact quite hostile making me feel like I was back in Paris. The most friendly Germans were those who immigrated to the country from the Middle East or Africa. They loved Berlin with a ferocity that I couldn’t understand but could appreciate that they live in and experience a different city than I visited.
Monday afternoon we were off again, this time to Frankfurt. You see, the client moved the meeting and I only found out two weeks before we left. Rather than spend those additional days in Frankfurt (I’ve been there, done that twice), I decided to keep with the original program and visit Berlin. And I’m glad I did.