From my experience, Germany is like the forgotten tourist destination in Europe. People I speak to, both Europeans and non-Europeans, they all dream of places like Paris, Amsterdam, Prague ,Barcelona, Venice and the Mediterranean. France, Spain and Italy seem to get the main press for Europe, whereas Germany hardly gets a look-in. I suspect that both lacking any significant part of the Alps or a southern Mediterranean coast pretty much seals Germany's fate as far as many foreign tourists go. Many people just can't think of a single reason to go there. It even (thankfully Anglo-German relations) gets bypassed by the hoards of drunken British stag night parties that leave the low-rent airports of middle england every day. They just keep flying until they reach either Prague or Riga. However with so much of Europe's recent history tied to Germany and Berlin in particular, I had to go see for myself.
Berlin is an odd place. My only other experience of Germany is Frankfurt (twice on 7 hour stopovers) and the odd village here and there whilst travelling through on the coach to the Czech Republic. In either of those examples, everything is tidy, disciplined, clean, well kept and in order. Berlin is not like that at all. There is much vandalism, broken/uneven pavements, litter and things like that. My friend who has lived there for the past 4 years described it as "ragged" and it certainly is. Berlin is a city for artists, drop outs, students and alternatives. There is still a noticeable contrast between East and West Berlin as well, with the east side being predictably worse. My hotel was located in the East too, A basic but clean room, typical IBIS hotel style. It was only about 15 minutes walk from Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station too, so that was very helpful. One thing that is like the rest of Germany – the U-Bahn and S-Bahn work efficiently, although the carriages mainly look like they were manufactured in about 1960. The S-Bahn was certainly efficient enough to get me from Schonefeld airport to Alexanderplatz in about 30 minutes. Quite why they feel the need for an Airport Express I am not sure. I could not wait to leave Schonefeld as it's a crappy looking amateur airport that servers only low cost amateur airlines, such as Ryanair who I flew in on, my least favourite airline. However they were the only choice for the route I wanted, and since I last used them in 2005 I see they've continued to lower standards and ever-cheapen the once glamourous experience of international jet travel. Now I can buy scratchcards on board too; it's worse than being on a local bus service.
There is a lot of old looking stuff in Berlin. You’d think that after being flattened in the war everything would be quite new, but it still feels and looks like a classical European capital, and there is definitely a sense of history about the place, both pre-war, post-war and cold war. The Checkpoint Charlie / Berlin wall area in particular is a big tourist trap, and just like in Prague, there are many stalls selling Soviet/DDR uniforms, hats and all manner of things with a Soviet hammer and sickle motif on them. No KGB T-shirts like in Prague though, perhaps they've not caught on to this yet. If you're desperate to buy something that says "You are leaving the American Sector" in 4 languages, then you will not be short of things to buy. Whether the actual sign that says this is still genuine or a replica like the border crossing hut, it does not say. Not far from this area is the only significant part of the Berlin Wall left, about 200m or so on what used to be called Prinz Albrecht Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse), the street containing the headquarters of the Gestapo. This is mentioned in another tourist sign/area called Topography of Terror, built on top of the only part of the Gestapo building left: the cellars. Near to this area I did find the kids playground that occupies the place formerly known as the Reich Chancellory and the Fuhrerbunker, site of Hitler's death. The area around Checkpoint Charlie (Freidrichstrasse) is now a relatively high-end shopping street and even with the control hut and sign, it's quite hard to picture what things must have been like way back. Capitalism has well and truly moved in. It is remarkable that nearly all of Berlin's major tourist attractions owe their "attraction" to the Second World War and the subsequent cold war. It's quite possible to apply the words "partially/entirely destroyed during the bombing of World War II" to pretty much everything you might find in Berlin.
Aside from Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are the two main tourist draws, and I was glad I got to them both early. The queue for the Reichstag was very long when I came back out, and I would never have got the photos of the Brandenburg gate with an empty square in front of it at any other time of the day. (The empty square ones were taken at 8:30am on a Sunday morning). Both the gate and the Reichstag are in remarkably good condition considering how they looked at the end of the war. A lot of restoration work went on there I am sure, thought the Reichstag is now sporting a brand new dome/cuploa on top to replace that which was destroyed. There seems to be a lot of controversy on this modern looking dome on top of what is a standard European Neoclassical building. I can't say I think it works well as a pairing. An analogy would be a bit fat set of modern chrome alloys on classic 1960's car. Taken on it's own however the new dome is quite an interesting place to walk up, and the views of Berlin from the top are good. The Brandenburg Gate was the main thing I wanted to see in Berlin, and I was not disappointed with that. It stands near the Tiergarten, which is a park so large it starts to feel like being in the countryside once you get deep enough in. The square next to the Brandenenburg Gate, Pariserplatz, gets very full of tourists after about 9am, and full of the same things you get in any European tourist area, such as those people spray painted silver pretending to be statues. So, there are many tourists in Germany after all, though I guess it gets a much lower percentage of European tourism than it's immediate neighbours. Most of the ones that do get as far as Berlin inevitably end up in the long, long queue outside the premiere museum, the Pergamon museum. Like anything else in Berlin, it's best to arrive early. Like the British Museum in London, it contains a lot of historical artefacts that have been "found" all around the world. Most impressive is the giant blue Babylon gate from Iraq - however the museum is quite expensive so if you do go - make sure you're really interested in what they've got inside.
Like so many other cities, most of Berlin's attractions can be seen quickly in about 3 days, particularly since the mass-transit system makes getting around so cheap and easy. Amongst the other tourist attractions are a whole load of other neoclassical buildings (those that involve columns and/or a triangle on top or a dome - like old greek/roman stuff). This is great if you've not seen them before, but I have seen many so the only ones that really impress are either the stupidly large, such as the Berliner Dom - a very very large dome on a very large cathedral, or the historically important, such as the Reichstag. There is also a lot of interesting modern architecture and art in Berlin. It seems every corporate building of any size feels the need to have some piece of art sitting on the front lawn, so all the time you're greeted with the most bizarre objects lying around, such as the large Katamari Damacy style ball of material and collected furniture in front of the L'Oréal building. Only a picture can describe this well. The "alternative" art scene is active too, with pretty much every static flat surface covered in paint and graffiti.
I did get some real German food (sautéed potato slices with a thick slab of pork and some hot pickled red cabbage), but there are so many Turkish in Berlin that it’s quite hard at times to find something that isn’t a Kebab, Falafel or Turkish "pizza". I did use my somewhat limited German though everyone spoke English as soon as they heard my accent anyway. I can read quite a lot more than I can speak, fortunately, so menus, shops, exits, direction signs and so on were no problem.
German food is certainly different from English food, but nonetheless good for the most part, it was nice to taste it again. Although something that describes itself on the menu as "roasted swine knuckles and schinken knacker with sour cabbage" does not really sound very appetizing in English. In fact, it sounds more like an autopsy than a meal. I also tried the Berlin speciality "CurryWurst", but it is only ok, just like the New York speciality Hot Dog.
Whilst sipping a "White Russian" in a bar in the curiously named northern Berlin suburb of Wedding, my friend and I were approached by two guys in white doctors coats and name badges. After some short exchange, it seemed they were taking "Aura" photographs for an art exhibition in Berlin the following month. They were a sort of German "Gilbert and George". After establishing that it was indeed free, and a brief photo session in a back room with a modified camera, the auras of Michael and Matthew will now become the 29th and 30th people displayed in a 30 photo set, somewhere in Berlin during October 2008 - so part of me will never leave.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2008