We spent this past weekend in Berlin. At a 40-minutes plane ride from Copenhagen, it is an easy weekend getaway. With 21-degree (Celsius) weather, it was a nice respite from the cool-to-cold of Denmark.
The city feels like a house with ‘great bones’ that has been completely remodeled, and modernized, but with a great care to historical accuracy. We highly recommend a visit. Our hotel (great deal!) came with a surprise tub that had the womenfolk giddy with joy. The public transport is a dream (better even than Copenhagen, not to mention London): clean, efficient, punctual. Food & shopping are cheap (compared with Denmark, at least). And the city… wow!
Twenty years ago this fall the Berlin wall fell, due in part to beaurocratic incompetence. After a decision was made to loosen travel restrictions for East Germans, the minister tasked with holding the press conference was asked ‘When will these changes take effect?’ This vital bit of info wasn’t part of the communication package he had been given, so he ad libbed: “Immediately.” And the torrent of people began that night.
We took the excellent Original Berlin Walking tour, a four-and-a-half hour excursion from Imperial Prussia through the end of the divided Germany. It was hard for us to get a sense of what life was like in East Berlin. The core of the city has been cleaned up, rebuilt, and flooded with commerce. Friends tell us that further into the east side you can still get a sense of the Soviet architecture.
The most incredible thing, though, is how the city has commemorated the past while striding into the future. Except for a few tourist attractions, the wall is gone. There is a few-hundred-meter section in the city center that is now surrounded by a fence to help preserve it. There is the mile-long East Side Gallery, which is covered with graffiti of the best kind that celebrates the new birth of Berlin and Germany. And there are a few segments scattered around the city like war booty. But for the length of the wall, or at least the length of the wall in the city center, a two-brick wide line has been embedded in the ground showing the former border separating Berlin from Berlin.
Another remarkable monument: at the site where in 1933 the Nazis burnt more than 25,000 books, Berlin has set a plaque into the cobblestones with a prescient 1820 quote from German writer Heinrich Heine: “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.” Most cities and countries would have been satisfied with that. But not Germany! They have dug a deep hole, lined it with empty bookshelves sufficient to house the 25,000 books, and covered it with plate glass. Now to warn that facists burn books, visitors can get down on their knees and peer through the glass to the shelves below.
And yet another remembrance. The monument to the Jewish victims of the holocaust is just south of the Brandenburg Gate, on land in the former shoot-to-kill zone between the eastern and western Berlin walls. The large square is covered in massive concrete blocks, and houses an underground museum. While the official line is that the design is abstract, one cannot help feel, while wandering amongst the stones, the weight and permanence of the destruction the Nazis swept across Europe, dragging Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, and others to murderous ends.
We also enjoyed the Reichstag, which has been made over into a symbol of government openness and public scrutiny as a way to avoid tyranny. From the front doors one can see into the parliament hall, and from inside the parliament hall, the elected members can see the visitors circling the glass dome above them.
Also, check out more photos on our Flickr set.