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Backpacking-through-Europe Part IV: Berlin

Sent Thursday, March 26, 2009 3:13 PM

From the wonderful, anything-goes city of Amsterdam, my train proceeds to Berlin, capital city of the new Germany.  After brief stops in the German cities of Osnabrück and Hannover, I arrive in this great city, contemplating my own, preconceived notions of the city – an eclectic mixed-bag of Adolf Hitler, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Checkpoint Charlie…oh, yeah…and Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’!

After warm days in The Netherlands, Berlin is sunny and clear, but blusteringly, hand-and-ear-numbing-ly cold!  But, no worries!  Between my snazzy, long-john underwear and wool socks, the high-tech-fabric undershirt and jacket Mom & Dad helped me pick out at REI in Seattle along with the backpack (which, by the way, has been AWESOME!), the hoodie sweatshirt Ben and JoAn brought me back from Nantucket, the everything-proof Carhartt gloves I picked up in NYC and my favorite, hand-knitted-by-Ralph cap, I’m ready for any sharp, icy jabs Mother Nature decides to throw my way! (Bring it ON, Sistah!)  I won’t be toasting HER today!  Here’s to Polartek Fleece!

And, after great hostels in Brussels and, especially, Amsterdam, I arrive at my not-so-great hostel here.  No breakfast like the last two and, strangely, no reception!  When you arrive, you call a phone number; they arrive to give you your key and orientation; and they leave.  Bizarre!  Oh, well…I like the location, a neighborhood called Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg that used to be behind the Wall in Eastern Berlin.  It’s now a hip and trendy, sort-of-edgy ‘hood, where Berlin’s alternative subcultures thrive.  When the Wall came down, West Berlin’s artists, musicians, gays and students hastened to the East side, where rents were much cheaper and the “wasteland” of the East provided a fresh canvas on which to paint their lives…an ironic, reverse-direction “escape” from those that had been attempted over the past 40 years!  Here, bars, nightclubs and cheap eats abound…hence, the hostels.  Mitte-Prenzlauer Berg is within walking distance of about a third of the sights on my to-do list, and hosts several bus and tram lines. A good thing, since Berlin is quite large and spread out…the walk between sights will test even MY walking-legs…and THESE boots were made-for-walkin’!

Thankfully, Berlin has one of the most extensive, super-efficient (Hello! Germans!) transportation systems in the world.  There are buses, trams, and not one, but TWO, light rail systems, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains.  Berlin’s mass-transit is the epitome of the well-planned systems of Europe.  Tickets are good on all the various types of transit; and ticketing is on the honor system. Rather than the profit-paranoid, ticket-and-turnstyle system in the States, Europeans dutifully purchase their tickets and self-validate the tickets at convenient machines in the stations or on the buses, trams and trains. This validation stamp determines the start-to-end validity period of the ticket.  Compared to the ticket-machine- and turnstyle-bottlenecks in the NYC subways (which only happen when you’re in a rush), the European system is brilliant…and nope, the system’s not bleeding to death from travelers cheating it!

My first day, I venture through the ‘hood, passing the Stiftung Neue Synagogue of 1866, its facade and dome restored to its historic, sacred, golden glory, then cross over Berlin’s river Spree onto Museumsinsel, a beautiful island on which the city’s great museums reside.  Past the collection of museums, I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the incredibly beautiful Berliner Dom, the massive and ornate Lutheran cathedral built in 1900, whose green-black, verdigris domes and statues glow in the tangerine light of the waning sun.  I’m also duly impressed by the sheer number of statues up there! (Party on da rooftop!)

Alongside the Dom, I begin a long, long, long walk down the famous (and did I mention LONG?!) boulevard, Unter den Linden, to its terminus, the famous Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. Today, this beautiful structure, under which I’m filled with the same sense of awe I get standing under Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, leads you to the beautiful greenspace called Tiergarten, once the royal hunting grounds.  But the gate’s infamy stems from its service as the main gate of the dreaded Berlin Wall.  Once the sun sets for the day, the cold is unbearable (Mother Nature ain’t playin’ fair!); so a quick duck into a bäckerei (bakery) in Pariser Platz for a soul-warming coffee, then back to the hostel to hunker down for the night.  Tomorrow’s itinerary is gonna kick my ass!

Potsdamer Platz, the throbbing hub of Berlin life (on par with New York’s Times Square) from the turn of the century until the WWII bombings and its later leveling to serve as the no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, has been rebuilt in modern steel and glass.  Not very interesting to me in general (remember, I like OLD!); but the giant, modern, canvas-and-metal sunshade atop the Sony Center complex is a wonder: part sail, part fan, part bird-wing…and pure art…origami on a scale as grand as Berlin.  Go to Potsdamer Platz to see this, if nothing else.

Nearby is the sight at the tip-top of my list, the Reichstag.  But on the way, two memorials I’ve wanted badly to visit.  The Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is fantastic.  Encompassing an entire block, it’s a series of rectangular, concrete blocks of different heights, set into ground that has been UN-levelled intentionally, a rollercoaster surface causing you to labor up inclines, then drop into sudden depressions in the ground.  As you walk into the monument, the monoliths begin to suddenly tower over you and envelop you – a cold, dark, tomb-like feeling.  Add to this the uneven, snakey ground you’re trying to navigate; and you become disoriented and, to be honest, a little spooked…just the effect the memorial’s designer had in mind.  It gives us a sense of the disorientation and lost wandering the Jewish people experienced during this horrible period in history. This is another Berlin must-see.  The feeling is at once somber, wondrous and uneasy.  The design, however, is perfection.

Directly across the street is a small and obscure, but very unique, memorial – the Monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims.  During Hitler’s reign of terror, homosexual men (but not lesbians, who were considered less of a threat) were also rounded up all over Europe and sent to the concentration camps, forced to wear a pink triangle sewn onto their clothing in the same way that Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David. (This is why, worldwide, gays today have adopted the pink triangle as our symbol of pride, to celebrate survival.  “Knock-knock…we’re still HERE!”  Snap-snap-snap in Z-formation!  Haha!  The Cosmopolitan, originally known as the Pink Martini, was our “official” cocktail way before “Sex and the City”…just look at it…it’s a pink triangle in the glass!) The Homosexual Holocaust Victims monument is small and not very spectacular, looking like a cross between a misplaced concrete block from the Jewish memorial across the street and a metal garden shed, with a small window that is obviously meant for peering into. The placard for the memorial, right on the sidewalk, accessible to the reading eyes of any passerby, is far from the monument itself, a VERY interesting juxtaposition! The placard’s text is informative and touching, explaining the history I briefly mentioned above, then noting that a kiss between two lovers was reason enough for conviction, and ending with the following quote: “Because of its history, Germany has a special responsibility to actively oppose the violation of gay men’s and lesbians’ human rights.”

BUT, if you’re interested in learning more (and you can’t help but WANT to peer into that little window to see what the heck is in there!), you have to walk a designated trail from the placard to the monument…anyone passing by can see you (you’re, in effect, “outed”) making a conscious, knowing effort to take part in the honoring of these lost, gay men.  In fact, after proudly peering into the little window, I walked away and sat down on a bench away from the memorial, deep in thought.  Several men passed by, read the placard, then glanced around to see if anyone was around who might possibly see them before approaching the window.  Only when they were certain the coast was clear did they quickly and nervously proceed.  Some just never got up the nerve to go further; and some couples who approached separated at the placard, the female of the couple advancing to the window, leaving her partner behind…he more anxious than ever without his female partner to confirm his sexual preference to the passing public.  Interesting, huh?  Fear runs DEEP!

And just what IS inside that window?  A continually-running film showing various, gay male (and fully-clothed, mind you!) couples standing in the spot before the memorial was installed, hugging, laughing, whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears, and kissing. It’s so beautiful; and it made me aware of how rare these images of gay couples are for all of us…being lovey-dovey and sweet, holding hands and each other, touching each others’ cheeks and hair, enamored and in love…and all above-the-belt. Wow…

Two “heavy” sights in a row; and I need major sustenance. You can’t NOT do sausages and beer in Germany; and you don’t have to go far to find both! (It was my first trip to Germany in 1994 that sent my 7-year, steak-and-burger-resistant vegetarian streak crashing like a Stuka in flames.  My Achilles’ Heel, a weakness for salt-cured meats like bacon and sausage, was brutally exposed. Blame it on a big, grilled Bratwurst in an outdoor market in Köln that had me at “sizzle!”)  Today’s perfect lunch is “Berliner” brand beer, “naturlisch!” (naturally!), accompanied by an extremely popular Berlin street-food, “curry-wurst”.  This is a big, grilled sausage, sliced, drizzled with a tangy-sweet, tomato-ey sauce, then liberally sprinkled all over with curry powder…yowzah!  Any of you who have dined with me know I’m all over this!

Refreshed, it’s on to my last Berlin sights this trip…Gendarmenmarkt and the Reichstag. Gendarmenmarket is a lovely, wide-open square featuring the Konzerthaus building in its center, bookended by two beautiful, nearly-twin churches: Französische Dom and Deutsche Dom, the French and German Cathedrals.  It’s the perfect square to pull up to a cafe table on a nice day, relax and watch the world go by.  Berlin should have been renamed “Phoenix”; because it has definitely risen from the ashes…both the bombings that flattened it in WWII, and the social neglect of Communist-ruled East Berlin.  I bought some postcards showing the most famous Berlin sights right after the Allied bombings…twisted metal amongst piles of crumbled, burning masonry…being stared at by stunned Berliners in total shock. These images, alongside the photos I took of the same sights today show the amazing restoration work! Gendarmenmarkt is just one of the sights portrayed, as is Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag, my next stop.

The Reichstag is Berlin’s best-known structure, home to today’s German Parliament.  Famous is its dome, which burned in 1933 and was never replaced. That is, until the reunification, when a new, spectacular dome designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the architects mentioned in an earlier travelogue, capped the symbolic structure. The new dome is the highlight of the Reichstag, if not all of Berlin!  All glass and metal, a spiral walkway lines its interior, affording you breathtaking, 360-degree views of the city.  The central column inside the dome is covered in an array of geometric mirrors at many different angles, reflecting the visitors, the outside panoramas of the city, and other mirrors, giving you that mirrors-to-infinity effect.  It’s a fantastic, space-age, dizzying wonderland in there…hold on to the railings if you lose your sense of balance!  Another must-see; but go early. The Reichstag is always free; and since only a limited number of visitors at a time are allowed in, the lines get long and move very slowly. But, whenever you go, it’s well worth the wait. You can even peer in on a session of Parliament, watching history in the making.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche is a totally different type of sight than you’ll see elsewhere in Berlin…a modern ruin. Another casualty of Allied bombers, this once-beautiful church was preserved in its bombed-out state, shored-up here and there to prevent it from crumbling further.  It’s beautiful in this state; though you can’t help but long for the parts of it that were lost.  I love that someone had the foresight to think of doing this!  It’s important to see the results of the destructive power we possess.  Berlin is not afraid of her difficult, marred past. Bravely, this city started with acceptance, then moved to reparations, healing, reunification and honoring those who suffered at her hand and, like the true world leader she is, made a pact with her citizens to prevent the same mistakes from ever entering her sparkling future.  It’s an honor to experience her!

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