We had high hopes that Berlin would give us a break from the rain that seemed to follow us for about a week, so we were happy when we landed at Schoenefeld Airport on a sunny evening. We took it easy that evening and walked around the area near our hotel (Mitte) and grabbed a bite at Altberliner Weißbierstube (an authentic German restaurant) where it was all about a hardy meal consisting of meat, cabbage and potatoes – washed down with a glass of Riesling and one of the local pilsners. The meal was grand as was our first impression of the German capital – the boulevards, the plazas, many buildings and even the churches appeared massive and very modern.
The next morning we set out for the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall (about 1.3 km long) which is completely covered by murals and graffiti from artists around the world. The Berlin Wall was first constructed in 1961 and numerous “improvements/fortifications” had taken place since. What’s left today is a 11+ foot tall bitter reminder of an instrument that fractured a city, culture and people. What stood out most were the colorful murals (all of which were restored recently), giving vocation to the pain endured by East Berliners for nearly 30 years. From there we made our way to Checkpoint Charlie, the most well-known East-West Berlin crossing point linking the former American and Soviet sectors. As expected there were herds of tourists everywhere but I think we managed to take a couple of pics without 150 other people in them. Right next to the checkpoint is the corresponding museum which was our next stop but not before a quick bite of street food. This is where Brigitte had her fist “currywurst” the sausage we’ve heard so much about (basically a sausage cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup). The museum was set up in 1962 so today it’s pretty compact but they did a tremendous job in chronicling life in East Berlin. It was full of pictures and relics from the years after WWII to 1989 when the Wall came down. Most impressive were the stories, methods and devices utilized by some East Berliners in making their escape to West Berlin – from people hiding is car engines, suitcases, to escaping via underground tunnels, air balloons or flying car type vehicles, to mini acquatic propulsion system. The immeasurable will to escape led to a paramount level of creativity. But with some of the successful escapes also came tragic failures which were somberly depicted as well.
After the museum we walked through a couple of different neighborhoods and checked out the Topography of Terror, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag (the impressive Parliament building) that was crawling with Polizei (Police); apparently Sarkozy was arriving in town the next day. From there we continued on in search of a “locals” area where we could cool down with a drink. Our search landed us in Hackescher Markt which was filled with restaurants, bars and shops and tourists as well. We stopped at one of the restaurants and took in the ambiance as well as the replenishing sun rays. From there Brigitte suggested that we make our way to Prenzlauer Berg (the northern section of Berlin), which turned out to be our favorite neighborhood as not too many typical tourists linger up there. Cool bars, cafes, bookshops and restaurants dressed the streets which evoked a Brooklyn-like feel. Needless to say we felt right at home, especially upon finding a Beergarten! We spent the rest of our evening at Prater Garden (Berlin´s oldest and largest beer garden) watching and doing like the locals – enjoying a Berlin pilsner which kicked ass!
Our first full day in Berlin saw us through various neighborhoods – our favorite way of getting to know a city. The next day we decided to see another museum and more of the Berlin Wall monuments which are scattered throughout the city. We first checked out the Stasi Museum located within a complex of typical communist style buildings (very basic). The Stasi was the oppressive secret police organization of East Germany that kept citizens in “order” during the communist regime. The museum housed a great collection of relics from the former regime including numerous spying devices used to monitor citizens. We saw all types of hidden cameras in tree trunks, briefcases, clothes, gas containers and listening bugs in ties, pens and watches. It was interesting to see all these things which I’ve only seen in movies. The Stasi even collected scent or odor samples from people in their goal of having total surveillance of citizens. There was also a compelling 1-hr long documentary film about the Stasi and their oppression of East Germans.
From there we stopped by Potsdamer Platz for a quick reunion and lunch with Brigitte´s friend Mathilde who lives in Berlin. Then we checked out another Wall memorial/museum dedicated to many who died trying to break through to West Berlin – including an exact recreation of the wall during the 80s, a very grim reality. After that we made our way back towards Mitte (a central and very cool area of Berlin) where we met up with one of my old work colleagues – Aline – for drinks. It was great to catch up with her and hear what life was like growing up in East Germany.