Kasteel Well Week 9: Germany (Part 3) – Berlin
Before arriving in Europe, I had never taken a train as a form of transportation. I had ridden tourist trains, subways, and those little kiddie trains at a train show, but nothing to take me from one city to another. I quickly became accustomed to the process of taking trains – which was a bit different for each country. I chose to take an overnight train from Munich to Berlin where I would meet a few of my friends before continuing to Hamburg to complete my Germany tour.
There are a few different options when picking a spot on an overnight train – everything from a reclining seat to a private bedroom with a shower and bathroom. Traveling on a budget but hoping to get some sleep, I purchased a space in a 6-bed couchette – essentially a hostel room on wheels. For this train in particular, you had to make sure you were in the right car because the train split mid-journey with half of the train going to Berlin and the other to Hamburg. I found my rom and settled into my middle bunk. It was a tight space but this was clearly a situation where you get what you pay for!
I awoke the next morning about half an hour outside of Berlin. The younger man in our cabin was already gone when I woke, and the older gentleman was on his way out. I spent the rest of the journey chatting with the two young ladies from China and the older German woman who remained in our cabin. We each spoke of our travels and as we approached Berlin, the German woman mentioned she lives in Berlin and began to point things out from the train and explain the city’s history and culture to me. One of her more interesting talking points was how the city is still very much divided even twenty-plus years after the wall came down. Several generations lived within that era, and it will take several more to rebuild the city as one cohesive place. This was something I had really thought about before that conversation, but I definitely noticed the influence as I explored the city.
I arrived in the city about half an hour before my friends’ bus, which gave me enough time to track down our hostel and successfully navigate them when they arrived. After travelling solo for 4 days, seeing a few familiar faces emerge from the subway resulted in a pair of obnoxiously long hugs. Our hostel was one of my favorites of my time in Europe. From the fun & friendly staff to the vinyl records decorating the bathrooms it was one of our better decisions planning the trip. We dropped our belongings behind the front desk and set off to discover what the German capital had to offer.
As I had been planning my last few days I thought I’d just follow for the day. My only two conditions were to see the Memorial to the German Resistance at the Bendlerblock and to track down a Hard Rock Café pin as I had been collecting them for years. We set out for the Bendlerblock with full intentions of finding things along the way.We wandered upon Checkpoint Charlie – well, wandered might not be the best description since we had a map. Checkpoint Charlie is arguably the most famous of the many transfer points between East and West Berlin during the years of the Berlin Wall. Today it is marked by one of the signs written in English, Russian, French & German informing of the border between the two sectors; a few sections of the Berlin Wall painted by artists; and a tourist trap checkpoint in the center of the road. We inspected the sections of the Berlin Wall on display there as they had all been delicately painted. Some were fun such as the one of a dog saying “woof!” while others represented more serious topics such as a series of panels with portraits of current dictators and world villains. We continued on our way and arrived at the Bendlerblock. The Bendlerblock served as the German Army’s headquarters during World War II and was an integral part of the German Resistance’s July 20 plot to kill Hitler. After the failed coup, those found responsible were immediately sentenced to death and the sentence was carried out by firing squad in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock. The 2008 film Valkyrie was a dramatized but fairly accurate telling of the July 20 plot, which received special permission from the German government to film on location at the Bendlerblock. After the war, the courtyard has become a memorial to all of those who fought against the Nazi rule for the better of humanity and part of the building now houses the German Resistance Memorial Center. We were too stubborn to get an English audio guide for the museum and instead found ourselves walking the wrong way through the exhibit and trying to learn German.
We found a small café not too far from a life-sized LEGO giraffe and sat down for lunch. Afterwards we continued north towards the Brandenburg Gate and discovered the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial consisted of a field of grey pillars that appeared to be the same height despite following the lay of the land, but were actually very different heights. Due to this layout, it was fairly easy to start at waist high pillars and suddenly find yourself surrounded by some twice your height. The result was an ominous, unsettling feeling that you couldn’t control what was happening in your life as you lost yourself going deeper and deeper into the grid. Underneath the block field was the museum component of the memorial. Following the timeline of the Holocaust, the museum features stories of people, their families and their lives through that era.
After resurfacing from the memorial, we discovered the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism that was located across the street. Styled after its neighbor, this memorial consisted of a single block with a small window looking inside. Looking through the window one could see a video loop of couples from that era kissing, which would have been illegal at the time. On a lighter note, as we turned away from the memorials, we saw a beer bike. This was essentially a bar on wheels with everyone pedaling the vehicle down the street. Leave it to the Germans to find a way to have the pub crawl.
Our next stop was the Brandenburg Gate. As one of the most famous spots in Berlin, it was awfully crowded so we scurried right along Unter den Linden towards the TV Tower. After some small pit stops for currywurst and a visit to a toy store, we arrived at the base of the TV Tower. We had grossly underestimated the number of people that would be trying to go up in the tower. We decided it wasn’t worth either the time or the money to go up, so we set off to collect another friend who was just arriving for the weekend.
We met Annie at the hostel and wandered the nearby neighborhoods for dinner. Eventually we chose an Indian restaurant which was my first time ever having Indian food. After dinner – as a group of How I Met Your Mother fans – our destination was MacLaren’s Pub. The Berlin interpretation was more of a tribute than a replica of the show’s bar. A stormtrooper looks out the window, the yellow umbrella hangs on the wall next to the three-way belt, and the menu starts with an introduction featuring the owners’ tale to their kids about how they thought, “we should buy a bar!”Our morning began with us cooking breakfast in the hostel before returning to Checkpoint Charlie. Looking back, I regret our decision to visit the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. The museum was clearly not curated, as there was little organization to the collection, which made it difficult to digest the information. We escaped – unfortunately with headaches – and continued to one of the last remaining segments of the Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror. The Topography of Terror is a museum that documents the history of crimes committed byt the SS during the Third Reich’s rule. Of all of the exhibitions I’ve seen about the Nazi oppression, I think this was one of the best executed and most powerful.
It was extremely cold during our time in Berlin, so we did a lot of short distances walking in the city. We barely made it four blocks before ducking into a café for a hot beverage. Before I knew it, it was time for me to split from my friends and continue on my solo journey. I quickly shot across the city and bought my Hard Rock Café pin before returning to Berlin Hauptbahnhof and boarding my train to Hamburg.
Travel time so far: 99 hours, 4 nights = 5 cities