Friday, May 22, 2015

Berlin, Berlin

I've been to Berlin three times but I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I hope I can visit again and stay there longer. This is a slightly altered version of a story that first appeared in Lifestyle Asia's May 2014 issue

Written and photographed by Paul John Caña

A portion of the Berlin Wall

Tourists and tourist draw near the Brandenburg gate
Germany’s capital city is also its biggest so one day is not nearly enough time to cover even a tiny portion of what it has to offer. For the first time visitor, however, it is possible to get a feel of Berlin. Professional tour operators have devised a way to see some of the best of the city in a leisurely walking tour. While most people call out the usual places—Paris, Rome, London and Barcelona—when asked about their dream European city, Berlin itself is steeped in history, culture and a fun cosmopolitan vibe, making it a worthwhile destination for those making their way around the continent.

Even for the frequent visitor, it never feels like one truly knows Berlin. Heavily destroyed during World War II, the city has been rebuilt at a tremendous pace, and today it is one of those places that is constantly evolving, with a kinetic energy felt by those who have chosen to call it home.

The Brandenburg Gate has become an iconic symbol of Berlin, and Germany
The Hotel Adlon, located in Pariser Platz just across from the Brandenburg Gate, has become known for being the site where pop star Michael Jackson (in)famously dangled his baby off the balcony
A walking tour of Berlin can start near the Brandenburg gate, an enduring symbol not just of the city but of Germany as a whole. Built in the 18th century, today it is located in Pariser Platz, a huge square that is home to important structures that include the United States Embassy, the French Embassy, the luxury Hotel Adlon, the Kennedy Museum and the Academy of Arts Berlin.

Just south of the gate is a curious area filled with what appears at first glance to be gray slabs of concrete. This is the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The tour guide, an English chap named David, explained that there are actually 2711 concrete slabs and that there was considerable controversy when the project was first greenlit, and even more when it was finally unveiled in 2005. 

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

There are a total of 2711 slabs of concrete 

Walking amongst the slabs creates a sense of calm and foreboding
Ultimately, it is up to the individual viewer how he or she would like to interpret the memorial. From the outside, the slabs do form something akin to a cemetery, which is somewhat appropriate given what it is in tribute to, but venture deeper inside and there is a sense of calm and foreboding as the slabs slowly grow taller until they almost cover the sky.

A few minutes’ walk further down takes visitors to a rather ordinary-looking parking lot next to nondescript apartment buildings. It doesn’t look like there is anything of interest at this place, but a simple marker explains this is actually the site of the bunkhouse where Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the dying days of World War 2. It is a little crazy to think that only a parking lot now stands over a site of such a significant moment in history, but guides say that the government did not want the area to become a shrine for neo-Nazis or those who still believe in the tenets propagated by Hitler. It is also a powerful statement when one thinks about it: there is no sense in honoring a man who stood for so much evil and hate.

The tour continues towards buildings that were once the headquarters of the Schutzstaffel or SS, which was responsible for perpetrating many of the atrocities associated with the Nazi regime, and the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police during the Third Reich. 

Checkpoint Charlie is now a major tourist attraction
The next stop is Checkpoint Charlie. Once the only gate open to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin and vice versa, today it is a tourist attraction. Two huge posters of the faces of two soldiers—one American facing East, the Russian sector, and one Russian facing West, the American sector—stand perpetually on guard all lit up, the subject of countless photos from tourists from all over the world.

A portrait of a Communist soldier facing the American side at Checkpoint Charlie

And the American soldier facing the Communist side

After all that German military history, Gendarmenmarkt, the next stop, is a welcome change of pace. Three majestic buildings surround three sides of one of Berlin’s most famous squares—the Konzerthaus Berlin (home of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin), the Französischer Dom (or French Cathedral) and the Deutscher Dom (or German Cathedral). 

Gendarmenmarkt. I think this is the German Cathedral

One of the stately buildings in Gendarmenmarkt
After a leisurely walk down Unter den Linden, a major artery in Berlin’s Mitte or Central district, the tour ends at the grand Berliner Dom. Built in varying styles (from Renaissance to Brick Gothic, Baroque and Neo-classical), the Cathedral was first built in 1451 but has been restored and renovated through the years, most recently in 1993.

This intersection would be like our EDSA corner Ayala or Ortigas

The Berliner Dom
The English translation, "Pleasure Garden," is a bit less, er, erotic
The walking concludes on the steps of the famous Dom, overlooking the Lustgarten (Pleasure Garden), a public park on Museum Island. 

If you have more time, there are tons more to see and experience in Berlin.

The Berlin Wall
What was once a symbol of division and enmity has been turned into a gigantic canvas for artistic expression. For the best, most colorful artworks, head over to the East Side Gallery section of the wall in Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

A portion of the original Wall was left standing and has been turned into a gigantic canvas where 117 artists from 21 countries painted different images onto the concrete

Chilling at the Wall

This painting of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his German counterpart Erich Honecker has reportedly been destroyed by authorities to give way to restoration work

Two places at once: straddling the (former) East and West side of Berlin. That's the Spree river on the West side
The Reichstag
The building is where the German Parliament (or Bundestag) meets, but the Dome at the top is open to visitors with prior registration and has great 360-degree views of the city.

Visitors walk up and down the dome of the Reichstag

A view of the Dome from outside

A view of Berlin from the roof of the Reichstag

Berlin has a friendly rivalry with Hamburg about who invented currywurst, a dish of pork sausage smothered in ketchup and curry powder. In Berlin, the most popular seems to be Curry 36, with several branches spread out across the city.

Curry 36 is one of the most popular outlets in the city that serves the famous currywurst

We had to contend with this long line before we could sink our teeth into the currywurst
(HEAD) German Historical Museum
If you can’t get enough of German History, head to this museum along Unter den Linden. They have fascinating special exhibitions from time to time, including one back in 2010 that took on Hitler’s influence on the Germans.

The German Historical Museum

I made sure to visit it back in 2010 for that fascinating exhibit on Hitler and the Germans
As I write this, I can't help but think about that famous quote by John F. Kennedy about this strange, wonderful, dynamic city: "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And therefore, as a free man, I take pride in he words, 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'"