On Saturday I found myself awake much earlier than the rest of my friends. With time to spare, I decided to head out early and get some extra sightseeing in before they were ready. I walked to a nearby grocery store and picked up some water and breakfast for everyone, then set out for the East Side Gallery, an art exhibition along a long preserved stretch of the Berlin Wall.
Walking along the wall, you see edgy works of graffiti art. Some of these are open and right on the sidewalk, and have (to varying degrees) been kept intact. Many of these have been painted over by would-be artists. Other panels sit behind a thin metal cage, which serves to keep away pesky cans of spray paint. More than once I saw graffiti complaining about the irony of placing the Berlin wall in a cage. There was art examining freedom, the history of the wall, peace, death, conservation, and many other themes. Some of it was too abstract for me to make much out of, but all of it looked cool. I really liked the format of presentation and felt that’s what makes the gallery unique: seeing the wall intact turned into an expression of free speech creates quite the cool dynamic.
There were a fair number of tourists there like myself, taking in the sights and admiring the artwork. But there were also people just passing by,ignoring the wall as if it was just any normal part of the scenery. I walked the length of the wall before I got a text from my friends indicating they were finally stirring. I turned and made my way to a nearby metro station to go meet them at our next destination: the Berlin Wall memorial.
The Berlin Wall memorial commemorates the victims who tried to flee to West Berlin while the communist government was preventing refugees from doing so. The memorial features a preserved section of the wall, complete with the “no man’s land,” guard towers, and spiked traps which awaited those brave enough to attempt a crossing. There is also a free museum detailing the socioeconomic, political, and cultural divide the wall came to symbolize, with an emphasis on the impact it had on the lives of the citizens of Berlin. Probably the most striking image I recall from the museum was the standoff of Soviet and American tanks from 1961. The tension in the air on that day must have been palpable.
It was interesting to learn about the impact the wall and Soviet occupation had on the East Germans. The museum did a good job too to humanize the citizens of Berlin and tell their story. A few escape attempt stories were shared, though that was not the focus of the museum. They had footage of news coverage from when the wall fell, which was cool to see. It’s easy to think of the fall of the Berlin wall as a grandiose part of history, but one needs to remember how recently these events took place. As the modern unified nation it is today, Germany has only existed since 1990.
The memorial did a good job to make you aware of the conditions living in a divided Berlin, the hardships people faced, and the resistance to the barrier. We walked through all the information stations and eventually concluded our visit with a trip up the observation tower where you can see how the fortifications looked, including the “no man’s land,” spiked traps, and guard towers.
Exiting the memorial, we headed back downtown. We got off near the metro right by the Brandenburg Gate, so we took a chance to go see it again. We spent a little more time here than we had hoped as one of our group members got split off from the rest of us. Because the area was packed with street performers, tourists, and visitors, he was understandably difficult to find.
We did not find him at the Brandenburg Gate despite our best efforts. He had known that we were headed to the nearby memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, so after awhile we made our way there. The memorial recognizes victims of the Holocaust. The choice of the name for the memorial is interesting and shows the solemnity with which the German people regard their troubled past.
The memorial is a sea of grey pillars, varying in height but constant in form. We spent a few minutes getting lost in the memorial – several people in the group were a little bothered by the effect. We ended up finding our missing friend among the pillars, and we headed downstairs below the memorial to view the exhibit. There, statistics and a timeline served to provide some context, while several rooms were dedicated to the memory of specific victims. In one room, text and images described the lives of families torn apart across various regions of Europe. Another room documented notes and writings from victims, often emphasizing their fears and cries of despair. A third room was a constantly-running audio stream reading the names of those who were killed.
No Holocaust memorial is easy to see, but I was glad we went to this one. While it was sobering to be reminded again of the horrible suffering, I thought the memorial was well done and I liked the fact that it had such a prominent place in the city, right near the capital buildings and the Brandenburg Gate.
After our time in the memorial, we explored the streets a little bit before we settled into a place for some “pre-dinner dessert” to warm up. We had a funny experience here I thought I should share: I ordered a (delicious) slice of cake and some hot chocolate. Mike ordered hot chocolate, and someone else ordered cake and a few small things. We never received the hot chocolate. Now normally I am pretty forgiving concerning bad service at restaurants. After all, servers are people too, and everyone has their off-days. But we had very slow service with items missing that we had ordered, and the place was not even very busy. Keep that in mind. Now, when the server brought our bill (after a long wait), he circled a “tip not included” label on our check. I know that service is included in the food prices in Germany, so I figured this was a way to rip off tourists. The phrase was in English and we were in a touristy area. Annoyed with our server, we left a very meager tip and walked out. I only later discovered that our “cheap friend” at the table had been eating food he brought from elsewhere at the table. I suspect this may have made the waiter upset, and I can understand why. He grabbed the receipt from the table before we left, deliberately leaving our tip behind.
After our dining debacle, we went to a shopping district. There were some cool modern buildings there, and I didn’t mind the break from normal sightseeing as I took the opportunity to replace my thoroughly worn-out sneakers. We grabbed dinner at the food court (I went for Indian), and left the museum before it got too late.
Our last stop for the evening was a big observation deck and TV tower at Alexanderplatz. I always find it fun getting an overlook of a big city, and we enjoyed seeing all the streets and buildings twinkling in the darkness. We grabbed a drink or two at the TV tower, did a few laps to take it all in, and headed back to the apartment afterwards.
We had a busy second day adventuring in Berlin, but we were not done yet. More to come on my next post. Until then,
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,