Another adventure begins! We are spending three weeks in Germany and Austria with my favourite brother – he says (who lives in Calgary), Denis and our sister in law, Debbie. We flew to Amsterdam with a two hour layover prior to proceeding to Berlin. We will be spending time in Berlin, Munich, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.
As many of you know, I love to investigate the history of the country I am visiting. I also like to know the current political situation, what drives the economy and the general feel of the country. So a little history first.
The early inhabitants of present day Germany were Celts and later nomadic Germanic Tribes. In 732 AD the Franks stop the progress of the Muslims into Western Europe and preserve Christianity. Robin and I saw the influence of the Muslims when we were in Southern Spain and in Portugal in the last few years. In the 900’s the Saxons rule Germany and create the Holy Roman Empire. In the 1500’s Martin Luther challenges some of the ideas of the Catholic Church. In the late 1700’s the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars occurs and Napoleon takes Berlin in 1806 and creates the 16 member Confederation of the Rhine. In 1848 “The Communist Manifesto” is published by Karl Marx and Engels. In 1870 Otto Von Bismarck is appointed as the Prussian Prime Minister by King Wilhelm and Bismarck creates a unified Germany.
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 initiated WW1 and Germany surrenders. A new democratic government is formed to abide by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany is in ruins, the economy is in trouble and the victors of WW1 demand heavy payments for damage caused. This causes unrest and riots and then the worldwide depression hits. The nation is looking for a strong leader to get them out of this depression. Adolf Hitler and other dissatisfied Germans form the Nazi Party in Munich and by 1930 it has become a strong political party. They blame the country’s problems on communists, foreigners and Jews. In 1932 the Nazi party gains many seats in the Reichstag and in 1933 Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and the federal states become powerless.
For the next decade, Hitler proceeds to revive the economy, building the autobahns and rebuilding the military. Opposition parties and trade unions are banned. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws are enacted which deprives Jews and other non Aryans of German citizenship. In 1939 Hitler invades Poland and France and Britain declare war on Germany. 1939 – 1945 millions of Jews are murdered during the Holocaust and 62 million civilians and soldiers die. In 1945 Hitler commits suicide. After the war, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Berlin, although located within the Soviet zone, was also split amongst the four powers. The American, British and French sectors would form West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin.
The West German economy grows an average of 8% between 1951-1961.
In 1961 the GDR government (East Germany) begins building the 155 km long Berlin Wall. The Eastern half became a socialist state, part of the Iron Curtain that was heavily influenced by Soviet policy. Part of the building of the wall was also due to the tremendous “brain drain” that was taking place. Those that did not want to live in a socialist state.
In 1989 the Berlin Wall comes down and the reunified city of Berlin becomes the capital. Communist regimes across Eastern Europe start to fall.
In 2005 Angela Merkel becomes Germany’s first female chancellor and is still in power. She is said to retire next year. There is a rise of a right-wing populism movement in Germany itself, as the Alternative für Deutschland party establishes itself in all the land and now scores about 15 per cent in votes and polls. It embraces a renewed German nationalism alongside a global trading ambition and hostility to immigration, and wants Germany to leave the euro or refound it on a smaller northern core. This is pretty scary considering the previous history of this country.
It is said that Germany had the third-biggest economy in the world, trailing only Japan and the United States in GDP.
When we landed in Berlin, the ground crew was not ready so we had to sit on the plane for an additional ten minutes. Hey….where is that German efficiency we hear so much about! Hopefully I haven’t offended any of my German friends.
When we arrived in Berlin, we had arranged a transfer from the Tegel airport to the apartment. We were amazed at the small size of the Tegel airport. The city of Berlin is building a new airport Berlin/Brandenburg which was originally to open in October 2011 and is now reported to open in October 2020. They say cost overruns and corruption are factors of the late opening.
We arrive at our apartment and after figuring out exactly which entrance we needed, we follow the instructions we were sent.
– First open the lock box on the gate which is located between the mailbox and the main fence post. Open the lock box and the key will open the gate. Turn the key twice and reach through the fence and turn the knob and open the gate. The gate is very heavy.
Go down the stairs and open the next lock box and get the key for the main door to the apartment.
Yikes, we finally enter the apartment and couldn’t be more pleased. A very comfortable and modern apartment in a very old building, typical of Europe. The apartment is still being cleaned but we can drop off our bags and we go off to find the local grocery stores to get some food for the next few days. We go to two different stores to get our goods. The suggestions in the apartment tell us that the local organic store has the best wines.
Find both stores within walking distance and we decide to stop at a local bar to have a drink. Most welcomed after a long day of travelling. OK, maybe two drinks…after all we are waiting for the apartment to be cleaned.
Robin and Denis go into the bar to order beer for the guys and white wine for the girls. The owner of the bar does not speak any English, but they are understood and we get our drinks. The owner comes out to bring our drinks and we understand that he wants to know where we are from. We tell him Canada. He smiles……he goes to one of his regulars who is sitting behind us, who speaks english. He talks to him and asks him to translate. The short story is that the owner of the bar has relatives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My gosh…..Robin and I just start laughing. Our son in law, Gav, is from Winnipeg and we always say that no matter where one visits in the world, there is always someone from Winnipeg or someone who knows someone from Winnipeg.
We decided to buy frozen pizza for supper as we are all very tired and jet lagged. We go back to the apartment, cook the pizza and have some wine (after a couple of beers and wine at the bar) and all fall fast asleep at 5 pm local time. Needless to say, we are all very jet lagged.
At one in the morning we are all wide awake. We make tea and catch up on reading books and figuring out what we are going to do the next day. At 4 am, I announce that we only have another four hours until the alarm goes off, so we can go downtown to catch our bike tour, Off to bed once again. Up again in time to catch the Ubahn (underground) to go downtown. We figure out where the bike shop is located and we have enough time for a coffee before heading out on our bike tour.
We had arranged a private historic e-bike (electric bikes) tour some months ago. We get accustomed to the bikes in the parking lot and head out with our guide, Christof. This man is so knowledgeable about the history of Germany, somewhat overwhelming at times.
Our first stop is along Unter den Linden, the main avenue of Berlin. The large main avenue of Berlin with trees on either side. It is referred to as the “Living Room of Berlin” or “The Royal Aisle”. We stop to see the Royal Palace which is in the midst of being cleaned. Christof points out the outer buildings that were for the princes and a smaller building for the princesses!
We also see the Armoury from 1700. Christof tells us that a Mennonite was hired to decorate the outside of the building. Rather amusing considering the Mennonites are pacifists! The building is undergoing some work, so is covered with netting. Can see some of the beautiful statues on the top of the building. This is the oldest building along Unter den Linden
We continue down the main thoroughfare and come to the Brandenburg gate (Brandenburger Tor). This monument was completed in 1791 and was said to be based on the Athens Acropolis. It was the entrance to the grand avenue Unter den Linden which led to the Royal Palace. It became a symbol of division during the cold war; but is now a symbol of reunification. It survived the Red Army onslaught of 1945; although we did see pictures of damage to the monument. Both East and West Berlin contributed to fixing it. The Wall was along the gate. It is on this site that Ronald Reagan addressed his most famous words during the Cold War to the Soviets…”Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!”.
The Brandenburger Tor is also the site where East and West Berliners partied when the wall came down.
The square around the Gate is Pariser Platz which is surrounded by banks, the U.S, British and French embassies. The famous Adlon hotel is here as well. On a subsequent day, we walked into the lobby of the Adlon, lovely and very high end; not somewhere we will be staying any time soon.
The original Hotel Adlon was one of the most famous hotels in Europe. It opened in 1907 and was largely destroyed in 1945 in the closing days of World War II, though a small wing continued operating until 1984. The current hotel, which opened on August 23, 1997, is a new building with a design inspired by the original. I read that the hotel built a “luxurious” bomb shelter during WW11.
We really don’t find that their are many tourists around.
We cross over to the Tiergarten and make a stop to see where part of the Berlin wall once existed. They have put a line of cobblestones in the road to depict where the wall stood.
The Tiergarten – a garden where the Berlin rulers used to hunt boar and pheasants. It was planed in the 19th century. It is one of the world’s largest urban gardens.
We then ride to the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament since 1999. This neo-baroque building was originally built in 1894 and served as the government seat until 1933. In 1933 it was badly damaged by a fire which was set by a Dutch communist. This served Hitler’s purpose to tighten his grip on the German state. During the Cold War, the West German government seat was in Bonn. Some thought the building should be demolished, however the building was restored by Norman Foster in the 90’s. He added the famous glittering glass copula. We looked into visiting, but you need to request a visit, provide passport details and wait at least 48 hours for approval to visit. Not enough time to accomplish this….oh well, next time.
Onward to the Federal Chancellery where we find the offices of Angela Merkel. Both the Reichstag and the Chancellery sit along the river Spree, the main river that runs through Berlin. One sees many tourists boats along the Spree, not something we had time to take in. It is said that looking at a city from the river, gives one a total different perspective.
We then continue to bike to the Congress Hall which was built in 1956 ; also know as the Haus der Kulturen.
Back through the Tiergarten, and a brief stop at the Soviet Monument built by the Soviet Union to commemorate its war dead, particularly the 80,000 soldiers of the Soviet Armed Forces who died during the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. Our guide tells us that this monument was built of stones from Hitler’s chancellery.
Cycle through part of the Tiergarten to get to the Holocaust Memorial or its official name The Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was built in 2005 by an American architect to commemorate Europe’s Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. My guide book tells me that the memorial has no designated entrance and one can enter at any point. The site consists of 2711 sarcophagi-like concrete columns rising from 19,000 square metres of undulating ground. The design is purposely disorientating, the columns at slightly different heights than those around and the walkways create a claustrophobic effect. We will return in the next few days to visit the museum which is below ground.
The next stop is Potsdamer Platz and is where the former “no man’s land or the death strip” of the wall existed. We see parts of the wall in this location. In 1961 the construction of the wall started and it was 155 kms in length and 3.6 meters high. There were 300 watchtowers around the perimeter.
When one reads about the building of the wall; we are told that it was to try to stop the brain drain from East Berlin to the West. The 3.5 million East Germans who had left by 1961 totalled approximately 20% of the entire East German population.
One of the many Berlin train stations is also on this square.
I must say that I really like the various architecture styles in Berlin. You see ancient buildings to modern architecture with curved lines. The Soviet era building certainly stand out in their “no style” concrete buildings.
We come across the Ministry of Defense, one of the largest buildings in Berlin. It was Herman Goering’s headquarters.
Right across the road we have the Topographie des Terrors. This is the spot where the most feared institutions of the Nazi government existed; the SS and the Gestapo. There is an exhibit on the outside near the wall, which we will visit at a later date.
We ride by Checkpoint Charlie, a small reproduction shack exists as a tourist attraction.
Checkpoint Charlie was used by foreigners and Government officials to cross between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
We then proceed to Gendarmenmarkt which is said to be Berlin’s most beautiful square. The Konzerthaus is in the middle and one side is a Catholic Church and on the other the domed German Cathedral. Our guide tells us that Catholic Churches and Synagogues in Germany are always hidden behind a major building.
Our last stop of the day is another square which houses the Opera House, a former palace (now part of the University) and the Pantheon (seat of the Catholic Archbishop). A book burning took place in this square during the Nazi era and to commemorate this, there is an opening in the concrete where one can see empty book shelves a level below the ground….a very powerful display!
We spent a good 4 1/2 hours with our guide and the e-bikes were a great way to see the City and get a feel where everything lies. We stop at a small cafe for lunch then make our way back to the apartment via the UBahn.
On Saturday, we decide to take in some of the museums at Museumsinsel. This island, in the Spree River, is a Unesco site, and is home to five museums. During the day, we manage to visit three of the museums. The Pergamonmuseum holds artifacts of the ancient world. The Neues Museum, the residence of Queen Nefertiti (not allowed to take pictures the bust of the Queen) and other sculptures of the same time period and finally the Alte Nationalgalerie which showcases 19th century European art. A very long day and must say we all had sore legs and backs from all the standing on concrete and marble floors. Well worth seeing!
The museum buildings were lovely; they were in their own right works of art.
We stopped for coffee at one of the museum cafes and enjoyed our first apple strudel. I must say, one of the best strudel’s I have tasted. It was served with a vanilla cream and whipping cream.
As we enter the subway station in the late afternoon, Debbie and I spot a young man with his pants pulled down around his knees and he is in the process of wrapping his legs in tin foil. I grab her by the arm and we enter the first subway car. Not sure what that was all about, but quite a sight.
After visiting the three museums, we walk across the river and stop for tea. Debbie had a fresh mint tea; I think she is hooked. The waitress told her to grow her own mint at home to make the tea.
In Berlin, it seems that a dish called “curry wurst” is quite popular. I decided to try it one night….that was enough. Description – “Currywurst is a fast food dish of German origin consisting of steamed, then fried pork sausage typically cut into bite-sized chunks and seasoned with curry ketchup”. I don’t even eat ketchup at home….what was I thinking.
Update to the note above. On the train from Berlin to Munich, they had problems with food delivery and they were in short of food, wine and milk. By the time we wanted to eat there was only one sandwich left (Debbie had ordered it), Robin had chili and Denis and I ordered the curryworst! Ok……never again. Never..never!
On our last day in Berlin, we decide to visit some of the sights we had seen briefly, but wanted to go back and visit in a more thorough manner. We head off once again on the UBahn and our first stop was to walk once again through the Brandenburg gate.
We continue our walk and make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We all weave our own way through the various concrete blocks. A quiet time to reflect as one walks through the blocks. You feel almost “off kilter” as the ground heaves up and down, the blocks of different sizes seem to fall inwards.
Then make our way to the information centre which is located below the site – underground. The following is taken from their pamphlet. “The exhibition begins with an overview of the national socialist terror policies from 1933 to 1945. The persecution and murder of Jews in Europe is presented via rows of images . Six large portraits represent the approximately 6 million victims.” Overwhelming when you think of these numbers.
The second room is called the “Room of Dimensions”. “Diary entries, letters and final notes written during the period of execution.
Continue to the third room, the “Room of Families”. It highlights 15 families showing their life before the persecutions. Notes show who survived in these families and who didn’t….very chilling!
The next is the “Room of Names”. Here people sit on benches in silence and you can hear the names and short biographies of murdered and missing Jews in Europe. It is said that it would take approximately 6 years, 7 months and 27 days to read the life stories of all the victims.
The “Room of Sites” – The focus in this room is the representation of the geographical location of crimes in Central and Eastern Europe. 220 locations are shown. There is historical footage and photographs.
The four of us went through this on our own. Again a time to reflect. At times it was hard to look at the pictures. Man’s inhumanity to Man. How did this happen? So many questions? Not many answers……
WARNING…YOU MAY NOT WANT TO LOOK AT THE FOLLOWING PHOTOGRAPHS. Having said this, I felt it important to put into my blog. This is a minuscule example of the pictures and videos that we saw.
We continue our walk and find ourselves at Potsdamer Platz, where we stop for lunch at an Italian Deli. An interesting concept. You are given an electronic card to track your purchases. We go to the “pizza” station, order a pizza and place the card on an electronic reader. You are given a “beeper” which will buzz when your order is ready. Then you go to the bar to order your drinks and same procedure. As you leave the restaurant you give the desk your card and pay the amount registered on the card. Very efficient and cuts down on wait staff and waiting times……ok, I guess not so good for prospective wait staff looking for a job.
We then make our way to the “Topography of Terrors. On the way there we pass the a mural which depicts “happy workers” in a soviet state. This mural was in the previous part of East Berlin.
The Topography of Terror is the present day name of the site on which the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus stood between 1933 and 1945. The Headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Reich SS Leadership and Security Service (SD) of the SS and from 1939 onward to the end of the Nazi regime the Reich Security Main Office.
Below the wall, we visited a temporary display of the bombing and atrocities of Warsaw. So massive were the bombings of Warsaw, some of the pictures show a city “razed” to the ground. First by the Germans, then the Russians.
We then visit the museum which was established in 2010. Robin found it fitting that all the previous buildings on this site were demolished. Going back to 1987 a documentation centre existed on this site and its mandate was to inform visitors about the site’s history and the crimes that were planned and initiated here. The present mandate of this information centre is to “convey historical information on Nazi terror and inspire visitors to engage actively with this history and its consequences after 1945”
Once again, we go through the various exhibits on our own. At times, very disturbing. Debbie commented on how respectful visitors have been at the various WW11 museums and exhibits…..silence rules. I did not take any pictures here…..just can’t anymore!
We make our way back to the apartment. A very emotionally draining day. We go out for a lovely meal and are thankful for the country we live in and the peace that we have enjoyed in our lifetime.
It is Monday morning and we are headed off to Munich by train for 3 days. Call up an Uber and application says “no Uber’s available”. Try to phone a taxi….the line is busy. Try Uber again….nothing. Finally decide to call our landlord. He tells me that the SBahn has some problems and is not working. In addition to this it is raining, so there is an extremely high demand for taxis and other forms of transportation. He tells us to keep trying for taxi or Uber. We look at metro system, but one of those cases that we would need to transfer from UBahn to SBahn to get to the train station; so can’t get there from here. I finally try a “smaller” Uber car and luck is shining on us. Uber arrives, and luckily we all have carry on, so the car can accommodate the four of us. Traffic is also crazy because of the problems with the SBahn. You can tell that our driver is trying different routes to get us to the train station. We finally arrive. The line up of people at the taxi stand at train station is incredible. These are people that have just arrived and trying to get somewhere in Berlin…..good luck!
One other thing that has surprised us is the lack of English understood and spoken by people in Berlin. Totally different than other parts of Europe. We get understood and try our basic words….”Danka- thank you” goes a long way.
We breathe a heavy sigh of relief and stop to have a coffee. Once our train is announced, we go to the appropriate platform. Debbie and I read the graphic which explains where once should stand depending on which car you have been assigned. Easy, right. Well, when the train arrives we realize that we are standing next to car 2 when we should be in front of car 11. If anyone has taken trains in Western Europe, you would understand that the trains only stay in a station for a few minutes. Once must embark the train as quickly as possible. So we enter car 2 and have to make our way to car 11. Looks like we are not the only ones who are in the wrong area. I think it took us at least 15 to 10 minutes to reach our car. Finally, we can relax. At one point the train was travelling at 249 kms per hour; but very smooth. You simply don’t feel that you are going that fast.
Well that is it for Berlin…..onto our next destination…..Munich.