… and some splendid views of Berlin’s most famous tourist attractions in Part Two of the Berlin Wall Trail
Something that I did not mention in Part 1 of this post: the Berlin Wall walk is also a great way of discovering the city. It mixes the discovery of quarters that you would otherwise be unlikely to visit with interesting views of most of Berlin landmarks, sometimes from afar …
… but sometimes from very close up, too.
Nowhere will you get as close to the city’s major landmarks as you do in the walk’s central section, the one through the new quarter of Germany’s Federal Government.
The government of the old West Germany had, of course, resided in Bonn, an otherwise sleepy provincial city on the banks of the river Rhine, and when Berlin, once again, became the capital of the country, the Chancellor, the cabinet and the deputies moved their offices into the vicinity of the only government building that was left from the pre-war era, the old Reichstag, now again free to become the Bundestag and democratic Germany’s new Parliament.
It also helped, of course, that the area was conveniently empty – the death strip on the eastern side of the Wall (everything on your left hand side) alone would have run about 100 metres deep. It’s not every day that you happen upon an empty building plot that large, practically in the middle of town.
As far as government quarters go, Berlin’s is a fairly good-looking one. Much of these good looks are owed to the river Spree which runs right between the new office blocks.
Berlin’s river landscapes are an unsung part of the city. Many people may not even be aware that Berlin has a river at all, since it has always played a negligible part in the city’s folklore, unlike, say, the rivers of Paris or London. This is mainly due to the fact that the Spree, although picturesque in its own way, is a much less imposing body of water than the Seine or the Thames.
If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Berlin is the one that never lets you forget.
But even here, in the heart of New Germany’s centre of power, you do not have to walk far before you encounter some of the ghosts that haunt nearly every street corner (or river bank) of Berlin.
See the crosses on the left of the picture on top? These were erected to commemorate the East German refugees who drowned in the Spree when the river marked, for all practical purposes, the border between freedom and communism. If New York is the city that never sleeps, then Berlin is the one that never lets you forget.
Follow the course of the twin row of cobblestones that mark the old route of the Wall to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s most famous landmark. (Even if you have never seen it on a picture, you will, by now, almost certainly have held one such image in your hands: it adorns the German coins for 10, 20 and 50 Euro cents.)
Until 1989, the Wall ran right in front of it (on the near side from where you stand), and for 25 years, the Gate was the most powerful symbol for the pain caused by the division of Europe.
Politicians loved to address the nation (and the world) from the Gate, and it was here where President Reagan told “Mister Gorbachev (to) tear down this wall“. (John F. Kennedy, contrary to what many people believe, held his “ich bin ein Berliner” speech not here but in front of Schöneberg City Hall).
The Pariser Platz on the eastern (far) side of the Gate was Berlin’s most elegant square in pre-war times, featuring the US and French embassies as well as the city’s grandest hotel (the Adlon). From 1961 to 1989 the Pariser Platz was a wasteland, with the Wall on one side and the “baby wall” on the other and electric fences, trip wire as well as spotlights in between. Now the square has been returned to its former glory (both embassies and the Adlon are back) and is well worth a look – as is the Unter den Linden boulevard just behind, Berlin’s answer to the Champs Elysees.
The fall of the wall was certainly one of the few joyous, perhaps the single most joyous moment in German history. A few hundred meters further in the direction of the Wall’s old route, an entire square has been dedicated to Germany’s most painful memory: this is the Holocaust memorial …
… and if you continue down Ebertstraße for another few hundred meters, you will come to Potsdamer Platz.
This is Berlin’s true Heart of Darkness, once a very lively street with some of the city’s largest department stores, but also the place from where the Holocaust was controlled and engineered in the early 1940s. Most of the Third Reich’s key buildings – including the Führerbunker where Hitler committed suicide in 1945 and Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry for Propaganda – were located in one of the near-by side streets.
All of this was razed to the ground in the aftermath of WWII, while the Wall’s construction in the 1960s did the rest, so this had practically been an empty site until the early 1990s – which is when the attempts began to revive the Potsdamer Platz. It is certainly the newest part of a city which does not suffer from a shortage of new buildings, if not the liveliest or most interesting – but perhaps we should just give the Potsdamer Platz another ten years or so.
Not enough depressing memories yet? Then follow the route of the Wall on your left hand side into Niederkirchnerstrasse, where you will find the old Gestapo HQ, right next to the Wall fragments, now a museum with a permanent exhibit on the “Topography of Terror” and a look at the cellars where the Nazis’ secret police once tortured dissidents and other unruly people.
After all this rather gloomy stuff, the carnivalesque atmosphere at Checkpoint Charlie – the old border crossing for members of the Allied Forces – comes as a welcome relief. The Checkpoint appears to be, as it had been throughout the Cold War, firmly in Allied hands, young Brits and Yanks in contemporary uniforms waving flags, stamping imaginary passports and posing with tourists for a small tip.
This is a place as good as any to conclude the Berlin Wall walk, but if you are looking for a more serious final act of what was, after all, an altogether rather sombre experience, you can find more “Ghosts of Berlin Past” at the Jewish Museum on near-by Lindenstrasse.
The building for the Jewish Museum was designed by Daniel Libeskind (he of the Freedom Tower controversy) and is one of the most famous landmarks of the “New Berlin”. Much of the stuff that has gone up during Berlin’s construction boom – which is still continuing, now entering its third decade – is, frankly, rather nondescript and mediocre, which is, whatever you may think about the architectural concept, not a charge that you could level at the Jewish Museum.