December 23, 2008

Fröhe Weihnachten Berliner!

Leigh and I had our own train car all to ourselves from Prague to Berlin. It made for great sleeping conditions. We passed out and must have looked so peaceful because when the train stopped at the border, we could sense something there and looked up to see two patrollers looking in through the windows, debating whether or not to wake us and check our passports. Of course as soon as we looked up, they came in... but I could have potentially snuck into another country. The majority of this train ride was during daylight hours so we could see the beautiful Czech and German countryside covered in freshly fallen snow from the previous day.

The view out of our window on the train

Once we arrived in Berlin and checked into our hostel, we moseyed on over to Alexanderplatz to meet up with Rachel and her friends. There were two Christmas markets set up there, with an ice skating rink that surrounded the Neptunbrunnen (staute of Neptune).  

Neptunbrunnen on ice

It was already dark, but we saw the exterior of Marienskirche in the square, and Berliner Rathaus (town hall and clock tower). The TV tower stuck up behind us and showed up in a lot of my pictures that night. It was hard to miss it.  

TV tower behind a typical German wooden windmill tower

After perusing the Christmas Markets (because, let's face it, even though we had seen a dozen of them already in both Munich and Prague, we still couldn't get enough of them), we wandered the streets of Nikolaivertel: a re-creation of Berlin's medieval birthplace around 1230. The original sector had burned and been striped down during the war, but they rebuilt it cobble-by-cobble. It was late, so mostly everything there was closed and too dark to turn out in photographs, but it was where we discovered the "famous" Berliner Bar with its high platforms and tiny mugs...
Back in our hostel, we slept in lofted beds. At first, it seemed really cool - like summer camp. The three of us took over the top bunk and giggled like 12-year-olds at a sleepover. But there was only a small rectangular plank of wood that extended the length from your head to about your thighs that separated one person from the next, and it creepily reminded me of either a bunker that a Nazi soldier might have used during WWII, or where they might have crammed people together in a concentration camp type of scenario. Neither option sounded as fun as summer camp. I guess it was extra creepy because we were staying on the East Side of the wall. 

Our bunker

Cozy as a German soldier

The next morning, Leigh and I saw the East Side Gallery - the longest remaining stretch of the infamous Berlin Wall that divided Germany for 28 years from 1961-1989. In 1990, it was transformed into a mix of murals, and an open air gallery, in remembrance of the oppression, and celebration of their freedom. My favorite parts were the places that the wall had holes, crumbling right in the middle of beautiful paintings, it was such an appropriate metaphor for what the wall stood for and what it stands (or crumbles) for now.  

The East Side Gallery

Graffiti artists have unfortunately tagged the murals, 
you can see here where the stone wall crumbles...

Our next stop was the Pergamon Museum to see the amazing Pergamon Alter, which we could climb up, and the massive Ishtar Gates of Babylon, with its design of golden lions on brilliant cobalt blue tiles stretching high above our heads. There's a great controversy over the museum's acquisition of these artifacts. Many say that they should be returned to their country of origin. But then, I would never have been able to see them in person, so for selfish reasons, I'm glad they were in Berlin when I was. 

Pergamon Alter

Ishtar Gates

Next, we passed by Humboldt University, Berlin's oldest University, where the Brothers Grimm and Albert Einstein taught. We also passed by Neue Wache, an antiwar memorial on our way to the Brandenburg Gate at the end of Unter den Linden Street. The Brandenburg Gate is the only surviving of 18 gates that once surrounded the city, and is crowned by Quadriga, a horse-drawn chariot piloted by the winged goddess of Victory.  

Brandenburg Gate

It was a symbol of division during the Cold War, but now embodies German reunification. The landmark is modeled after the Acropolis in Athens, supported by many unevenly spaced columns. It was customary for royalty to pass through the center columns where they were spread the widest apart, and commoners would walk through the outer columns where it was narrower. We made it a point to always walk directly through the center every time we passed through the Gate, to prove to Berlin that we are royalty and should be treated as such. In the same square as the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz, is the Adlon Hotel where MJ notoriously dangled little baby Blanket out the window. Around the corner is the Holocaust Memorial consisting of 2,711 concrete blocks representing a cemetery.  

Holocaust Memorial

While the blocks are all identical in size and placed on a grid, the ground dips up and down between them and their heights vary, and as you weave your way through the maze, the tombstones grow in a very disorienting "Alice in Wonderland" sort of way, until you reach the center and feel lost and vulnerable with large grey blocks towering over you.     

The disorienting Holocaust Memorial

We explored the inside of the Berliner Dom, had a quick hot chocolate at Einstein's, and then were off to meet Rachel at Checkpoint Charlie, the principal gateway between East and West Berlin.

Me and Leigh at Berliner Dom

Checkpoint Charlie

There was the reconstructed sign that read "You are now leaving the American Sector" on one side and "You are now entering the American Sector" on the other. A soldier stood at the guard house, holding an American flag. He waved at us very adamantly. We figured he was American. But he was very much German, and super creepy. So we snapped a picture and hightailed it out of there. Only after we were all back in Edinburgh, when I was looking through my pictures, did someone else point out the fact that he was wearing a sign on his belt that read: Photos €1. Whoops!

Stealing photos with Checkpoint Charlie

After our adventures with the "American" soldier, we wandered through the Christmas Markets in Bebelplatz and Gendarmenmarkt (which you had to pay €1 admission for) squeezed between two other Doms, of which we did not go inside. But we did play around in the Ampelmann store. There was so much Ampelmann merchandise - even Ampelmann-shaped pasta! So what is Ampelmann? THe literal translation is: Lantern Man. He's like a mascot to the East Germans. It is the figure of a green man striding, and a red man in a halted position with his arms extended out to either side of him, used in pedestrian crossing lights.  

Ampelmann in action!

They were introduced in 1961 by, no joke, a traffic psychologist. When Germany began re-unification in 1990, they moved to standardize all traffic lights according to the generic figure used in Western Germany, and completely do away with Ampelmann. But, it's one of the few things of Communist Eastern Germany that survived after the Berlin Wall collapsed, and has somehow become extremely popular. I just think it's fun to say: Ampelmann. And he just looks so happy in his bright green stride. He doesn't seem Communist at all! 

Me and Ampelmann crossing the street together

We backtracked down Unter den Linden, and saw the Brandenburg Gate all lit up at night, and rounded the corner to see the magnificent Reichstag, German Parliament. Of course Rachel just kept repeating those lines from "The Producers" and got it stuck in my head: "And then I got my big break. Somebody burned down the Reichstag. And, would you believe it? They made me Chancellor. Chancellor!" And then we just started singing "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop", which is not easy to do with a mix of jibberish-German words for lyrics. We ate a nice German meal and then went back to our hostel where Anne Frank frequently haunts, apparently. So we slept uneasily in our bunker, and woke at the crack of dawn to fly back to Edinburgh. Next stop... Blue Bell!  Just like the lyrics says: "I'll be home for Christmas."
Under the Linden Trees on Unter den Linden Street

1 comment:

Rachel said...