Posted from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA- yes, I made it home after four months, but there’s always more to write about!
Firstly, in order to explain just what I was doing in Berlin I’d need to introduce you to my friend Katherine-
Katherine and I are best friends who first met when we were 11 years old at the 6th grade Labor Day pool party where she noticed me because I was the only one not going into the water and instead reading a book. (I don’t remember the details of this, actually, because apparently I had my nose in a book. I was “that” kid in middle school.) Katherine’s been working in London this past year, so when I suddenly found myself on the same continent we arranged to travel for a weekend together and ended up choosing Berlin.
Now honestly, most of what goes on when you meet up with your best friend from high school isn’t interesting to describe to the parties at hand as it involves a lot of talking about things others usually aren’t as interested in. But because we’re both history buffs and more history has happened in Berlin than you can shake a stick at, we actually managed to do a good dose of sightseeing as well-
To begin with here is arguably the most famous location in Berlin’s modern history- Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The most important thing to note here is the existence of a McDonald’s at Checkpoint Charlie as you can see in the background, clearly there in order to inform onlookers who won that one. At least they had the sense to put it in the American sector!
Checkpoint Charlie was, of course, the only real break in the Berlin Wall that existed for several decades. Not much of the Wall remains save a few smaller sections, the most famous of which is the 1.5km long East Side Gallery a ways out of downtown which is the largest open air art gallery in the world (the mural in the first picture is also part of it). Great artwork, but honestly one of the reasons I liked it best was walking along it and realizing how formidable the Berlin Wall was and how very real it was when I was born 25 years ago. I have no memory of the Cold War, which somehow makes recent history all the more astonishing to stop and think and realize people were actually killed the year I was born while trying to escape a country that no longer exists. If I showed anyone from 1986 the above picture of Checkpoint Charlie would anyone have believed it?
Which makes you wonder about just which of our insurmountable world barriers will be torn down in another 25 years time, but there we have it.
Another place the Wall used to run right behind, the Brandenburg Gate. Beyond super crowded these days but what actually struck me most was how closed the square is- the American embassy is just to the left, the French to the right, a few other buildings close all around- because I came to Berlin in 1993 on a family vacation and one thing I do remember is it not being so built up then! But then it felt like most of Berlin was under construction then- not just simple things like apartment buildings, they were still building far more basic things like the first highway and a telephone exchange. Obviously Berlin has progressed beyond that level of development, and while I wouldn’t say it’s a pretty city (read: I came here right after Amsterdam so I wasn’t going to love all the concrete) it certainly is a vibrant one these days.
Another site that makes you think- the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (actually called that in German) just a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate and a nondescript parking lot under which Hitler’s bunker is located. Immense concrete blocks spreading out over a city block, and certainly not something you ignore which was probably part of the point.
And finally, no tour of the historical sites of Berlin would be complete without a visit to Museum Island. You see, the Germans are the sort of persuasion whereby their famous founders of archeology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not resist taking their best finds home to Berlin with them, be it Nefertiti’s bust or the gigantic temple alter of Pergamon in Turkey or the Ishtar Gates (pictured above). They even have some of the treasures from Troy unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann in 1873, the first “modern” archeological expedition, though there are several signs around you helpfully mentioning how the Soviets stole the best stuff as spoils of war at the end of World War II and the Russians refuse to return them in breach of international law. I find this kind of funny because, well, I’m sure the Turks have their own opinion on the matter considering Troy was there and all!
No really, I rather like Museum Island because it has a pirate’s treasure of ancient artifacts akin to the British Museum in London or the Vatican Museum, but unlike many other museums in that vein this treasure is actually broken up into several smaller bite-size museums- the big stuff like the Gates of Ishtar and the Pergamon Alter are in the Pergamon Museum, the ancient Egypt artifacts are in the New Museum, the Greek stuff is in the Old Museum… The final effect of all this is while museums that resemble treasure troves can be overwhelming these feel a bit more manageable, although it’s still impossible to visit everything!
The curious thing about Berlin, I’ve concluded, is while it doesn’t have too much that wasn’t bombed out or ruined or redone in the past century it doesn’t change the fact that it has more history than almost any other city in the world. And if you’re lucky enough to get someone as lovely as your best friend to explore it with, well!