A lot has been said about modern-day Berlin – it’s even been called ‘the coolest city on the planet’. And while I can’t confirm that one way or the other, I can strongly recommend a visit. I went there during the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I absolutely loved it – the people, the city and its history.
It was history that prompted this trip, though, as I was fascinated by the idea of a city which is so forward-looking today, yet so bitterly divided in the past. And I was intrigued by the Berlin Wall itself, once a symbol of oppression and control, but now an emblem of freedom – and a cause for hope – across the world.
Nowhere exemplifies this more clearly than the notorious border post at Checkpoint Charlie, at one time a closely guarded gateway between East and West, and now a tourist attraction on a busy thoroughfare next to a branch of McDonalds. A real highlight was the walk we took that ended here, having begun by the Brandenburg Gate, where preparations were being made for a major commemoration on the night of the anniversary. We strolled south along the line of the Wall to reach the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, whose maze of concrete blocks and underground museum prompted a great deal of sombre reflection.
Next, we continued to Potsdamer Platz, once a drab wasteland bisected by the Wall but now right at the vibrant heart of modern Berlin. Nearby, I took pictures of a lonely-looking watchtower, seemingly stuck in a bygone era, and serving as a stark reminder of a grim-and-distant past.
Passing the German Spy Museum over to our left, we then turned east along Niederkirchnerstrasse to reach a preserved section of the Wall, and the aptly named Topography of Terror. This was another place to linger, and to absorb scarcely imaginable lessons from the past and Germany’s Third Reich, before moving on to Checkpoint Charlie itself.
We also crossed to the north bank of the River Spree, to admire striking artwork adorning another remaining stretch of Wall at the East Side Gallery; then ventured up to Nordbahnhof on the S-Bahn, a former ‘ghost station’ which had been closed off and heavily guarded during partition. From here, we took a stroll along Bernauer Strasse, again tracing the line of the Wall via the Chapel of Reconciliation, the site of two 1960s escape tunnels, and another – remarkably well-preserved – wall section, for which even the Cold War-era street lighting has been retained.
Perhaps what will stick longest in my memory, though, is the short detour we took to visit the Soviet War Memorial. This impressive edifice was built from stonework taken from the destroyed Reich Chancellery, and was completed just a few months after the city was captured following the 1945 Battle of Berlin in May, 1945. To see early photos of the memorial standing amid a wilderness of ruins, the surrounding parkland having been bombed to bits and the nearby Reichstag (parliament building) a virtual husk, was a great shock to the system. And then to look up and see it now, surrounded by greenery and woodland, and flanked by Sir Norman Foster’s gleaming Reichstag dome, is a powerful indication of how far we’ve come.
So, if you’ve never been to Berlin, please visit when you can. You don’t have to be a history-lover to appreciate the remarkable juxtaposition of past and present; and the Berliners, through a series of spellbinding exhibits and museums – have made this accessible to everyone. This certainly was a trip to remember.