One walk you must take…
Berlin has come a long way from the time Slovenians discovered a marshy, swampy fishing village (ber-lin), way back in the 1500s. Cut to a few centuries later…post WWII and communist era, not only did the city survive, spirit intact, but reinvented itself yet again. There are at least 4000 live construction sites all over the city today…talk about work in progress!
The best way to immerse into the essence of Berlin by taking an escorted walking tour of its historic sights. A fascinating half-day is all it takes to relive the entire gloomy ’40s. And when you’ve walked down this stark, dark memory lane of dictators, war and oppression, you’ll be recommending Berlin to everyone you know too. Here are the unforgettable landmarks from the walk:
1. Berlin Cathedral
Crossing one of the 1700 pretty bridges on the river Spree (that’s more than those in Venice or Amsterdam), near the Museum Island of Berlin, first stop to ogle at spectacular monument on the left bank of the river. The baroque Berlin Cathedral with its massive green dome, 225 feet high and 100 feet in diameter, punctuated with circular skylights is noticeably inspired by the St. Peters at Vatican. This portrait of utter magnificence marks the beginning of the Royal Avenue, an area once lined by a plethora of monuments, including the imperial palace, museums, churches, institutions and administrative buildings. Most were razed to the ground during the war and what remains, including the Cathedral, has been carefully reassembled post-war. Take a few minutes to digest that.
2. Humboldt University
Move on to the hallowed institution where Einstein, Lenin and Karl Marx once taught. Ponder upon the infamous incident, where masses of students, in a bid to show support for the communist movement, burnt thousands of books written by leaders and thinkers like Ernest Hemingway, and Jews like Einstein and Freud. Peer down the unusual underground memorial on the University grounds through its glass ceiling. Its walls are lined with empty book shelves…symbolically conveying the ‘presence of absence’. On the pavement nearby, over makeshift wooden stands, second hand books and reprints of the destroyed books are still sold for charity…a whimsical, long-standing tradition.
3. Checkpoint Charlie
This ominous entry way between East and West Berlin, once heavily guarded by the American troops is now just a harmless tourist spot. A sign from the past reminds, “You are entering the American sector. Carrying weapons off duty forbidden. Obey traffic rules”. Study the wall mural of black and white pictures from the Nazi era…a time of extremes, when one either conformed or was killed.
4. Berlin Wall
Minutes away, stands one of the few still-intact portions of the Berlin Wall. Imagine…right behind was the headquarters of Gestapo and SS. To think that the entire wall was actually made overnight under heavy guard by Soviets to ban movement of people. A double wall of reinforced concrete with an L-base so it couldn’t be pushed over or smashed. A sewer pipe running over it, so that there was nothing solid to hold on to. ‘No man’s land beyond…filled with landmines, electric fencing, spotlights, rigging and traps. Orders to shoot at sight and incredible escape stories. Times of absolute terror.
5. Nazi building
Opposite is the only surviving Nazi building in the city, where the Tom Cruise blockbuster, Walkyrie, was shot. Behind the austere grey stone wall facade and iron-grill windows is a modern day tax office. The structure continues to exude fear even today…fear of a different kind! Visualise a group of Nazi soldiers marching out in official uniforms (which, evidently were designed by Hugo Boss). I felt a sudden loathing for Hugo Boss. Maybe you will too.
6. Elser Memorial
So deep-rooted and intense is the hatred associated with the horrors of Hitler’s regime, that Germans went all out to wipe out his very traces. The Fuhrer is said to have survived 16 assassination attempts, including a failed bomb attack by George Elser, in whose memory an unusual assassin memorial has been erected. Study the 17-meter high steel outline of Elser’s face floating above the trees, wondering how the silhouette would look softly illuminated at night, a 200,000 euro reminder of a martyr rebel’s efforts gone in vain.
7. Hitler’s Bunker
Apparently, Hitler knew that people hated him so much they would have tortured him even after he died. So he ordered that his body be cremated. After his reported suicide by shooting himself in his bunker, the body was identified by its jawline…he had metallic wires from rotted teeth. A modest apartment block stands over the spot of his underground bunker with nothing but a nondescript board to signify the area. A manhole sits over the spot where his body was cremated. A harsh, pathetic end for a hated ‘world leader’!
8. Holocaust Memorial
Not far is the Holocaust Memorial designed by Peter Eisenmann. Spread over an area of 205,000 square feet, the Memorial has 2700 upright concrete slabs, varying in heights, each five-sided and unique in size and shape, making up a maze of lanes. Stroll through the maze simply to experience the sheer numbers of people the Nazis killed. The calm coral and blue tinged dusk lends a soft glow to the austere monoliths and slivers of light peek through the walkways, guiding you through the maze. By the time you move out, the sun may have set and the maze would be completely dark. The colours of the stone slabs will have transformed from silver grey to a dark black. This is a strange walk…leaving you feel disoriented, unstable, lost. Maybe that is the impact Eisenmann intended to create.
Feel a mood change from solemn to awe-inspired as you reach the German Parliament (Reichstag). The glass dome height is as high as the Eiffel Tower of Paris…a symbol of political transparency perhaps? Come back for a public tour inside, if time permits. Hitler had bombed this building at 5-6 places at the same time while trying to overtake the government. His plan was to redesign the building on a grand scale, to accommodate 2 lac people inside, 1 million outside, but that never saw the light of day. Picture him standing there in the midst of the rubble, the hint of devious triumph on his face…that strange little man…with so much death and destruction to his credit! A shiver run up your spine?
10. Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate was constructed in 1791 to celebrate the city’s status as Prussia’s capital. Reflect on the statue of Joan of Arc riding the four horse chariot perched atop the pillared gate, illuminated by a blue iridescent light. Napoleon had it removed in 1806 and held hostage in Paris for 12 years! Interestingly, the Germans got it back after their victory over France.
It is dark now and Brandenburg Gate is all lit up, as are the buildings lining the avenue. Take a horse carriage ride, relive a charming medieval experience, or simply stroll along the elegant, wide boulevard stretching ahead of you, lined on both sides with diplomatic embassies. This is the iconic spot where Berlin comes together on 3rd of October to commemorate the coming down of the Wall. This is biggest party place in the country, this is where Berlin’s ‘fan mile’ begins. Visualise cheerful chants, unending beer showers, a crowd speckled with the German black, red and gold flag colours, sheer ecstasy of the moment and mass mania!
That night, like me, you might dream of Hitler leaping off the glass-domed Reichstag roof in a dramatic escape after planting a bomb and being chased by his own convoy of Nazi soldiers through the deserted streets of the city. Brain working overtime for twisted justice? Nah..just Berlin seeping into your soul.