10 tragic Berlin landmarks that will melt your heart

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’!

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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.

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9. Reichstag

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?

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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.

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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!

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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.

Why Heidelberg castle will make you fall in love?

Its all about poetic perfection…

Located about 90km south of Frankfurt, is a pretty little town, lucky enough to escape destruction by air raids in World War II, and luckier to have over $125 million invested for further restoration. Heidelberg is one of the hottest destinations in Germany, visited by three million tourists every year. So, if you haven’t been there already, add it to your list. NOW!

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Surrender your hopeless heart to the Romantic Road

Fall in love with Germany’s countryside…

The first time I heard of the Romantic Road was from an elderly neighbour, whose dreamy expression convinced me that if the road had that name, it couldn’t be anything but extraordinary. A year later, we were cruising along 500km of mind-numbing greenness from Würzburg on the northern end down to Füssen and Schwangau, towards its chimerical climax, Neuschwanstein Castle, at the southern end, at the foot of the Alps, to check it out for ourselves. On this medieval trade route of the yesteryears, now one of the most spectacular drives in the world…we were neck-deep in all possible earthly glory. The Romantic Road was weaving us through miles of the most stunning Bavarian countryside, where delightful towns and picturesque villages dotting the surreal landscape, and we were just staring. Speechless. 

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A city risen from the ashes

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Resurrection and resplendence in Dresden…

Crossing the bridge across the Elbe River, you will be stunned by this Jewel of Baroque. Tall elegant spires and lavish domes dominating a gorgeous skyline of extravagant architecture all along the tranquil leafy banks of the river, and the unassuming arches of the Augustus Bridge, as if frozen in time while leapfrogging across! If the picture postcard perfection of this first view hasn’t quite moved you, try this. This ornamental town, called the Florence on the Elbe, was almost razed to the ground during WW II. But it survived. And rose to its former glory. Resurrected. Reborn. Rebuilt. And how!

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Stop! That clock is singing!

Two time-keepers that make the world stand still…

It was Prague. Capital of the Czech Republic. Mother of cities. A symphony of elegance. Our mission to explore the enchanting historic centre, had landed us into the Old Town Square, where hundreds were milling. It was a surprise till then, but our arrival had been precisely timed for a certain spectacle. But what? Seconds before our guide pointed it out, we had spotted it. It was impossible to miss…everyone on the street who was pointing anywhere, was pointing at it. A great medieval astronomical clock (The Orloj) on the south wall of Old Town Hall Tower.

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