Following the end of WWII Berlin was divided up between the Soviets and three of the Allied countries, Britain, France and the United States. The area controlled by the Soviets was known as East Berlin, and the remaining part of the city was referred to as West Berlin. West Berlin was like an island, completely surrounded by East Germany.
The East German citizens were leaving by the hundreds of thousands, seeking a better like in the West. In order to prevent further migration, a decision was taken to build a wall around East Berlin, effectively shutting off all access to the West. There was no prior announcement of the construction of the wall; a barbed wire fence sprang up overnight on August 12, 1961. Shortly after, a more permanent wall was built and remained in place for the next 28 years.
On November 9, 1989, to the astonishment of the residents of Berlin, and indeed the whole world, the East German government announced that the wall would soon be removed. Few people waited for the wrecking balls, but took to the streets with hammers and chisels and began to dismantle the hated wall.
East and West Germany were officially reunited on October 3, 1990 and Berlin was restored as the capital of Germany. The city has never looked back since. Today it is known throughout the world as the place to see and be seen. Many of the buildings badly damaged by the bombing of the city during the Second World War have been restored to their former glory. The former East Berlin districts of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg have been gentrified and no longer bear the scars of the Cold War era.
Vast tracts of land that were completely flattened during the war or were demolished in order to construct the wall and its no-man’s zone has seen striking new buildings arise; ones that rival the modern architecture found elsewhere in thriving cities. However, it’s the Brandenburg Gate that stood as the symbol of Berlin, and still holds pride of place today.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We weren’t ever able to get to Prague when it was ‘the’ happening city in Europe, so we were especially eager to come to Berlin now that it seems to be the tops on everyone’s list of must-see cities. We planned for a two-week visit, but ended up spending almost three weeks as Anil fell sick with the flu and a fever shortly after we arrived.
We felt pretty sure that we wanted to rent a small apartment for our stay in Berlin, but we decided to spend three nights in a hotel when we first arrived, in order to check out the apartment before making such a huge commitment. We had made a reservation for a one-bedroom apartment for a week, with the option to extend it for a second week. As it turned out, we loved the apartment from the moment we stepped into it and would have stayed even longer had another traveller not reserved it. For our last three days, we moved to a different apartment, one that the same agency managed to find for us in a pinch.
We were more than a little overwhelmed by the size of the vast Hauptbahnhof train station, with its many different levels devoted to the different kinds of trains that pass through. There are levels devoted to long distance trains, others for S-bahns (suburban trains) and lower still, platforms for the U-bahns (underground trains). As if that wasn’t enough, we had to figure out where to buy the train tickets and try and decide between the choices of single tickets, daily tickets or passes for as long as seven consecutive days.
We settled on single tickets to start off with and that was just as well. If we had purchased passes for a week, we would have lost out, because Anil was confined to the apartment for almost an entire week while he battled the fever and the aches and pains that accompanied it. Fortunately, I was feeling absolutely fine during the time he was sick, so I settled in to do all the writing for the period that we travelled in Vietnam and Malaysia in the spring. I just couldn’t seem to get my mind into the task during the summer months.
When we emerged from the U-Bahn station at Spittlemarkt, we set off looking for our hotel using the directions we had copied from Google Maps. We were more than a little confused at one point and stood staring at our map standing on the corner of the street. A lovely young couple approached us and asked if they could be of any help. When we told them the name of our hotel, they said that they too were visitors to Berlin, but they had come across ours while looking for their own the previous night.
We stood and chatted to them for some time; well to be more accurate, I chatted with them while Anil patiently waited with the luggage. I learned that they were on their very first overnight stay away from their young daughter who was about to turn four years old. They had come to Berlin from Hanover for two nights, and were at a bit of a loss being on their own after so many years of intense parenting.
The thought crossed my mind to suggest that we get together for a drink once we had registered at our hotel, but instead I told them that I would love to meet for a coffee the next day if they were interested. They seemed pleased to be asked, but they were booked for a tour in the morning and then had their train to catch in the early afternoon. We thanked them and said goodbye as we turned towards out hotel.
After settling in we realized that we were hungry and Anil remembered that someone had suggested a restaurant in the area on TripAdvisor. We stepped across the street and heard the sound of people laughing and eating in an open courtyard. It was a Spanish-style tapas restaurant, and that appealed to us so we walked through the busy terrace looking for an empty table. There didn’t seem to be any available, and just as we turned to leave, we were surprised to find that the young woman who had helped us find our hotel was coming over to ask us if we wanted to join them.
It’s strange how these things happen, just like that. We spent the balance of the evening getting to know Nina and her husband Norbert. It turns out that Nina has spent much of her childhood living in India and had returned for visits with Norbert several times before starting a family. They loved Delhi, loved Indian food and looked forward to a visit again in the future. We had a lot to talk about as you can well imagine, and the evening passed all too quickly while we learned more about them, their careers and their future plans. They were interested in our unusual retirement lifestyle and told us that we were an inspiration to them.
Before we parted, we exchanged email addresses, and Anil and I have the feeling that we’ll be seeing them again one day. We seemed to have so very much in common, despite the fact that Nina is the same age as our daughter Adia, and Norbert is only slightly older than Geoff. Meeting this delightful couple was just the very best way to start our visit to Berlin. We’d always heard that German people are warm and welcoming, and these two young people certainly displayed these qualities in spades.
We did have a couple of days in Berlin before Anil started to feel unwell, and we make some exploratory walks around the city. Our hotel was in a great location, just a short distance from the island where all the world-class museums are located. We had a look at the Berlin Cathedral, and the exterior of the two museums that interested us the most. We collected some information on their ticket prices and timings, and were surprised to learn that access is pegged to specific timings to avoid overcrowding.
On our second day in Berlin, we made straight for the Brandenburg Gate but were disappointed to see a large stage blocking the iconic views of the landmark. I was glad that we would be able to return to see it when the stage was gone, and felt sorry for those who were only in the city for a day or two. We walked over to have a glimpse of the Reichstag and learned that visitors have to apply online for permission to visit the impressive dome towering above the original building.
By this time we were very hungry, and when we spotted a stand selling sausages, Anil chose to try the currywurst (sausages smothered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with curry powder) and I tried a bratwurst. As you can well imagine, Anil was underwhelmed with this very popular snack food and though I enjoyed my sausage, I woke with a screaming migraine the next day from the preservatives in the meat. I should have known better. I rarely can eat processed meat, but I had hoped that German sausages would somehow be better eaten on German soil.
It took Anil almost ten days before he felt like he could tackle all the many sights in Berlin that we felt we shouldn’t miss. In the meantime, I managed to fight off catching the flu from him, but did come down with a nasty head cold and felt a little worse for the wear myself. We settled into a simple routine of sleeping late, eating lunch at the Café Verano at the end of our street, going for short walks and watching a movie I downloaded from iTunes, in the evenings.
Eventually, we were both strong enough to begin to tackle Berlin as we had initially planned, and in the remaining ten days or so, we saw all that we had hoped to see, and even more. We had a period of nasty weather, with strong winds and some rain, but after all, it is autumn and this is the northern hemisphere.
However, our last three days in Berlin were bright and sunny, and we weren’t too bothered by the fact that the morning temperatures hovered just above zero. We don’t usually like to leave our cozy nest before noon anyway, and by that time, the air was usually warm enough for us to manage with our sweaters and windproof jackets.
I won’t go into any detail about the sights we saw and the buildings we toured. In the end, we decided that we had to see the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, but that the others were just too much for us to tackle. We did make our way to a small museum that focused on the efforts of a small group of German officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler, and failed in their attempt. If you’ve seen the movie Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise, you will know what I am referring to.
Every city we’ve visited has something unusual that we’ve never come across before. For us, here in Berlin, it was the bicycles built for more than a few. We saw ones that a family could ride, all facing into the middle while one person steered the bike forward, but the most incredible was the ‘beerbikes’, literally a bar on wheels. It’s too difficult to describe, so I filmed one passing us on our last day. Click here to have a look and a laugh: Berlin Beerbike.
One of the most pleasant surprises about Berlin was its relative affordability. After Iceland, Amsterdam and Belgium, it was a breath of fresh air to find that the costs of accommodation, groceries, transport, eating out and the occasional glass of wine or pint of beer were considerably less expensive. It’s not unusual to get a hearty bowl of homemade soup with a side of fresh bread, a meal in itself, for just 3.50 € and when we wanted a meal of sauerbraten or goulash, we could easily find a cozy restaurant serving heaping portions for 8.50 €.
We had not been able to get to the district known as Scheunenviertel, the historic Jewish quarter of Berlin during our long stay in the city. The neighbourhood is now a thriving hub for shopping, restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. We made it our destination for our last afternoon, and because it happened to be a Saturday, we were able to enjoy the outdoor market at appropriately named Hackescher Markt as well.
With all the history that hangs heavily on the city of Berlin, there is nothing like the loss of over 55,000 of its citizens during the Nazi era. We had passed by the haunting Memorial To The Murdered European Jews, (known also as the Holocaust Memorial), on our first day in the city, but it seemed only appropriate to pay another, more lingering visit on our last day.
We rode the U-Bahn back to our apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a little sad to be leaving this lovely city and our warm and gracious new friend Connie at the Café Verano. We stepped into a small shop selling Christmas tree ornaments and picked out one for her to put on her tree during the festive season. We chose a reindeer made from brown tweed, wearing a red and white sweater. We thought he looked a little like a Canadian moose wearing Canada’s colours.
We had eaten lunch at the café before setting off for the Jewish Quarter, and as Anil had requested the previous afternoon, Connie had made chilli con carne for us to enjoy. Her homemade soups and delicious quiches had sustained us for much of our stay and we were more than grateful. We returned late in the afternoon for one last tall glass of café latté and to give Connie her gift. To our surprise, before we could offer our present, she handed Anil a box of herbal tea, ‘for his sore throat’.
It’s always easy to arrive in a city for the first time, and often very hard to leave. We will remember Berlin for a very long time to come, and it’s one of those few places that we feel we just might come back to. We often say, it’s the food that you eat and the people that you meet that leave the most lasting impressions. That is certainly true for Berlin.