From the various trips I’ve taken, I’ve learned that it’s always great to consult the internet and friends who’ve been to the place you’re going to because you might just get a tip that will make your whole journey even better.
This was the case when I told my flatmate Nuria about my plans, and she suggested we take the free tour of Berlin with Sandeman’s New Europe. And I’m very glad I listened to her as that tour ended up being one of the vacation’s highlights.
After waking up with a sore back, because hostel beds were not made to be comfortable, and enjoying a breakfast of tons of coffee and baked goods, as well as looking at several maps to charter our course for the day, we set out on the S-Bahn to explore some of Berlin before the 3.5 hour walking tour began. Yes, we voluntary signed ourselves up for walking before some more walking.
We got off at Friedrichstrasse, one of the city’s most popular streets, and began to trek towards the tour’s meeting point: the Starbucks across from the Brandenburg Gate- ironic, I know.
On this little walk, we were given the chance to discover how vibrant and energetic Berlin is. Despite the chilly weather, people were out on the streets, going about with their day to day business, and it felt like something was always happening there- which reminded me so much of Beirut. Then again, I’m very biased towards cities.
What I also loved about Friedrichstrasse is that it is the main shopping street, having all the shops I’ve come to know and love lined up next to each other, in a continuation of a European model of not stuffing all the shops into a fancy yet almost soul-sucking shopping mall as is the case in the Middle East.
We continued walking towards Unter Den Linden, a beautiful street, that no doubt would be even prettier if the trees were in full bloom, loitered with souvenir shops, restaurants, and formal looking buildings. At the end of the street, is the Pariser Platz, where the gate stands, and where the tour would begin.
As we had arrived earlier, we were given tickets with a number on it and told to wait for a while, something that didn’t sit well with me because it was cold and windy, oh and bleak. We were also waiting for Fien, who joined us a few minutes before the tour was about to start.
Eventually we got to meeting our tour guide for the day, Lewis, a Dutchman living in Berlin for five years now, who seemed to be very passionate about the city and the locations we were about to visit. He explained that even though the excursion is know as “free,” the system is more of the customers giving value to their experience, thus tipping the guide at the end (or not at all) with how much you thought it would be worth.
I thought of this as great because how often do you go on tour somewhere and the guide is just reading something half-heartily off a sheet of paper because he already knows he’s getting the money? Plus, it didn’t seem like Lewis or any of the guides were doing this for the Euros but rather sharing all the stories that had happened in Berlin.
From the Brandenburg Gate and 17 Juni Platz, we set out to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, as the guide explained the controversy surrounding its construction, and how it was intentionally designed this way in order to allow the visitors to have their own interpretation of this work.
Continuing onward was the site of Hitler’s bunker, where he committed suicide, and is now a parking lot. The place is eerie to say the least and though it is surrounded by very nice residential buildings, I cannot imagine myself living there, fully aware of what the place signifies. On the other hand, it seems that a lot has been done to curtail this spot from turning into a shrine, though one cannot help but wonder.
We continued to explore some elements of Nazi Germany with the former Luftwaffe (air force) headquarters. To say the least, it’s a scary place to have been during that time, and the architecture completely serves the purpose of scaring you to bits. It’s funny though how in a turn of events, it has become the Tax Office. Still, I would never picture myself working in a building that carried so much significance to such a horrible period of history.
And then it was time for another one of Berlin’s most famous symbols, the Berlin Wall. I’d like to say that it impressed me, that it completely exceeded my expectations, that it just put everything I had read up on about East and West Berlin into context, but I was very underwhelmed, which even the guide noticed and remarked that this happens to almost everyone.
To put things into perspective, I was more impressed with how the municipality handles the high water table issue than with this barrier that was a source of much attention over the course of history.
Checkpoint Charlie was the one location on the tour that we didn’t get to see much of, but not that I completely minded that. Much like our guide’s impression of the place, its fakeness made it very touristy. The pictures they had nearby of that same area but from many years ago were more striking than the actual “exhibit.”
A short break later, we went even further back in time at the Gendarmen-markt were the twin churches, one German and one French, and a theater stand. Apparently though, the cathedrals aren’t completely identical, as the German one stands a few inches taller- the irony not lost on anyone of our tour group.
Our next stop, the Bebelplatz, looked like yet another pretty square, where a branch of Humboldt University and the Opera House were situated. It was only when Lewis started explaining that we discovered it was the site of the 1933 book burning and a memorial was in place in commemoration of these events. I was particularly struck by the inscription they chose, as it came from one of the authors whose works were burned.
Then it was back to Unter den Linden to head to Museum Island, but not before stopping at the heartbreaking Memorial for the Victims of War and Tyranny. Visiting this memorial probably had the most profound impact upon me as I stood for a moment of silence for all the souls that have been lost due to conflict.
At Museum Island, we were introduced to all the different places, though with the exception of the German History Museum, none seemed to capture my attention (mostly they’re all art and architecture). And why would they when the magnificent Berlin Dome is standing right in front of you?!
The tour wrapped up with Lewis explaining how the wall fell and how reunification happened, a story which brought smiles to all our faces. I personally cannot believe that the current Germany is as old as I am, but still I felt inspired at how the country, and especially Berlin, had managed to pick itself up from all the conflicts and strife of the past years.
Many, many lessons can and should be learned from this. We thanked our guide after he gave us a few recommendations of what we could see on our remaining day and a half, very very content that we had done this.
So kids, the moral of this story is: always seek out the advice of someone who has been there.
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