Berlin, Germany: Day One

Brandenberg Gate. Originally built by the Prussian monarchs, it served as one gate in the Berlin Wall until it too was sectioned off by an expansion of the wall. Was damaged extensively during WWII.

Berlin. I have been struggling for months to put my thoughts about Berlin together in some coherent fashion. I still don't know exactly how to put what I felt into words but I shall, though, coherence isn't promised. This city has been through so much and that feeling radiates through the air all around you. The history of death, destruction, disappearance, disruption, dividsion, and psychic diastrophism is all around, it is everywhere, haunting. Yet, there is an odd vibrancy and a cutting alertness of something edgy, artful, and so awake there. This city isn't finished yet. But what will it become when it is truly reborn? Will I come back to Germany in another twenty years to find out?

I lived near Koblenz nearly twenty years ago. The Berlin Wall had come down only a few years before. The capitol of Germany was moving to Berlin from Bonn while I was there, yet I never went to Berlin. One weekend last March there Traveler Eight and I landed there one Friday night. 

We took a bus from the airport to our hotel in the Mitte section (in what was East Berlin), off of Freidrichstrasse near the corner with Unter de Linden. We were staying in a very fine hotel that was octagonal inside, which was really sort of interesting, except that, while being beautiful and having a lovely staff, both Traveler Eight and I were convinced that Jack Nicholson would come slamming through our door with an axe much like in the Shining. We can't explain why except to say that that's just how it felt there. But I digress. We arrived near midnight. Luckily, the staff were able to direct us to a nearby restaurant, Dressler, where we had a very late supper. It was very good. I  seem to remember there being some sort of amazing bread made with duck fat and bacon.

And here we arrive at the crux of my problem with Berlin. I was so very exhausted even before I got there that everything is vague and surreal. Even my photos. Looking at these now I wonder why I took some of them the way I did or why I didn't take photos of certain other things. The two days I spent there are all sort of blurry and out of focus but maybe that's how Berlin should be seen. And my words will equally be so. I will have to rely on links to provide the details of history. Perhaps it was just the weight of that history, so much dire history, obscuring my view and silencing my voice.

Saturday morning found Traveler Eight and I boarding one of those hop on, hop off buses. I'm not a huge fan of organized tours but we were hoping to get an overview of the city as easily as possible. I found myself vaguely horrified by how sanitized the information was given by the recorded explanations offered on the bus. If I had to do it all over again I would hire a private guide. I want real history and local stories. 

Our first stop was the Brandenberg Gate and the Reichstag.

A Trabant! It was the most common vehicle in East Germany and also rated by Time magazine as one of the 50 worst cars ever made.

Street light along Unter de Linden. Berlin has a lot of interesting wrought iron work.

Reichstag (Parliamentary building). The glass dome can be climbed for amazing views but you have to make reservations weeks ahead of time for security purposes.

Plaque in the pavement showing where the Berlin Wall once stood. Near Reichstag building.

The rather artful manhole covers of Berlin.

 A wino "statue"

A map of the Tiergarten. An absolutely wonderful place to walk and wander. A forest within the city, once the hunting grounds of the Electors of Brandenburg.

A gryphon guarding a bridge. The Television Tower looms in the distance.

We boarded the bus again and headed west viewing the major governmental buildings and main train station. We then drove down the main avenue through the Tiergarten where a large flea market happens on weekends. We had fun poking around and looking at all the interesting antiques and other wares for sale.

Flea Market on Strasse des 17 Juni

Interesting items to be had in the flea market

This window or grate really captured my imagination.

We reboarded the bus passing by significant places in Prussian history, including Charlottenburg Palace. I wish I could relate the details of most of this part of the trip but the horrendous elevator style muzak played between the seemingly random and innocuous "historical" explanations emanating from the bus' audio system was lulling me into some sort of strange apathetic torpor. Luckily, we'd arrived in the main theater and shopping areas, which afforded Traveler Eight and I an avenue of escape. KaDeWe. What is this strange amalgamation of letters you ask? Only the largest department store in Germany. Now, anyone who knows me well knows shopping isn't my thing and spending time in large department stores and malls is something I avoid like the plague, so that I felt that entering a store was the best means of reviving myself tells you just how desperate things had become.

The top floor of KaDeWe, full of restaurants, where the deserts are works of art.

Mr. Bones. I found him in the Cosmetics section on the first floor of KaDeWe. Apparently, he's been there for a very, very long time. Ahem...

Traveler Eight and I wandered the top floors of KaDeWe, very much like Herod's in London (which I was kicked out of back in the day for looking too "grunge"), where you can literally buy anything it seems, in search of sustenance. And oh did we find it on the 6th floor. Our rescue came in the form of broccoli tortellini in a lovely cream sauce accompanied by a very nice plate of antipasti. We sat eating at a counter surrounded by foods from all over the planet. We then wandered through the chocolate area, where Easter chocolates were works of fine art. 

Sanity and vitality restored we headed back to the bus on our way to the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is one of the only extant sections of the original wall still standing. It has been turned into a gallery of street art memorializing freedom. I can't help but think of all the things we construct, rational and irrational, to cause division. This Wall is just one physical reminder of that process always on going amongst us all.

Trabant driving tour. Yes you can drive your own Trabant. Oh how I wish I had done this tour instead of the bus.

Approaching the East Side Gallery

Berlin! I have to say that while this is not "graffiti" Switzerland and Germany have some of the best examples of that art I've ever seen.

This image, a detail of one of the panels on the East Side Gallery, represents best how I feel about my trip to Berlin. There were beautiful and amazing things there yet something bleak, that has been tortured and had its soul ripped out, lies beneath it all. Who can blame the city for feeling that way after all that it has been through. Where what looks old may not be. The facade of normality is thin.

Detail, East Side Gallery

Well, yes.

On the River Spree side of the Wall. I originally took this photo because of the donuts text but what is more interesting is what the bird has to say. I wholeheartedly agree.

There is great significance to rabbits in association with the Berlin Wall. Look it up.

Walking between the Wall and the River Spree

Oberbaumbrucke (bridge)

Berlin's Television Tower, once a grand symbol of the former GDR.

After wandering the East Side Gallery we headed over to Alexanderplatz area. and into the Hackesche Markt and Hachesche Hofe. I loved wandering the Market and the eight courtyards of the Hachesche Hofe. The courtyards have been restored to their original early 1900's purpose: a place where one can live, work, eat, and be entertained all in one area. And I loved finding interesting Art Nouveau details throughout. And spending lots of money.

Art Nouveau spiral staircase, Hachesche Hofe

Free of the bus now we wandered west toward Museum Island. Somewhere along the way we obtained a Berliner, or jelly doughnut (called a Pfannkuchen in Berlin itself). Oh how I have dreamed about one of these. For 20 years I've been waiting to eat another. I yearned to rip into that Berliner all the way back to the hotel. It is a good thing Traveler Eight carried it there or  it may not have made the trip back intact nor would Traveler Eight have gotten half of it. It is the lard still used to fry them. I swear.

Our original plan was to take a river cruise at this time but no tours in English were to be had and my German is not up to the task to be a translator. Thus we wandered by the rather beautiful Berliner Dom and by the museums on Museum Island and then down Unter de Linden back to our hotel.

The Ampelmann, beloved and unique symbol of the former East Berlin.

After a well deserved dip in the pool and devouring the Berliner, we went in search of dinner. We had been told about Cookies & Cream, a well known vegetarian restaurant. Little did we know that finding dinner would become a surreal adventure exploring the edgy and cool side of Berlin. Wind down an alley near the Westin Grand and follow the chandeliers hanging from the roof of the alley and you will find a large black metal door. Ring the bell. You will be led through dark hallways and stairs, through a moody bar, into a brightly lit restaurant. Make sure you have a reservation. We ended up eating at their sister restaurant near the Gendarmenmarkt, where we had the best chocolate mousse on the planet.

This photo pretty much sums up my state of mind as we wandered Berlin at night in search of dinner. I believe this is the French Cathedral, one of twin Cathedrals bookending the Gendarmenmarkt. But perhaps its is another dimension or plane of existence filled with light trails and the mist of history.


  1. PJ, your travel journalism should be in Travel Magazine, or perhaps the New Yorker. I just experienced your empathetic emotiions as I read the entire article. We were in Bavaria for two weeks a few years ago, and when I look back on that trip, I had a lot of contradiction, but admiration for the kindness of some of the people we met. Thanks for the wonderful tour of Berlin.



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