Berlin in a Day

August 13, 2011 - 1:21 pm No Comments

Just as day started to break on the left side of the plane, the orangey glows of small Normandy towns became visible in the blackness on the right.

What followed was an unbelievably long, borderline criminal walk from the farthest gate in Terminal 2C to the farthest gate in Terminal 2D. Sweating profusely, I got to the gate just in time.

Flying into Berlin, the first things I saw through the hazy gray clouds were the famous TV tower and white apartment buildings of identical design all over the place.

On the bus from the plane to the terminal, I studied the mostly German passengers I had just flown with. They have a look, but it’s hard to pin down. Their most common features are skinny frames and thin lips, but there is a lot of variation. None of the women wear make-up, and many have short hair, making them look a bit masculine. In a juvenile and probably offensive way, I wondered how many of them had fathers or grandfathers who were Nazis. Does that make me an asshole? Or is that a valid stigma German people will battle for generations to come?

Strangely, there was no customs or passport stamp upon entering Germany. Is that because I had just come from Paris, where they did briefly glance at my passport? Once you’re in the EU, you’re in the EU?

The helpful girl at the information desk gave me a map and precise instructions to use the bus and train to get to my hotel.

I was introduced to Berlin through the bus window. Every street sign had a platz or a straße on it (that ß is kind of cool-looking). As instructed, I got off at the Alexanderplatz train station.

Fernsehturm at Alexanderplatz

Alexanderplatz Station

I got onto one of the S-trains to Warschauer Straße in Friedrichshain (FREE-dricks-hine), a borough on the east side of town.

Is It Me You're Looking For?

After a bit of gratuitous walking (address numbers work a bit funny here), I finally made it to the Friedsrichshain Hotel.

At this point, it was 4:30am for my body and I was running on two hours sleep, but I kept going. Running on the adrenalin rush of being in a new place, I consulted a few maps and headed out to explore Berlin.

I thought it would be a good idea to force breakfast down, so I went to Bäckerei Morgenduft next door to grab a bite. The yellowjackets swarming around the food on display were unappetizing, but the free wifi made it easy to plan my day.

I figured that a free walking tour of the most important historical sites in Berlin was a good way to start things off, so I headed back into town for that. On the way in, I noticed that the trains sound like the baby monitors from the movie “Signs.”

Over the last few weeks, I’d been watching the History Channel and brushing up on World War II. I knew the basic story about how the Soviets and Allies invaded Berlin, and I was familiar with a few of the buildings. I was excited to see them come to life.



German Flag Over the Reichstag

With some time to kill before the tour, I wandered around the Reichstag. It’s an impressive building, fully restored from the war and surrounded with serene grass fields filled with sun-seeking locals and tourists. I couldn’t go into the building because you have to register a few days in advance for that.

I grabbed a wurst from a street stand and headed over to the famous Brandenburg Gate, only to find a Nike-sponsored track and field competition on the plaza in front of it. The gate is an iconic symbol of Germany, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a good picture of it.

Air Show "Berlin fliegt!" at the Brandenburg Gate

At 4pm, I met up with the group for the free walking tour. Our guide was Rob, a guy from Manchester. The company runs on a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth philosophy, which I really like since it motivates the guide to give the tour value.

Rob gave us a crash course on German history, using the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag as a starting point. Our next stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, known locally as the Holocaust Memorial. Interesting space, one that is open to a wide range of interpretations.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Rob then took us over to a run-of-the-mill parking lot a block away and abruptly stopped. Sliding his toe in the dirt, Rob said that we were standing on top of Hitler’s bunker, approximately 15 feet above the spot where Hitler committed suicide. Amazing.

Where Hitler Died

Rob went on to say that Germans carry a lot of guilt from WWII. The Holocaust is compulsory in every student’s education, and politicians are required by law to visit a concentration camp once a year.

I was quite surprised and delighted with all of Rob’s jokes at Hitler’s expense. I asked if all Germans are as light-hearted about Hitler, or if they are still sensitive about it. He said that most Germans make Nazi jokes but that you’ll always find people with varying senses of humor.

We walked around and explored more Nazi-inspired modernist architecture. All the buildings are solemn and gray, with straight lines, and right angles, perhaps. The former Luftwaffe headquarters was particularly impressive. It’s the largest office building in the world. Rumor is that Stalin made an arrangement with the Allies to prevent it from being bombed so that he could use it for a Soviet government in Berlin. Today, it’s the tax office.

Bundesministerium der Finanzen

Just behind the building, I saw my first section of the Berlin Wall. As we looked at it, Rob explained that it was 50 years ago to the day, maybe even to the hour, that 25,000 German troops were mobilized to build it. It went up almost overnight. Rob also pointed out that the seemingly random line of bricks in roads all over Berlin marks where the Berlin Wall used to be.

Berlin Wall

We walked by heavily-touristed Checkpoint Charlie and a few more historical buildings before the skies opened up and thoroughly drenched us.

Checkpoint Charlie



After the tour, Rob recommended the pub crawl organized the same tour company. Since the rest of my tour group hadn’t arrived yet and I had nothing better do to for the night, I signed up.

Rainbow Over the Berlin Cathedral

The rain had finally stopped when the pub crawl started under a bridge. Young Brits and Americans traveling in groups proceeded to drink heavily and pose with each other for new Facebook pictures. I’m glad Carl steered me away from a Contiki tour filled with these clowns. It’s fun for a night or two, but it would get old quickly.

I chatted a bit with a group of grad students from Baltimore. They’ll be in Prague in a few days, so I might meet up with them there. I met a guy named Ogene from Saskatoon. He and I were the only ones who were alone on the pub crawl, so we bonded quickly. I also befriended three German students, Stefan, Tomas, and Matias, who were in Berlin on vacation. They were young, a bit nerdy, and fun to bullshit with.

Woke up to a knock on the door this morning, feeling a bit rough but well-rested and time-adjusted. It turned out to be Kirtan (KEER-tin), an English guy booked on my tour. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me that there were now nine people booked on the tour.

Kirtan and I met Tomi, our young Slovakian guide, in the lobby. He seemed a bit timid, perhaps because of his imperfect English, but very friendly.

I just brought Kirtan over to Bäckerei Morgenduft for früstüch (rhymes with “push took”), or breakfast. Again, yellowjackets are all over the place, landing on the strudel in the display case and likely reproducing in them.

With one day of Berlin under my belt, I gave Kirtan a quick orientation. We’ll probably hang out today before returning to the hotel to meet Tomi and the rest of the group.

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