After an amazing stay in Poland and the rich exploration into my ancestry, it was finally time to move on with my world travels. It was also time… for a day; to become an independent traveler again (making it on my own resources/living out of a backpack/adventuring and exploring) again. In staying with family and family friends in Ireland, France and Poland I received amazing hospitality, saved a lot of money, and got shown local gems that I would have never experienced on my own. But, I have to say, there’s an indescribable excitement to venturing into a major foreign city on your own and just going around by yourself to see what you might find. It’s exhilarating… and I was about to spend about 10 hours in Berlin: Germany’s capital and one of the most modern, newly-vibrant cities in Europe.
I started my day with Anna and Maryla on the commuter train from their home on Chojna to Szczecin, where we said warmest goodbyes and I thanked them for their outpouring of generosity to me. I said goodbye to my time in Poland, and hopped on a shuttle bus to Berlin. I was dropped off at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (the central train station)… and this is where I got a first impression of Berlin that really explained the status of the city.
Let me explain it this way: the central train station was beautiful and brand-spanking new. To build the gleaming, modern station they tore down the historic station. This seemed to be the theme throughout Berlin… in about the last ten years, the city has become one of the modern cultural and business hotspots in Europe; a thoroughly modern and youthful city. To me, though, it became clear that this modern vibrancy came at the price of burying the past – and for Berlin that’s a very painful past, so it makes sense that the people would want to move from that to their prosperous future. Berlin was the historic capital of Germany for many years, including the Nazi regime. Immediately after WWII, the capital was moved and Berlin was separated into East and West. All of these challenges to the city’s history left a dark shadow that seems to be brushed aside somewhat: Berlin is now unified and became the German capital again in 1999. Major investment in rebuilding the city has transformed it; but at the expense of modernizing everything.
This modernization was most evident at the parliament building itself: the Reichstag. This building was mostly destroyed after WWII and abandoned when the capital was moved out of Berlin. When it was decided to move the capital back to Berlin, a major renovation of the historic parliament (the capital building that even housed the Nazi party) took place. Essentially the entire inside was transformed and only the historic outer shell remains. An ultra-modern, iconic glass dome was installed on top and now serves as one of the most famous tourist attractions in the city. But, in serving as a modern tourist attraction, the building is the most obvious example of Berlin’s history sliding away towards modern progress. Tourists to the Reichstag are actually separated from any of the functioning parts of the parliament. You can’t go see the legislative chamber like you can tour Ottawa’s House of Commons or Washington’s Capitol building. At the Reichstag, tourists go straight up to the modern dome on the roof, see a beautiful view of the city, and then leave. Modern, major tourist attraction, and interesting to visit… but completely avoiding the history of the place.
Fortunately, not ALL of Berlin’s fascinating history is lost to the modern, vibrant progress going on throughout the city. Not far from the Reichstag is the iconic Brandenburg Gate. The imposing columns used to serve as the entrance to the city; Hitler used to march his troops through the gates to show them off; and Western and Eastern leaders delivered political speeches there during the tensions of the cold war in divided Berlin.
A bit farther beyond the famous gate, remnants of the most famous piece of Berlin’s modern history still remain: pieces of the Berlin Wall. Potsdamer Platz was one of the main traffic intersections in Berlin (today it’s the major commercial hub)… but during the years of Germany’s division the divide between East and West Germany passed right through Potsdamer Platz. The famous and horrible wall separating Western and Soviet life passed through the intersection until it was torn down with the fall of Communism. At the time of Berlin’s unification, there were many who wanted to get rid of the wall completely… and for those who lived with the torment of life in divided Europe, I can understand why they wanted to get rid of signs of the painful past. Fortunately, though, the importance of preserving history was remembered and today you can see areas in the sidewalks that were the foundations of the Berlin Wall… and several massive columns stand in their original locations, complete with the historic graffiti that frustrated Germans inscribed years ago.
You can’t really get a true impression of what it was like living in divided Berlin, but in addition to seeing the wall’s remaining pieces there are a few clues. One of those is Checkpoint Charlie. This is a reconstructed tourist attraction, but it recreates the army gate in the Berlin wall where those with clearance could pass from East to West. Tense tank standoffs took place here; and today you can see a reconstructed army gate and sand bags symbolizing the divide between the two sides.
Looking around this area, you can also see the difference in the “feel” of East and West Berlin. Yes, as I wrote, much of the city is becoming very modern and a lot of the construction is brand-new. But the older buildings are very telling. East Germany still looks very Soviet-drab… right down to the famous city square Alexanderplatz: the Soviet-built public square with the famous t.v. tower standing tall overhead.
My stay in Berlin stretched into the evening; my train to my next stop (Amsterdam) wasn’t arriving until the late evening. Exploring a bit of Berlin’s nightlife was exciting: good German beer and the start of Eurocup fever. With the modernization of Berlin, a lot of youthful vibrant culture has come in and the city is really a hotbed of European life now. Waiting for my train, I found a very neat bar just across the Spree River from the station: with the warm early-summer weather a riverfront “beach club” had sprung up complete with sand and riverfront cabana chairs. I hung out into the evening listening to the great German euro-dance/pop music.
Berlin is definitely a great and vibrant city to visit: a modern, exciting cosmopolitan metropolis. I just hope that in the ambitious race of exciting progress, the painful past is not completely swept aside: history is a part of Berlin just as the modern development now defines the city, too.