August 17, 2019
Leo and I have visited Germany many times but circumstances have always made us miss seeing Berlin, so it was very exciting to us that the Viking Homelands cruise itinerary included a day stop in this historical city. It was especially exciting for Leo as he is somewhat of a WWII history buff and we have seen countless movies and documentaries surrounding the war and it’s impact on the city of Berlin.
That excitement was somewhat tempered for me, when I looked at the daily schedule and realized that the port city of Warnemunde where the ship docked, was far from Berlin requiring a 3 hour train ride which departed at 6 AM the next morning! But after a few large cups of coffee before we left the ship and a few more on the train, we were wired and ready to hit the streets of Berlin.
At the Berlin Central train station we met up with our Viking guide and within minutes we were on our way to our first stop the Brandenburg gate. This 18th century monument was built by Prussian King Frederic II and it is an iconic symbol of Berlin. Berlin started as a small walled in city with several fortified gates. Brandenburg was one of the 18 gates of the city and built not for defense but to represent peace. The gate consists of 12 Doric columns based on the Acropolis and only the king was allowed to walk through the center columns. Ordinary citizens were allowed to use the outermost two columns. During the Nazi era the gate became a symbol of the party and it survived the bombing of Berlin although it was badly damaged. After the war people could freely travel through the gate until the height of the Cold War when in 1961 the Berlin Wall was erected. The wall passed directly in front of the gate and as a result, closed in August 1961 under the protest of West Berliners who gathered on the west side of the wall.
Needless to say it was an impressive site and our guide did a wonderful job of filling in the history gaps, we learned a lot.
We visited the Reichstag grounds for a picture taking stop. This is the German Parliament Building opened in 1894 and set on fire and destroyed in 1933 and not rebuilt until the 1960s. After WWII, Berlin was no longer the capital of a divided Germany and the parliament of West Germany was moved to the city of Bonn. The fire that destroyed this building in 1933 was used by the Nazi party as a pretext to grab power and limit rights that were afforded by the German constitution as the people responsible for the fire were never fully identified and in this confusion the Nazis blamed the communists. This building is beautiful with a glass dome on top that provides 360 degree views of Berlin and was the site of the reunification ceremony for Germany in 1990.
From this point we abandoned our group and set out on our own armed with a map of the city and a few suggestions from our guide. Our first stop was the “so called” Checkpoint Charlie. I put “so called” in quotations because for some reason our guide kept referring to this site in that manner. We didn’t really know why he did this but as we approached the actual site, it became more apparent. Checkpoint Charlie actually stands for Checkpoint C, with other checkpoints being A and B. But Charlie became the most famous Berlin Wall crossing between East and West from 1947-1991. In 1961 there was a stand-off between US and Soviet tanks on either side of Checkpoint Charlie. Even though it ended peacefully it was a vivid reminder of how delicate the balance of power was between east and west. This site has seen many such dramatic events but none compares to the heroic attempts of East Berliners to cross into the free world with a regrettable large number of people loosing their lives.
Today, Checkpoint Charlie is overrun with tourists flocking around a copy of the original guard house which sits right in the middle of a busy street with fake US soldiers, who for a “fee” will allow you to take a picture with them and will even stamp your passport. There is a museum in the same street that houses the real guard house. The atmosphere is so touristy that I also started calling it the “so called” Checkpoint Charlie after that.
We made our way down Friedrichstrabe from Checkpoint Charlie to view what remains of sections of the Berlin Wall. It is easy to navigate this city as the boundaries of the wall are now marked on the streets by rows of red bricks which you can follow and conveniently leads you to important historical sites around the city center. It is very similar to the freedom trail in Boston.
We walked by remnants of the wall along Friedrichstrabe and bordering the Topography of Terror Museum which is in the site that used to be Gestapo headquarters and now has been turned into and outdoor and indoor exhibit of the events during the Nazi era.
Another very impactful site is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This site is a labyrinth you walk through with coffin shaped (at least that’s what it looked like to me) concrete blocks of different sizes. The lanes between then are on a slanted grade so you are walking up and down in eerie corridors. It is a huge installation, an entire city block wide. There is a subterranean museum but honestly it was too grim a prospect for me and we didn’t visit.
All of this war talk is painting a depressing picture of a city that is far from that. It is a city that has risen from the ashes of war to become a cultural center with many museums and many charming plazas where you can taste great German beers, wine and fine food.
That is how we ended our day, eating and drinking in Gendarmenmarkt. This is a beautiful square in Berlin with outdoor restaurants, the Berlin Concert Hall and the German and French Churches. We lingered over our excellent lunch and drinks and enjoyed a delicious ice cream. From there we made our way back to Berlin Central station and hopped back on the train to meet our ship. It was a long but wonderful day. That night the ship’s chef provided many different German items on the dinner menu and we toasted with German wines while reflecting back on our day in Berlin.