Heading to Berlin we weren’t 100% sure what to expect. Our research into the city was somewhat quelled by our busy work schedules and the fact that I dropped our Lonely Planet guide between the train the platform on a extremely busy commute to work. How does that happen you ask? On days when trains are delayed, as was the case, the number of people trying to get on already-full trains grows exponentially. As the doors open everybody loses their already small regard for others, all surging on the train at once to avoid waiting for the next one. In all this commotion as I took a step onto the train somebody knocked the book out of my hand which fell through the small gap between the platform and the train about 4 feet down next to the track. Mind the gap right, Ugh!
I was able to retrieve the book the following day but it had rained and the damage was done. It was in rough shape and took many days to fully dry out.
Our motivations for visiting the city were driven by history. From the World Wars to the Berlin Wall we wanted to understand and get a feel for these events. So to get our dose of history we used three tours, a free general city walking tour along with two Fat Tire bike tours. The first bike tour focused on the Nazi / Third Reich years where as the second bike tour focused on the Cold War years, tracing the Berlin wall throughout much of the city.
The tours were so fascinating. We couldn’t get enough. Seeing the city now after the war still rebuilding, learning all the ins and outs from the war, topped off by struggles of the city from the wall and Cold war was just mind boggling. For starters November 9th, 2009 was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, which means in my lifetime there were people living in a drastically divided Berlin. I am sure some of you know the story but hearing first hand how the wall finally came down and the coincidence of mistakes that lead to its demise was incredible. We were both literally sitting on the edge of our seats, the steps of the Berlin Cathedral while our free-city-walking-tour-guide told us the fascinating story of the fall.
The unlucky East German press secretary who in a few poorly thought out statements, undermined a government and brought down the wall. It’s the stuff of movies played out real life. After he wrongly announced the checkpoints were open, thousands of East Berliners rushed in mass to the wall checkpoints and forced there way through. Nothing else could be done, the integrity of the wall was compromised. Actually, you can’t even script that type of drama.
Even today the effects of the wall are still visible. Biking through the old East Berlin neighborhoods is like taking steps back in time. The old soviet style buildings still have the working class propaganda on them that was prevalent at the time, which give such insight to what it would have been like behind the wall. In certain areas you almost felt like you were watching a documentary about East Berlin as local people went on with their daily life. For brief moments you could lose track of time before remembering it was 2009 and realizing the old communist rule was gone. These people weren't trapped behind a wall anymore.
The massive, unattractive housing blocks, built for efficiency and equality, showed signs of the struggling modern city. The tour guide said there is a roughly 20% vacancy rate for apartments in the city – talk about a buyer’s market. But he also told us that his first apartment in the city didn’t have heat and the elevator only stopped every other floor (on purpose!). He talked of having to start a fire in his kitchen oven for heating and having to start the fire under his water tank 1.5 hours before he wanted to have a warm shower. That glamorous lifestyle could be yours for a whopping 195 euro a month – that’s cheap! These are all traits of East Berlin apartments, many of which have still not been modernized, as is obvious by his recent experience.
One highlight not on the beaten track that we were able to visit thanks to the bicycle tour, was the Soviet Memorial at Treptower Park. To put into a word it was just STAGGERING. The size and scale was such a tribute to the 5000 soldiers buried there after World War II. This is one of the most impressive memorials in Europe we've seen and one not to miss! Check out this photo where you see a person in the picture to gauge the true scale of this memorial park.
There is more to Berlin than history but for us that will have to be on the next trip. We hear there is quite a nightlife. But we spend so much of our days going, going, going, that when we see a sign outside a bar that says “Open until 8am!”, we cringe.