Hello from Germany! My friend from university, Eric, and I are in Europe for a little under 2 weeks since we wanted to check Oktoberfest in Munich off of our bucket list. After realizing how cheap airfares were if you avoided flying into our out of Munich, it was an easy decision for both of us to pull.
We decided to start out trip in Berlin as there is so much history there. I had been to Berlin a few times before, but love learning about 20th century European history. Given that, Berlin is always one of my favorite cities to visit.
I caught a red-eye flight to Berlin with a connection in Reykjavik and arrived into Schoenberg Airport at a little before noon. We walked about a half mile to the train station which connected the airport with our hostel near Alexanderplatz. I stayed at the hostel, St Christopher’s Inn, when I studied abroad and visited Berlin with Bus2Alps during my spring break. It was very centrally located and comfortable, so it was an easy decision to stay there again.
When we made it to the hostel, we couldn’t check in for another 45 minutes so we decided to relax in the hostel bar, Beluschi’s. Given that we had just arrived in Germany, it was an easy decision that we should celebrate by having a stein of beer!
After we finished our beers and checked into the room, we headed out to explore Alexanderplatz for a bit.
While Eric went up the TV Tower (they won’t let me go up since I use crutches), I needed to take Euros out of the ATM (Pro Tip #1: You get a better exchange rate than if you exchange them ahead of time; Pro Tip #2: If you open a Charles Schwab checking account, they reimburse you for all fees charged by other financial institutions, so it’s like taking money out of your bank at home) and get a SIM card for the duration of my stay in Europe. I decided to get an 8GB package with Vodafone for €49 which is much cheaper than the $10 a day that Verizon would charge me if I wanted to use my USA number abroad.
After Eric got down from the TV Tower, we met back up and headed over to the East Side Gallery, a famous strip of the Berlin Wall which is still standing and is painted with various murals from artists around the world who want to promote positive messages. Some of the murals are pretty well known:
We caught mass transit back to our hostel and decided to take it easy that night given that we were running on less than 3 hours sleep. We grabbed dinner at the hostel bar and had every intention of making a comedy show the hostel was hosting, but crashed before it started.
The following day, we had a 10AM free walking tour which started near Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) by Sandemans New Europe (a company all over Europe which offers free walking tours in most major cities as well as more focused paid tours). I had already done the tour a few times but you always learn something new and get a different perspective from each individual tour guide.
We started learning about the Brandenburg Gate which has a statue on top of it named “Victory”. The square it is adjacent to is “Paris Square” so the Germans like to say that it symbolizes “Victory over Paris” – primarily referencing after Napoleon fell and the Germans stormed Paris to get all the art he stole back.
Unfortunately, the Brandenburg Gate was pretty inaccessible as October 3 is German Reunification Day. There are huge celebrations every year in front of the gate and this year would be no different.
After the Gate, we walked to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As I said earlier, I already saw all the things on this tour but got different interpretations of things every time I repeated it. The big difference I had this time is what the Memorial symbolizes. The Memorial itself is quite abstract – over 2,700 rectangle stones of different heights scattered throughout an area where the ground goes deeper and gets higher. This tour guide said he thinks it is meant to symbolize how anti-Semitism started small (low blocks) and continued to grow (high blocks) before people realized what was happening and stopped it (low blocks).
After that, we went to the former site of Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot) and visited a piece of the Berlin Wall before we stopped for a break. While the group went into a cafe, we grabbed the traditional Berlin street food, currywurst. It is essentially a hot dog doused in something that can be described as curry meets ketchup.
After our snack, we visited Checkpoint Charlie (unfortunately it is now a tourist trap which was completely rebuilt and nothing is original to what it was) before heading to the old headquarters of the Nazi Air Force. The building is now the Ministry of Finance, but was converted to the government headquarters of East Berlin during the USSR occupation of the country. The building had a mural on it depicting the “perfect communist life”.
A few meters away was a picture the same size of a protest which occured outside of the building against communism where up to 450,000 protesters gathered with banners protesting the direction their country was going – toward socialism. Eventually the government called in the military who killed 116 people and arrested over 1,800 more, over 100 of which would later be executed.
We then walked to see the Concert Hall and a few churches before visiting the site of a book burning outside Humboldt University where over 20,000 books were burned shortly after Hitler rose to power. The books were written by people in groups he would later try to exterminate – the Jews, disabled, opposing politicians, etc. The memorial is a series of empty bookcases which can only be seen through a window from above. It also had a quote from Henrich Heine in 1820 which was eerily relevant – “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
The tour’s final stop was at the Memorial to Victims of War and Tyranny which can be equated to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is a simple one room building with a hole in the ceiling. Under the hole is a statue of a mother holding her dead son’s body. It is pretty powerful.
After the tour wrapped up, we walked to grab a sandwich near Brandenburger Tor as that is where our next tour began. After a quick meal, we began a tour which focused on Berlin after World War II and how the city was run.
Our first stop was the Palace of Tears which was aptly named as it was adjacent to a train station where people saw their loved ones off after they were granted a visit from the East to the West. The museum told some of the individual stories of people that passed through it, trying to smuggle little pieces of the West back home. The most fascinating piece of the museum was a cinema which showed how the media in the East and the West covered the same story in different, biased ways.
The next stop was the Berlin Wall Memorial which was for all the people that died attempting to sneak from the East to the West. One was a young child that fell in the water and drowned because nobody wanted to jump in and save him because it was considered to be part of the death strip. Another was a baby that was accidentally suffocated by his mother when they were crossing the border in the back of a truck. The baby started crying and the mother put her hand over the baby’s mouth not realizing the baby had a cold and couldn’t breathe through his nose. We also learned about how people would try to tunnel between the East and the West. We then climbed an observation tower where we were able to see a recreation of the death strip from above. It included metal spikes, sand, trip wires, guard towers and guard dogs.
We ended our tour learning about the Stasi and how 1 in every 6.5 people was an informant. The records the Stasi kept on you are now available for you to see or, if your loved one is dead, their immediate family. Through these records, people have found out that their own husbands and wives were informing on them.
After the tour, we grabbed a drink before heading back to our hostel where we decided to take it easy because we had an early train to Munich the following day. We watched a few soccer matches while talking with a few backpackers from Australia.
The following morning, we grabbed our bags and headed to the train station for a 5 hour train to Munich. The train was pretty comfortable, so I was able to get about 3 hours of sleep.