There’s nothing like a business trip, and its location, to get the creative juices flowing with regard to a blog post. That said, the Berlin trip was a few days, but I was able to get a (horrifically) early flight which pretty much gave me an afternoon of sightseeing on the first day. (I had to attend conferences – yawn – after that…and if you want to hear how tedious they were, it would take more than a blog post).
Now there are things about Berlin that you need to know. It’s unlikely that you’ll get run over by a car, and in stark contrast to roads at home and their attitude to cyclists, anyone on a bike or Segway is mostly safe. It’s the bikes you have to look out for though. They are everywhere. For the first time I got ‘honked’ at by a bike whose thoroughfare I had apparently trespassed. This is probably a good thing in some sort of perverse, progressive, big-societal, green style. Now there was also a rainstorm while I was walking – but it should be noted that the day started out with intense heat and sunshine, so please don’t let the pics of rain put you off visiting…
Berlin is a beautiful place. Everyone’s sense of history will remind them that the city was devastated in 1945. It was rebuilt, and of course the influence of Cold War architecture is still there, and this blends nicely with the (precious few) buildings which have roots in pre-war Germany. Of course most of these will have a coffee shop franchise on the ground floor now.
Checkpoint Charlie is a bit surreal. You’ll see a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign beside the former border post (which is somewhat stylised and not altogether authentic - the sign, not the chicken - no wait...) and the area is surrounded by gift shops selling ‘you are now entering the American sector’ t-shirts and ‘real’ (ahem) pieces of the Berlin wall.
People of a certain age (that’d be me then) will remember the height of the cold war, and the fact that my hotel was in the former Soviet sector was not lost on me at least. Yes, I appreciate that the cold war ended a long time ago – I’m just catching up, give me a chance. Having said that of course, there are smatterings of the era's architecture and interiors everywhere (Schonefeld airport, I’m lookin’ at you).
Checkpoint Charlie in all its glory – Checkpoint Alpha was passed through first, upon entering Germany, then along a controlled highway to Checkpoint Bravo, upon entering Berlin, then Checkpoint Charlie, as you proceeded from the American into the Soviet sector.
Now I joined the back of this tour – the guy pictured was a fantastic guide, and added a wry sense of humour to proceedings. I’m not entirely sure if the tour was free or not, so I asked the chap beside me. He was an American and stated, ‘I’ve no idea man, I’ve been following them myself for a couple of hours now, and haven’t paid a dime.’ Good enough then.
A 100%, historically authentic...wooden frame.
As explained via the tour.
THESE BITS ARE NOT ORIGINAL / AUTHENTIC
The Russian soldier pictured, was not a Russian soldier
But …THESE BITS ARE ORIGINAL / AUTHENTIC
The crappy frame around the sign!
Oh yeah, the American soldier pictured apparently served at the checkpoint.
The KFC sign!
The place is surrounded by gift shops and bits of the Berlin wall in little postcard sized chunks for 3 euros. I'm sure there will always be enough of the wall to go around...right? Apart from the KFC, the coffee shops, the museums, the gift shops, the t-shirts, the ‘authentic’ bits of wall, the kids milling around waiting to see Justin Bieber, and the crowds...if it wasn't for all of that...I’m sure there’d be a real sense of East German cold war about the place.
Oh yes, and WWIII almost started here in 1961, heralding the building of the wall, thanks to a misunderstanding related to a a theatre date. T55s faced M48s across the stretch of road where I was left wondering just what the hell was going on, and whether I should buy a ‘checkpoint curry’ as advertised in the nearby Indian Restaurant.
Wait – a genuine DDR sign. It’s outside a gift shop though…but I’m sure it’s genuine.
On the way to the Brandenburg Gate, I stopped at the Holocaust Memorial. This is vast and covers a massive area of ground. There is a reverence here despite the long queues and crowds, and it’s eerily quiet. Everyone seems to ‘get’ what this is about, and why it's there.
So, on to the Brandenburg Gate (Tor). Now, there was a heavy police presence here. I think some Canadian bloke called Justin was playing later.
Aside from that though, I asked a bloke for directions in my best German, just to confirm where I was going. Now most locals immediately realised that my German was crap and spoke to me in English (usually with a sympathetic look of …'awww, he’s trying to speak German, blesss…’), though this chap pointed the directions out (very nicely though). I wondered why, and noted when I looked back, that he was standing outside the British embassy having a smoke. Clearly, he was British, and might have been the only person in Berlin who thought I might actually be German...or something?
Now here’s a little more historical reference from Soviet cameras in 1945.Anthony Beevor’s book for more information. As with most well written accounts of any facet of the Second World War, it brings reality and mankind’s darker nature home with a bang.
On the way back – a second pic of the Gate. Can you sense that there is a storm coming? That isn’t a metaphor. There actually was a storm coming.
Clearly the red traffic light was directed at the 'marooned' in the shop.
Karma then clearly dictated, that having slagged off the gift shops, I would end up marooned in one. The thunderstorm here explains why. It was the worst rain I have ever seen, and I live in one of the wettest places on the bloody planet!
A group of us ‘storm stranded’ wet rats were stuck in a gift shop. I almost bought a Checkpoint Charlie t-shirt...Luckily the rain eased and I ran for it back toward Mohrenstrasse, before I could succumb to pressure from the owner and buy something.
Now, on the way back, I snapped some these lovely bronze statues celebrating Germany’s most loved 18th Century ‘Celebs’.
And I’m pretty sure this was Frederick the Great, though I couldn’t get closer as the rain had decided to return with a vengeance.
A great trip; I’m not usually a happy traveller (can you tell?) and the next two days were spent trying to find stimulating conversation that wasn’t centred on our glorious customer. I had more fun talking to taxi drivers in my ‘pidgen’ German about how long they had been in Deutschland, ordering room service (yum) and using the gym.
Having said that of course, I got a blog post out of it; clearly, the trip was a winner.