No matter what city you’re in, free walking tours are always a great way to explore. Therefore, on my first full day in Berlin, I began with one of these. Meeting the tour guide at Paris Square, next to the Brandenburg gate along with I found myself with around one hundred other eager tourists. Luckily we were split into far smaller groups, and began the tour looking at the history of Paris Square. Named after the French capital to honour the anti-Napoleon Allies’ occupation of Paris in 1814, it is one of the main tourist spots of the city.
With my tour group consisting of many solo twenty-something travellers, I got chatting to a few people and soon realised we were all staying in the same hostel; it was obviously the place to stay! With two Americans, one Canadian, one Australian and another fellow English traveller, we made an interesting bunch.
The tour carried on past the Brandenburg Gate to the Reichstag which is situated behind it. This building with its iconic glass dome has a particularly interesting story. The dome has a 360 view of Berlin and construction work finished on it in 1999. It is open to the public to visit and looks down on the debating chamber of Parliament. This represents the transparency of the modern Parliament unlike during Nazi Germany. The government now answers to the people and can be looked on upon to ensure they are doing what’s best for the country.
Just down the road from the Reichstag is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Designed by the New York architect Peter Eisenman and costing around $25 million (which the German government payed for), at first sight it seems like a rather odd memorial. It consists of around 2,700 concrete slabs, arranged in a grid like pattern. The tour guide explained that it’s supposed to be interpreted differently by each individual. However, the common interpretation is that is aims to create a confusing atmosphere, one where the supposedly ordered system has lost touch with human reason. Wondering through the memorial, I felt an odd type of sensation with it representing millions of Jews who were killed during WW2. The number is so huge, walking through it is quite overwhelming. Underneath the memorial there’s an information centre that tells the story of the Jews who were murdered. I visited the museum the following day (more on this in my next blog post.) This place was certainly a very surreal one, but one I would definitely recommend it. Each group who were murdered by the Nazi’s have their own memorial, however sadly I didn’t get a chance to see any others but I plan to on my next visit.
The next sight we saw was an odd one. We eagerly followed everyone to what appeared to be a rundown car park, only to find that Hitler’s bunker used to be directly underneath our feet. This is the where he took his own life at the end of the war. After the war the bunker was blown up by the Soviets to prevent Nazi extremists visiting it. The only way a passer-by would know the awful history of this car park was by a small panel that was erected in 2006 at the end of the car park. The panel shows the layout of the bunker, along with archive photos and a chronology in German and English. Standing on the very ground where Hitler committed suicide brought again a weird type of feeling which is hard to describe. Germany’s history is certainly monumental, but also devastating. You go through so many emotions from disbelief about what has taken place, to a quiet sort of sadness for terror that this beautiful city and its people have faced.
The Berlin Wall was something I was adamant on seeing before I visited Berlin, so when we came across it walking up the street from the carpark the first thing that came to mind was how out-of-place it looked. It is horrible to think that around 1,000 people died trying to escape to the West after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and stayed there until 1989. From here we walked to our final destination, Checkpoint Charlie which was one of the crossing points between West Berlin and East Berlin during the Cold War.
After this I made my way to the Humbolt University where I met Dr Leonore Scholz-Irrlitz for coffee, thankfully the tour guide gave me directions and I didn’t end up lost! Here we discussed the logistics of the placement which made me very excited about the upcoming excursion.
It’s safe to say that my second day in Berlin was a busy one! And what better way to end the day by having dinner at a Mexican with the friends I’d made on the walking tour. We’re all still in contact now which is really nice and plan on meeting again if we’re ever in the same city.
Look out for my next blog post where I discuss visiting Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and begin my placement excursion!