March 1990 - After the Wall Came Down Backpacking Tour of Eastern Europe, With Friend Jenny
Out to Berlin, backpacking, as soon as we can after The Wall comes down, a stepping stone to post-Gorbachov Eastern Europe. The PR people like to point out that Berlin has more bridges than Venice,-1700 - but of course the city is also much bigger than Venice. Combined with its surrounding state Brandenburg, it houses Europe’s largest inland water network. We visit the big museums on an island in the River Spree and the cathedral on iconic Unter den Linden, gaping at the doors to Babylon and wandering through the gardens stretching to the zoo, beyond the wreck of the Reichstag building. The asphalt paths are lined with flowers bobbing in the sun and the air full of music from the organ grinders dotting the way. The Reichstag itself is very moving. My clearest and most poignant memory is of reading the numbers of dead from the war, posted inside what remained of the ruined hulk.
The first set of traffic lights in Europe was put into service in Potsdamer Platz in Berlin in 1924. A replica of the lights can still be admired there today. We tiptoe cautiously through Checkpoint Charlie, the one gate between East and West Berlin, only very recently opened for good. Being on the site of such momentous recent history is not to be taken lightly - it all feels fresh and raw, as well as exciting. We are staying in East Berlin with a family, in their flat. They are terrified of the Stasi, who they tell us are very much still operating. We examine the many chunks of The Wall for sale on the streets, daubed pebbles in plastic bags – I’m not convinced many are genuine.
The Hundertwasser Haus, with its extraordinary glittery decoration, is a must. And we eat ice cream sundaes in the revolving cafe at the top of the Tower. It is all we can afford to order, but we make it last the hour it takes for the restaurant to turn once, as we watch the sun set over the roofs of Berlin.
March 2016 - A Weekend Visit
My return is for a Yoga of Relationships mini retreat. The most obvious change is the Reichstag, which has been imposingly rebuilt by Norman Foster to house the National Parliament, a huge tri-coloured flag billowing above. The organ grinders are still there. The streets are busy with yellow trams and there are more big churches and civic building with onion domes than I remember. There's a sobering Holocaust memorial south and not so far from the Reichstag. Many of the old Soviet style blocks have disappeared. The original Checkpoint Charlie is now in a museum and there's a tourist offering, complete with shop on the site instead.
There's a pretty bridge on the river, with turrets and a remaining piece of wall nearby (I'm surprised there's anything left) has been sectioned off to create an outdoor East Side- Art Gallery. The murals are fascinating, colourful and satirical.
Otherwise, the city does not feel hugely different in the centre, except that Unter den Linden has become a building site.
Barbara speaks fluent German and we ride the busses with ease,as she acquires new friends at every stop. A tea shop is a chance for sacher torte and yet more new acquaintances. She is is also a big fan of Trippen shoes and a visit to the outlet factory is obligatory. I buy a pair of purple boots that I don't need.