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. The capital of Germany is the largest city in the European Union, now London is no longer included (sigh). Combined with its surrounding state Brandenburg, it houses Europe’s largest inland water network.

Exploring Post Wall Berlin

We take in Alexanderplatz, its surrounding churches and striking townhall, with its top heavy tower. Then, visit the big museums on an island in the River Spree, gaping at the Babylonian Ishtar Gate, and the cathedral on iconic Unter den Linden. Unter den Linden, at the heart of historic Berlin, is probably the grandest and most famous street in the city. It's lined with places, museums, state buildings and embassies. It developed from a bridle path laid out by Elector John George of Brandenburg in the 16th century leading from his palace, to reach his hunting grounds in the current Tiergarten (zoo) area. It was expanded to a boulevard of linden trees as Berlin grew and now finishes at the iconic Brandenburg Gate.

The Gate is today utilised as a site for major historical events. It's seen as a symbol of peace, as well as representing the tumultuous histories of Germany and Europe. I'm not sure how the two sit side by side. It was originally built to celebrate the Prussian suppression of Dutch unrest, on behalf of the Orangists in the 1730s.

We wander through the gardens stretching to the zoo and the Victory Column, 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 was opened in 1894 and used to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire. It was set on fire in 1933, It's 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 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 café at the top of the TV Tower. It is all we can afford to order, but we make it last the hour it takes for the restaurant to turn once. We watch the sun set over the roofs of Berlin.

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.

Berlin Revisited in the 20s

I've returned to Berlin three times. The most obvious change is the Reichstag. It 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. There are more big churches and civic building with onion domes than I remember. And masses of street art.

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, There's a tourist offering, complete with shop  on the site  instead.

There's more time to explore the university area and the 'cooler districts' of Berlin. Friedrichshain, (this is where you'll find the legendary Berghain club, with one of the strictest door policies in the world), Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Pankow, Mitte and Tempelhof-Schöneberg (berliners turn out to wander about on the old airfield here).

I've discovered a striking bridge on the river, with turrets (pretty isn't really the right word). 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.

Berlin with Friends

One return is for a Yoga of Relationships mini retreat. Partner 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. Barbara 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.

On my last trip, I'm able to catch up with friends Hari and Kirsten and stay at the Nhow Hotel on the river. It's ultra modern and the first to be music themed throughout. You can even choose your music genre lift to travel in.

Read more about Germany here.

What is the History of Germany?

  • The concept of Germany, as a distinct region, originates with Julius Caesar, who called the unconquered area east of the Rhine Germania, to distinguish it from Gaul (France).
  • In 962, Otto I became the first Holy Roman Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval German state.
  • In the Late Middle Ages, the regional dukes, princes, and bishops gained power at the expense of the emperors. After Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the northern states became Protestant, while the southern states remained Catholi leading to the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), and tremendous destruction; more than 1/4 of the population and 1/2 of the male population in the German states were killed.
  • 1648 marked the effective end of the Holy Roman Empire and the beginning of the modern nation-state system, with Germany divided into numerous small kingdoms, duchies and principalities , such as Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Austria and other states, which also controlled land outside of the area considered "Germany".
  • After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars from 1803–1815,. Prussia, with its capital Berlin, grew in power under the leadership of the Chancellor Otto von Bismarck leading to the formation of the German Empire unifiying the various states as the German Reich (or realm) in 1871.
  • By 1900, Germany was already the dominant power on the European continent and led the Central Powers in World War I (1914–1918) against France, Great Britain, Russia and (by 1917) the United States. Defeated and partly occupied, Germany was forced to pay war reparations by the Treaty of Versailles and was stripped of its colonies as well as of home territory to be ceded to Belgium, France, and Poland, and was banned from uniting with German-settled regions of Austria.
  • The German Revolution of 1918–19 put an end to the federal constitutional monarchy and resulted in the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich an unstable parliamentary democracy.
  • In the early 1930s, the worldwide Great Depression hit Germany hard, as unemployment soared and people lost confidence in the government. In January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. His Nazi Party quickly established a totalitarian regime, eventually annexing Austria, invading the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia wand initiating World War II in Europe with the invasion of Poland
  • After Germany lost the war, German territories were split up, Austria was again made a separate country, deNazification took place, and the Cold War resulted in the division of the country into democratic West Germany and communist East Germany, West Germany was rearmed in the 1950s under the auspices of NATO but without access to nuclear weapons. The Franco-German friendship became the basis for the political integration of Western Europe in the European Union.
  • In 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed, the Soviet Union collapsed, and East Germany was runited with West Germany in 1990. Since reunification, there have been 16 länder or federal states: three city states – Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen – and 13 regions: Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Brandenburg, Hesse, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein and Thuringia.

Facts and Factoids

  • Germany was the first country in the world to adopt daylight saving time – DST, also known as summer time - in 1916, in the midst of WWI. It was an attempt to conserve energy.
  • Prison escape is not punishable by law in Germany. German law maintains that it’s a basic human instinct to be free and therefore, prisoners have the right to escape jail. Escapes, however, rarely go unpunished, because prisoners are held liable if they cause damage to property or inflict bodily harm against any individual while breaking out.
  • It’s illegal to run out of fuel on the German Autobahn. Although not forbidden, motorists are only allowed to stop on the legendary highways for emergencies. Having an empty fuel tank is not counted as an emergency.
  • German law bans names that don’t denote a gender or use a family name as a first name. In 2014, the most popular children’s names were Sophie/Sofie for a girl and Maximilian for a boy.
  • Fanta originated in Germany, as a result of the Second World War. Due to a trade embargo which prevented importing Coca-Cola syrup into Germany, the head of Coca-Cola in the country decided to create a domestic product for the market using available ‘leftover’ products like whey and apple pomace. It’s the second oldest brand of the Coca-Cola Company and the second most popular drink outside of the United States.
  • College education in Germany is free, even for internationals. Tuition fees for bachelors' degrees in public universities were abolished in 2014. Politicians say that having to pay for higher education is ‘socially unjust’.

More Facts and Factoids - There's a Lot to Say About Germany

  • Over 800 million currywurst - a sausage served with a spicy sauce - are eaten in Germany each year. There’s even a museum in Berlin dedicated to the popular snack.
  • German is the language with the most native speakers in Europe. Besides Germany having the largest population in the EU, the German language was once the lingua franca of central, eastern and northern Europe.
  • Germany’s capital centre has shifted seven times. These cities have all at one time or another been capitals of modern-day German territory: Aachen (during the Carolingian Empire), Regensburg, Frankfurt-am-Main, Nuremberg, Berlin, Weimar (unofficially, during unrest in Berlin), Bonn (and East Berlin), and, since 1990, Berlin again.
  • Berlin’s Zoologischer (Tier) Garten is the largest zoo in the world
  • The Germans are Europe’s second largest beer consumers, after the Czechs. There are more than 1,200 breweries producing over 5,000 brands of beer.
  • Angela Merkel, who was Chancellor of Germany from 2005, was ranked as the world’s second most powerful person and the highest female ranking ever. In 2009, Mattel celebrated 50 years of Barbie, by producing an Angela Merkel Barbie doll.
  • The Germans aren't the most humble of people. They refer to Germany as The Land of Poets and Thinkers. To back this up, Germany has more cultural centres than any other country. It had 6,200 museums, 820 theatres, 130 professional orchestras and 8,800 libraries in 2013. This explains all the philosophers, musicians and scientists. More people going to exhibitions than to soccer matches. I'll stick with their nickname rather than one of many others awarded last century.

Is Germany a Rich Country?

  • By the end of the last century Germany was one of the economic powerhouses of Europe, contributing about one-quarter of the eurozone's annual gross domestic product.
  • With a GDP of $3.5 trillion, Germany is the largest economy in Europe and one of the largest in the world. German small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for around 52 percent of Germany’s entire economic output – these mittelstand (SMEs) employ some 14 million workers. And Germany is one of the world’s largest car producers – selling 6 million cars in 2015. VW’s Golf is one of the best selling cars of all time.
  • Like other highly developed, service-oriented social market economies, Germany has one of the highest standards of living in the world

Is Germany in the EU?

  • Germany was a founder member of the EU
  • Germany is the fifth largest country in Europe, covering an area of 357,022 square kilometres; only Ukraine, France, Spain and Sweden are bigger.
  • Germany is the EU’s largest economy – with a gross domestic product (GDP) of EUR 3.49 trillion and lies in fourth place in the world, behind the US, China and Japan.

What is There to See and Do in Germany?

My first big trip abroad -and travelling solo - was to Germany. I was 15, and I travelled on the ferry and train to stay with my pen pal in Annweiler am Trifels. The plan was to go with a school friend, but she went down with appendicitis and I journeyed alone. I was terrified, but I was very excited about making my first trip and so I carried on alone. I bought the wrong train ticket to Dover, but the guard didn’t say anything. A German guy carried my bag onto the boat and gave me some of his bottled beer - Lowenbrau. I didn’t like it much. I found my berth on the overnight sleeper and I was so nervous I cried. The people in the carriage were very kind.

The Trifels was pretty, green and hilly wine country. It was genteel living. (My pen pal’s father was the mayor.) I learned to drink herb tea (not to add milk) and eat kuchen. I went to school,was stared at and attended the end of term disco. We went to Mannheim Speyer and Baden Baden on day outings. I even spoke a little German.

Otherwise, Germany is a country with plenty to see and enjoy. Mountains, lakes, rivers, gorgeous scenery, quaint villages, castles galore and Disneyesque cities. I’ve motored through – quite a few times. The autobahns are good, mostly lined with forest and the drivers intolerant.

Don and I drove through Germany on our way to Austria and Yugoslavia (so long ago Yugoslavia was one country.) We camped overnight and visited cities en route. We went via Heidelberg (quaint medieval houses, herring and potato salad. Then Cologne and Koblenz for the meeting of the Rhine and Mosel at the Deutches Eck (corner). Past infamous Nuremberg. Don wouldn’t stop in Munich. The ring road was frenetic and we couldn’t work out the best place to turn off. No GPS in those days. I was working from the AA road atlas.

Tony and I drove to Austria to ski at Obergurgl. On the way back we hugged the banks of Lake Konstanz and sauntered through flower beds of spa town Baden Baden (musical fountains and Schwarzwaldertorte), before driving back through wine country close to Annweiler, my first port of call. (German wine tastes so much better chilled in those large green goblets on the banks of the Mosel).

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