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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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’.
• 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 9Tier) Garten is the largest zoo in the world
• 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. More people going to exhibitions than to soccer matches.
• 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.
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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