Saturday, January 10, 2015

Return to Berlin after 25 years

Tom and I had been to Berlin during our "before kids" trip to Germany in 1987. We also returned with Sarah in 1990 shortly after the wall was opened. This was Alicia's first time in Berlin. It was very interesting to see how the city has changed in 25 years. 

Berlin and Bern have a few things in common. They are both the capital of their respective country and the bear is also their symbol. Touring around the city, we saw many statues of bears.

Touring in the days leading up to Christmas allowed for a mixture of historical and cultural opportunities and shopping at Christmas markets. I had read in advance that Berlin has over 60 markets! We did not attempt to see them all, but got to a good number. (I'm sure it was more than enough from Tom's perspective!) 

hotel sentry

By the time we got to our hotel, it was nearly midnight. Rather than an early wake-up call, we planned an afternoon walking tour and took a leisurely morning with....what else, a Christmas market! The first we went to was the only one that had an admission price. What's up with that?

You want to shop? First pay 1 Euro. Huh?

there are identical French and German churches on either side of the square!

concert hall

On this stage, the kids were "singing" Angels We Have Heard on High while jumping up and down. Near the end, two blond girls came up front to wave their long hair around. (head banging) I'm told it was a "metal version" of the carol. It was not an improvement, but very funny.  

 we bought Alicia a hat - this is not it!

our guide

The free walking tour was very well done thanks to our guide. He added just the right amount of humor along with the facts. Sadly, the weather was cold and rainy. We even got hailed on at one point, but we persevered until the end. The tour isn't really free as it's the guide's way of making a living, but we get to choose how much to pay. I think it's a fair deal and motivates the guides to inform and entertain. 

Berlin has come a long way since Hitler's time and that's a very good thing!
Berlin has done a very good job of remembering and memorializing, but also rebuilding. If you don't know what to look for, you wouldn't know whether you were standing in what was East Berlin or what was West Berlin. All along where the wall stood, there are double lines of bricks in the road. When you stand facing the typed words, you are in the west.

Berliner Mauer (wall) 1961-1989
There are a couple of places where significant length of the wall still stands. In many other spots, individual slabs stand, usually with some pop art displayed. 

concrete was around this

Barbed wire at the top of the wall was removed and the rounded part added to make escape more difficult

memorial to people who died trying to escape - some were children

Between 1961 and 1989, while the wall stood, the subway ran under all of Berlin, but did not stop in the East. Armed guards patrolled the stations to make sure no trains stopped. The "ghost stations" now have displays showing them when empty.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the Holocaust memorial for Germany. There are 2711 stelae of varying lengths and heights. At the center of the memorial, they are at least 10 feet tall.


climbing onto or hopping across the stelae is not permitted
Under the memorial is an information center which quickly becomes upsetting. The displays are informative and respectful, but as none have happy endings, it is disturbing. 

A nice break from the Nazi era was a short trip out of the city center to visit Schloss (castle) Charlottenburg. We found another Christmas market there!

photo display of the castle's bomb damage

very fancy fireplace

ceilings were very ornate

Sophie Charlotte

porcelain room

in the palace chapel

typical long room for parties like we all have in our homes

crowns and their wooden carrying cases amuse me

Christmas market outside the castle

I've listened to lots of recordings of the Berlin Philharmonic which prompted me to see if there was a concert during our stay. The fourth Sunday in Advent was celebrated by attending a performance of Handel's Messiah. The concert hall is very modern and has an interesting design. Tom had been there in 1976 during his AFS days and actually sat on the benches behind the choir and orchestra. It was fun for him to be there again.

I must admit, the performance was not perfect. First of all, the alto part was sung by a counter-tenor (man) and not a woman. I did not like that at all. He was OK, but not nearly as good as the regular tenor. I didn't want to look at him while he was singing because I wanted to see a woman making that sound. The biggest flub was in "The Trumpet Shall Sound". The trumpet made a very noticeable goof to anyone who was familiar with the piece. Inexcusable for a pro. Even with those complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed it.


We revisited Checkpoint Charlie, or where it used to be. Tom and I actually crossed through there in 1987. I wish I have the picture to include here, but it is in Westport. There are fake soldiers "guarding" the checkpoint. They will pose with you for a picture - for a price.

not so intimidating this time

The DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) Museum certainly wasn't here 25 years ago. It demonstrated what life was like in what we called East Germany. There were also many displays of how people successfully escaped.

two connecting suitcases transported a person


A family of three made their escape from this building by sliding down a wire from the top of the building over the wall and into the west. The child is shown in the harness that made it all possible.



The Topography of Terror museum traces the build up of the Nazis and their eventual demise. Most of the displays are photos with corresponding texts to read. After a bit, it just became too disturbing for me. I buzzed through to the end to wait to leave.

terror started young

one of many Amplemann stores

One of the few features of East Germany that remains is "Amplemann" - the little man that helps pedestrians cross the street. Not missing a capitalist opportunity, he is available for sale in many forms. 

With a different hat, Tom would be better able to pose as Amplemann.

Amplemann helped me cross the street!

We happened upon a chocolate shop that had many of Berlin's iconic landmarks formed out of chocolate. Here you can compare to see how well they did. 

Brandenburg Gate


Kaiser Wilhelm church still stands in its bombed state as a reminder of the horrors of war. The buildings on either side were added after the war - one is a bell tower and the other the current church.

interior damage

the new church

the chocolate version!
Of course, Christmas comes in chocolate too! 

The second musical highlight of the trip was an unusual rendition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. You may not be a fan of accordion music and typically I'm not either, but this was different. These two were playing in a Berlin subway station. I'd never heard virtuosic accordion before and probably never will again. And yes, I gave them some euros.

they were amazing
Another leftover from East Germany is their car, the Trabant or affectionately, the Trabi. This is a tiny fiberglass car that we actually rode in during our 1987 trip. Now they have found a commercial use - as a tourist safari through the city. Sadly, we didn't see a chocolate version.

inside a souvenir shop

Why is the Trabant the quietest car? 
Because your knees cover your ears!

Tom knows many more Trabi jokes. Make sure to ask for the others.  

small and not powerful

Trabis on safari

I don't think you can drive this one!

I'm not sure exactly how many Christmas markets we walked through...five? six? They had some of the same things, but always something different as well. I enjoyed the break from Nazi and war memorials. There were booths for ornaments, hats and scarves, food and of course, gl├╝hwein or cocoa! You pay a deposit for the mug when you buy the drinks. It's your choice to return or keep them. We have a collection of mugs from various markets:  Cologne, Vienna, Zurich and now Berlin.

markets were lit up at night

the colors kept changing

some markets included carnival games and rides
these are found at all markets - including the Swiss ones

snowballs for sale

I've loved the stars since I first saw them in 2012. When I discovered they were made of paper and only need to be unfolded (in other words, they are light and easily transported), I bought myself some. I hope it's not too hard to figure out how to hang them next year.

Berlin Christmastime
Christmastime was not only visible at the markets, but all over the city. It was very festive. 

inside a train station

Alicia and her polar bear friend

I was amused to see an advertisement for Christmas in Switzerland. (Notice the red snowflake with the Swiss cross inside.) I guess it's time to go home. 

After posting, I discovered the postcards of old Berlin that I had wanted to scan and include. Here they are all together.

Kaiser Wilhelm church 1930

same church 1947


French Cathedral 1944

Brandenburg Gate 1946

west side 1961

west side later

additional photo credit to Alicia and Tom