It wanted to go down in history of course. (Sorry!)
Again, we realise, as we swap Peter the Great for the Frederick the Great and become immersed in the House of Hohenzollern and its impact on the history of Berlin, just how much location plays a role in one’s history and one’s destiny. The city of Berlin has been fought over since the 13th century, and yet the island country which we call home has never suffered one minute fraction of the sadness, the upheaval, or the blood loss that these European cities have. And don’t even mention the war!
But more about that in a moment. Our efficient Strizah express delivers us to the Berlin Ostbanhof on time to the second, and feeling somewhat discombobulated, we take the S Bahn then the U Bahn to our hotel in the shadow of the giant Ka De We department store. Our little compartment on the train was visited many times during the night by men in uniform, (and at least one woman), some speaking softly, some barking instructions. We crossed out of the Russia/Belarus sphere soon after bedtime, then after lights-out we met a group of Polish officers, and then before dawn, their German counterparts ticked off our travel documents.
Once settled we met the three daughters of our friends Lyn and Phil from Melbourne for lunch, (Caitlyn, Bridget and Zoe), and the girls amused us with their tales of attempting to get into a really hot club the night before. They said they took time to observe the form, and after their first rejection, visited a local alley and swapped parts of their clothing in the hope that one of them would pass the door bitch on the second round. They didn’t.
Although Berlin lacks some of the grandeur of St Pete’s, you can’t help but be in awe of the reconstruction, most completed since the wall came down in 1990. At that time, the area around the Brandenburg Gate was largely a rubble pile, now it’s a collection of the smartest buildings, including the reconstructed Hotel Adlon and a spanking new United States Embassy.
We play tourists for a few days, hopping on and off the hop on/hop off bus as we visit Check Point Charlie, the Museums, the Reichstag, Tiergarten etc. We ride the public transport system continually and the names of the U bahn stations, PotsdamerPlatz, Stadmitte and Alexanderplatz evoke memories from Len Deighton and John Le Carre. Near Kurfurstendammstrasse we visit a bunker, (actually an Atomschutzbunker) designed to shelter the populace from a potential nuclear attack by the Russians. This one was built during the Cold War to house 3,600 people. Designed with enough food and water for two weeks, when full, the temperature would have been between 35 and 38 degrees with the humidity in the high 90s. Showers were not provided.
Splitting up for the day, Maggie visits the applied arts museum while I head west to the former American Sector to the Berlin Airlift museum. This commemorates the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948/49 and the allied airlift that provided relief to the city during this time. While the Americans played the lead role in the airlift, with the Brits close behind, it’s worth remembering that both the Aussies and Kiwi airforce were there too, collectively flying 200,000 flights one year. At the height of the operation, a plane landed every 3 minutes at Tempelhof, and although they brought food and necessities to sustain the city, 70% of the load was coal to fuel the power stations. On display is a four-engined Hastings TG 503 which transported coal, but initially the aircraft used were the twin engined DC3 and DC9s.
An hour on the U Bahn to the former Russia sector in the East, and the boy’s day out is complete with a visit to the Stasi Museum. I had prepared for this visit, reading Anna Funder’s excellent book Stasiland, but even so I was surprised at the level of suppression and how the Socialist Unity Party managed to keep the millions of people in East Germany under control for forty years. The Stasi, the Ministry for State Security was of course the apparatus for this – The Shield and Sword of the Party. The building that houses the museum, Haus 1, is in some ways a time capsule, with the floor that housed Erich Miekle’s offices and conference rooms in their original condition from the day the building was overrun in the popular uprising of 1989. Clearly the furniture hadn’t been renewed since the sixties! Other parts of the building are given over to the museum items such as a range of spy equipment that would have been very James Bond in the 1960s. At the height of the Stasi’s powers, so many people worked for them that each officer has to account for only sixty citizens. But it all came to a crashing halt with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of economic perestroika and public glasnost. It’s a sobering experience, and as I catch the U from Magdalenestrasse, the apartment blocks around me are very utilitarian – maybe East Berlin hasn’t changed that much out in the burbs.
We take a day tour to Potsdam, the residence of the Prussian kings and German Kaiser until 1918. It’s good to be out of the city and we’re very aware we are in what was East Germany. The town square has only been reconstructed recently, and the film studio at Babelsburg, is now at the centre of European film production, despite being the oldest large-scale film studio in the world.
We walk through the parks and palaces of Sanssouci, the largest World Heritage Site in Germany. It’s a magnificent park with lakes and palaces. Our guide warns us not to be surprised if we see people practising Freikörperkultur or FKK, the East German practise of getting your gear off in the public park. It’s only 15 degrees and we think anyone doing FKK would have to be nuts, but this is the height of the European summer.
Our walk in the park ends at the palace Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam Conference was held in 1945. Stalin, Churchill, and Truman gathered to decide how to administer the defeated Nazi Germany but by all accounts, even at this early stage Joe was getting ideas above his station. After a late lunch in the Dutch Quarter, we conclude our day at the Sanssouci palace, a relatively modest palace of the Prussian royal and German imperial family, but by our standards, a pretty flash pad.
Another day took us to Dresden, the capital and royal residence for the Prince Electors and Kings of Saxony, who for centuries furnished the city with cultural and artistic splendour. Then, as I think we all know, the Brits and Americans bombed the living shit out of Dresden in the closing days of WWII.There’s some debate as to whether this was payback for the German bombing of Coventry, or to demonstrate the Allies resolve to Joe Stalin. But whichever way you cut it, 25,000 people died, mainly civilians, and the entire city centre was destroyed.
Our last day in Berlin and we catch the U bahn to the Ostbanhof, where we’d arrived a week earlier, and walk down to the East Side gallery on the bank of the Spree. Here a 1,300 metre strip of the wall is still intact and has been used as an outdoor gallery by all manner of international artists since 2009, replacing the original art painted when the city was divided.
At a couple of places, gypsies were playing the old “bait and switch” game with three cups and a marble. It had to be suss as the spotter, (or cockatoo in our language), gave the bloke playing the game a warning when a police car nosed its way down the street.
We completed our European theatrical experiences with The One, a show designed by John Paul Gaultier at the Friedrichstadt Palast. This theatre, built after reunification, boasts the largest stage in the world. And they’re probably correct. Not only is it huge, but it’s a technical marvel in itself as the stage breaks into pieces revealing the depths beneath. Somehow Maggie bought us tickets in the front row from where we could see everything. Everything! Every little detail and blemish of the 100 dancers and performers that made up the show. I could clearly read the words tattooed beneath the left breast of one of the dancers – and it was in 12 pt! My fears of getting nipple rouge on my white top were fortunately not realised as JPG favours the Madonna bra, feathers and the body sock. The show is best described as Circ de Soliel on steroids but with dancing. There was aerial work by a young woman which was heart-stopping, and a pair of pony-tailed twins whose trapeze was so high it brushed the lights. The finale, with 36 synchronised hoofers doing an homage to the can-can was spectacular. There wouldn’t have been an inch between the tallest and the shortest, and even from where we were sitting, they looked totally identical. And it just goes without saying that the Gaultier costumes were just way out there. At the curtain call the ceiling exploded with silver glitter, which must have looked spectacular from the rear stalls, but we were covered in about an inch of the bloody stuff and were still finding it in our clothes and hotel room days later.
Berlin is an amazing city. It has a vibrancy and an energy that is unlike any other city. The whole east west/wall/rebuilding scenario is almost unbelievable when you think about the scale and the money that’s been spent by West Germany to fund the reunification. Angela Merkel and her predecessors should be awarded a gold star.
Our visit to Berlin was enhanced by a handful of good friends with whom we accidentally overlapped. The three honorary god-daughters from Melbourne were the first. We spent some great days and nights with Jeneen and Colin from Matakana in New Zealand. Jeneen was our real estate agent, both buying and selling, and Colin has a tour business in Auckland. From Colin I learnt that Saudi Royalty travel with American security, “They obviously don’t trust their own people”, Colin remarked, and the Qatari Royalty favour the Brits for their close protection. Our dear friends from Newtown, Peter and Martin, were also in Berlin, and reluctantly dropped their tickets to the Brandenburg Symphony to accompany us to The One.
We’re now catching up on some sadly missed sunshine on the little Greek island of Skiathos. There will be a final post from here in a week or so.