Tag Archives: Alexanderplatz

Return to Berlin, East and West

Alexanderplatz postcard

I visited Berlin six months ago and came away disappointed.  After a short period of reflection I came to the conclusion that this was an unfair assessment, I was on a stag party weekend and it is difficult to fully appreciate a city when you only see it through the bottom of a beer glass!

Berlin is the third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m) and it began to dawn on me that I needed to go back to see to see if I had misjudged it, after all it has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just one less than London, one more than Rome (surprising) and two more than Paris which has only one so a visit in December to the Christmas markets together with cheap airline flights seemed to be a very good opportunity.

We travelled with friends and I arranged travel and accommodation in exactly the same places and in that way I was able to be the perfect travel guide. We arrived at Schönefeld Airport late morning and took a swift connecting train to the city centre.

Berlin Christmas 01

We were staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz so our tour began right there.  Not the most thrilling place in the World I have to say, a large concrete public square and transport hub that was once a main square of the ex German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

When you first see Alexanderplatz it is like being punched in the face.  It is grey and stark, bleak and austere.  Teutonic blood and iron meets communist brutalism and the area retains a socialist appearance.  Trains, trams and cars all busily converge here and people hurry through past the homeless people in their temporary cardboard homes underneath a concrete railway bridge decorated with graffiti,  There are no pavement bars and cafés because it simply isn’t a pleasing place to stop or linger.  It is stripped bare of vivacity, it is cheerless and lacks any sparkle. A rather dreary place to live I imagine.

The square is vast and soulless, a sprawling mass of functional concrete, glass and steel.  It is completely without charm or anything remotely pleasing to the eye.  I have to take into consideration of course that only seventy-five years ago Berlin was practically a wasteland courtesy of the Soviet Red Army as they advanced from the east and the south and the north and the Western Allies turned a blind eye.

There seems to have been a collective agreement in East Berlin not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive.  A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…

Berlin Alexanderplatz Flats

For anyone that does want to loiter there is the World Clock that tells the current time in nearly one hundred and fifty major cities from around the world and which in 2015 the German government declared to be a historical and culturally significant monument.  Really?  It isn’t the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye that’s for sure and Alexanderplatz is neither an elegant Spanish plaza or a cultured Italian piazza.

Berlin Alexanderplatz World Clock

In the centre of Alexanderplatz I concede there is one very impressive structure, the Fernsehturm, a television tower, which at three hundred and seventy metres high is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest in the European Union, two metres shorter than the Torreta de Guardamar in Spain and half a metre shorter than the Riga Radio and TV Tower in Latvia.  Once a symbol of Communist power it has now been adopted as a trademark of the unified city and enjoys National Monument status.

We took a train and Christine kept asking were we in the (previous) east or the (previous) west and I told her that I would let her know when we crossed over, somewhere near to the Reichstag building we made the transition.

Ten minutes later we were in Charlottenburg which before 1989 and reunification was the tourist centre of West Berlin, but it was quickly replaced in its status by the old centre, formally in the east which was restored to its former glory.  Charlottenburg in what was once the British sector retreated into relative obscurity.

Berlin UNESCO

From the railway station we walked for a while through residential streets in one of which is an element of one of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, The modernist housing estates of the Weimer Republic (1919-33) which compared favourably to the communist housing estates of the east.

The difference from Alexanderplatz is enormous because this part of the city was not destroyed in the Soviet bombardment of Berlin and it retains an air of elegance and history and the only Royal Palace that remains in the city.

It was closed today but we walked around the extensive gardens and there was a Christmas market where we gasped at the prices and bought nothing more than a bratwurst sausage before making our way back to the railway station and returning to the east via the Tiergarten and the Brandenburg Gate.

Charlottenburg 01

Berlin, Living Behind A Wall

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“Nobody has the intention of building a wall.” GDR head of state Walter Ulbricht, East Berlin, June 15th 1961

For me, for everyone I suppose, some places can have a real impact when we visit them. The Berlin Wall was one such place. History hangs in the air, so thick you can almost touch it, almost feel it, almost smell it. Other places that I have visited that have had similar impact for me are Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland and Clairière de l’Armistice at Compiegne in Northern France.

Today I walked along a section of the wall, I ran my fingers across its harsh, hostile, concrete surface, I read the conflicting messages of anger and hope that it been scrawled across it, I was stunned by just how grotesquely ugly it was, I remembered all of the things that frightened me about the wall when I was a young boy.

Today as tourists we have our picture taken against a souvenir section of the wall, we smiled for the camera, fifty years ago people died trying to get across it and escape to the west, they didn’t smile.  I thought about that as we had this picture taken.

Berlin Wall 04

The Berlin Wall divided the city from 1961 to 1989.  In the German Democratic Republic it was an offence to leave the country without permission. The border guards were duty bound at all time “to arrest or eliminate border violators. The border regime was based on barriers and border guards at regular intervals and above all on the permitted use of firearms. The border guards who successfully stopped escapes were rewarded with a decoration and a bonus.

Berlin Wall 01The Wall explained

This extract is taken from one of the information boards…

Between the construction and removal of the wall, in twenty-eight years approximately forty-thousand East Germans managed to escape to the west. Several hundred were shot dead by border guards or suffered fatal accidents whilst trying to do so.

At least one hundred and forty people died whist trying to cross the Berlin Wall. One hundred and one were either gunned down, had an accident or committed suicide. Thirty one people from both sides of the wall who were simply curious and had no intention of crossing were also shot dead. Two hundred and fifty one died whilst being controlled at the border crossings and untold numbers died from grief and despair as an indirect consequence of the wall and the impact that it had on their lives.

I couldn’t help wondering what I would have done.  I almost certainly wouldn’t have been brave enough to try and escape so I guess that that like thousands of others I would have accepted life under a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime.  Most likely I would have shot my mouth off and found myself in prison.

Perhaps Donald Trump should visit the site and see for himself the dreadful consequences of building a wall to separate people.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie and Sausages

Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie was an obvious place to visit and every other visitor to Berlin agreed with us because this is probably the most visited attraction in the city.  It is the most famous of the fourteen previously controlled crossing points between East and West Berlin.

There is no checkpoint there anymore of course just a reconstruction and men in menacing uniforms providing a photo opportunity.  It amused me that the Berlin Wall was constructed to keep out the west but at the site today is one of the most aggressive symbols of western capitalism – a McDonalds restaurant.  Walter Ulbricht is probably still spinning in his grave!

I was seven years old when the German Democratic Republic began building the wall and it was barely out of the news headlines throughout the 1960s; subjugated people trying to escape, the unlucky ones being gunned down in cold blood, the menacing stare of the border guards, the impenetrable and secretive Soviet Empire.  Berlin was where East and West stood toe to toe, where the West stood firm against further Soviet expansion in Europe and where the East tried to annex the whole of Berlin by starving out the West.

Donald Trump would have been proud of a wall like this.

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If World War Two and the Nazis fashioned our vision of Germany and the Germans then the Wall was something that shaped our opinions of the post war East and the Soviet domination and I spent my childhood with a morbid fear of the USSR and in an environment preparing for imminent nuclear conflict and the end of the world.  This was the golden age of espionage and spies, John John le Carré and Ian Fleming.

Berlin Spies

For me this was the best moment of all in Berlin, around the site are informative displays and photographs which made me stop and think.  I was born within ten years of the end of the most appalling and destructive war in Europe, in the World, and grew up seeing the Germans as natural foes.  I soaked up my Dad’s stories of the War and read the Victor comic. When England won the Football World Cup in 1966 it was a champagne moment to beat West Germany and even in the 1970s I still carried with me my irrational dislike for sun-bed thieving Germans when on holiday in Europe.

I was forty-five when the wall came down, Germany was reunited and Europe gave a collective sigh of relief.

So, for the first fifty years or so of my life it would simply never have crossed my radar to visit Germany until 2007 when cheap Ryanair flights to Friedrichshafen and Lake Constance persuaded me that I should go there and give it a chance and it turned out to be a personal pivotal moment when I discovered Germany to be relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted.

Berlin Wall 04

Close by to Checkpoint Charlie is one of the last remaining sections of the wall that remains intact and another series of information boards chronicling the years through the time of the Weimer Republic, the rise of Nazism, the War and the Wall.  I had imagined that this period of history might be somewhat suppressed in Berlin, it is after all nothing to be proud of. But this is not so.  It makes no excuses or apologies but sets out the history in a matter-of-fact and sensitive way.  I was impressed.

Berlin Wall 03

It was close to lunchtime now so we set out to find somewhere suitable to eat and made our way from the wall to Potsdamer Platz, the modern centre of new Berlin but I found it too modern for my tastes, with glitzy buildings made of glass and steel, expensive shopping malls and restaurants with menu prices way above my modest budget.

We were looking for a simple pavement bar with a lunch time menu but found it surprisingly difficult to find one.  I imagined Berlin to be overflowing with pavement bars serving steins of foaming beer and inexpensive hearty meals but this was not the case.

Eventually we found somewhere, ordered beer and scrutinised the menu.  It has to be said that the Germans eat a lot of rubbish food!  Ninety percent of the menu consisted of various forms of sausage and unless you want sauerkraut then vegetables are completely absent.

Thanks to Wiki here for an explanation of sauerkraut – “finely cut raw cabbage that has been fermented by various lactic acid bacteria. It has a distinctive sour flavor, acid formed when the bacteria ferment the sugars in the cabbage leaves”

We took our time ordering food because any German menu conceals distinct possibilities of nasty surprises and the threat of ordering and receiving something quite unexpected – almost as dangerous as trying to cross the Berlin Wall frontier. So we stuck to sausage.  Richard had a trio and I had meat balls which are really just sausage in a ball rather than its traditional long form.  I had sauerkraut and Richard had chips.  We shared our meals on a 50/50 basis.  We left a lot of the sauerkraut.

I Love Sausage Berlin

Berlin, Alexanderplatz and East German Style

Alexanderplatz postcard

I had considered visiting Berlin several times over the last ten years, there are nearly always cheap flights available but for some reason I have never made it there.  I had often come very close to booking flights but then somewhere more appealing has nicked in ahead of the German capital at the last minute and I have made alternative plans.  Berlin would always have to wait.

This time I had no excuse not to go because I was invited to a gentlemen’s weekend away (ok, a stag party) so together with my brother Richard a party of boys several years younger than me, I left East Midlands Airport early one morning and two hours later was drinking beer at Schoenefeld Flughafen.

My travelling companions…

Berlin Beer

The remainder of the first day was mostly spent drinking beer the details of which I won’t bore you with but on the second day while the boys went off to do boy’s stuff Richard and I planned a walking tour of the city.  The third most visited city in Europe (31m) after London (80m) and then Paris (48m).

We were staying at a hotel in Alexanderplatz so our tour began right there.  Not the most thrilling place in the World I have to say, a large concrete public square and transport hub that was once a main square of the ex German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

The place is vast and soulless, a sprawling mass of functional concrete, glass and steel.  It is completely without charm or anything remotely pleasing to the eye.  I have to take into consideration of course that only seventy-five years ago Berlin was practically a wasteland courtesy of the Soviet Red Army but there seems to have been a collective agreement in Germany not to build anything that could ever be accused of being attractive.

A block of abandoned flats awaiting demolition makes my point for me…

Alexanderplatz derelict flats

I contrast this with the reconstruction work in other European countries.  In Poland for example it seems to me have made a much better job of putting things back together in the major cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw.  But for me France stands out in the matter of restoration as they took time and imagination to rebuild their ruined infrastructure.  Even earlier, after the siege of Paris in 1871 they built a grand city to replace the ruins of the Prussian bombardment and post 1945 they rebuilt towns and cities with style.  St Malo in Brittany stands out for me as a perfect example.

Trains, trams and cars all busily converge at Alexanderplatz and people hurry through past the homeless people in their temporary cardboard homes underneath a concrete railway bridge decorated with graffiti, there are no pavement bars and cafés because it simply isn’t an pleasing place to stop or linger.  It is stripped bare of vivacity, a cheerless place that lacks any sparkle, a rather dreary place to live I imagine.

Alexanderplatz World Clock

For anyone that does want to loiter there is the World Clock that tells the current time in nearly one hundred and fifty major cities from around the world and which in 2015 the German government declared to be a historical and culturally significant monument.  Really?  It isn’t the Eiffel Tower or the London Eye that’s for sure and Alexanderplatz is neither an elegant Spanish plaza or a cultured Italian piazza.

In the centre of Alexanderplatz I concede there is one very impressive structure, the Fernsehturm, a television tower, which at three hundred and seventy metres high is the tallest structure in Germany, and the third-tallest in the European Union two metres shorter than the Torreta de Guardamar in Spain and half a metre shorter than the Riga Radio and TV Tower in Latvia.  Once a symbol of Communist power it has now been adopted as a trademark of the unified city and enjoys National Monument status.

Alexanderplatz Tower

We found a busy restaurant and had an excellent breakfast even though we had to pay for the tea and coffee on top of the food bill and then without regret we slipped out of Alexanderplatz heading south.

Soon after we came across the Red Town Hall, a brutal building built in a style representing Teutonic muscle, German authority and Prussian power.  It was badly damaged during the Second World War but was quickly restored to original plans soon after by the East German regime.  I didn’t care for it I have to say.

At this point we were still in what was East Berlin and our plan, such as we had one was to make our way to what was once Check Point Charlie, where east met west and then cross to what was West Berlin and make our way steadily west towards the Reichstag building and the Tiergarten.

I hoped that Berlin might improve as we went along, after all it has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just one less than London, one more than Rome (surprising) and two more than Paris which has only one.

Welcome to Berlin