Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Funky Berlin!

What a simply great and funky town Berlin is! We went there for about 4 days and really enjoyed it.

This was my 3rd time to Germany actually (I’ll be going for a 4th in June to again see AC/DC!). I always enjoy going there and perhaps after Greece, it’s my favourite country I Europe (okay, England isn’t all that bad either). And why pray tell? Well, as The Economist said many years ago, German tourists like going to Canada because it’s a CLEAN country! When you go to Germany (and for someone who also lived for 30 years in Canada), well, you kind of understand why Germans indeed like going to Canada (perhaps a little bit less Italy as it can be quite often FAR from being a clean country). Oh, and when it comes to Italy, local administrators who run Rome’s subway system can learn a LOT from the Germans: together with Munich’s subway, Berlin’s is spotlessly clean (including its trains)! On the one hand, hardly ANY graffiti can be seen, and I mean anywhere too. Rome’s on the other hand can quite often be simply disgusting, especially the Termini main subway line (dark, dingy, dirty, smelly and with rubber floor carpets that are usually torn-up!). Really odd for a country that has given the world the likes of Ferrari, Armani and the Sistine Chapel! Travelling you see the progress and importance that a capital/city gives to its country by (also) its transportation system! Not only that, but twice in the restaurant where we ate near the hotel not ONCE were we bothered by foreign hawkers, unlike what happened a few weeks ago in a pizzeria in the San Lorenzo area of Rome: we had about 10 different hawkers who came to our table trying to sell us the silliest products you’ve ever seen! Immigrant laws in Italy are evidently WAY more lax than in Germany…

Our neighbourhood, not terribly far away from the Reichstag, was pretty cool I must say: there was a Jewish synagogue not too far away from our hotel which had been a victim in 1938 of the infamous “Night of the Crystals” when Hitler’s men had gutted in Berlin alone some 100 synagogues (I think some 260 in the entire country). There were also other Jewish stores and what not in the same neighbourhood. Then not too far away was some odd music-art centre which no doubt also contained a rather high quantity of drugs. Add to all this the young “ladies” which frequented the area in the evenings (hookers), whom I had affectionately nicknamed “The Sisters” as they all seemed to have come out of the same wardrobe: same short skirts, same very high-heeled boots and even same hair colour! There was a small army of them lurking in our neighbourhood, waiting for business to come knocking at their doors. The neighbourhood definitely had the makings of one cool area of Berlin (it’s also not terribly far from Alexanderplatz either, another rather cool area of Berlin as you can see from the punkers who gave me the finger).

Getting around Berlin is rather easy and great as it has a terrific subway system, so great that you can go all the way to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (my 8th so far) some 35 kms away from Berlin. This camp once held up to 200,000 prisoners and was built under orders by Himmler, right about the same time as the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It was the first of its kind built in Prussia and, together with Dachau, served as a model for all other concentration camps. And like Dachau and Auschwitz, it too has the famous sign over its entrance: “Arbeit Macht Frei”.

And speaking of that period, as we walked back one day from the Reichstag, we came across a rather dark and ominous-looking building. I walked around it twice but couldn’t see any signs nor opening hours (it had several doors). I took pics of it but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. I then had an idea, but I wasn’t 100% sure, so we asked someone in a nearby store who asked us: “Do you know what a bunker is”? At which point we answered: “Hitler’s”? Sure enough, it was the old Fuhrer’s bunker, or whatever remained of it. They say that his Bergoff (his old alpine residence, otherwise known as the “Eagles’ Nest”) is watched by German secret service as they don’t obviously want the place to become some type of shrine for neo-Nazi groups who are still lurking out there. I presume the same applies to his bunker as I had the impression we were later followed for a short distance by German undercover police. I mean, someone who walks around the building and also takes pics, isn’t he a wee bit suspicious-looking? They even put down a large stone slab in front of one of the bunker’s doors, signifying perhaps that “Let’s finally put a lid on this thing called Nazism”?

The old Reichstag and the new Bundestag are without a doubt well worth the 1-2 hour line-up as you get to go to the top of Sir Norman Foster’s glass dome. You also get a very good panoramic view of the entire city (good idea to get the audio-guide too as you may otherwise miss out on certain interesting things).

And yes, we did also check out Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate (and the adjoining U.S. Embassy), what’s left of the Berlin Wall, Potsdam Platz and the truly magnificent Pergamonmuseum with an absolutely incredible Pergmanon altar. You can see from the pics some of the incredible statues there, including a beautiful exhibit on Islamic art.

Dining was also rather good as we went in a small bistro-like restaurant near our hotel (www.boetzow-privat.de).

The U.S. Embassy by the way is also right in front of the French one, which is around the corner from the British one, which isn’t too far away from the Russian one. I got the impression that during the Cold War period there was probably NO other city on the face of the planet like Berlin, perhaps not even Moscow under its old Soviet leaders, that had such an incredible amount of spies all in one town! You also get an idea from old film footages from movies and what not just how much the city had been destroyed during the final days of WWII and the immense suffering by the poor Berliners. Not too far away from the Reichstag is also a monument to some 2,000 Soviet soldiers who died fighting in the battle of Berlin.

And thanks to the Reichstag visit we also managed to catch the very interesting and very sad Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, which is right next to the U.S. Embassy. I had heard of this memorial as it was built between 2003 and 2005 by the architect Peter Eisenman. It is rather unique and also odd as it consists of 2,711 concrete slabs which can be walked through from all sides, leaving visitors to find their own way out. Underground the memorial is the museum which also has information on several Jewish families who had been deported to the concentration camps. According to the museum, if they were to read out the names and speak about the lives of the 6 million Jewish victims, it would take some 6 years, 7 months and 27 days

After Munich, Nuremburg, Cologne, Bonn (the former capital), Weimar, Baden-Baden, Heidelberg and Freiburg, Berlin is another great German city. The only negative note is that Germans unfortunately, at least those in bars and restaurants, DON’T know how to make a good cup of coffee, in the sense that they serve it to you at a kazillion degrees (like in North America)! For that I must admit that there’s probably NO country in the world that knows how to make a great cup of coffee as they do in Italy (all pics by M. Rimati)!