Prior to our trip, our German colleague, Wolfgang gave us a refresher about the Pre-reunification period of Germany which even roused our interest to see the places where history unfolded. It was quite a moving story, from the time the four victorious powers (US, UK, France & Soviet Union) of World War II split the city into four zones, to the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in West Germany and the Democratic Republic in the East, to the erection of the Berlin Wall, to its fall and finally the reunification in October 3, 1990.
He also gave us a list of places worth visiting and a map which came in very handy especially that we were pressed for time. I had fun becoming the navigator! =)
And so off we went to the famed capital, the largest and perhaps the most popular among the German cities. It was a very enriching trip (it was like every corner you went to, you’d feel history staring back at you!) but time was just too short. It’s a shame we only booked a day tour. We were able to go to most of the known landmarks but not without all the running & sweating, Amazing Race – like kind of thing. It took us 4 pretty long hours via ICE train from the Frankfurt Hauptbahnof. We reached Berlin Hauptbahnof at around 10 am. Full house, tourists everywhere. I guess every one of them is intrigued about this city just as I am.
Anyway, this is how we spent our 7 hours in Berlin: (I have forgotten the exact times so I am just gonna present our itinerary)
First stop, bookshop. Nothing much to say except that our Berlin trip happened to be the same day the last Harry Potter book was released. I am not exactly a fan but I found myself queuing for my own copy.
From the terminal, we walked towards our first destination for the day, the popular and historic Reichstag Building. From afar I could already see the impressive facade and the lush greens surrounding the building. It was built in 1894 to house the Reichstag (Parliament of the German Empire). It was heavily damaged during the war but after its reconstruction in 1999, it became the seat of the Bundestag, the modern German parliament.
As with any other popular tourist spots the queu could get very long, but thankfully we were not far behind. There’s a lift that would take you to the building’s rooftop but you can also walk all the way up via a spiral walkway.
I was impressed with the Reichstag dome, a humungous glass dome at the top of the building. It provides a 360-view of the wonderful Berlin cityscape.
Standing very close to Reichstag is the Brandenburger Tor, pretty much a common sight in Berlin postcards. Seeing it finally in the flesh sort of gave me goosebumps, my mind was suddenly flooded with the many sad stories about the great divide. It was originally built in the 18th century as a symbol of peace. During the Cold War it became a symbol of division of the East & the West (it’s said to be part of the Berlin Wall, that served as the main entrance to the city). But since the fall of the Berlin wall it has become the symbol of a reunified Germany.
Sprawled all over the area were souvenir shops selling Berlin memorabilia. I bought a collector’s gold city plate and a few touching post cards.
As with the Bradenburger gate, this too became one of the significant symbols of the Cold War and the separation between the east and west. When the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 by the East, President JFK ordered the construction of three checkpoints through which diplomats & allied forces could enter West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie, named after the American alphabet, became the most famous. It’s located in Friedrichstadt and has become one of Berlin’s top tourist attractions.
There were gallery walls around the area telling poignant stories about escape attempts, the stand off between the Soviet and American tanks in 1961 and the significance of this checkpoint in the Cold War. It’s worth spending a little more time (it helps that the Berlin summer sun wasn’t unkind) to read and see photos from the past. I read about a boy who while trying to escape was shot and killed in a snap. It was just sad.
After the heavy drama from all the remnants of the 20th century history, our trip to Schloss Charlottenburg was simply refreshing. Though it was a bit outside the city center, it was nevertheless worth the trip. It’s actually a palace built by King Friedrich Wilhelm as a summer house for his beloved wife Queen Sophie Charlotte. It used to be called Lietzenburg Pleasure Palace but after the Queen’s death it was named after her.
It was simply amazing to get a glimpse of the life of the royalty that once roamed in this grandiose complex, way back in the early days of the Prussian Kings. The remarkable collection of porcelains. The grand artwork collection. Both exteriors and interiors were exquisitely designed, with that enchanting Baroque architecture, exuding an air of opulence and power. I was just in awe.
Being the largest palace in Berlin, we clearly did not have the luxury of time to be able to explore the compound. I managed though to get my photo taken with the statue of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg, founder of the State of Brandenburg and Prussia in the courtyard.
From the palace we travelled back to the heart of Berlin. Our first stop was Alexanderplatz, a large public square in the city centre, near the river Spree named after Russian Tzar Alexander I. From here we walked towards the direction of the Unter den Linden. We passed by several landmarks that I think are worth mentioning (promise it’s gonna be a quickie!)
Also known as the Tele-spargel (toothpick), the TV tower is one of the tallest structures in Europe with a total length to the top of the spire of 365m or 1197 ft. It’s said to have a revolving restaurant (Telecafé) at 207m and a viewing platform at a height of 203m which offers a view of the city. This we didn’t get to try, again due to time issues =(
Rotes Rathaus is a German term for Red Town Hall. It got its name from the red bricks that make this building quite a standout, apart of course from its elegant architecture reminiscent of the Notre Dame in France. It’s the town hall of Berlin, situated in Rathausstrase near Alexanderplatz and serves as the residence of the governing mayor of Berlin.
Next stop was the majestic Berlin Cathedral which reminded me of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (it is said to be the Protestant counterweight to the Catholic’s St Peter’s). The Berliner Dom as it is called is a baroque Cathedral built between 1894 and 1905. It is located on an island in the river Spree, also known as the Museum Island.
Unter den Linden
After the Dom, we strolled along the prestigious boulevard leading to the Bradenburg tor called Unter den Linden. In English it translates to “Under the Linden Trees”, a name it earned from the rows of linden trees that were planted centuries ago by order of King Friedrich Wilhelm to keep the route more shady for his travels. There’s quite a number of architectural sites along Unter den Linden which have either been restored or renovated over the yearsl, to name a few: Humboldt University, the Zeughaus (German Historical Museum), the Staatsoper, Altes Palais, Staatsbibliothek and the Schloßbrücke (Palace Bridge).
Our last stop was in another famous square in Berlin, the Gendarmenmarket, a name it got from the Regiment Gens d’Armes who had their stables here from 1736 to 1773. It’s surrounded by three landmark buildings, the Französischer Dom, Deutscher Dom and the Konzerthaus. The Französischer Dom and Deutscher Dom are two seemingly identical churches opposite each other.
The Französischer Dom
This is the French Cathedral, a bit older than the German one, was built between 1701 and 1705 by the Huguenot community.It was modeled after the Huguenot church in Charenton. In 1785, Carl von Gontard added a few enhancements to the building, which actually turned the church into a twin sister of the Deutscher Dom. The Französischer Dom contains a Huguenot museum, a restaurant on the top floor and a viewing platform.
This is the German Cathedral, the most southern building at the Gendarmenmarkt, designed by Martin Grünberg and built in 1708 by Giovanni Simonetti. It was destroyed by fire in 1945, was rebuilt in 1993 and reopened in 1996 as a museum with exhibits on German history.
Wow. Look at that. Berlin in 7 hours. A bit exhausting (well that is such an understatement) but it was a really fulfilling and learning experience. I just wished we stayed for even one more night.