Berlin Things: Ich Liebe Berlin (I Love Berlin)

Ich Liebe Berlin (I Love Berlin)

Words and photos by Al P. Manlangit

Trying on Russian military hats on a sidewalk souvenir stallKaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Berlin

I doubt if there’s a more colorful and controversial city in Europe than Berlin. Starting out as the capital of Prussia, it metamorphosed into a great metropolis under Kaiser Wilhelm who wanted it to be at par with Paris and London. Like a grainy, black and white film, many indelible images that shaped Europe’s destiny have come alive here: World War I, the Roaring Twenties, the rise of the Nazis, the ’38 Olympics and the infamous Hitler Bunker.

Checkpoint Charlie

After the Second World War, the Russians moved in and the city was partitioned by the Allies. Then came the Cold War with more images reinforcing the city’s reputation as a flashpoint for another conflict: the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, JFK intoning “Ich bin ein Berliner”, the Berlin Airlift and espionage of the highest order. This status quo remained for almost three decades before the turning point came in 1989 when Communism collapsed and peaceful reunification ensued. So much engrossing history bubbled on the surface of the book I was reading, making me completely forget that the highspeed ICE (InterCity Express) train we boarded earlier in Frankfurt was gliding to a halt. We’re here, the wife said, tugging at my arm as I glanced awestruck at the spanking brand-new 1.5-billion Euro Berlin Hauptbahnhoff.

Berlin TV Tower

Glinting in the bright sunshine, the steel-and-glass station stands as a proud testament to the impressive facelift that the city is undergoing. Grand, modern and highly efficient – it is a fitting symbol of what Germany stands for. We hailed a cab (Mercedes, of course) and quickly moved into the tree-lined Unter den Linden which used to be East Berlin’s architectural showpiece where restored 18th century Prussian structures and the imposing Deutsches Historisches Museum stand. Further down was the poly-domed Berliner Dom, the cathedral built by the Kaiser at the turn of the 20th century conceived to be the Protestant’s answer to Rome’s St. Peter’s basilica.

Sony Center Berlin

Berlin is a huge metropolis and you have to plan your itinerary well to see the sights by the most effective route without wasting too much time. The best way to get around is thru the efficient S-Bahn that mostly runs aboveground and U-Bahn that is the subway. We bought a 20Euro CityTour Card which was good for three days unlimited travel.

Deutschbahn HQ

First stop: Potsdammerplatz. Once Germany’s busiest intersection rivaling London’s Picadilly Circus and New York’s Times Square, it practically became deserted when the Wall bisected it. But after reunification, it has become the busiest piece of real estate in Europe where a gigantic redevelopment project is going on thereby becoming a playground for some of the world’s top architects. Two buildings stand out – Sony’s Mt. Fuji-shaped HQ and Deutsche Bahn’s sleek glass tower. All around were shops, cafes, art installations and entertainment centers including street performers that could leave you tired simply by watching all the action going around!

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

We walked the 1km. distance to the Holocaust Memorial which is a 19,000sqm open plot with over 2,000 massive concrete blocks making it look like an abstract cemetery since there were no names, plaques or markers. Built to commemorate the murder of the Jews by the Nazis, it is quite a somber and moving experience to walk in the undulating pathway fenced-in by a gray forest of concrete that makes you feel lost and disoriented. This was, I think, the intent of the architect – to make you feel vulnerable the way all those Jews felt when they were dragged to the concentration camps.

The Adlon Hotel in Pariser Platz

Nearby, the Brandenburg Gate has once more become the symbol of the city. Built in 1788 under Prussian King Frederick William II, it is the only remaining gate that used to serve as the entrance to the city. The 12 Doric columns, a takeoff on the Acropolis in Athens, support a transverse beam that holds the quadriga, a chariot with four horses, which crowns the edifice with the Roman goddess of victory. We walked ‘round and ‘round it like many other tourists savoring the history that the place had to offer. Napoleon passed through this portal and so did the Prussian army, Hitler’s Wehrmacht goose-stepped beneath it, the Soviets paraded down its columns and, finally, the great wave of ordinary East German citizens flooded through the gate to reunite with the West. Nowadays it is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare along with nearby Pariser Platz where the famous Hotel Adlon proudly stands.

Heading slightly north a few blocks away, we arrived at the Reichstag building where a long queue to get inside awaited us. A jazz trombone player busking for some Euros kept us company with a repertoire ranging from Herb Alpert to Kenny G! This building again reeked with so much history: built in late 1800 to house the German Parliament, it was the seat of the Weimar Republic until 1933 when it caught fire under mysterious circumstances which gave Hitler a valid excuse to suspend the constitution. Badly damaged in WWII, it sat forlorn and empty until reunification when it was voted once more to be the seat of government. It was reconstructed in 1999 and its biggest draw is the huge glass cupola on the roof which we visited for the 360-degree panoramic views of the city. The main hall of the parliament can be seen below as you make your way down to the exit thru a spiral ramp.

River Spree Berlin

To cap the end of a tiring day, we rested our aching feet on the huge green lawn beside the River Spree where thousands of Berliners were catching the last rays of the afternoon sun. Having a bratwurst with sauerkraut and potatoes along with a can of Heineken, we joined them in celebrating a marvelous summer’s day which actually didn’t get dark till past 9PM.

KeDeWe Berlin

Mention Kurfurstendamm and every Berlin fraulein’s eyes light up for it mean endless shopping! This broad and long tree-lined avenue locally called the Ku’damm is Berlin’s answer to the Champs Elysees of Paris. Ornate buildings and apartments stand alongside trendy stores and boutiques which line both sides of the road. The mother of all shopping centers is KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) where you’ll find anything you could possibly long for – cosmetics and jewelry, fashion for men and women, furniture or kitchen supplies, books, music, whatever – found in 7 floors. Actually, we went there for the food. The top floor is a foodie’s paradise if there was one! Like a buffet in Vegas, everything was self-serve – grab a tray and you can pick up anything you fancy at each food station. You can have Thai, Japanese, Chinese, German, Italian or French cuisine then go to the sandwich counter for a Norwegian smoked herring sandwich before you finish up your meal by the chocolate stall for a free sample or grab something at the cake counter where there were a million choices. Everything tasted sooo good that it was heartbreaking to leave!

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church Berlin

At the end of Ku’damm is a church landmark – the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Destroyed by a bombing raid in World War II, all that remains is the ruined belfry that was preserved as a memorial to the futility of war and incorporated into the new modern structure with its beautiful blue glass blocks which are quite breathtaking from inside. Around the church is a plaza where we sat and watched teenage boys practicing their skateboarding skills while elder people talked on park benches and the young couples, well, they just went on smooching like nobody’s business!

Checkpoint Charlie would be a tourist trap

Soviet and American tanks faced each other in Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing point between East and West Berlin. These days, the checkpoint is swamped with tourists who want to stand in front of the sandbagged sentry house and have their pictures taken or get their passports stamped for a fee. Under a huge picture of an American soldier hanging from a post, sentries (actors actually) in East German uniforms stride to and fro and you can click yourself standing next to them for several Euros as well. The place has become a commercial goldmine! Right next is a building where a museum dedicated to the history of the Berlin Wall and the ingenious means by which people tried to escape to the West.

Visit Berlin WallMighty Wall Berlin Wall

But where was the Wall? We had a hard time locating it and it took several inquiries before we found a remaining section about a hundred meters long in Zimmerstrasse two blocks away from the Checkpoint. Standing 3.6meters high, the reinforced concrete with rusting steel bars exposed in some damaged parts looked as foreboding as the day the Communists built it to stem the exodus of people from East Germany. It was quite hard to imagine that only 20 years ago, this barrier snaked around the city but also surprising to realize how quickly the people got rid of it so much so that hardly any vestige of its existence remains.

Berlin OberbaumbrückeCruising River Spree Berlin

On our last day, we took a 3-hour riverboat cruise on the Spree for 29Euros. It was a great way to see parts of the city from a uniquely different perspective. We got onboard near Charlottenburg castle and slowly passed by the Reichstag, Museum Island, the Berliner Dom and the TV Tower which, at 368m, is the tallest building in Germany. The highlight was crossing the spectacular double-decker Oberbaumbrucke with its twin gothic-style towers and red brick facing.

Potsdammerplatz Berlin Remnants of the Cold War Street performers in Alexanderstrasse These are info booths in Berlin

With so much history to savor and many sights to behold, Berlin is quite a seductive city that is both vibrant and fascinating. Instead of sulking in its not-so-pleasant past, it has come to grips with it and is on its way to making a much exhilarating future. It is this newly-found zeitgeist that makes me want to say “Ich bin ein Berliner, und ich liebe es!” (I am a Berliner and I love Berlin!)