IT was a cool, grey Berlin morning when we went among the stelaes (concrete slabs).
The stelaes started out about shin-height, low enough to step on, which some people did because these blocks meant nothing to them other than a photo opportunity.
Gradually, the blocks got higher and the cobbled floor got lower, and we were surrounded by them, uniformly spaced and shaped, just varying in height. They went from vault-size to 4.7-metre high grey towers.
There were 2,700 of them neatly covering a space of 19,000 metres square. Opened to the public on May 12, 2005, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a stark reminder of an atrocity.
But this was Berlin, Germany, a place with an undeniably dark past but is simultaneously determined to preserve every detail of it and bury its public spaces under the rebellious brightness of a youth population.
For the military history buffs in our media group, setting foot in Berlin was a dream come true. For me, a sleep-deprived
Kuching girl who never thought she’d set foot on European soil, all things were suddenly a possibility – discovery, adventure, and forgetting where the hotel was.
We were the first planeload of visitors to touch down at Tegal Berlin Airport via Scoot Airlines’ inaugural direct flight from Singapore last month, and our hosts – Scoot, visitBerlin and German National Tourist Office (Asean) – wasted no time getting us settled and taking us out on our first adventure.
The first thing you notice about Berlin is that its architecture has a fairy tale look, with cobbled streets and castle-like buildings everywhere.
The next thing you learn is that these buildings are new, built to resemble their old selves before they were destroyed in the war.
Our hotel, Capri by Fraser Berlin, located between Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, even has an archaeological site in its basement, discovered during construction.
Visitors can view this through the glass lobby floor, or (like me), get startled by it after standing over it for only five minutes.
Berlin is a land-locked city in the middle of the Brandenburg Region of Germany. While there is much to discover and talk about, it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room: this state once had a wall that divided East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989.
Berlin had been split into the communist East and the capitalist West since the end of World War II but the East wanted to stop people from fleeing. The Berlin Wall, 155km long and 11 feet tall in most places, began almost without warning. Berliners woke up on the morning of Aug 13, 1961 to find the border closed.
The Berlin Wall was really two walls running parallel, sandwiching what is known as The Death Strip. It contained various devices, some hidden, to forcibly stop vehicles and people from crossing over, assuming they weren’t arrested or shot first.
Over 100 people were killed trying to cross over to the West side. Around 5,000 others succeeded.
After the borders opened, people demanded that the Berlin Wall must come down. It was hard to convince most that preserving it as a monument was also important.
Today, the many layers of fortification and a section of the Death Strip can still be seen next to the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse. It was a sobering visit to a place that still echoes with pain and horror if you let your guard down.
Yet, it’s one of the places to understand history, so we don’t repeat it. The wall is never far from sight today, a shadow of its former self in the form of a long strip of bricks, snaking through the centre of some of the busiest districts. We walked over it many times in a day or spotted it from our bus.
On the edge of the River Spree, in Mühlenstrasse, lies another surviving section of the wall – the East Side Gallery, the largest and most enduring open air gallery in the world. In 1990, artists from across the globe contributed 105 paintings, documenting change and hope.
Another famous landmark of the former wall is the American-manned Checkpoint Charlie, a crossing point between East and West Berlin. During the Cold War, it became an icon of East-West separation.
Today it’s a tourist attraction, complete with actors playing the role of Allied military policemen. You may get a photo taken with them for a fee but if you’re not in the photo, the view is free.
Scoot Airline flies direct to Berlin from Singapore four times a week.
Next: Potsdam – land of lakes, palaces and film-making. And how does it feel to eat your way across Berlin?
Willkommen (Welcome) in Berlin
IN Berlin for the first time and eager to explore on your own? Pick up the Berlin Welcome Card. This booklet offers one ticket for use of public transportation (bus, trams and trains), rebates of up to 50 per cent at over 200 attractions. Prices vary, depending on the duration of your stay, or rather, the days you expect to be dependent on public transport. If you’re fine on your own, train tickets can be purchased at any station.
After getting used to the long German station names, getting around on the U or S-Bahn is as easy as navigating the LRT in KL. The first thing we noticed at our train station was there was nothing to physically stop a person from walking in and straight onto a train without a ticket. Tickets can be bought from a machine at the station. They need to be stamped at another machine to be valid. Commuters are expected to stay accountable but for those who want to risk a free ride, the fine for getting caught is 60 Euros (RM280). Buses come equipped with wheelchair ramps. If that’s how you roll, the driver will make sure you and your wheelchair get in and out safely.
Berliners have an obsession with posting notes and stickers in public places. You will find the inevitable advertisements but also notes that are naughty or pure fun. Even children seem to contribute to this form of expression. It’s like Germany takes its memes to the street instead of limiting it to the Internet but since everything is on the Internet, you can find a curated selection of notes online at notesofberlin.com.
The Paintings on the Wall
Notes and stickers aside, murals and graffiti are a major form of expression in Berlin. Corridors, doorways and alleyways in the artsy district are a favourite canvas. A good number of these large scale artworks are commissioned, but even more are simply contributed to the cityscape over time. Street art is such an institution that there is even a museum dedicated to it – Urban Nation Museum. Not to be missed is the East Side Gallery, a remnant of the Berlin Wall at the Mühlenstrasse.
Friedrichstadt-Palast Berlin is home to the world’s biggest theatre stage. How huge? There’s 2,200 square metres of stage, with an extra 700 square metres of wriggle room for technology to work its magic: creating different landscapes when the stage breaks apart, rotates and glides. There’s more enough space for a full-fledge show taking place in the foreground, with aerialists being lowered from above the stage. And there’s also enough room to fit a 19-piece band in the far back of the stage. We watched The One Grand Show – part-circus and part-cabaret – where the costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier were every bit the star of the show.
Fair warning: Much of Berlin shuts down on Sunday, so forget the polished malls and retail shops. Put on your comfortable shoes and head out to the famous and very large Mauerpark Flea Market. If you’re used to the flea markets in Kuching, you’re in for a culture shock. While many artists and crafters also ply their wares here, there is also a genuine sense of someone’s attic being cleared of old but serviceable kitchenware, furniture, clothes, and household odds and ends. Where else would you find vintage medical curio (glass eyeballs), cheeky vintage postcards, and cameras from every era? Sunday afternoon at Mauerpark also means karaoke at 3pm, and they are reportedly worth watching.