Beatle Bug Escapes

I’ve got about half a day to check out some more of Berlin so I get up nice and early to start the day.   I arrive back in the area of Checkpoint Charlie and even though it’s fairly early in the morning, there’s still a crowd assembled.

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There are a lot of things to see and read in this area, remaining blocks of the wall stand boldly, amidst boards outlining the history of the wall.

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Mauermuseum Museum “For over 50 years the Wall Museum, founded in 1962 as a bastion of peace in freedom, has stood at the legendary Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, the geographical focal point of the Cold War, where the West-East divide began and ended.  The Wall – history and incidents.  Original objects from successful escapes under ground, over land and in the air.  World-wide non-violent struggle for human rights.”

The first exhibition opened in October 1962.  The large number of visitors encouraged them to procure larger premises and this current location was opened in 1963.  From here, through a small window, escape helpers could observe all movements at the border crossing; escapees were always welcome and supported, escape plans were worked out, and injustice in the GDR was always fought against.  Due to the museum’s friendly relations with escape helpers that were given hot-air balloons, escape cars, chairlifts and a small submarine.  They claim to be the first museum of international non-violent protest.

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This beetle bug was used to hide people whilst making runs across the border – you can see from the photo just behind the tyre where people were hidden.  Other ingenious ways of escape included the use of gliders, ziplines, tightropes and hot air balloons.  Sad to think about the depths to which desperate people went to escape to a better life.

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The above installation uses some of the original stones from the Budapest Ghetto.  The briefcase is a bronze cast of the one belonging to Raoul Wallenburg, a Swedish architect and businessman who was credited with saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

This museum holds so much information, too much information for the short amount of time I have left today.  On my way out, I grab a copy of a book about escape attempts from Berlin (the eternal book buyer, no wonder my bags are always so heavy!) to read later.

Across the road from the museum and Checkpoint Charlie is a special exhibition called the Wall Panorama, and it doesn’t look busy, so that’s where I head next.  The Wall panorama is two rooms, the first of pictures by eyewitnesses and video screens.

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The second is the panorama room where you can experience the landscape of Berlin.  You can walk u to the top of a podium to take an all-surveying look at Berlin back in the days of the walls.  It’s a gloomy sight, as you could well imagine.

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While I’m in the neighbourhood, I reckon the Currywurst Museum is begging for a visit.  What’s that?  You don’t know what currywurst is?  Well, let me tell you!

Herta Heuwer is considered the Grand Dame of Currywurst.  Wanting to create something new out of limited post-war resources (we’re talking 1949), she was mucking around with some curry powder and sausages, and voila – the currywurst was born.  A pork sausage is boiled and then fried, cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup (made from spiced tomatoes) and then topped with curry powder.  There is another contender for the title of Grand Dame though, with Hamburg claiming Lena Brucker was actually the first to discover currywurst.  Whatever the truth of the matter, Currywurst is quintessentially Berlin.

This incredible little museum (voted one of the top 10 museums in Berlin, and there are a LOT) pays homage to the humble currywurst, taking you on an interactive sensory experience where you can literally view, listen, smell, taste (and even pretend to sell) the miracle that is currywurst.  With your ticket, you even get a currywurst sample.  If that’s not enough, kick back at the snack bar and order all the currywurst your heart desires.  Yum.

And my actual sample at the end, yummo!

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I have two places left on my list of things to do before time runs out – the first is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  Again I have my cousins Chris and Sharon to thank for bringing this one to my attention.  There’s a small information board on the footpath which gives a small amount of history about the site’s previous use and how the memorial came about, but there’s no big sign announcing your arrival – you just know you are at the right place.  Completed in 2005, this public park (of sorts) designed by architect Peter Eisenman is a memorial to those Jews who were murdered throughout Europe during the Holocaust.  And it’s a striking memorial at that.  Pillars of differing heights float over a gradiated brick seabed.  Walking through these stagnated pillars, a range of emotions and images come to mind – one in particular (probably due to the books I’ve recently been reading on the deportation of Poles during the war) is the flashing glimpses of passing scenery viewed through the wooden planks of cattle trains.  Looking from the edge, it’s hard not to see the memorial as a kind of block cemetery filled with unmarked gravestones.  I have to snap myself out of the visions in order to come back to reality.  Sometimes the most powerful monuments say everything without saying anything.

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Not far down the road is my last stop is one of the most well known landmarks in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate.  A massive columned gate which for many decades symbolised the separation of East and West Berlin, it now symbolises unity.  Built on the model of the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis, it’s over 200 years old and usually the first sight on the list of most tourists to Berlin.  It’s a magnificent structure at 28 metres in height and 65.5 metres wide.  Originally only the royal family was permitted to walk through the main arch – everyone else was relegated to the outside gates.20150814_115337The area surrounding the gate is closed to traffic, so you can take your time browsing around and snapping selfies.

The airport bus arrives and on I hop, with my bag.  Despite having sent a box of stuff back home yesterday, it seems to have become heavier overnight.  After a couple of stops, an elderly lady gets on.  She looks at me, and though she speaks minimal English, she asks me if I’m Polish.  I’m taken aback by this conversation.  We have a sputtering conversation in which I manage to find out that she was Polish born and that she had come to Berlin during the war, married and stayed.  I tell her it’s my Father that is Polish.  Her stop arrives and she alights.  I’m left happily shocked by this encounter, language is not always the barrier we think it to be.  And it’s nice for someone else to identify with me as being Polish when I am currently on my own journey to identify and re-establish my heritage.

Berlin Airport is nothing special, especially the big shed where my Air Berlin flight is departing from, which is a shame cause I have arrived much earlier than necessary and now I’m left with nothing to do except read for the next couple of hours.

It’s getting late when I arrive in Budapest, the sun well and truly going down, dusk taking hold quickly.  The streets start to light up, and being a Friday night, the revellers are starting to appear.  I wish my driver a good night and check into my hotel before heading out for a quick wander around the streets, which are buzzing.  A quick stop at the local supermarket for bottled water and that’s me done for the day.  I’m really excited to be here again and looking forward to seeing what Budapest has to offer and whether I like it as much as I thought I would.

I wonder what’s behind these doors?….

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Lots to explore tomorrow!  Can’t wait.

Patti Smith and the Berlin Wall

In Europe last year, whenever I had a conversation with someone about travelling in Europe, they would wax lyrical about Berlin.  It was incredible.  You had to go.  It was one of the best places they had been.  But I was en-route to Poland and it wasn’t to be on that trip.  So this trip, I did put it on the list – though once again I probably haven’t given it the proper amount of time it deserves (like most destinations on my itinerary!) and I’m really interested to see what all the fuss is about.

So much has happened in my lifetime – the Killing Fields, Australia’s America’s Cup win, VCR’s, microwaves, genocide in Rwanda, 9/11, the first black President in America, mobile phones, laptops, the ‘I’ range, Facebook and the end of Motley Crue – it’s sometimes easy to forget all the momentous occasions in history.  And sometimes you are just too young to understand these things at the time.

One of those things was the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Brief images of camera flashes, people cheering a wall being beaten to its downfall are lodged somewhere in my brain, but not the how or the why.

Anyway to find out all about this stuff, I’m joining the Berlin Wall and Cold War Tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours.  You might remember I cycled with Fat Tire Bikes in London and really enjoyed the tour, which is why I’ve chosen to ride with them again.  So I can’t wait, let’s get started!

First up, meet my bike for the day - Patti Smith!
First up, meet my bike for the day – Patti Smith!

Fat Tire give all their bikes quirky names too – it’s a good way to remember who’s bike is who’s whenever you stop to explore or listen for information.  My bike today is Patti Smith – I think I had Helen Mirren in London, so let’s hope Patti rocks it out a bit more!

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First up, Berlin is not what I thought it would be at all.  Of course it was decimated during WWII, but no effort seems to have been made to re-create what was, rather it is kind of, well, Soviet.  We start just on the edge of Alexanderplatz, or Alex, as the locals call it.  In the background you can see the giant TV Tower.  And in front of that the ‘Weltzeituhr’, or World Time Clock.  Built in 1969, it was meant to be a forward thinking sculpture – a kind of ‘look how wordly we are’ display to the outside world.  The truth of the matter is that the citizens of Berlin would never have had a chance to travel to any of the places on the clock at that time.  Nevertheless, it’s a popular meeting point for it’s citizens even today.

The tall building in the photo just above is the Park Inn, which is originally where I was going to stay.  Currently the tallest building in Berlin, it was completed in 1970 and was also built to show the world how forward thinking the communists were.  All travellers to Berlin (and most especially foreign dignatories) would stay here in this modern hotel, and for good reason – it was littered with bugs, not the creepy crawly kind, but the kind that could get you in trouble if you said the wrong thing.  In fact it was known as the most bugged building in Berlin at the time.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little relieved that I changed hotels at the last minute…

On we cycle through the streets, and I have to say that the landscape started to remind me of parts of Nowa Huta in Krakow, and also parts of Warsaw.

We arrive at the remains of the Berlin Wall, which houses the East Side Gallery – a number of colourful murals in remembrance of this dark patch of Berlin’s history.  The Berlin Wall memorial can be found in the middle of the city on Bernauer Strasse.  It stretches along 1.4 kilometres of the former 155 kilometre long wall.  It contains the last piece of the Berlin Wall and is an open air exhibition dedicated to those who lost their lives trying to flee communism.

Our guide ushers us up to the back side of the wall, and takes out a bag of chalk.  To demonstrate the powers at work and how Germany and Berlin were divided he colourfully describes how the Berlin Wall came to be.  Today just happens to be the 52nd anniversary of the Wall’s construction, so it’s even more poignant.  Back on our bikes, we cycle carefully along the East Side Gallery, checking out the works while artfully dodging the milling pedestrians.

One of the pictures along the Wall, I recognise straight away….

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It was the same one painted on the wall of my hotel room!  As I mentioned earlier, each of the rooms is decorated by a different artist, mine was a replication of The Leaper from the Berlin Wall, painted by Gabriel Heimier!

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Leaving the wall, we cycle past part of the old death strip, with two of its towers still intact.  The death strip was a piece of land between the wall (essentially creating two walls), which was patrolled by guards, trip-wire machine guns, anti-vehicle trenches and guard dog runs.  Many died trying to escape, some were successful.

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Cycling around Berlin is a great way to get a feel for the city.

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The next stop in our cycle is the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park.  It was designed to commemorate the Soviet Soldiers that fell in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.  It has been a bit of a bone of contention over the years, not everyone was happy to host these red soldiers.  In fact there is a book called ‘A Woman in Berlin’ which apparently tells the story of the Battle of Berlin and how the Red Army entered the city and systematically raped a massive number of German women.  I’ll be sure to track that one down when I get home.

On the other side of the park, we cycle the streets of the Berlin until we come to our next stop.

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The first picture above shows a brick line indicating where the Berlin Wall stood – in the second picture, you can see that one of our cycle group is standing on the East side, and the others are all on the West side.

Further along the route is Peter Fechter’s memorial.  Newly strewn with flowers to mark the anniversary of the Wall, it seems his name will live on forever.  The story of Peter Fechter is one of Berlin’s most tragic.  Fechter, an 18 year old bricklayer, and his workmate made an attempt to cross the wall.  His workmate made it over safely into West Berlin, Peter wasn’t so lucky.  Shot in the back and stomach, he fell from the wall and lay groaning in agony for 45 minutes.  There was a stand off as no one came to his aid.  The guards who shot him were eventually sentenced to manslaughter in 1997, serving minimal jail terms as it as unable to be determined which guard actually fired the fatal bullet.

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Around the corner is Checkpoint Charlie, or which was simply Checkpoint C.  That’s all it is.  C for Charlie.  It was the notorious border crossing between Soviet controlled East Berlin and American run West Berlin.  It’s remarkable just how commercialised this crossing is.  You can get your passport stamped or get your photograph taken with a guard – all for a fee – and the tourists love it.  And then you can top it off with some Macca’s.  A bit of a circus really.

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So how did the Berlin Wall fall.  Well, by mistake really.  On November 9, 1989 a press conference was held where East German politburo member Gunter Schabowski announced (somewhat prematurely) that restrictions on travel visas would be lifted.  He had not been involved in earlier discussions on the new regulations and had not been fully updated.  He was handed a note shortly before the conference announcing the changes but nothing on how to mete out the information.  He read out the note and a reporter asked when the regulations would take effect – “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay.”  At this point he confirmed that the regulations also included the border crossings through the wall into West Berlin and voila, down came the wall.

My day of biking has come to an end sadly.  It really was a fantastic day and I would recommend it to anyone.  Our guide knew so much and cycling is a great way to see a city.

The tour has run over by almost an hour, but there’s just enough time for me to fit in a cruise along the river, and the boat is ready to leave just as I arrive at the dock.  I board, grab my ticket and a glass of wine, and sit back to take in the scenery.  The commentary is in German, but I don’t care.  It’s a lovely late afternoon.  The architecture along the river is ultra modern in most places, it looks as though development is on the rise in Mitte.

To end this lovely day I decide to stuff myself full of potatoes and there’s no better place to do that than at Kartoffelkeller – the Potato Cellar.  The food is incredible – hearty and delicious – and reminds me of my Babcia’s cooking.  A nice glass of wine sets the evening off perfectly.  I have a late flight tomorrow afternoon so I have about half a day’s worth of sightseeing left – there’s so much to do and see in Berlin, I wonder how much I can possibly fit in!

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Berlin Beach Bars and Balaclavas

I’m on the move again, bright and early this morning.  I’m catching the train to Brussels Airport for my flight to Berlin.  Brussels airport is incredible.  Check in is automated, there are cars on display, PS4 stations, bicycles where you can charge your phone by cycling, the staff are friendly and the food tastes good!  It’s huge and clean – I’ve never seen anything like it!

But I can’t hang around here all day, so I board the plane and am very soon arriving in Berlin.

I haven’t actually planned how I am going to get from the airport to my hotel – something I have never done in the past.  I’ve at least always researched all the options.  I guess travelling is starting to pay off.  Well, almost.  I reckon I’ll try getting a bus, but the instructions are not really that clear and I’m not 100% sure which of the suggested routes is the best for me.  In the end, I throw caution to the wind and just get on one as it turns up.  I’m hoping it will get me close enough to my hotel, that I’ll be able to grab a taxi the rest of the way.  As it winds through the streets I try to locate where I could be on the map in my lap, but have real trouble until the bus alert calls out ‘Tiergarten’.  Finally my eyes land on the word on my map and I know where I am.  I follow my eyes to the next stop, just to make sure I’m going in the right direction.  The bus alert calls out ‘next stop Hauptbanhof’.  OK, definitely going in the right direction.  Now my hotel appears to be in between two metro stations – the next and Friedrichstr.  I have no idea which one to get off at, but as we pull into Hauptbanhof, I get the feeling this is not the one, so I sit tight for the next stop.  I guess I have to get off here, because I don’t want to get further away from my hotel than necessary, so I hold my breath, hoist my bags onto my back and disembark with trepidation.  I get out my map to check the street names and wouldn’t you know it, the bus has stopped right around the corner from my hotel.  I kid you not.  Amazing!

Not only that, but when I arrive, my room is ready AND I’ve been upgraded!  No time to check it out now, except to note that it does have a bath (whoo hoo!), because I’m due at Alexanderplatz to join an Alternative Berlin free walking tour.

A typical three hour tour apparently looks like this:

  • Artist squats and multi cultural neighborhoods
  • Cultural icons including The Bethanien house & YAAM beach
  • One of Europe´s largest indoor skateparks & alternative entertainment facilities in a bombed out train depot
  • Urban art projects & autonomous initiatives
  • Abandoned sites, Urban farms, Street art, graffiti , mural art
  • Daytime raves, flea markets (summer) and bizarre shops
  • All the stories & legends of the neighbourhoods, nightlife tips, local recommendations and much much more…

It’s not really what you get (it sounds far more gritty than it actually is), but hey it’s free (plus your tip), it gave me a good introduction to parts of the city I otherwise wouldn’t have made it to and it was pretty interesting in any case.  What we did see was plenty of street art, including a fair bit in Mitte in the surrounds of the Anne Frank Museum,

a YAAM (Young African Art Market) beach bar, which had a cool Jamaican vibe, reggae playing in the background and a couple of little half naked babies playing in the sand.  It kind of feels like we are intruding on something, so I end up not taking too many photos here.  I do buy a beer though and sit with a couple of the girls on the walking tour to have a chat.  Next stop,

Osmin Kalin’s ‘Baumhaus an der Mauer’.   Osman, a Turkish immigrant, saw an unused piece of land which the former East Germany left when they had constructed the Berlin Wall.  It was avoided in an effort to keep the wall straight, and the land was generally then used as a bit of a tipping ground.  This was 1983 (while the wall was still erected) and Kalin decided to turn it into a garden, growing vegetables.  He then built a tree house out of scrap – Baumhaus an der Mauer translates to ‘treehouse on the wall’.

When the wall came down, the existence of Kalin’s treehouse was threatened, but locals got behind him and with their support they were able to save the tree house.

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And then around the corner, a bunch of, ah, balaclava’s!

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Unfortunately I can’t find any information on what the installation represents, as the gallery is closing and there’s not time on this tour, but it’s an interesting statement nonetheless.

We do also walk by some communes and a lot of derelict buildings and before long the tour is at an end.  We are directed to the nearest train station so we can find our own ways back to Alexanderplatz.