Berlin on foot
Years ago, I visited Germany’s Bavaria and thought when I first set eyes on it that I’d just discovered what was surely meant to be my home all along. Where we were, nestled among the foothills of the Alps, was a charm unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Cows, their hollow bells clacking as they swayed side to side, were led through quiet streets by men in short leather pants, embroidered suspenders, tall socks and loden-green feathered caps. The architecture too seemed out of a fairy tale. Buildings were painted white, freshly every year, some decorated with murals, and it seemed that from every window hung flowers overspilling their wooden planters. Shop windows were filled with eiderdown comforters, traditional Bavarian/Alpine clothing, kitchen wares, and the most elaborate cakes and marzipan confections I’d ever seen. Each late afternoon or evening whole families (all ages) picked up their walking sticks and strolled through the hills. Their voices rose like a murmured chorus through the woods. It was a hum I’ll never forget. The leaves were turning, the air was clean and Autumn-crisp, and the lakes shimmered. It was idyllic. Pretty much
(People actually lived like this!)
Berlin is a large and vibrant city
(and – I was kindly reminded – Berlin’s no Bavaria – and if you yodel, people will stare.)
We were to launch our vacation from Berlin where my husband was called to business. We arrived a couple days in advance of his meetings to acquaint ourselves with the city by walking it. We were to have four full days there, but weren’t driving so our acquaintance with this bustling modern city would be limited to what we could get to on foot. By no means could we see it all. The weather was beautiful so we chose outdoors. We walked the streets and parks and bridges. We missed museums and what I hear is a thriving art and music scene. But what we saw and tasted made an indelible impression.
Berlin – I hadn’t known – got its name from the German words for bear and little. And as we moved through the city, we found little bears everywhere. There’s quite a fondness here for their little mascot.
Bear statues, each with the same basic form but painted uniquely, were seen all over the city. The one outside our hotel was “wearing” Marlene Dietrich. (For those of you too young to know – as am I too of course – Marlene was a famously sultry, satin & silk, smoky-voiced German actress and singer – of the 40’s I think.) Here she is outside our hotel at the entrance to the bar that bears her name – (though only a quick shot with my phone, I couldn’t resist) –
~ ~ ~
Most of us probably think of vacation as a bit of an “escape”. But the escape that this trip offered wasn’t to begin for me here. You visit Berlin, and first it strikes – and then it settles on you, hard – Berlin’s is not a feint history – it’s one of such enormity that I struggle still to put into words the effect it had on me. Some of the most brilliant heights ~ and the most depraved depths ~ of humankind’s time on earth were lived in and around here. And everywhere you walk in this city, its history is evident. Berlin’s gravitas does not – cannot – escape you.
The Brandenburg Gate was completed in the 1700’s as a triumphal arch and was the gateway through which people would enter the city. Though a great number of buildings were destroyed during the war, many that still stand speak loudly (as this does) of Germany’s once-imperial greatness.
One imperial address was that of the summer palace of Sophie Charlotte (Queen of Prussia & grandmother of Germany’s beloved Frederich the Great.) The palace was finished in 1705. Though not readily apparent, every attempt was made to be mindful of avoiding “excesses” during the construction of this summer home. Sophie had learned by way of Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate example that “the people” don’t take kindly to royal over-indulgences. (Keep this attempt at “understated elegance” in mind as you stroll through the next photos of the Sophie Charlottenburg Palace.) Though the palace was hit by airstrikes during World War II and completely destroyed by fire, it was meticulously rebuilt (from photographs) after the war.
A number of examples of Berlin’s “grand” architecture survived the war…I’ll share just a few…
Here three views of the Berlin Dome…
One of several lovely smaller churches, still standing after the war…
And this striking fountain out front of it:
The Museum of Antiquities (and the wheels that get us there):
Nearby our hotel sprawls a large wooded park – the Tiergarten – where we’d go walking every morning through its miles and miles of walking/biking trails, a small lake, foot bridges, large spreading lawns, modern sculptures, and many old bronze and marble statuary. (And what? Running through the park – the River Spree!) The park was once a forest teeming with wild animals – deer, bear, wild bore, foxes, wolves – but much of it was destroyed during the war and what trees remained where chopped for firewood. Subsequent to the war, the park (originally a “gift” to the people from Frederich the Great) was replanted and restored. The park itself butts up against the famous Berlin Zoo and every morning on our walk we’d hear the shrill cry of peacocks and from high up in the trees, howler monkeys. Some of the statuary was quite – the word gruesome comes to mind. (Rather too graphic, these hunting scenes for my taste.) But we also came upon large soft-sculpted boulders whose warm stone surfaces begged to be laid upon, and this marble statue honoring three great German composers:
Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart…
I opened by saying that Berlin’s history is inescapable. There was much to see in this city that was truly beautiful. But even its darkest and ugliest parts are not obscured.
Lest they be forgotten
Here, in communist-controlled East Berlin, a so-called “propaganda” mural:
Remnants of the wall –
the wall that once divided East and West Germany, East Berlin from West Berlin, and separated whole families from one another for decades –
still remain as reminders.
The Reichstag – Germany’s Parliamentary Building has a long history, over which the darkest of long shadows fell for years.
In 1999 the Reichstag Cuppola was completed. (Sadly we didn’t get the opportunity to get inside as the line was far too long.) The Cuppola is a an all-glass dome – you can see it pictured behind the large stone edifice here (though it’s actually attached.)
Circling around the interior of this dome from the bottom to close to the top, is a path with a clear view into the parliamentary proceedings of the now-Democratic government. The path and the view it affords are open to all. It’s a striking symbol of transparency in government.
On both sides of the street, across from this statue of Frederich the Great on horseback, spreads Humboldt University, one of the oldest universities in Germany and highly respected academically. In 1939, more than 20,000 of its books were removed from the library shelves and burned. I walked the university’s campus one day (while my husband was in meetings) and for blocks and blocks tables were lined, end to end. On them, stacks of books, thousands of books, for sale. Literature, philosophy, poetry, art, politics, science, many of them beautiful leather-bound books in a language I couldn’t understand but smelling exactly like the books I loved as a girl (and still.) The books were donated and the proceeds went to support the university, maybe even the library once ransacked.
Widen out a bit and you get a truer picture of what’s happening. Construction, ever since that concrete wall first came down, is Everywhere in Berlin.
Throughout this city, especially on the former East Berlin side, much of the architecture is new, replacing what was (by all accounts) pretty hideous. Some very avante-garde, modern, next-century sort of stuff. It’s exciting to see! (I wish I had more pictures of this to show you!) The very old and historic right up against the most contemporary forward-leaning of buildings. It’s rich and dynamic. I’ll point to only one example, and then I’m going to leave this tale of Berlin.
Our first day out walking, and suddenly, not having any expectation of what was to come, my husband was looking in one direction and I rounded the corner in another. And there! What!
This is the Sony Center in the Potsdamerplatz. It’s breathtaking! It’s like kites and windmills and hang-gliding! It’s like tight-rope walking between skyscrapers and free-falling as you grab hands in a circle in the sky! It’s a sky-rope that lifts your heart nearly out of your chest! I took a lot of pictures. I can’t tell if this one is any better than any of the others. This structure looks and feels different from every perspective. So finally, you give in, you drop your camera, and you just breathe. And you breathe.
And then you fly.
That’s some of how we experienced Berlin. And we slept some – though me, not so much.
The rest of our time looked something like this…
Berlin’s a city that defies type-casting. It’s as old and it is thoroughly modern. WIth a most serious past and a promising future. With sons of genius and sons of lunacy. A place of noisy construction and solemn reverent contemplation. Maybe you’ve been or maybe you’ll go one day. Maybe you’ll see it very differently. And really, how could it be otherwise? The whole picture can never be seen by just one pair of eyes.
(Thank you for sticking with me through this long long post. The posts of our trip that will follow will be much much briefer, and, apart from Julie Andrews in the Alps, perhaps prettier to look at.)~ ~ ~
Tomorrow Potato Pancakes (because I’ve run out of light today.)