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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!)

But…

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.

The vast grounds behind the palace are some that Berliners feel are their “own”park now and have become a favorite spot for family picnics, frisbee-throwing and – we were told – even (shudder-gasp!) pot-smoking.

Sophie did love her Blue & White porcelain! All walls in this room were covered with it. (Notice too the 3-D borders that extend past the painted parts of this large and elaborate ceiling mural.)

The host of angels carrying the crown was meant to denote that Sophie’s royal status was divinely conferred.

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…

as seen from the street…

…as seen from the river…

as seen by the nymphs on the river…

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…

Haydn’s coat bears evidence of shelling during the war.

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.

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Lest they be forgotten

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The famous “check-point Charlie” in Occupied Germany manned by US soldiers after the war  – and later where US & Soviet tanks, big guns aimed at each other for days,  narrowly averted open conflict during the Cold War

Here, in communist-controlled East Berlin, a so-called “propaganda” mural:

“Could life possibly get any better?!”

the wall

the wall come a tumblin’ down

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

At one point, I was told, there were more than 2,500 cranes all reaching into the sky over Berlin at once.

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.

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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.)

And then, then we’re off to Paris

49 Comments Post a comment
  1. Claudia #

    Even having lived in Berlin, and having pictures of me by some of the same statues, I have learned so much, looking at the City through your wonderful brown eyes. Only you can describe it so charming, yet so big. I love your account of it, and I love you, my sister!

    October 14, 2012
  2. Great photos. I especially like the small church with the brick columns, the Berlin Wall remnants and the Sony Center. Thanks for sharing these great views.

    October 14, 2012
    • Oh thanks very much Terri. Really kind of you to comment! (I hope you’ll come back to see France…many more photos that I’m pleased with from that part of our trip!) Berlin was largely an EXPERIENCE for me, if you catch my meaning. 🙂

      October 14, 2012
  3. Claudia, I would have so loved walking those berlin streets with you! You would have taught ME so much! Mostly I would have wanted to know what it was LIKE living there…visitors experience it in such a vastly different way. I talked with several who live there, but yours would have been a perspective I’d treasure! Love you Claudia!

    October 14, 2012
  4. Now I’ve flown to Berlin tonight, spree! You’re a wonderful travel journalist.. I loved the opulent Sophie Charlottenburg Palace, er.. understated and it’s gardens. I’m glad to see you had many wonderful candlelit dinners outside as well! My favorite photo is of the Sony Center.. I felt like it might begin spinning and lift you right off to fly.. as you’ve said! I can’t wait to see the rest of your trip! xx

    October 14, 2012
    • Sophie’s place really was spectacular…not “quiet” good taste exactly but truly beautiful. Quite a bit of it was added or embellished upon after her premature death – by her husband, who we were told, loved her in a far bigger way after she was gone…(men, could there be a lesson here? Just askin’…) 😉

      October 16, 2012
      • Barbara Bamber | justasmidgen #

        I’m askin’ too 😉

        October 16, 2012
  5. With this post and these photos you are brtinging back so many memories to me!
    I love it!!
    Thank you Spree!

    October 14, 2012
    • So Pablo, does this mean you’ve been to Berlin? Lived there? In any case, happy to jog memories, and thanks so much for your comment. 🙂

      October 16, 2012
      • Pablo Buitrago #

        I’ve been there, 2 times, when I did exchange in Denmark I visited my cousin who lives in Berlin 🙂

        October 16, 2012
  6. Spree! Having never traveled to Berlin, I am so thrilled to see these photos of your time there – those shots of the old ‘wall’ give me chills. Love all of those statues and the architecture is just stunning. Your writing, as usual, is a joy to read. Looking forward to a recipe and a trip to Paris! xox 🙂

    October 14, 2012
    • You bless me with your comments Shira. Always, thank you so much! Berlin was a very “moving” city…the extent to which is very hard to describe. Next stop Paris, and much of that will be delightfully familiar to you! 🙂 thank you, friend xx

      October 16, 2012
  7. I loved this walk through Berlin and learned so much through your photos and observations. That shot of the Sony Center is unbelievable! And the summer palace — whoa. Amazing. What a unique and fascinating place Berlin is! Can’t wait for the rest of your European (French) adventures. xoxo

    October 15, 2012
    • I know you’d be struck similarly by Berlin Ashley. Can’t wait to “take you” to Paris and beyond! (I wish like crazy that I truly could!) xoxo

      October 16, 2012
  8. Fascinating walk through Berlin. The thing that stuck in my mind was the sight of ” men in short leather pants with embroidered suspenders”. Suspenders in Britain mean a garter belt which is unusual attire for cowherds, even in these permissive days:)

    October 15, 2012
    • Oh that’s right Roger! Bracers aren’t they? I’ve got to be more careful about such things … Or maybe not… The picture of garter belts on cowherds is quite delicious! 😉

      October 16, 2012
  9. pete clemente #

    A lively palette of a city I have some familiarity with. A vibrant smorgasbord for the senses. I agree “Bavaria” it is not (then nothing else is). Thank you for taking time to take us on this trip!

    October 15, 2012
    • Happy to bring you along Pete!!

      October 16, 2012
  10. Great Post – loving your photos – thanks for sharing! I have Germany on my travel bucket list and posts on Germany just make me want to go and go NOW! Happy Monday:)

    October 15, 2012
    • Thanks so much…Germany is a truly remarkable country…I’d go back again and again and hope you’ll get the chance soon! Have a great day today!

      October 16, 2012
  11. deb #

    Your photos are exquisite, as is your perspective! I, too, felt as though I had travelled there. I loved the history. I knew we were in for a treat, seeing and hearing your travel stories somewhat upon your return, but your pictures and descriptions are making this a journey beyond my expectations! Wow!!

    October 15, 2012
    • Oh Deb, thank you so very much! This was not an “easy” post to write (…I’m sure you get why.) i’m truly grateful that you enjoyed it!

      October 16, 2012
  12. deb #

    p.s. Love that you happened to stay near, and therefore enjoy, River Spree 🙂

    October 15, 2012
    • Ps…I don’t know why I didn’t think to wade in it! Hope I get a second chance at that! 🙂 xx

      October 16, 2012
  13. I cannot imagine a more perfect post to wrap up a long day… thanks, friend!

    October 15, 2012
    • Thank You, Movita Beaucoup! xx

      October 16, 2012
  14. Wonderful photos of Berlin. I always enjoy seeing the city through someone else’s eyes and seeing things I haven’t seen in almost a year here. I visited Schloss Charlottenburg for the first time just last week and had to laugh at the idea that any constraint was shown. It is elaborately and beautifully decorated and furnished. The kind of place the word awesome was invented for before being misappropriated and overused.

    October 15, 2012
    • SO nice to hear from you! And yes, it was absolutely gorgeous…and though not what I’d want to live in, it was “tasteful” elegant and simply … well, awesome. Thanks for commenting!

      October 15, 2012
  15. carolyn #

    But i loved this very rich and dense tour of Berlin, starting with cowbells in Bavaria! Here are some things I learned (some entirely by way of assumption): the autumn sky in Berlin is stunningly blue, those people-movers are a common way to get around, the German monarchs had no clue about austerity, the fallen wall is now a red-brick trail running here and there through the city, there’s a River SPREE that I must put my toes in one day, Germans bungee jump between skyscrapers on their lunch breaks, and the contradiction of the beautifully magnificent and the magnificently horrible touched the depths of Spree’s tender heart. Please keep these tours coming, and no apologies for the heaping spoonfuls of vivid word and imagery. No one could feed us like you do. This Post is a breathtaking feast!

    October 15, 2012
  16. carolyn #

    ps…love the julie andrews shot! Happy Birthday to me. Thank you, Spree.

    October 15, 2012
  17. oh Spree, missed you here! what beautiful photos. something of the old and new…Berlin, I now look at it with a different view after reading this post. Berlin feels “distant” to me but when you said the name actually comes from “little bear” …and with all the cultural, reflective sites to see, it has become”dearer..” thank you.

    October 15, 2012
  18. Don #

    You’ve really captured in a very short space, what must be the essential air of Berlin. That is “change” and brought it to light for the rest of us to see through your lens.
    I find it amazing that some of the architecture you photographed is still standing. Amazing, just amazing!

    October 15, 2012
    • In a many ways Don, there’s a randomness to what gets destroyed in war and what is left standing. But all over the ci, many of the buildings that survived are pockmarked from the battles fought around them. Thanks a lot Don for your comment!

      October 16, 2012
  19. Ali #

    Beautifully told. So beautifully shown. Looks like we can add photo travel journalism to the long list of the things you do so well!

    October 15, 2012
    • You’re way too generous! 🙂 but thank you Ali for your sweet comments!

      October 16, 2012
  20. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited Berlin, somehow never got round to it. My loss and one I should remedy very soon!
    So you have a river with your name, how cool is that!
    And I forget about Europen history being so, well so indefinable, so messy, and yet out of mess and war and anger comes such beauty.
    Thank you Spree, it sound slike you are having a great trip. And as I’m back from my holidays I can see I have some great blog reading to catch up on !! Happy and safe travels mon amie !

    October 16, 2012
    • Our time in Berlin was most definitely impactful…I’d highly recommend it to you Claire. I think it shouldn’t be missed. And yes, Everything you say about traveling through war-touched ares of Europe! Living in the states that sort of thing is not part of our consciousness so it’s particularly striking when we come up against it in this way. Just so very…poignant. Happy for your time away Claire, and happy now to have you back! Thanks, friend!

      October 16, 2012
  21. This is an incredible post and I agree so much with what you say abotu Berlin. I went about 8 years ago to see a friend who is an opera singer so not really knowing what to expect of the trip – the place blew me away and evoked so many different emotions because of the history An amazing city.

    October 17, 2012
    • Truly is, Tanya. Feels good to know I was sharing it with someone who was struck similarly with the emotion of it all. Just a remarkable place.

      October 22, 2012
  22. Spree you have got across your energy and admiration of Berlins character. Some of the architecture is incredibly imposing and huge! Did love the Sony centre and you mono dinner pic., just that hint of mystery always gets me 😉

    October 17, 2012
  23. I really enjoyed your post and your photos. I’ve been to Germany twice, but not yet to Berlin. I’ve wanted to visit previously, but now, even more so. Thanks for sharing your trip.

    October 17, 2012
    • Mary – if you like Germany (and it sounds like you must), I think Berlin is a city that shouldn’t be missed. Be prepared to be moved! It’s a striking place!

      October 22, 2012
  24. Thank you for the glimpse into Berlin through your eyes Ani!
    I know I have said this before but I mean it everytime. I can happily get lost in your words and posts. Reading them makes me feel I am there with you and that is a joy I thank you for from the bottom of my heart

    October 20, 2012
    • Sawsan…I apologize for not responding sooner! I was so touched by your very kind words! I don’t think a person could have said a thing that would have struck a chord the way that your words did. I think I must have really needed them. Thank you so very much! xx

      October 22, 2012
  25. Lovely to tag along with you, enjoying the beautiful photos of Berlin and your commentary.

    October 22, 2012
    • Mar, sorry to reply so late! Thank you so much for your comment!

      November 2, 2012
  26. I really like your photos! Reminds me of Czech… I visited Berlin when I was really young so I don’t remember much. Your descriptions are wonderful, though 🙂

    November 1, 2012
    • Czechoslovakia is a place I’d love to see! I’m happy this brought back memories of it for you! And thank you very much for leaving such a kind comment. 🙂

      November 2, 2012

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