I decided to suss out a day trip for my birthday. Ideally I wanted to leave from Gatwick, which is less than thirty minutes from my home, and it needed to be possible to fit in a good few hours exploring.
I narrowed the choices quickly down to Toulouse or Berlin, both served by easyJet with two return flights per day apiece. Plumping this time for Berlin on the basis that it is one of the few European capitals that I was yet to explore properly, I have however stored the option of Toulouse for the near future as a short hop.
My early morning flight enabled me to get to Berlin main station (hauptbahnhof) for just after midday, giving me a good seven hours before my return allowing me to pack in as much as possible. I had landed in the fog at grey, drab Schonefeld Airport (happily a new state of the art airport nearby should be ready for action by 2020) and paid €7.70 for a daily ticket valid on S & U Bahn, tram & bus. This would have been valid for up to three children travelling with me, a real bargain for families.
The S Bahn train S9 took about 40 minutes to reach hauptbahnhof from where I skipped across the road to catch bus M85 to 155 Hauptstrasse, which is now a physiotherapy & massage centre. I was there in twenty minutes, but I hadn’t come for any muscle relief. Number 155 in this rather shoddy street close to Potsdamer Platz was the former residence of Messrs David Bowie & Iggy Pop.
It was during his time here in the late ’70s that Bowie recorded what became known as the ‘Berlin Trilogy’, three classic albums – Low, Heroes & Lodger. I had actually arrived on the second anniversary of the Thin White Duke’s sad death and I stood in the still foggy conditions listening to iconic tunes such as Heroes, Star Man & Fashion as people left flowers, funerary candles & cards.
The man was a genius, a true British music legend up there with the likes of John Lennon & Edward Elgar, the like of which I doubt will ever come again.
After thirty minutes contemplation and a few photos, I returned to Potsdamer Platz where some original fragments of Berlin Wall have been left as a reminder of the recent past. Lest we forget, the city and whole nation were divided into East & West following WWII with the East shut off from the West by the Wall from 1961 until 1989. I was to learn more about that later on……
Next up after a quick curry wurst (curried sausage) I walked further up the road and took in the fascinating stelae monument made of concrete plinths of various sizes which from a distance appear to be all the same size. The memorial entitled ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ commemorates Holocaust victims A few trees have been placed amongst the grey blocks, possibly to signify that life goes on.
In the continuing fog the installation looked more apt than ever.
Just a short distance took me to the famed Brandenburg Gate,designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans and finished in 1791, positioned at the entrance to the then highly fashionable Pariser Platz. It was time to switch the Ipod from Bowie to Wagner to help me fully appreciate the spectacle.
The gate consists of twelve Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two on each side. Atop the gate is a Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses, sculpted by Johann Gottfried Schadow.
The Gate has and continues to be the focal point for Berlin and the venue for political demonstrations & national celebrations. On the day I was there, a group of Russian protesters were demonstrating peacefully opposite the American Embassy.
Just up the road stands the Bundestag & Reichstag, the monolithic buildings of the German Parliament. There was free entry for those carrying photo ID and prepared to go through airport like security. Apparently on a good day the view from the huge glass dome is fabulous, but as my time was short and the conditions foggy I decided to give it a miss for a future time.
I then returned through the Gate and hopped on another bus that took me past the State Opera and University and onto Berliner Dom. The entrance fee for the cathedral was €7 and I figured that it was best left again for the future when I would get better value from the view from the top of its clock tower.
This area is Berlin’s museum district, all housed in picturesque classical buildings. I shunned the old & modern art and the pots & coin fragments and headed across the small bridge over the River Spree and onto what was to be my final attraction of the day, the excellent DDR Museum.
The museum tells the story of life on the Eastern side of the wall, the incredible Trabant car (two-stroke engine, no fuel gauge, 16 year waiting list to get one!), the East German sports doping programme and the propaganda of the Russian Federation, the propensity for public nude bathing as an act of defiance & freedom, the infamous Stasi, the feared police and intelligence service, the shortage of all but the very basics, the worker programmes, the mandatory youth organisations, the national service regime and the media censorship.
The highlight for me was the mock up of a complete flat as would have been lived in by a typical working family with three or more children. All rooms were decked out as they would have been, all pretty much identical to all other flats in the blocks. The East Germans had a saying ‘if your wife’s hairstyle looks different and your toothpaste tastes different you are in the wrong flat’, to poke fun at the similarities between flats.
I learned that residents favourite past times were drinking beer & vodka, watching TV and having sex. There was not a lot else to do it seemed. Generally the men worked and the lady of the house worked part-time, brought up the kids and kept the home spotless. Very similar to pre swinging sixties Britain by the sounds of it.
The final room of the tour was the living room. Here you were able to sit on the sofa and choose a TV programme to watch – a children’s cartoon, a Val Doonican type singer, a political broadcast or the (censored) news. I sat and watched a cartoon featuring two pigs in heated discussion like characters out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The €9.50 entrance fee had been well worth it. Not a great fan of art galleries or general museums, I do however love museums that tell a unique story or showcase an unusual period in history.
It was dark when I exited, so I took a bus to Alexanderplatz for a farewell beer & bratwurst before taking S9 back to the airport.
I left tired, fulfilled & happy and vowed to come back soon with Mrs Wilbur.
Footnote – you may remember that about a year ago I ranked the 36 (excluding London) European capitals that I had visited at that time. Since then I have visited Ljubljana & Berlin, which are both pressing to be included in my top ten. I will have to give that some further thought!