Eurotrip 2011: Berlin.3

This is my last post (of many) in the Eurotrip 2011 series.  What.  A.  Long.  Journey.  I knew a three-week trip would have its challenges, but I did not anticipate the biggest challenge would be documenting the whole thing on this blog! If you want to get caught up (before I take another vacation and start inundating you with those photos), check out the entire series here. Otherwise, just go along your merry way, oblivious to the photos from England (the West country), London (1, 2, and 3), Paris (1, 2, 3, and 4), Brussels, Bruges, Amsterdam, Prague (1, 2, and 3), and other parts of Berlin. Don't worry; no one will know that you cheated and only read the final chapter in the series. But not knowing about our adventures (i.e. N's birthday cruise) and misadventures (i.e. getting beat up by a five-year-old) is entirely your loss.

I think one of the things Americans can appreciate so much about traveling in Europe is how many layers of history can be discovered in the buildings and museums and even in the streets and the languages. Our nation never looks younger than when compared to our European predecessors, whose history books stretch much further back than our 500 years since "discovery". But perhaps it's because I'm American that I find recent history - the portion in time when the U.S. had a role to play - the most interesting period to study. To be more specific, I am most fascinated by events that occurred in the 1900s - maybe because there are photos to help depict the events of the past 100 years. For this reason, I found Berlin to be very interesting, because much of the well-documented history in the city occurred in the past 60 years - primary, involving WWII and the Cold War.

During a terrific tour with Fat Tire Bike Tours (our fourth Fat Tire tour during the trip), we were given a well-summarized history of post-WWII Germany, and how the four Axis powers each took a slice of the geographic pie. Although Berlin was located solely in the Soviet sector of Germany, the city was also split into four sections. Basically, without describing all the political details here, East Berlin and West Berlin became divided between the Soviets and the Americans in the 1960s, and one of the famous gateways between the two sections was Checkpoint Charlie, which has now become a tourist attraction.

It's hard to envision what this Checkpoint meant for many Germans from the '60s through the end of the '80s when the wall finally came down, because the area is completely over-commercialized at this point; as you can see, there is a huge McDonald's right across the street. To better understand the physical obstacles that people had to live with during that period, I found that seeing parts of the remaining wall gave me a greater sense of the gravitas of Cold War Berlin.

There was absolutely no joking around with this structure, and even being near it brought a solemn hush over our tour group, as we imagined how divided Berlin (and the world) was at that time. Later, NS and I toured the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (Haus am Checkpoint Charlie) and read about countless attempts to escape East Berlin. The museum itself is a hectic hodge-podge of photos and stories and videos and reconstructed escape aids - not my favorite collection of artifacts. But the visit was memorable, because each escape attempt represented such tenacity and desperation, and you couldn't help but leave with a sense of admiration for the inhabitants of East Berlin at that time.

One of my favorite stories involved a group of elderly men who dug a tunnel from East Berlin. The oldest of the group, an 81-year-old man, pretended to be working in the back garden with all the buckets of dirt being removed from the ground below. In total, seven men, four women, and one teenager made it to freedom in the West through that tunnel. In another memorable story, a man in West Berlin who had a pass to visit East Berlin took a young woman across with him, who unknowingly looked like the man's wife (who was stuck in East Berlin). After crossing into East Berlin, he switched the girl out for his wife, and, using the girl's travel documentation, the two crossed back into the West. Maybe I don't feel as much admiration for that guy. But I'm sure his wife did.

However, the Checkpoint Charlie area absolutely paled in comparison to the Holocaust Memorial and Museum.

The Holocaust Memorial (The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) is a series of rows and rows of large concrete blocks ("The Field of Stelae") covering 4.7 acres near the Brandenburg Gate. Since the memorial is supposed to honor the murdered Jews, my first assumption was that each block represented so many individuals killed. But actually, the memorial is abstract, and the designer, Peter Eisenman, claims to have used no symbolism in his design.

Our tour group briefly explored the memorial as the sun was setting behind the treeline, which for me is a naturally quiet time of day. In any case, the memorial was a very sober place indeed.

Typically, I'm someone who likes order and structure and logical explanations. But the lack of symbolism in the memorial meant that each of us could interpret the design as he or she saw fit.

For me, I felt the varying heights of the blocks represented the wide variety of people affected by the Holocaust.  The victims, although all very different, were grouped together because of one common demographic. The concrete blocks represented to me how many of the victims were pillars of society (doctors, teachers, attorneys, probably even some accountants), yet they were pulled out of society, sent to concentration camps, and given prison-like uniforms to wear ("striped pajamas"), enduring conditions that stripped them of their dignity with treatment that wouldn't be fit for animals. In my mind, the straight rows between the blocks represented how so many of these Jews and other minorities were often lined up and systematically "eliminated" before the end of the war.

The only trouble with organized tours is that sometimes you have to move on from a particular site before you're ready, and I was certainly not ready to leave when the guide packed us up and moved us out. The two of us returned to the memorial the next day to have another look in the daylight, and of course we visited the underground museum.

I appreciated that the museum was underground, which to me represented how resistance efforts during the war had to be covert and secretive. The museum contained a database of all the known names of Jewish Holocaust victims, which was available to all visitors. The exhibits were an appropriate mix of overall war history and accounts of individual experiences. As we wandered from room to room, we read about the development of the concentration camps by the Nazis, as well as victims' personal stories, which were just heart-wrenching. One entire room was dedicated to letters that were written by Jews and other minorities who had endured the Holocaust, each letter reproduced on a back-lit tile on the floor. Visitors could sit and read each one, pondering the gravity of the words and circumstances. Over and over, the letters expressed hope that they would soon be leaving the camp, although we all know most never did.

Honestly, I just can't write about the Holocaust in such a way that gives enough honor to the victims, their families, and all who helped in resistance efforts. That period of the world's history is a very dark one, and I think it's important to revisit the museums and memorials that remind us of these events. Personally, it motivates me to (1) strive to never, ever allow history repeat itself;  (2) feel gratitude for the religious freedoms that I enjoy;  and (3) be more aware of people in the world that do still suffer from affliction and persecution, and do my part to correct those situations.

Well. I don't want to end this post (or this series!) on a low note. I mentioned above that the Holocaust Memorial is near the Brandenburg Gate, and that was one of our stops on the bike tour.

Monuments always look more impressive and imposing to me by night, as all lesser buildings fade into the darkness.

The Quadriga atop the Gate was once transported to Paris by Napoleon (of course).
Fortunately, he was defeated, and back home to Berlin it came.

The tour covered quite a bit of ground in Berlin, which my photos above do not fully represent. However, we retraced our steps to re-visit a few landmarks on our last day in the city, as shown below.

We spent some time resting our feet and chatting in the Gendermenmarkt square, which includes the Franzosischer Dom on the north (above) and the matching Deutscher Dom (below) facing it on the south (the French and German cathedrals). These buildings (along with the Konzerthaus on the west side) are an example of successful reconstruction projects of historic buildings after they sustained a great deal of damage during WWII.

It was at about this point in the trip where I realized that NS and I had literally spent three weeks together in each other's presence nearly every moment of the day. Not that we don't spend time together at home. But traveling with just one other person (not counting our couchsurfing hosts, of course) may be a good test of the strength of the relationship - or at least, how much patience we have for each other.

I'm pleased to report that NS is still my ideal traveling companion.

Also at this point in the trip, I was almost at the point of giving up on walking forever, but we had heard that some of the city's best views could be seen from the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom). I really can't resist a good view.

Isn't the juxtaposition of the two styles of architecture in this next photo so glaring? On the left is the Berliner Dom, an Evangelical church in Berlin, and on the right is the Humboldt Box, a temporary exposition of the future rebuilding of a palace in the same spot (after the box is dismantled.)

From what our tour guide told us, the Humboldt Box is not the most popular thing that's happened in Berlin. We steered clear, and while N rested his feet in a nearby cafe, I toured the cathedral.

The interior was beautiful, but too dark for good photos.
However, that glorious organ (lower left) was a literal highlight.

I chose to climb the 270 steps to the outdoor walkway that surrounds the dome, which yielded views of the city in every direction, as promised.

Berlin's Television Tower (Fernsehturm) is the tallest building in Germany.
It reminds me of Seattle's space needle. But I've never actually seen that, so maybe not.

The Red Town Hall (Rotes Rathaus), designed in the late 1800s, occupies an entire city block and was rebuilt after being damaged in WWII.

Views over the Spree River

A view from the front of the cathedral, which is located on Berlin's Museum Island - home to five major museums on an island in the Spree River.
And that, my friends, is the end of the Eurotrip. It's a trip that I'll never forget - three incredible weeks exploring mostly-new territory with my favorite person. There are plenty of lessons we learned along the way. For instance, NS learned that my meal times are non-negotiable, and I don't tour well on an empty stomach.  I learned that, when push comes to shove, he'll give up his comfort for my sake. We both learned that couchsurfing has its perks, but is probably best interspersed with some real hotel rooms. We also learned that at the end of a vacation that can only be termed a "trip", it's great to be heading back to a vacation destination that we call "home".

From Europe with love! Wish you were here! ~N&J


  1. Well worth the wait for the round up of Euro 2011!

  2. Wow - great documentation, Jenn! You are so knowledgeable and your blog posts are intriguing. :) Looking forward to your next adventure!

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