Hello to all. I’m lucky enough to be abroad once again; this time for eight weeks on what promises to be a jam-packed trip across central and Eastern Europe. Those who know me well will be aware that keeping a blog has always been a big part of my travels. I write to keep my family and friends – and anyone else who may be interested – up to date with my adventures. But I also write for myself. Because I love to write, and I can imagine no better way to document my travels. So welcome, and I hope you’ll keep reading over the coming weeks.
I began my trip in London. The week was spent with family and friends, and accorded me the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite London places. I found myself besotted with the city all over again. But since I’ve written loads and loads on this blog about London previously, I’m opting to properly begin in my second destination: Berlin.
So here I am. Sitting in a coin laundry at the end of a full week spent in the German capital – my first ever visit to the country. And I’ve really loved it. This city is simply heaving with cool. It doesn’t necessarily have the aesthetics a number of other European cities boast, but no matter. Every area of this cosmopolitan city is crying out to be explored, and each seems to offer something a little different.
I arrived from London on Tuesday evening. My friend Jarin, an old school mate who I had convinced to tack Germany onto the end of his European holiday, was already there. As we ate dinner at one of the many restaurants near our hostel, he told me excitedly what he’d already discovered – and vowed to be my tour guide for the next day.
We started off the following morning by visiting the Jewish museum. I believe it’s the largest Jewish museum in Europe, and it’s really quite impressive. Over three hours we explored the various exhibitions, which covered the Holocaust as well as many other periods of Jewish history from the Middle Ages to the modern day. Interestingly, we came to realise the experience was as much about the architecture and design of the museum as it was about the content.
After lunch it was time to scope out Berlin’s main attractions. First up was Checkpoint Charlie, the best known crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War. To me there was a bit of touristy tackiness about it, such as ‘guards’ posing for photos at the checkpoint, but it was certainly worth seeing. There are also associated museums and exhibitions around the area which give you a good dose of history. Next, we wandered up Unter den Linden, the main boulevard in the centre of Berlin, to the Brandenburg Gate. As much as I knew what it would look like, it was still a thrill to see. Then we had a look at the Reichstag (wow!), before heading towards some Shoah-related points of interest. We saw the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, and Hitler’s bunker (or rather the site where it used to be). We also went to Bebelplatz, which is the square where the Nazis organised the first official book burning in 1933. If you look under the ground in one particular spot, there are empty book shelves – a memorial to this historically significant event. Beyond it is the beautiful Humboldt University, which occupies a former royal palace.
That evening, we rewarded our tired legs with a delicious dinner at a traditional German restaurant. Jarin did it right and had sausages (with sauerkraut and other signature accompaniments), while I went for a special handmade German pasta, which was delicious. And as with any proper German meal, there was of course beer.
The next day was always going to be a significant one. Not only in the scheme of my trip, but indeed in the trajectory of my life. My paternal grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. Although he was born in Poland, the concentration camp he and his father were sent to was located in Weimar, Germany. It was a given that if I were ever to be within a few hours of Buchenwald, I would visit. So Jarin and I set off early on Thursday morning for Weimar. I had made contact in advance as I had heard they are very accommodating of descendants of survivors coming to visit. On arriving at Buchenwald, we spent about an hour with an archivist who had meticulously gathered all the available documents pertaining to my grandfather and my great grandfather. It was mostly information I knew, but it was poignant to see the various documents nonetheless. I was in fact able to give the archivist information about the fate of my great grandfather which he did not know. After that, he had organised a tour guide to take Jarin and I around the camp. Although there is a lot of the original camp which isn’t there anymore, there is a lot that is. And moreover, there are many parts which have been reconstructed. From the memorials, to the site of the block where my grandfather was, to the harrowing crematorium. It was all incredibly moving. And not only as the granddaughter of someone who survived it, and the great granddaughter of somebody who didn’t. But learning about the unimaginable atrocities which took place will move any human being, I think. I was somewhat concerned that the day wouldn’t hold so much interest for Jarin, but that was far from the case. This history, and the messages associated with them, are universally relevant. There is also a museum there, which is incredibly well put together. It’s a day I’ll not soon forget.
We started Friday a lighter note, with a visit to the east side gallery. That’s a part of the Berlin Wall which wasn’t torn down. As I understand it, Germany invited artists from all around the world to make their marks on the wall. Today it’s a colourful mishmash stretching well over a kilometre. Some of the panels are graffiti like; others display quite impressive artworks; while some provide a social commentary of sorts.
We then went to visit the Neue synagogue, which has been reconstructed since its destruction in World War II. It’s beautiful from the outside. Unfortunately you can’t look inside unless you attend a service. You can visit the dome (we found it very underwhelming) as well as a small museum inside.
Something which I immediately noticed in Berlin is their entirely relaxed approach to alcohol consumption. First of all, every convenience store sells alcohol. More often than not, a bottle of water will set you back as much as a bottle of beer. For an Australian, that’s unheard of. And further, you can drink in public. I often saw people walking down the street drinking. If you see that at home, there’s a good chance the person consuming the alcohol is not in a good way. Anyway, what I was going to say was, it was Jarin’s last afternoon in Berlin (and Europe!) so we decided to grab a beer and have a drink in the park to farewell him. We felt quite like locals – though it’s unlikely the locals around us were drinking Berliner Pilsners!
I’d organised this week pretty well. As soon as Jarin had left, my cousins Dana and Jon had arrived in Berlin. Living in London currently, they have that luxury we Aussies don’t – proximity to Europe – and are making the most of it. So we got together in Berlin for dinner and caught up on the week since we’d last seen each other in London. They have a friend living in Berlin, so Friday night’s dinner destination was the first of many of her reccomedations ensuring we’d always eat at the best local spots.
Saturday morning saw me visit another place of relevance to my family. My paternal grandmother was born in Berlin. Her parents managed to come to Australia before things got really dire for the Jews, so she arrived in Melbourne aged two. However, her grandparents, my great great grandparents, remained behind and were eventually deported to a concentration camp. In recent years, Germany has erected what are called stumbling stones. They are bronze squares on the pavement outside where a Jewish person once lived. They give details, such as their names and year of birth, and where they were deported to. Such plaques can be found outside my great great grandparents’ former home in Charlottenburg. So off I went to find the apartment where my grandmother was born. I admired the lovely apartment building, and took in what was written on the stones at my feet. The names of my great great grandparents, the dates they were deported to Theresienstadt, and the approximate dates that they died. Amongst the leafy streets in this picturesque neighbourhood, it was difficult to imagine that something so abhorrent had occurred there.
Since I was in the neighbourhood, I went to visit Charlottenburg Palace. It was built at the end of the 17th century for some important people to live in. The internal decorations are exquisite, as are the gardens surrounding the palace. I also discovered some lovely craft markets nearby.
That evening I dragged a new friend from my hostel room to a burger place my best work pal at home had told me to go to. What was beginning to strike me was how different one area was from another in Berlin. Every neighbourhood has a unique vibe and a unique aesthetic. This area, in east Berlin, was grungy if not a little downtrodden. But at the same time it was the most cool, happening place I had been to yet. The spot was a funky little hole in the wall overflowing with locals hungry for these amazing burgers. So delicious.
On Sunday, Dana and Jon and I went to visit the Reichstag. As well as learning the history of the German parliament, we were accorded magnificent views of Berlin. About 25 years ago they built this glass dome which you can go up and be guided as to the landmarks covering the full 360 degrees. Architecturally it’s very cool.
We continued our day at mauerpark market, a well-known Sunday market it Berlin. For the most part a flea market, it was buzzing with atmosphere and packed with Berliners hunting out their next antique.
Afterwards, we went to see the exhibition associated with the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Each room takes a different focus, for instance looking at the stories of specific families, or the locations where there were camps. I found it to be very well put together. It’s only a shame that it’s hidden under the ground, as I expect many tourists may inadvertently pass it by.
We had lunch in a beautiful square which was very much an exception to my earlier comment about Berlin not having those grand European aesthetics. Gendarmenmarkt Square is fairly famous, flanked by a French church and a German church, with a beautiful concert house in the middle.
On Monday we went to the Pergamon museum, which houses reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Pergamon altar and the market gate of Miletus, all from ancient Turkey. There is also an exhibition of Islamic art. I really liked it. It wasn’t too information-heavy or too expansive, and the relics on display were all very cool. I guess others agree with me, as it’s supposedly the most visited museum in all of Germany!
We decided to venture to the tiergarden, the big green space in the centre of Berlin. I really love the parks in Europe. They often make you feel as though you’re out in the country, when in fact you’re right in the heart of the city. This one was no exception, and we enjoyed it until a thunderstorm of epic proportions came out of virtually nowhere. Fun times! After an important stop at the Ritter Sport shop (all the chocolate), it was time to say goodbye to D and J, and for me to prepare for the next leg of my trip. Busabout to the Czech Republic. Stay tuned.