Emotive mural capturing the spirit of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Mitte.

BERLIN - WORLD WITHOUT WALLS

CELEBRATE with locals the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall amid fascinating memorials to the struggle. JOY DODDS reports.

NOVEMBER 9 marks a quarter century since Berlin morphed from divided city (1961-89) into Europe’s most dynamic metropolis. Special events and exhibitions are ongoing to commemorate the historic event, taking in the division of the city, the Cold War and the events leading to peaceful reunification.

This is a wonderful time to visit Berlin – it’s as if its euphoria belongs to the world. More than ever, the city is a melting pot of ideas and creativity, exciting exhibitions, street art and infectious vitality, all set against a backdrop of famous monuments and museums – as well as a refreshing truthfulness about the past.

Suburbs formerly within East Berlin, including Mitte and the uber-chic Prenzlauer Berg, exude a real excitement with renovated original buildings festooned with artworks, chic restaurants, street musicians and flea markets. The colourful street art has a history dating to Cold War times, reflecting political activism rather than mere graffiti. This summer has seen sand beaches with deckchairs set up along the banks of Berlin’s Spree River, including a gay camp off Invalidenstrasse, capturing the sunny mood of the city. The colourful bridge, the Oberbaumbrücke, which was partially blown up in 1945 and restored 50 years later, now links Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, renowned for their night clubs.

Central to the event is the Berlin Wall Memorial which runs from the former border strip and last remaining watchtower in Bernauer Strasse near Nordbahnhof to the Mauerpark (Wall Park). The fortifications, images and documentation make an emotional impact.

On Invalidenstrasse, near another of the eight original checkpoints, is a memorial plaque to young Gunter Litfin, the first killed in a bid for freedom in 1961, one of many along the Wall precincts.

The well-known replica of Checkpoint Charlie border crossing on Friedrich/Zimmerstrasse, minus original watchtower, with actors depicting guards and a McDonald’s across the street, has been completely overshadowed by Berlin’s other magnificent Cold War exhibitions. However photographs in the adjacent Checkpoint Gallery and museum, including the October 1961 image of armed American soldiers facing combat-ready Soviet tanks, are riveting. A Black Box opened in 2012 displaying 500 fascinating exhibits from the Cold War era further adds to the interest.

East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, is the world’s longest open-air gallery, painted on a section of preserved wall. A great way of covering it and all the sites is with a Berlin Wall bike tour.

It’s fascinating to consider that the triumphal Brandenburg Gate (1791), crowned with the magnificent Quadriga, became part of ‘No Man’s Land’ under the GDR, but is once again Berlin’s famous landmark. The nearby Reichstag building with its huge glass dome atop attracts more than 15 million visitors who have climbed its viewing platform since the Bundestag relocated from Bonn to Berlin.

Berlin’s museums are world-renowned. In all, Berlin has more than 170, including the famous five museums on Museum Island – the National Gallery, Pergamon (housing the famous altar from C2nd BC), Old, New and Bode. Together, they exhibit 5000 years of human history on one square kilometre of island, including everything from Egyptian antiquities to the art of Claude Monet. Nearby is the equally fascinating German Historical Museum and the very different GDR Museum, which reconstructs everyday life in East Germany.

There is so much to enjoy in this amazing city. Stroll along Unter den Linden between the Brandenburg Gate and Schlossbrücke (Palace Bridge) or climb up to the dome of Berlin Cathedral for a wonderful city panorama, or explore its Hohernzollern crypt.

Not-to-be-missed is a stroll through Berlin’s “lungs”, the Tiergarten Gardens, that stretch to the Victory Column, symbolizing Prussian military might, and the Classicist Bellevue Palace, now the official residence of the German president. Nearby in Charlottenburg on Kurfürstendamm, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church with its heavily-damaged main tower from a 1943 bombing raid stands today as a memorial against war. Nearby, also in Tiergarten, is the 1936 Olympic Stadium and Berlin Zoo with more than 17,500 animals on 35 hectares. Not far away is Spandau, the small historic district on an island in the middle of the river Havel with its Renaissance Citadel, now used for concerts and exhibitions. Spandau’s now-demolished prison incarcerated Nazi Rudolf Hesse.

Berlin is ‘Culture Vulture Central’. For theatre and music lovers, there’s the Berlin Philharmonic, the German Opera Building (one of three opera houses) and the Theatre at the Schiffbauerdamm, home of the “Threepenny Opera” in 1928. The Gemaldegalerie art museum houses old masters, Impressionism comes alive at the Max Liebermann Villa on Lake Wannsee and contemporary art at the Berlin Gallery and Waldersee House.

For retail therapy, shop in the Spandauer Vorstadt Hackesche Höfe in Mitte or that temple of retail luxury since 1907, Kaufhaus des Westens, known as “KaDeWe”, including its world-famous food hall, on Wittenbergplatz.

Berlin offers other fascinating sites, such as Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery in Weissensee or the New Synagogue in Mitte, built in 1866 in the Moorish style with a giant golden dome, and today a museum. The memorial opened in 2012 to the 500,000 gypsies murdered by the Nazis, centrally located between the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, is equally sobering.

I was struck by the sheer honesty of Berlin and its museums in respect to its history, and particularly the Holocaust. The Museum of the German People tells it as it is, as further explained in the Jewish Museum in Kreuzberg, which traverses 2000 years of German-Jewish history. Interestingly, a large number of Israelis have returned to live in Berlin.

Berlin (population 3.3 million) attracts more than 10 million visitors each year and is the third top destination in Europe. Is it little wonder that this memorial year is expected to break all records?

THE CELEBRATIONS:

Events include guided cycling tours along the Wall Trail, visits to the former watchtowers and tours of former East Berlin in a real East German Trabant car. The highlight on November 7-9 will be a light installation along the former 12-km course of the Wall as a "symbol of hope for a world without walls". The route takes in the former border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse, Mauerpark (Wall Park), along Bernauer Strasse, past the Berlin Wall Memorial, the river Spree near the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and Potzdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie Kreuzberg to Oberbaumbrücke. White balloons will be released.

COLD WAR HOT SPOTS:

Mauer Park (Wall Park) – This grassland patch in Prezlauer Berg, a Cold War No Man’s Land, is where the first breach of the wall famously took place. One section of the wall has been left standing in what has been transformed into a vibrant part of new Berlin.

The TV Tower (Fernsehturm) in Alexanderplatz, a GDR icon, juts into the sky, offering great views.

Stasi Museum and Hohenschönhausen Memorial - The former GDR Ministry for State Security’s remand centre in Lichtenberg, complete with interrogation wing and barbed wire, uses former inmates to give guided tours of the site.

Tempelhof Airport Terminal - Berlin’s rations lifeline during the Cold War closed in 2008 and it is possible to inspect bunkers, air-raid shelters and other military facilities.

Teufelsberg - Visit the former US/British field station with listening domes for intercepting radio messages.


WHERE TO STAY:

Adina Apartments: three stylish central Berlin locations – Hauptbahnhof (main railway station); Hackescher Markt and Checkpoint Charlie – with kitchenettes, great décor and a friendly Australian atmosphere. Bookings: abhb@adina.eu

Akselhaus
in trendy Prezlauer Berg: - great vibes, décor and location. See info @ackselhaus.de

HOW TO GET THERE:

Numerous global air connections to Berlin.

Fast intercity rail connections (Amsterdam-Berlin takes 6 hours). Details: internationalrail.com.au or 1300 EURAIL.

GETTING AROUND:

A Berlin Welcome Card tourist pass, from €18.50 offers 200 discounts, free travel, city guide, etc. See berlin-welcomecard.com

For the very latest in Berlin: see visitberlin.de



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