The drive from Prague to Berlin was probably the most terrifying experience I have ever had. The supposedly less than four hour trip took us longer than eight hours. Although we left Prague around 10am we didn’t arrive in Berlin until after six and then we had to unload the car and race out to a supermarket because all the shops are closed on Sunday. Eating dinner at 10pm reminded us of Spain but the feelings of fun and excitement that we had in Spain were replaced with the tension and tiredness from our journey. Yet I was thankful and surprised that we even made it. I have left our story about our traumatic drive to a separate blog (http://www.travellingeuropewithkids.com/week-3637-prague-to-berlin-drive/).
After a goodnight sleep and a sleep-in we discovered some good news – day light saving had ended during the night so our 10am was still only 9am. As the sun was shining outside I felt it was too good a day to be stuck inside, although the kids would have loved to have just stayed in the apartment, so we had an early lunch and then made our way to the metro station. We were going to join up with a walking tour of Berlin that was meeting at 1pm. Here, in typical style, Daniel and Amy on ahead of the rest of us so they can walk with the tour guide and tell him about our trip; and also ask him questions e.g. when we stopped half-way at a cafe Daniel wanted to know if the tour guide was given a percentage of the takings from the rest of the groups purchases!
I won’t write about everything we went to on the tour but rather a few of the highlights for me. On our tour we walked by the remaining section of the Berlin Wall. The way post-war Germany was split up among four powers, the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, and particularly having Berlin stuck in the middle of the region that the Soviets controlled is pretty strange to me. Surely the Allied Control Council should have guessed that to have the city of Berlin controlled by four powers was asking for trouble. Our tour guide did a pretty good job trying to explain things and how the wall came to be constructed. Here is my take on this. So in 1945 the Allies divided Germany up and the Soviet Union was given control of the east side. In 1949 the Soviet Union setup the Socialist State of East Germany which was known by the west as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and this included East Berlin of the Allied-occupied capital city. By the way, in German the GDR is the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik)!
So you have a situation where you have the pro-democracy, pro-capitalism controlled West Berlin is stuck in the middle of the Russian-controlled socialist state of the GDR. Of course the GDR didn’t want people to go to the west and so there was a ban on leaving the country and going to West Germany. But in the 1950’s some 2.7 million people fled to the west so the GDR erected frontier barriers to try to prevent the population leaving. In 1961 the Berlin Wall was constructed as the final part of this barrier and the German border guards were authorised to use lethal force against anyone trying to escape. Up until this point a total of 3.5 million people had left the country which was about 20% of the total population! The wall remained in place, separating families and friends, for 28 years until the East German communist government was toppled and the wall fell in 1989 which began the process of reunifying Germany as one nation.
We walked past Checkpoint Charlie (named so because it was checkpoint “c”, and Charlie comes from the letter C in the phonetic alphabet) which was the most well-known border crossing between East and West and the only one that foreigners and members of the Allied forces were permitted to use to access the east. Of course McDonalds is everywhere and directly to the right of the check point, looking from the GDR side of the border toward West Berlin is a MCD’s which provides a great view over the American border guard shed. Checkpoint Charlie is also the place where the Soviet and US tanks faced each other during the crisis of October 1961.
Almost everywhere you go in Berlin there are sights, monuments, and museums to remind people of the war and the history of Berlin and Germany. I think it is a fitting reminder, to help the countries of the world strive to live in peace. One memorial we visited was that dedicated to the murdered Jews of Europe.
It consisted of 2711 concrete blocks which are set in a matrix and extend out of the ground at varying heights. It’s quite an interesting memorial and leaves people to make up their own minds as to what it means!
There is also an interesting memorial at the Bebelplatz also known as Opera Square. It’s a monument to remember May 10, 1933 when the Nazi minister for propaganda and public enlightenment organised 20,000 books to be burned that were written by Jews and other said-undesiredpeople. The memorial consists of a glass plate in the ground through which you can view rows of empty bookshelves. The plaque next to it gives the words from Heinrich Heine’s 1821 play which in English says “That was just a prelude, where books are burnt, people will eventually burn too”. Sadly that is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany.
The final place I wanted to mention from our tour was the 18 metre long mural on the wall of the Detlev Rohwedder House (House of Ministries). It was painted in 1950-52 and depicts contented East Germans under the Socialist rule as one big happy family. Ironically it was the sight of the 1953 uprising which started as a strike by construction works but the next day turned into a much wider uprising against the GDR which was violently suppressed by tanks. Now, nearby is also a huge blown-up photo of the 1953 protesters who would have been killed or imprisoned that day.
The tour was excellent. It lasted about 3.5 hours with a coffee break in the middle but by 4:30pm or so it was getting cold, perhaps around 6 or 7 degrees so we were ready to be at home in our warm apartment.
Finally the day arrived on Monday for us to return the rental car. Due to awesome planning, the car rental office was only a 4 minute drive down the road. I spent a few hours earlier in the day at the post office sending yet more of Daniel’s toys home so now we were running a bit late. Then I remembered we needed to fill up the car with diesel. At last we were able to drive into the parking building and drop the car off. With that done we took a quick look around the shopping centre, that was in the same building, searching for a dress for Amy to wear on the cruise (for some reason Karen and Amy think they need a new dress to wear to dinner ). No such luck – kids clothing shops are difficult to find in Europe. We then walked home which was rather stressful as the kids were acting crazy.
Tuesday was spent at home as it was wet outside and we needed to extract school work out of Daniel and Amy then give them time to blob. The next day, Wednesday however, was a full on sightseeing day. Trains are expensive so I wanted to get a day-pass and do as much as we could in the one day. Daniel also prefers to cram everything in a day so he can spend more days afterwards surfing the web for G.I.Joe toys and watching reviews online. It drives you mad sometimes, you are in this amazing city in Europe and all they want to do is play on the internet (where they can see the same sights online I admit).
Our day began just outside of the U-Bahn station Bernauer Strasse (U8) which used to be a ghost station as the Berlin Wall passes along its entrance. Along the wall route are informative displays, the Berlin Wall Memorial, that tell the story of the wall, escape attempts and life behind the wall. We walked along for perhaps 1 km, learning more as we went and then we reached a section of the wall that is still standing. Not far away was also the Berlin Wall information centre which aside from cheap auto-machine coffee had a lookout you could view the area from.
After this we caught another train to the Topography of Terror museum which documents the Nazi’s rise, actions and approach to controlling the population and achieving its objectives. Interestingly the site was the location of the Nazi regime’s Gestapo and the SS headquarters. It was a worthwhile visit but not a pleasant one. I have read enough about that horrible era. Amy could only stomach about quarter of the display so we left before finishing it all. The photo below shows the outside display along side the remains of the SS/Gestapo HQ building and also directly above you can see the Berlin Wall:
I had planned for us next to go to the DDR museum but when we arrived, around 3pm, there was a long queue and it was crowded. As it was open until 8pm we decided to catch the train to Primark to continue our search for a dress for Amy and then return to the museum after dinner. It took a bit of effort to get to Primark as we had to change trains a few times, caught one in the wrong direction and then near our final stop the train had to wait while someone sorted out children playing on the rail lines. After five minutes we decided to walk.
The shopping went fairly well, I found a dress for Amy that was perfect and Karen forced me to buy a jacket since I had long abandoned my old jacket during our trip to make more space in our bags. It was past 6pm so we didn’t have time for a dinner; rather we picked up a drink and some donuts and raced to the train. The DDR museum was much quieter by 7pm when we arrived. At 20 euro it wasn’t cheap but the kids seemed to enjoy looking at all the stuff that detailed what life was like in the DDR between the 60’s and 90’s. The advertising claimed the museum was a great hands-on experience but apart from being able to open up various cupboards and draws there wasn’t much to touch – o, there were two cars you could sit in and also some coffee and a coffee-mix you could feel … Even this would have been near impossible if there were crowds around you. I did learn a couple of interesting things namely: people seemed to get paid pretty well and there was plenty of work; there were only basic products they could buy; they had to wait sometimes as long as 15 years to get a new car so people would pay a lot more than the cost of a new car to buy a used car; they had very little fruit and vegetables except when Chernobyl disaster struck suddenly the DDR had plenty of produce grown in Russia that the rest of the world didn’t want. Also, very oddly, it seems that nudity at the beach was the norm, apparently an unofficial protest, and that if you wore a swimming costume you were in the minority. Aside from these small gems of information, the DDR museum was a waste of money. It was another really late night by the time we got home, dinner on Spanish time at 10pm.
The next day the kids did school work while Karen went back to Primark, this time to look for her cruise dress. Karen came back late in the afternoon with a pile of clothes. Not a problem really but for each new item she has to throw out an old item so the new clothes can fit into her bag.
On Friday after school we just packed our bags and got ready for our early departure at 6:30am to catch a train to the airport. We were off to Venice for one night then we would board our cruise. Only 14 days until we leave Europe!
(Week 37: Saturday, 27 October 2012 – Saturday, 3 November 2012)