‘You are crazy, my child. You must go to Berlin.’ Written in 1800 by the Austrian composer Franz von Suppé, this quote still rings true now. Berlin has a special place in my heart. We had a rocky few years. I spent Christmas’ there as a child, then returned for the first time in 2014. After this trip I declared it overrated, boring and not for me. Fast forward to the past summer and I fell in love with the city all over again [hyperlink]. So much so that I just had to go back with my SO for Valentine’s Day. I am not one of life’s natural romantics. In fact I cringe at even hugging my partners in public. But if I have to celebrate a holiday based on public displays and declarations of affection, where better to do it than beautiful Berlin.
We stayed in an Air BnB in Prenzlauer Berg, an area to the north east of Berlin. It was right on the edge of East Berlin, with the Berlin Wall running down the western boarder of it. Now it’s become something of a hipster neighbourhood, dealing with the gentrification that Berlin’s become somewhat famous for now. Unusually for East Berlin, it’s lacking in Soviet architecture, still keeping its old townhouses and apartment blocks. Our Air BnB was in one of these, just round the corner from the U Bahn station Eberswalder Straße. It was a studio flat with plenty of space for the two of us and central enough to go exploring. Both my SO and I have been to Berlin before so we skipped the main museums and tourist attractions for the most part.
Our first night, we nipped round the corner to Kreuzburger for some food. It’s good, fast and has a pretty impressive selection of burgers. We were too hungry at this point for me to take photos unfortunately! The next morning we went for a walk around the Tiergarten. We were so lucky with the weather while we were there. There had been snow in the days before but we had beautiful, if cold, sunshine. Founded in 1527 as a hunting area, the Tiergarten is one of the largest urban parks in Germany. It’s the sight of many memorials, including the colossal Soviet monument to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army. Ironically, it was built so quickly after the end of the Second World War that it actually ended up in West Berlin, cut off from Soviet citizens after the construction of the Berlin Wall.
One of the most moving monuments for me, however, is the monument to the Roma and Sinti people of Europe. In the Holocaust, 220,000-500,000 Roma and Sinti were murdered by the Nazis. That amounts to between 25 to 50% of the entire European population. In November 1935, ‘Gypsies’ were defined as “enemies of the race-based state” in a supplementary decree to the Nuremberg Laws, placing the Roma and Sinti in the same category as Jews. The treatment of the Romani was not consistent across Nazi occupied territories. In some areas they were deported to concentration camps such as Dachau, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald and, from 1942, Auschwitz. In these camps they were made to wear inverted brown triangles to distinguish them from other prisoners. In other areas, namely to the east of Europe, they were rounded up and shot by mobile killing squads. In Auschwitz, Romani children were a particular favourite of Dr Josef Mengele. The monument in the Tiergarten is simple. A circular pool, a triangle in the centre and paving stones around carved with the names of the camps that the Roma and Sinti were deported to. It’s a place of reflection and respect.
After this we headed over to the Berlin Cathedral (Berliner Dom) to climb it. The inside of the Dom’s dome is insanely beautiful, intricate and painted with religious iconography. The real beauty of the Cathedral, however, is in the walkway around the top of the dome. It’s a long climb, over 200 steps so not for the faint-hearted. If you’re up to it though, do it. It was one of my favourite moments on this trip, purely because of the view we got over Berlin.
The following day we took a more unusual city tour. Both my SO and my friend who was in Berlin at the same time are both really interested in the Cold War and so we headed underground to tour some atomic fallout shelters. Our tour guide was an amazingly flamboyant Dutchman. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos but I will do my best to paint a picture of the shelters. The first shelter we visited was called Blochplatz, originally a WWII that was turned into a fallout shelter in the early 1980s. Here, 1318 people were supposed to shelter for up to 48 hours. Not a great amount of time to wait out the nuclear apocalypse! After this we took the U-Bahn to Pankstraße station to see a more modern bunker. Here citizens of West Berlin, up to 3339 people, could shelter on the platform and in other purpose built rooms. One of the most interesting things about the shelters for me was how they’d been constructed to diffuse shockwaves from bomb strikes (admittedly not nuclear ones), with walls at right angles to stop the blast from killing everyone instantly. Pretty neat trick.
To finish off the day we visited Juki, a Korean restaurant on Lychener Straβe. In case my posts from my trip to South Korea last summer didn’t make it clear, I adore Korean food. Now I got to share it with my SO! I ate japchae which was my absolutely favourite dish – sweet potato glass noodles with beef and vegetables. After this we visited a local bar called Zu mir oder su dir. Good beer, suspiciously 60s décor and red lights. It was a chill place to spend an evening.
The next day, SO went off to investigate modern art while I and a friend headed to the Stasi Museum. The Stasi were the secret police that operated within the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) that operated from 8th February 1950 to the 13th January 1990. Using a colossal network of civilian informants they spied on the population of the DDR. Internal intelligence was controlled by Erich Mielke and Markus Wolf predominantly led the foreign intelligence section of the Stasi. Wolf was incredibly successful at infiltrating West German political, governmental and business circles. The Stasi maintained close links with the KGB throughout its time in operation. They employed a total of 274,000 people, with 189,000 of these being informants. That includes IMs (informeller Mitarbeiter), members of society who informed on their friends, families, colleagues and neighbours.
Perhaps the most horrifying thing that the Stasi did was a form of psychological warfare known as Zersetzung. Rather than overtly supressing dissent within the DDR, the role of Zersetzung was the ‘fragmentation, paralysis, disorganization, and isolation of the hostile and negative forces’. What this meant in practise was that the dissenting citizen often found that they’d lost their job, their friends and loved ones, socially and economically isolated. It was an insidious form of state control. The network of informants made it so that it was impossible to trust anyone.
After spending the morning learning about the apparatus of the police state that was the DDR, we thought visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall was only fitting. The East Side Gallery, in Friedrichshain, is the longest section of the Wall left standing and has become a public art gallery. It’s somewhat ironic that it’s now been placed behind a fence in order to protect the murals on it from graffiti.
Our final night in Berlin was spent at Liquidrom. How to describe Liquidrom. It’s sort of a spa and sort of a club and very confusing as a result. You leave unsure of whether to be relaxed or pumped up. There’s a salt pool that plays techno underwater. It’s surreal, you can’t hear it above water and then you put your head under the water and you can hear it so clearly. There’s enough salt in the water that you float and the room is dark so you just drift with your eyes shut. It was incredible. Then things got very German and naked when we went to the sauna. Yup. Public nudity. There were various different saunas at different temperatures and a steam room. I obviously was very British about the whole thing to start and was embarrassed as heck but you can’t stay embarrassed long when you’re surrounded by naked Germans.
Berlin, as always, was delightful. For once I haven’t talked endlessly about the food. There’s still so much of the city that I want to visit and explore. I still haven’t made it into Berghain. Maybe next time. If I’m cool enough.