A museum nerd, a foodie and two fashion-conscious teens hit the streets of Berlin. How did this historic city manage to maintain D’Alessandro family harmony for a whole three days?
We’ve been to a fair few European capitals now – Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Brussels… Berlin wasn’t particularly on the radar before our youngest started taking German at school and the eldest has Nazi Germany looming in the second year of History GCSE. So now seemed as good a time as ever to go.
You should approach cities in the same way as the British Museum – don’t try to see it all in one go, but pick a topic and explore that in detail. We could have chosen art – Berlin is home to fabulous galleries, open-air installations and a thriving creative scene. We could have chosen music – from the home of the mighty Berlin Philharmonic with its free lunchtime concerts to Europe’s foremost techno clubs. We chose instead to focus on the World War 2 memorials and the Cold War, as you can’t go to Berlin and not experience the Berlin Wall.
The DDR Museum
Torrential rain on the Friday meant that Museum Nerd was instantly gratified – ambling round the city was not an option so we sought shelter in the crowded but fascinating DDR Museum. This interactive museum lets you rummage in East German kids’ schoolbags, sit in a Trabant, learn the steps to a ‘decent’ communist ballroom dance (as opposed to decadent rock ‘n’ roll) and sit in a prison cell fitted with its own air conditioning so it feels several degrees colder than the rest of the museum.
All clever stuff, although I wonder what former DDR residents who lived through those frightening, dull, inefficient, totalitarian times feel about their former lives being encapsulated as a museum curiosity.
After hiding from the continuing deluge in, variously: a Vietnamese cafe, a soft toy shop, the Alexanderplatz branch of C&A (yes, that former stalwart of the British High Street) and ubiquitous Primark *sigh* on the pretext of buying umbrellas, the sun suddenly came out, and we could walk down Unter den Linden to…
The Brandenberg Gate
The magnificent symbol of Berlin, with the statue of Victory driving her chariot onwards, the Brandenberg Gate’s image is plastered over every U-Bahn train window. When we arrived, this icon of reunification had been cordoned off, a vast flat screen telly plonked in front and it appeared to be now sponsored by Coca-Cola. Thanks, Euro 2016 for ruining one of my bucket list photos.
The Holocaust Memorial
Coca Cola had, however, not dared to spill its sponsorship onto the nearby open air Holocaust Memorial. At first sight, what could 2,711 concrete blocks, or stelae, mean in the context of the Murdered Jews of Europe?
It’s only when you begin to walk among these stelae that you get it. The blocks become a maze that quickly separates you from your companions, creating anxiety about how you are going to catch up with them again. The cobbled alleys, designed to cause stumbling, drop sharply as you walk, making the blocks loom above you, then slope back up again into the light. They lean at disconcertingly strange angles and converge in places to create a feeling of entombment. And the acoustics among the tunnels distort sound – whispers become shouts and shouts become disorientating whispers.
And perhaps most disconcerting of all – the blocks seem to invite you to play among them. Children run up and down the alleys playing peek-a-boo, hollering to trigger the weird acoustics, lovers sit kissing on the blocks, some step on the stones for a better view, plants grow up through the cracks in the cobbles. Should we feel outraged that such a serious memorial is treated with levity, or celebrate that life, love and laughter is here now, transcending the evil that led to its creation?
Beneath the memorial is a sobering information centre that tells, through intimate sepia family photographs, the stories of some of the families caught up in the atrocities: who died, who survived and those whose fate is unknown. It gives the personal to the superficially impersonal grey blocks above and makes the Brandenberg Gate’s Holocaust Memorial even more powerful for that.
Next post: Sachsenhausen – Day Two