Nicole Preston, Germany, University of Illinois, May 24, 2014

This morning, we took advantage of getting to sleep in for the first time on this trip while also taking advantage of the amazing breakfast spread at the Mercure Checkpoint Charlie. It was much needed to prepare to see all the sights Berlin has to offer! Our group decided that the best way to see the whole city is via a “hop on hop off” bus that would take us around the city while allowing us to get off at sights we wanted to see. We walked to the nearest bus stop, conveniently located near our hotel at Checkpoint Charlie. Checkpoint Charlie was a U.S. guard station where people had to cross to get from the east side of the wall to the west back when the Berlin Wall was up. Now, it is an artificial post, but it’s still a popular tourist sight in Berlin.

May242014_1We read some information about the Checkpoint Charlie before hopping on our bus to start the tour. The first stop was the Gendarmenmarkt, which is a large square that is surrounded by the Berlin Concerthouse, the Deutscher Dom, and the Franzosischer Dom. All of these buildings are extremely grand and gorgeous. However, due to time constraints we were only able to enter the Deutscher Dom to look inside. Once inside, we spent about an hour learning about the history of German government, including lots of information regarding the rise and fall of Hitler and also the Cold War. It’s very interesting to see the German’s perspective of that period of history and the way they present it in museums.

When we had gotten our fill of history, we hopped back on the bus to the next major stop at Alexanderplatz, one of the major city squares in Berlin. It is home to the famous world clock that shows the times of popular places all around the world in a creative circulating statue. The square is also home to a variety of department stores and shopping centers, and it was super busy. We walked through Alexanderplatz towards the oldest church in Berlin, St. Nikolai Church. We also stopped at a fountain to take pictures of the iconic TV tower, which is what I pictured when I heard we were going to Berlin. In real life, it’s not all that exciting, but we still had to get a picture with it.

Our next stop on the whirlwind tour of Berlin was the Lustgarten, a beautiful square surrounded by the Pergamon museum and the Berliner Dome. Both are imposing structures that tower over this lush green square with a fountain in the middle. I have a hard time fathoming the age of many of these structures. The Berliner Dome has even survived since it was built in 1451 despite catching fire and having its windows blown out during the world wars.

May242014_2We again hopped on the bus to the next main sight, the Brandenburg Gate. This gate was built in 1794 as the original gate to Berlin. During World War Two, it became famous in many photographs of Nazi parades. After the war, its closure became symbolic of the separation between east and west Berlin. It is also the sight where Kennedy gave his famous speech when he said “Icht bin ein Berliner,” meaning “I am a Berliner,” showing his sentiments to a country divided by war. I was in awe standing in the place where I’ve seen so many historical pictures taken, most over 80 years ago! Near the gate was also the Holocaust Memorial which consisted of 2,711 concrete slabs honoring the European Jews who perished during the Holocaust.

May242014_3At this point we were getting a little tired (and thirsty), so we grabbed beers and rode the bus for a while, passing notable sights including the Victory Column, Tiergarten, Charlottenburg Palace, and the zoo (which we saw yesterday). We also passed the largest department store in Europe, the KaDeWe. It was tempting to go in, but we still had so much more to see! We had fun seeing the sights from the double decker bus, but after about an hour on it, we decided it was time for a snack.

Our snack of choice was a sample of the famous Currywurst. The Currywurst is basically a hot dog drenched in ketchup with some curry powder sprinkled over it. I still prefer Chicago style hot dogs, but it wasn’t too bad. After the Currywurst experience, we headed to a section of the wall close to our hotel. There was a museum there called the Topographie of Terrors, which was an outdoor display of all the history of German propaganda and oppression in the time before World War 2. We learned about the wall itself from the bus tour. It was constructed in 1961 at a height of 3.5 meters. An estimated 130 people died at the wall, most trying to escape the eastern German Democratic Republic to get to the west. This portion of the wall was preserved when the rest of the wall was torn down in 1991. I still can’t fathom what it must have been like to live in a city separated by a wall. It’s also hard to believe that this all occurred so recently- the wall was still up when I was born!

We spent some time at the wall before grabbing our favorite new Berlin food, the Doner Kebab. I could write paragraphs about this amazing treat, but I’ll contain myself to a brief description. The doner is an amazing combination of questionable gyro meat, cabbage, cucumbers, lettuce, and sauce all in a soft piece of bread. I could literally eat one every day.

After this quick dinner, we walked to the east side of town to see the East Side Gallery, an artist’s gallery created on an old section of the wall. We had some trouble finding it, but we didn’t mind because the view along the Spree River was beautiful at sunset.

Once we did find the gallery, our timing was just right to catch a firework display. We settled in to a patch of grass along the Spree with some German teens to watch the show. Pretty amazing stuff. When the show was over, we walked the wall to check out the gallery. Some of the paintings were strange, but the majority had important portraits of unity and togetherness. My favorite part of the wall said “say yes to freedom, peace, dignity and respect for all.” Strolling this part of the wall was the perfect end to a perfect (but exhausting!) day in Berlin.