The Blind Tourist
One of the most charming icons of Berlin I discovered on our trip were the Ampelmännchen – the “little walking men”. Originally designed in 1961 in East Berlin, these charming pedestrian traffic signals are one of the few East German symbols to have survived German reunification.
Not only can these charming walking men be seen on pedestrian crossings throughout Berlin, they’ve also given rise to a multimillion Euro industry as tourist souvenirs of the city. No, I’m not saying that tourists are allowed to dig up traffic lights and take them home with them. That would be silly, not to mention turning the busy roads of Berlin into a driving nightmare. But tourists can buy a wide range of Ampelmänn products from T-shirts, key rings, erasers, sweets, chocolates, earrings, and a host of products emblazoned with the iconic images.
I took the time to feel a large Ampelmänn statue outside one of their retail outlets and got a good sense of what the fuss was all about. I personally think that part of their charm comes from the hat worn at a jaunty angle by the Ampelmännchen – they make the figures seem so friendly and positive that one simply has to smile.
I’m not usually one who falls prey to marketing but even I simply couldn’t resist the adorable Ampelmännchen earrings dangling so enticingly from the rack. To be honest, I didn’t really put up much of a fight and now a pair of bright green walking man earrings are nestled safely in my jewellery box to remind me of my time in Berlin.
The photo shows the Ampelmänn outside the Ampelmänn retail store – looks like we were photo-bombed by puppy-dog.
The Reichstag is one of Berlin’s most well-known sites. It’s synonymous with a whole lot of history, having been the seat of German government from 1894 until it was seriously damaged in a mysterious fire in 1933, an act that has historically been linked to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. Following the split of Berlin into East and West, both governments moved their location – I grew up with Bonn being the centre of West Germany’s government. It was only after the reunification of Germany took place in 1990 that the building was completely restored and from 1999 its once again housed the German government.
With all this history in mind it was obvious that we would try to explore the Reichstag. Incidentally, while they do offer tours, you have to pre-book and may have your reservation cancelled at any time. That happened to us when we first booked, but thankfully our second attempt was successful.
What I didn’t expect when I visited the Reichstag was how accessible the tour would be for me as a blind tourist. We were met at the door, escorted through security and guided directly to an elevator that’s used by people working in the building, rather than the tourist elevators that go directly to the famous Reichstag dome.
When we reached the glorious glass dome overlooking Berlin I was offered an audio guide and a set of tactile images of many of Berlin’s best known sites that can be seen from the dome. I was even asked if I’d like to take the tactile representations with me on the tour but since the box was bulky, not to mention heavy, I declined with a smile and thanks. But I did take the audio guide.
From there the tour follows a set route around the inside of the dome. I was able to trace my way round using the handrail and the audio guide automatically triggered at specific points – if you stop, so does the audio recording. I thought this was a great approach since we all walk at different speeds and you don’t have to fumble with the unit to get it to play when you stop.
The tour gives you a bird’s eye view of Berlin, which again was a different perspective from that I’d seen before. It also gives you the opportunity to look down into the chamber where the government sits, which is interesting in its own way. And yes, I’m totally aware how odd both of those statements sound coming from a blind person.
It’s not only visually impaired tourists whose needs are catered for at the Reichstag. There were no steps in the route we used to access the dome, and the entire tour of the dome is done using ramps. Not only does this make it accessible for people with mobility impairments but it also keeps people moving smoothly without bottlenecks – no fast-moving people getting frustrated by those who take time climbing stairs!
We often hear references to German efficiency and, having toured the Reichstag, I can certainly attest to that national trait! My only disappointment was that I still don’t have a definitive answer to who set that mysterious fire in 1933!
As I’ve said before, I like to gain a sense of what a city’s like before I visit, by researching on the web, and by reading both fiction and non-fiction books set there. But somehow all the information becomes a whole lot more real when I’m actually there. And I try to supplement what I’ve read by getting an overview of the city before digging in deeper.
Sometimes I get an overview of the reality of a city by catching a hop-on hop-off buss. They’re a great way to learn about a city and discover which sites you may want to visit.
One of my favourite ways to get an overview of a city is by boat. And that’s what we did in Berlin – and not just a small boat with us and a skipper/guide; this time we went on a much larger vessel that had a food and drinks service, a full crew, and the history was provided on a pre-recorded soundtrack. May be not as personal as what we did in Wroclaw, but still an amazing experience!
The tour we were on took us round Museum Island, the area that is said to have been the birthplace of Berlin. As you move slowly up and down the Spree River, you gain a very different perspective of the city – certainly it’s different from how you experience the city on foot.
Looking at the tranquility of the Spree now, with countless restaurants and faux beaches lining it’s banks, it’s hard to believe that at one stage vessels were warned against dropping anchor in the Spree in case of mines or unexploded WWII bombs. As a natural barrier between East and West Berlin, the Spree was considered a no-mans land during the time Berlin was a divided city. Happily now it is back to being a tourist attraction, especially in the heat of high Summer.
As you journey past places of interest you can see symbols of the diverse history of Berlin – from Frederick the Great, through the Nazi era, and both East and West Berlin. And as you pass the buildings and sites, the soundtrack fills in any gaps in the story of Berlin you may have.
I’ll admit it felt a little surreal to be floating down the river whilst above us trains occasionally sped across the many bridges connecting the two banks of the river. I found myself glancing up nervously once or twice as a train thundered overhead wondering what would happen if the bridge collapsed… But happily it didn’t happen!
Despite my vague disquiet about the trains, I found the cruise on the Spree River to be a great way to get an overview of the city, sipping a cup of steaming tea as the journey unfolded. Or, if you prefer, a beer or a glass of wine – a local Riesling, of course!
A little while back I read “The City & the City” by China Mieville. It’s a story about a city that, for some inexplicable (or in my case forgotten) reason has been divided into two totally separate cities. As a citizen of one city you are not permitted to acknowledge the existence of the other city and its inhabitants even though you may share the same roads and the same neighbourhoods.
At the time I read the book we were planning our trip to Europe including a few days in Berlin. I found myself wondering whether living in Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 was anything like what was portrayed in Mieville’s novel.
Even though Berlin is a united city once more and has done much to reinvent itself since 1990, the strange circumstances in which the city found itself for 45 years has had an unusual impact on the geography of the city.
Usually when we tour a city we find one or two central areas where most of the historic buildings are situated – but not in Berlin. As we navigated round the city Craig commented that many of the sites seemed far away from each other, and that he had underestimated the amount of time it would take to travel around.
Here’s what I think. From 1945 – 1990 Berlin was split into two geographically similar cities. Each city had to develop separately, with systems and services being needed by both. So much was duplicated – within the boundaries in West Berlin, and, often on the outskirts, of East Berlin. So, while many historic buildings are near the Brandenburg Gate, which lies on what was the boundary between East and West Berlin, many are not. And I think that’s the reason it takes so long to travel the city.
You may laugh, but I had a second realization when I was in Berlin. I’d always envisioned the Berlin Wall as being there to keep East Germans “in”. In reality, since Berlin was surrounded by East German territory, the Berlin Wall was built to enclose West Berlin. I guess I equated West Germany with freedom and East Germany with confinement and that dictated my mental image of the city. Still, it was quite a revelation to me when I realized how my reality had been shaped by the words I used.
And so, back to where we started – China Mievilles novel “The City & the City”. I have no idea if living in a divided Berlin in any way resembled the novel, but the book certainly sprang to mind many times during our time in the city & the city that are now united once more.
When I was in high school I went through a protracted phase of devouring any novel or movie I could lay my hands on that was set during WWII. Even now, every now and then I’ll settle down to enjoy a book that’ll take me back to this period in history.
So it’s no surprise that I was excited to have the opportunity to visit Berlin as the final destination on my recent travels. I know Berlin has a much richer history than just what’s happened over the past hundred or so years, which was reinforced when we took a walking tour of Berlin’s history. But somehow I’m never been as fascinated by the city’s more ancient history.
As I walked the streets of the city that had witnessed the rise and fall of Hitler’s regime and had subsequently become such a symbol of the divided East and West, I found my imagination being triggered into memories of things I’d read or seen in movies. I’ll admit it was both exciting and a little daunting.
In the next few Blind Tourist articles I’ll share a few of my most memorable experiences of Berlin. Starting next time with my first startling realization of how Berlin’s experiences have shaped her geography.
When I started as the travel feature writer for the Blind Perspective e-newsletter earlier this year I never dreamed one of my articles would land up on an American radio service. But that’s what happened.
A while back I received a mail from one of the producers at Gatewave Radio in New York asking if they could read one of my Blind Perspective articles on air.
Of course I said yes.
I asked them for a link to the recording. Here it is so you can hear it for yourself:
Next time I’ll return to my amazing European trip and our final destination – Berlin!
I’ve mentioned them in my previous articles about Wroclaw but felt they were such a charming idea that they deserved an article all of their own. They are, of course, the Wroclaw Dwarves.
Back before the Soviet Union fell, when Poland was under Soviet domination, various anti-communist groups began in Poland. Among them was the Orange Alternative, in Wroclaw. Because their meetings had to be kept secret, the members had to find a way of communicating directions to meetings by code. The image of a dwarf was selected as part of the communication system – information about meeting locations could be hidden in the way the dwarf was depicted.
Soviet rule over Poland lasted until 1989. In 2005 Polish city officials in Wroclaw decided to build a memorial acknowledging the role played by Organisations like Orange Alternative, and a cast-iron statue of the iconic dwarf was placed in the main city square. Since then the Wroclaw dwarves have become part of the culture of Wroclaw. By 2015 there were more than 350 dwarves to be found across the city – all involved in different tasks. Most of the figurines are cast-iron and range between 20 and 30 centimeters in height.
The Wroclaw dwarves have become something of a tourist attraction, and visitors may choose to combine sightseeing with a hunt to locate all the dwarves while they’re in the city. The tourist shops can provide you with a map showing the location of the dwarves, and there is even an app that you can use to help locate them. But many people simply decide to walk around and see which dwarves they meet while they’re out and about. You never know when you’ll encounter one – they’re not shy exactly, but love to sneak up on you and suddenly appear. As we discovered to our joy as we walked around the city.
To tell you about a few of the Wroclaw dwarves we bumped into on our travels, we met a dwarf washing clothing in the river Oder, one studying a political treatise, a dwarf pushing a huge rock whilst, unbeknown to him, another dwarf was pushing the same rock from the other side, a lady dwarf examining herself in a mirror and (my personal favourites) a group of three Wroclaw dwarves with disabilities – one blind, one hearing impaired and one who is in a wheelchair. This group of dwarves are believed to scour Wroclaw after the humans have gone to sleep, ensuring the city is totally accessible to those of us with special needs. And, as far as I could tell, they’re doing a pretty good job!
As you can imagine, the creation of new cast-iron dwarf figurines is managed by an official process – they are so much part of the culture that I’m sure many people and organisations would love to create their own. In fact, they’re so integrally linked to the culture of the city that Wroclaw has an annual festival for the dwarves in September each year.
I’ve included photos of the accessibility team of dwarves, and the dwarf washing his clothes in the Oder river, just to give people an idea of how charming they are.
If I ever have the opportunity of returning to Wroclaw I’d definitely want to spend more time meeting these charming characters and discovering what they’re up to. I was totally captivated by the creativity and charm of the concept.
I usually try to find out about a city before going there. Learning a city’s story helps me build an impression of what I might find when I arrive. And then I use my experiences in that city, and all that I learn from my other senses, to build a more complete picture.
That wasn’t possible when we went to Wroclaw. We only planned to go to the city later in our trip. Our plans changed when the weather in our next proposed destination, Zakopane – a small but beautiful ski resort in the mountains outside Krakow – was dismally unpleasant. So we went to Wroclaw instead. Which is a very long and complicated way of saying that I had done no research on the city.
I was delighted when we took a tour on the river Oder and discovered our skipper/guide was a goldmine of information of the history of his city. More than that, since we were the only passengers on the boat, we were able to ask questions and dig deeper into any aspects that intrigued us.
Here’s my potted recent history of Wroclaw, based on what I learned from our guide:
Wroclaw has a fascinating recent history. It only became a Polish city when Europe was carved up following WWII. Previously it was a German city named Breslau, with a strongly German population. When the new borders were confirmed, there was an almost total population change – the Germans left (or in some cases were forcibly removed) and the city became populated by Polish nationals.
After WWII, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. The underground anti-communist organizations Fighting Solidarity and Orange Alternative were founded in Wroclaw. Orange Alternative used an image of a dwarf to help members find their way to secret meetings, and the dwarf symbol has now been adopted in a wonderfully unique way – but more on that in my next article.
With the fall of Soviet power in 1989, Poland started becoming the friendly, fun and dynamic country Craig and I enjoy visiting. Which doesn’t mean everything in Wroclaw has gone smoothly…
In 1997, the river Oder flooded with devastating effects – it was the worst flooding in post-war Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. About one-third of the area of the city was flooded and took huge amounts of time and money to repair.
Nowadays the city has a population of around 1 million, with almost 130 000 students studying at the university, which gives it a very youthful population.
After our river tour we started exploring the city on foot. As we visited interesting buildings, sampled the city’s markets and eateries, and engaged with people, I was struck by how young and cosmopolitan the city is.
While Wroclaw isn’t a hugely popular tourist destination, we encountered tourists from several countries and heard different languages and dialects. I found most people friendly and happy to chat about the city to an inquisitive tourist (me) which leads me to agree the city motto is an apt one: Wroclaw – The Meeting Place.
I’m not sure I’d go back to Wroclaw to stay for an extended period of time, but I would be very tempted to go back to meet more of the Wroclaw dwarves – which I’ll tell you about in my next article!
The images show a view of the river Oder taken on our tour, and a shot of one of the busy outdoor markets in the main square of Wroclaw.
Note: My use of the term dwarf is not meant as an offensive and non-politically correct reference to persons of small stature; it is the term used by the city itself – and I’ll explain more in my next article.
I’d planned to write an article about some of the wonderful restaurants we visited in Gorlitz, but somehow this was the article that landed up writing itself instead…
My first impressions of our next destination weren’t great. We were exhausted by the time we climbed off the train in Wroclaw, Poland. , Somehow, despite numerous hiccups we eventually found the place we were going to stay– hiccups which included a total absence of taxis, and following what seemed to be a pirate’s highly convoluted treasure map where X marked the location of our apartment.
And it just got worse from there…
Have you ever wished you could take back time and change your actions? I know it wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome – in fact, it would only have made the situation worse. But still, if I could go back in time I wouldn’t have accessed the wi-fi when we got to the apartment. Because that was when we got the news that my beautiful retired guide dog, Eccles, was seriously ill and that we needed to contact the vet to discuss our options. Sadly, there weren’t really any options at all and we tearfully said goodbye to Eccles via a long-distance voice call and let her ease gently into an eternal sleep.
All things considered, perhaps I can be forgiven my less than favourable first impressions of Wroclaw.
Having said that, neither of those were the fault of Wroclaw itself, and there is much to recommend this charming city- the weather was beautiful and we took full advantage of the warm days to walk around and see what the city had to offer.
We spent time browsing through the large permanent daytime market and sampled a few of the restaurants on the main pedestrian square where we enjoyed several local delicacies. We also went on a tour of the city via river boat with a very knowledgeable guide who shared a little of the city’s history with us.
And, of course, there were the Wroclaw dwarves, which I personally felt were the single most endearing aspect of the city.
I’ll probably still have a chance to tell you about our culinary experiences, but perhaps not just yet…
In my next few articles I’ll share a little more about our experiences in Wroclaw and how the city managed to redeem itself from that admittedly rocky start.
Before you get the wrong idea, no, I didn’t run the Europa Marathon in Gorlitz -not a single step of it. However, I did get to experience more of this marathon than I usually do.
Here’s what usually happens when Craig’s running a marathon. The alarm goes off at some ridiculous time, Craig gets ready and leaves for the race, and I sit at home and get on with my own stuff. Then Craig comes home, showers, eats, and naps… and I get on with my own stuff. Sometimes I’m able to track what’s happening on the race on the Racetec IOS app, like I did when Craig ran the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra-marathon earlier this year. And once I even got to hand out baby potatoes to hungry runners since the route of the Peninsula Marathon goes right near our house. But usually it’s simply not practical for me to experience more of the races Craig runs.
Which is why the Europa Marathon was such a great opportunity for me to experience more. Our apartment was 5 minutes from the start. In South Africa marathons start really early in the morning – usually around 6 AM. In Europe they start a lot later, which meant that the alarm went off at a more human hour, and we even had the time to have breakfast before Craig left. We were so close to the start/finish that I could make out the faint sounds of the announcers as they commentated on what was happening, but just couldn’t make out what they were saying.
When Craig finished the race he walked back to the apartment, Whatsapped me, and I met him in the foyer of the building. It was a lot easier me climbing down the 3 floors than it would have been for him to climb up them having just run 42.2 kms! And then we went to enjoy the post-race festivities together.
I can’t really comment about what happened on the race itself. That’s for Craig to share if he decides to blog about it. But he certainly had lots of stories to share– like the people who gave him a much appreciated beer on the route, and his reflections on the difference between the crowd support compared to the Athens Marathon or those he runs in Cape Town. But, like I said, those are his stories to share on his own blog.
What I can share is how much fun it was for me to be able to experience the atmosphere at the end of the race. As I sat there sipping my glass of wine I was able to listen to what was happening around me. Runners being enthusiastically welcomed by supporters and the commentator as they crossed the finish line. Fellow participants sharing their experiences, even if they lacked a common language to do so – you’d be amazed at how much communication is possible from simply having shared an experience. And the laughter and chatter of all those who came to be part of the event. For once, I was able to experience the ambiance that Craig does at several of his races.
I don’t yet know which overseas marathon Craig plans to do next, or how the experience will be for me, but I’m confident it’ll be a lot of fun!