It’s essentially an art gallery. But in this gallery the paintings aren’t hanging on the wall, they’re painted on it. And the gallery is outside on a busy sidewalk of an equally busy road. Sounds unlikely? Well, read on…
I’d imagine that most people will at least have heard of the Berlin Wall – the wall that divided West and East Germany for almost 45 years until it was torn down in 1989. Naturally, with our interest in history, it was inevitable that Craig and I would seek out some of the remaining fragments of the wall while we were in Berlin.
That was how we landed up at the East Side Gallery – the largest remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. I’m not really sure what I was expecting to find when we got there but it certainly wasn’t an array of brightly coloured art, and a highly festive atmosphere from buskers, entertainers and a multitude of tourists and German people basking in the sunshine of the early summer’s day.
The East Side Gallery is an open-air section of the infamous Berlin Wall that’s been turned into a brightly coloured mural of artworks. It’s 1316 m long and runs along the East German side of the wall on Mühlenstraße in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, Berlin. It’s an official heritage site and is visited by over 3 million people each year.
What really caught my interest was the vibrancy of the experience of walking along the wall and drinking in the almost festive air of the place itself. The East Side Gallery is full of people – from tourists like ourselves wanting to experience the site, to locals also keen to soak up the atmosphere and remind themselves of the fairly recent past of their city and, of course, to buskers of all types who entertain the passersby hoping for a contribution in acknowledgement of their art.
As we walked along listening to the buskers and, in Craig’s case, photographing the artwork we happened upon the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery Museum, which is a small but richly diverse museum detailing the history of the Wall. I was amazed at the number of exhibits they had chronicling the development of the Berlin Wall from the initial split, through the building of the Wall and the results thereof, right the way through to the reunification of Germany and how this news was received by leaders from around the world. They even have a room dedicated to the place of the Berlin Wall in popular culture, including a video of Pink Floyd’s The Wall concert that took place in July 1990, a few short months after the fall of the Wall.
Perhaps the most profoundly affecting exhibit in the Wall Museum for me was the video interview with a Soviet officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov telling the story of how a faulty reading from a Soviet satellite warning system on 26 September 1983 almost led to all out nuclear war. If he had reported the satellite sighting to his superiors it would almost certainly have resulted in a retaliatory strike on American and NATO targets and a full scale nuclear war. Thankfully, Petrov had sufficient concern about the veracity of the report that he chose not to contact his superiors. I can’t even begin to imagine how different a world we would be living in had he sent that report. It’s enough to give one the shivers!
If you’d like to learn more about the 1983 Missile Incident, here’s a link to an article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanislav_Petrov
While the East Side Gallery is completely accessible, with wide pavements and no steps, sadly the Wall Museum might prove more of a challenge to someone with a mobility impairment. It’s on the third floor of a building and I didn’t see an elevator – but maybe there was one hiding somewhere amongst the exhibits, so it’s probably worth checking out for yourself if you’re interested in visiting and have a mobility impairment.
One of the most unexpected sites we visited in Berlin was the headquarters of the GDR Ministry for State Security, a building of which has been converted into the Stasi Museum. The museum has exhibitions showing how the Stasi, the secret police, controlled almost all aspects of life in the DDR, the German Democratic Republic.
It wasn’t the museum itself that was unexpected. It was my response to the exhibits in the museum. I’ve been reflecting on why I reacted so strongly against what was on display.
As we moved around from one room to another, one floor to another, we were surrounded by examples of the repressive nature of the Stasi – with extreme propaganda, devices that were used to spy on people, mechanical and electronic bugging devices, and room after room of notes and files on people who had been under this extreme “supervision”. In reality, almost everyone was spied on by the Stasi in every aspect of their lives. You never knew when you were being watched – even your own neighbours might turn out to be Stasi informers, as we read time and time again in the files.
I found my discomfort and resistance growing as we walked from one room to the next with Craig explaining each item and reading me the information boards in each room. My discomfort got so bad that I eventually asked Craig to stop reading the boards and refused to touch any of the interactive displays – I simply couldn’t do it!
I found myself coming back to the same thought time and time again, “This could have happened in South Africa during apartheid.
And that’s where my discomfort came from – it was just a little too close to home in reminding me of the terrible environment that so dominated our country when I was growing up in South Africa.
And yet, perhaps my extreme response to the Stasi Museum is also important as a reminder of how much South Africa has changed since the overthrow of apartheid. Granted, we still have a long and hard road ahead before we truly move beyond apartheid, but we have achieved a significant amount as we move towards inclusion, diversity and equality in our beautiful land.
So, despite the discomfort I experienced, I should be grateful to the Stasi Museum. In fact, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, because of the discomfort I felt, I should be grateful to the museum. Because we should never forget the tyranny of living in a society that believes it has the right to tell its citizenry how to feel, how to act and, most importantly, seek to divide one group and set them up to spy on others.
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.
I know, I know, it’s been ages since I published an article. It’s certainly not for lack of anything to write about. After all, I recently got back from an amazing trip to Germany and Poland about which I have lots to share. I also need to gather my courage and write a final post honouring my retired guide dog, Eccles, who passed away after a short illness. Then I want to tell you about some of the exciting blind travel work I’m starting on, and a media interview I did recently.
So yes, I have plenty to share with you.
But somehow I’ve just fallen out of the habit of settling down to write…
Today I took the decision that it was time to fall back into that habit. so here’s just a short note to let you know that I’m back – back home, back writing, and back willing and eager to share more of my experiences living my ordinary life without sight.
I was startled to see that Fiji also neglected to write an article while I was away – clearly she was just having too much fun on her holiday from guide dogging. Maybe I’ll wake her up just now and ask her if she actually plans on writing a post this month. But you know what they say about letting sleeping dogs lie?
All I’m saying is watch this space…
I can hardly believe it! After the fairly relaxed planning phase of the past few months, followed by the utter chaos of getting everything finished over the past few days, we’re finally off on our latest adventure – Berlin, Krakow and a number of exciting places between the two.
I’m going to continue posting articles while I’m away, but will probably only get to post once a week, rather than my usual twice.
If you’d like to follow my latest adventure, I’ll be posting regular updates and photos on my Facebook page. If you haven’t already subscribed (or rather liked) the page, it’s Lois Strachan – A Different Way of Seeing, and you can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/loisstrachanspeaker
Now, I think it’s about time I grab my bags, hug my dogs and go and catch a plane…
I know, I know – it’s been a while since I posted about a place where Fiji is welcome. And I will do so again soon, I promise. But you see, we’re busy planning our next overseas trip and I wanted to let you know where we’re off to this time, namely, Germany and Poland.
The main reason we’re travelling is to celebrate my brother Ian’s birthday in Krakow– and yes, it’s a big one! That, in itself, is a great reason to travel. But well, you know, since we’re going all that way we may as well make the most of it. So we’re taking the opportunity to spend a little time in Berlin, a city that neither I nor my husband have been to, and also to take a roadtrip through part of Poland we haven’t yet seen.
Our long distance flights are booked, and we’ve sort of figured out the route we’re going to take on our mini-roadtrip. Next up is the detailed planning –researching the places we plan to visit, and starting to figure out what we’ll need to take with us. For me that means starting my lists – lists of what clothes to pack, what books and music I want to take with me and, perhaps most importantly, what I need to buy to be sure I have all I need when I actually get round to packing.
At least this time I will remember to take my travel-sized hairdryer.
What? You think I’m crazy to take a hair dryer with me? Not so – last year when we went to Greece I promised myself I would never have to endure another cool evening with wet hair… so the hair dryer is now firmly on my packing list.