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.
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!
One of the things I enjoy most about spending time in Europe is the ability to find local fresh produce markets. I have no idea if they really do, but it seems like these markets happen in most towns and even some of the larger cities – we found one in the middle of Paris once.
So I was delighted to discover that there was a market the day we arrived in Gorlitz. Usually these markets seem to take place once a week and host a sensory overload of mouthwatering scents from the array of local fresh fruits and vegetables. The market in Gorlitz was no different – mounds of ripe strawberries, mouthwatering tomatoes, crispy radishes, and a wide variety of other locally grown produce.
Of course, no market would be complete without a wide selection of locally-produced meats, cheeses and fresh bread. Or a number of food carts where diverse snacks and light meals can be enjoyed while you browse the market.
As you can imagine, Craig and I were overwhelmingly tempted by what was on offer. We bought salad vegetables, cheese and cold meat with the intention of eating some of our meals in the apartment where we were staying. After all, we were there for 4 days and it wasn’t like the market was going to be there the next day, was it?
I’m sure you can imagine our surprise when we returned to the market square the following day and there the market was, albeit with fewer stalls! So it turned out we didn’t need to buy quite as much as we did on the first day.
To our credit, we did finish most of what we bought – with the exception of the lettuce, the seemingly never-ending box of strawberries, and one lone onion. Even though our plan to eat both breakfast and lunch in the apartment didn’t quite work out – there were just way to many tempting restaurants in Gorlitz – proving the old adage that the best laid plans of mice and men have a flaw, we were totally thrilled to be able to experience the market at Gorlitz and I wish we had the opportunity of enjoying this type of market culture back home in Cape Town.
There’s something special about medieval towns. I don’t know if it’s the charm of cobbled streets, the beautiful old buildings, the sense that time flows a little slower than it does in a modern city, or a combination of all of those.
Whatever the reason, I found myself falling under the spell of the town of Gorlitz, our first stop on our recent trip to Germany and Poland, almost immediately.
Gorlitz is the eastern-most town in the region of Saxony in Germany, on the banks of the Lusatian Neisse River which forms the border between Germany and Poland. On the other bank of the river lies the Polish town of Zgorzelec.
The difference between the two towns is marked – Gorlitz is a beautiful, old medieval town. Zgorzelec, at least the parts that I experienced, appears to be more austere with streets lined with modern apartment blocks, as you can see from the photo taken from the German bank of the river.
One of the things I found most fascinating was the fortuitous location of the towns –neither Germany nor the Allies were willing to bomb the towns for fear of bombing their own people. So the towns made it through WWII with no damage.
Gorlitz is far from being a tourist location, which is part of its charm. Sure, it means that few of the restaurants have English-language menus, but that’s not a significant problem and ordering food in German or Polish soon becomes part of the experience. We found some delightful local restaurants, including one that had a maze, that I may write an entire article about in the coming weeks.
Considering it’s not one of the usual tourist stops, a surprising number of people in Gorlitz speak good English so it’s not hard to make oneself understood, though our smattering of German and Polish did prove useful on occasion.
In the past few years , Gorlitz has gained a degree of popularity as a movie location – the 2013 movie of Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief” was filmed there, as was the movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
So, if it’s not usually a Tourist destination, you’re probably wondering how Craig and I landed up in Gorlitz. We were there for two reasons. It seemed a great first stop on our road and rail trip from Berlin to Krakow. The timing also just happened to coincide with the Europa Marathon which Craig hoped to run – watch for a possible article on that as well.
That’s just a brief introduction to what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip – it certainly was a fantastic place to start off our adventure and, if you ever find yourself in Saxony, I’d definitely suggest you give it a visit.