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.
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…