Travel Log – Berlin


Monday 21st August

Arrive at Tegel airport. The driver of the airpor golf cart is even more wild than that one in Singapore. Faster, with less attention to travellers … And no beeping sound. She asks Peter to call out as we approach and weave through fellow passengers. I hear one man say in disgust, “English!”

There’s a car waiting to take us to hotel Circus. No English, uh oh … At least he knows where he’s going.

We’re very early at the hotel and I drink litres of water while we wait for our room and plan the day … Not a moment to miss. Just as well, because Berlin is intense.

It takes a while to work out access to the underground train station. Our hotel is on one corner and there are access points on the other three, but only one has a lift.

We think about using public transport to sightsee, but wimp out and catch a hop-on, hop-off sight-seeing bus. It stops supposedly near museum island but there are no directions. Funny how things work out though. We stumble on Neues museum of ancient antiquities. The architecture and design of the building uses lots of natural light, and everything is exhibited with drama.

Germans must have plundered pyramids big time – so many sarcophagi, body casings, pieces of relief from pyramids, personal treasures … And nerfertiti! She’s gazing into the uninterrupted distance at Helios, on the opposite side of the museum. It’s unforgettable!

And I feel so special! I need to use loo. An alert male security guard takes control, strides into the female toilet, orders the long line of women, already waiting, to stand back then he unlocks the disabled toilet for me!

The National art gallery next door is closed, so we hop back on sight seeing bus. It’s overcrowded, and worse, too many disabled people, not enough space. People on crutches are standing. Also, the commentary doesn’t match landmarks, but at least we see landmarks that we recognize, and can check out later.

We get off at the Brandenburg gate. We can see why speeches like Reagon’s “bring the wall down” speech have been performed here. We walk on (well, I wheel) to the Reichstag … CLOSED …. Some sort of construction, but we see it from every possible direction and can appreciate the glass dome on top.

Public transport is better than the sightseeing bus, because you’re sharing it with Berliners, not cocooned with tourists. And you can wander around looking at all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise see.

Cankles are bad. Bit of a worry so I sleep with my feet raised.

Tuesday 22nd

Big day. Checkpoint Charlie is first up. I can’t use the wheelchair in the museum because there’s flight after flight of stairs and it wouldn’t fit anyway because the exhibits are packed in and so are the visitors. So I use crutches up and down and around. It’s information overload, so many ingenious ways of escaping the east, not always successfully. Everything, all the gadgets used are homemade and improvised.

The Jewish museum is staffed by friendly, people, eager to help. There are lifts everywhere so I can mix up walking and wheeling. The Museum itself is deliberately disoreienting, especially the introduction through the axes, the Garden of Exile – 19 tall slabs of concrete laid in a square, and the holocaust concrete triangular tower with just one slit at the peak for light and sound. There’s a permanent exhibition of Jewish life and Judaism, and the long intertwined history of Germany and Jews. It’s the latter, and the crazy layout of the axes that interest me. The axes remind me of the spinal unit, not everyone adjusts, and that’s a big part of the message of disorientation.

It’s interesting that security here is tougher than at airports and has the same system with xray. There are Police outside guarding against terrorists.

Walked/wheeled to Topography of Terror and museum of the wall. Extraordinary monument to remind Berliners of the atrocities they allowed to happen, and the ordinary people who perpetrated them … Not psychopaths, just middle class people buying into an ideology. The concept of a Volk community is chilling … Every is equal, because those who are different will be eliminated. Creating a permanent reminder of the terrors that emanated from the ss headquarters is brilliant. The barren stony ground that is all that is left, along with one wall of its foundations, in front of a long section of the Berlin wall, along with the commentary outside suggests that Berliners are not prepared to let this happen again. Every time you walk or drive down this street you can see this outdoor monument.

I see it as a work of art as well, because at my seated level, the information appears almost stamped on the foundation wall.

The holocaust museum, with the very personal stories inside and the blocks of concrete outside is a moving reminder of the millions who were murdered. From the street the blocks seem innocuous, playful, but venturing inwards the mood becomes oppressive, dark, disorienting as the blocks get taller. (After visiting this and the Jewish museum, I cannot imagine how Amy could bear to visit the remains of a concentration camp. I already have a picture of such brutality, misery, deprivation and abuse that I couldn’t stand any more.) Jews still face persecution. Security here is even tighter than at the Jewish museum. The lift is not working when it’s time to leave. So i climb the steps using crutches. German efficiency a myth?

On the way home we see the Brandenburg gate at sunset. Lights on the gate. Buskers. Lovely.

Wednesday 23rd

We walk/wheel to Museum Island to visit the national art museum. It’s a gorgeous building with columns and statues. Inside there’s a special exhibition of Waggener’s, the founder’s, collection. He collected contemporary art, ie from the 1830s and 40s. It’s realism, much from the students of Dusseldorf’s school of art. Absolutely perfect detail, with magnificent use of light.

The permanent collection includes works of Monet, Manet, cezanne, Renoir and Rodin – the thinker. I hadn’t known it was here so it’s like a gift from out of the blue! It’s smaller in real life than I’d thought but so wonderful. I want to keep looking at it, especially with a Cezanne on one side and a Renoir on the other. When would I ever see that scene again? I don’t want to leave. There’s a Delacroix nude … Some paintings just have to be seen in the original … this is one.

The permanent collection is a history of German art, and includes a room devoted to Lieberman’s work. I feel privileged to have been able to see so many priceless works of art by so many geniuses (what’s the plural of genius?)

Lunch is against a backdrop of the Dom and the Spreig River. Relaxing, and with that view, provides space before visiting the Pergammon.

What a dramatic entrance! The alter of Pergammon is stunning, breathtaking. Germans were obviously not only leaders (pillagers?) in archaeology in the nineteenth century, but tremendous restorers of treasures from antiquity. The recreation of the Ishtar gate is another highlight, but walking into the room with the Islamic palace walls is as dramatic and surprising as the Pergamum altar. The palace was donated to the Germans because their archaeologists were regarded so highly and the king who donated it believed they could recover, restore and preserve large portions of the the palace walls. Looking at the other works on display I can see why they had such a reputation. From here on, could only be an anti-climax, but no!

The number one exhibit quietly sneaks up on you. As I enter the next room I’m not sure what I’m looking at. It’s the Islamic Aleppo Room. From Syria, built around 1600, the elaborately painted panels of wood look as if they have just been painted. Each panel is 2.5 metres high and laid out to form, not a square, but a series of walls (with intricately carved wooden doors) that would have surrounded a fountain. They are behind Perspex, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment to preserve them.

The museum has easy wheelchair access, lifts to every floor, but no accessible toilets… Who cares…

Thursday 25th August

We take Bus 100, a route we’ve been told is a good way to sightsee. We have a leaflet with all the landmarks and monuments listed. I’d recommend this to anyone, rather than a sightseeing bus.

I want to visit Bebelplatz to see the memorial to burning books. It’s a hole in the ground through which can be seen shelves in lining the walls of a cube. There are enough shelves to hold 20,000 books, the number burnt by the nazis 10 May 1933. It must have been a spectacle at the time – bebelplatz is bordered by the Humboldt University and the State Opera House. There’s a plaque beside the hole. On the plaque is written a poem dedicated to preventing something like this ever happening again.

Also in one corner is St Hedwig’s Church, the first Catholic church to be built in Berlin after the Reformation. It was built in the 1760s. It’s a circular church with an altar at ground level and another below ground, but completely open to view from above.

We wander around, not really looking for anything, just enjoying being in Berlin. We find the Shinkel museum. It was a church, Friedrichswaresche Kirke, that Shinkel designed but is now a museum dedicated to him. It’s officially the Staatliche museum of the Berlin National Gallery. Whatever, Shinkel designed and sculpted many of the ornamental statues inside and outside churches and important buildings. It’s a beautiful building inside, full of statues and with great acoustics – a woman, staff, is singing the same phrases over and over in English. A bit weird but it sounds wonderful.

Next, we find the new guardhouse. In it’s life it’s been used as a number of memorials, but is now dedicated to those who died in WW2. An unknown soldier, and a concentration camp victim are buried underground along with dirt from battlefields and concentration camps. A single sculpture, “Mother With Dead Son”, sits in the centre directly below a circle open to the sky.

It’s been an interesting way to see Berlin and to realize how many monuments there are, and how imposing the architecture is. It’s easy standing on Under den Linden opposite the university to look left then right and visualize how magnificent it must have been in the nineteenth century to walk or ride down this avenue lined with statues, churches, and monuments, all intricately detailed in the style of Greek and Roman sculpture. Every corner of every building, every column ornately sculpted …

The World Clock in alexanderplatz is kind of fun. We’ve been through the platz every day to catch the u Bahn and not noticed it. I’m delighted to see that it has Wellington time. It’s 3.30pm Thursday in Berlin, and 1.30am Friday in Wellington. The map below even shows NZ! Underneath the clock, a busker plays a semi-acoustic guitar. All Berlin buskers seem to play music from the 70s … Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bread, Rolling Stones … I love it, it’s my teenage music.

Our final view of Berlin is at the Haufbanholf, turning back to see the sun on the Reichstag dome … How appropriate!,

Berliners are friendly, smiling, wonderful people who are always eager to help and are not afraid to try and communicate, even if they don’t speak English. And always smiling, whether their English is good, limited or non-existent. So easy going! I’ll remember that while i’m waiting outside the Neuese museum a couple of security guards waiting near me, offer to share their “bon bons” with me. So nice …

Notes on accessibility:

Trains are not wheelchair accessible, nor are buses, even though they drop down. I think there’s a ramp but as long as I have someone to lift me in my chair, the drivers don’t bother. Lifts down to the ubahn, or underground train stations, are difficult to find and are often out of order. I walk up steps with crutches, someone carrying my wheelchair. There are plenty of offers to help. Or we use the escalator, my wheelchair held on a step with me tipped back in it. When things get messy, someone steps up to help. There’s a gap between the platform and the train, and a step up as well. It would be impossible to use a wheelchair on trains without help. It’s not easy to wheel everywhere because of crooked bricked or cobbled paths that trap the front castors of the wheelchair. There are some kerb crossings and sometimes there’s only a tiny step down to the road. Often the kerbs are high and would require much greater wheelchair skills than i have. The streets and transport within Berlin is not as friendly to people with limited mobility as I’d expected. I’d suggest that a person travelling independently in a wheelchair use taxis. They’re surprisingly cheap. Roughly a euro a kilometre. And the city is generous to the diabled. Often you have to pay to use public toilets or toilets in cafes, but toilets are free to the disabled! Entry fees to museums are often heavily discounted or free to the “severely” disabled ie 50% or more. ACC in NZ uses an American scale and according to it I’m over 80% disabled and I imagine that Berlin would use a similar scale.

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