The first time I visited Berlin was 1992. It was my first ever trip abroad, and my parents had taken me on a coach trip. The Berlin Wall had not long come down. In fact, from what I can remember, there were large parts of it still up. Residents had simply bulldozed through the bits where they needed access. I don’t remember a huge amount else about Berlin. There are certain places that I can recall, almost like snapshots in my mind. I remember the Brandenburg Gate, but that image could have stuck in my brain more because of the jigsaw puzzle of it that my parents bought for me. I also remember that, along the avenue stretching out from the Brandenburg Gate, there were lots of people selling souvenirs from stalls. I think all of them gave you the opportunity to buy a ‘piece of the actual wall’. Even in my young mind back then, I realised that if you pieced all those little bits of cement back together, you could probably rebuild the Berlin Wall ten times over. I imagine there were a few building sites doing a roaring trade in construction trash.
When I told friends that I would be returning to Berlin after so long, they all commented on how different it would seem to me. I was expecting the city to have changed a lot in all that time, and to have built up a lot more, but I wasn’t prepared for just how big a change it would be.
I was meeting two friends who had flown in from Switzerland, and when one of them suggested we meet at the Starbucks next to the Brandenburg gate, I should have had a suspicion I was in for a shock. Back in 1992, I don’t know if there was anywhere in the area you could buy any coffee, let alone a Starbucks. My memory of the Brandenburg Gate was that it was by far the biggest thing in the area, and stood out from the other few buildings around it. I was more than a little confused, therefore, when it took me so long to find the damn thing. I knew from my map that I couldn’t be far away, but I couldn’t see any landmarks that I remembered from my earlier visit. It was only when I eventually saw the Gate that I realised why. Not only has the city built up around the Gate, and I was soon to discover other landmarks in Berlin, they have literally built huge embassies up to within inches of it. The Gate is now dwarfed by the massive structures around it. And the long, empty avenue containing just souvenir stalls that I remember has been replaced with trees, parks and a wide, busy road. As I sat sipping on my soya milk latte, waiting for my friends, I wondered at how amazing it is that a city and community can change so dramatically in such a relatively short space of time.
I wish I could have had longer in Berlin, but unfortunately I was only there for less than 48 hours. To make the most of our time, and to see as much of the city as possible, my friends and I decided to go on a walking tour with Original Europe Tours. Free walking tours have become a bit of an obsession of mine this year, I’m now looking out for them every time I travel. Berlin has different walking tours that you can choose from. We opted for a traditional tour that takes you around the landmarks that tell the history of the city. Most of that story of course revolves around how Germany was once a divided country, and the reasons for building the wall and then destroying it again. I wish I could say that in Europe we have learnt from that experience, but unfortunately as I type this our government here in the UK are busy building a wall between England and France. As if that isn’t a crazy enough concept in 2016, it’s a border that we’ve already dug a huge tunnel under ourselves!
Although very little of the Wall remains in today’s Berlin, and what does is presented as pieces of art, there are reminders of it everywhere. Germany has done an outstanding job of embracing their history, both positive and negative. Where the Wall has completely been demolished, a simple line of bricks in the ground mark it’s location. This line once separated two very different communities. The poorer, decaying buildings of the east side of the city that I remember from my first visited can still be spotted here and there, but generally both sides of the divide have rebuilt and developed beyond what anyone could have dreamed in the 1980s.
Following our excellent guide Ben around the city, what fascinated me most is the individual stories. I can’t imagine the desperation that drove so many people to risk their lives by crossing to the west. One of the displays, of which there are many dotted around the city, shows an endless loop of film footage of an eastern soldier running over the border and jumping on a passing tram whilst he was carrying out maintenance. He literally just dropped the tool he was using and took his chance. Other people are known to have chopped the roof of their cars so they would fit under barriers. A lot of the stories are incredibly sad. One young man suffered a horrible, slow death caught on the barbed wire between the two zones because neither the east nor west soldiers could decided who should go in to help him. The last person to have been killed trying to cross the border was a man who was shot swimming across the narrow river, a popular choice of escape. He was killed only 10 days before the wall came down. It’s unbelievably sat to think that, if he had only decided to delay his attempt by another couple of weeks, he would have been reunited with the friends and family that he was so desperately trying to reach on the other side.
I was surprised that the original Checkpoint Charlie has all but been destroyed, to be replaced by a tacky, tourist-attracting version that looks like something out of a weird Disneyland ride. Checkpoint Charlie was one of the main crossing points on the border, and the most famous. Knocking it down completely is to me like knocking down the Brandenburg Gate, but obviously Germany has decided they would rather let two actors dress as soldiers and charge tourists to have their photo taken with them.
Making the decisions on what to keep, what to memorialise and what to get rid off must have been a tough task for Berlin and it’s inhabitants. I’m pretty sure that, if this was the history of the UK we were talking about, we’d still be at the stage of making ‘ideas committees’. They’ve done a really good job, though. Berlin today is as exciting for me as it was for that little 12 year old who had never travelled abroad before. It is a genuine city that never sleeps, there is something there for everyone 24 hours a day. And I feel honoured to have experienced the city at two very different points in its life.