21 March 2011

Where to go in Germany part 11: Berlin-Brandenburg

We reach our final installment of this series. *tear* I've saved my favorite for last, but we have to get through Brandenburg first.

There's not much in Brandenburg. If you put "brandenburg" into Google, one of the top video hits is this song, Rainald Grebe's "Brandenburg." (Sample of the lyrics: "There are 3 N*zis standing on a hill, and they don't find anyone to beat up in Brandenburg.") Some of this emptiness is due to the exodus of young people to places where there are jobs, some of it is due to the wilderness preserves.

Once upon a time, about 75 years ago, Brandenburg was part of the Kingdom of Prussia and site of the state's two capitals: Potsdam and Berlin. Today, the tourism council is marketing it as "Berlin's beautiful backdrop."

Brandenburg an der Havel is a mid-sized large town (75,000 residents) with lovely architecture, as expected in thousand-year-old German cities.

Eastern/southeastern Brandenburg is Lusatia (Lausitz). It's one of the last places you can find Sorbs. Cottbus is the cultural center for this ethnic minority in Germany.

The Spreewald biosphere reserve is southeast of Berlin, in the Lusatian area.

Potsdam is an easy 30-minute trip from Berlin (on local public transportation, even. As far as the BVG is concerned, it's part of Berlin.) There you'll find a historic downtown, with a couple lovely churches/cathedrals, and a sign hung under a window indicating that Mozart lived here for 6 months. There's a much smaller Brandenburg gate than the one you'll find in Berlin, and some ruins that are in the process of restoration. The big draw in Potsdam, however, is the castle park at Sans Souci. Sadly, the day I went there it was about 40 degrees and raining, which made for a miserable trip and no wandering through the gardens.

The palace was built by Friedrich II (the Great), more on him in a bit, to get away from the city and his wife. (He was forced to marry her, and as soon as his father died, he separated from her.) It's a lovely palace, and inside is decorated in a very rococo fashion. Reportedly, the palace grounds (free to the public, I believe) are beautiful, but I couldn't see them (see above re rain and cold).

Berlin is the German capital. (During the time of division, Bonn was the capital of West Germany and East Berlin that of East Germany. Once the infrastructure was in place after reunification, the capital moved back to Berlin, not without controversy.) Visit Berlin is the official tourism website, with up to date information on museums, theater, opera, concerts, and exhibits, as well as hotel booking.

It's surprisingly difficult for me to condense my thoughts on Berlin. I love the city, and it's hard to find a place to start.

I can recommend a guided tour company: Insider Tours. Ben and I took a tour with them in 2007, and it was very well done. We saw the major tourist sights in 2-3 hours.

Frederick the Great (1712-1786) was downright progressive for his time. His grandfather wanted Berlin to be a city of religious tolerance and immigration. When Frederick heard that the Huguenots (protestant) were being persecuted in France, he offered them a home in Berlin and let them build a cathedral. It's right across from the nearly identical German Cathedral on the Gendarmenmarkt. The third major building at the Gendarmenmarkt is the Concert House.

One of the things I love about Berlin is that there's always something going on. You can decide to take a walk up Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and encounter a demonstration (for the legalization of marijuana on the particular day I decided to do that), buskers, tourists, and any assortment of buses that will take you on a tour through the city.

Friedrichstrasse near the train station is one of the major shopping districts (the other being the Kurfürstendamm). During the division, the Friedrichstrasse train station was an internal border station, and that was where people transiting between the sides had to go. The station is very modernized and beautiful. If you walk south a bit (or take the U6 2 stops south), you'll reach Checkpoint Charlie, where there's now a museum.

The Museum Island is a must-visit for anyone in Berlin, home to five museums built from 1830 to 1930. The Pergamon Museum is amazing: they have a Greek temple reconstructed inside, part of a Roman temple, and the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. The Bode Museum is OK; early Christian art isn't quite my thing. Protip: Buy a multi-museum pass. It's only a few Euro more, and it will let you in to 2-3 museums on the same day.

The Berlin Cathedral is also on the Museum Island. It's a Lutheran church, believe it or not from the interior. Down in the basement is the Hohenzollern crypt, but Frederick William I (the Great Elector) and his wife Sophie are interred on the main floor. If you enjoy walking up several hundred steps, the view from the cupola is very nice.

When the GDR was expanding the wall along Niederkirchenerstr, they found the basement of a N*zi jail/torture house. It's now publicly visible as the Topography of Terror. It's free and open until dusk most days.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is haunting. Concrete slabs rise from half a foot to towering over you as you walk through this cemetery-like garden.

Parliament meets in the Reichstag/Bundestag. Due to the terror threats last year, individuals can no longer go in except as prearranged tours. It's a beautiful building, though, and the view from the top is remarkable.

Potsdamer Platz, once a barren wasteland on the internal Berlin border, then the largest construction site in Europe, now houses office plazas, shopping arcades, and the Sony Center (which has 2 movie theaters). There's a weekly flea market on one of the open spaces above the train station.

The Zoo and Aquarium are worth the combined ticket. Like with the Museum Island, buying both is cheaper than buying separately. RIP, Knut.

Alexanderplatz is mainly remarkable for the TV Tower (which in 2006 was made to look like a soccer ball during the World Cup). There are a few shopping plazas (Galerie Kaufhof and Alexa), and above the U-bahnhof, out front of Galeria, is a fountain. In short walking distance of Alex is the Red Town Hall (named for its color, not the lean of its politics, though Berlin is run by a red-red coalition) and the Neptune Fountain.

Hackescher Markt and the Hackescher Höfe are a somewhat trendy shopping district nearby.

Over on the west side of town, Kurfürstendamm houses a lot of trendy shopping. The Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, known locally as "lipstick and powder compact," is in easy walking distance. It's bombed-out remains of the church commemorating Wilhelm I and some modern glass buildings. In the same district is Palace Charlottenburg, another example of rococo architecture. The grounds are free to the public.

One of my favorite sights in Berlin is the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Strasse. There's a fully-intact section of the wall, including the death strip, which you can view from a (free) overlook (when it's open). Between my first visit in December 2007 and my second in May 2010, they added more outside exhibits and looked to be expanding further. The ghost stations exhibit is fascinating.

The weekly flea market at the Mauerpark (Sundays morning until evening) is worth the trip to Prenzlauer Berg. You can find everything from Soviet-era tchotchkes to art prints to antique photo postcards, dishes, and furniture, to handcrafted purses or t-shirts to English language books. There's also food stands so you can fortify yourself for several hours of shopping.

If, like me, you're interested in Cold War-era things, a tour with Berliner Unterwelten is highly recommended. I took tour 3 (Cold War bunker in the subway) and regret that I didn't have time to take more.

Here's a Google map I made.

View Visit Berlin in a larger map

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