A broad statement it may be, but isn’t history fascinating? I was quite good at it at school, and nowadays it plays a huge part in why I travel. As I’ve eluded to elsewhere, I enjoy any opportunity to get under the skin of Northern Ireland’s past when I can, though I acknowledge it remains a very painful part of the present here, too. The things is, I’m not actually that brilliant at history – well, not at pre-1945 history, anyway. I’m no good at dates and even placing events or artifacts in their relevant time periods is not my strong point. But I like museums and Berlin’s Museum Island I really like. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Berlin’s Spree river, there are five museums on the island and I’m pretty sure an enthusiast could spend a whole day exploring them all. Maybe even more than that.
Alas, we had nowhere near that long. City breaks are all well and good, but in actual fact, how often do you come away thinking you wish you’d have had more time? With a shedload of sightseeing still to do, we plumped for the Pergamon Museum, dedicated to reconstructions of significant buildings from various time periods and civilisations, as well as Islamic art. It was the latter that especially caught my eye. But I’d be lying if I said I fully understood everything I was seeing. And this is the flaw in the city break – the museum does everything it can to inform its visitors through information next to each exhibit and headsets to guide you through, but if you don’t have time to absorb it all properly and take it all in, you’ll never get everything you can out of it. Museum Island is a world of culture and of history so if this your thing, make sure you have plenty of time to indulge in it because you’ll need it.
Leaving the culture to one side briefly, no trip to Berlin is complete without ascending the 203m to the viewing floor of the Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. Built in the 1960s by the German Democratic Republic, this is the tallest building in Germany and apparently the tallest in the European Union as well. The lift climbs from Alexanderplatz to the top in about 40 seconds and has a viewing window in the roof so you can take in the mechanics of your ascent (and subsequent descent) should you wish to. The views from the top are as magnificent as you’d expect, though in one sense they do bring home the fact that Berlin is not always the most aesthetically pleasing city. We were also a little let down by the haze that rolled in while we were there which obscured the distance to some extent, but even on a cloudy day, it’s a view not to be missed. It has a revolving restaurant too, if you like to combine your dining with steady rotation.
Visible from the Fernsehturm, but considerably more impressive close up, is another iconic symbol of the city – probably the best-known of Berlin’s sights and equivalent to, say, London’s Big Ben or Paris’s Eiffel Tower – is the Brandenburg Gate. This stunning triumphal arch buzzes with tourist activity as everyone tries to make sure they can tick it off their list. We got so excited when we arrived that we got more pictures of the rear than the front. Not that any of our pictures of the front turned out that well – my iPhone was no match for the glare of the sun. I couldn’t help reflect, as the German afternoon sun toasted parts of my scalp I didn’t know were exposed, was how hassle-free Berlin’s heavily-touristed areas are. I have no idea if this is the norm, but you rarely feel corralled or overly-crammed in anywhere, and you’re mostly left alone to go about your business. It’s not that I don’t crave hustle and bustle or enjoy mixing with the locals, but it’s great not to feel like you could be alleviated of the contents of your pockets at any moment. Or is that when they get you? Anyway, the Brandenburg Gate, done.
Returning to the theme of history, I want to talk about a particular kiosk in the middle of the street. I imagine Checkpoint Charlie would underwhelm those without an interest in 20th century history. In a literal sense, it really is just an off-white shack flanked by a museum and a McDonald’s. But of course it’s so much more than that. The original building is now in a museum, but I don’t think it takes away from the feel of the place that the current structure is a copy, anymore than the presence of the Golden Arches might extract from it. Places of great historical significance have a strange effect on me. Mostly, I feel a sense of privilege at being lucky enough to see them. At Checkpoint Charlie, I tried my hardest to imagine what it once would have been like. Surrounded by tourists and with the blaring sound of car stereos and modified engines from a Turkish wedding procession in nearby Kreuzberg ringing in our ears, it wasn’t easy. But it was a worthwhile visit. I loved being at Checkpoint Charlie, just to be able to say I was there. Of similar significance are the remaining pieces of the former Berlin Wall that still stand today. There’s nothing overtly remarkable about them, but they scream history. In places, bricks built into the street below your feet mark where the wall once would have run. Nothing I experienced in Berlin struck me more than the ease of which one can criss-cross these non-descript lines as if they weren’t there, because of course there isn’t really anything there. But there used to be – and you crossed it at your peril.
Also of a degree of local historical significance is Pratergarten, the city’s oldest beer garden and a wonderful place to spend a few hours in the evening, especially when the weather is on your side. But perhaps ‘beer garden’ is too modest a moniker. It’s far bigger than your average British beer garden, with a restaurant at one end and, at the other, stalls selling, well, beer.. but also simple German snack food such as pretzels and various forms of sausage. The atmosphere here is truly special and a visit to Pratergarten should be considered an essential part of any Berlin itinerary. If I could, I’d move it to Belfast.
I returned to Northern Ireland with the usual heavy heart of the enthusiastic traveller. I missed the buzz of the place, and I missed the weather! I missed the people we met, however briefly, who treated us with kindness and went the extra mile to be of assistance. You really do leave little pieces of yourself in the places you visit, and there’s a bit of me left behind in Berlin, probably waiting for the Carnival of Culture to come back around. I also miss my friends, who made it a special few days. I love Berlin, I really do.