Sky over Berlin

Glamorous, yet mindful of its past — that’s Berlin for you. Chethana Dinesh explores the many attractions of this vibrant city that is more than just historic museums and memorable monuments

Brandenburg Gate

Incredible. That’s the only way I’d like to describe Berlin. Soaked in art, culture, heritage and history, this city has seen trials and tribulations that few in the world have gone through. There’s a story at every step, a memory at every corner. In fact, as far as a resident of Berlin is concerned, there are only two periods in the timeline of the city — before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yes, the very same Berlin Wall that divided Germany into East and West from August 1961 to November 1989. My introduction to the Wall was my history textbook from high school that narrated how, following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the Berlin Wall was constructed to both physically and ideologically divide Germany. Today, every Berliner I encounter has myriad tales to relate with what the city and its people went through before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And I can’t believe I am here, posing for pictures with a portion of the Wall as the backdrop. Yes, at the East Side Gallery that is a 1316-metre-long remnant of the Berlin Wall, standing not only as a silent testimony to the grim realities of the past but also as a sign of change, of new beginnings, new hopes. It has paintings, numbering 105, by artists from all over the world, and enjoys the distinction of a heritage-protected landmark. Walking along the Wall, wrapped myself to the teeth to beat the cold, I cannot help but be moved by the slogans on the Wall — “No more wars. No more walls. A united world” and “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” The hopelessness of man in the face of war, and his struggle to move on gives me hope of a better future, better tomorrow.

A drive around Berlin only reveals the many splendours this capital city of Germany has to offer. I admire the broad roads, green expanses, dedicated cycling tracks, and the ‘we-respect-your-space’ attitude of the residents. And, before I know it, I am in front of Brandenburg Gate, the most famous landmark of Berlin. A neo-classical building dating back to 1791, this iconic sandstone arch was designed by Carl Gotthard Langhans, a royal Prussian architect, inspired by Athens’s Acropolis. It is 26 metres high, 65.5 metres long and 11 metres deep with a quadriga statue to crown it. The quadriga has an interesting tale to narrate. After the Prussian defeat in the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, Napoleon took out his triumphal procession at the Brandenburg Gate, and carried the quadriga statue with him to Paris as a sign of victory. However, it was brought back to adorn the Gate after Napoleon’s forced abdication in 1814.

Holocaust Memorial.
Holocaust Memorial

 

Symbolic

The distinctiveness of Brandenburg Gate doesn’t end here. So iconic was it to Berlin that the Nazis used it as their party symbol when they ascended to power. It was a silent victim to the atrocities of World War II with its columns damaged by bullets and explosions. And, it was a mute witness to the post-war division of Germany and Berlin, when it was inaccessible to one and all with the construction of the Berlin Wall. However, with the fall of the Wall, it was officially opened on December 22, 1989, when people rejoiced and welcomed the reunification of their beloved country.

Today, Brandenburg Gate is not only the only surviving historical city gate in Berlin, but also a symbol of hope and recovery, of resilience and fortitude.

Lost in thoughts about the history of the monument, I look around. It’s bright and sunny, but freezing cold. It’s the beginning of spring in Berlin, though. I stroll around, enjoying the numbness in my toes and fingers, and clicking away to glory. After all, it’s Brandenburg Gate, and I’ve not visited Berlin if I’ve not taken pictures of Brandenburg Gate.

Victory Column
Victory Column

 

Monumental

My next stop is the Victory Column. No, I can’t call it a stop as it is so strategically located that one can’t miss it. Neither can one ignore it. For, it’s a monument to Prussia’s victory in the various unification wars.

Inaugurated in 1873, this monument is 67 metres tall, and has on its top an 8.3-metre-tall statue of Victoria, the Goddess of Victory. Sitting smugly on a hall of pillars with a glass mosaic, the Column is in the centre of Tiergarten, Berlin’s largest inner-city park. This monument was originally located in Platz der Republik, but was shifted to its present venue by the Nazis in 1939, as part of their grand plans to redesign the city of Berlin into what they called Welthauptstadt Germania.

I crane my neck to catch a glimpse of Victoria, and capture the monument in my camera. It is definitely one of my ‘wow’ moments in Berlin.

Just a two-minute ride away is the Reichstag, the most important building in Berlin, as it is the seat of Bundestag, the German federal parliament. This historic edifice is unusual in its allure owing to its glass dome that was designed to symbolise that the people are above the government. Constructed in 1894, it housed the Imperial Diet of the German Empire till 1933, when it was set on fire a month after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as the Chancellor of Germany. Though the ruined building was partially renovated in the 1960s, it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall was it refurbished, and it has been the seat of Bundestag since 1999. Right in front of the Reichstag building is the Platz der Republik, a square that is a vast expanse of greenery now. It dates back to 1735 when King Frederick William used it as a parade ground. The name of the square did ring a bell as Michael Jackson had performed here in 1988 as part of his ‘Bad’ world tour.

Down the road, a few metres away, is the Holocaust Memorial, or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Spread across 19,000 sq m, this memorial, designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman, opened in 2005. It is an installation of 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights, on an uneven concrete floor. Accessible from all sides, it allows visitors to walk around freely and contemplate upon the Nazi past in their own space. It sure is a grave reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime. I fall silent, and so do the people around me.

Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island.
Berlin Cathedral on Museum Island.

 

Majestic

Evening is fast approaching, and it is time to move ahead. Yet again, a short drive away is the Berlin Cathedral, a majestic structure with a monumental dome, a golden cross, and four towers. Dating back to 15th century, this cathedral in its present form was completed only in 1993, and serves the Protestant community of Berlin and its surrounding areas. Grand, stately, majestic — these are the exact words that float through my mind. I have my jaw-dropping moment here.

Now, let me confess. From the moment I start my exploration of Berlin, there’s one structure which has been watching over me, a la Big Brother. It’s the Television Tower, aka Fernsehturm. Jutting into the sky at 368 metres, it is the tallest building in Berlin, whose viewing tower offers a 360-degree panoramic view of the city.

Darkness descends and Berlin wears a spectacular look. I look up and find the Fernsehturm watching over me, yet again. I smile to myself. Maybe it’s Berlin’s way of telling me that I am welcome. After all, I am here on an invitation from the Federal Foreign Office of Germany. I realise one can spend days, weeks or even months hanging out in this city and not have enough of it.

Bode Museum on Museum Island in River Spree, with the TV Tower in the background
Bode Museum on Museum Island in River Spree, with the TV Tower in the background

 

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