Berlin (1): A Unique Capital

I didn’t plan to come back to Berlin so soon, but Leona thought her trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the German capital despite the long drive from Heidelberg. So we went there, and I’m more than glad that she insisted.

Berlin, Feb 19, 2013.
Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Feb 19, 2013

At first glance Berlin was to me a touristy but boring city. It’s huge for European standard – with its nearly 3.5 million population, Berlin is the largest city in Germany, followed by Hamburg and Munich. But it didn’t really feel that big when I first got there in February. There isn’t one single skyscraper in the area (besides the TV tower, which doesn’t count) and compared to other metropolises like London and Paris, it hardly gets overcrowded in the underground.

Marienkirche (St. Mary's Church) and Berliner Fernsehturm (TV Tower)
Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) and Berliner Fernsehturm (TV Tower)

If it hadn’t been for my travel buddy A and some other amazing friends who were at the time working or studying in Berlin, I would have found the first three days slow to pass. Having lived in Hong Kong for years, I’m not easily impressed by modern cities and find urban life tiresome.

There are a few remarkable buildings and landmarks, but if you expect to see typical German Fachwerkhäuser, you’re in the wrong place, as most parts of the city have been rebuilt since the Wars. The place had once seemed plain to me – I couldn’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t “enough”: it wasn’t big enough to excite me as I exited the airport, yet not small enough to resemble sweet little towns like Heidelberg; the structures there aren’t modern enough to wow me like Hong Kong once had, yet not old enough to provoke an urge to stop now and then just to take a picture of a random beautiful old house. On top of that, it’s in the middle of nowhere.

*inserts random picture of a random building in Berlin*
Well, I was wrong. Berlin can be breathtaking!

Now you Berlin fans, don’t hate me just yet! After three days in the German capital, A, Bart and I went to Sweden for a week, then I came back alone to spend another week here, and this time I totally fell in love with it. It’s not romantic like Paris and Rome but it does have its very own charm. There are many aspects of Berlin that don’t resemble those of a typical European capital of a big country, making it truly one of a kind.

I wish Leona and I could stay longer than just two days (we spent one day in Potsdam before leaving) because there is so much more to do and learn about the unique history and culture of Berlin than visiting only the main tourist sites and taking I-have-been-here photos – although, there’re always reasons why these major “must-see” places have become major in the first place.

Darth Vader has been to Brandenburg Gate!
Darth Vader has been to Brandenburg Gate!

Brandenburger Tor is where you can meet tourists from all over the world and take pictures with Darth Vader, Iron Man, Random Brown Bear and American soldiers (but really they are Germans waving an old America flag). This is also the place where many major historical events happened. The gate had been the symbol of victory and defeat, reunion and separation throughout the centuries. With all these memories the gate has now become a prominent landmark of Germany, and I hope peace, fireworks and stage performances will be all it sees from now.

Deutscher Bundestag
Deutscher Bundestag

The Reichstag building is within walking distance from the Brandenburger Tor. The parliament (Bundestag, Federal Diet) has been housed in this majestic building since the year 1999. The most unusual thing about the Reichstag has to be its glass dome on the roof, which you can actually go into for free and have a 360-degree view of the Berlin cityscape. Remember to book at least three days in advance here – I kept forgetting so I still haven’t been inside yet.

Jun 10, 2013.
The Holocaust Memorial, Jun 10, 2013

Another famous and nearby site is the Holocaust Memorial. A popular location for selfies (please don’t), it’s hard to remember the purpose of this memorial is actually dark and depressing, unless you go below ground for the devastating exhibition (which is free!) on the history of Jewish people in Germany during WWII. Real, moving stories of Jewish families are told in various forms: texts, photos, audio recordings, diaries, postcards and letters written by the victims, etc. It takes a long time to read everything (I’m not sure if that’s even possible) but when you’ve seen how these very real people suffered for having done nothing to deserve it, you’ll definitely see the whole horrifying event in a different light when you emerge from the ground again. Highly recommended.

Holocaust Memorial - Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Holocaust Memorial – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Feb 23, 2013

You may or may not agree, but to me the charm of Berlin lies in its recent history. From its unification in 1871 to the fall of the Wall in 1989, the city had seen so much blood and tears in a time so short. It’s been a little over two decades since Germany’s reunification and Berlin has been standing in peace while growing into a modern and international city. Yet as you walk through different parts of the capital, you’ll see hundreds of monuments, street art and museums dedicated to this period of complications – nothing is really forgotten.

Berliner Dom
Berliner Dom. It’s a beautiful cathedral but I haven’t learned of its significance yet. An interesting fact however, is that it has never been the seat of a bishop so technically speaking, it’s not really a cathedral
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