It’s a bit embarrassing to think about the fact that we went to Berlin the first week of summer and I’m still posting about it – and it is the last week of summer. Oh, where did the time go? Clearly our summer was not lazy or hazy – more like plain crazy (but in a good way.)
I’ve been accused of being an information junkie but at the same time, I don’t like to walk around with my nose in a tour book. That’s why I really enjoy tours. Sure, it is hard not to look like a tourist when you’re travelling in a pack, but a good tour gives an overview of a place and the opportunity to ask plenty of questions.
In Berlin we toured by bike with Fat Tire Bike Tours. We’d done a bike tour in Salzburg and enjoyed it. The only downsides in Berlin were that the weather was a bit wet, and singing was not part of the fun. Although the tour is family friendly in terms of equipment (bike trailers, tag-alongs, and infant seats are available) our kids were the only ones under the age of 18. That is why I’m thankful that they do not yet understand double entendres – it was Berlin, after all. Our tour guide, Neil, was generally careful to keep the language G-rated, but tried to keep the adults’ attention with some wink-wink-nudge-nudge comments that would have made me cringe if we had teenagers.
The first stop was Neptunbrunnen, the Neptune Fountain. It was created in 1886 but moved to its present position in 1969. We were warned by Neil early on that in Berlin, looks can be deceiving: something that looks old might not be! Considering the destruction in the first half of the 20th century, some buildings are “new” but built in a style to look old. Here the four figures represent four great rivers of German: the Rhine, the Vistula, the Oder and the Elbe.
These guys aren’t as popular as they once were, but Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels still hang out in Berlin.
This monstrosity is a television tower. I knew locals called it Telespargel and since spargel is asparagus, I thought they were calling it Tele-Asparagus. Another translation is “toothpick,” and it does look a little bit like a toothpick that has stabbed an olive. Although it is a noted landmark in Berlin, Cologne has a similar one and I’m guessing other German cities do as well.
The Berliner Dom is another example of new architecture that looks old. It was originally built in the 18th century, was renovated in the late 19th century, then needed a bit more repair after World War II.
Opernplatz was an open square surrounded by impressive buildings but the most poignant thing to see is the monument commemorating the Nazi book burning of 1933. Thousands of books by authors who were “enemies” of the Third Reich were burned. The monument, erected in 1995, is a glass window looking down into empty bookshelves. A plaque bears the words of poet Heinrich Heine: Where books are burned, in the end people were burned. How horribly prophetic!
There were three great photo ops at Gendarmenmarkt. To the left is the French Cathedral; in the center is the Concert Hall; to the right is the German Cathedral.
At one point in the tour we parked our bikes and Neil pulled out a bag of sidewalk chalk and gave a little geography and history lesson. How cool is that? Note the raincoats – they came in quite handy just a few minutes later.
Now just a tourist stop, Checkpoint Charlie is still a landmark. We didn’t meet the real Charlie because there was no Charlie. It was the third checkpoint to enter East Berlin - in the phonetic alphabet that would come after Alpha and Bravo.
We continued on to another of the less-glorious historical monuments in Berlin: THE WALL. Yes, it was pretty much torn down in 1989, but portions of it remain.
This was the headquarters of the Third Reich and it was never bombed during the war. It was a valuable landmark for Allied pilots – a visual check that they were in Berlin. This is an example of the fascist architectural style – made of durable materials, sharp corners and edges, a large and imposing structure.
We continued with another site in the “not-so-happy must-see places” category and stopped at the Memorial to Murdered Jews. While this memorial has no overt symbolism, the large blocks of varying sizes are arranged in a grid designed to create a confusing and uneasy atmosphere. Sobering, to be sure.
After all that biking (really, it was only a few kilometers!) it was time for a dinner break. We took a leisurely ride through the Tiergarten and arrived at this restaurant for a tasty meal.
The Siegessaule (triumphal Column) was impressive. The boys especially liked the golden cannons.
We saw a bit of modern Germany with the Reichstag building and its glass dome. Visitors can go up into the dome and look down upon the lawmakers but we didn’t get to do that on this trip.
Here’s another Germany government building which locals apparently call “The Washing Machine” because it resembles, well, a washing machine!
While in Berlin the Europa Cup was being contested in the Ukraine, so the street between the Siegessaule and the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) was closed to traffic to create a “fan zone” for watching the game on big jumbotron-type screens. The Germans were not playing the night we took the tour so there were no fans in the zone, but the street was still closed off. We had the whole street ourselves for cycling! It was fantastic!
The final stop (before returning the bikes anyway) was the Brandenburg Gate. It is over 200 years and has seen amazing changes in Berlin during that time. The Quadriga – the sculpture of the four horses on the top – even took a little trip to France during Napoleon’s reign. It was most recently restored in 2000.
Despite several rain showers, all of us give the Fat Tire Bike Tour a thumbs up. The same company does tours in Paris, Barcelona and London also, and if we do a tour at all four locations we get a free t-shirt. Guess what’s at the top of our agenda for our Fall trip to Great Britain?!?
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