Sunday, January 07, 2007

Weekend in Berlin

The following summarizes a weekend trip that I took alone to Berlin.

Day 1, Saturday, March 31, 2001 – I had booked this trip on very late notice. When we found out that we were going to be relocating back to the U.S., my wife and I decided that I should try to make a quick trip to Berlin to see the sights. I had been too busy to go to the travel agent, so I had booked this ticket only 2 days previously. I planned to fly in early on a Saturday morning, and back home late Sunday evening. I had an ambitious plan, but I was going to do everything I could to pull it off.

I got to the airport about an hour early for my 7:30 flight. The flight was totally uneventful, and we were making our descent into Berlin at 8:15. One thing that I did notice was just how big Berlin is. It was really enormous; definitely the biggest German city that I had ever seen. The city just seemed to go on forever.

After landing, I bought a "Welcome Card" for Berlin. This gave me 3 days of free public transportation, plus discounts into all of the major attractions. I planned on either taking a guided bus tour or a walking tour of the city to get better acquainted. After studying both options in my guidebook, I decided to take a 4 hour walking tour - Discover Berlin from the tour company Berlin Walks. The meeting place was across the street from the zoo, so I rode a bus from the airport to the zoo.

I walked over at about 9:40 and found the tour leader standing around alone. We talked for a few minutes, and I asked her a few questions about the tour. By 10:00, there was a large group of Americans gathered around, and we embarked on the tour.

We first took the train over into the eastern section of Berlin. We got off the train, and gathered at the edge of the Spree River while our guide told us the history of Berlin. She said we would cover 700 years of Berlin’s history, starting in the medieval period. We walked along the edge of the river up to the Berlin cathedral. We walked through the museum district, and she pointed out a number of bullet holes from the 2nd World War. After walking through the museum district and seeing the Pergamon, we turned down one of Berlin's most famous streets, Unter den Linden. This street was very beautiful before Hitler came in and chopped down all the old Linden trees that lined the street. He then expanded the street so that his military parades would have more room to put on displays for the citizens. Hitler replanted the trees, but they are not yet near the size of the ones he cut down.

We walked into the Neue Wache (The New Guardhouse), which is a memorial to fallen soldiers. There was a sculpture of a mother holding her dead son and mourning. It was quite moving. We then passed Humbolt University, where Albert Einstein once taught. From there, we walked to The Bebelplatz, which was the scene of a book-burning by the Nazis. In 1933, they burned some 20,000 books in this square, including works by Heinrich Heine, who had written in 1821 "He who burns books, will burn people in the end." This phrase is engraved on the ground in the Bebelplatz as a reminder.

From there we headed to the Brandenburg Gate, which was formerly a city gate, but we first had to wait for a large anti-Nazi protest to pass by. From a distance, we could see the Brandenburg Gate, but we were looking at an illusion. They were doing renovations on it, and scaffolding that looked just like the gate normally looks was covering it. When we got close, we were able to look underneath and see the actual gate.

From there, our guide showed us the no-man's land between parallel portions of the Berlin Wall. This area was known as the "death strip", because it was mined and booby-trapped. (When I was there, this area was undergoing a tremendous construction boom; before the wall fell this strip of land was barren). Several East Germans were killed trying to escape into West Berlin, and freedom from Communist rule. The most famous case is probably that of Peter Fechter. He was shot by East German guards in the no man's land, and nobody came to his aid. He bled to death because both East and West were afraid to cross into the area to save him.

We saw portions of the wall that were still standing. Some of it will remain standing as a memorial (Berlin has a LOT of memorials). As we made our way to Checkpoint Charlie, our guide told us of many successful, and other unsuccessful escapes into West Berlin. Some of them were very creative. One guy measured the height of the barricade at Checkpoint Charlie, and just got a very small car and drove under the barrier (which the East Germans promptly lowered). Checkpoint Charlie was also the location of a famous tank standoff between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in 1961. So much that I had read about in history books was right here in front of me.

Shortly after, the tour ended and I made my way to the Europa-Platz. I grabbed a quick bit to eat, and then went in to check out the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. In 1943, the church was essentially destroyed in a bombing raid, but the ruins have been left there as a memorial. There are certainly a lot of reminders of the horror of war in Berlin.

From there, I rode the subway out to Olympic Stadium, home of the 1936 Summer Olympics. This was the one where Jessie Owens won 4 gold medals. I really wanted to go inside the stadium, but there was a soccer match going on. It was halftime, and it cost 60 marks (about $30) to get in. So, I just walked around and looked at it from the outside.

My legs were getting really stiff, but I wanted to see the Reichstag. From the subway stop, I had a very long walk (at least 2 miles). When I got there, I wanted to go inside and up to the dome, but there was a huge line outside. So, I found a closer subway stop and rode into the former East Berlin, which is where I had booked my hotel. Prices in the East were much lower than in the West.

After dropping off my things (just a couple of things I had been hauling around in my backpack), I went out to check out the nearby Alexanderplatz. This is a big, open square, and it is near a very tall TV tower and Berlin landmark, the Fernsehturm.

Alexanderplatz was crowded with people, and there were a number of carnival rides going on. Pretty soon, I saw a group of people who looked like skinheads or gang members of some kind arguing. It wasn't long before punches started getting thrown, and it turned into quite a brawl. At one point one guy had another pinned and he just punched him repeatedly in the face. The guy on the ground had blood just pouring out of his nose. The sound of the punches was sickening. Pretty soon, the police pulled up, and everyone scattered. I had been video-taping some of this, but I eased out of there as well so the police wouldn't confiscate my video tape. I headed back to the hotel, where I fell exhausted into bed.

Day 2, Sunday, April 1, 2001 – I got up at 5:30, extremely stiff from the day before. I had big plans today, as long as my legs would hold up. My flight out was at 5:30 p.m., so I was going to cram in everything I possibly could. It was the first Sunday of the month, which meant that a number of museums were free. But I also wanted to spend time at the Berlin Zoo, as well as at Charlottenburg Castle. The museums opened at 10, the zoo at 9, and I figured that the castle gardens were always open. So, I decided to get there early.

I finished breakfast and got to the subway by about 7:30. It took almost 40 minutes to get to the closest subway stop to the castle. I was already upset that I hadn’t left earlier. Then, when I got off the subway station, I still had to walk about a mile before I got to the castle. I called my wife on the cell phone and talked to her while I was walking. There is a huge flea market in Berlin every weekend, and she wanted me to be sure that I went and looked at what they had for sale.

As I suspected, the castle gardens were open. Also, I could look into the windows of the castle and see the interior. It was very nice on the inside and outside. The castle was yellow, and a fence with gold trim, ringed the perimeter. I walked around the castle so that I could better explore the gardens. Unfortunately, most of the trees and flowers had not yet bloomed. They were all very close to blossoming, and probably would have been in full bloom 2 weeks later. There was a huge forested area behind the garden at the back of the castle, and in the distance I could see a lake with swans swimming on it. If I had not been so pressed for time, I would have walked down there and explored a little more.

By this time, it was already after 9, so the zoo was open. I had intended to be there right at 9, and I was currently about 2 miles away. Since I wanted to conserve my legs, I decided to wait for a bus at a nearby stop. I looked at the schedule, and it looked like I had just missed the bus. The next one wasn’t scheduled for another 20 minutes. So I sat down and waited while trying to plan the rest of my day. After about 15 minutes, a German woman walked by and said that the buses were not running. At first I didn’t understand her, but then it suddenly hit me. Today a marathon was being run, and bus service had stopped until late afternoon. Another woman walked by and told me that there was another bus stop across the road, and she thought it might still be running. There was someone there who worked for the transportation department, and he said that there was in fact one more bus that would come by. After that, there would be no more until the afternoon. So, at 9:30 I caught the bus, which had a stop right outside the zoo.

I bought a combination ticket to the zoo and the aquarium. I planned to spend 2 hours at the zoo, and then ride the train to the Pergamon. After 2 hours there, I would ride over to the flea market, spend a couple of hours there, and then ride the bus to the airport.

I walked into the zoo to find it almost deserted. It was about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and people were just not out and about yet. But the weather was great, and I had the zoo to myself. I first walked into the elephant house, where I got to view 2 very large elephants up close. I was totally alone in there, so I talked to the elephants. They just ignored me. I worked my way a little further into the zoo, still encountering very few people. I found an outdoor exhibit of mandrills (a kind of baboon) and watched them for a while. It was almost like watching kids play. The grabbed each other’s tails, hung upside down from branches, and chased each other. There was a baby in there that must have been only days old. I looked at my watch, and knew that I was running behind schedule. I needed to move on, so I went to the monkey house.

When I entered, I noticed that the setup was really interesting. The apes were all enclosed in glass, but you could actually press your face right up against the glass. (They also had outdoor access). As soon as I walked in, I saw an enormous orangutan right up against the glass. He was eating seeds, and at first he ignored me. After a few minutes, he looked up and we made eye contact from less than 6 inches. He looked intently into my eyes, like he wanted to ask a question. He studied my eyes for a few minutes and then started eating again. I studied his hands and feet, and really looked him over thoroughly. I had never been so close to a great ape.

Reluctantly, I left him and worked my way to the next enclosure. There was one cage that was set up like a baby’s room. I didn’t see anything in there, but in the next cage there was a male and female mountain gorilla. The male was a big silverback, and he was less than a foot from me. He looked at me a couple of times, but mostly just continued eating. The female walked over and studied me for a few minutes, and then walked back over to her meal. This was so amazing. I was so close to these apes that I could study every detail.

Finally, I left the gorillas and moved to the next enclosure. There, I hit the jackpot. There were about 5 chimps in this enclosure. I videotaped them for a few minutes, but then I notice one near the glass. I walked over and looked at him. He looked into my eyes, but more intently than the orangutan had. He was more curious than the other apes had been. He made some faces at me, and I made some back at him. There were still very few people around, but those that were probably thought that I was crazy. I pulled change from my pocket and showed him. He tried to reach for it. My pulled out my keys and showed them to him. He studied them intently.

After 15 or 20 minutes, a number of people had gathered to watch our interaction. Then, I had an idea. I took the video camera, flipped out the video display, and turned it toward him. He could look into the camera and see himself on TV. Both of his eyebrows shot up when he saw this. He put a finger to his face, and saw it happen on the display. Then he put his finger to his lips, all the time intently watching the display. Next he opened his mouth and started touching his teeth. He opened his mouth really wide and looked inside. After that, he started sticking his tongue in and out of his mouth, and then flicked his tongue rapidly left and right. He was really enjoying himself, and I was capturing it all on video. We also had quite a crowd at that point, and they were really laughing at his antics.

Next, I turned the camera on myself and held the eyepiece up to the glass. He put his eye right down at the eyepiece and looked through it. Then he popped back up and looked at me, and then again looked at the eyepiece. He did that several times, as if he was trying to figure out how I could be inside and outside the camera at the same time.

By this point, I had spent almost an hour with him. My schedule was completely blown. But, while we were entertaining each other, I thought to myself, “Would you rather spend 2 hours in a world class museum, or spend a very private hour with a chimp?” That was a no-brainer. I have been to plenty of world class museums, but I had never been this close to great apes. I decided to blow off the museum and spend as much time as I wanted in the zoo.

I finally left my chimp friend and tried the video trick on an orangutan. He was at first interested, but quickly lost interest. When I put down the camera, he put a finger up to his eye. I did the same. Then, I switched eyes, and he followed suit. I have no idea what he was trying to communicate, but each time I put my finger to another eye he did the same. I finally put my finger to my lips, and he did that too. There was a crowd of people trying to see him, so I left and walked back to the gorillas. There was one close to the glass, and I did the video trick on her. She studied the display for a minute, and then put her arms up over her ears and looked away. When she looked back at the display and saw herself again, she ran away.

After spending quite a bit of time in the monkey house, I walked over to the aquarium. There, I saw fish that I had never seen before. They had many unusual animals, including several tanks of strange jellyfish. On the 2nd floor of the aquarium were reptiles and amphibians. They were all active and moving around, unlike what I have observed at zoos in Texas. The top floor contained more amphibians and a large exhibit of insects. In one glass enclosure, there were snails that were bigger than my fist. In another, there were thousands of stick insects. From a distance, it looked just like a pile of brush, but upon closer inspection it was actually many thousands of stick insects, many of them newly hatched.

I left the aquarium thoroughly impressed, but I had run out of video tape. I went to the predator exhibit. I could hear a roar from the outside. Inside, there was a very muscular male lion, pacing his cage and roaring loudly. That would be a chilling thing to hear out in the wild. What a roar he had! And once again, you could get very close to the animals. Then, I went to the tiger's cage, and he was also roaring. His roar sounded more like a very deep cat’s meow.

My legs were really aching at this point. I had to stop frequently to rest them. I walked out of the aquarium and headed to the panda bear display. They were lounging on their backs, eating what I think was bamboo. I had never seen a real panda before. I watched them for a while, then had a quick look at all of the other bear enclosures. Inside one, there were 2 different species of bear. There was an unusual looking group of black bears, and then a group that looked like American brown bears. And right there in the middle of all these bears was a black housecat. It was just walking around without a care in the world. I regretted not having more videotape.

It was almost 2 p.m. at that point, but I decided to go back to the monkey house. I hadn’t gotten enough on my first visit. I saw a crowd gathered up near the gorilla cage. I saw that they were standing in front of the baby’s room. And the baby was out playing. It was a baby gorilla, dressed in a little T-shirt and wearing a diaper. There was a handler in there with him playing. I watched him for a while. I once again wished that I had more videotape.

I left there completely satisfied with my zoo experience. The Berlin Zoo was without a doubt the best that I had ever seen. The animals were all moving around and active, and you could get really up close and personal with them. I was really glad that I had decided to spend a lot of time there.

I rode the subway down to the flea market. Actually, I got off one stop too soon and had to walk another half mile or so. My legs were killing me every step of the way, and now I was getting blisters on my feet. I couldn’t stand much more walking. By my calculations, I had walked about 20 miles in 2 days.

As soon as I reached the flea market, I called my wife on the cell phone. There were several things she wanted me to pick up, so I walked through as I described the things to her. They had just about everything imaginable there. I told my wife that I could probably find an elephant there if we wanted to buy one. She really regretted not being there, and she started telling me over the phone what she wanted. I spent quite a bit of time in there, looking over merchandise and haggling with the merchants. I finally bought a set of crystal wineglasses and an antique porcelain serving dish.

After finishing up there, I rode the subway back to the zoo station, and then caught the bus to the airport. I was extremely sore, but it had been worth it. I really could have used another day, though.

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