19 October 2014

Why I love Berlin

25 Years

The year: 1989
The month: November
The day: 9th
The place: East Berlin, Berlin Wall
The time: late evening

It's hard to believe that nearly 25 years have passed since the collapse of the iron curtain, the end of the communist block and the peaceful collapse of the Berlin Wall and with it, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (known to English speakers as East Germany). 

I specifically visited Berlin on this trip because I wanted to get a feel for the general atmosphere 25 years later, and I was sure there would be special exhibits or memorials marking this anniversary. I was entirely wrong. 

Through Couchsurfing, I had contact with some locals. When I asked them about it, most answered that they had no idea, or had not thought about it much at all. 
I then went to the tourist info in Berlin. The lady I spoke with there reacted as if I was the first person to ask her that question. She googled it, and then told me that it was surprising that she hadn't found anything. She thought maybe something will take place on the 9th, but otherwise it seems that nothing significant is being done to mark this occasion.

In Berlin, one can quite easily learn more about the wall. If you fight your way through the throngs of tourists, you can go to the East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie or visit actual remaining pieces. I've done those things before, multiple times and didn't feel that I would learn / gain anything specifically new from it. But then I picked up a flyer about an exhibit near Checkpoint Charlie, a wall panorama, designed to take you back in time to an average day before the wall collapsed. I decided to check this out.

Exiting the subway station at Kochstraße, I made my way past the vendors trying to sell me Communist-era relics, and towards this exhibit. But then something else caught my eyes - a special exhibit about the Berlin Wall and communism. This "Black Box" exhibit began in a courtyard, where one can read about the history, see a memorial to those who died trying to escape the wall and read reproductions of newspaper articles from those who successfully escaped. The courtyard also contained a piece of the wall and was in and of itself quite interesting to visit.

I then proceeded to the interior exhibit. One has to pay a few Euros to get in, though they allowed me free entry because I am a teacher. This was truly one of my best museum experiences ever. It's a small space, packed with information, but not overwhelmingly so. The exhibit contained sound clips, propaganda posters, magazine cover reproductions, videos, realia and so much more. 
At one point I stood staring at a video that showed the evolution of the building of the wall, people escaping on the spot - even jumping out of windows to crowds below and later these windows being bricked up. This was such a moving video, I admit it, I choked up. 
After spending nearly an hour in this small museum, I headed to the panorama where I had initially been headed. The entry was 10€ and from the brochure, it looked like it would be well worth my time and money. I was sorely disappointed.  As one walks inside, one begins in a graffiti room. The question asked is "Was bedeutet Freiheit für Sie." What does freedom mean to you? There are markers provided to allow visitors to write their own answer. Many did, others just added their name or homeland to the chaos on the walls/floor.   

Then I headed into the panorama. This large room was circular and showed the image of a neighborhood in West Berlin bordering the wall. It was interesting to look at and consider what life might have been like in this instance. The perspective also allowed one to see and contrast to the life in the East beyond the wall. In the background, famous quotes were being said, such as that of President Kennedy saying "ich bin ein Berliner". But that was it, nothing interactive as I expected. Nice, but not worth 10 €.

Berlin Remembers

To write about the history of Berlin, I could write several volumes and barely touch the surface. Berliner history is as long and as rich as it's culture is varied and proud. I often forget how much I love being in Berlin until I arrive. This held true on my most recent visit to the Hauptstadt.
I arrived in Berlin and from the main train station walked over in the direction of the Reichstag. My goal was to spend time focusing on the historical sites in this area, but I found myself quickly drawn to memorials. 

Berlin is not shy about its past, nor do they try and gloss it over. It seems that they try to apologize and prevent people from forgetting what can happen when one has unchecked power. It takes a lot of courage for a city to be this bold. 
The first memorial I saw was right outside the Reichstag. I've seen it before, but have never really taken the time to get to know what it represents. This memorial is a row of jagged stones. On the edge of each one is a name and a place. Often this place is a concentration camp. This is a memorial for members of the Weimar Republic's government who did not buy into the Nazi government's form of ruling. The Weimar Republic, was a weak government that governed Germany between 1919 and 1933. 

Heading from the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gate, I encountered a second memorial. To me, this was new, I'd not seen it before. This memorial was a quiet pond in the park. Soft music played in the air and and placards described the victims. This was a memorial for the Sinta and Roma, more commonly known as gypsies, killed during the Holocaust. Sinta and  Roma rank second in numbers murdered during the Nazi Regime. 

In 2005, I visited Berlin and a new memorial was in the process of being built. In 2010 I first had a chance to see it in its completed form. I went back to see it again. The Jewish memorial is composed of a number of square columns ranging in height from short to tall. The land it is on is composed of small hills and the columns are placed together narrowly so that the "streets" they form appear to go on for miles. The idea is to provide an image that speaks to the sheer number of individuals of all ages who were murdered in the concentration camps. The overall layout is quite effective. However, the layout is also one that takes away from the solemnity of the memorial. It is common to find people (especially kids) chasing each other throughout the "streets and alleys".

Not every memorial is for victims of the Holocaust. I also visited memorials to victims of WWI, victims who tried to escape East Berlin, victims of September 11th, memorials of those brave enough to protest and take a stand for the rights of themselves and others. Berlin is a vibrant city, it speaks of all the future has to offer, but does not allow the past to be forgotten 

A Sea of Clouds

A sea of clouds
The last couple of days I've had the luxury of visiting friends of mine who live outside of Vienna, Austria. Their town, Wiener Neustadt, is located near the easternmost range of the Alps. Nearby, the highest mountain in the region, at 2076m, Schneeberg, looks down on the valley below and provides opportunities for visitors, young and old alike. Although the name means "snow mountain", it was a beautiful, sunny day on the mountain. The weather was spring-like and much nicer than the fog in the valley below. It was a perfect day to be up high.

A visit to Schneeberg could be quite a costly endeavor, it costs 35 € to take the cog wheel train up to the top. The food at the restaurant averages about 8€ a plate and 2€ a drink. But we were in luck. My friends had been given a free family day up top at the courtesy of the Austrian government, and when they showed up with me in tow, a fifth ticket was produced. Thank you Austria for my ticket AND my lunch! That was quite generous! 

We took the cog rail train up the mountain. The ride took about 45 minutes and the views were stunning. As we climbed higher, we could see the fog blanketing the valley below. 

Once we arrived at the summit, there was a free family fest to enjoy. The kids had a lot of fun trying out the games and playing with the free balls they were given. 

Then we sat down to enjoy both the view and a free lunch. I had a wonderful dish of lentils with knödel. I drank elderberry juice with it and it was delicious and filling. The cafe was known for a dish called "Schneebergkrapfen" which is a pastry that is made to resemble a mountain top. It has cream and red berries within and atop it. This dessert is advertised as big enough for two, we shared it as a group of 5 and still ended up with some leftovers - although, not many! 

If you are ever up on Schneeberg, I'd highly recommend it! 

After eating such a rich lunch, we burned off energy on the playground. The kids had a lot of fun, it was a great playground. I also took the opportunity to snap a few photos of the view. The sky was clear, but in the distance I could see clouds and the valley below was still covered in fog. I had the feeling that I stood on the edge of the land, overlooking a sea. 

At the top of Schneeberg was a tiny chapel. The chapel was called the "Kaiserin Elisabeth Gedächtniskirche" (Empress Elisabeth Memorial church) and was built at an altitude of 1800m between the years 1899 and 1901, opening not long after her death. Although tiny, the chapel has a beautiful domed roof. 

Before our return trip on the cog railway, we hiked a bit around the summit. We saw paragliders taking off and could see the clouds rolling in closer. Overall one could not have wished for a better day. Schneeberg was perfect. 

Hohe Wand

I love the mountains. That's no secret. Having spent nearly a year living in Colorado, I really love the mountains and absolutely relish any opportunity to get back to them. The first day of my visit to Austria, my friends there suggested that we go to Hohe Wand, a nearby kid-friendly area of the Alps. I agreed eagerly. 

As we arrived, we hiked a short trail to the Skywalk, a metal bridge that extends out over the edge of the mountain. Through the grating of the bridge below us we could see climbers, working their way up the cliff face. Soaring in the sky above us were paragliders. At one point we saw 7.

After spending time on the skywalk, we went to a petting zoo and trail,with kid-friendly activities every few meters. A favorite activity was the twisty slide. Even I went down the slide behind the kiddos. As the sun began to set and mosquitos came out to bite, we hiked back to the car, stopping to see some deer, swing on a swing and of course wind our way through a hedge labyrinth. It was a lovely afternoon.