Germany was the only country in Europe that I went to where I had nobody to visit. I toured those other countries because I was meeting friends living in Europe. But I just couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to visit Germany when it was just a bus ride away (a very long bus ride, but a bus ride nevertheless).
Since I would be on my own in Germany, I looked at online guides and tips on how to go around the city. I chanced upon an advertisement about a bike tour in Berlin. I really had no idea what to expect so I just decided to book the tour, since my Germany trip was all about spur-of-the-moment decisions. The tour costs 20 euros, which I pre-paid and booked online (I learned there was really no need for reservations and you can also pay after the tour, it makes no difference). The instructions told me to be at the Alexander Platz TV Tower by 11 am on the reserved date.
On the day of the tour, I was running late for the 11:00 am meeting time since I unknowingly booked a hostel that was so far from the center. I know Germans are very punctual, and I was afraid I was wasting my 20 euros by being a few minutes late. But I shouldn’t have stressed over it, I arrived at the meeting place at around 11:10 and they were still gathering the tourist participants. There were around 30 or more people, which they divided into groups of around 15 each. We were told to pick a bike from the many bicycles parked outside their office.
Our tour guide’s name was Charles, but he said we can call him any variation of his name that we like so I decided to call him Charlie, from Checkpoint Charlie (more on that later). He is from Berlin but he spent some time in the States (the tour guides are all native English speakers). He started to introduce Berlin and its history, and I absorbed the information with enthusiasm.
We were showed a lot of the construction going on in Berlin. I was really surprised to find that some of the buildings’ facade are made of tarpaulin! Tarpaulin! (I just had to repeat it to myself, it was unbelievable the first time.) Even their Victory column is still covered in tarpaulin. I hope they finish construction soon 🙂
We visited Bebelplatz, which is known for being the site of the Nazi book burning. (History lesson: In 1933, the Nazis burned around tens of thousands of books that were ‘un-German’.) Today, there is a memorial on the floor of the square — a glass plate with a view of empty book cases. I was really moved by the memorial. I love books and I have a a dream of building a personal library, so seeing all those empty bookshelves on my feet broke my heart a little. There is also a line from the German poet Heinrich Heine that translates in English as, “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they ultimately burn people also”.
The next memorable stop that we had was at Checkpoint Charlie. Charlie (that’s why I’d like to remember him with that name) explained to us how the Berlin wall came to be with his interesting chalk drawings.
Checkpoint Charlie was the third wall crossing checkpoint, the first two being Checkpoint Alpha and Bravo, respectively. The checkpoint was a real tourist attraction. You can have your picture taken with the dressed-up soldiers or have your passport stamped, for a fee of course. I was amused to see a McDonald’s cafe at the Allied side of the checkpoint. You can’t get more American than that. Haha.
We then rode our bikes adjacent to the Berlin wall and checked out the Deathstrip watchtowers, while Charlie told us about the few successful attempts at escape from the East side to the West Side of the Wall. He also talked about the unsuccessful people who risked their lives to cross the wall, but failed.He also told us about the secret of the Berlin wall souvenirs, how they are all part of the original Berlin wall but that the graffiti side of the souvenir rock were machine-cut and painted. That made sense, since they have been selling the wall pieces for a long time now, and the supply is seemingly endless! Of course, I bought one for my rock collection, even though it was not a real rock.
The next stop was the site of Hitler’s bunker. This was said to be the place where: Hitler married Eva Braun, where they committed suicide, and where their bodies were burned. At present, it is an apartment complex, complete with a playground and parking lot. Apparently, the German government did not want the place to become a neo-Nazi shrine so they made the place as inconspicuous as they can. Before the FIFA World Cup 2006, they put up a simple plaque to identify the place.
Our next stop was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It consists of thousands of concrete slabs on a sloping field. If you walk inwards towards the maze of concrete, it will look like you disappeared from somebody watching outside. Charlie said it sort of represents the Holocaust, when people just disappear without notice. This place really had an impact on me. I couldn’t help but be affected while looking at all those concrete slabs. It kind of looked like a cemetery to me, so I couldn’t help but think of all the people who died from torture during the Holocaust 😦
After that, we had to lighten things up a bit so we proceeded to Brandenburg Gate. The Gate was built during the Prussian Kingdom’s reign and serves as one of Berlin’s symbols. It is right next to Pariser Platz, where the American and French embassies are located. It is also the location of Hotel Adlon, where Michael Jackson dangled his son from one of the windows. Really rich history, eh?
One of my favorite parts of the tour was riding our bicycles across the Tiergarten Park. I enjoyed watching the colors of autumn on the trees while cycling. We rode to the beer garden, where I had a wonderful lunch of- what else?- German sausage and beer! German food, FTW! 🙂
After lunch, we were shown how much the Germans value transparency in governance. We biked to the Chancellery building, with its postmodern design of concrete and glass. We also visited the Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament and a valuable part of German history. The glass dome on top provides a view not only of Berlin but also of the parliament at work inside the building. Unfortunately, I was not able to enter because of the unbelievably long line! 😦
Our last stop was Museum Island, where -you guessed it- the museums are located. There was the Old Museum, New Museum, and three other museums. Berlin Cathedral is also located in the museum complex, and its blackened exterior and bullet-scarred walls stand as proof of the many wars and struggles Berlin has experienced.
Finally, we cycled back to the Alexander Platz Tower, where the tour started. I returned my borrowed bike, my head buzzing with all of the new information I learned that day. I think the bike tour made me appreciate Berlin better than if I just toured the city on my own. Berlin is one of my favorite cities because of its rich history, and I am glad I biked my way to know the German capital better.