Monday, 15 February 2016

Berlin - Getting Around

It's not as easy to appreciate the city's layout, or visit the key attractions on foot as it is in so many other great European cities.  Berlin has a number of significant historical buildings but no distinct "old city" or well-defined modern city centre; it has clusters of new development but no typical CBD.  Its spread- out nature is due in no small part to the division and differential redevelopment after the profound destruction of much of the city in WW2. 
Potsdam Platz
Potsdam Platz is a large and important public square in the centre of Berlin.  It is the point where the old road from the city of Potsdam passed through the old city wall.  During WW2 it was laid waste and was left in ruins during the early post-WW2 phase of the Cold War.  In 1961 the Berlin Wall was built through it, thus further preventing any rebuilding.  After reunification in 1990 the Berlin Senate held a competition for its development.  The area was divided into 4 sections which were developed independently.  The part developed by the electronics company Sony is probably the best known and  most interesting.  Sony built the Sony Centre to house their European headquarters with a roof said to be inspired by the shape of Mt Fuji.  It's a staggering construction of steel and glass.
Bahn Tower houses the corporate HQ
of Deutsche Bahn (German Railways)

Entering the public space of the Sony Centre.

Part of the massive roof of the Sony Centre.

Upwards and Onwards
The buildings around Potsdam Platz were designed to present the best that modern architects could offer, and it's certainly an impressive sight, although there have been expressions of concern that the development suffered excessive "Americanisation" and that what resulted was not what was envisaged when the design competition was announced.

Moving east from Potsdam Platz we were fortunate to catch a good view of the Berlin TV Tower which is the highest structure in Berlin .  It was said that it was made 365m tall the height could be easily remembered (365 days in a year) but it is now listed as 368m to the summit.  We hardly saw it in days to come as it was usually lost in the fog.
"Fernsehturm" (TV Tower) with visitor
platform and revolving restaurant.
The Brandenburg Gate
For many people this gate is the symbol of Berlin, perhaps even of Germany as a whole.  It was quietly exciting ("quietly exciting" - is this an oxymoron, an illogical expression?) to see this famous structure, one of the world's "iconic" attractions and a symbol of the tumultuous history of Germany.  We saw it twice, on both occasions in misty rain.  It was built between 1788 and 1791 in neoclassical style and was based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. 
The triumphal arch stood on the site of a gate which was not a part of the city's defences, but one of the gates comprising the "customs wall".   This new gate/arch was built to symbolise "peace" and was named the "Peace Gate". 
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, with the Quadriga facing the square.
Atop the arch is a "quadriga" driven by the goddess Eirene, goddess of peace.  Whilst possibly the most famous quadriga (or chariot drawn by four horses abreast) it is certainly not the only one around.  I've seen the 4 bronze horses (of a no-longer existent quadriga) on the balcony of San Marco Basilica in Venice (actually they are replicas, the originals are inside, protected from pollution); the horses in all "modern" quadrigas are based on these ancient horses of Greek or Roman origin.  I've seen 3 quadrigas in Paris, and one in each of Rome, London and Brussels; there are several more in cities I've not visited.  Still, this is the one most remembered when you see a quadriga.
After defeating the Prussians and occupying Berlin in 1806, Napoleon took the quadriga to Paris as a war trophy, just as he had taken the Venetian horses to Paris.  After Napoleon's defeat in 1814 the Prussians entered Paris, returned the quadriga to Berlin, and redesigned it as "Victory". 
The Quadriga, driven by "Victory" atop the arch.

After the return from Paris the "Iron Cross" was added to the statue now denoting "Victory"

Reminders of WW2
Just a few minutes walk from the triumph of the Brandenburg Gate is a memorial which commemorates the tragedy and atrocity of war.  The "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" or simply "Holocaust Memorial" is a memorial to the millions of European Jews who were victims of the Holocaust.  It is an array of 2711 concrete slabs of varying sizes, arranged in rows N-S and E-W on a sloping site.  Designed by Peter Eisenman and Buro Happold it covers 19,100 square metres (4.7 acres). 

A few of the concrete stelae making up the Holocaust Memorial
The Holocaust Memorial
We joined an interesting walk around Berlin which not only took us to some of the expected sites but to some we'd not anticipated.  The most surprising was a car park beneath which are still remains of the Führerbunker.  In the years following WW2 several demolition attempts were made with only limited success and the site was largely forgotten.  The main section of the bunker was over 8m below the ground and had a concrete roof 3m thick.  A small plaque was erected in 2006 noting the location.  A few meters across the street is the place where the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were burnt to prevent the bodies being displayed, mocked, reviled and debased.

This marks the location of the Führerbunker which was
the air-raid shelter of the Reich Chancellery

Later in our walk we stopped in front of one of the buildings of the great Humboldt University, founded in 1810 as "The University of Berlin" by the Prussian educator and reformer  Wilhelm von Humboldt, brother of the great explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt.  The university has produced 29 Nobel Prize winners!  During WW2 it was affected by the Nazi regime and in 1933 about 20,000 "degenerate books" (political thought, anything written by liberals, Communists or jews etc) were burnt in the small plaza now known as the Bebelplatz.
Now set into the surface of the Bebelplatz  is a glass panel above an underground white room lined with empty bookshelves which could accommodate 20,000 books.  A plaque contains a prophetic quotation from the German author and poet Heinrich Heine:  "This was but a prelude; where they burn books they ultimately burn people".
The window into the empty book room in Bebelplatz.
Empty bookshelves serve as a reminder of the book burnings.

Moving On ..
During our walk the light rain cloud descended as a fog, restricting our views of anything more than a couple of hundred metres away, as can be seen in this picture of the sightseeing balloon with just a couple of occupants who were not going to see much.

See Berlin from above - perhaps not today.
I doubt they can even see the ground.  Do they get their money back?
Our walking route took us past the "Trabi Museum".  I'd heard of the "Trabi" but knew very little about it other than it was a cheap, under-powered produced in East Germany from the mid-50s to the fall of the wall.  It must interest many people as it is rated the 190th out of 600 attractions in Berlin.  You can visit the museum, drive a Trabi or one of the highly modified novelty forms ("stretch" etc) and even train in a simulator.  Briefly the Trabant P50, first built in 1954, was an ultra-cheap small sedan made of  a plasticised body with a tiny 18HP engine. The Trabant 600 of 1963 boosted the motor to 23 HP, and in 1964 the P601 "boasted" 24HP.  This model was produced until 1989 but could not survive the competition of West German vehicles once the Wall came down in 1989-90.As a rough comparison, my first car (1966) was a 1954 Morris Minor (not a "Mini" - that was still years later).  Small as it was it had a 30HP motor.  The various models of the popular "Mini" series (starting in 1960) came in a range of engine sizes starting at about 33HP.  Now the Trabi is a nostalgic novelty and collector's car.

Don't miss it.  The 190th most popular attraction in Berlin.

The one and only "Trabi World". 

Rent one for an unusual (perhaps "unforgettable") driving experience.
Berlin's icons on a drain cover: the TV tower, Brandenburg
Gate, the Victory Column and the Dom are easily recognised.
Several bridges cross he River Spree.  One of the more unusual style of bridge is also one of the best known.  During the division between East and West Berlins, the Oberbaum Bridge was one of the important crossing points and it is now a symbol of the city's unity.  It is unusual because it is a double-decked bridge.  The lower deck carries a roadway and the upper deck carries a rail line.  The bridge's name is roughly the "upper (i.e. upstream) tree bridge" as it was once part of the toll boundary around the city and to prevent smuggling along the river a large tree trunk studied with spikes was lowered across the waterway each night as a barrier.

The quaint style is described as "Northern German Brick Gothic" (very specific, very German) with many decorative elements such as pointed arches, cross vaults and coats of arms.  The two towers were inspired by the Middle Gate Tower in the not-too-distant city of Prenzlau.

The Oberbaum Bridge, Berlin

One of the two towers on the bridge.
 Our hotel was in the city district of "Mitte".  Just a couple of train stops away was Hackesche Markt which these days is an important transport hub and starting point for the city's nightlife (I wouldn't know about that).  Adjacent to the Markt is the interesting courtyard complex known as Hackesche Höfe.  This a cluster of 8 interconnected courtyards designed in 1906 in Art Nouveau style.  It contains a mix of residential areas, craft workshops and outlets, businesses, cafes and restaurants and open space. There are a couple of side and rear access points but the main entrance is through an arch on Rosenthaler Strasse.

One of the 8 courtyards in the Hackesche Höfe

Just a few minutes walk from Hackesche Höfe is the New Synagogue, built
1859-1866 in a Moorish style with some resemblance to the Alhambra.
The Reichstag Building Dome
The Reichstag Building was opened in 1894 as the parliament of the German Empire, later the Weimar Republic.  The Nazis had no need of a parliament during their dictatorship so after the devastating fire of 1933 it remained derelict until its restoration after German reunification.  The parliament today is called the "Bundestag".

The building was reopened in 1999 after a reconstruction effort led by the British architect Lord Norman Foster (he also designed "The Gherkin", now an iconic London landmark).  To replace the  original large dome which was destroyed in the fire, Foster designed a wonderful glass dome which is open to the public (free but by appointment to regulate the huge demand).  The dome contains a pair of ramps which separate the "up" and "down" movements of visitors who gain a 360 degree view (subject to fog, as we found).  The main hall of the parliament can be seen immediately below the dome which has a large electronically controlled sunshield to permit light to enter the chamber without dazzling the occupants.

The Bundestag (old "Reichstag") building.

Looking up from outside to the dome on the Bundestag building.
The spiral footpaths can be seen through the glass panels.

Inside the stunning glass dome.

A happy visitor to the dome.
The Berlin Cathedral
During our wintery visit the sun set early, and with the foggy conditions the light was fading rapidly even before 4 pm.  We made our way to the "Berliner Dom" (actually the Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church, but known as the Berlin Cathedral).   This is a building from roughly the same period as the Reichstag building (during the Kaiserzeit").  It was finished in 1905 and became the Royal Church.  It is built on the site of earlier grand churches and internally is finished in "high Neo-Renaissance" style.  The state budget, even with the Kaiser's "personal contributions" could not cover the planned fit-out with the many lavish internal fittings of marble and gold so a number of economy measures were adopted to reduce the cost.  Many of the pillars are not marble but lesser material decorated to look like marble.  Reconstruction work between 1975 and 1993 repaired much of the damaged caused by bombs during WW2.  Restoration of the dome has not yet been undertaken because the difficulties and associated high projected costs.
Approaching the Berlin Dom.  The fog
is just sitting on the top of the dome.
Some of the decoration above the entrances.
Looking across the Nave towards the altar.
The organ was restored after damage resulting
 from  exposure to the elements when the dome
 was struck by a bomb in 1944 and collapsed.
Looking up to the dome and the "lantern".
Decoration of the apse behind the main altar.

In the extensive crypt beneath the church are 94 tombs and caskets of members
of the Hohenzollern dynasty which ruled  Prussia (1525-1918) and Brandenburg
 (1415-1918).  Another branch of the family ruled Romania (1866-1947).
Night fell and the fog thickened producing a
romantic effect as light contrasted with fog.


Daylight has completely gone and the Dom is lit by spotlights.
Ice flows along the River Spree, past the building.
Paul & Judy
January 2016

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