When I think back to a visit to Prague, my memory gives me an overwhelming sense that I had seen something incredible - the beauty, history and architecture. When I think back to Paris, my memory serves up a feeling of grace, elegance and cultured romanticism. When I think back to London I remember the ceremony, tradition and hustle and bustle. When I think back to Berlin, I think of, well, actually, I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Arriving on a wet Friday at the incredibly modern and shiny “Hauptbahnhof” (Main Train Station) everything was just how it should be albeit with a curious sterility. There are trains, shops and many tourists as you would expect, but when you step off the train at Milano Centrale, London Paddington, or Paris Gare du Nord, your first breath fills you with an immediate sense of the city. Millions of people have walked before you through these buildings that were built to be noticed. Train stations are the historic gateways into cities and were designed to be grand and impressive. In Berlin, I got a sense that this was distinctly German - in that it was built for efficiency, not necessarily for affection.
Berlin is a young city, even younger when you think that it has only been unified since 1990. In fact, if I am honest, I do not believe that I ever truly understood the magnitude of the Berlin Wall and its impact on the city until I visited what is left of it. Visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Str. you will read stories about “defectors, escapers, spies and snipers” that bring to life what is now unthinkable in a modern, unified Europe. Much of the city was obviously destroyed in WWII, so aside from a visit to the Berlin Wall, touristic buildings of historic importance are harder to come by. When the city was rebuilt, it was done so without much affection towards it’s past. You will of course on any visit take time out to see the Reichstag, where the German Parliament sits, then there’s the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, but then what?
I’m sure many Berliners will feel justified in screaming at their computers citing buildings of note I have failed to mention, but from my point of view, had I gone to Berlin just to see the sites then I would have left disappointed. I suggest you have to dig deeper. For me Berlin needed to be felt, in order to really experience it. Luckily for me, we happened to discover the Mauerpark.
Taken from the Mauerpark “Situated in what was once the militarized “death strip” of the Berlin Wall (or Mauer) that divided East and West, Mauerpark is now a social, cultural, and artistic center of the city.”
Visiting Mauerpark on a Sunday is like visiting a hipsters paradise. Not only do you have the park, but also a “Flohmarkt” (Flea Market) and hundreds of stalls selling knick-knacks, clothes, trinkets, music and treasures from all over the world. Catering stands cook up delicacies from all cultures such as, Japanese fish, Mexican Burrito’s, Turkish Falafel, and French Crepes, something for every taste. Once you have tired of this (or you run out of Euro) you can visit the Mauerpark proper and I am sure that my experience will not be very different from yours.
Stepping through into the park, I first noticed a large gaggle of people gathered around a 3 piece band. They were playing amazing funky rock with electric instruments and amplifiers, hooked up to an old car battery. On the other side of the park stood an amphitheater built into the hillside, where a large audience was watching a street performer. Between here and the amphitheater, the park was littered with small groups of people dancing to music, cooking out, enjoying the first glimpses of spring and soaking up the friendly atmosphere that’s laid on by the cosmopolitan people of the city.
This was the Berlin I had heard about, but in the first two days of my visit had just not discovered. Leaving the park a few hours later to catch the train home, I think I understood Berlin for the first time. It’s about easygoingness, acceptance of individuality, and embracing it. Just in this one park, it was all being physically demonstrated through art and culture by the people.
My memory of that day, of all those people in the park is enough to make me feel like I belonged there. It is no longer a memory of a rather disappointing visual tour around Berlin, now it is a memory about the excitement, curiosity and envy that others get to permanently live amongst it. Berlin may have been built for efficiency. But affection for it, has been built by the people.