Hanna and I aren’t normally ones for guided tours, but a combination of good reviews and a lack of time in the city made the “Berlin Insider’s Tour” particularly attractive. It was a walking tour of Berlin and, with the discounts we received for buying 48-hour transport tickets, it only cost us 8 euro each. We met outside the McDonald’s in West Berlin (that wasn’t part of the tour) and bought our tickets for the “Famous Walk,” which basically hit all the historical hotspots in the city.
We bought our tickets at about 9:45 for a 10:00 tour, and the lady who sold us the tickets and seemed to be in charge said, “Ok you’ll be with Kenny.” She paused for a second then turned to one of the other guides and said, “Where is Kenny?”
Turns out Kenny had just gotten back from “holiday” in Egypt and hadn’t gotten a chance to look at the schedule. The guides made some phone calls and finally we were told to follow Pilar to the train station. She was a guide for one of the Spanish tours, but she would be taking us on the train so that we could meet up with our guide, Heidi, at the East Berlin meeting point. We got there and met up with about 15 other people going on the “Famous Walk”, but no Heidi. About 10 minutes passed and suddenly a frazzled, dark haired woman who looked like she just woke up came running from the train (Hanna was speculating from the name “Heidi” that she would be a drop-dead gorgeous blonde…I saw her smile when the real Heidi emerged).
She didn’t pull any punches and told us that she had, in fact, woken up about 10 minutes ago. She fumbled around with her words for the first couple minutes, but other than that her lack of preparedness was hardly noticeable.
We started off at Hackescher Market where, in the late 1800s, 50 Jewish families were invited to live. Our tour guide noted the unprecedented openness of this move at the time and proceeded to tell us that Germany was much friendlier to Jews than England or France at the time. Things changed a little.
Next we went to Museum Island, where the outside is still literally covered in bullet-holes. This prompted Heidi to tell us that “if there aren’t bullet-holes in it, it’s not original.” Apparently the Battle for Berlin took a huge toll, as 70-80% of the entire city was flattened during the war.
Next we headed across the street to the museum (called “Museum”) and a huge protestant church that looked Catholic. Across the green was where the old Palace used to stand. As we walked over to it, Heidi showed us a picture of Hitler walking on the exact same path as us surrounded by thousands of Nazi supporters. That was the first of many times on the tour that we got some serious goosebumps.
The old Palace was demolished by the Soviets after WWII and replaced by a more efficient communist building, which was in turn demolished by the new German government after the wall came down. Currently it is a big empty space, but is in the process of being re-built. She mentioned that the people got to vote on what would go there and that people in Berlin vote on absolutely every government decision. Not only that, but the Parliament building is open from 8 am to midnight and the public is free to hang around as long as they like. Obviously the current German government wants everything to be transparent and clear to the people. It makes you wonder if, because of all the horrible things that happened in the past, Germany could become the new paradigm of modern democracy. I guess time will tell, but apparently they’re doing pretty well.
That was a recurring theme on the tour. So much of Berlin is still being renovated nearly 70 years after the end of the war. We would pass things and Heidi would actually say things like, “That statue just went up yesterday” or “the roof of that building will be finished next week.”
We saw tons of things that will have to be relayed in person, and I’m so glad that we did the tour. It was very informative and added a lot of detail to a city full of stories and history. Appropriate for the subject matter, this was by far our coldest, dreariest day of the trip. We used all the layers we had in our backpacks and were still shivering at times. Remarkably, there was a girl from Hawaii who was wearing flip-flops for the entire four-hour tour. I swear I’m not kidding. Her little toes were as red as Currywurst.
Speaking of currywurst, we got some for lunch after the tour. It’s a local specialty and was referred to by Heidi as “wartime food” which usually means it’s terrible. Hanna bravely ordered it for her entrée while I just got the “tapas-sized” version. The sausage itself wasn’t bad but it was covered in a “special sauce” that was basically curry-flavored ketchup. Hanna managed to put aside her hatred of condiments and get through most of it, but I can’t imagine she enjoyed it too much.
Afterwards we went to the Topography of Terror, which is a museum next to one of the few remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall. It is in an open-air museum in what used to be the basement of the SS building where the interrogations (aka torture) were held. It was quite extensive and we actually couldn’t get through it all before it got dark.
After that we went to the Haus dam Checkpoint Charlie Museum which was located, appropriately enough, right next to Checkpoint Charlie (the old passport station between East and West Berlin). The museum gave history about the Wall, but was mostly about all the ways in which people attempted (sometimes successfully) to get over, under, around, or through the Wall.
There were tons of stories: cars modified to fit people where the engine should have been, homemade airplanes, two families that came together to make what was, at the time, Europe’s biggest hot air balloon with no prior knowledge of the subject.
It was all amazing and truly unbelievable, but our favorite story had to be this one: a man and his wife were separated, the man in the West and the woman in the East. The man started dating a girl in the West that looked a lot like his wife. He then traveled with her to the East (as West Berliners were legally able to do). While in the East, he arranged a meeting with his wife, ditched his “girlfriend”, and took her passport. His wife then used it for safe passage back to the West.
The guy was later caught and sentenced to 7 months in jail, which I’m sure he was more than willing to serve given the fact that his wife was now safely in the West. Hanna remarked about how often these stories of remarkable escape are tied to love.