…Then we take Berlin.
No, actually. That’s what we did.
Cologne is a largish city in the west of Germany, one of a cluster of four (the others being Dusseldorf, Essen, and Dortmund) that for reasons best known to themselves are huddled together near the western border of the country. While Cologne may not seem like a big deal, it is apparently one of the more popular destinations in Germany, likely owing to two reasons. The first is that Cologne, being in the west, is easily accessible from the rest of western Europe; the second is because it is the home of the Cologne Cathedral.
Note the teeny tiny people near the church doors; that should give you a sense of scale. Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s not only huge, but intricately decorated inside and out.
Entry to the church is free, but for a small fee you can climb its left bell-tower, which provides some insight into the church’s construction as well as some cool views of the city below. Unfortunately, due to some silly safety restrictions, the view is somewhat marred by, well:
Cologne was a nice city, but honestly, nothing in it comes close to matching the awesomeness of Cologne Cathedral. We sauntered around, went to a chocolate museum, left because it was too expensive, and then ate some mustard before heading on our way.
Berlin was a very different experience. Our overall impression of the city was that while much of the world may consider WWII to be ancient history, Berlin is still very much feeling its aftershock. The city is riddled with reminders— some intentional, some not— of what transpired during the war and what happened afterwards, with the division and eventual re-unification of the city. It was fascinating, if a little draining to see all of the memorials and museums, and made us realize jut how little we knew about the war.
On our first day there, we joined a free walking tour of the city, which hit up most of the sights in Berlin’s downtown core. In order:
Brandenburg Gate, one of Germany’s most well-known landmarks, and the starting point of our tour.
The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, whose name more or less explains its purpose. A forest of concrete slabs that are sunk into the ground at various depths, which get progressively taller towards the center of the installation. This is horribly inappropriate, but I was extremely tempted to jump along the tops of the slabs like Mario. I didn’t, though some of the monument’s other visitors did not display the same restraint.
Checkpoint Charlie, what used to be the location of one of the Berlin Wall’s many checkpoints, and what is now unfortunately a highly artificial tourist trap. Still, the checkpoint is notable in that it was almost the location where WWIII broke out (apparently, some American soldier was turned away from the checkpoint due to a lack of paperwork, and instead of fetching it decided to fetch a tank— you can imagine how the situation went downhill rapidly from there).
This picture shows three sights in one. In the back is an old building once used as Nazi headquarters, seized for use by the Russians after the war. In front of it is one of the remaining sections of the Berlin wall, crumbling and covered in graffiti. In the very foreground is part of the Topography of Terror, an indoor/outdoor museum dedicated to the Gestapo and SS. Scary stuff.
Finally, the parking lot where Hitler spent the last of his days:
…Okay, so it was actually a bunker under the ground of what is now a parking lot. Our guide pointed out how notable it was that there was no acknowledgment that this was the location of Hitler’s death, and claimed it was the best possible tribute to Hitler’s legacy. We can’t say we have an opinion one way or the other, but it was certainly interesting.
Of course, there was more to Berlin than WWII memorials. The city is also known for the aptly named Museum Island, an island in the center of the city with lots of museums on it. Though Berlin’s museums are all very expensive, we visited the island anyway, wandering around and soaking in the impressive architecture. This included the Berlin Cathedral below:
No Cologne Cathedral, but impressive nonetheless.
Berlin also had lots of cheap beer.
That’s 69 cents a bottle for the posh beer on the right, and 31 cents a bottle for the cheapie beer in the middle. No wonder the Germans drink so much: the beer is cheaper than the water!
While most of Berlin resembles the pictures above, there is another side to the city— a prominent counterculture is present here, which comes out more in some parts of the city than others. The area just south of our lodgings, for example, was rife with graffiti, outdoor clubs, and abandoned buildings and public spaces re-purposed as chillout zones by Berlin’s youth.
This area, which is apparently a fairly well-known sight, took us completely by surprise, and was the cause of one of the bigger culture shocks we’ve experienced on this trip. People lounged around drinking beer (legal in Germany), slept on mattresses strewn at the side of the road, and played badminton by the riverside.
That’s it for Berlin. We have one last stop in Germany— Dresden in the southeast— before moving on to the Czech Republic.
The Eh Team