Museum Hopping till Your Head Spins
In typical Nadya fashion, I spent the ENTIRE day walking around Berlin, save for a short break around dinner. I racked up 30,000 steps on my step counter, I went into four museums and I watched on amazing sunset from the dome of the Reichstag, to sum it up.
I started my day with a coffee at the coffee spot just across from my AirBnB. I sat outisde and people watched as I drank the juice of life ;). It stayed busy while I was there but most people only popped in for a coffee to go. I continued seeing tons of people on bikes, and since it was Monday morning, this included men and women in full business gear. Some women ever wore pumps! Hats off, ladies.
My AirBnb was an easy 15 minute walk from where I wanted to start my day. Unter den Linden, the main boulevard in Berlin, conveniently strings together most of its major sites. I did the Eastern half of the walk – I’ll do the Western half tomorrow. The walk was detailed in my Rick Steves guidebook and I had downloaded an audio guide through the phone app to follow along with. You can easily do the entire walk in one day, but I only did the second half of the walk as I was using it as a spine to go into the museums along the way.
Unter Den Linden and the entire center of Berlin, really, is undergoing major construction. I could hardly take a photo without a crane in it. Despite the inconvenience, I am excited to come back here in a few years to see what they’ve built.
I started my walk at Bebelplatz, where Humboldt University is located. This is where the Grimm brothers studied and Einstein taught before he escaped to Princeton. The opera house across it was getting renovated, but a window in the pavement was left outside the construction area. Looking below, I could see empty bookshelves – this is a memorial to the book burning that took place here under Hitler. Yes, he burnt books just across from the university! Nearby, on another plaque in the pavement, is a quote from Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will eventually burn people.” That quote is from 1820!
Continuing down the steet, I passed Neue Wache – previously the emperor’s guardhouse, it’s now a memorial to all victims of dictatorship and tyranny. A lone statue inside, “Mother and her dead son”, is quite powerful.
Then I passed the pink arsenal building – the oldest on the boulevard, which now houses the German History Museum. It hadn’t opened yet and I had a reservation for the Pergamon anyway, so I had to keep going, but made a note to come back here later, since I was staying in the vicinity.
Just past the German History Museum, across the Spree river, I visited the Berliner Dom – a marvelous protestant cathedral built at the turn of the 20th century, and climbed its dome, although I was disappointed with a little inside walkway that didn’t provide the views I was hoping for. Back down on the street, I discovered what the circular thing in the ground in the middle of the garden in front of the dome was – it was a fountain! I guess it gets started at 10 am. 🙂 I was a little upset these people don’t cater to the early bird – come on, 10 am??? 🙂
The next 3 stops on my walk were museums – the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum and the DDR (also known as East Germany) Museum. The first two are part of Museum Island, a complex of five museums on a literal island formed by a split in the Spree River. The Museum Island (Museuminsel in German) is a UNESCO world heritage site. The DDR Museum is not part of this complex but was right next door.
The Pergamon museum is nothing short of impressive, and for me, the perfect size for a museum – you can get a good look at its best pieces in a couple of hours without feeling rushed, and without feeling like you are missing out on anything (my mad dash through the British museum to get to its best pieces comes to mind as a contrast). The audio guide included with the ticket price provided wealth of information not found on the signs.
The museum houses life-size items such as the Ishtar Gate of Babylon and the Pergamon altar, its namesake, although the hall containing the Pergamon is being renovated and won’t reopen until 2019. The construction work inside and outside the museum could cause vibrations, so the Ishtar gate itself had a bit of protective scaffolding. The Ishtar gate is absolutely breathtaking. Its size is imposing, and I was amazed to find out a larger gate sat behind it, but the museum isn’t large enough to display it. The processional leading up to the gate is also included. The Ishtar gate was the 8th gate the inner city of Babylon, and it was constructed in the 6th century BC. It is adorned with alternating rows of dragons and bulls, which symbolize Babylonian gods. It was excavated at the turn of the century by a German archaeologist. The excavations were interrupted by WWI but were later resumed and completed. Some bricks had to be reconstructed so that the entire gate can be displayed.
Through the Ishtar gate, in another hall, were two other highlights – the Trajaneum and the market gate of Milet.
Other highlights for me in this museum were two gorgeous prayer niches, a wood-carved dome from the Alhambra in Spain, and the Aleppo room – all pictured. There was also a thoughtful photo exhibit by a Syrian photographer, who documented life in his home country before the war started.
Before going into the next museum, I took a coffee break outside and took a little time to enjoy the people and the architecture around me.
The Neues Museum was just ok. I made a beeline for its showpieces – the golden hat from the bronze age, and the statue of Nefertiti, where I took a photo I wasn’t supposed to (but nobody noticed).
I had a lot of fun ad the DDR Museum. It was the most interactive museum I’ve ever been in – pretty much everything was meant to be opened or touched, unlike most museums. Artifacts of the communists regime in East Germany were everywhere, and the descriptions made fun of it all. What’s not to be made fun of – the regime there, as well as in Bulgaria, was ridiculous. Rules and regulations for everything existed – how much to exercise, what to read, what newspapers to pay attention to, what to watch on TV, even what to eat. Every single banal item of everyday life became a stand against the capitalist West – the car you drove, the fashion you wore, everything. If it were made in the West, it was bad and you were not to have it, and you were supposed to praise the inferior counterparts that were made by the inept communist government. Case in point – the Trabant car, which was East Gerrmany’s response to the VW bug. Life was curated by the elite to the most minute detail. Of course, the communist elite itself, although “equal” to everyone else, lived in the lap of luxury, enjoyed Western goods and traveled freely to the West, while everyone in the DDR was relegated to traveling to sister communist countries like Bulgaria. There were two actual post-cards from my country in the travel section of the exhibit. The only stand the East German people managed to stage was the habit of sunbathing in the nude, which, although initially not sanctioned by the DDR, eventually became the symbol of a classless society (at least that’s how the DDR spinned it, once it realized it couldn’t keep people from getting naked on the beach). The exhibit that talked about this was quite…revealing. 🙂
One of the many economic problems the DDR faced was a severe housing shortage. With no private enterprise and with a growing population of little communists, the DDR had to do something to appease the masses. Its solution – building gigantic concrete buildings that were the epitome of ugly. A model apartment was built in the museum for us to explore. I laughed at the cassette deck and the rotary phone – items I grew up with, but which are unfamiliar for an ever-growing portion of the museum goers. Having grown up in a version of the DDR regime myself, I remember quite a bit even though I was only 9 when communism fell. It took a long time for the vestiges of communism to disappear in Bulgaria. The trabant car everyone else was clamoring to climb into was no big deal to me, as there were plenty of them in Bulgaria, together with their Russian counterparts, the Ladas. Having a museum document all this in one place shines a bright light on how ridiculous it all was.
After the DDR museum, I finished the rest of the Rick Steves walk – I passed the Red Rathaus (mayor’s office), the TV tower and Alexanderplatz. I debated whether to go up the TV tower, but the long line dissuaded me. I decided to circle back to the German History museum instead. Although the exhibits were a little too detailed for me, I enjoyed the museum and some of its most interesting pieces; for example, a stone cross used to mark the African coast as sailors looked for a sea alternate to the East because of the Ottomans, as well as the Ottoman tent that was kept as booty after the siege of Vienna in 1863. Most jarring for me were the Hitler-era propaganda posters. It’s one thing to read about all this in the history books, it’s another to look at a poster and imagine a time and place where people thought the world of Hitler an followed him blindly. It’s scary. Towards the end of the museum, I found pieces of the Berlin wall while a TV showed archive footage from its fall.
By the time I finished, it was 5 pm – I was tired and hungry, and I needed to go back to my AirBnB to pick up the paperwork for my reservation to climb the Reichstag dome that evening. I had dinner at the Syrian place that had caught my eye the day before, when I had my Chinese dinner right next door. Since it was early, I had no problem getting a seat this time. My server turned out to be North African (from Morocco). He recommended the mixed plate, which had a little bit of everything – couscous, baba ghanoush, hummus, falafel, taboule… It was yummy and just what I needed!
After a stop at the apartment, I was ready to head back out. An S-Bahn and and U-Bahn ride later, I was on the square in front of the Reichstag.
The Reichstag is just over a century old, but it has endured quite a lot in its time. After the fall of the monarchy after WWI, the new German republic – the Weimar republic – was proclaimed from here in 1918. In 1933, the building mysteriously caught fire, and Hitler used this to instill the fear of instability in the masses and advance his own cause. After WWII, the Berlin Wall passed right behind it and the building was nearly abandoned. For its centennial in 1995, the Bulgarian-born artist Christo wrapped it in white cloth, after which the British Architect Norman Foster added the glass cupola. Two sloped ramps climb 755 feet above the roof terrace and provide fine views of the city. The dome is open at the top – the design lets air circulate out of the legislative chamber. When it rains, the dome stays open but there is a system for collecting the rain and diverting it so that it doesn’t go into the legislative chamber.
I had scheduled my Reichstag dome visit for 7:30 pm, hoping to catch a nice sunset. All day, the weather alternated between sun and clouds – one minute the sun would be blazing, the next minute it’d be sprinkling. I was losing hope that I would get my dream sunset but I was wrong – there was a sliver of blue sky right on the horizon, and the setting sun came out in full glory and set everything ablaze for a good half hour. It was just amazing. The dome itself was gorgeous. I only needed to point and shoot to snap a good photo.
I realized while I was up there that the Brandenburg was close by, and even though I am going to see all this again tomorrow when I do the Eastern section of Unter Den Linden, I couldn’t help but stop by and take some photos in the twilight.
On my way home, I encountered a small group of people marching in protest against the refugees (at least as far as I could tell from what they were shouting). On a street corner, an even smaller group of people stood in defiance, waving a rainbow and a European flag (I assumed as symbols of tolerance and inclusiveness). This country has been divided before, and even though the Berlin wall is no more, this protest was a reminder to me that there is still a lot of ground left to cover in the unification of this nation.