Roaring down the autobahn at 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) was only the beginning of my love affair with Germany. I met my good friend Mark in Berlin and loved it instantly. Berlin is a progressive, innovative, cultured European capital. Everything in this metropolis is thought-out and well-designed. And, of course, beer is plentiful and cheap.
Considering how much of it was destroyed in WWII, and following that, how it became an ‘island’ in a sea of communist East Germany and thus split in two for nearly thirty years by a big concrete wall, I guess they had a fairly clean slate to work with.
Kind of like after the Chicago Fire of 1871, world famous architects (Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Gehry, Libeskind, Jahn) descended on Germany in the last couple decades… especially after the iron curtain fell and the wall literally came down.
The 100-mile “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart,” as it was called by the East German government, was erected almost overnight in 1961 to stop the outward flow of people into West Berlin which had been divided into French, British, and American Sectors like the rest of West Germany (3 million poured out between 1949 and 1961).
The Wall was 13-feet high, had a 16-foot tank ditch, a no-man’s-land that was 30 to 160 feet wide, and 300 watch towers. During its 28 years standing, there were 1,693 cases when border guards fired, 3,221 arrests, and 5,043 documented successful escapes (565 of these were East German guards). In its progressive way of looking ahead but acknowledging the past, Berlin has laid down a double line of bricks all around the city marking the former site of the wall. Berlin has now taken the opportunity to reinvent itself and has done so in an amazing way.
Forget Singapore—Germany is an uber clean place with one notable exception—dog shit is everywhere. Not sure how or why the innovative and law enforcing Germans have not been able step up to the plate on this one and force their citizenry of dog owners to bag their pooch’s poop like we do in cities in the US.
There was a ton to see in Berlin, a city constantly changing with crane’s silhouettes in the sky as proof, from the reproduction of Checkpoint Charlie to the many green spaces and bike lanes to the haunting Holocaust Memorial and the oft-photographed Brandenburg Gate and so much in-between.
I won’t bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say I would live in this city in a heartbeat. If I had to pick, I had two favorite and opposing neighborhoods. The first is Prenzlauer Berg in what once was bleak East Germany. It is now a cute leafy ‘neighborhoody’ village-like place full of young couples, an inordinate amount of strollers, and cute little boutiques and cafes.
My other favorite place is the architecturally stunning skyscraper ‘times square’ sector known as Potsdamer Platz. It is dominated by the new and jaw-dropping Sony Center designed by German-born and Chicago’s own Helmut Jahn. This is the same man that did the controversial space-ship-like James Thompson Center in Chicago and the huge new Bangkok Airport. Like his other creations, the Sony Center is steel and glass everywhere you look done in a sleek sexy style that makes it hard not to stare upwards in awe. The striking glass atrium is topped by a cirque du soleil-like tent cover that hangs over an entertaining mix of several restaurants, shops, and cinemas.
And rounding out the whole ‘Ich Liebe Berlin’ (I love Berlin) experience was our hostel. Joining the list of some of my favorite sleeps on my trip had to be the brand spankin’ new Sleep-Inn. Run smoothly by a young Berlin couple, Yvonne and Ralph, it was spotless with fluffy new comforters and towels. Plus each room had all these fun whimsical touches like bright splashes of color here and there, murals on the walls and your own cuddly gnome in each room.
You don’t know how much brand new pillows, sheets, and towels mean to this world traveler after sleeping on 87½ different beds, trains, chairs, floors, and couches throughout the year… where, hundreds or perhaps thousands, of other icky travelers had laid their own greasy heads.
I liked it so much I went as far as offering to work there—something I hope to still pursue except for that pesky law forbidding non-EU citizens from working without a work permit. If I can only get them to treat this law as they do with their dog poop… I’ll be all set.