The last time I was in Europe, I explored almost nothing of Northern and Eastern Europe, so upon getting this job in Russia I knew I had to make the most of it. The last couple of weeks of vacation, which I’ll unspool in blog and picture form over the next month or two, Jeonghee and I certainly did that.
Our first step was Berlin, a very metropolitan city where we even found a Peruvian grocery store next to our hostel, but full of reminders of darker moments of the last century. Our hostel was right by Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous border crossing which was the only place you could legally cross from West to East Berlin. It’s just a small guard shack now, surrounded by touristy museums and the famous “You’re now leaving the American Quarter” sign.
The Bundestag was our next stop, which you might recognize as the Reichstag, especially its bombed-out shell bristling with Communist flags at the end of World War II. Now it’s topped by a glass dome evocative of those pictures, and surrounded by beautiful green lawns full of lovers and picnickers. It was the perfect sunny day to sit back on teh lawn and relax a bit, especially faced with Russian snows at the end of the trip. Nearby are Germany’s answer to the Arc D’Triomphe, the statuary-topped Brandenburg Gate, and the Memorial to the Jews of Europe with its field of stone cubes of different heights. Further on was the gorgeous Gendarmenmarkt Square, with two Cathedrals sandwiching the classical Konzerthaus, and Alexanderplatz with its imposing space-age TV tower.
We then headed to Berliner Dom, the impressively imposing German National Cathedral (turn of the century and newer “National Cathedrals” always are impressive in scope but start to look the same after awhile). The view from the top, though, was beautiful, with Alexanderplatz, Museum Island, and several smaller churches, including the old double-towered Franziskaner Klosterkirche.
Our last stop of the day was the Berlin Wall Memorial. We’d seen a couple of slabs of the original Wall, covered in graffiti, in a plaza earlier in the day, but this is where the building began, with Soviets one day separating a street with boxes and barbed wire in 1961, then building increasingly elaborate barriers up to the mini-DMZ that you can see reconstructed here. There’s also a park, original rebar from the wall, and the Reconciliation Cathedral, a wooden memorial of an ironically named church the Soviets destroyed in the process. It’s a sobering reminder of a time that most adult Germans certainly remember, but which seems so far away now walking down Berlin’s clean, modern boulevards.
The next morning we headed over to Museum Island to see one of Berlin’s many world-class museums. We chose the Neues Museum, which showcases German archaeological finds from all over the world. My favorite, of course, were the artifacts Heinrich Schliemann brought back from Troy. I was obsessed with archaeology as a kid, and Schliemann and his pursuit of actual sites mentioned in the Odyssey and Iliad, from Mycenae to Agamemnon’s Palace to the fabled Troy itself captured my imagination. He also was one of the first treasure hunters to apply the scientific method, helping establish archaeology as a science. Seeing the results of his work in real life was incredible. The broad, most interesting theme of the museum, was the interaction of cultures, which practically everywhere was happening earlier and on a larger scale than most realize, from Vikings in the Mediterranean to Romans in Germany. It’s one of the most interesting museums I’ve had the luck of visiting.