Early on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, our ship docked in Rostock, Germany, adjacent to the resort town Warnemunde and two and a half hours train ride away from Berlin.
The evening before we were informed via PA that Germany was in the midst of a train strike, which would complicate travel from the port to the capital. Thankfully, the speaker didn’t bury the lede and assured us all scheduled tours would be operated through private charters, so we were unaffected. As much as it would’ve been nice to have Berlin to ourselves, we were pretty thankful that we made a point of joining one of the tours well in advance. I’m sure there was a scramble to sign up following this late breaking development.
A wet morning ensured we moved quickly from the ship to the train, which was visible from our disembarkation point and only a short trot. Each tour group was assigned a car with multiple 6 seated cabins like the Hogwarts Express. Our trip to Berlin was long and relatively uneventful. We met an older French Canadian couple from Montreal and chatted with them a bit. I also spent some time reading Underworld, by Don DeLillo. We were provided a snack, a drink and some coffee if we wanted.
Wolfgang, our tour guide (stereotypical, I know), met us at Berlin Ostbahnhof, the eastern railway station. Once we were gathered we headed to our bus and began our tour of East Berlin.
The first stop was a still intact section of the Berlin Wall. It was crowded, as you’d expect, but there were good opportunities for photos here. The graffiti on the wall was so detailed and vivid that we could easily see why the Germans allow it to keep standing despite the dark period it represents. The messages are all positive displays of unity and progress; hope for a better future.
As we crossed the street back to the bus, I snapped a photo of the Ampelmännchen, the famous traffic signal that has become an icon of East Berlin.
Our next stop was the Kathe Kollwitz Pieta in the Neue Wache, a Neoclassical-styled memorial for victims of war and dictatorship. The inside centers on the Pieta, which is a statue of a mother mourning her dead son.
Next was the Brandenburg Gate, one of the principal symbols of Berlin and the site of a number of historic events during its existence. This area was heavily traveled, by locals, tourists and even some obvious pickpockets trying to weasel their way to people’s wallets. There was a rally taking place by Sozialverband Deutschland, an advocacy group for wounded veterans and the handicapped, just nearby.
After learning some history about the gate, we walked a few blocks over to see the Reichstag, another Neoclassical building that housed the old Weimar Republic’s parliament. Following the unusual 1933 fire, the Nazis used it as a pretext to suspend most liberties under that constitution in favor of national security. This essentially ended the Weimar Republic and ushered in the Third Reich.
Our buffet lunch at the Maritim Hotel was fairly straightforward. We had salads to start, sausage, potatoes and vegetables as part of our entree and apple strudel for dessert. We also had a choice of beer, red or white wine and I chose the beer, which was a simple German pilsener. We also used the extra time here to connect to Wi-Fi and see if the rest of the world was still standing.
After lunch we passed by even more Neoclassical architecture on our way to Checkpoint Charlie. The actual building that stands there is a reproduction of the original and there are fake soldiers standing for photo opportunities in front of it. This area would have been a lot more interesting to just sit and take in had it not been for the huge flow of tourists and the shadow of McDonald’s looming over everything.
The final stop of the day was the Allied War Memorial at the outskirts of the city. Here housed another section of the Berlin wall and an actual checkpoint hut used during the Cold War. There was a lot of WWII memorabilia accompanied by in depth descriptions of the history attached to it. The context was nice, but just seeing such significance on display was very humbling.
We stopped for 15 minutes to quickly buy souvenirs, then returned to our train.
The ride back included a thunderstorm and some more food, as well as conversation with the Canadian couple and another couple from Missouri. The day was long and exhausting, but worth all the effort.
Throughout the day in Berlin I noticed a few things. First, the city is diverse, easily the most multiethnic of the cities we visited. This isn’t surprising given its place in Central Europe and its proximity to the more cosmopolitan places in Europe, but it was still interesting to see. Another were the visible scars still on the city, 26 years after wall fell. Germany is the richest economy in the Eurozone and one of the most influential European powers, yet its capital still bears the marks of a long, torrid 20th century. To stand in places where great and terrible things have happened, not hundreds or thousands of years ago, but in the century I was born, and less than 20 years before my parents were, was a feeling I didn’t allow myself to forget while I was there. Berlin quickly became my favorite stop and I want to return as soon as I can.
Next Stop: Tallinn (After a welcome day at sea).