FROM GORTLEE TO BERLIN

BERLIN: YOU HAD ME AT ‘HALLO.’

Originally penned in November 2021

Last month, I took advantage of the mid term break by taking a wee scoot over to the German capital of Berlin. As modern and trendy as this famous city is, it still is something of a geek heaven Graceland for a History teacher like me. 

By Jonathan Foley 

Berlin puts on the face of a modern-day hipster vibe. A place that shows itself to be highly tolerant and progressive. This draws back to the city’s immersion with creative arts and entrepreneurial spirit after the Second World War. 

Make no mistake though. It’s not a place to see your ‘typical Germany.’ The idea of seeing stout men in lederhosen swigging an enormous frothy beer or blonde girls with braided pigtails singing ‘Edelweiss’ won’t be found in the capital.

It’s modern, fast paced and high-tech. Having said that, there are some wonderful old buildings and churches found throughout the city. Each one with their own unique story to tell. 

Upon one of my many strolls, I passed by the Berlin Cathedral. At first glance, one could assume it is centuries old. Something that might be similar in age to the Basilica in Rome or Notre Dame in Paris, but don’t be fooled. 

This gem was built as recently as 1905. Legend has it that Kaiser Wilhelm had grown a tad envious of similar structures he’d seen when traveling Europe and, just maybe, he just huffed and pouted until he got one too. 

As a sports fan, there was no way I could miss out on the Olympiastadion. To the untrained eye, it’s where Hertha Berlin play their home games and where Zinidine Zidane was infamously sent off in the 2006 World Cup Final. 

More than that, however. It’s also the venue where the 1936 Olympics were centered. The games that will forever be linked to how Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime used sport as a means of showcasing their supposed superiority to the world. Until Jesse Owens came along. 

The wall, which had divided the city until November 1989, or at least what remains of it, can be found in smatterings across the city. I first spotted it at Beckaneurstrase which was where the first blocks of the wall were erected, overnight, by the occupying Soviet forces in 1961. 

At this site, you can stand where a ‘no man’s land’ will show how scaling the wall was only part of the job for escapees. Numerous other obstacles including tripwires, land mines and lookout towers were just some of the other barriers that had to be faced. 

There’s always time to enjoy some of the artwork around Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate and Victory Column will give you a taste of the days and successes of the old Prussian Empire while Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag will give you a feel for the more modern. 

What I found interesting about the Reichstag is that it now has a glass dome on the roof. Apparently, this is to symbolize the parliament becoming more transparent and visible to the people compared to the past. And they never did quite find out who burned it down in 1932. Hmm? 

Foodwise, I must confess I’m not a huge fan of German grub. Currywurst – if you can call that German – is probably the signature dish of the city. A pretty basic sausage and chips drowned in curry but it goes down great with a large, cold beer. 

For a pint, chances are you’ll only be spending about €4 a go which, compared to Dublin, is a bit of a steal. A lot of locals do fear though that if prices keep going up, the city will fall victim to inflation and gentrification which will lead to everyone being charged ‘tourist prices.’ 

German people themselves are very courteous. They may not be as openly warm and affectionate the way the Italians or the Spanish are but they are very respectable, often highly intelligent and, despite the stereotype, they can be a right good laugh too. 

One girl I met, Marina, explained that Germans are well aware of their tropes, but she admitted she embraces her devotion to punctuality and being organized. She put it best when she said: 

“In other countries, friends will say ‘I’ll give you a call someday or let’s meet up soon.’ Here in Germany, I admit we are more specific and will say things like ‘let’s meet, tomorrow, at six, at this place’ and we won’t be late either!” she joked.

During my pre-trip research – aside from Googling ‘what pubs are good?’ – I did come across some articles stating that although the Wall has come down, there still lies a stark difference between easterners and westerners who share the city. 

Perhaps due to their years under communism, the easterners tend to see themselves as ‘true Germans.’ Ones who avoided being lured by the ideals of capitalism and foreign influence. 

On the flip side, while there is no real animosity between the two, the westerners seem to perceive their neighbours to be radical to the point of xenophobia and racist.

While I’m led to believe that places like Munich and Cologne are more quintessentially German, Berlin still has a lot to offer. Especially if you’re into learning about its, still relatively recent, history. 

There’s a lot of cool museums and galleries where you can learn about the inventiveness of the people who tried to scale the Berlin Wall. There are also some reminders and memorials to those who suffered the Holocaust. 

And if you find yourself scratching your head and pondering why tourists all flock to a simple car park in an apartment building, fear not. This is the site which once was Hitler’s underground bunker. 

Don’t underestimate how big the city is though. It’s essentially the old East and West joining to make one big city. Thankfully though, public transport is cheap and it all runs on a very regular basis. 

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