Discovering Berlin

Today I'm enjoying the luxury of the Berlin Hilton on the Gendarmenmarkt, a plaza that features two cathedrals, a Concert Hall, and an Opera House. The weather is beautiful, 50-65 degrees, with the kind of clear blue sky you wish was your eye color.

Berlin, as those of us of a certain age remember, is a city once divided by The Wall, a barbed-wire topped cement wall thrown up by the Soviets that divided the city into East and West Berlin. West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany, was kept alive initially with continuous airlifts of food and other supplies by the U.S military. The Wall, with its No-Man's land of land mines and guard towers, was a constant source of stories of courage and determination, as East Berliners tried every scheme possible to get to the West. This included tunnels, car trunk smuggling, hot air balloons, zip lines, and doomed attempts to run No-Man's land. A famous crossing point, Checkpoint Charlie, where U.S. and Soviet tanks faced each other just 200 yards apart, is very near my hotel.
 

And, how about that, who should walk through the doors of the Berlin Hilton this morning but John, my drinking buddy from back home and determined first-time Europe visitor. Doubtful of all my bragging about the fabulousness of German Oktoberfest beer, he decided to call my bluff and join me for the Berlin leg of my trip and luckily snagged a room on Expedia in the Hilton. But, as he has learned, I'm right, and now he's enjoying having his scepticism disproved. Here we are, at right, enjoying one litre steins, ein mass, of tasty Oktoberfest brew from the famous Augustiner brewery and chowing down on some traditional German fare, heavy on the carbs.

Earlier today we took a open-top bus tour of the city, which was a good way to discover the high points and get the lay of the land. It's amazing how the drivers are able to maneuver those big buses through tight city streets. We were treated to an exhibition of these skills when we encountered a Greenpeace demonstration snarling the main drag and had to do some impressive side street navigating.

John is jet-lagged but says he's recovering fast and, after a restorative nap this afternoon, he'll certainly be able to put some bartenders through their paces tonight. It's interesting for me, having traveled solo for so long, to have someone else along.

What an interesting city Berlin is. It has an ancient history filled with kings and palaces, was home to the brutal Nazi government, was nearly bombed flat during WWII, was divided by The Wall during the Cold War, and was beautifully rebuilt afterwards. Now it's a thriving, modern metropolis with a polite and well-educated population, full of art and architecture worth seeing. For 24 years, The Wall was part of its psyche and, though taken down in 1989, it remains a strong presence, through actual remnants and a brick line that crosses all paved areas tracing its course. It is, of course, a tourist draw, but also a lingering testament to the possibilities of a peaceful end to tyranny.

 

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