All good things must come to an end. My Germany adventure that started in the quiet city of Frankfurt, then on to a raucous stop in Munich for Oktoberfest, was ending in the historic, divisive and colorful city of Berlin at the Hotel de Rome.
Our introduction to Berlin began just outside the lovely Hotel de Rome which, resides on the historic Bebelplatz, the site of the infamous Nazi book burning ceremonies. We were met in the lobby of our hotel by our guide Alex from Rent-a-Bike. I thought I knew German and World War II history well, but he would spend the next hour and a half passionately educating us on Berlin’s past and present, before leading us outside to our two wheeled transportation for the day where we’d spend the next two hours on an alternative tour of East Berlin, the wall and the Jewish Quarter.
It is true what they say — you never forget how to ride a bike! After a few very shaky starts and stops, and a near miss with a bus that earned me a position behind the guide for the rest of the day, (#fallrisk) I was off!
Our first stop was the Jewish Quarter in West Berlin. There are still vestiges of bombed buildings and reclaimed spaces, now turned into parks. Although some, like Clärchens Ballhaus, are physically frozen in 1913, which still serves as an active vibrant dance hall for the traditional dances of the past and present. The cobblestone streets with their bronze plaques identify the homes and families deported to concentration camps, and are a stark reminder of the brutal unforgiving history of Nazi occupation and the persecution of millions, for their religious and political beliefs, or physical handicaps.
Growing up, I was a child in the 60’s and the political struggle of West and East Berlin over the next several decades was a harsh reality. The Berlin wall and the city it divided was not really anyplace I would have expected to visit, let alone enjoy so much that I cannot wait to go back.
West Berlin is very much like any big European city with all that they offer for sightseeing, world cuisine and entertainment. I found East Belin to fascinate me the most, as we pedaled across a very definitive line that still exists, and onto the former Stalinalle, a monumental socialist boulevard. Built to celebrate the Russian occupation, East Belin is a place that is lost in time. It is full of artisans, cafes, shoemakers, tailors and butcher shops, WW II era architecture and not a Target in sight.
The fall of the Wall in 1989, brought many changes and improvements to the East, yet to this day they are a community that relishes in artistic expression of their newfound freedom. East Berliners have a fierce need to maintain their independence from the West. After the wall came down, the “hippies, punks, and artists” took up residence in East Germany. To this day they strive to express what was suppressed, often through vibrant street art and graffiti, with a fierce independence from Western influence. You will not find popular fast food, shopping chains, neon lights and flashy buildings here —and East Berliners are okay with that.
The last stop on our bike tour was the Berlin wall. Even though I’ve seen a thousand pictures, in my mind, the wall is three stories high and just as wide. In reality, today it is only 11 feet tall and 7 feet wide, and yet still manages to be imposing and threatening, despite that it is in pieces and crumbling.
During my trip to Berlin, I experienced just enough to gather my interest to see more. The remnants of WWII and the Cold War still remain and are very visible. To my surprise, Germans have not forgotten their mark on history, or the burden they share in educating the world to ensure what happened here is never allowed it to happen again.
There is so much that I wasn’t able to get to see and do in the day that I had, but our two hour bike tour turned into five, as we tried to see as much as we could. As we pedaled tiredly back to the Hotel de Rome, our thoughts turned to cocktails and a view of the sunset from the fabulous rooftop bar.
The following day, as we said our farewells and headed off to the airport I could not help but think that I wished someone had warned me about Berlin. I had no idea what to expect, but in a million years I never thought I would fall in love with a city so hard or that I would get back on a bike for the first time in 30 years and enjoy every minute!