He might have said he was a Berliner but the days have gone since anyone in the German capital could tell you where they were when John F Kennedy was assassinated. Rather, everyone will tell you where they were on November 9, 1989. The night the Wall came down.
Twenty five years have passed since the “Die Berliner Mauer” opened and every year the city and country have seen staggering growth in tourism numbers. There has been something new to do or see each time I have visited the German capital over that quarter of a century as it recreates itself after 28 years of division.
I was, however, a little concerned a visit tailored round the fall of the wall would be the well-known sites that every first time visitor puts at the top of their list of what to do and see. Yet I was extremely surprised by both how little of the divided city’s story I had not seen and the new attractions – if that is the right word – created for the 25th anniversary year.
A calendar of special events is in place such as a “new temporary Berlin Wall” that will be made with thousands of illuminated white balloons floating above a 7.5-mile stretch of the former dividing line. Called “25 Years Fall of the Berlin Wall”, the display will run through the city center. On a clear day, it could be seen from space. But whenever you visit the city in 2014 or beyond there are new commemorative sites, museums, exhibitions and even ways of getting around them.
As well as telling you where they were on the night of November 9, you are bound to hear the account of the chaotic events that followed the East German government approval a new travel law, giving citizens a permanent right to travel, as the domino of events across the Eastern bloc reached Berlin. At a press conference, Günter Schabowski, East German Central Committee Member, was asked when the new law would come into effect. Schabowski is said to have shrugged, checked his notes and ad libbed, “From now”. The border guards had not been informed but as a wave of humanity made their way to that most famous of barriers, the border crossing in Berlin opened and that party began.
Unification of the country didn’t come until 1990, and is celebrated as the Day of German National Unity on October 3. The celebrations throughout the German capital focus on the East-West division of Germany and Berlin, the Cold War, and the peaceful revolution that led to reunification. But it is a celebration tinged with the sadness of the memory of the 170 people killed in attempts to escape over the wall.
Much of the wall has gone and lots of tourists look a little confused trying to work out where it was. However, if they look down they will see two rows of cobblestones that mark where it wound its way around the city and plaques in significant places recording “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989”.
The most famous tourist attraction is the Wall Museum, better known as the Checkpoint Charlie Museum at the reconstructed Checkpoint Charlie with the story of the construction of the wall and escapes from East Germany to the West. Here you gain a sense of the desperation as well as inventiveness of those trying to escape. But perhaps the most poignant is the Berlin Wall Memorial, on Bernauer Strasse, containing the last section of the Berlin Wall that still stands and provides a sense of its foreboding presence. It incorporates one of the largest sections of the Wall, and surviving buildings that had their windows bricked-up to stop escape attempts. Reproductions of some of the most famous images of the Wall are now painted. These include the East Germany soldier jumping the first simple barriers, the barbed wire fence that was rolled out on August 13, 1961. The first death came only weeks later. The best place to see the varied, political, amusing and also sad murals on remaining section of the Wall are at the East Side Gallery, decorated by 118 artists from 21 countries.
It is worth remembering, however, that for generations of East Germans the eastern side of the city was their home. This is remembered in the GDR Museum while a small museum at the Kulturbrauerei opened in November 2013, focussing on the people’s everyday life.
Even if you have been to Berlin before there are new experiences for the commemorations. Near Checkpoint Charlie is a Panorama of the Berlin Wall by the artists Adegar Asisi while nearby is the “Black Box Cold War” exploring its impact on Germany and Europe and a Cold War Museum is planned to open in 2015.
Berlin is more than the city of the wall and now the capital of the reunited Germany. That city includes nearly 450 galleries and 180 museums and collections, three opera houses, restaurants and bars catering for all tastes and even combine food and art, such as the Zagreus Projekt, a unique restaurant that combines food and art; the owner commissions new wall art every two months that depicts the food being served.
Construction is seemingly continuous in a city that is becoming the most exciting modern city in Europe. The glories of the architectural past along and near Under den Linden such as the Brandenburg Gate and neoclassical Gendarmenmarkt square, rub shoulders with post-war grand projects, such as the 1,200 ft. Fernsehturm TV tower in Alexanderplatz, and post-unification projects such as the new glass dome on top of the Reichstag and rather ugly Sony Centre at Potsdammer Platz.
A fabulously fun way of getting round Berlin is on an E-Trike, a three-wheeled electric bike that can zoon around at up to 30 kph taking advantage of the excellent cycle path network and also taking to the open road when safe. But such is the east of using public transport and just walking around you can easily get to know the city in a few days. The Berlin Welcome Card pass also includes discounts to cultural sites.
The city still has two halves although no longer divided by that wall. You will find yourself moving between the former West and East. The West has the shops, bright lights, clubs and bars especially on and surrounding the Kurfürstendamm, famous for the bombed Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church, the broken tooth, which has been maintained to commemorate peace and reconciliation. This is the city that the East Berliners longed for and remains the easiest area of the city to choose as your base. The former East has the architectural and historic gems around the Brandenburg Gate and Under den Linden, and lots of new glitzy buildings and Postdammer Platz that contrast with the Soviet style boulevards and strict but rather elegant rows of identical buildings.
Mike Smith travelled to Berlin as a guest of the German National Tourist Office. http://www.germany.travel. He stayed at the Maritim Hotel Berlin on Stauffenbergstrasse. Tel: +49 (0) 30 20650. http:/www.maritim.com/com/en/hotels/germany/hotel-berlin. He travelled with EasyJet from London Gatwick and Berlin is served by airlines from most UK regional airports.