***Just like in my Helsinki blog (Helsinki, Finland: “The Pearl of the Baltic Sea”.), my fashion choices during this period of my life were horrendous.*** 🥲
I always wanted to visit Germany, as my mother’s entire side of the family hails from there. I am a 3rd generation American on my mother’s side (and my father’s, whose father was from Mexico). Both my maternal grandparents fled Germany as children with their families during WWII, for the crime of being Jewish. I lost multiple family members in the Holocaust, including my grandfather’s aunt, who was murdered at Auschwitz. None of my family who made it to America returned permanently to Germany, but many would visit periodically. Last year I did a 23&Me DNA test, confirming what I already highly suspected; that I was 49% Ashkenazi Jew, a group of people dating back to Germany since the Middle Ages. I knew this was my DNA because both my mother and aunt had done a 23&Me and they are 99% Ashkenazi Jew. While most of my family has visited Germany multiple times, I only visited the Fatherland once (in Germany, they call it “Fatherland”). We went to Berlin, the capital, and it was… well, it was certainly… a time. 🥴
Berlin is the largest city in Germany, by far, and it sits approximately 3 hours inland from the coast. Therefore, we had to take a bus to and from the port where our cruise ship docked. I honestly didn’t mind this, because we got to see quite a bit of the German countryside. It reminds me of the Oklahoma countryside – rolling hills, lots of green, and patches of trees everywhere. The city of Berlin, on the other hand, is a beast. It’s humongous, with so many people and terrible traffic, yet so much history and things to do. Sadly, my friend and I had our best possible Berlin experience stolen from us by protesters… but more on that later.
Berlin is colossal, very industrial feeling, and can be a tad overwhelming; at least it was for me. It’s currently ranked as the 4th largest city in Europe, behind only Moscow, London, and Saint Petersburg. It’s the largest city in Germany, both by area and population, with around 3.8 million people calling it home. People have lived in this area for centuries, with the earliest settlement found in the area dating to 1174, and the first written record of towns in the area date back to the 12th century. Berlin has been through a lot throughout the years, from the Black Plague to Hitler and WWII, to the Cold War, communism, and the Berlin Wall.
One of my best friends was living in Germany at the time, since her husband was stationed there with the Army. Living about 4 hours from Berlin, she drove 8 hours roundtrip just to see me for a few hours (love her ❤️). We hadn’t seen each other in almost 3 years, and it was incredibly overdue. Since Berlin is 3 hours inland, one of the best ways to see the city, while ensuring you’ll make it back to the ship in time, is to book a tour with an independent company familiar with cruise ships. My family was going on a tour – I wasn’t – but the company let us pay for me to hitch a ride with them to and from Berlin, with the caveat that if I wasn’t at our arranged meeting spot on time, they could (and would) leave without me. It was a risk, but what’s life without some risks? Also, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to finally see my bff!
Our meeting spot was Charlottenburg Palace, a 17th century palace that faced major damage during WWII but has since been restored. It was commissioned in 1695 by Sophie Charlotte, the wife of Friedrich I, Elector of Brandenburg, a man who later crowned himself King Friedrich I in Prussia in 1701. Sophie Charlotte died in 1705, and Friedrich then named the palace after her. It’s located at Spandauer Damm 10-22, 14059 Berlin, Germany and is open daily (except Monday) from 10am to 5:30pm. They offer tours of the palace, but we unfortunately didn’t get to tour the inside, since our time in Berlin was very limited. For both of us, the Berlin Wall was our number one MUST SEE, so off we went.
The remnants of the Berlin Wall are a constant physical reminder of Cold War-era German communism. At the end of WWII, Germany was split into two states, West Germany (a.k.a the Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (a.ka. the Marxist-Leninist German Democratic Republic). West Germany consisted of the American, British, and French zones established during the war, while East Germany consisted of the Soviet zone. Berlin was trapped dead in the middle of these two states: hence the birth of the Berlin Wall. The wall was built by the Communist government of East Germany starting in 1961, with the first makeshift, barbed-wire version going up in just two weeks. Travel to Western Germany from the Eastern side was all but strictly forbidden, although Westerners could travel to the Eastern side under strict travel guidelines. Eventually, on November 9th, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and was subsequently almost totally demolished. Of course, multiple sections of the wall still exist today, some even on other continents (like the section at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California).
There are numerous locations to view the wall in Berlin, and we ended up by chance at the Topography of Terror location. Located at Niederkirchnerstraße 8, 10963 Berlin, Germany, the Topography of Terror is the memorial and documentation building that sits next to the wall, dedicated to the horrors of the Nazis. The section of wall itself doesn’t have a name, but if you head to the Topography of Terror, you cannot miss it. It’s completely free to view and touch, and they have information throughout. It wasn’t crowded when we were there, in June, mid-morning. I was super happy to see the Berlin Wall, as this was my number-one priority the second I stepped foot onto German soil. I’m happy that this need to see the wall drove us to visit it first, as the rest of our day would quickly go downhill, leaving us with zero time to see much else.
After taking in the wall and its history, we decided to do what good tourists do, which was to hop on the HoHo. We had zero issues with the HoHo… at first… and seeing some of the iconic spots was a breeze. We stopped to see the Gendarmenmarkt, which was pretty awesome considering it was built in 1688. It’s a giant square that includes the Konzerthaus (concert hall), the French Church or Französischer Dom (built between 1701 and 1705), and the German Church or Deutscher Dom (built in 1708). The Konzerthuas is the most recent addition to the square, being built only in 1821. It was created by Johann Arnold Nering in the late 1600’s, and later reconstructed by Georg Christian Unger in 1773. Unfortunately, most of the buildings (and the square itself) were badly damaged during WWII, as was the norm for most major European cities. They have all since been restored. Also unfortunately, it was after this stop that our day began going to scheißen.
So, the funny thing about Europe; they LOVE their protests. We saw numerous protests in multiple countries, and Germany was unluckily one of them. People in “V for Vendetta” masks were protesting and making a huge fuss, about something to do with labor. It was unfortunate because the polizei (German for police) shut down almost every single main street in inner-city Berlin. This was massively bad for us, as this was where most of the iconic sights are located. These street shutdowns forced traffic to filter to the outside residential areas of the city, and we essentially became captives on the HoHo since we were so far outside the main part of the city that getting off and trying to find our own way back, without speaking any German, was simply not feasible. Also, my friend had her then 2-year-old son with her, so alas, staying on the HoHo was our safest option.
I was on an extreme time crunch, so here is where we started to get very, very nervous. I attempted to speak to the bus driver, to ask where we were and if we would be at the train station soon (near Charlottenburg Palace, where Lindsey’s car was parked). He literally screamed at me in German while gesturing wildly and madly at the traffic. I took the hint, and just sat down and hoped for the best.
We were stuck on the HoHo for a good two hours before we were finally able to make our way to the train station. We (gratefully) welcomed a different HoHo driver onboard (I’m not sure if it was shift change or ‘ole dude had enough for the day… I still wonder to this day). I tried my luck again and asked if HE knew when we’d be at the palace. By the grace of God, he spoke to me calmly in English, and said we’d be at Charlottenburg Palace in a few minutes. He was correct, and we quickly hopped in my friend’s car and began driving towards the park where I was set to meet my family. It was a comical, albeit stressful car ride, given that she was driving a massive American-style SUV down tiny European streets meant for compact cars, bikes, and mopeds. Plus, every single street that the GPS kept screaming at us to turn onto was blocked by police. We eventually found a teeny, tiny street that wasn’t blocked off, wedged her gigantic car into a tiny spot, and powerwalked our way to the park.
We ended up beating my family and the tour group to the park by a good 30 minutes. We grabbed pizza (in Germany, I know, but it was the only close-by restaurant) and waited. We tinkered around in a nearby souvenir shop, and once they finally arrived, it was quick goodbyes, some pictures, and off on the 3-hour return drive.
I, once again, felt slightly short-changed during this visit. It’s not the worst I’ve felt after visiting somewhere, but it’s certainly not the best. While I’m extremely grateful that we at least got to drive past the famous Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburg Gate, we were not able to get out, walk up to them, touch them, or visit them. We couldn’t go to the Holocaust Museum either, something I really wanted to visit. This was all because a good 3 hours of our day was stolen from us by the protest. However, I am eternally grateful that we did get to see the Berlin Wall. I probably couldn’t stomach it if we hadn’t! Even though this is one of my least informative blogs (in terms of different things to do and see), I wanted to include it because it’s reality. Sometimes things don’t always go according to plan while traveling, especially if you’re in the area for only a short period of time. It’s just something to be aware of and prepared for. As my family’s roots are firmly in Germany, I’m more than certain that I will make a return trip in the future. Hopefully it will be protest-free this time!
Ich werde dich wiedersehen Deutschland!