- Mission 1: Obtain some ostalgie items (East German products) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Track down an original Lenin statue (NOT SUCCESSFUL);
- Mission 3: Ascend the Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm) and play spot the difference between East and West (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Visit the DDR Museum (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Enter the abandoned Spreepark theme park and abandoned Tempelhof Airport (NOT SUCCESSFUL);
- Mission 5: Streetfood challenge- try an authentic currywurst (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 6: Explore the abandoned Teufelsberg US spy station (ACCOMPLISHED).
Highlight: The sheer amount of sightseeing I was able to cram-in thanks to the extremely effective and cost efficient transport network (€7 per day for all modes).
Lowlight: There is not a square metre of visible canvas not tainted with graffiti in the entire city.
Feat of Architecture: Berlin TV Tower (Fernsehturm)…obviously.
Recce fact: Around the former East German zones, you will not find green men on the traffic lights but ampel men (Ampelmännchen).
Recce Advice: Never call a German by their first name in a professional situation unless invited to do so – a colleague of mine once received a disciplinary for this! Also, I have established through experience that one must always cross the road only via pedestrian crossings, even if there are no cars on the road.
The gigantic impaled Soviet disco ball is really a sight to behold. Wherever you go, it seems it is never far away, except when you are directly underneath playing hide and seek with it.
Albeit my third time in Germany, having previously been in Munich and Cologne the previous Winter for business and the Christmas markets (if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all), Berlin was much anticipated. After mapping out a very ambitious itinerary for myself to be accomplished in only a few days, I had already decided that several of the missions weren’t achievable; Tempelhof Airport had recently been set-up to accommodate up to 7,000 refugees, Spreepark was almost impossible to access without trespassing (not the kind of thrills I seek) and sadly, the awesome looking Teufelsberg spy station just seemed too remote. First port of call? Straight to the top of the tower to survey the lay of the land.
East vs. West
From the 203m panaromic view from the TV tower (which is the second highest structure in Europe), the difference between East and West is as clear as night and day. Legoland vs. colour and nonhomogeneous character. But there is unequivocal beauty in the geometric shapes and order of the east. Standardisation was key. After circling the level no less than 10 times, something stood out in the distant horizon; two large white alien-looking globes. Of course, it had to be the Teufelsberg US spy station (which I had already decided was too far away). But I just couldn’t resist the lure of those big white balls of mystery. So I raced down the elevator and jumped onto the U-Bahn in the direction of the Olympic Stadium.
Teufelsberg Spy Station
Walking through a remote forest on your own with no phone signal and the directional sense of a dying lemming to find an abandoned spy station wasn’t one of my better ideas from the outlook, but sure look…
Alighting at the Olympic Stadium (Olympiastadion), I went over to the gates to check it out. There were various tour buses to-ing and fro-ing. I supposed that the outside was the most spectacular view anyhow, as it was very easy to imagine going back in time to the 1936 Olympics. The surrounding power pose monuments were still in place, not least of all two robust athletic chaps with their bottoms beared to me as a taunt for not purchasing the tour. As I wandered in the general direction of Teufelsberg hill, by chance I caught a glimpse of it through the trees- Unité d’habitation, the famous Corbusier modernist multi-coloured housing project. Maybe it was because of the awkwardness in trying to get into a decent angle for a shot, but it was rather less spectacular in real life than I had seen on Pinterest.
If you do decide to visit Teufelsberg listening station, be prepared to walk… and walk some more. I had no idea where I was going, as I only had a GPS signal with no internet data, but I reckoned it was necessary to keep progressing around and steadily up the hill through the dense forest and the big white domes would eventually emerge at the summit. Coincidentally, the hill is artificial, consisting of piled-up rubble from WWII after the Nazi Military Technology Faculty was blown up, but it really wasn’t apparent at all underfoot. It just seemed like a pleasant, country park stroll- which I did in triple quick time in the 25° March heat.
I was sure I was close, but alas, still no sign of those big radar domes. This seemed to be a recurring theme during this trip; gargantuan structures which can be seen in line-of-sight from miles around but play hide and seek with you the closer you get. I was less than five minutes from calling it a day and retreating when finally, the big white domes began to emerge through the trees. The best I had hoped for was a few pictures from the outside through the mesh fence, as the website said that access was only permitted at certain times on certain days and seemed to be a game of luck. But chancing my arm paid off, as the entrance was open and manned by a couple of friendly hippie-beardy blokes. After paying €7, I was allowed to meander through the grounds (but not go up or inside the station/domes obviously). While I would have loved to hear the stories first-hand from someone who worked in the American listening station back in the 50/60s, I really couldn’t afford to spend hours there given the remote location. In the UK, the public would never be allowed to wander around a construction site with scrap metal everywhere and probably unsecured structures, but it didn’t seem to be a issue here. Surprising for all I had heard about Germany and its rules.
The station was designed to “listen” towards the eastern horizon for all military communications and to gather intel. This location was deemed to be the best spot after a bit of shopping around. There were some odd stories about what the radar picked up, including clearer signals when a nearby ferris wheel was erected. I couldn’t establish what exactly the ongoing construction was all about. The place looked like it had been taken over as some kind of arts project, blanketed with graffiti. Personally, this displeased me, and as I mentioned in the lowlight, Berlin having become one giant canvas for spraypaint was my pet hate. Well it’s just tacky and distracting, isn’t it? Or am I just getting longer in the tooth?
Revisiting the DDR (East Germany)
Housing for all with low rent, virtually no crime on the streets, an air of strong camaraderie, education for all, plenty of skinny-dipping, you could have a dacha (summer house), and no one could be jealous of their neighbour’s Trabant car or household utensils, because it was really Hobson’s choice on all matters. Sounds like a romantic notion, doesn’t it? It’s easy to have mixed feeling about concepts of socialism, as a picture of this kind of utopia where everyone is equal. Yet, some were more equal than others. Ignorantly, I expected to find individuals who were still connected with the era; living in their dated style apartments and frequenting ostalgie (East German nostalgic item) shops to buy their chocolate without cocoa and Nudossi (ost-Nutella). But although I didn’t encounter many people to hear their stories, I just didn’t get the vibe that anybody really cared any more. The Communist regime and associated repression seldom evoke many feelings of fondness, as so many suffered amongst the many who were relatively content with their lives.
The DDR Museum was an essential stop to get a bit more background. In the true social, collective spirit of the museum, it was absolutely jam-packed. The best bits were the feature video documentary about the era of mass construction (where plattenbauten (concrete prefab tower blocks) were sprouting up all over East Germany after the war in a massive effort to address housing shortages) and the replica apartment exhibit (similar to this one).
The Soviet era monuments that I sought out included the spectacular Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park and monument in Ernst-Thälmann-Park. All traces of Lenin are all-but-gone, although apparently a small one can still be found in an industrial business park somewhere in Berlin. For me, the original housing blocks in East Berlin were the most impressive remaining features from the DDR era, and they were everywhere. Interestingly, just because you live in a former DDR residential housing estate/complex, it doesn’t mean you are lower class today or that the area is dodgy. Some are really quite pleasant.
The Former Border Control
The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 after WWII and into the Cold War to divide the Eastern (Soviet/East German) and Western Ally (British, American and French) occupied zones, despite the capital being fully encapsulated within East Germany. It was erected by the DDR in order to put a stop to the millions of Eastern Bloc “defectors” who had escaped through the Berlin loophole into the West, lined with checkpoints and hundreds of watchtowers. It was brought down between 1989-1992 and only parts of it still exist today as exhibitions. The East Side Gallery is the longest preserved section of wall, with much of the original artwork repainted, as well as many which are current, quirky, provocative and multicultural themed.
Several remaining DDR watchtowers remain intact, but perhaps the most unusual is the mushroom-type one on Stresemannstraße in Potsdamer Platz, which is said to be the last of its kind.
Ostalgie (East German Nostalgia)
Returning to the topic of ostalgie, there are some terrific antique-type shops such as Intershop 2000 and VEBorange. The gentleman in Intershop 2000 was very friendly and allowed me to take pictures of everything in the shop and in return I promised I would give the shop a well-deserved mention. New products included confectionery and replica plastic egg-cups in the standardised chicken-style, while the rest was original; children’s toys, books, postcards/pictures, ornaments, pins/badges, crockery etc. Naturally, I couldn’t resist picking-up a few communist badges for the collection, some East German chocolate, a mini Communist manifesto and a little character from nightly DDR children’s programme, Sandmännchen called Pittiplatsch, who resembles a cute little turd.
Food of Germany
From my previous business trips to Munich, Aachen and Cologne, I had already acknowledged the fact that Germany having over 1,500 types of bread/rolls wasn’t a stretch of the imagination, and sandwiches are plentiful and cheap. Bavarian cuisine (as I sampled in Munich) was all about potato dumplings (Kartoffelkloesse), pretzels, pork and cabbage dishes and of course the beers (non-alcoholic for me). Just like bread, I have read that Germany offers over 1,500 types of sausage (Wurst), and I’d believe that too. Currywurst is very popular on the streets of Berlin along with Turkish kebab restaurants (as Turkish are the most prevalent of foreign national groups residing in Germany ≈4% of the total population). In Berlin it’s easy to come across eastern European style Jewish and Russian restaurants, and restaurants serving traditional DDR dishes (e.g. soljanka pickled “everything but the kitchen sink” soup or goldbroiler chicken). As nothing was imported from the West and thus any American product would have been forbidden, hotdogs too were banned during the DDR era. But just as there was an Eastern Bloc answer to Levi jeans, there was also an Eastern rival to the hotdog- known as the ketwurst (in East Germany), which is made by impaling an unopened baguette-type roll on a hot poker to cook the inside, before inserting the bockwurst and topping with ketchup. It’s quite fascinating to watch original ketwursts being made in the stand at the Ostkreuz station. And you know what? It was the best hotdog/non-hotdog I’ve ever had.
Mission Germany Summary
Although mass tourism irks me (ironically, as a tourist), it was nice to relax in Berlin, knowing that I could walk into a bakery and be understood in English without a combination of pointing at object + “Das bitte” and experiencing utter shame in my poor lingo. Berlin gave the impression of being a huge city, despite being more or less half the size of London. But the transport system is second to none, the city has a cosmopolitan feel, has managed to preserve its admirable German qualities and boasts a very interesting and recent history. It’s a mix of East and West in their respective glories, and I was a little bit surprised to learn that there is still a poverty gap today, with Eastern Germans today earning a household income of a third less than their western counterparts and suffering from significantly higher unemployment. Western Germans continue to pay a tax “solidarity” surcharge for the reunification at 5.5% and it looks as if it is set to continue. All that and they still manage to prop up the rest of the EU. Good job Germany.