Neither of us are big fans of tours. We like being able to go where we want, when we want. A bit of research beforehand, a plan for the day, and we’re good to go.
However, we went on a walking tour in Berlin which may well have changed my mind. It was recommended by someone in our hostel and it seemed like it had a very good reputation online. It was also ‘free’, although you were expected to tip generously unless you really hated it.
So we made it to the meeting point at Brandenburg Gate the next morning. What a great day we had chosen – the temperature was -7 and probably lower if you take into account the wind chill. Neither of us had worn thermal leggings, though mercifully we did have 2 jackets on! Even so, I have never felt the cold like that day, even though it is far warmer than Russia is likely to be in a few weeks!
The tour started and we met our guide, an English guy called Sam who was really engaging and friendly. From the moment he started you could tell it was going to be informative AND fun. We quickly headed into somewhere warm while he explained Berlin’s early history, before moving onto the early 20th century, and to be honest where most peoples knowledges and interest in Berlin and Germany in general begins.
From there we visited the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, which is quite an unusual memorial – several thousand concrete blocks of various heights. The exact number has no relevance to the number that died, nor does the height. The guide’s explanation was that it was all open to interpretation, and it can mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s certainly a visually impressive memorial. There is an apparently excellent museum below it, however we didn’t get a chance to check it out on our short stint in the city.
We next visited a car park. It’s an historically important car park as it is the location of Hitler’s bunker, which was built and fortified towards the end of the war, and is where he spent the last days of his life before committing suicide. The reason it is a car park is because so much concrete was used in building the bunker, no foundations for any building could be put down! Also there was understandably a desire not to make the site a place of idolatry for any Nazi sympathisers, hence the only hint of its past is a small sign.
From here we went to see the old Nazi Ministry of Aviation building, then on to a surviving section of the Berlin wall, behind which is situated the Topography Of Terror museum.
Next we crossed Checkpoint Charlie, which is on every itinerary for Berlin. It’s the former checkpoint between East and West Berlin and is a bit of a cheesy tourist attraction now, with a rebuilt 60’s style guard house and actors dressed as soldiers. It’s also a lot less prominent than I had imagined, I actually barely saw it during the tour and had to go back and look the next day!
After a well needed coffee break in the warm, we visited the Gendarmenmarkt, with the unusual feature of 2 identical cathedrals, one French and one German. It also has the magnificent Konzerthaus. What I didn’t realise until our guide told us, was that they had been almost totally rebuilt after WW2 – they looked like the originals!
We finished off the tour by visiting the book burning memorial – a large underground room of empty shelves to commemorate the day when the Nazi’s ordered the burning of thousands of books deemed ‘un-German’, and then the Neue Wache, the war memorial with patched up bullet holes all over the outside. The inside featured the sculpture ‘Mother with her Dead Son’ which is open to the elements via a small hole – the circle of snow covering it made it feel even more .
And with that, tips were paid, hands were shaken, and we all walked off to find some warmth. What we were left with was a great experience and far more background knowledge than if we had attempted the same tour ourselves. All I can say is I thoroughly recommend the Sandeman Berlin Walking Tour and will be looking for similar tours in future, especially in cities with as many sights as Berlin.