By Nicholas Grundy
For three years the iconic TV Tower served as a guiding light to my home at the time—Berlin. Completed in 1969, the giant pillar of concrete topped with a silver ball and slender antenna is a testament to the Cold War. Soviet-backed East Germany deliberately built the Sputnik-inspired obelisk in Berlin’s center, visible to all of West Berlin behind the infamous wall. Known locally as the Fernsehturm, the tallest structure in Germany is now a symbol of the fastest-growing tourist destination in Europe. Having overtaken Rome on the list of most visited European cities, the German capital’s thirty million tourists in 2015 edged the city closer to the top position.
Before checking out Berlin’s sights, it helps to understand some of its complicated history. Gazing down from the TV Tower’s observation deck, sightseers can follow the River Spree as it bisects the metropolis, leading eastward to the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall.
While almost exactly 99 percent of the wall is gone today, a one-mile section remains at the East Side Gallery. The original stretch is now blanketed in murals and has become the world’s largest open-air art display. Separating the hip inner-city districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg, the wall once followed the river northwest back to the central Mitte district. Here one can walk through the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, painstakingly reconstructed inside the Pergamon, one of five world-renowned museums on the famed Museum Island. Outside, visitors can trace their fingers along the building’s facade, feeling pockmarks left behind after World War II. Next door is the massive Berliner Dom (the Berlin Cathedral), rebuilt in all its grandeur in the 1970s.
Following the wall westward to the other end of Mitte will treat history buffs to an impressive sight, the Brandenburg Gate. Wandering past the legendary opulence of the Hotel Adlon Kempinski, it is hard to believe that, in 1945, this entire area was a jagged mass of rubble. The volume of debris was so staggering that Berlin’s post-war “rubble women” carted away enough to create a number of 250-foot-tall artificial hills around the mostly flat landscape.
One not-so-innocuous man-made mound is found deep in the former West Berlin. Atop Teufelsberg (literally “Devil’s Mountain”) sits an abandoned NSA listening station. Forbidden until recent years, guests can now freely visit the site where a multitude of American intelligence officers once surveilled the East from their bastion deep behind the Iron Curtain. Today, the fabric covering the massive golf ball–like radar domes flaps in the wind and graffiti abounds.
The city is united again, yet for twenty-eight years, those in the East were denied such luxuries.
Descending the slopes and heading back toward the TV Tower leads to the center of former West Berlin. Both then and now, the area has been synonymous with the glitz and glamour brought about by Western consumerism. West Berliners flocked to the Kaufhaus des Westens department store and availed themselves of a treasure trove of posh goods. Today, the grand boulevard Kurfürstendamm, known colloquially as Ku’damm, is home to a multitude of high-end designer stores and boutiques. High-rises boast penthouse nightclubs and bars harking back to the heyday of Berlin’s hedonistic jazz scene in the 1930s. The city is united again, yet for twenty-eight years, those in the East were denied such luxuries.
Almost immediately after World War II, a rift developed between the Allied powers and the Soviets. From 1948 until 1949, a land and water blockade was imposed on West Berlin. During this time, the U.S. Air Force made use of Berlin Tempelhof Airport and carried out the famed airlift to sustain the more than two million inhabitants. Though the airport closed in 2008, it reopened two years later as the city’s largest public park. It’s not often you can cycle or rollerblade at full speed down an open runway as locals picnic beside landing strips.
After the war, a far more nefarious strategy came into play. Between 1961 and 1989, the Berlin Wall completely cut off friends and families from opposite sides. According to socialist East Germany, the impenetrable obstacle was necessary to keep capitalist ideals away from their citizens. In actuality, the barricade was hastily erected to halt the mass migration of East Germans and East Berliners across the border and into the West. The hundred-mile fortification completely encircled West Berlin, creating an island of capitalism inside a vast sea of socialism.
Today, the city’s two halves have been reunited for almost exactly as long as they were divided. Quite surprising are the differences apparent between East and West. Not only have dialects diverged and persisted, but satellite images reveal the East’s streetlights haven’t changed in more than twenty-five years. Astronaut Chris Hadfield recently brought attention to his photograph depicting this phenomenon. His snap from the International Space Station revealed the contrast of the orange glow of East Berlin’s original sodium vapor lamps and the West’s fluorescent bulbs with their white luminance. Unfortunately, the former East is still playing economic catch-up. As West Germany prospered, East Berlin and its neighboring states failed to create any lasting industry or infrastructure. One unintended benefit of this lack of progress, however, is the wilderness surviving right on Berlin’s doorstep. The path of the former wall is now an almost perfectly flat cycling trail, taking in such natural sights as the sandy beach of Wannsee and other local lakes, the numerous canals branching off the river, and the meditative and misty forests surrounding the city.
Berlin is a rapidly changing city, and its monopoly on coolness is just one of many draws.
One can also find vast areas of parkland in the central city, such as Tiergarten, a lush pocket of forest, meadows, lakes, and streams rivaling Manhattan’s Central Park. Each summer, Berlin’s parks fill with young people. With New York and London becoming ever more exclusive and gentrified, Berlin has quickly warmed to its role as the new capital of cool. The trendy and affordable districts of the former East offer a haven for young expat creatives honing their skills. A passionate Irishman even started a weekly ritual at Mauerpark’s amphitheater, inviting anyone from the crowd to step up and sing karaoke for the masses.
Berlin is a rapidly changing city, and its monopoly on coolness is just one of many draws. Not only are we presently witnessing its transformation into the European start-up hub, but it could also claim the crown of the city that never sleeps. As ambitious young entrepreneurs head to the office at 6:00 a.m., revelers moving to yet another underground club fill subway. What’s more, these partygoers and future business moguls are all kept going by Berlin’s Spätkaufs—twenty-four-hour convenience stores stocking everything from Apfelsaft to Zigaretten.
And when the sun comes up in “B-City,” it doesn’t mean the party has to stop. By day, Berlin offers plenty of entertainment and events for all ages. The open-air Fête de la Musique occurs each June, followed by July’s Carnival of Cultures street parade and October’s stunning Festival of Lights. Rather unique music festivals occur just outside the city as well, with Fusion held inside the bunkers of a former Soviet air base, and the Melt Festival taking place beneath disused mining machinery. Christmas markets pop up each December, and if you’re lucky enough to experience a blizzard, the winter months can see organized snowball fights turn into parties, complete with mobile DJs and sound systems.
There’s so much to see and do here that a weekend trip won’t suffice. In fact, my three years of residence only left me yearning for more. My last memory is of seeing the TV Tower dip slowly below the horizon as my departing flight’s landing gear retracted. Beneath me, the vast urban sprawl radiated in all directions, with the giant needle pinpointing my adopted home, its lights flashing like a beacon to which I’ll one day return.
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