A city on the mend
Over two decades later, the faint scar of the Wall hovers over Berlin
A cold front from the depth of Russia had swept across Eastern Europe during the night — extending right into Berlin — dumping two feet of snow into narrow streets and leaving verglas on buildings. We stepped into the street, ready to explore Germany’s vibrant capital, but the freezing air slapped our faces and crept through the cracks of down jackets piled atop an assortment of sweaters.
We escaped into the relative warmth of the subway station. Our noses were frozen and hands trembling.
We clearly missed the Indian summer by about three months. But the miserable weather of December is easily forgotten in any of the multitude of Christmas markets sprinkled around the city.
The dawn of the Christmas cities
The first Weihnachtsmarktin Germany start to appear in November, but by December, many more have sprung up — like tent cities.
We wanted to explore the museums and history of a divided Berlin. But at that moment, we were fighting our way through a wall of stands, selling delicious funnel cake, candied apples and Quarkkeulchen (similar to donut holes, but better). Sprinkled among the food stands were huts and tents selling wooden Christmas ornaments, cheap socks, hippie bracelets and Peruvian pan flutes. The narrow boardwalks were choked with inebriated Germans, enjoying glass after glass of Glühwein, a sweet wine heated in giant pots and consumed liberally throughout the Christmas season.
Eventually, we made our way past the ice rink, with something cheesy similar to calzones in our stomachs and a dozen Quarkkeulchen in our hands, and arrived satiated at the base of the Fernsehturm.
A vegetable of a beacon
Completed in 1969 in what was then East Germany, the television tower still serves as the emblem of Berlin. At 1,200 feet, it remains the tallest structure in Germany. Once a symbol of communist ingenuity and power, throwing its asparagus-shaped shadow deep into capitalist West Germany, it now attracts hordes of tourists from all over the world.
After paying a hefty 10 euros, a super fast elevator zipped us up to the observation platform at 670 feet. We spared our wallets and avoided the bar and rotating restaurant, and just enjoyed the view.
The lights unite, but the mind divides
At night, Berlin sprawled as a sea of bright incandescence, flickering lights, moving lamps and blazing spots of about 20 Christmas markets in all directions. The times are long gone when East Berlin lay in concrete darkness while the capitalist neighbor to the west lit up the sky. Looking out, the east and west have melted into one luminous metropolis covering the whole spectrum.
The following morning, with temperatures just a smidgen more tolerable, we made our way down the famous Unter den Linden St. toward the Brandenburg Gate. Among brand name stores, bank buildings and art museums, small souvenir shops advertised East German memorabilia and pieces of the Wall — small chips of concrete packed in plastic containers.
We figured we would hew our own piece. The Berlin Wall formerly bent around the Brandenburg Gate, putting it just barely into East Berlin. But when we arrived, there was no sign of it.
Some careful searching revealed a row of reddish bricks set into the boardwalk, continuing across the street. They outlined the location of the Wall as it stood until 1989. But now, heavy traffic passed back and forth, along with hordes of tourists photographing the gate from every angle and direction.
We walked back along the main street, stopped in one of the small shops and bought a postcard — with a tiny piece of concrete glued to it.
We aren’t the only ones that feel Berlin lacks its Wall. After most sections had been eagerly torn down, denizens of Germany’s capital felt some concrete should be left standing as a memorial (and tourist draw).
Chasing ghosts of wounds past
We hopped back onto the subway and soon arrived at Checkpoint Charlie. It doesn’t take long to realize that the East—West division had turned into a cult here. We followed the convoluted halls and stairways of the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, learning about the construction of the Wall and numerous successful escapes, ranging from balloons to zip lines to tunnels. The museum’s gift shop takes up a sizeable portion of the exhibition.
We skipped the East Germany museum, where communist utensils, GDR products and the famous Trabant are on display. My own grandmother, living in Wittenberg (which was formerly East Germany), still uses many of those things, and “Trabis” are still on the road.
Instead, we visited one of the ghost subway stations. When East and West Berlin were divided — almost overnight — the subway line remained intact. Certain subway tracks in West Berlin crossed through East Berlin underground, passing closed stations heavily guarded by East German soldiers. A display showed eerie video footage of abandoned train stations, bored soldiers and subways roaring past.
The Berlin Wall consisted of 12-foot-high concrete, encircling West Berlin for nearly 100 miles with over 300 watchtowers. It was designed to keep East German citizens from fleeing the communist dictatorship into West Germany, and about 200 people died on the Wall attempting escape.
We were looking at a resurrected section, about 300 yards long. Placards explained the design and security measures. The houses in former East Berlin still lacked any windows facing west.
Looking closely, there's still a faint scar running through Berlin — maybe a sudden change in pavement on a now-open street running east to west, or an odd incongruous space between buildings.
But the city is healing fast. In just over 20 years, East Berlin has bright modern areas — and West Berlin has gray concrete corners.
The death strip days are over
A few days later, we found ourselves on a nature hike sponsored by a local organization. We followed a trail through a small city park on the edge of West Berlin.
A hill in the center served as a remainder of World War II. Here, rubble of the destroyed city had been piled until it became overgrown with trees and shrubs.
Further along, we passed tiny gardens and even smaller bungalows — typical of space-deprived Germany. People tend vegetable gardens, fruit trees, BBQ patios and one-room weekend houses — all in 20 x 20 feet. This time of year, however, the trees are bare and bungalows boarded up.
Along the edge of the gardens ran a straight stretch of weed-choked open country, covered in light snow and bordered by fallow fields to the east.
“This was the death strip,” says our guide. “The wall would have been right in front of us."
In West Berlin, people would've been picking apples and grilling sausages in the shadow of the Wall, and on the eastern side, nobody would've been allowed within 500 feet.
I look left and right, scour the ground — no sign of any concrete — and people are taking their dogs for a walk in the open stretch of snow and weeds.