From Alexanderplatz to the Victory Column

Berlin Travel Blog

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Toilets ho! As immortalised by Anna Funder. Actually, the ladies' entrance is on the other side, but I would have had to get much closer and feared arrest

Alexanderplatz


For my first full day in Berlin, I decided to follow Jessica's suggestion and head for Alexanderplatz (or Alex, as it is more familiarly known), and then work my way westwards on foot in the general direction of the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column, seeing and doing whatever there was to see and do. Jenny had to work, and so I arranged to meet her late in the afternoon.

Jessica had assured me with a straight face that Alex would absolutely abound with green-haired goth girls, even at ten in the morning, but my reason for starting there was slightly different.
Looking south from Alex; the tower belongs to the Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, which is Berlin's administrative centre
I had just read Stasiland, by the journalist Anna Funder, a fascinating and highly recommended book in which she collected reminiscences concerning the Stasi, or East German secret police, and wove them into a history of East Berlin and the German Democratic Republic. She begins with an anecdote in which - hungover, and how I sympathised - she used the public toilets in Alex and talked to the attendant in charge; and I wanted to see those toilets! Until recently I have never been much of a traveller, and could hardly believe that I was actually in a former communist country; I needed to do something, quickly, to cement in my mind the notion that this was not just Berlin, a tourist destination, but former East Berlin with its attendant and astonishing history. To seek out and if possible use the public toilets, for me associated firmly with the Stasi, promised to have the right psychological effect.
Tram crossing Alex; I'm a sucker for transport that runs on rails


Furthermore, Alex is a large square that formed one of the main shopping areas and public open spaces for East Berliners, and I hoped to obtain instant immersion into the architectural style of a communist regime, which it certainly provided: the architecture is cold, functional, and almost entirely dependent on concrete, the cheerlessness of which is mitigated by bright yellow trams that run slap through Alex's middle. I found it fascinating and indulged in a lengthy reverie, trying to imagine how it, and the people, would have looked a quarter of a century before, in the heyday of the Honecker era.

The Television Tower (Fernsehturm)

Just to the west of Alex is the famous Television Tower, a 365-metre-high monument to East-German-cum-Soviet technological achievement that was built between 1965 and 1969, and that can be seen from all parts of the city.
Looking west from the Television Tower
It also provided West Berliners with a constant big-brother-is-watching-you reminder of the proximity and power of the communist regime next door, and indeed that was part of its purpose.

At a height of about 200 metres there is a viewing platform that is one of Germany's most popular tourist attractions, and it has also been the object of school trips for generations of German schoolchildren - that's a warning. There was a disagreeably long queue when I arrived, but with unusual patience I waited, and was very glad that I did. The platform is a torus, with the lifts and services in the middle, and consequently one can walk around the perimeter to get a 360-degree panorama of the city. There are information boards in English describing the view and giving a good deal of historical information, and although I am usually resistant to information boards I found these to be very informative and of absorbing interest.
Oldish and newish: The Berliner Dom and Television Tower, from the Lustgarten: only sixty years separates them
Often it was a battle to get near one, and so the entire circuit took over an hour, but it was an hour very well spent.

The photo, which is more unclear than it should be because it was taken through angled glass that was non too clean, shows some of Berlin's most famous landmarks. In the immediate foreground is the River Spree, and beyond that, looking like a blank television screen, is the hideous 25-story International Trade Centre, built in 1978. Immediately to the right of this is Bahnhof (Railway Station) Friedrichstrasse, and beyond the ITC is the Reichstag with its new dome. The bowl-shaped white structure still further on is the House of World Cultures, while to the right of the Reichstag is a complex of new government buildings.
I had to wait about ten minutes to get this picture because all the world and his wife wanted to be photographed sitting on Marx's lap or holding hands with Engels
Much further to the right still are the great arches of Lehrter Stadtbahnhof, which was like a building site as it was being converted into Berlin's main train station. The great area of woodland beyond the ITC is the famouos Tiergarten, bisected by Strasse des 17.Juni. At the near end of the Strasse is the Brandenburg Gate, which you can just make out - especially if you know what it looks like - and about two-thirds of the way through the Tiergarten is the Victory Column, which I can't actually see at all.

Unter den Linden

After getting lost in a market whilst extricating myself from Alex's clutches, I wandered south-west down Karl Liebknecht Strasse towards the Spree. Immediately before the river, on the left, is a statue of Marx and Engels, set in pleasant greensward; it is ideal for tourists who want to be photographed in the company of those two great theorists of communism.
The faded glory of the Palace of the Republic, from the Lustgarten


On the other side of the river, by which time the steet name has changed to Unter den Linden, two buildings stand opposite one another in the greatest possible contrast. On the right (north) side of the street is the great Berliner Dom, or cathedral, which is not as old as it looks. It was completed in 1905 in a style deemed appropriate for what was intended to be a protestant St Peter's, but was extensively damaged in the Second World War and not fully restored until 1993. However, the weather was too good to justify exploring its interior - that's for a rainy day! On the other side of the street is a monument to socialism, the Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik), which housed the elected parliament of the GDR until 1990, and has also been used for exhibitions, cultural celebrations and so on.
The grubby Old Museum, from the Lustgarten
It was scheduled for demolition and looked in a very sorry state indeed, but it was possible to imagine the pride that East Germans once took in this huge, overpowering building. Ichabod!

A little further on, immediately to the west of the Berliner Dom, is the Lustgarten, scene of many Nazi rallies in the 1930s. Now a pleasant and quiet grassy acre with fountains, it is bordered on its north side by the Altes (Old) Museum. I have no idea how old it is, but it could certainly do with a good clean. I didn't go in that, either, but headed off down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate. En route there are many worthy buildings such as Humboldt University and the State Opera House, but I am not one to go into ecstasies over architecture, and so was able to progress at a fair rate of knots.
The Brandenburg Gate from Pariser Platz, looking west: on the left a living statue has just had a most unstatuesque altercation with a tour guide whom she accused of trespassing on her patch


Brandenburg Gate

Finally in mid-afternoon I arrived at the Brandenburg Gate, built over two centuries ago as the main gate for the city. Its vicissitudes, and those of the copper monument surmounting it (the Quadriga), have reflected much of Berlin's history, which the guide books recount at considerable length. More recently, the Gate lay in East Berlin, just within the Wall: it was the first crossing point to be closed in 1961. It is always busy with tourists, although in truth there is not a lot to see; its interest lies in its associations. My way lay beyond the Gate, in the former Western sector, where the continuation of Unter den Linden, called Strasse des 17.Juni, extends through the Tiergarten and beyond.
Looking down Strasse des 17.Juni from the Brandenburg Gate: in the far distance is the Victory Column, my ultimate destination


At this point my feet were killing me, and I seriously thought of just finding a cafe somewhere for a cup of coffee and a nice sit down. Get thee behind me, Satan! One mustn't let mere physical discomfort get in the way of one's ambitions, and so I pressed onwards, a decision made slightly easier by the Victory Column's being clearly in view, the Strasse being dead straight. However, and as so often with objectives that are clearly in view, the distance was deceptive, for it was a long slog with only a Soviet War Memorial to enliven the walk; this Memorial has as its centrepiece two tanks and two cannon, reputedly the first to enter Berlin in 1945.

Victory Column

Eventually the Column appeared somewhat larger, and soon I was at the bottom and preparing for the 215-foot climb.
The Soviet Army War Memorial in Strasse des 17.Juni: there are an identical pair of armaments out of picture on the right
There is a quaint little museum which you pass through first, but I wasn't in the mood and went straight to the top, from which the view is indeed spectacular, although not as fine as that from the Television Tower, partly because of the difference in height, but partly because the Column is in the middle of an enormous wood and so there are just an awful lot of treetops in the foreground. It was certainly depressing to see how small the Brandenburg Gate looked, knowing that I had still got to walk back! One great surprise was the size of the Golden Elsa statue with which the Column is surmounted; from the ground it looks small, but it is 26 feet high and unnervingly colossal when you are standing at its feet. Finally, regaining the ground, I just put one foot mechanically in front of the other for an hour or so until I met Jenny at the appointed time and place.
From the Victory Column, looking east: in the far distance is the Brandenburg Gate, to the left of which are the Television Tower, the International Trade Centre and the Reichstag


Der Untergang (The Downfall)

However, the day was not yet over, for after a meal back at the apartment we decided to see Der Untergang (The Downfall), a highly controversial film concerning Hitler's last days that had just opened at the CineStar in Potsdamer Platz. This was an astonishing film, fortunately in German (although with English sub-titles): for who could take seriously a Hitler who rants in English? The controversy lay in the supposed novelty of the depiction of Hitler, who is shown to have had a caring and sensitive side (concerned employer, kind to animals, fond of children). As well as a stunning central performance, the scenes of the bombing of Berlin were brilliantly realised, and the audience (almost all German, so far as I could tell) sat in stunned silence for at least a minute after it was over. And to then emerge into the night and walk past the site of Hitler's bunker where it all happened was an overwhelming experience.

And so to bed!


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Toilets ho! As immortalised by Ann…
Toilets ho! As immortalised by An…
Looking south from Alex; the tower…
Looking south from Alex; the towe…
Tram crossing Alex; Im a sucker f…
Tram crossing Alex; I'm a sucker …
Looking west from the Television T…
Looking west from the Television …
Oldish and newish: The Berliner Do…
Oldish and newish: The Berliner D…
I had to wait about ten minutes to…
I had to wait about ten minutes t…
The faded glory of the Palace of t…
The faded glory of the Palace of …
The grubby Old Museum, from the Lu…
The grubby Old Museum, from the L…
The Brandenburg Gate from Pariser …
The Brandenburg Gate from Pariser…
Looking down Strasse des 17.Juni f…
Looking down Strasse des 17.Juni …
The Soviet Army War Memorial in St…
The Soviet Army War Memorial in S…
From the Victory Column, looking e…
From the Victory Column, looking …
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photo by: CFD