The drive from Prague to Berlin was pretty spectacular – we drove through the foothills of the Carpathians, the mountains that my ancestors saw from their Polish village; they are intensely green and reminded me a bit of the Black Hills. Interestingly enough, the deep, grass green of the Czech Republic instantly changed to a yellow green as soon as we were through the hills and into Germany. A totally different color!! (I wish I were a better botanist and could tell you why.) The green in the Czech Republic was reminiscent of the lush green of England. It’s an image I won’t soon forget (but was unable to capture on camera. Every shot had that “I am a completely uninteresting landscape; too distant to be comprehensible” look to it.
We realized we were driving through what was once East Germany and we kept looking for architectural evidence of years of Soviet rule. We found it in the endless apartment blocks of Dresden and the hulking, abandoned buildings in East Berlin. Near the outskirts of town (but in West Berlin) is Templehof, the now abandoned airport whose terminal was at one time the second largest building in the world. It was enlarged by Albert Speer, under Hitler’s orders, and was described by a British critic as “the mother of all airports”. Berlin is a city of tunnels (more on this later) and there are five levels of tunnels under Templehof – all of which were used for the manufacture of Nazi war machines prior to and during WWII. When the Soviets took the airport in the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and began clearing the tunnels, so many Soviet soldiers lost their lives due to booby-traps that the bottom 3 tunnels were flooded and remain so to this day, still full of unexploded ordinance. The Nazi commander of the airport had been ordered to destroy the building if defeat was imminent, he chose to end his life instead. Beginning in 1948, Templehof was used for the Berlin airlift – an attempt to keep the people of West Berlin fed, clothed and fueled. The Soviets would harass the pilots flying in the 3 open air corridors; consequently 39 British and 31 American pilots died in what is called the ‘greatest feat of aviation history’. Now, there is one lonely plane sitting on the tarmac under the massive canopy of the terminal (a first for airports – passengers were able to debark without facing the elements) –a building so heavy with history that you are awestruck and haunted by the sight.
Driving further into Berlin, the roads are lined with a multitude of utilitarian, concrete block apartment buildings, most of which are occupied and many of which have been ‘renovated’ by the application of garish paint in geometric patterns. Between the ‘decoration’ and the ever present graffiti (which is EVERYWHERE in central Europe) the depressing aspect of these homes has not improved.
If you drive into Berlin with no knowledge of history, you’ll be puzzled and then amused (depending upon how claustrophobic you are) by the number of tunnels that are incorporated into the highway system. Then, if you pursue the subject, you’ll learn that Berlin is riddled with tunnels; there is an entire hub and spoke construct of tunnels under the entire city. Now, many tunnels are used for the underground train (U Bahn) and the highways. Construction started in the late 1800’s, mostly to relieve traffic congestion! Hitler expanded the tunnels – the network is vast and many have been closed or destroyed completely (Hitler’s personal bunker, for instance). There is an underground tour (only offered twice a month, and we missed it) where a diesel locomotive pulls you through 36 kilometers of tunnel and lets you access places like the 7 storey tall (all underground) bunker used during WWII.
The Germans are clearly into tunnels (sorry, bad pun). On our way into town we drove through 7 or 8 tunnels, some of them several miles long!! One of the highway tunnels runs right under central Berlin – we made a wrong turn a block from our hotel and ended up back out in the suburbs once we emerged into the sunlight again. Additionally, Berlin underground is riddled with 400 kilometers of pneumatic mail tubes and 12 dedicated express tubes – before the war, the tubes delivered some 8 million pieces of mail a year using pressurized air; it was the largest pneumatic operation of its kind (and was ultimately stopped because of technology – fax machines were much more efficient). I love the idea of letters zipping around underground – making sure they got to the correct destination must have been an interesting challenge. (Please note: the pictures of the tunnels were omitted. They were all black. No, seriously, we had our hands full aboveground and never made it into any of the tunnels (except the highways – and you all know what a highway tunnel looks like. Next trip!)
After nearly two weeks in Prague it was refreshing to enter Germany – We’ve been gone a month now and homesickness does tend to set in after the initial thrill of travel wears off. Germany’s refreshing because it feels most like the US. Things are clean and they work and people are happy –I believe you can feel the difference in the national temperament. Sadly, the residents of Prague do not seem optimistic or cheerful to me(the majority of them work in the service industries and I have to wonder if they’re sick of tourists and our silly ways!) In Germany, you get the feeling that they’re actually happy to see you.
Our hotel in Berlin is right near Potsdamer Platz – the place of the last, huge conflagration in WWII – and, now, it’s a city within a city – the area is teeming with outdoor cafes, cinemas, stores, live theater and people, people and more people –and they’re not all tourists –the locals fill the area when they’re out for a day and night of fun. Our first order of business was to find a German-English dictionary because, at lunch, we realized we couldn’t puzzle out any key words on the menu. (I ended up having tofu because it was the only word I recognized – but it was delicious!)
The SONY Center is right across the street from Potsdamer Platz – it’s Sony’s HQ in Europe although the center itself is the social hub of the city. Restaurants, movies, fountains, sculptures – in a dazzling open air atrium inside an architectural gem designed by Helmut Jahn.
The Berlin Senate stipulated that Sony had to preserve the ‘breakfast room’ and the ‘emperor’s hall’ of the Grand Hotel Esplanade, which had escaped destruction during WWII. So, to accommodate, in 1996 the rooms were moved – all 1300 tons of them were shifted nearly 300 feet to fit into Herr Jahn’s design. The effect is daring, startling and functional – the last thing you expect to see incorporated into this 21st century design is a 1920’s room where Emperor Wilhelm used to wile away his evenings.