From Prussian splendor to post-war gloom

A German Christmas Story – Day 2 in Berlin – Checkpoint Charlie and Schloss Charlottenburg

I fell asleep early the night before and did not make it to a Christmas market after all. However, I unashamedly got thirteen hours of sleep after a restless night before leaving for Berlin and almost none on my flight, so the dark warmth of the hotel room knocked me straight out.

I struggled out of bed, into my sixty layers of winter clothing with heat packs in my shoes, and headed out to a Starbucks just around the corner from my hotel. I settled in with a lebkuchen latte (which is pretty much a gingerbread latte) and a bretzel sandwich to get my body going. It took a lot to drag me out of Starbuck’s warmth and coffee-scented air to walk south to find Checkpoint Charlie.

Unreservedly touristy, Checkpoint Charlie was the most well-known checkpoint area between east and west Berlin during the time of the Cold War. The checkpoint was set up on the Berlin Wall to filter traffic in between the two sides. The wall there was almost gone, but a long outdoor display traces the Wall’s history and the significance of Checkpoint Charlie. Several of us stood in the cold morning to read the signage and trace the former wall’s pathway. It began to snow gently, a mere sprinkling, but the wonder on people’s faces – it was brilliant. Even if I’m from Chicago and live in snow-deprived Hong Kong (though it did snow last year for the first time in sixty years!), snow always brings me absolute delight. Especially if I don’t have to drive anywhere.

The Mauer (Wall) Museum stood right about where the old checkpoint used to be, and I had to admit, I was curious to learn more about the Wall’s history – and all the escape attempts by some really brave and inventive people. As a mostly post-Cold War child who had experienced American history education all of my life (which means we make it up to WWII and not much beyond that – EVER), I was eager to learn more and understand why this time period was so damn divisive. It’s easy for those today to shrug off the West vs. East Cold War as a ridiculous and arbitrary fight – what about communism put everyone’s knickers in a twist, anyway? – but trying to step back into the time, to understand the actual fear of communism, the breaking down of the world norm after WWII – it makes more sense when standing with one foot in the West and one foot in the East.

The Wall Museum seems a bit of a maze and rather squeezy at times – and occasionally sensational – it is a really fascinating look at this period in history. I particularly enjoyed reading the escape stories, but also the exhibit on nonviolent protests around the world. However, there was much to mourn about the Wall, including those who were killed trying to escape, or the families who were separated for years because of it. There are heartbreaking photos of people dropping others out of windows to freedom and people handing children over the barbed wire. It was difficult for me to fathom being separated from my family by a concrete wall because of competing ideologies in a war-recovering land.

At times, human reason seems incomprehensible.

It was from the cold gloom of the Wall that I hopped on the U-Bahn toward Schloss Charlottenburg, a beautiful Prussian castle on the outskirts of Berlin. After wallowing in World War II and Cold War history for two days, I needed the levity of a grand Prussian house to lighten the gloomy day.

After a forty minute trip on the U-Bahn – a brilliant people-watching opportunity – I walked the brisk 1 km down Schloss Strasse to the castle. The Christmas market in the castle square greeted me first, enticing me with its spicy scents. It was still early in the afternoon, and shops were just gearing up, so I wandered through and found the castle’s entrance door. With a simple audioguide to bring me along, I toured the rooms and reveled in some truly beautiful architecture.

It was difficult not to be impressed by the Prussian palace. Despite being heavily bombed during World War II, the rooms have been restored and are available to view in the Old Palace and the New Wing. The day was misty and cold, but the inside of the palace seemed rather alive with the dancing images in mirrors and brightly-patterned rooms.

While the inside of the palace was much warmer than the outdoors, the lure of the Christmas market in the plaza was calling my name – and who was I to ignore it?

Christmas markets in Berlin definitely deserve their own post!

Berlin Travel Tip: The Berlin Welcome Card was the best decision I could have made. Not only did I get five days of perpetual transport and never have to worry about tickets, but it also gives discounts at museums, tourist spots, tours, and restaurants. I had quite a few Euros taken off with all the museums I visited and at one of the restaurants. This was pretty great when considering all the public transport I took as well. Definitely recommend it depending on your transport needs on your trip.

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