Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Weekend in Berlin

As we amassed in the lobby of our hotel here in Fulda this past Friday morning the anticipation had reached its peak, the day had finally arrived. Our host city of Fulda had been great to us thus far, but we were about to board the train and travel to Berlin, the capitol city of Germany.

Prior to our departure though, the previous day we were able to tour Tegut Logistics, a distribution center for the Tegut Corporation. Similar to Pick n’ Save or Festival, Tegut is a privately owned supermarket chain that operates approximately 300 stores throughout six states in Germany. We were given a full tour of the facility and were able to observe how they regulated and controlled their inventory. The building was broken down into dry goods, non-perishable items, and perishable items. The items were stored in vast warehouses that had shelving that reached 10 meters high. Workers would fill orders by hand picking items and placing them directly onto pallets to be sent out. In one particular warehouse the shelving reached 22 meters high and the movement of product was entirely automated.

One particular area that was of interest was the bottle return department. In the USA we place our bottles in the recycling bin and they are melted down. Here in Germany though whole bottles are cleaned and reused. Once you use a bottle you are able to return it to special receptacles and you will receive a quarter back. The return room we entered had a rather bad smell to say the least, as it had crates stacked15 feet high with empty bottles that Tegut was receiving back to clean and send back to their suppliers.

On Friday morning we gathered in the lobby of our hotel and walked the quarter mile down the road to the Fulda train station to board our 8:10 am train to Berlin. The rail system here in Germany is the major form of transportation for much of the population. From Fulda, which is in the center of the country, to Berlin, which is in the northeastern part of the country, took just over 3 hours to complete. At times the train would hit 260 km/hr, a speed virtually unseen on US railways.

Our train arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station in Berlin. Opened in 2006 in central Berlin it is an engineering marvel featuring primarily steel and glass construction. From there we boarded a S-Bahn train and traveled to the Zoologischer Garten, which was the station closest to our hotel. The mass transit system in Berlin is one of the most advanced in the world. Featuring the S-Bahn(Above Ground Subway), U-Bahn(Underground Subway), Buses, and Rail Cars, one universal pass cost us just 15,90 Euros for 48 hours.

As we walked to our hotel we were greeted by our first major piece of history, the Memorial Church, located within Breitscheidplatz, the center of West Berlin, the church was severely damaged during World War II. Instead of repairing it or demolishing it, it was decided that it should be left in the state it was as a memorial to the war.

Our hotel was a short walk, called the Berliner Hof; it was located on Tauentzien Street, one of the major shopping drives in all of Berlin. Once we were able to leave our bags in our rooms we were free to venture off and explore the city. Many of us followed our student liaison, Timm, and boarded a S-Bahn to the Eastern part of the city. We arrived at the East Side Gallery, the longest continual section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. The section stretches 1.3 km long and depicts murals by countless artists as a remembrance of its meaning during the cold war.

After the gallery we traveled to the Topography of Terror Museum. Located directly on the site of the former headquarters of the SS, the site now features a vast empty area of stones as a memorial as well as a museum. In addition a section of the wall still stands adjacent to the property in its original condition. The Topography tells the story through pictures and words of the rise of the Third Reich and some of the atrocities they committed.

That evening after eating dinner at restaurant near our hotel, Timm suggested a pub known as the stock market pub. Called the Berliner Repulik, the bar featured six beers that each started at 1,60 Euro per .3L, the prices then went up as more people bought a particular beer. Similar to the real stock market, people converse and convey arguments trying to drive up or down the prices of various brews. The markets even occasionally crash causing chaos. Needless to say, the experience was unique and intriguing.

The following morning we awoke and gathered in the lobby of our hotel for a six-hour walking tour of the city. We were fortunate to have an English speaking tour guide who took us all throughout the city. Our first stop on the tour was Checkpoint Charlie. The famous American Checkpoint between the USA controlled West side and the Soviet controlled East side. The site, which possibly could have witnessed the start of World War III now features many tourist shops as well as actors dressed as American soldiers who you can take pictures of. From there we walked to the Potzdam Platz, a famous central square in Berlin. After that we saw both the Sony and Daimler city centers. Both built by companies for which they are named, they feature amazing architecture.

We then made our way the famous Brandenburg Gate. When we arrive we came out of the subway tunnel and instantly were greeted by the sight of the gate. Originally seven gates surrounded the city and were the only ways in and out. The Brandenburg Gate is the only one that remains though. During the Cold War the Berlin Wall connected on each end and the gate was heavily guarded. Today it is open and visitors are free to walk through. Currently on one side of the gate is the American Embassy. If you look through the gates off in the distance you can see the Victory Column, a 70-meter high tower dedicated to acts of war. It features an 8-meter high gold statue at its peak.

A short walk later we arrived at one of the major highlights of the tour, the Reichstag. The massive building is home to the German Parliament. Tobias, a former UWO exchange student who is from Germany, joined us for the weekend and it was his first time ever entering the Reichstag. After a short security check our tour guide greeted us. During World War II the building was severely damaged, as was the case with much of Berlin at the time. During the Cold War, the Wall ran directly behind it. After the wall fell the building was remodeled and designed by none other than famed architect Norman Foster. During World War II, when Soviet Soldiers arrived they vandalized the walls of the building. As a testament to the war, sections have been left undisturbed and still depict the Russian graffiti from the conquering soldiers that had been covered up initially during the reconstruction. One of the most striking features of the building today is the glass and steel cupola, which features a spiral walkway up to the top, from which great views of the city can be had.

After the Reichstag we made our way to several other areas of note including the Gendarmenmakt plaza, known for its two churches, the French to the north and the German to the south. In addition the plaza features the Konzerthaus von Berlin, one of the premier concert halls of the city. We concluded our tour in the Hackescher Markt, a unique area known for its network of courtyard facades that feature various cinemas, clubs, and eateries.

Seeing as Berlin is a vast and amazing city, it features countless different bars and clubs. We owe a special thanks though to the Irish Pub, located in a multi-story shopping complex in Breitscheidplatz, it featured a little bit of home. A small group of us entered around 10 pm Saturday evening and noticed that the Duke vs. Virginia basketball game was playing on ESPN. After some negotiating and a bit of luck, the manager agreed to let us stay and watch the Packer’s game. When you factor in the time difference it meant the game started at 2:30 am local time here in Germany. Lucky for us, the manager, even though he was a native of Germany, had spent time in the USA as a student and liked the American football. Even when the bar closed, at 4:00 am, he allowed our group to continue watching the game and sat down and joined us for the remainder. The Irish Pub treated us extremely well and we are very grateful for their amazing hospitality.

The following morning left us with a few hours to explore Berlin before our train left at 2:07 pm from track 8 of the Hauptbahnhof. A small group of us decided to venture to the Holocaust Memorial. Known officially as the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, the location features 2,711 concrete slabs of varying height and dimension as a remembrance. Each slab also stands at a slightly different angle to signify the individuality of each one. Walking through it can be eerie and unnerving. One moment people are right behind you and the next they have disappeared and are no longer there. Located beneath much of the site is a museum dedicated to the victims that tells the story from the perspective of those who survived the atrocities. The site is situated just on the other side of the American Embassy and is truly a moving experience.

While sight seeing was a major part of our weekend in Berlin, shopping and experiencing the local culture was a great portion of the trip for most as well. Located just down the street from our hotel was the world famous KaDeWe. Officially the second largest department store in Europe, its various levels catered to various markets. The brands available represent the premier lines from all the leading brands including Gucci, Versace, Channel, and Armani to name a few. The top floor features one of the most amazing grocery stores in the world. International delicacies representing the finest food across hundreds of cultures are available for consumers to purchase. The shopping experience is truly unmatched in America.

In addition to the vast retail stores, some members of our group ventured to a small flea market on Sunday morning. German culture dictates that many of the major shops and stores are to be closed on Sundays. We first noticed this when we arrived this past Sunday. Fulda resembled a ghost town with very few people out and virtually no restaurants or stores in operation. Berlin, being the cultural and tourist hub that it is, had some businesses open, but much of the shopping was still closed. The flea market provided an excellent environment for interacting with German people who weren’t necessarily familiar with tourists and provided a situation in which some of the German we had been learning could be put to use.

As we left on the train to return to Fulda for many of us it felt as though we had had but a taste of what Berlin had to offer. We easily could have spent two plus weeks exploring the sights of the city and the evenings experiencing the nightlife. The city is amazing and very worthy of its designation as the capital of such an interesting country. We spent such a brief time in Berlin, yet we experienced so much in that period. In the upcoming week in addition to class, we have a trip to Point Alpha scheduled as well as a trip to Frankfurt to tour the Commerzbank.

Auf Wiedersehen

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