Festival of Lights
Growing up in the 60s, Berlin held a grim fascination for me. I was haunted by stories of families torn apart overnight by the Berlin Wall; and grainy images of lovers dying in a hail of bullets as they tried to escape to the West. The horror continued until 1989 when the Wall was finally brought down, tragically just months too late for 20-year-old barman, Chris Geuffroy, the last escapee to be shot dead.
30 years on from the fall of the Wall, Berlin is a vibrant city, much loved by millennials who enjoy the music, museums, galleries, bars and open culture. Gentrification of areas like Neuköln, where young Geuffroy breathed his last, and Kreuzberg is well under way. With one of my sons making the city his home, it was time for me to visit places I had first seen on a black and white TV screen: Glienicke Brucke (Bridge of Spies), Checkpoint Charlie, and, of course, the remnants of the Wall.
I timed my visit for October to experience the annual Festival of Lights. Famous landmarks, buildings and squares, from the Brandenburg Gate to the TV Tower, are lit up by everchanging, moving light shows and installations. It was truly awesome and quite moving to see the Brandenburg Gate lit up by flowers one minute, love hearts the next, and then the blue and gold of the EU. Standing beneath the TE Tower we were mesmerised firstly by snakes winding their way to the top, then by railway trains and space rockets surging upwards.
There are several ways to enjoy the light show: follow one of two recommended walking routes; join an open-top bus tour; or hop on a bike taxi, carriage, river cruise or even a balloon. We opted for the double decker bus tour – a good choice as the top deck was left uncovered thanks to balmy autumn weather giving us an excellent view above the heads of the lively crowds gathered in squares and streets brandishing glow sticks and balloons.
We finished our evening with traditional curry wurst and cold beer from an outside market stall in Alexanderplatz where Christmas Market cabins were already popping up.
After my stunning nighttime introduction to Berlin, I was keen to explore the city in the warm autumn sunshine. I love walking but with so much to fit in I’d purchased a Berlin Welcome Card. This gave me free public transport throughout the city and out to Potsdam/Museum Island as well as discounts on entry to various attractions.
Highlights of Day 1:
East Side Gallery
This free open-air gallery is a series of murals painted by international artists along a 1.3 km remnant of the Berlin Wall in Friedrichstein-Kreuzburg. Probably the most famous mural is The Kiss depicting Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German president Erich Honecker passionately on the lips. It was impossible to get a clear photograph through the throng of selfie-taking kissing couples but I had a clear view of Der Mauerspringer (wall jumper) who is actually a West German jumping over to the East. This mural highlights something I hadn’t previously realised – the ‘wall’ was actually a double wall making a successful escape even more of a challenge.
Brandenburg Gate and Jewish Holocaust Memorial
The Brandenburg Gate was bathed in sunshine yet I felt a chill as I stood where Nazi jack boots had marched to celebrate Hitler seizing power. A short walk away is the Jewish Holocaust Memorial – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A stark reminder of man’s total and utter inhumanity to man.
Check Point Charlie was strangely disappointing. An old white wooden hut in the middle of a busy road marks the former crossing point between East and West. Where American and Soviet tanks once lined up ready to destroy each other, tourists line up to take photos with the grinning ‘Guards’ and a pile of sand bags. We were on our way to visit the TV tower and saw no cause to linger.
The TV Tower
The Berliner Fernsehturm, or TV tower, is one of Europe’s tallest manmade structures. We discovered there was a two hour wait for those who had not prebooked so we booked for the following morning. The lift takes you to the top of tower where a viewing platform provides a stunning 360 degrees view across the city. It was well worth the wait.
Also on my list was a river boat trip along the Spee; joining my son on his regular run around the now abandoned Templehof airport where the Beatles and other celebs landed in the 60s; and taking a trip across the Glienicke Brucke (Bridge of Spies) into Potsdam to see the stunning Prussian palaces on Museum Island. I’ll cover these in Part 2.
In 2019 the Berlin Festival of Lights runs from Friday 11 October to Sunday 20 October. The guiding theme for 2019 is FREEDOM, marking 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s wise to book tickets for tours in advance online as the best tend to sell out.
I was lucky to have free accommodation with my son. Otherwise I would have been tempted by the quirky 25hours Hotel Bikini in Charlottenburg with some rooms overlooking the zoo, a lobby lounge strung with hammocks and MINI Coopers for guests to borrow for FREE.