Monday, 9 November 2009

Berlin, The Brandenburg Gate, Reunification and U2

Berlin was wet, grey and very cold but I was still very excited to be there. I found the railway station at Schonefeld airport ok and got on the train that was supposed to go to a station where I could change for one near my hotel. But it didn’t go there and I had to hop off and get another train to the Ostbahnhof, but couldn’t find the train I needed so I hopped into a taxi. It was soooo cold and it was lovely to be whisked off to the hotel. The driver told me that they had their first snow today! That showed I was definitely in the east of Europe!

The hotel, Alt Berliner, was really unusual, you entered through huge, old, carved wooden doors into a gorgeous hallway with an original tiled floor. The wide flights of stairs had beautiful wooden banisters. There were various old household items in the hallway too, almost like stepping into the past. Reception was warm and cosy, the receptionist friendly. My third floor room was lovely and it looked out over an internal courtyard.

After settling in, I wrapped myself up in a warm jacket, scarf, hat and gloves and went out for walk. Potsdammer Platz, with it’s glimmering new buildings was ten minutes away. It was lively, with shops, swanky hotels, cinemas, a little market area with stalls selling food, Christmas decorations, hats and scarves, sweets, there was even a carousel for kids. I walked another five minutes and there I was on Unten den Linden (under the lindens, apparently the only trees that would grow on the street) And there on one side of the Pariser Platz was the famous Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German reunification. Normally it stand there in the square in all it’s glory, but now all the preparations for the U2 concert filled the square, yet the Gate was still awe-inspiring even with the work going on around it.

I could hardly believe I was there, everything had happened so quickly, I’ve always wanted to go to Berlin ever since I was very young. My mother was German and when we used to go to visit relatives in Germany we got the ferry from the UK to Hook of Holland and then got the train to her home town in Westphalia in the then Western Germany. It always felt like an exciting adventure to me, I watched the station names pass by, Gouda - Utrecht – Amersfoort – Hengelo – Rheine – Osnabruck are some I remember, everything was so different. That train’s destination was sometimes Berlin, to me a mysterious place behind the Iron Curtain - in those days the Cold War was in full swing. It always fascinated me, it seemed in another world in my young mind, and in reality it was. And here I was standing at the Brandenburg gate in the now free city!

I heard lots of Irish voices around and a few fans stood by the hotel adjacent to the square, so U2 were probably staying there. It was too cold for me to hang around for them and I left and walked back to my hotel.

The next day I woke to very welcome blue skies and sunshine! After breakfast I walked to Potsdammer Platz once more to catch the sightseeing bus. I wasn’t going to be in Berlin long so I wanted to see what I could and I thought the best way to do that was to go on a tour.

One of the first things we saw was part of the Wall that remains, IMG_0839there are bits of it still around, there was also a small piece in situ in Potsdammer Platz. It looked really forbidding and to think there was twenty eight miles of that wall! Nearby was the well-known Checkpoint Charlie with tourists posing for photos with a “guard”.

We passed an area with lots of colourful Trabants. Berlin Cathedral was magnificent, strangely surrounded by a lot of open ground where building work was going on. This kind of thing was evident in many areas in the city, they are probably areas in the east that had decayed buildings now demolished and new ones will take their place. We passed the famous satellite-like TV tower, another symbol visible from many parts of the city.IMG_0840

We drove down Friedrich Strasse and the guide told us one of the U-bahn (underground) lines ran under the street, it stayed open after the division of the city and guards on the East side made sure no one got onto the trains. It was hard to imagine that this city so divided until just twenty years ago.

Then we turned into Unten den Linden, the guide mentioned the U2 concert and I could hear music, so I think the band were sound checking at that lime. We went on past the Reichstag, impressive with its glass dome representing the original cupola (the building was severely damaged by a fire in the 1930‘s and also during the war, and was not fully restored until after reunification).

IMG_0853We passed by the Tiergarten, a very large park. On a traffic island on a busy roundabout within the park was the column on top of which was the Siegessaule, the golden angel of victory, she glistened in the sunshine. Of course I was taken back to U2’s video for Stay which featured the statue.

We went on to a main shopping area of the city and I saw the famous KaDeWe store. Then shortly afterwards we were back at Potsdammer Platz where I’d joined the tour and I got off the bus. I really enjoyed the tour and it gave me a good snapshot of the city.

For my lunch I got a bratwurst at one of the market stalls, it was delicious. I walked back to my hotel in the sunshine. As I walked along I noticed how relatively litter-free the streets were. It also amused me how obedient most Germans were at pedestrian crossings, waiting for the green go symbol even if there is no traffic in sight! My friend Chris told me something interesting about the traffic lights. There were two kinds, one rather like what we have in the UK and other set featuring a red symbol of a man with a hat holdin180px-Ampelmann_svgg out his arms for stop and a walking man with a hat in green for go. The latter type (known as ampelmann) are the East German lights, one of the few things to remain intact from East in the modern city. They are quite cute!

At 2.30 I set off for the meeting point I’d arranged with Chris. On the way I passed the Holocaust Memorial, dozens and dozens of coffin-shaped black granite blocks of different sizes. It was moving in it’s simplicity and a beautiful memorial.

I met up with Chris at the hotel beside the Brandenburg Gate. It was lovely to see her again, we hadn’t managed to meet up during the tour earlier this year, so this unexpected opportunity to meet up was lovely. She introduced me to her friends, a lively bunch of people who were very friendly and kind to me. We all went to an outdoor café near the Gate for something to eat and drink. Tiny bottles of vodka shots appeared from everyone’s pockets and they generously shared then with me, they warmed me up! It was starting to get dark by now and the temperature was dropping rapidly.

At 5pm some of us went into the concert site leaving the other still hitting the shots and beer. My ticket was for a different area, so after arranging a meeting point for after the show, Chris and I went our separate ways.

I could have got fairly near the front but because I’m not very tall it was pointless staying there as I couldn’t see over people in front. So I went much further back and I could see the stage pretty well from there. Time dragged and the cold started to bite. The crowd was easy going and I heard quite a few languages around me, there was a tangible excitement in the air. Floodights shone into the sky their beams hitting the very low cloud peppering it with discs of light, giving the impression that there was a grey canopy overhead.

The gig was supposed to start at 6.30pm, but that came and went. I paced about to try to warm up, no U2, it started to rain, the drops sparkled like diamonds as they were illuminated in the beams of light.


The rain didn’t last long thank heavens. Quarter to seven no U2. More pacing, I cursed Irish time, I was so cold. At last at 7pm U2 came came onstage to massive applause and cheers from the crowd. They went straight into One. As the music swept over me I suddenly felt really emotional, tears came to my eyes and I had a lump in my throat. I think it was a combination of seeing U2 again, being in Berlin, the significance of the event and the general emotional atmosphere within the crowd. I was so moved. Colourful graphics relating to the Wall were beamed onto the Brandenburg Gate during the song and it worked really well. Next was Magnificent which was wonderful, what a brilliant song that is! The third song was Sunday Bloody Sunday, a song I am really tired of in live shows, but for this occasion it was appropriate, Bono changed the lyrics too. Jay-Z joined the band on stage and rapped for a while, something I could have done without, but the crowd seemed to enjoy it.

Bono talked a little about Berlin and recalled the time the band spent there whilst recording Achtung Baby “wrote some tunes, met some beautiful spirits". Another time he said - in a strong southern US drawl - “swayin’ like a field of golden corn” (or something very similar) I’ve no idea what he was talking about!

Next was Beautiful Day another very appropriate song for the occasion, again I felt very emotional and I never normally feel like that during that song. I think it again was the atmosphere and the crowd singing on top of their voices, I could only imagine how special this occasion felt for native Berliners.

Vertigo rocked, and they closed with Moment of Surrender. Short but wonderful, U2 never disappoint live. For those who have read about U2 erecting a “wall” around the gig site that’s rubbish. There was a security fence around the site which I fully expected. There were rumours of up to 100,000 people coming to listen and they needed to have some safety measures in place. Also anything that was done at that gig was nothing to do with U2 anyway as it was an MTV production.

The crowd dispersed and I met up with Chris and we went back to the café to meet up with her friends. During the gig I hadn’t felt or thought of the cold, but now sitting in this outside café it really got to me. After a while I said I’d have to go as I was so cold. So I said my goodbyes to Chris and her friends and walked back. I passed the back entrance of the hotel and a handful of (hardy!) fans were waiting for the band. I walked past, no way was I going to join them, all I could think of was to get out of the cold!

At the hotel I had a hot coffee in the restaurant before going to my room. I was still cold, had a hot shower, slightly warmer, turned the heating up as high as it would go and after about twenty minutes I felt better (I am very cold-blooded!). How I suffer for U2!

Looking back now on the trip I almost find it hard to believe it happened! It was all so quick. Berlin is one of the most unusual cities I’ve visited and I find it hard to sum up how it felt for me. Berlin is a city that has risen up from the ashes twice in 45 years, it’s been ripped apart and is trying to heal itself. Much of the city I saw has re-grown into a vibrant modern place, but there are still scars of the past, maybe the Fall of the Wall celebrations will help them heal.


  1. Sue,
    I really enjoyed reading your account of the Berlin trip. the imagery you portrayed made me almost feel I was there!

    So glad you enjoyed it and can't wait to meet up and hear more
    Dawn x

  2. Thanks Dawn, I'm glad I was able to convey the atmosphere a bit, it was very special to be there.

  3. Sue,

    great entry. It was nice to read about your experiences in Berlin. I'm happy that I was able to share some of them (although the time we had together was way too short). I enjoyed it so much. I'm glad that you enjoyed Berlin and the U2 gig so much, and reading your account made me relive it once again together with you. :) Look forward to seeing you again next year and will write soon.

    Hugs from Andy and me