Update 2013: The watchtower has been bought by a private investor, restored and is now open to the public daily from 14:00 - 18:00, except for when it's raining.

Hidden in a backstreet by Potsdamer Platz, the past is lurking among all the new buildings...




A BT-6 watchtower


Behind the high concrete wall which faced the west was the death strip, an area of sand (heavily laced with weedkiller so that no plants would grow which could provide cover for escape attempts) and various defences intended to make crossing the area next to impossible. In case anyone still thought it would be a good idea to try - and plenty did - border guards were on the lookout from these watchtowers, on orders to not hesitate to use a firearm if necessary, even if women and children were involved. On the other side of the death strip was another wall.

This particular watchtower was situated outside the death strip, intended for watching people approaching the eastern side of the border. It's actually been moved a few metres to make way for the new buildings here on Erna-Berger-Straße, but it's now a listed monument, the last watchtower of its type (BT-6 for all you watchtower fans out there) still standing in Berlin. This type was designed to give a good view through all 360 degrees around it.

Approaching the tower this time, I noticed that someone had tried to force the metal door open. The lock hadn't given way, but the corner was bent. I turned on the flash on my little camera and stuck it inside to see what I could see.



Inside the watchtower


Not the world's most interesting photo. You can see the metal ladder leading up to the top - a pretty narrow space. They replaced these with larger, square watchtowers later, as it was difficult for the troops to get out quickly if they needed to.

There used to be a small section of the wall remaining on the corner where Erna-Berger-Straße meets Stresemannstraße. It's gone now, unfortunately, so this watchtower is now all that remains of the traces of the border in this area.

The area surrounding the Brandenburg Gate swarmed with umbrella monsters as the Fest der Freiheit (Festival of Freedom) got underway. These vicious beasts may look pretty, but will take out an eye without any hesitation...ducking down underneath them seemed to be the safest way to get through the crowd.



Umbrellas at the Fest der Freiheit


While 20 years ago, nobody knew what was about to happen and the gathering at the Brandenburg Gate was completely spontaneous, people have had plenty of notice about this event, so the crowds have been gathering all afternoon.

There were 1000 of these giant dominoes, painted by artists from around the world.



The dominoes


They had been placed along the route of the wall, all the way from Potsdamer Platz to the Reichstag - one of the most famous parts of the wall's course, thanks to the symbolism of the Brandenburg Gate as a gate that led to nowhere. A popular postcard shows a picture of the gate from the western side, the sign in front of the wall warning "Sie verlassen jetzt West Berlin" (you are now leaving West Berlin), with graffiti asking "Wie denn?" (how?). In fact, just by approaching the wall, as it often stood slightly inside the East German border (sometimes there were even small corners which were too tricky to wall around, so were just ignored, leaving small triangles of East Berlin on the western side of the wall).

There was music from the Staatskapelle Berlin (conducted by Daniel Barenboim), Adoro, Bon Jovi, Stamping Feet and Paul van Dyk (who had written a song for the occasion). There were also speeches from Klaus Wowereit (mayor of Berlin), Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Dmitry Medvedev, Gordon Brown, Hilary Clinton (and, via a prerecorded message, Barack Obama)...then a whole procession of others, all important figures in the history leading up to the fall of the wall. Stood in the rain, the speeches hard to hear, people began to get impatient. One Berliner woman summed up the mood fairly well when she said "Mach zu!" (get on with it) - she just wanted to see the dominoes fall. Others yelled "Mauer muss weg!" - the wall must go, echoing the cries of protesters 20 years ago. I think the problem was that it felt like we were watching a TV programme (which we couldn't hear too well) rather than being involved in an event, a stark contrast to the spontaneous celebrations of November 1989, which was very much a case of the people engaging with the spirit of the moment.
Still, the dominoes was a nice idea and it was fun when they finally fell (in sections - the first from the Reichstag to the Brandenburg Gate, the second from Potsdamer Platz to the Brandenburg Gate and the third around the Brandenburg Gate itself).




The dominoes after having been knocked down


Once they'd come down, the area cleared fairly quickly. I headed towards Potsdamer Platz to catch the late night supermarket...and to visit something else wall related...

This is where Malmöer Straße meets Bornholmer Straße:



The sign at the corner of Bornholmer Straße


Twenty years ago, there was a border crossing point here, stretching from Malmöer Straße to the Bösebrücke, the bridge which crosses the S-Bahn tracks.



The Bösebrücke


Around this time, it would have seemed like a normal day to anyone approaching the checkpoint, or indeed even anyone working there. East German secretary for information Günter Schabowski was still preparing for his press conference in the international press centre in East Berlin. Even he wasn't completely prepared for what happened next. At just before 19:00 on the evening of November 9th 1989, he answered a question by an Italian journalist about new travel regulations, mentioning that it had been decided that day to make it be possible for citizens to leave the GDR by any of the border crossings. Another journalist asked when this would come into effect. Hesitating and shuffling through papers, under pressure for an answer by the journalists assembled there, he eventually said "That comes into effect, according to my information, immediately, without delay."

Once East Berliners heard this, they flocked to the border crossing points. In fact, the policy Schabowski had announced was supposed to have been introduced at 4 the next morning. The border guards hadn't yet been informed; the people took them by surprise. Confusion reigned, but the people continued gathering; the crossing point at Bornholmer Straße was the first in Berlin to give in to pressure and open its gates.

This plaque commemorates the event:


The plaque by the Bösebrücke


You can see the Bösebrücke on the right of the picture. Once people were across that, they were in West Berlin.

I passed a woman who was talking with a couple of German tourists. "We were so happy" she said, "we all wanted to go and take a look."


SNG vans on Bornholmer Straße


Some parts of Berlin seem to be swarming with news crews now, others are swarming with foreign tourists too, while some are curiously quiet. The main event is happening down at the Brandenburg Gate...which is where I'm headed now...more updates later!


Konnopke's Imbiß



You'll see Imbißbuden (snack bars) like this all over Berlin. They normally sell various types of sausage (Wurst), chips (Pommes - that is, French fries) and various other snack foods.

When I say you'll see ones like this, I don't mean exactly like this, because this one is special. This is Berlin's oldest Imbiß, tracing its roots back to 1930, when Max Konnopke set up a stall with a sausage boiler and a folding table and started selling sausages to the public. Konnopke's Imbiß is now something of a legend in Berlin. Legendary above all other things it sells is the Currywurst:


A Currywurst


This actually traces its roots back to another Imbiß in Charlottenburg, where Herta Heuwer started experimenting with ingredients she'd got from British soldiers in 1949. Mixing tomato paste, worcestershire sauce and curry powder (amongst other things), she created what she called Chillup sauce; pouring it liberally over a sliced fried sausage, the currywurst was born.

The recipe for Konnopke's sauce is as much of a secret than Herta Heuwer's was - it's never left the family since Max's wife Charlotte Konnopke developed it.

Currywurst in Berlin is made with a special sausage, finely minced like a Bockwurst, but with a softer texture. Currywurst is also made in other parts of Germany, but usually made with a Bratwurst (if you happen to be in London, Kurz & Lang in Spitalfields make a version with Bratwurst). Some places selling berliner currywurst will offer it both "mit Darm" and "ohne Darm". Darm actually means intestine, but this has nothing to do with whether you want a serving of intestines with it - Darm here refers to the sausage skin. The version 'mit Darm' (with skin) is crisper on the outside - more knackig to use a German word! Knackig is difficult to translate in the context of sausages (dictionaries will normally translate it as 'crunchy' or 'crisp'), but if you imagine what it's like biting into a crisp-skinned, juicy sausage, you'll probably get the idea of what's meant.




Thierry Noir heads



Looking at this, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was West Berlin in the 1980s. The wall became famous for the graffiti that covered the western side - including things like these heads by Thierry Noir, which you'll often see on postcards and other pictures from the time (he's briefly shown painting the wall in Wim Wenders's film Wings of Desire too).

This, however, is not the western side but the eastern side - the East Side Gallery to be precise! A group of artists painted this section of wall - the longest still standing, at 1.3km/0.8mi - in 1990. It's remained ever since and has just been repainted - not without some controversy, though, as some artists weren't happy with the idea of it being erased and them having to start again. It was getting very flaky and - perhaps ironically - graffiti strewn, though, so I don't really blame them for wanting to restore it.

Some of the artists are still at work. This is Italian artist Fulvio Pinna:




Fulvio Pinna at work


With all the tourists flocking round to take a look, it felt a bit like a zoo.




Fulvio Pinna behind bars!


Someone even offered him a banana...

The first time I came to the East Side Gallery, in December 2001, there was barely anyone walking along this stretch of road at all. That certainly wasn't the case today though - it was positively crawling with tourists and news journalists.




Tourists at the East Side Gallery


As you'll know already, I'm not a big fan of anywhere that has too many tourists per square metre and this was definitely way over my threshold, so it was time to get going. On the way towards Ostbahnhof, I saw something which made me think of the GDR...




A banana


This is definitely not a scene you'd have come across in the days before the wall fell. Bananas (and other 'Südfrüchte' - southern, that is, tropical fruits) were scarce and I doubt anyone would have valued them so little as to leave them lying by the road. Even if someone didn't want something, they'd often realise that it had a value as something to trade - some people talk of joining queues outside shops long before they found out what it was they were queueing for, because they knew that it must be something desirable which, at the very least, could be traded for something desirable which they actually wanted.

I didn't much fancy my chances of trading these bananas for anything useful though (especially if I'd said I'd found them by the road), so I left them for the next person...perhaps someone will try feeding them to Fulvio Pinna.

Karl Marx Allee was East Berlin's first big building project, planned as "Berlin's first socialist street", with building work beginning in 1952.
The street was originally called Große Frankfurter Straße (and, further towards the east, Frankfurter Allee), but renamed Stalinallee on December 21st 1949, for Stalin's 70th birthday. Stalin fell out of favour after his death and, in a process of de-Stalinisation initiated by Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev, it was renamed Karl Marx Allee, the eastern portion reverting to Frankfurter Allee.

It was built in two main stages - one between 1952 and 1961, eastwards from Strausberger Platz and the other from 1959 to 1965, between Strausberger Platz and Alexanderplatz . There was a third, when two blocks of modernist styled housing was built in 1949 - 1950 to plans by Ludmilla Herzenstein, an associate of Hans Scharoun, who had suggested a plan for the development of the whole city. This style of architecture was denounced as too western, however, and the rest of Stalinallee was constructed in what was seen to be a more fittingly socialist style.
I find the 1952 segment particularly striking - while the later segment of the street has a lot in common with East German architecture in other parts of the city, the ornate Soviet wedding cake style of the earlier segment was abandoned for future developments, partly for economic reasons and partly no doubt because of its association with Stalin.

We start at Strausberger Platz.



Tower at Strausberger Platz, with Fernsehturm in background



The day is grey as only a day in Berlin can be. The Fernsehturm is once again shrouded in mist. There's something bringing colour to the day, though...the Ampelmännchen!


Red Ampelmännchen


Green Ampelmännchen



Everything along Karl Marx Allee is listed (in German, the term is Denkmalschutz - monumental protection), even these street lights:


Street light



Also, see how ornate the detailing is on the building behind it. All the buildings from this phase of building are clad in ceramic tiles, many of them from Meißen, a town famous for its ceramics. Some of them show scenes of workers engaged in various activities. Stalinallee was planned as an antithesis to the run down working class areas of capitalist Berlin before the war, a showpiece rather than somewhere to be ashamed of. The working classes were, under communism, something to be praised (and glorified) rather than pushed out to the edges of the city where they couldn't be seen.


Detail of tiles



This is something that's evident in the planning of East Berlin in general - there's housing everywhere, even right in the heart of the city and not vast, 'luxury apartments' for the insanely wealthy, but ordinary flats for ordinary people. Even now, a lot of them are surprisingly affordable.


A housing block on Karl Marx Allee



The buildings are so monumental in scale that they're quite difficult to photograph in their entirety, but this should give you some idea.

I find it fascinating how you'll see a whole different set of people around here to those around, say, Unter den Linden (the main street running east - west through the city centre). It certainly feels like it's quite a long way off the beaten track as far as tourism is concerned, which is strange in a way, as it's usually mentioned in guide books. It's clearly not somewhere that many coach tours stop, though, which is something I'm actually quite glad of. Though it would be nice to think that tourists are getting a comprehensive overview of the city, there's something nice about the slightly lonely atmosphere on Karl Marx Allee which coach parties would totally wreck.


A Trabant at Frankfurter Tor



This is one of the towers at Frankfurter Tor...and look, there's a Trabbi! The Trabant was East Germany's most popular car, though they were in short supply - it could take 15 years between ordering one and receiving it. This one is taking people on a tour, which I think fits the atmosphere a lot better than coach tours!

The towers at Frankfurter Tor were designed by Hermann Henselmann, along with the towers at Strausberger Platz (and the Hochhaus an der Weberwiese, just off Karl Marx Allee). He also designed a lot of other buildings in East Berlin, though he was a modernist at heart, so reverted to that style in all his later buildings.


McDonald's at Frankfurter Tor



Even if parts of Karl Marx Allee feel like a sort of time capsule, others definitely don't - this McDonald's being a case in point. I didn't go inside - there's something far more interesting over the road...


A café at Frankfurter Tor



The "Kaffee und Tee" (coffee and tea) sign on this café is quite a typical GDR era one. There are quite a few shops along Karl Marx Allee with signs like it. The café's interior is panelled with wood laminates (from what I can tell, it's some kind of particle board underneath) which look like they're probably from the 50s, while the ceiling has a wood lattice covering most of it.


Inside the café



The furniture is a curious mix of all sorts, as you can see! This is definitely quite representative of the more trendy, slightly subversive culture that can be found in parts of Berlin, something which I find a lot more fun than Berlin's more conventional side, which can be seen in places like Potsdamer Platz. There are more slightly alternative cafés and bars further along the road (which becomes Frankfurter Allee at this point). Definitely a place to come and take a look at...just don't bring your coach party with you.

Yesterday's mist has gone, replaced by drizzle. Still, it's not enough to put off a seasoned Berlin explorer. See you all later!

After visiting the Fernsehturm, we take a tram to Hackescher Markt, then wander down Oranienburger Straße.

The Neue Synagoge (new synagogue) in Oranienburger Straße, designed by Eduard Knoblauch, was built between 1859 and 1866 and was the largest of Berlin's synagogues.

November 9th seems to have been a turning point many times in German history; as well as being the date the wall fell, it was the date Germany was proclaimed a republic in 1918, the date of the Nazi beer hall putsch in Munich and the date that this synagogue was set fire to in 1938 - Kristallnacht.



The Neue Synagoge



After the death on November 9th of Nazi diplomat Ernst vom Rath, shot in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, the descendent of Jewish Poles, the Nazis launched a brutal attack on Jewish property throughout Germany. Jewish businesses were attacked, Jewish people were attacked an sent to concentration camps and synagogues were set on fire. The Neue Synagoge was one of the victims, though its status as a historic monument led to the fire brigade eventually extinguishing the fire. It continued in use until 1940, when it was seized by the Wehrmacht. It was heavily bombed in the Allied bombing raids of World War II, and much of the ruins were later demolished.

All that remains today is the front of the building, which was restored in the years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Part of it is in use as a synagogue again, the rest holds offices and an exhibition.

Further down the road, towards Friedrichstraße, is the Kunsthaus Tacheles. The building started life as the Friedrichstraßenpassage, a shopping arcade connecting Oranienburger Straße with Friedrichstraße, built to plans by Franz Ahrens between 1907 and 1908. Unusually for its time, the structure was made of reinforced concrete. It went bankrupt 6 months after opening and the building then went through a procession of owners - first Wolf Wertheim, then AEG, then the SS. After World War II, several East German organisations used it, before the building was partially demolished in 1980. Since 1990, it has been home to an artists' initiative calling itself Tacheles, a Yiddish word meaning 'goal' or 'puropose' used in German in the phrase "Tacheles reden" i.e. straight talk (a reference to - and reaction against - the way artists in the GDR had to conceal the meaning of their work).

There is music coming from the courtyard beyond the façade, accompanied by a general buzz of activity. Inside, to the the right of the large entrance portal, is a large corrugated metal shed-like structure, with music coming from a large loudspeaker cabinet, hanging by chains from the roof. A pair of sculptors are working on a giant metal head, the charged smell of welding sparks drifting across the shed on the night air.



A welder at Tacheles


A selection of smaller huts surround the courtyard. Right at the back, facing out into the darkness of an empty patch of scrubland, is a cabin lined with brightly coloured paintings. A man stands hunched outside, puffing on a cigarette. "Go on in, it's open" he says.

The man turns out to be an artist from New York City. His cabin seems to be part studio, part gallery and the two functions seem to blend together so that the whole thing is a work of art in itself. "That's exactly it," he says, "It's like an installation."

"They've been painting that again," he says, his attention turning towards the graffiti-covered wall of the buildings beyond the fence behind his cabin. "I don't know how they do it with the cops sitting there all the time." I peer through the fence to see if I can catch sight of them. "There's usually a car there somewhere, 24 hours a day" he adds.
"How do they get up there?" he continues, his attention turning back to the graffiti, "A roller, yeah, that'll be it...on a pole." He stares in wonder for a moment. Graffiti seems to appear in all sorts of places in Berlin, quite often high up on buildings. It's hard not to share his curiosity about how it gets there.

The conversation wanders back to his own painting techniques. "I used to use spray paint," he says, "terrible for the environment. I went back to markers and acrylic to save the planet."

Later in the day, the mist having mostly cleared, we head over to the TV tower (Fernsehturm).




The Fernsehturm floodlit


The Fernsehturm recently celebrated its 40th birthday, having been opened on October 3rd 1969. There had been a previous attempt to build a TV to the south-east, on the Müggelberge, but it was realised it would get in the way of flights arriving at Berlin Schönefeld airport. Instead, they incorporated it into plans for East Berlin's city centre, where it would impress the greatness of socialism on everyone through its domination of the city skyline. At 368 metres tall (365 before the comparatively recent installation of a new antenna), it certainly manages the domination part - it's hard to find a place in Berlin where it can't be seen...other than when it's misty.

The construction of the ball-like part of the tower means that a cross appears when the sun hits it, something which led to it being called "the pope's revenge" due to communism's dislike of religion. The tower was officially nicknamed Telespargel (tele-asparagus) by the East German government, one of several attempts to increase public affection for it (another was the writing of a children's song about it).

As well as an observation deck, there's a revolving restaurant up there, where you can watch the city smoothly glide by:




The revolving restaurant in the Fernsehturm


The cakes are particularly good, as I hope this monstrous slice of Käse-Sahne-Torte will demonstrate:




A slice of Käse-Sahne Torte


Though most of the ruins of the Berliner Stadtschloß were destroyed in the 1950s, a small piece was preserved. Not only that, it was included in the Staatsratsgebäude, the building of the East German State Council.




The 'Karl Liebknecht Portal' on the Staatsratsgebäude


The balcony of that portal was where, on November 9th 1918, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a "free socialist socialist republic" in Germany; it didn't end up leading to its establishment and he and fellow communist Rosa Luxemburg were murdered in January 1919 for their part in a communist revolt in earlier that month.
He and Rosa Luxemburg were seen very much as socialist heroes in the GDR. The street on the northern side of Schloßplatz was named after Liebknecht, while Luxemburg had both a street and a square named after her just a little further north from here.

They also put this memorial in one of the niches on the northern side of the Neuer Marstall building:




Karl Liebknecht memorial


The text on it says "On November 9th 1918, Karl Liebknecht proclaims the free socialist republic". You'll see quite a lot of imagery like this, showing the ordinary people as something strong and often larger than life, in East Berlin's socialist monuments, though the fact that Liebknecht seems to be flying superman-style here isn't intentional!

The Staatsratsgebäude is now home to the European School of Management and Technology.

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Here's a nicely made film focusing on children and young people in Marzahn, Der Himmel Über Marzahn: http://t.co/bEc7UokCrm
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