I went to Potsdam for a week to learn how to analyse a certain type of astronomical data. Unfortunately the weekend before was the Miglia Quadrato. I spent a Saturday night driving around the City of London hunting for clues until 5am, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and then headed to Stansted for a flight to Schönefeld. I got an S-bahn into Berlin, then another S-bahn out to Potsdam, finally arriving at my hostel at 1am. Each day's work for the next week started at 9am, and it took me until about Thursday to recover from the weekend.
Working in Potsdam was great. Each morning I would get up at 7am, wander up through Babelsberg via a bakery to buy breakfast and lunch, meet a friend from work who was also here for the week, and then walk up through fields to the Astrophysikalisches Intstitut. The peace and quiet was great for the week that I was there, but by Friday I was missing noise and bustle. We headed for Berlin.
Berlin is probably my favourite city in Europe. This was my third trip, and the number of things that had changed since the last time was amazing. New buildings had gone up, old ones had come down, most dramatically the old GDR parliament building. The East Side Gallery was much more covered in graffiti than it had been, and the Dom seemed to have lost the very top of its dome. But towering above it all was the familiar sight of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower.
Another new thing since 2004 was the Holocaust memorial near Potsdamer Platz. It had opened in 2005 after years of planning and disputes, on what used to be no-mans-land between east and west during the Cold War. We walked among them, and I felt that as a piece of art it was interesting, but it was not much of a memorial, with no signs, names, explanations or anything. It took us a while to find the museum below, and that put things right on the memorial front, with detailed and shocking exhibits about the horrors of Nazi Germany. The more I travel in Europe the more I appreciate what devastation this continent suffered, and how fortunate we are to have peace today.
The Hamburger Bahnhof is a great contemporary art gallery. I'd been there before in 2004, and loved most of it except the main exhibition. It was the same this time, with huge amounts of space devoted to stuff by Wolfgang Tillmans, which was mostly rubbish. But away from his work there were some excellent things. One installation that I particularly liked was an almost entirely dark room, with just an incredibly faint image projected onto the far wall. You had to spent at least ten minutes in there before the point of it became clear, and I liked that. Re-emerging into the bright gallery, I needed another ten minutes to be able to see properly again afterwards.
I'd gone to the Hamburger Bahnhof last time I was in Berlin. To get there we had to go via the Haupbahnhof, which at the time was just an empty shell - a vast glass roof over bare platforms, cold and empty and covered by winter snow. The station had been finished in 2006, and today in the hot May sun it was unbelievably different, now that it was full of shops, fast food stands, people, trains, and activity.
The next morning I walked via the Hackescher Markt to Alexanderplatz, then along Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. Beyond the gate, I walked along Straße des 17 Juni to a Soviet war memorial. This was what used to be West Berlin, but throughout the cold war Soviet soldiers stood guard at the memorial. Two tanks either side of the entrance were supposedly the first two Russian tanks to enter the city in April 1945.
I walked on from the memorial up to the Spree, and then along by the river banks as far as Bellevue station. From there I decided to head back east, to Treptow and another war memorial.
This one was far bigger than the one in the Tiergarten. The huge site was almost deserted. Berlin today is so exciting and dynamic that it seems impossible to believe what happened here less than a human lifetime ago. Eight million Red Army soldiers were killed in the war, and the Soviets built memorials to them all across the Eastern Bloc. I walked around the site, up to the giant statue of a Red Army soldier stamping on a swastika, and felt unable to comprehend what Europe at war must have been like.
The East Side Gallery is the longest surviving section of the wall, and it's covered in some pretty historic murals, originally painted right after it fell in November 1989. It's crazy to see what a pathetically thin slab of concrete separated two different worlds within the same city.
Sadly the murals are decaying. They were freshened up by the original artists in 2000, and so when I first saw them in 2002 they looked pretty good. By 2004 they were a bit rough-looking, and now in 2008 it was really depressing to see how awful they looked. In a city with no shortage of places to spray a bit of graffiti, I couldn't understand why so many people would choose to spray it here.