Travelling habits are like eating habits. Some people like to gorge. Others like to take their time, savour the moment slowly.
My dad and I are gorgers.
On our first day – no, correction – our first afternoon in Berlin (we checked in at about four o’clock) we walked the entire Mitte borough, covering around 10km.
Mitte meaning ‘middle’ is the center of Berlin. Before the reunification of Germany, it was also divided, with parts in the East, parts in the West of the city.
We don’t really know this when we set off along Friedrichstrasse. We don’t know much, just walk.
What we see are husks of buildings pre-dating the war completed with a modern twist. New overlapping with, but never replacing the old.
Neat, narrow streets with strictly delegated sections for cars, pedestrians and cyclists.
An unspoken orderliness in the way people move. No one crosses the street on a red light despite little traffic.
Alongside the pedestrian strip a constant flow of cyclists. Women in skirts and dresses, sandal clad; men with side bags slung carelessly over their shoulder. Helmets are worn only by tourists.
“Don’t step on the cycle path” dad warns me “they’ll knock you right out.”
I don’t doubt that for a second.
The first place of interest is Potsdamer Platz where pieces of the Berlin Wall stand on display.
Narrow streets open up to this square which has been completely levelled during the war and rebuilt from scratch.
But here still, parts of the old are preserved. Berlin Wall fragments accompanied by a historical account of what happened here.
Past the square, past the huge Tiergarten (Berlin’s ‘lung’) on our left, we wander to Brandenburger Tor, Berlin’s only intact city gate.
It’s had many lives, this gate.
Dubbed the Gates of the World when it was first built in the 18th century.
A marker of separation between East and West Berlin in the war’s aftermath, standing just meters away from the Berlin Wall, enveloped by the East side.
Now it is a symbol of the country’s reunification.
We see no wall remains to mark the spot, just an information plaque for tourists, Turkish men selling conbike rides and tour guides yelling over other tour guides in the crowded space underneath the gate.
Step through Brandenburger Tor from Ebertstrasse, you enter East Berlin via Pariser Platz.
It’s quieter here. Silence in the back streets is waiting. Hesitant, too used to being in the periphery, back when people still lived here, to fully occupy the space.
East Berlin, we will soon learn, is empty. Waves of migration shook the place when the wall fell and the first wave was an exodus from East to West. People didn’t know how long the wall would stay down. They didn’t want to stick around in GDR to find out.
Finally, we reach the water and Museum island |museumsinsel|.
A place I’d been curious to see.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, museumsinel is in rehab when we see it. A floating patient.
We walk along the Spree river and look across the water at half hidden do-not-cross signs, cranes and metal scrap of restoration work in progress.
It’s frightening and remote at once, this small scrap of land dominated by five expansive giants of architecture.
I realise we’re too late to have seen the city as it was. They’re trying to cover up the scars of the past.
Later we will get told again and again that Berlin is a city in transition.
For now we cross Spree, making a loop on the other side of the water and head back.
Day 2 awaits.