Cities are often synonymous with their biggest attractions: Paris is to the Eiffel Tower, as Rome is to the Coliseum, as London is to the palace guards. But what is Berlin synonymous with?
Before visiting Berlin, I had treated my travel weekends much the same as I treated a grocery list —Big Ben? Check. Buckingham Palace? Done. The London Bridge? Seen it. But then I traveled to Berlin, which was essentially destroyed in World War II. The most defining attraction is the Berlin Wall, which was erected only 52 years ago, and taken down just over 20 years ago. But the modernity of Berlin would soon teach me the beauty of a city isn’t always where the obvious landmarks are.
Berlin’s history is fresh, and you can feel that in the hastily constructed, bland buildings that line the city streets. After being reduced to rubble, the city was forced to rebuild as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Even the historical buildings were so extensively damaged that they’ve either been remodeled or redesigned.
This proved problematic to me at first. I’ve never been a fan of modern architecture. I prefer the decorative Rococo style or the dramatic Baroque style over newer ones. But in Berlin, any remnants of more classical buildings stand preserved in randomly remaining pieces. So, surrounded by contemporary buildings, I was forced to find the beauty in modernity. And I began to appreciate the way the city is built upon its rubble, making amends for its past while moving forward.
In the Reichstag parliament building, the architect who restored it left the graffiti Russian soldiers had sprawled across the walls after taking the city. Only profanities were removed, and the graffiti now stands to remind current parliament members of the city’s past.
Similarly, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe covers 4.7 acres and occupies some of the best real estate in Berlin. The monument consists of giant cement blocks that create a maze, and the farther you wander through them, the higher they rise, creating a sense of misplacement and despair similar to what the persecuted Jews may have felt. While wandering through this maze, I realized that it was because of Berlin’s tribute to recent history that I was able to get a real sense of the city itself, because the after-effects of World War II were still so tangible.
In Rome, I can look up in awe at the Sistine Chapel and marvel at the masterpiece, but then I move on to the next big sight to see. There are 500 years of history and a vastly different culture separating me from when Michelangelo painted the piece. Whereas in Berlin, I can stand underneath the Dome of the Berliner Dom, admiring its golden hues and valiant stained glass eagle, and know that the original dome came crashing down within my grandparents’ lifetimes. Because of that nearness of time, I could feel authentic awe, instead of gaping at something I felt no connection to.
Near the end of my trip, I stood at the top of the Reichstag dome, taking in the panoramic view of Berlin, when a German flag in the distance caught my eye. Behind the flag, a huge yellow crane pierced the sky, one of hundreds of cranes that could be seen breaching the city skyline. In that moment I felt as though those two icons were deeply intertwined. The part of me that had been traveling through Europe to marvel at its historic glory realized that history isn’t stagnant—it’s being made all around us, and it’s just as beautiful, and important, as all the landmarks in Europe.