A case of Ostalgie and the first time visitor to Berlin

As you’ve probably come to realise, Berlin is one of my favourite cities.  Having visited twice before, it was therefore high time that I took Mr Lighty to Berlin.  Over the years we have developed something of a fascination with the history of the Deutsche Demokratik Republik (DDR) and former socialist countries; I’ve been lucky enough to visit quite a few ex-socialist countries, but Mr Lighty has only previously been to the Czech Republic.  It was lovely, therefore, to visit Berlin a third time with a first-time visitor and experience the city through their eyes – as well as indulge in a bit of Ostalgie.

DDR Luxury
For a short break where we were looking to soak up much of the communist history of Germany’s capital city, where better to stay than one of the country’s former most luxurious hotels of the DDR?  The Park Inn Hotel was built originally as the Stadt Hotel Berlin, which was used to house Comecon representatives in its time, and was the premier 4-star hotel of former East Berlin – it was even noted for having unusually fast lifts for the period!  Its location cannot be beaten, either, being centrally located at Alexanderplatz, overlooking the communist TV Tower (which is a very interesting visit in itself), and indeed, on our second day in the city, we made all of our visits on foot, walking a circular route from Alexanderplatz to the Brandenburg Gate, up to the Reichstag and down again past Potsdamer Platz, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt and on to Museum Island and Berlin Cathedral.  It was lovely to experience the first sighting of the Brandenburg Gate and enjoy the Reichstag audio tour with Mr Lighty; two iconic Berlin landmarks, which for the first time visitor are a must.  Checkpoint Charlie, another must on Mr Lighty’s list, has become horribly touristy unfortunately, but the city can’t have everything!
The Park Inn Hotel at Alexanderplatz…  
…and the East German-built TV tower 
as viewed from our hotel window.


A step back in time
One of the first stops on our tour of all things East German was the DDR Museum.  This museum is dedicated to original artefacts from the period before German reunification.  With the likes of a recreated East German flat and a Trabant car, there’s plenty to engage the visitor within the hands-on museum.  It was really interesting to read about the products available (or not available, as the case often was) in the DDR, and to see how East Germany lived, but I did feel that it made the era feel like it was ‘fun’; yet I’m sure that if you lived in East Berlin at the time, it wasn’t fun in the slightest.  

Mr Lighty in a Trabant in the DDR Museum
A much more authentic experience, if you like, was our visit to the Stasi Headquarters.  The headquarters of the Staatsicherheit, or secret East German police, was ‘Haus 1’ (House 1), a highly secure compound which was the centre of the fight against enemies of the DDR from 1960 onwards, and was built as the seat of the offices of the Minister of State Security and the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke.  In a bid to make that period of time more open and accessible to people, Haus 1 has now been opened to the public.  You have the sense that it has been left exactly as it was in Mielke’s time.  In fact, Mr Lighty didn’t take to the museum well – I’d never seen him so creeped out by anything!!  I’m pretty sure the museum’s tea room was the original canteen from the DDR;  complete with 1980s retro chairs and little more than a tea urn (although at €1.20 for a coffee including a biscuit, who’s complaining?), and I’d never seen a coffee drunk quicker than I did from Mr Lighty that day – he couldn’t get out of there fast enough!  There was definitely a sense of foreboding in the museum, and coupled with the Stasi records exhibition on Zimmerstrasse, it must have been terrifying to have lived through a period where your every move was watched and recorded.  Indeed, since the archives were opened to the public 20 years ago, there have been approximately 2.8 million requests from people wanting to read what Stasi spies wrote about them.
Haus 1, the Stasi Headquarters
‘Enjoying’ a cup of coffee in the Stasi Headquarters

A Foray into the West
Of course, Berlin isn’t just about East German history, and our trip also included excellent visits to the Olympic Stadium, and Berlin Zoo, both of which I hadn’t visited previously but was very impressed by.  The Olympic Stadium’s exhibition on its history, with particular reference to the National Socialist era, is well worth a visit, and although Berlin is a city which has been through a lot of traumatic history in recent years, it is also a city which is trying to be open and honest with the world to prevent it from happening again.  After three visits to this fascinating city, there’s still so much to see and do – the zoo being a case in point, as we simply didn’t have enough time to do it justice, having to get back to our hotel and on to the airport for our flight home that evening.  The one disappointment of this trip was the fact that we couldn’t do the Trabi tour I’d been so looking forward to doing, as we didn’t have the foresight to pre-book – we’ll just have to use it as an excuse to go back!   And with so much to see and do, I’m sure after Mr Lighty’s first experience of the city, he’ll be glad to join me.

Enjoying the view over the Olympic Stadium from the Bell Tower

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