The Berlin Wall was the most potent symbol of the Cold War, and its fall 30 years ago heralded a new era globally. Flip Byrnes visits Berlin in the lead-up to the anniversary in November, proving that a family trip and history can unite, just like East and West
My 45-year-old husband stands at the western side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, brow furrowed, as he attempts to mine the memory of his seven-year-old self. “The Wall went here”, he says, pointing at the double cobblestones in front of us that denote the former Wall’s path. “And my grandmother took me up to a viewing platform so I could look over the Wall.” And what did he see? His eyes are unfocused as he looks back in time, into a world that no longer exists. “Nothing”, he says. “It was so, so empty. Eastern Germany was a dead place. And I was scared, just to be that close.”
Many Germans have stories like this. My husband’s grandmother fled Berlin during World War II by walking to Koblenz, 530km away, alone. Then, one by one, she took her grandchildren to see the regime that built bricks between brothers, the Wall slashing the city geographically and ideologically. I probe more, asking why he believes she brought him there. “Because we were Berliners, and the wall was Berlin.”
Much has changed, but that has not. The Wall still is Berlin. While much of it was woodpeckered away by souvenir hunters during the heady days post-Reunification in 1989, (only 2km of the wall survives, in parts), the history and stories permeate the city – if you look for it. And we are; 38 years after Till’s visit, we’re taking our 3 and 4 year-old to experience their ancestral city. Just like Grandma Kramann.
So how to deal with Berlin’s heavy history? With toddler and pre-schooler in tow? Easy, by bike. In fact, we aim to only explore by bike. Berlin on Bike offers private guided tours, meaning we travel at little people pace, and pause in playgrounds (Berlin has over 1800), while gaining our bearings and city-bike confidence. The fact that one child will travel on a tag-along tandem bike (a small bike attached to an adult bike), means the adventure is already a winner with the girls.
Paul, our British guide, leads us to our first historical ‘moment’ almost immediately – a corner in Prenzlauer Berg that served as a flashpoint when the wall came down. The area has photos of pivotal events plastered on walls, invoking the past to life. Today’s it’s just us, but 30 years ago, images depict the street flooded with people and emotion. Till is captivated – as he says, “this history is so recent it’s powerful.”
But it’s the next stop that affects us both. Bernauer Straße’s park (via a cycle through Mauerpark’s now-grass former death strip) features bronze steps laid in what Paul calls, “the best lawn in Berlin”, tracking underground tunnel paths. In the sunshine, as the girls unleash energy up and down the stepping stones, the vignette seems so innocent. But one of the bronze paths represents a Stasi route; instead of leading fleeing Easterners to the West, the Stasi overtook a safe house and re-routed the tunnel to emerge in the middle of the death strip. Nasty.
We digest this while the girls sprint obliviously in circles on what is, correctly, Berlin’s softest and greenest lawn. Likewise visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial, the one section offering the full visual of watchtower, no-man’s land and fortified walls, the girls are entertained finding stones while we learn of human division.
This is becoming the ultimate day of ‘something for everyone’. Paul lives and breathes cycle routes, thus he leads us on an insider’s path through the ‘des res’ (desirable residence) streets of Prenzlauer Berg and leafy Saturday brunching area of upper Mitte, where it’s so peaceful it’s almost implausible that we’re in the inner city of a world centre.
When the kids become restless, we make a beeline for Monbijou Park, joining locals in a riverside playground, sipping frothy takeaway coffees from the adjacent hipster café (parent’s dream combination). And when it’s time to part ways after frolicking on Berlin’s second best grassy area (the Reichstag lawn), he leads us to a biergarten with private play area.
Berlin with small kids? Easy. The Museum of Natural History has the world’s largest dinosaur skeleton; the DDR Museum (a fascinating treasure trove of all things Eastern German) comes complete with a former East German apartment replica, inviting kids to explore the cupboards and wardrobes; the KulturBrauerei Sunday food truck market satisfies pulled pork-loving parents and crepe-loving kids; and Prenzlauer Berg, with the most number of kindergartens in Berlin, is a family haven.
But even here the past is omnipresent. In delightful, sun-dappled Wasserturm Park, featuring a 19th century water tower and playground, rests a plaque. In 1933 this site held the SA-Heim Wasserturm, before it was torn down in 1935 to remove traces of Nazi crimes.
I take in the serene surroundings. The former water tower machinery room where the playground rests was one of Germany’s first concentration camps. In short, we’re playing on a former execution site. The autumn wind lifts and tugs my hair, while the words do something similar to my heartstrings.
On the swings, children’s playful squeals now replace the torturous screams that witnesses recount vibrated throughout the streets. What kind of emotional echo lingers here? Berlin can be a dark place, and travelling here with kids is to bring the light with you, offsetting grim events with the simple pleasures of sliding on slippery dips and the best of innocent love.
But this is typical Berlin, a city that walks the chiaroscuro tightrope of wanting to progress from past events, yet preserve them. For me it isn’t the headlining sights – the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag or museums that personify Berlin. Rather, it’s haphazard notes left for curious visitors in nooks and crannies – an inscription on a playground wall, ‘stumble stones’ (raised stones outside Nazi victims’ houses and bronze steps in a park, that serve of reminders of how humanity should never tread again.
Just like Till, our children will remember snippets of their visit at most. But hopefully they will one day take their children to Berlin – the best way to ensure that while the physical wall has fallen, the lessons of history remain.
The writer was a guest of visitBerlin and Adina Apartment Hotels.
Etihad Airways flies to Berlin via Abu Dhabi Etihad.com
Adina Apartment Hotels has spacious family-friendly bases in three prime locations; cosmopolitan Hackescher Markt, Mitte (opposite the Museum of Natural History for dinosaur lovers) and historic Checkpoint Charlie. Studios from 100 Euro and 1 bed apartments from 139 Euro. Adinahotels.com
The Berlin Welcome Card starts at 20 Euro for 24 hours, including free transport (with three children aged between six-14 on an adult ticket), and discounts on more than 200 attractions visitberlin.de
MACHmit! Museum for Kids – A former church now home to a childrens’ museum and indoor playground
LEGOLAND Discovery Centre – Two rides, 10 LEGO fun zones, a 4D cinema and more