Over the last few weeks I have had the good fortune of being an armchair tourist. With several groups of friends currently overseas they have kept me, as indeed all of their social media followers, up to date with their adventures – not just a feed-full of selfies in front of famous tourist attractions – far more than that, I’ve had a guided tour too.
So while they have endured the long-haul flights, the lost luggage (yes really!), the expense and the many risks involved in travelling the globe in these unstable times, I have been comfortable and safe in my own armchair.
Bruges in Belgium was my first destination on the armchair tour and although I visited there some years ago now, it was good to see the bell tower and medieval square once again. This time however, I did get to see Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child at the Church of our Lady which I didn’t manage to see last time. I cycled along the canal path to the medieval town of Damme and walked through the tulips of Minnewaterpark.
My armchair tour took me on to Amsterdam and again a city I visited well over thirty years ago, I was reminded of Anne Frank’s incredible and sad story and visited the Van Gogh Museum as well as Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum. The Keukenhof garden; also known as the Garden of Europe, is one of the world’s largest flower gardens and was a mass of colour.
I continued east to the German city of Berlin – a new destination for me and a visit which was to be very much themed around World War 2. I visited the site of the first Nazi book burnings of 1933. Among the works thrown into the fire were the writings of the 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansar the famous admonition “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people.” Over twenty thousand books were thrown into the square to burn.
From here, I went onto the Holocaust Memorial close to the Brandenburg Gate. Designed by New York based architect Peter Eisenmann it is an area of 19,000 square metres of 2,711 concrete pillars (or steles) of varying heights. I also viewed the WW2 headquarters of the Luftwaffe, one of the few remaining intact buildings of that era.
I walked past the Guard Tower over the Berlin Wall ‘death-strip’ and on to Check Point Charlie. Would you believe there is a McDonalds there now! Then on to the Brandenburg Gates, the victory column and Berlin Cathedral; the present building was inaugurated in 1905 and the oldest surviving building in Berlin, despite having an unexploded bomb land on it during WW2.
I took a sombre trip north of Berlin to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Built in 1936, it was one of the most notorious death camps of the Nazi empire. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945; tens of thousands died of starvation, disease, forced labour and mistreatment, or were victims of the systematic extermination operations of the SS. The Camp was liberated by Allied troops in 1945.
I visited the Berlin Wall memorial – 136 people died trying to escape over the wall, two as late as 1989 – the year Chief and I were married. I stopped off at the Berlin Jewish Museum which opened in 2001. Here I viewed the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the symbolic spaces. The floor of the void is covered by more than ten thousand faces with open mouths, cut from heavy round iron plates.
My armchair tour of Berlin coincided with Anzac Day commemorations and I visited the Berlin 1939–1945 Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. There are over 3,500 war graves here, mainly men of the Royal Air Force and British soldiers plus over 200 Australian and New Zealand soldiers.
My final tourist destination in Berlin was one of three Soviet Memorials, this one at Tiergarten. About 2000 Soviet soldiers are buried around this monument which ended up in West Germany when Berlin was split. It required British protection and a Soviet guard till 1990. 50 million people died in WW2. 25 million were from the Russian states.
I could travel on further as an armchair tourist but I need to stop and reflect on what I have seen and learned in Berlin; it’s been a somewhat sombre stopover but an important one for us all to make nevertheless. Ending part 1 of my virtual travels on a lighter note, I discovered that Berlin has the largest number of vegan restaurants in the world (who knew!)
(Photographs and text reproduced with kind permission from J Biggins – thank you!)