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A Day at Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

24 Mar 2013

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The Bradenburg Gate and the chariot driven by Victoria the Roman goddess of victory was completed in 1791


Demola Ojo relives the experience of some historical figures including French General Napoleon Bonaparte by walking through the Berlin city gate constructed by Prussian royalty in the 18th century…

One of the hallmarks of a city renowned as a tourist destination is the ease with which any random traveller can get around. Berlin ticks the right boxes in this case. For this writer, the scenario played out as follows: with a day left before leaving the German capital and with no prior arrangements made, stepping into the snow-swept streets hoping to experience some of the famed spots in the city seemed foolhardy, especially when you don’t understand the official language of communication.

This might be the right point to mention, however, that many residents of Berlin, especially the younger generation, speak passable English. With English – and the willingness to ask questions – commuting is less strenuous than one would initially presume. On this particular quest to explore Berlin, the closest bus-stop to the hotel where this writer stayed in Dahlem (South West of the city) was about 50 metres away, and seemed the right place to start. The first set of people approached for directions were two young ladies; one of African descent, the other, European.

After deliberating between themselves, they concluded that Alexanderplatz was the place to go because “there are always sight-seeing buses there.” One of them brought out a city map, which seems to be readily available to Berliners and pointed; “We are here, this is where you’re going to…”

Alexanderplatz
Alexanderplatz was the last stop of the M48 bus, which arrived a few minutes later. For good measure, the ladies graciously let me have the map. About half an hour after, the M48 was at Alexanderplatz. It turned out to be a large public square, and it is a transport hub in the central Mitte district of Berlin. It has history behind it too. Originally a cattle market outside the city fortifications, it was named in honour of a visit of the Russian Emperor Alexander I to Berlin in 1805 by order of King Frederick William III of Prussia.

The square gained a prominent role in the late 19th century with the construction of the Stadtbahn station with the same name and a nearby market hall, followed by the opening of a department store in 1904, thus becoming a major commercial centre. Its heyday was in the 1920s, when together with Potsdamer Platz it was at the heart of Berlin’s nightlife.

Part of the former East Germany, Alexanderplatz is surrounded by several notable structures including the tallest structure in Germany, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower), which is also the second tallest in Europe. Many historic buildings are located in the vicinity of Alexanderplatz. The traditional seat of city government, the Rotes Rathaus, or Red City Hall, is located nearby, as was the former East German parliament building, the Palast der Republik, demolition of which began in February 2006 and has been completed. “Alex” as Berliners sometimes refer to it also accommodates the Park Inn Berlin and the World Time Clock, a continually rotating installation that shows the time throughout the globe.

The writer (wielding sword) participates in a mock battle on famous grounds

It is worth mentioning that more often than not, the average German is willing to help, which went against the preconceived notion that they are aloof and snobbish. Perhaps, this may just be a feature of Berlin, which is a venue for tourism and conventions and has a very cosmopolitan citizenry. Apart from people form many Western European countries, there are loads of Turks, Iranians, Lebanese and predictably, citizens of the former Eastern bloc.

A few requests for directions later, I found a Hispanic selling tour tickets, who gave his name as Arango. Arango is from Venezuela and proudly wore a Barcelona FC head warmer.  The Catalans would be playing the second leg of their Champions League second round tie against AC Milan and had been left for dead after trailing 2-0 from the first leg. After light banter, which included Barcelona, Hugo Chavez and crude oil (which both Nigeria and Venezuela have in common), Arango said, “You look like a student,” and despite being told I wasn’t one, promptly issued me a 12 euro day ticket for the tour, which as you have guessed, was slightly cheaper than a regular one. Apparently, there are different locations in the city where various privately-owned tour operators station their respective ticket vendors. Both the vendors and buses are differentiated by their operating colours.

Interesting Twist
There was an interesting twist to the tour. Rather than a human tour guide acquainting tourists with the city, personal headphones were handed out to connect to headphone jacks in the bus.

The tour guide turned out to be pre-recorded messages, and there were as many as five languages to choose from. All the bus driver had to do was synchronise his movement with the directions and descriptions from the automated tour guide. 

Each person also had a tour map and instructions; the various stops, the number of minutes at each stop and the time for the next bus. Remember, it is a day ticket so you can decide to come down at a stop that interests you and walk around for a bit until the next bus (of the same tour colour and company, of course) comes at its designated time.

Brandenburg Gate
One of the major stops along the tour and one, which almost everyone recommends you visit in Berlin – along with seeing the Berlin Wall – is Brandenburg Gate. The Brandenburg Gate is a former city gate, built in the late 18th century as a neoclassical triumphal arch, and now one of the most well-known landmarks of Germany.

It is located west of the city centre of Berlin and is a few metres away from the Reichstag building, which houses the German parliament.

The gate is the monumental entry to Unter den Linden, the renowned boulevard of linden trees, which formerly led directly to the city palace of the Prussian monarchs. It was commissioned by King Frederick William II of Prussia as a sign of peace and built by Carl Gotthard Langhans from 1788 to 1791.

Having suffered considerable damage in World War II, the Brandenburg Gate was fully restored from 2000 to 2002 by the Berlin Monument Conservation Foundation. During the post-war Partition of Germany, the gate was isolated and inaccessible immediately next to the Berlin Wall, and the area around the gate featured most prominently in the media coverage of the opening of the wall in 1989.

The gate consists of twelve Doric columns, six to each side, forming five passageways. Citizens originally were allowed to use only the outermost two. Atop the gate is the Quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses driven by Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory.

The gate’s design is based upon the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece and is consistent with Berlin’s history of architectural classicism. It has remained essentially unchanged since its completion even as it has played different political roles in German history. After the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon was the first to use the Brandenburg Gate for a triumphal procession and took its Quadriga to Paris.

After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and the Prussian occupation of Paris by General Ernst von Pfuel, the Quadriga was restored to Berlin and Victoria’s wreath of oak leaves was supplemented with a new symbol of Prussian power, the Iron Cross.

Only the royal family was allowed to pass through the central archway, as well as members of the Pfuel family, from 1814 to 1919. Later, when the Nazis ascended to power, they used the gate as a party symbol. The gate survived World War II and was one of the damaged structures still standing in the Pariser Platz ruins in 1945.
When a much larger Berlin was partitioned after World War II, the central borough of the city fell into the Soviet sector, adjoining the British sector at the Brandenburg Gate.

Some Historic Visits
In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy visited the Brandenburg Gate. The Soviets hung large red banners across it to prevent him looking into East Berlin. Later in 1987 another American president, Ronald Reagan, spoke to the West Berlin populace at the Brandenburg Gate, demanding the razing of the Berlin Wall.  Addressing the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan said, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalisation: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Three years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, walked through Brandenburg Gate with Gorbachev and Poland’s Lech WaÅ‚Ä™sa as part of the 20-year celebration of tearing down the Berlin Wall.

Refurbished As an Attraction
At the turn of the century in 2000, the Brandenburg Gate was privately refurbished at a cost of six million euros. Two years later, during the 12th anniversary of German Reunification, the Brandenburg Gate was once again reopened following extensive refurbishment. The Brandenburg Gate is now closed for vehicle traffic and much of the adjoining area has been turned into a cobblestone pedestrian zone. The gate is now one of the gathering points in Berlin where over a million people gather to watch a stage show, party and see fireworks go off at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Presently, it is normal to see people milling around, soaking in the atmosphere, seemingly content with being at such a historic place. All age ranges, and from different locations; adolescents on a field trip to tourists from far-flung places like Nigeria. 
A fun activity that seemed to catch on while I was there was the reenactment of battles by a few people decked in military uniforms.
They invited passers-by to participate in these mock wars, for a token fee. 

It helps that there is a Starbucks outlet close to the gate, which means hot coffee to combat the biting cold. Three cups and a few battle victories later (no scars too), it was time to catch the next tour bus to the next location. And just for the record, this journalist made it a point to pass through the central archways of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Neptune Fountain at Alexanderplatz was built in 1891

Tags: Brandenburg Gate, Featured, Nigeria, Life and Style, Life

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