Review: Berlin Free Walking Tour

After paying for our meal at the Reichstag Dome we head down to the Starbucks beside the Brandenburg Gate and wait for our free walking tour of Berlin to begin.

It’s a lively scene, with crowds coming for the tours, to see the Gate or to drum up customers for their horse drawn carriages, ye-olde-motor-cars or pedal driven tuk-tuks.

Alex “Zabi” Zabilowicz

There are sufficient people waiting for the English tour to split the group into three and each group gets their own tour guide. Ours introduces himself as Alex Zabilowicz. He smiles wryly and allows that we might prefer to call him by his childhood nickname of Zabi. He has a Polish/German father, and an English mother. He admits to speaking English and German (I also notice that the Spanish flag is on his tour-guide credentials) and describes himself as a mongrel. He did German History at school in England, has lived in numerous cities around Germany and now is a tour guide.

We start off discussing the Brandenburg Gate, and how Parisser Square got its name, and then head to to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews. It’s disappointing how many people are disrespectful of the monument – climbing on the slabs, laughing and running. From an artistic perspective, once you get over the obvious funereal aspects of the grey slabs, I appreciate how, from the outside, the top of the complex seems quite uniform, but when you’re actually inside it the undulations and contours of the path mean that what happens in the depths of the complex is hidden from outside observation. A very fitting metaphor for the circumstances the Jewish people found themselves in.

We continue on to the site of Hitler’s Bunker, a rather non-descript carpark for the Soviet-era apartment blocks nearby. A glimpse into the last days of the Third Reich is provided and a brief discussion of some conspiracy theories regarding what else may have happened to Hitler after the war.

We then head towards the Topography of Terror Museum, passing the stationery balloon, the Trabant Museum and a Currywurst Hut. If the weather was more clement I would imagine there would be more hawkers attempting to sell balloon rides or a rental of one of the iconic Trabant cars.

We pause across the road from the Topography of Terror Museum and Berlin Wall Memorial – it’s time for a break, and I tick off another of the three iconic things I’m wanting to try in Berlin – the local donut. When JFK gave his iconic speech he expressed solidarity with the Berlin people by saying “Ich bin ein Berliner” inadvertently stating that he was a donut.

After the cafe has an opportunity to serve assorted currywursts, berliners and coffees, we head off back towards the centre of town to Checkpoint Charlie. Unemployed actors dressed in American Army uniforms man the historic gate between East and West while the shopping precinct presses ever closer around it, attracted by the unending supply of tourists and their money.

We end the tour at Gendarmenmarkt, a square bookended by matching French and German churches, and in the unending cycle of continental Europe one-upmanship, the German one is a metre larger! Zabi is good value, hanging around to help navigate back to respective hotels and generally answering questions about Berlin. We’re aware we’ve only gone lightly over Berlin but we’ve gotten a feel for where things are and can spend the rest of our visit fleshing out the details.