Many of the visitors who have gathered in Berlin to celebrate the 25th annivesary of the fall of the Wall are foreigners. They've come to be part of the festivities and discovered the history of a once divided Berlin.
Alan Couser stands in the shadow of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz. The Irishman points a finger at the Zoological Garden train station; "This is where you used to arrive, when you caught the train to West Berlin," he explains to his tour group, twenty-five men and women from Ireland, most of them Belfastians. Today is the first day in Couser's tour; "Berlin - Fall of the Wall." They plan to spend a long weekend seeing all the important scenes in the city's recent history, leading up to the big anniversary celebrations on Sunday, November 9.
Friday afternoon the tour group had been on its feet since the early morning. "It's time we had something to eat," said Alan, leading the group to a small food stand across from the station. As he passed out dripping paper boats of French fries and currywurst to his charges, the conversation turned to the weather. Although the sun was shining, the wind was blowing across the square. Some noted that they would have been better off not leaving their scarves and gloves at home. "You'd think that you'd be accustomed to the cold, if you've just come from Ireland," jokes a woman and rubs her hands.
Next stop, the Brandenburg Gate. Alan leads the group to the nearby Line 100 bus stop. It runs from the Zoo train station to Alexanderplatz, from the City West district to the heart of the former capital of the GDR, a line which is mostly used by tourists today. At the stop, many similar groups are already milling about, waiting for the next doubledecker to arrive. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to the city to partake in the festivities surrounding the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
They are lucky: the group from Ireland manages to all cram together on the next bus. Haltingly, they move through the city traffic, past the Victory Column near Tiergarten. One man uses the opportunity to nap. Two women next to him admire the striking fall colors in the park.
For some, this is not their first time in Berlin. Anne, for example, knows the city fairly well. She was here for the first time in 1980. She wanted to visit the eastern part of the city through the checkpoint at Friedrich Strasse. But the view of the border made her uneasy. It reminded her too much of the violent conflict in her home city of Belfast. Military fortifications were also part of the streetscape there for years; "At the sight of walls with barbed wire, the towers and the armed border guards, I became filled with trepidation. I couldn't go any further," she explained.
The ugliest building in the city
When they reach the Reichstag, the group leaves the bus. Alan remains on the opposite side of the street: "I can remember very well how it was here at the time of the Wall." He tells of the restoration of the building after reunification, pointing to the glass dome. "The Reichstag was once the ugliest building in Berlin. As you can see, this is no longer the case," he says with a smile.
On the way to the Brandenburg Gate, they stop at the white memorial crosses for those who died at the Wall. Alan describes where the observation deck was, that the people in West Berlin used to look across the border at the Gate. Now, there is a huge stage set up there for the street festival on Sunday.
Behind Alan, you can see some of the 7,000 filigree lanterns installed over the path of the former death strip. Some of the group take pictures of the artwork before they move under the Brandenburg Gate into former East Berlin.
The art installation marks where the Wall once stood. The lanterns will be released into the sky on Sunday.
Festival at Checkpoint Charlie
Along the boulevard Unter den Linden, past the Russian embassy, the group turns onto Friedrich Strasse: "You are now in East Berlin. In the times of the GDR, it did not look at all this pretty. Now it's filled with luxury boutiques and chic restaurants." Hazel also barely recognizes the street. The retired teacher was here in 1991. She was on her way to Poland with a friend and decided to make a 3-day stop in Berlin. Back then, she remembers, bulldozers were rolling everywhere, everything was being rebuilt: "I really wanted to see what happened here in the meantime. I'm really overwhelmed."
At Checkpoint Charlie, it's suddenly very crowded. This is not a typical gray November day, there's a joyful and festive feeling in the air. Beer wagons have been set up, as well as a screen showing a documentary about Wall escapees and a great deal of seating made of blue wooden boxes. Between them are stands selling Soviet military paraphernalia. Photographers and television crews have erected a base at the intersection.
Politburo member Günter Schabowski explains that GDR citizens will be allowed to freely travel outside the country in a documentary about the fall of the Wall
In front of a photo of a larger-than-life soldier, Alan calls the group back together: "I know you are tired. That's enough for today."
The next day they were heading to Potsdam, to Cecilienhof Palace. It was there that the occupation forces divided Germany among themselves in 1945. The climax of the tour will come on Sunday evening when the lanterns that now mark the former path of the Berlin Wall will ascend into the night sky. Alan wants to make sure his group is here to see that.